slideshow widget

Saturday, June 20, 2015

150-219: The Chinese Sage of Medicine

Zhang at work
If you had asthma in China prior to the 3rd century A.D. your doctor may have recommend a remedy of drinking a bitter tasting tea made from dried stems of the Ma Huang plant.

This remedy made your breathing better, and your cough often subsided too. The trick was your physician would have to remember it and the formula to concoct it.

You see, there were few books with medical wisdom for your physician to reference. Most medical knowledge, especially regarding herbal remedies, were passed on from one generation to the next to anyone who wanted to learn about it.

This all changed around 220 A.D., and it all changed because of a war that caused a virus to strike the village of a man named Zang Zhong Jing (also known as Zhang Ji).

Legend has it he was 50 when two-thirds of his village died of a fever in a short span of ten years, and that inspired him to become an expert on ancient medical text, such as the Nei Ching  and the Hippocratic Corpus.

This resulted in him writing a medical book that helped shape Chinese medicine, and resulted in him becoming well known to the Chinese medical community by giving birth to Traditional Chinese Medicine. (1)

His book was called "Shanghan Zabing Lun" which translates in English to "Treatise on Cold Pathogenic and Miscellaneous Diseases."  It's a compilation of the medical wisdom from all those who lived before him.

Yet his book was lost in a war, and was not available until 1065 when the rulers of China saw a need for the wisdom contained in these old books and formed the Bureau for Collation of Medical Books of the Song Dynasty.  Wang Shu-He collected what he could of Zhang's writings and recompiled them into two books he called the "Shang Lun," which translates into "Treaties on Cold Induced Fevers."

The two books were:
  • Shan Han Lun (On Cold Damage), a compilation of herbal remedies to treat infectious diseases that cause a fever
  • Jinkui Yaolue (Essential Prescriptions of the Golden Coffer), which records his clinical experiences
These books describe methods of diagnosing, treating, and monitoring the effect of treatment. He recommended the importance of using the pulse not only to diagnose as Huang Ti recommended 1000 years earlier in his book "Nei Ching," but to monitor the course of treatment.

He was also the first to mention artificial respiration.  And he also recommended forcing water down a person's throat who attempted suicide by poisoning to bring up the poison, and this is a technique similar to what is used in hospitals today. (3)

Like Hippocrates, Zhung recommended against the practice of physicians taking advantage of patient  naivety for the purpose of making a profit.  He noted that some physicians concocted bogus formulas and sold them as viable remedies.  He berated this practice and encouraged good medical ethics.  

So his books were very helpful to Chinese physicians and their patients.  Yet of most importance were the formulas he calculated for collecting and concocting herbal remedies for many of the ailments of his day, especially those that are contagious and cause fevers like what wiped out his village.

One of the neatest things about Zhang's herbal formulas is that many are still used to this day, and many have even been proven by science to be effective remedies. This includes a description of asthma-like symptoms in Jinkui Yaolue and a formula for creating a remedy using Ma Huang. He described breathlessness or panting as chuan, and wheezing as xiao. (2)

His works have earned him the respect of Chinese Historians as one of the best physicians of all time, so much so that he's often referred to as the sage of medicine.  Actually some consider him to be a god, and others believe his existence was merely a legend.

While revered in China, his works also influenced and forever changed the way medicine was practiced in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Mongolia. 

He's such a significant "legend" that his books continue to be required readings for any student of Traditional Chinese Medicine.  (4)

Considering this fame, little is known about his life, nor exact dates associated with his life.  It's estimated he lived from 150-219 A.D, yet many historians continue to debate these dates.

  1. Selin, Helaine, ed., "Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures," 1997, Netherlands, page 893
  2. Jackson, Mark, "Asthma: The Biography," 1998, New York, page 41
  3. Selin, Op. Cit, page page 893
  4. "Chinese Herbal Formulas and Application," chapter 1, page 31
RT Cave Facebook Page
RT Cave on Twitter
Print Friendly and PDF

No comments: