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Spirit, Science & Sophistication – a brief history of Chinese Medicine

Posted by on May 19, 2015 in Blog | Comments Off on Spirit, Science & Sophistication – a brief history of Chinese Medicine

Although it is common knowledge that Chinese medicine has been utilised for centuries, less is known about its sophisticated evolution and the scientific scrutiny it has undergone throughout its lifetime. Several ideas and concepts of medicine, assumed to be developed in the West, were actually developed in China and predated the West by thousands of years. For example the concept of how blood circulates around the body via the heart is attributed to William Harvey in 1628. It is well documented that the theory of circulating blood was developed prior to this, however Harvey substantiated the theory utilising experimental methods and therefore gained credit for the idea. Interestingly, the scholars whose theories dominated before Harvey were based on texts of an Arab of Damascus, al-Nafis, who historians believe, may have obtained his knowledge from China.

In China, the concept of circulating blood in the body was established by the second century B.C., two thousand years before it had been accepted in the West. For the Chinese, this was not just theory. The Chinese researched corpses, stretching out arteries and veins to be methodically measured and weighed in order to estimate the time it takes for blood to circulate the body (Temple, 2007, p. 136-8). Their findings were published and discussed among academics. New ideas were launched from this discourse including descriptions of the 28 pulse characteristics and pulse diagnostics.

Unique to the Chinese concept was the dual circulation of Qi which flowed throughout the body as well as through the blood. Additionally, the Chinese linked an individuals spirit or Shen with the heart and blood. A statement of fact in Chinese medicine says: “If the blood vessels are harmonious and uninhibited, the essence spirit has an abode“. In other words, if the blood is not flowing as it should, an individual’s spirit may be effected. An example would be a state of delirium that can occur in a severe illness.
Despite the elusiveness of certain topics such as “spirit” the Chinese were methodical researchers. Utilising incredible skills of observation, they documented, tested and discussed their theories among scholars. Observation was made not just on individual patients but groups of patients and populations and then compared with other regions. From there, ideas were developed upon, questioned, and modified. These are the same considerations required for quality research today. This evolving, methodical and rigorous research over a large population, over an extended amount of time is what has made Chinese medicine effective. This process continues to this day.

Even the more elusive topics such as “spirit” are gaining credibility today. Recent studies in neuropsychology show that the heart has its own intrinsic nervous system that processes information independently of the brain or nervous system. Research has also revealed the heart’s ability to release a number of hormones including noradrenaline, dopamine, and oxytocin (the ‘love’ or bonding hormone). A 2004 study showed that when heart rhythm patterns are coherent the effect is heightened mental clarity, improved decision making and increased creativity. In Chinese medicine these are signs of a strong Shen (spirit). The similarity to this 2004 statement and the two thousand year old statement of fact would not surprise a practitioner of Chinese medicine: “If the blood vessels are harmonious and uninhibited, the essence spirit has an abode”.

by Liz Evans


Flaws, B. (2008). Statements of fact in traditional Chinese medicine. Boulder: Blue Poppy Press.

McCraty, R. (2000). Psychophysiological coherence: A link between positive emotions, stress reduction, performance and health. Proceedings of the Eleventh International Congress on Stress, Mauna Lani Bay, Hawaii.

Temple, R. (2007). The genius of China: 300 years of science, discovery & invention. London: Andrew Deutch. (based on the research of Joseph Needham)

Tiller W, McCraty, & Atkinson, M. (1996). Cardiac coherence; A new non-invasive measure of autonomic system order. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine; 2(1): 52-65.

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Autumn Mineral

Posted by on May 19, 2015 in Blog | Comments Off on Autumn Mineral

Although there are thousands historical examples of China’s scientific innovation, their success in the field of endocrinology I find simply amazing.

Some current fertility drugs in the West contain hormones extracted from human urine. It is a common misconception that the utilisation of hormones extracted from urine is a European discovery from 1927. In fact, the Chinese, utilising their enthusiasm for alchemy, had been extracting hormones from urine to be used medicinally since the second century BC (at the same time Iron Age Britains were believed to be introduced to coins). The astonishingly sophisticated extraction process resulted in a product called “autumnal mineral”. One recipe states that they gather 150 gallons of human urine and heat it until it has evaporated leaving dried solids of urine. To purify and rid these dried solids of urea, salts etc., the Chinese utilised the process of sublimation (the transition of a substance from the solid phase to the gas phase without passing through an intermediate liquid phase [ex: dry ice]). Of the 150 gallons of urine, only 2-3 ounces of sublimate of hormone crystals remained. Male and female urine was kept separate in order to extract specific hormones. This was all done with specially designed and engineered equipment.

What is truly astonishing is that to successfully keep steroid hormones in tact, sublimation must occur between the controlled temperatures of 120- 300 degrees. This fact was not learned in the West until this century. It is unknown how the Chinese came across this discovery so early. Regardless, by utilising these methods, the Chinese were able to separate large amounts of extraneous matter and create concentrated and powerful hormone substances for medicinal purposes.

It’s facts like this that make my head spin whenever I hear someone suggest that Chinese medicine is not based on science. To me it just seems unfair that such mind boggling discoveries should not be given due credit. However, I’m very aware that the idea that the West discovered all scientific advances is a misconception that is deeply ingrained and is continually perpetuated. It’s really unfortunate because if Western science would open their mind to historical discoveries, they could make huge leaps forward. I’m constantly coming across research where the “profound discovery” is based on a herb that the Chinese have been using for centuries for exactly what they are testing it for. I don’t mind that they want to know why, but it irks me a bit that they don’t give the Chinese credit, and that they label it as “profound”.
Reference: Temple, R. (2007). The Genius of China. Andre Deutch: London.

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