Until recently, Western historians of science and medicine generally ignored China, except for a few exotic items and inventions that could be rationalized as crude precursors of technologies brought to fruition in the West, such as gunpowder and printing. Fortunately, the work of Joseph Needham, Nathan Sivin, Paul Unschuld, and other scholars has helped redeﬁne the place of Asian studies in the global history of science and medicine. Scholars have suggested that a fundamental dif- ference between Greek and Chinese thought was the competitiveness of early Greek political and intellectual life. In contrast, the power of autocratic rulers in China forced scholars toward consensus positions. Consequently, while Greek thinkers were free to criticize their mentors and rivals, Chinese scholars accepted aspects of change that Greek philosophers rejected. Thus, Chinese astronomers and Chinese physi- cians made very different assumptions about the movement of the heavenly bodies and the movement of the blood.
Most elements of the ancient learned systems have essentially disappeared, or survive only in folklore as quaint vestiges of the past, but supporters of Chinese medicine maintain that it is and always has been a viable scientiﬁc enterprise. Traditional Chinese medicines and healing techniques have gained a signiﬁcant place in the alter- native or integrative medicine practiced in the Western world today. Certainly, classical Chinese medicine is remarkable for its persistence and adaptability. In practice, the system exhibits an exceptional level of ﬂexibility. A patient of Chinese medicine might receive 10 different prescriptions. Rather than conclude that most of these prescriptions must be useless, the patient might ﬁnd many of them satisfactory and effective.
More than any other culture, China has maintained its traditional medicine not only in folk remedies, but also in mature and respected forms. In part, this unique stability can be attributed to a profound reverence for the past and a system of writing perhaps six thousand years old. Although many scholars have discounted the earliest chapters in China’s historical narratives, recent archaeological and archival dis- coveries will doubtlessly transform much mythology into history and much history into mythology. Since the 1970s, Chinese archaeologists have experienced a golden age of discovery. Ancient tombs have yielded treasures ranging from panels of magniﬁcent wall paintings and manuscripts written on bamboo or silk to well-preserved bodies, skele- tons, and hordes of life-sized terra-cotta ﬁgures of warriors complete with weapons and horses from the Ch’in Dynasty (221–206 B.C.E.) and the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 A.D.). Archaeologists and art scholars think that these remarkable terra-cotta warriors, horses, chariots, musicians, and farm animals once served as symbolic escorts into the afterlife for members of the nobility.
Much of the China’s history is obscured by warfare and chaos until the Ch’in uniﬁcation in 221 B.C.E. To enforce his goal of total reorgani- zation, the Emperor Shih Huang-ti ordered the destruction of all surviv- ing manuscripts in order to erase unacceptable historical traditions. Exceptions were made only for texts dealing with medicine, drugs, divination, agriculture, and forestry. During the centuries of conﬂict, scholars as well as peasants assimilated the concepts that formed the framework of classical Chinese medicine: belief in the unity of nature, yin–yang dualism, the theory of the ﬁve phases, and a medical practice based on the theory of systematic correspondences.
Some elements of this system can be traced back to China’s Bronze Age, the period of the Shang Dynasty, which was already ﬂourishing by the ﬁfteenth century B.C.E. Scholars once consigned the Shang Dynasty to the realm of legend, but excavations begun in the 1930s have pro- vided evidence that the Shang era served as the formative period of Chinese culture. So-called oracle bones, inscribed with an archaic but essentially mature form of written Chinese, have provided valuable insights into this semilegendary era.
Oracle bones used in divination ceremonies were made of various materials, including the shoulder blades of oxen, goats, and sheep, turtle shells, antlers, and even human skulls. According to Shang beliefs, the well-being of the living was dependent on the will of the ancestral spirits that rule the world. If the ancestors were displeased, their hostility could cause disease, crop failures, and military defeats. In order to address questions about battles, harvests, illness, and epidemics to the ancestral spirits, appropriate bones or shells were carefully prepared for the king and his diviners. During the divination ritual, pairs of antithetical ques- tions were addressed to the spirits; for example, ‘‘Will the king recover from his illness’’ and ‘‘Will the king not recover from his illness?’’ Heat was applied to the oracle bone with a heated bronze rod, a burning stick, or a glowing piece of charcoal. If the bones had been properly pre- pared, heat would result in the appearance of a pair of cracks resem- bling the written character ‘‘pu,’’ a vertical line joined about midpoint from the right by a perpendicular line (‘). If the angle between the lines was close to the perpendicular, the answer was yes; if not, the answer was no.
Shang writings and divination were essentially forgotten until the end of the nineteenth century even though oracle bones could be found in almost every traditional Chinese apothecary shop. When physicians included ‘‘dragon bones’’ in their prescriptions for disorders ranging from lung diseases to anxiety and nocturnal emissions, apothecaries used bits of ancient bones and shells, including many that had served as ancient oracles. Since nineteenth century fossil hunters discovered that collections of dragon bones often contained valuable fossils, hun- dreds of thousands of oracle bones have been collected. How many were pounded into medicines over the centuries can only be imagined.