Acupuncture which has its roots in ancient China, has been practised for thousands of years. Needles were originally made of bone, and then of various metals as technology advanced.
From our understanding there are at least 3 theories on how acupuncture came into existence and they are all quite different. The theory presented to modern students is that during times of war physicians noticed that soldiers pierced by arrows in certain locations had pain relief and improvement in certain diseases. Autopsies also provided valuable information. Although performing them was punishable by death, they gave the Chinese physicians a better grasp on anatomy, physiology, channel, and meridian systems. The second theory is more esoteric. Here it is believed that Taoist sages, meditating in isolation became extremely sensitive to their body sensations and realized how they were energetically connected to all of nature and the heavens around them. They noticed that Jing Qi (Essential Qi) flowed through 8 extraordinary vessels including the chakras formed by the interaction of the Ren,Du, and Chong Mai, and that lighter vital life force energy, or Qi flowed through 12 major meridians. These were intricately connected by a web of energy feeding the entire body and by mindfully breathing or doing Dao Yin exercises similar to Qi Gong these sages could affect the movement of Qi through this network. From this understanding they learned to observe the Qi flow in other people and the world around them. From this understanding the idea of influencing energy flows in the body from the outside with manual pressure, heat, and needles arose. The third theory, likely the most ancient, as presented by world renowned acupuncturist Giovanni Maciocia is that acupuncture is derived from shamanistic practices–when people became sick it was thought they were under the attack of ghosts or demons (Gui). The shaman would ward off these ghosts with spears, waving them in the air whilst making incantations. It is not a long step to take to equate this with early acupuncture practices, where piercing the patient was believed to release these ghosts. Furthermore, Giovanni stated that the character for Gui is “cave”–the same character used to denote acupuncture points.
It is likely these theories at some point merged and that acupuncture due to the size limitations of ancient needles, was originally a performed as a process of bloodletting that rid the body of evil vapours, a practice that centuries later was much later adapted by Europeans.
It is thought that the first medical text in China was the Yi Jing (I Ching), or Book of Changes. It was written in the age where Taoism was accepted by the reigning emperor and dynasty where it was first used as a divination tool. The imperial physician would toss turtle shells into a fire, observe the cracks formed, and from these portell the emperor’s fortune. The resulting patterns were recorded in the Yi Jing and studied for future reference in the forms of the Ba Gua; the subsequent hexagrams were used not only for divination but for acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Chinese Astrology, and Feng Shui. When Confucianism became the accepted philosophy, the Yi Jing veered off from its roots in nature to that of proper societal and family structure in China. Instead of focusing on the Taoist creation philosophy where the Void organized to form the polar opposites of Yin and Yang, whose friction formed Qi and the 5-elements connecting man, heaven, and earth, ideology shifted to the importance of an ordered family influencing an ordered society. Eldest Son had more influence and power than youngest daughter–the whole of society carried far more importance than the individual. Newer translations of the Yi Jing and its related hexagrams reflect this ideology. Turtle shells were later replaced with yarrow stalks, Chinese coins, pennies, and even computer programs. Regardless of influence, The Yi Jing tells us that there is a connected flow to life, and that everything changes. We are wise to heed its truth.
The Yellow Emperor’s Medicine (Huang Di Nei Jing) was the next medical cannon that greatly influenced Chinese Medicine. The first body of text contains a conversation between the Yellow Emperor and his court physician Qi Bo which tells us how important moderation, proper diet and exercise are in preventing disease. Latter pages present acupuncture techniques that are still used today.
The information that was primarily passed down from father to son became the basis of acupuncture and TCM we practice today. The styles and secrets that varied from family to family have been closely guarded. Many of the ancient texts were destroyed and the oral tradition lost during the Cultural Revolution where many acupuncturists and herbalists fled to Taiwan and other areas to escape punishment. TCM in China under Mao Ze Dong became uniformly watered down so that a minimum level of information could be taught to all the new practising “bare-foot” doctor-farmers and be accessible to all the people. It is fortunate that there were heroic doctors that risked imprisonment or even death to continue the various lineages we practice today otherwise most of the tradition would have been lost.
Translations of Chinese texts into French, Italian, English and other languages has also shaped the way TCM is practiced. In the 1900’s French translator Souile De Morant is believed to have mistranslated “Qi” as vital life force energy when the translation is more accurately thought to be “blood”; The term “Mai” was translated as “meridian” instead of “vessel”. Translated more accurately this means blood flows through the 12 Mai, not Qi in the meridians as Europeans previously thought. When De Morant was dying he apparently admitted that meridians were indeed blood vessels, though he still believed that Qi, not blood flowed through them. Needless to say this error has caused great discussion in the TCM community.
“Why does anyone care whether Chinese anatomy and physiology are explained as energy flowing through meridians, or by the circulation of blood, nutrients, other vital substances, and vital air (qi) through the vascular system? The answer to that lies in the moral obligation of every practitioner to provide each patient with the latest medical understanding available.
The need to continually search for the truth is the most fundamental principle of science and medicine… Research so far shows that the true concepts of Chinese Medicine operate under known physiological principles, involving the complex organization of the neural, vascular, endocrine, and somatic systems, sustained by the circulation of nutrients, vital substances, and oxygen from vital air.”
– Donald E, Kendall, “Dao of Chinese Medicine” (2002)
De Mourant was accurate in the fact that Qi or energy, in the form of oxygen and glucose, flows with blood in the vessels. Equally correct, in Taoist philosophy, everything is infused with Qi. We can see how both translations can be accurate. In Tai Qi and Qi Gong a sensation of energy is felt which also impacts blood circulation.
In North America up to the early 1970’s, acupuncture was accepted mostly by people of Asian descent. It gained more widespread popularity when Richard Nixon opened trade relations with China, allowing a sharing of valuable knowledge in both directions. During negotiations, James Reston, a New York Times reporter fell ill and required an appendectomy. We was treated successfully in a Chinese hospital using acupuncture as a means to decrease his post-surgical pain. When this was reported in the news, acupuncture gained a stronger foothold in North America.
English translations of some of the texts and oral traditions soon became available after Nixon’s visit. Chinese born Dr Miriam Lee, a direct disciple of Master Tung immigrated to California and developed such a successful practice that she was charged for practising medicine without a licence. The charge was reversed, opening the door to acupuncture and TCM as we know it today. The recent sharing of information between various family lineages has provided a wealth of knowledge and experience to the practice of acupuncture today. Furthermore scientific studies on acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine are being published on a regular basis now, helping the practice to gain worldwide recognition. Physicians, chiropractors, and physical therapists are now using acupuncture to augment their practices.
There is no doubt that acupuncture is rich in history and has a profound effect no matter what you believe to be flowing through the meridians.