The Origin of Chinese Folk Medicine
Every culture in the world has had the knowledge of how to treat illnesses and diseases by using herbal remedies and how to practice folk medicine. For the ancient people, illnesses and diseases were believed to have been caused by the gods or the supernatural and treatment for these patients, in many cultures, had a magical-religious feel to it.
In China, the earliest practice of treating illnesses was orally transmitted throughout the generations from different migrating peoples. Some of the knowledge was recorded through other forms, such as folk arts, folktales, and folk dances and songs. Once a writing system was established, folk medicine was recorded. However, there is no knowing how much of the earliest knowledge and practices were lost. Our earliest sources of Chinese folk medicine comes inscriptions on oracle bones, shells and other artefacts which describe min-chien i-hsiieh.
For the Chinese, treatment had a religious and magical element to it and traditional folk medicine has its roots in this, plant lore and the rudimentary medical techniques and faith healings of the Neolithic pastoralists and hunter-gatherers. It was these people who survived wounds and illnesses by relying on the natural world around them. According to Chinese tradition, one cannot achieve a state of good health without first creating a harmonious relationship with nature.
The origins of Chinese folk medicine can be found in the Neolithic period. Here, daily treatment of wounds and common illnesses were treated in accordance to their religio-magical beliefs. Gradually, these practices developed along with their beliefs, each reinforcing the other. Eventually a few people realised that with the assistance of nature they could lead prosperous and decent lives without having to fish and hunt, tend the animals, till the soil, or fight enemies, all of which required significant expenditure of labour in terms of survival.
These select few were known as chen-jen, and were the only ones in the tribe who were able to make diagnoses and prognostications. Although an experienced and skilful person could treat minor wounds and illnesses, it was the chen-jen who were the only ones who could treat uncommon afflictions or diseases. For example, kuei could invade the patient; the hun had left the body leaving its p'o ('carnal soul') unprotected. It was the chen-jen's responsibility to find a way to reunite the ethereal and carnal souls in order to bring the patient back to health.
Over time, new treatments and influences were incorporated into Chinese folk medicine. During the Han Dynasty (25 - 220 CE), Indian medicine was transferred along the Silk Road into China along with Buddhism. It was the Indian knowledge on medicine that had great influence on Chinese medicine.
Today, the two major Chinese folk medicine are pulse-taking and acupuncture. Using the pulse as a means of diagnosis, it allowed physicians to identify the causes of illness and then allow them to balance the yin (the negative, dark, feminine, cold, passive element) and the Yang (the positive, light, masculine, warm, active element). Acupuncture uses long, thin needles to vary the flow of ch'i (energy) that travels along invisible channels in the body.
In recent years, traditional folk medicine is gaining popularity in Western users and is still heavily sought after by the Chinese. Although the western model of contemporary medicine is still the most globally dominant, folk medicine has begun to be incorporated into hospitals and medical practices.