Saturday, March 15, 2014

Roots of Chinese Medicine in Pre-Historic Daoism - A Lecture on Ancient Chinese Natural Cosmology


Knowledge of medical practice consists in an understanding of the ultimate conditions, causes, or etiology that produces observed illnesses, which may be remedied by prescribed treatments: diagnosis traces the observed effects of illness back to its necessary cause which treatment opposes, cancels and harmonizes to restore bodily health.  Many diagnoses have many treatment practices, yet all of these specific practices are united within a general theory of the nature of the body, the causes of illness and the prescriptions for health.  The general theory of medicine cannot be directly observed as a simple physical organ, pathology or treatment practice.  No single recipe encompasses the art.  Rather, the theory of medicine may only be contemplated as an idea that is  theoretically prior to diagnostic application and remedial prescription.  Like physical organisms, ideas are born from parents and grow to maturity to sire new ideas in a dynamic ecology of thought. 

The theory of medicine, like diagnosis and treatment, has its own history, etiology, and conditions that may be speculatively reconstructed according to its fundamental doctrines.  Knowledge of a general theory of medicine consists in understanding of the ultimate conditions of these fundamental doctrines.   The basic doctrines of Traditional Chinese Medicine are Yin-Yang Theory, Wuxing Five Element Theory, and the correlation of Qi vital forces within the body and throughout the cosmos.  These basic doctrines of Traditional Chinese Medicine are attributed to the heroes of Chinese antiquity; Fu Xi, Shennong, and Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor.  Yet the earliest extant systematic record of these doctrines appears, as late as the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), in the Huangdi Neijing, the Yellow Emperor's Canon of Internal Medicine.  What is the story of Traditional Chinese Medicine before the classics; before the definitive formulation of the theory of Chinese medicine; and before Chinese history had yet been written? 

A brambling maze of formless mirages confronts the historian of Chinese antiquity.  "You look at it and it is not seen/ it is called the Formless/ You listen to it and it is not heart/ it is called the Soundless/ You grasp it an it is not to be held/ it is called the Intangible." (Daodejing ch.14)  Where the trail of written records runs dry, the subtle detective must have recourse to anecdotes, myths, rituals and ecstasies.  Investigation of definite impressions then admits of the most formless, intangible and ineffable of thoughts.  The history of Chinese thought before detailed written records is perhaps best evidenced in its art and religion, through which their spirit came to produce, conceive and know itself.  The ancestral spirit of the Chinese people lies in the ancient body of theories and practices that Han dynasty historian Sima Qian collectively described as Daoism, the Doctrine of the Way. 

I propose, in this lecture, to illustrate how the fundamental doctrines of Traditional Chinese Medicine flowered from the roots established in ancient Daoism.  In ancient China, Daoism was not yet identified parochially with any particular school, sect, or culture.  It was rather conceived of as the unity, integrity and correlation of forces in the natural cosmos.  This logic of the cosmos, or cosmology, is the ultimate condition of all theories of medicine that aim to diagnose and treat the nature of the body.  Just as demonstrative knowledge must in general begin from certain axioms to deduce necessary conclusions, so must the study of Traditional Chinese Medicine return to the ultimate logical conditions of its fundamental doctrines in the cosmology of Daoism.  Knowledge of Traditional Chinese medicine, thus, consists not merely in the memorization of the enumerated doctrines of the classic texts, or even in clinical diagnosis and practice, but principally in tracing the idea of Traditional Chinese medicine back to "the root of all things"; the "nameless origin of Heaven and Earth"; which is best understood, by not named, in the Eternal Dao (Daodejing ch.1).  



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