Acupuncture Develops in China Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Acupuncture, deeply rooted in the basic principles undergirding Chinese culture, evolved from obscure predynastic origins into a highly complex system of medicine during the Zhou Dynasty.

Summary of Event

Acupuncture, an ancient technique of traditional Chinese medicine, consists of treating health disorders by inserting thin needles at various points on a patient’s body. This therapeutic procedure has a long history in China.

Certain archaeologists have traced it to the Chinese stone age, but other scientists doubt that the crude stone needles that have been unearthed warrant such an interpretation. During the dynastic periods, the Chinese attributed their pivotal inventions to fabulously eminent exemplars of predynastic times, and acupuncture typifies this practice of honorable attribution. According to these myths, which may or may not have a basis in reality, the legendary ruler Shen Nong (Shen Nung, known as the divine farmer) and the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi (Huang-ti, c. 2704-c. 2600 b.c.e.), originated acupuncture. Shen Nong and Huangdi may have lived in the third millennium b.c.e., but many modern scholars consider their existence doubtful and believe they may have been created by later Confucian functionaries to provide China with a noble past.

Some historians of Chinese religion emphasize the connection between Daoism (Taoism) and medicine. Daoist ideas of maintaining the harmony of the body’s internal organs (and of the state and cosmos) became an integral part of the philosophical system underpinning acupuncture. Also connected with Daoism was the belief that both the world and the human body were realms of benevolent and malevolent spirits; the Chinese character for “physician” conveys the meaning of a priest who uses strong weapons to conquer the demons of disease. During the Zhou Dynasty (Chou, 1066-256 b.c.e.), medicine passed from the hands of priests to those of physicians, and many scholars believe that acupuncture first developed around 500 b.c.e., when its chief doctrines were systematized.

Much of what is known about early acupuncture comes from the Huangdi nei jing su wen (compiled c. 300 b.c.e.; The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, 1949), a manual of medicine often called the most important medical text of Chinese antiquity. Though traditionally attributed to the legendary Huangdi, most scholars believe that the text was compiled between 479 and 300 b.c.e. and put into its final form in the first century b.c.e. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, which influenced Chinese medicine for the next twenty-five hundred years, was based on the doctrines of yin and yang, the five elements, and the elaborate correlations between macrocosm (the universe) and microcosm (the human body).

The chief idea supporting the practice of acupuncture is qi (chi), the vital life energy whose balanced flow throughout the body maintains good health. Qi circulates through twelve channels in the body, and these twelve meridians are linked to such organs as the heart, lungs, stomach, spleen, and kidneys. Early acupuncturists located more than one thousand points on these meridians. By inserting a needle at a specific meridianal point, the flow of qi to an organ could be controlled. In this way, an overactive organ could be moderated and a lethargic one stimulated.

The insertion of needles was the method of treatment by ancient acupuncturists, but why they should be inserted and what they were intended to accomplish was more complex, deriving from the Chinese doctrines of yin and yang, the five elements, and the resonances between internal and external energy. For Chinese of the Zhou era, yin, the negative principle, and its complement yang, the positive principle, constituted all things. The five ancient Chinese elements—water, fire, wood, metal, and earth—were not basic kinds of matter (as in the four ancient Greek elements) but five kinds of fundamental processes, such as fluidity, combustibility, solidity, and nutrivity. Both yin and yang and the five elements were involved in the composition and functioning of the universe as well as with the physiological processes of specific organs. For example, the heart, which was associated with the element fire and its concomitant emotion joy, had further associations with a hot climate, the planet Mars, and even the Zhou Dynasty itself. Thus the Chinese physician had to establish whether the season, day, hour, location, and all else were propitious for the practice of acupuncture.

From a set of several needles, he would then choose one and insert it in the point determined by his understanding of the patient’s symptoms and the particularities of time and place. If the needle were inserted at the wrong point, a worsening of the condition, even death, could result. During the Zhou Dynasty, physicians became part of the state system and were assessed on their cure-to-failure ratio. Together with scholars, these physicians made acupuncture into an extremely detailed doctrine and practice that dominated Chinese medicine for the next twenty-five hundred years.


Though it differs somewhat from region to region, acupuncture became Chinese medicine’s most characteristic therapy. Because this practice was based on a holistic conception of the body and the world, its major impact was in China and in those Eastern cultures that shared its organic view of nature. The practice spread into all the countries bordering on China, and its influence was particularly strong in Japan.

Western countries did not learn about acupuncture until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Jesuit missionaries communicated knowledge of it to Europe. However, the practice had little influence in the West until the twentieth century. Because of their mechanistic view of the body, Western physicians found it absurd to believe that a needle stuck into a patient’s foot could cure a liver disorder. Similarly, the scientific medicine of Europe failed to impress Chinese physicians. The highly structured system associated with acupuncture was not susceptible to empirical falsification.

It was not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that Chinese doctors began to modernize their treatment of patients with Western scientific techniques. However, acupuncture continued to be practiced, and modern and traditional medicines evolved cooperatively. During this time, a controversy developed in Western countries between those who accepted acupuncture as an effective system of medicine and those who believed that it had no scientific basis. Western researchers found no anatomical or physiological evidence for the existence of meridians, and they attributed acupuncturists’ cures to the placebo effect.

Joseph Needham, who was both a Western scientist and a Sinologist, argued against this critique by scientists. He pointed to his statistical study of the impressive successes of acupuncture therapy. Some Eastern researchers believe that scientific reasons for acupuncture’s effectiveness will eventually be discovered and that a place will be found for this ancient practice alongside modern Western medicine.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bivens, Roberta E. Acupuncture, Expertise, and Cross-Cultural Medicine. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. This history of the fortunes of acupuncture in Britain, from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first, is a good assessment of the changing Western attitudes toward the practice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lu Gwei-Djen and Joseph Needham. Celestial Lancets: A History and Rationale of Acupuncture and Moxa. Introduction by Vivian Lo. Reprint. New York: Curzon Press, 2002. A wide-ranging historical account of acupuncture and moxibustion in the theoretical structure of Chinese medicine, combined with a rationale of the two techniques in the light of modern scientific knowledge. Includes a substantial introduction surveying new sources and research methodologies that have developed since first publication in 1980.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Needham, Joseph. Clerks and Craftsmen in China and the West: Lectures and Addresses on the History of Science and Technology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970. The fourteenth chapter of this book, “Medicine and Chinese Culture,” which the author wrote with Lu Gwei-Djen, provides an overview of the healing arts, including acupuncture, from ancient to Marxist China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 6 in Biology and Biological Technology. Part 6. Medicine. Assisted by Lu Gwei-Djen. Edited by Nathan Sivin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Needham died in 1995, and Sivin, while praising the pioneering work of Needham and Lu Gwei-Djen, updates their treatment by showing how medical practices, including acupuncture, were socially constructed in different historical and cultural contexts within China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Needham, Joseph. Science in Traditional China: A Comparative Perspective. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. This book’s fourth chapter, “The History and Rationale of Acupuncture and Moxibustion,” contains a detailed historical analysis informed by the author’s knowledge of both Western science and Chinese culture.

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