Tarique Qayumi

Medicine in Ancient China has been traditionally noninvasive. According to Confucian teaching, the human body is sacred and therefore it cannot be dissected. The Chinese concentrated their healing practices into harmonizing the body, which led to a vast number of internal therapies for every kind of ailment. A combination of Confucianism and superiority of internal therapy led to limited surgical knowledge and practice.

Treatment in Chinese medicine was classified into five methods: cure the spirit, nourish the body, give medications, treat the whole body, and use acupuncture and moxibustion. The actual process of these treatments ranges from eating the right foods in the right seasons (nourishing the body) to controlling harmony in the body through needles (acupuncture). Surgery, however, is not one of the preferred means of treatment. In the Chinese medical canon, the Nei Ching, surgery is only touched upon twice: once as a last means when all other therapies fail, and another time concerning the treatment of ulcers: "The fairest treatment is to weigh and to consider careful removal, as well as cutting and scooping out exposed and spoiled particles." In fact, in the order of medical practitioners, the surgeons ranked only above the veterinarians, while the pharmacologist came first, the dietary physician second, and the family physician third.

There are, however, two well-known surgeon legends in Chinese history: Pien Ch'iao, who practiced in the second century B.C., and Hua T'o who practiced in 190 A.D. Pien Ch'iao used anesthesia to control pain in his patients, and also was said to have transplanted a heart. Hua T'o was also skillful in anesthesiology and operative techniques. Hua T'o was thought to have used a mixture of hashish or opium with wine to control pain in his patients. One of his famous surgeries was the treatment of the general Kuan Yu, who had been wounded in the arm. Legend has it that the general played chess while Hua T'o operated without anesthesia.

Hua T'o is also known for writing many books on surgery an anesthesia, but none of his books survived after his death. He was said to have performed many surgeries from laparotomy to trephination. Perhaps Hua T'o's only surgical technique that was used after his death was his method of castration. Originally meant as means of punishment, castration was a way for eunuchs to pledge allegiance to the monarch in order for them to advance their position in the courts. After castration, the eunuchs could not have a family and therefore devoted their entire lives to the throne.

In ancient Japan it was not until the 6th century that medical knowledge was imported from Mainland China. The Japanese made no advances in surgery of their own until the Kinso-i (wound surgeons) came about in the 14th century. The Kinso-i were inactive soldiers who took on duties of military doctors. These trauma surgeons made a name for themselves for healing wounds on the battlefield.

In the Far East, the Chinese dominated medicine in ancient times. Surgery, however, never really flourished because of the Confucian teachings that the human body was sacred. The physicians in ancient China preferred to cure disease through noninvasive techniques and were so successful at these techniques that in time they believed that everything could be cured by harmonizing the body. Many of the same drugs that the ancient Chinese used are still in use today in modern medicine. Modern scientists are also revisiting acupuncture and other important Chinese cures in order to study their validity. There is no doubt that the ancient Chinese contributed greatly to medicine as a whole, excluding surgery because, according to themselves, they never had the need to experiment any further.


1. Ellis H. A History of Surgery. London, England. Greenwich Medical Media Limited, 2001.

2. Huard P, Wong M. Chinese Medicine. New York. McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968.

3. Wu L. Past and Present Trends in the Medical History of China. Chinese Med J 53:313-322, 1938.

Acupuncture For Cynics

Acupuncture For Cynics

Have You Always Been Curious About Acupuncture, But Were Never Quite Sure Where To Stick The Needles? If you associate acupuncture with needles, pain and weird alternative medicine then you are horribly misinformed about the benefits of the world's oldest form of medicinal treatment.

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