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The history of acupuncture reaches far back across the millennia. Like most peoples around the world, in ancient times the Chinese had an approach to medicine that was based in shamanic traditions. Illness was seen as caused by displeasure of ancestors, and then, later on, as invasion of ‘evil spirits’ that needed expelling. There is early evidence that sharp implements were being inserted into certain points on the body in order to heal. Early acupuncture needles were made of stone, bamboo or bones, then later, bronze and iron; and now, often stainless steel, but also copper or silver.
During the Warring States period (475 – 221 BC), Taoism became an influential philosophy, and this naturalistic approach influenced the theories of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements. A healthy existence was seen as one that followed the natural rhythms of the world and in harmony with the Tao/Dao or ‘way’, path of life. Ancient beliefs on alchemy evolved into perceptions on how healing can be a transformational process, involving mind, body and soul.
The Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) saw the compilation of the key Chinese Medicine texts such as the Nei Jing (comprising the Su Wen (Simple Questions) and the Ling Shu (Spiritual Axis)), which include theories regarding the Organs, Qi, Blood, Body Fluids and Spirits, and diagnostic theories on diseases. The Nan Jing (Classic of Difficulties) detailed more information on pulse diagnosis, acupuncture Channels and points. Confucianism then became the dominant philosophy, which broadly speaking promoted kindness, doing what is right, and emphasized the importance of the Heart and Mind. The Heart was seen and the ‘ruler’ or ‘lord’ of the body – different Organs were compared to court officials in a view of the body as a state, although many analogies are used in Chinese Medicine terminology.
Over the next few centuries, Chinese Medicine philosophy spread to surrounding countries. Buddhism became an influence, with its philosophy of acceptance, and working with nature and the flow of Qi. But the ancient, Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist influences all combined to a certain extent, in their influence on the practice.
Chinese Medicine became formalized and taught in various schools, consisting of not just acupuncture but also herbal medicine, moxibustion and forms of bodywork such as tui na. There have been many influential Chinese Medicine practitioners over the centuries, including Sun Si Miao (born in the sixth century), who wrote influential texts on medical practice.
Over the years, theories were developed and additional acupuncture points, found, and tongue diagnosis was developed. Acupuncture and moxibustion arrived in Europe in the 16th century. Over the next century onwards, Western Medicine gradually gained more influence in China, becoming favoured over Chinese Medicine. But it was revived by Mao Ze Dong during the Peoples Republic of China (20th century), who encouraged the use of both.
More modern discoveries have been the use of acupuncture as anaesthesia, and ear acupuncture points. There are many different schools and approaches, e.g. Japanese acupuncture is a bit more aligned to Five Elements theory and is often very gentle. Bodyworkers such as physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths now often use ‘dry needling’ or ‘medical acupuncture’ to treat musculoskeletal issues. This we do with traditional acupuncture, but it is just one component of a much more comprehensive approach. Acupuncture is now practised all over the world.