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Year : 2019  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 29-31

The silk road (丝绸之路) and sources of chinese medicine expansion: Part III – Histories

Department of Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

Date of Web Publication18-Mar-2019

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Sean Bradley
Department of Asian Languages and Literature, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_6_19

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Medicine and knowledge of medical practice have been exchanged along the Silk Road since antiquity. Medical texts provide the vast majority of information about the drugs, techniques, and ideas that passed from foreign lands into China and became part of Chinese medicine. In addition to the medical corpus, historical works provide the backdrop for how, when, and from where these ideas and medicines entered and influenced Chinese medical practice. Examining the historical texts and the information pertaining to medical exchange can allow us to better understand how foreign cultures and practices of medicine along the Silk Road entered and influenced Chinese Medicine.

Keywords: Chinese medicine, history, Silk Road (丝绸之路), transfer of medicine

How to cite this article:
Bradley S. The silk road (丝绸之路) and sources of chinese medicine expansion: Part III – Histories. Chin Med Cult 2019;2:29-31

How to cite this URL:
Bradley S. The silk road (丝绸之路) and sources of chinese medicine expansion: Part III – Histories. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2019 [cited 2020 Jun 4];2:29-31. Available from: http://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2019/2/1/29/254382

While medical texts provide the vast majority of information we gather for the study of the exchange of medicine, we also must draw information from more general sources to better understand the complexity of the Silk Road [Figure 1] on Chinese Medicine.
Figure 1: Transport along the Silk Road

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Historical writings are invaluable for providing the context for medical practices in China throughout its development. They provide the backdrop for how, where, and by whom medicines and techniques were used in antiquity. There are two primary types of historical texts in Chinese. The first category contains the annals and dynastic histories, and the second category contains other various historical texts such as topically arranged, institutional notebooks, and miscellaneous works. Both of these broad categories shed light on the foreign influence of ideas and products on medicine in China.

  Standard Histories Top

The standard or dynastic histories provide a treasure trove of information about the interactions between Chinese and foreign cultures. These standard histories include chapters that deal directly with bordering lands that sometimes list products traded or given as tribute.

In the Bei shi(《北史》History of the Northern dynasties), compiled in the 7th century CE by Li Yanshou (李延寿, fl. 618–676), we find references to substances sent as tribute.[1] In a chapter on on Cao country (漕国) that was Jaguda (治至漕国), Ghazni (加兹尼), in what is now Afghanistan, various products are listed including millet, wheat, and horses, but also includes aromatics that continue to be used in medicine such as a wei 阿魏 (asafetida) and mo yao 沒药(myrrh) (Note 1).[2],[3] We find a nearly identical list in the corresponding chapter in the Sui shu (《隋书》The Book of Sui) compiled in 636 by Wei Zheng (魏征, 580–643).[4]

In addition to descriptions about foreign nations and cultures, the extensive biographies can also provide information about how medical information was brought into China.

The Wei shu (《魏书》 The Book of Wei), part of the San Guo Zhi (《三国志》 Record of the Three Kingdoms) compiled by ChenShou (陈寿, 233–297 CE), contains a biography of noted physician Hua Tuo (华佗~d. 208 CE). In this biography, HuaTuo uses an herbal anesthetic formula mafeisan (麻沸散). When it is given to patients, they “become intoxicated and pass out as if dead.” From this, surgery could be performed and “as for the disease, if it is located in the intestines, he would cut out and wash them. Then, he would suture up the abdomen and apply a medicinal past.”[5] This description of surgical technique and anesthesia may have been similar to those used in India, often attributed to Jīvaka, that made their way into China.[6] While Hua Tuo is a rare case in his use of surgery in China, this practice was much more widespread in India with texts such as the Suśruta-saṃhitā.[7]

While there is some information found in these biographies and regional studies that either directly or indirectly point to medical exchange along the Silk Road, the catalog of the holdings of the Imperial Library (经书殿) that some of the histories contain provides a look at the literature that existed during that time and can also give clues to foreign import of texts and information.

In the catalog of the Sui shu compiled compiled in 636 by Wei Zheng (580–643), there are clearly identifiable foreign medical texts of South Asian origin. Hinrichs and Barnes divide the South Asian medical works in the Sui shu into three types.[8] The first are those associated with Hinduism such as the Poluomen zhuxian fang (婆罗门诸仙药方Medical Formulas of Brahman Immortals) and Poluomen yaofang(婆罗门药方Medical Formulas of the Brahman). The second are texts that have Buddhist origins such as Longshu pusa yaofang(龙树菩萨药方Medical Formulas of Bodhisattva Nagarjuna), Longshu pusa yangxing fang(龙树菩萨养性方Bodhisattva Nagarjuna's Formlas for Nurturing Nature), and Longshu pusa hexiang fa(龙树菩萨和香法Bodhisattva Nagarjuna's method for Combining Aromatics) (Note 2).[9] The third are texts written by Buddhist monks that include both herbal and acupuncture works. Works attributed to the famous Indian physician Jīvaka are a major example of these types of works such as the Qipo suoshu xianren ming lun fang (耆婆所述仙人命论方Formula Treatise of Immortality Described by Jīvaka) [Figure 2].
Figure 2: Helan Shan-Buddhism along the Silk Road

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These types of texts are also found in later histories. The Song Shi (《宋史》History of the Song) by Toghto (1314–1355 CE) in 1344 lists the Poluomen seng fu xian mao fang (婆罗门僧服仙茅方Monks of the Brahman's taking of Golden Eye-grass Formula) and the Longshu yan lun longshu (《龙树眼论》Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Eye) that are both from or influenced by South Asian sources. In addition, several Chinese medicine texts associated with Jīvaka are listed in the catalog. These includes the formulary Qipo yao yong fang (耆婆要用方Jīvaka's Essential Formulae), but also lists texts on medical theory such as Qipo wu zang lun (《耆婆五脏论》Jīvaka's Treatise on the Five Viscera), Qipo mai jing (《耆婆脉经》Jīvaka's Canon of the Vessels), and Qipo liushisi wen (《耆婆六十四问》Jīvaka's Sixty-Four Questions).

How exactly these texts have influenced traditional Chinese medicine is also uncertain since much of the information has been lost, and without non-Chinese source texts to directly compare, we can only speculate as to the nature and content of the works. While these standard history examples shed light on the types of texts that were exchanged, they comprise only a small glimpse of the potential interactions and information transfer. In addition to the standard histories, a broader body of literature must be explored to better understand the scope of information that entered China from abroad.

  Additional Histories Top

Aside from the standard histories, there are additional historical references that have shed insight into medical exchange throughout antiquity. These include regional records, topical or institutional histories, notebooks, and others. The Nanzhou ji (《南州记》The Records of Nanzhou) by Xu Biao(徐表)is an early regional text from the 4th century. This text gives the first reference to myrrh, which is from the Arabic peninsula, as it is imported into China. While the original text has been lost, references to it are found in the Bencao gangmu (《本草纲目》Compendium of Materia medica) of Li Shizhen (李时珍) completed in 1596[10] [Figure 3].
Figure 3: Entry on myrrh in a 17th century Japanese edition of the Bencao gangmu (Compendium of materia medica)

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The passage mentioned above about imported medicines from Cao country, or Jaguda, is also found in the Tong dian(《通典》Comprehensive Institutions) written by Du You (杜佑, 735–812). The text is the same as that found in the Bei shi and refers to products being brought into China. The Tong dian later lists a number of foreign texts including the Poluomen yaofang, Poluomen zhuxian fang, and Longshu pusa yao fang that are found listed in the Sui shu catalog. It also lists other medical works from the Western regions or xiyu (西域). These texts can also be found in the later work, Tong zhi (《通志》Universal Treatise) compiled in 1149 by Zheng Qiao (郑樵,1104–1162).

The Taiping yulan (《太平御览》Readings of the Taiping Era), compiled between 977 and 983 CE by Li Fang 李昉 (925–996 CE) cites a number of passages concerning medicine (藥 yao) tracing back to ancient texts such as the Yi jing (易经) and the Shu jing (书经). The text also lists later examples of the use of medicine including citations from the Wei shu 魏書 by Wei Shou (魏收,506–572 CE). The citation from the Wei shu, though it does not appear in the received text of the Wei shu, mentions the state of Oḍḍiyāna (乌长国) in India in a passage about medicine. The passage says that Hindus use a medicine that will make a person appear crazy before they are cured. While it does not clarify the specific medicine, it does serve as an example of knowledge of Indian medicine by the Chinese.

It is only by looking at a variety of sources that we are able to piece together the history of medicinal exchange along the Silk Road. Using the standard histories alongside other historical resources creates a clearer picture to understand the import of foreign drugs and ideas into Chinese medical practice.

The influence of these works and the information within them is uncertain and will need to be studied more by looking at both the changes in Chinese medicine over time and the state of foreign medical practices during the same periods. Only by in-depth study of the systems of medicines exchanged along the Silk Road can we truly know how they have influenced one another and how Chinese medicine developed into what it is today.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


1. Myrrh is not mentioned in the Sui shu (《隋书》 The Book of Sui) written in 636 by Wei Zheng (魏征, 580-643) et al., as the first character is left out, leaving only yao (药). This could have implied that simply herbs were transported, but the Bei shi and the Tong dian (《通典》Comprehensive Institutions) by Du You (杜佑, 735-812), both have moyao 沒藥 (myrrh), and commentators on the Sui shu generally agree that the character was accidentally omitted.

2. Salguero states that using Jīvaka is likely an example of symbolic appeal of ancient authors to legitimize the use of Indian knowledge into mainstream Chinese medical literature, but also stresses that these may not represent the incorporation of any particular Indian source doctrine.

  References Top

Yanshou L. Bei shi (History of the Northern Dynasties). Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju; 1974. p. 3238-9.  Back to cited text no. 1
Qixiang T, editor. Zhongguo lishi ditu ji (Historical Atlas of China). Vol. 4. Shanghai: Ditu Chubanshe; 1982-7. p. 30-1.  Back to cited text no. 2
Laufer B. Sino-Iranica: Chinese Contributions to the History of Civilization in Ancient Iran. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History; 1919. p. 460.  Back to cited text no. 3
Zheng W. Sui shu. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju; 1959. p. 48.1857-61n9. You D. Tong dian. In: Siku Quanshu. Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chuban She; 1987. p. 192.605.  Back to cited text no. 4
Shou C. Sanguo zhi(Records of the Three Kingdoms). Beijing: Zhonghua Shu Ju; 1959. p. 799-800.  Back to cited text no. 5
Mair VH. The biography of Hua-T'o from history of the three kingdoms. In: Mair VH, editor. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press; 1994. p. 689.  Back to cited text no. 6
Meulenbeld GJ. Suśruta-saṃhitā. A History of Indian Medical Literature. Vol. 1A. Groningen: Egbert Forsten; 1999. p. 203-389.  Back to cited text no. 7
Hinrichs TJ, Barnes LL. Chinese Medicine and Healing: An Illustrated History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 2013. p. 77.  Back to cited text no. 8
Zhang W. Sui shu (Book of the Sui Dynasty). Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju; 1959. p. 1047-50.  Back to cited text no. 9
Reference to the Nanzhou ji can be found in the great compendium. Shizhen L. Bencao gangmu(Compendium of materia medica). Beijing: Renmin Weisheng Chubanshe Yingying; 1957. p. 1.333b-4a,34.1373a.  Back to cited text no. 10


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3]


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