Chinese Medicine and Culture

: 2018  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 18--20

The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine: First complete summary of ancient chinese medicine

Weikang Fu 
 Former Director of the Shanghai Museum of Traditioal Chinese Medicine, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, China

Correspondence Address:
prof. Weikang Fu
Shanghai Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Shanghai


This paper introduces an outstanding medical book The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine, and analyzes the theory about traditional Chinese medicine in this book.

How to cite this article:
Fu W. The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine: First complete summary of ancient chinese medicine.Chin Med Cult 2018;1:18-20

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Fu W. The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine: First complete summary of ancient chinese medicine. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2018 [cited 2021 Apr 13 ];1:18-20
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The Spring and Autumn and Warring States Period (770-221 B. C.) was a period of great social change and tremendous economic development. Iron tools came more and more into use, providing the material conditions for progress in many fields of activity. In the area of philosophy and culture, “numerous scholars came to the fore and a hundred schools of thought contended.” Science, including medicine and pharmacology, flourished as never before. At that time, an outstanding medical book appeared – Huang Di Nei Jing ([INSIDE:1] The Yellow Emperor's Canon of Medicine).

Attributed to the legendary Huang Di, or Yellow Emperor, who was considered the earliest progenitor of Chinese, the work was actually written by some unknown medical scholars of the Warring State Period. Between 221 B. C. and A. D. 220, in the dynasties of Qin and Han, other medical men made corrections and additions to the book. Thus, the Canon of Medicine became an important classic, a complete summary of the achievements in the field of medicine before the 3rd century [Figure 1].{Figure 1}

The Canon of Medicine, which includes the Plain Questions and Vital Pivot, expounds human anatomy, physiology, pulse, etiology, pathology, prevention of disease, diagnosis, and treatment. It also discusses the relationship between man and his natural environment, and the inter-relationship of the internal organs of the human body.

Extant ancient medical book credit the Canon of Medicine with first using the term “anatomy”. Here is one passage: “A man eight feet in height with skin and flesh can be studied externally by measuring, palpating and pressing. If he is dead, investigation can be made by anatomy of the corpse.” The Canon of Medicine can thus be seen as fairly reliable. Moreover, much of its content is expounded regarding such naïve materialism and spontaneous dialectical concepts as the concepts that everything should be studied about other things, that everything is in constant motion and change, the concept of preventive medicine and opposition to superstition. The hypotheses concerning the viscera, the channels of the body or Jing Luo ([INSIDE:2]), the theories of yin and yang, the five elements vital energy and blood, etiology, etc., discussed in the book paced the way for a theoretical system of traditional Chinese medicine.

The Canon of Medicine summarizes the growth and development, maturity and the prime of life, then senility of man, giving the laws of the process. It also points out the difference in the development of the male and the female.

It says that a girl starts to bloom at the age of seven, the milk teeth begin to change into permanent teeth, and the hair gets thick and glossy; at the age of 14 (2 × 7) puberty begins, and menstruation appears. When she is 21 (3 × 7) her growth reaches a climax, her wisdom teeth erupt. At the age of 28 (4 × 7) she becomes very sturdy, with strong tendons and boned. When she has passed 35 years (5 × 7) her bloom gradually fades, and her hair starts to fall. At 42 (6 × 7) her face looks withered and her hair turns grey. At 49 (7 × 7) menopause sets in and her reproductive life is over.

As for a boy, the book says that at the age of eight, he begins to grow healthy and handsome, the milk teeth change to permanent teeth and the hair becomes thick. At the age of 16 (2 × 8) he reaches puberty, and at 24 (3 × 8) his growth and development reach a climax and his wisdom teeth appear. At the age of 32 (4 × 8) the male becomes very sturdy, with tendons and bones tough and strong. At 40 (5 × 8) his facial glow gradually becomes dull, his hair begins to fall, and his teeth lose their luster. The age of 48 (6 × 8) sees his complexion withering and his hair turning grey. At 56 (7 × 8) the function of internal organs markedly decreases, his teeth loosen and his hair thins.

Seven as the age factor for the female and tight for the male in the process of human growth was an ancient Chinese deduction after numerous observations. Obviously, the lifespan was much shorter and senility set in earlier then than now, due to the poor living conditions at that time. The saying, “For a man to reach 70 years of age has been rare since ancient times,” reflects this. Still, the Canon of Medicine expounds the developmental process of men and women, and their senility, basically outlining the contemporary picture.

As for human physiological organic function, descriptions in the Canon are not far off. “The head is the domicile of wisdom and thought,” for example, refers to the brain. That the brain and spinal cord are vital organs not to be acupunctured is stressed, recognizing the vulnerability of these organs. The book points out that any accidental needling in that area could cause death or serious damage to the spinal cord.

Numerous descriptions involving human blood circulation, the heart and vascular system in the Canon of Medicine are surprisingly accurate. It says: “The heart is the foundation of life;” “The heart dominates the body's blood vessels”; “The blood in all vessels flows to the heart,” showing early recognition of the importance of the heart, in close contact with the blood vessels [Figure 2].{Figure 2}

Its views on vascular function and the blood are also correct in considering the blood vessels on the one hand as being the passageways for blood circulation, and on the other as transport lines for nutrition to the nerves, bones, muscles, and viscera of the whole body. Blood contains the various nutritional substances which it carries to supply the entire body for promoting the normal activity of its various parts. The Canon says, for instance, “When the liver is filled with blood, then the person can see; if the feet flow with blood, then he can walk. If the palm and fingers are nourished with blood, the hand can hold things, and the fingers can flex.” These observations reflect scientific facts.

Modern science makes a clear distinction between the components of the blood in the arteries and in the veins. The Canon of Medicine points out as early as 2,000 years ago that when one kind of vessel is punctured, blood spurts out and its color is bright red. From another kind of vessel the blood does not spurt, and its color is dull and turbid. However, this could not be well explained at that time.

Change in pulse rate is also observed then as reflecting a person's emotions, physiology. Quoting again from the Canon, “When a person is frightened, fatigued, under stress or at rest, the pulse is different.” From there, based on prolonged clinical practice, Chinese medical practitioners gradually formulated the theory of diagnosis by pulse-taking [Figure 3].{Figure 3}

The blood in the human body, which contains a certain kind of gaseous and nutritional substance, flows to and converges in various parts of the body through the heart and the vascular system, with the heart as center. Blood forms a circulatory system which flows endlessly. A passage in the Canon says, “The blood flows in the vessels unceasingly, and it circulates in the body endlessly” — an obviously correct understanding.

The Canon also makes a number of correct remarks on respiration, digestion, excretion and motion. For example, it mentions specifically the relationship among perspiration, body temperature, and urination. It comments that profuse perspiration may lower temperature in hot weather; in cold weather, there is less perspiration and so urination is more frequent.

Although there are various internal organs with different structures and functions in the human body, these organs are not independent of each other, says the Canon. On the contrary, they control and influence each other and are in organic co-operation, carrying out the biological activities of the human body. This view in the Canon is based on the concept of viewing things as mutually related, that is to say, viewing the human body about the natural environment, each organ about the other organs and each part of the body about the whole body.

The Canon of Medicine holds that normal physiological activity can only be maintained when a relative balance is kept among various internal organs, and between these organs and the external environment. Once this balance and co-ordination are lost, disease sets in.

The Canon also attaches great importance to the normal and healthy functioning of internal organs of the body, considering this an essential factor. It says that if the vital functions and resistance of the human body are normal and full, then exopathogenic factors (harmful agents) have no avenue to invade, or will not necessarily cause illness. Conversely, invasion by exopathogenic factors is possible when the internal function becomes abnormal and body resistance is low.

The Canon thus says: “All types of disease may occur when one is over-exposed to wind, rain, cold or heat; also when there is an imbalance of yin and yang; or in extreme joy or anger, with irregular eating, undesirable living conditions, or in a state of fright or dread.” Although bacteria were not recognized as disease factors, nervous tension, anxiety, sudden violent change of emotion, improper food and abnormal change of environmental conditions were recognized as factors leading to disease. This understanding countered the view at that time that disease were due to devils or punishment by gods.

The naïve materialist views of the Warring States Period were applied in the Canon to its refutation of mysticism and superstition. One chapter comments: “It is no use to talk about medical principals with persons who believe in ghosts and spirits; neither is there any way to discuss medical techniques with persons who oppose acupuncture, surgery and medicinal substances.”

The Canon goes deeply into many diseases. It first describes briefly infectious diseases which are very harmful to human beings, saying: “When infectious diseases prevail, they may pass from one person to another, weather adults or children, the symptoms and signs being the same.”

A special chapter on malaria mentions the tertian, quartan, and the malignant quptidian typed of malaria.

As to jaundice, edema due to nephritis, malnutrition, anemia and other diseases, the book is quite accurate too. It observes that in nephritis edema usually appears in the eyelids. It records that whenever a hailstorm occurred the crops were badly affected and most of the people suffered from perleche. Perhaps in modern medical terms this would be a lack of riboflavin. As to symptoms of anemia and loss of blood, the Canon stresses facial pallor and lack of luster.

The Canon of Medicine also discusses a cough, diarrhea, bloody stool, abscess, swollen throat, swelling of the lymph nodes of the neck, cholera, hemorrhoids, arthritis, epilepsy, etc., about 300 diseases and symptoms in all. These were diagnosed through the methods of observation, listening and smelling, inquiring and feeling the pulse.

In curing disease, the Canon emphasized prevention and early treatment, claiming that only those doctors who practice in this way are good doctors.

This book claims that the state of health and occurrence of disease in each are different due to differences in environmental climate and customs and those methods of treatment should, therefore, be different. Therapeutic measures include acupuncture, massage, hot compresses, physical exercise, and drugs.

The Canon is an optimistic book. It says that all kinds of disease are curable. One chapter is devoted to four parables to put the idea across. It says disease can be compared to being pricked with a thorn, or the skin being soiled, a string knotted or a river obstructed. However, the thorn can be removed, the dirt can be washed away, the knot can be untied, the obstruction cleared. That man can “conquer nature” and cure every disease is a prospect for the future, when doctors have grasped the methods, techniques, and measures to take. Much is still unknown in curing disease, but the idea that every disease has its cure is a strong refutation of any such concept as fate governing our lives and health.

In short, the Canon of Medicine is a Chinese medical classic rich in content. It is the most outstanding of the four famous Chinese medical classics. It not only laid the foundation for formulating the distinctive system of ancient Chinese medical theory but also contributed greatly toward the development of Chinese medicine. Moreover, the book was known abroad as early as 1400 years ago. A medical history of Japan says, for example, that a medical college of Japan was using the Canon of Medicine as one of its main textbooks in A. D. 701.

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