Today, acupuncture is a widely acknowledged therapeutic discipline which is gaining increasingly prevalence as an alternative form of treatment. Whilst the last 30 or so years has seen a steady increase in the number of patients going to acupuncturists, both in the UK and worldwide, little is known about the discipline itself, and very few people understand the rich history that acupuncture treatment enjoys.
As a branch of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture has existed for at least 2000 years now and may go back even further. A highly refined means of achieving numerous health benefits, acupuncture was among the first treatments to incorporate many elements of today’s biomedical science, recognising for example the impact of emotional stress on the immune system.
The first recorded mention of acupuncture comes around 100 BCE in the form of Nei Ching Su Wen, or the “Classic of the Internal Medicine of the Yellow Emperor”. Written between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, the Nei Ching Su Wen records many of the principles of acupuncture that we rely on today, including the concept of channels (meridians or conduits) through which the body’s vital energy (life force or Qi) flows. Based on traditional Chinese concepts like Taoism and Confucianism, the Classic is filled with philosophical concepts that make it just as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago.
Featured prominently is the idea that health represents the perfect harmony between Yin and Yang, whilst disharmony results in ill-health and disease. Whilst this forms the core of all acupuncture practice, many of the techniques and theories that make up modern acupuncture were developed and codified subsequently, especially in the next few centuries, until acupuncture became standard therapy in China, with several diverse strands and schools of thought as well as many competing and often contradictory methods.
Acupuncture quickly caught on, spreading first to Korea and Japan by the 6th century and Vietnam by the 10th century. The first European to come into contact with acupuncture was a Dutchman called Ten Rhijne around 1680, who was in Japan working for the East India Company and wrote about it at length.
It was sometime during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that acupuncture took its next leap forward, bringing it towards a form that we recognise today. This came with the publication of “The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion”, also known as the “Canon of Medicine”, which gives us clear and accurate descriptions of all 365 points on the body that needles can be inserted into to modify Qi flow.
After this the practice then suffered a downturn as it came into conflict with the Western style medicine that was introduced into China from the 18th century onwards, when it began to suffer from labels that dubbed it superstitious witchcraft among others. This process culminated in it being excluded by the Imperial Medical Institute in 1882 and outlawed in China altogether in 1929 along with other forms of traditional medicine.
This all changed after 1949, when the Communists realised how traditional medicine could reach the wider Chinese population and otherwise divergent strands of natural health treatments, including herbal medicine, were brought together to form Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), practiced to this day on millions of patients worldwide.