Acupuncture treats diseases by the insertion of fine needles into the body. In July of 1971, Dr. Henry A. Kissinger made a secret trip to China to prepare for President Nixon’s historical visit. Among his entourage was James Reston, a journalist from the New York Times. While in China, Reston suffered an attack of acute appendicitis and underwent an appendectomy at the Beijing Union Medical College, established by the Rockefeller Foundation of New York in 1916. During the second night after the operation, Reston started to experience considerable discomfort in his abdomen.
With his approval, an acupuncturist at the hospital inserted and manipulated three long thin needles, one into the outer part of his right elbow and one below each knee. There was noticeable relaxation of the abdominal pressure and distension within an hour, with no recurrence of the problem thereafter. James Reston included a detailed description of his experiences with acupuncture in his dispatches from Beijing. This was the first such report to reach the English-speaking citizens of the United States, at least the vast majority who had no daily contact with Asians.
By contrast, acupuncture has been known and practiced in China for over 2300 years. Qin Yueren, the earliest recorded Chinese practitioner, is considered to be the founder of acupuncture. A biography of Qin Yueren is included in the Records of the Grand Historian (Shi Ji), the masterwork of the eminent Chinese historian Sima Qian (135 – ? BC). It is known that Qin Yueren lived around 407-310 BC, and was a contemporary of Hippocrates (c. 460-377 BC), the father of Western medicine.
Qin Yueren traveled widely throughout the feudal states that compromised China during his time, treating men and women, old and young alike. As a result, he was given the auspicious appellation Bian Que, which means Wayfaring Magpie – a bird that flies here and there dispensing good fortune. Several carved stones, unearthed from a tomb dating back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), portray him with a human head and a bird’s body.
On one occasion, while passing through the State of Guo (present-day Shan County in Henan Province), Bian Que learned that the Prince of Guo had died and his subjects were preparing to inter him. After careful examination, Bian Que believed that the prince had merely experienced a type of deep coma known as deathlike reversal. He successfully resuscitated the patient by needling an acupoint on the vertex of his head, and become known for bringing the dead back to life. This was the first recorded use of acupuncture in China.
Acupuncture is extraordinary. Needles have historically been among the most common tools of daily life, used for constructing garments all over the world. Just as needles are used to sew clothes, they are also utilized medically to suture incisions. While hollow syringes are used to inject fluids into the body or to draw them out, pricking the body with a solid acupuncture needle to treat illness seems quite incomprehensible. Most people prefer not to be punctured with needles, and associate needling with pain and injury. No wonder, to “needle” a person means to displease or to irritate in English. By trial and error, healers throughout the world have independently discovered similar treatments for pain and disease, including herbs, roots, wraps, rubs, blood-letting, massage, meditation, or surgery. But the invention of acupuncture is unique to China.
Why did the ancient Chinese begin to treat disease by puncturing the body with bare needles? A generally accepted answer to this question is that acupuncture evolved as a natural outgrowth of daily life in the Neolithic Age (c. 8000-3500 BC), through a process of fortuitous accident and repeated empirical experience. According to this theory, people noticed cases in which physical problems were relieved following an unrelated injury. This led to the discovery of the principle that injury to a certain part of the body can alleviate or even cure a pre-existing disease or disorder in a different part of the body.
It is thought that with this discovery, Neolithic Chinese people eventually started to use stones, animal bones, or pieces of bamboo to deliberately induce injury to relieve physical problems. The traumatic nature of acupuncture, which seems quite crude by modern standards, as well as its long history in China, seem to lend credence to the theory of its prehistoric origins. However, if acupuncture did indeed arise from repeated empirical experience of accidental injury, it should have developed all over the world, rather than solely in China.
2. Meridians of the Body: The rivers of the Earth in microcosm
According to traditional Chinese medicine, a network known as “meridians” is distributed throughout the human body, carrying Qi (vital energy) and blood to nourish the organs and tissues. Meridians of the human body are very similar to rivers of the earth in both structure and function. Rivers are the meridians of the Earth in macrocosm. They are the channels that contain the flow of water, the life force of our planet. On the microcosmic scale, the meridians of the human body are the channels that contain the flow of Qi and blood, the life force of living beings.
The ancient Chinese found that there are twelve Regular Meridians in the human body. The Neijing or Huangdi Nejing (the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic of Medicine) (compiled between 104-32 BC) is the seminal work of traditional Chinese medicine and the earliest extant medical exposition of acupuncture. The chapter entitled “Regular Watercourses (Jingshui)” deals specifically with the correspondences between the twelve Regular Meridians and the twelve major rivers in China. The rivers mentioned are located in the basins of the Changjiang River and the Yellow River.