Acupuncture and history: The “ancient” therapy that’s been around for several decades

Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it

– A. Hitler

It seems that just about every article about acupuncture makes some reference to it having been used in China for thousands of years. The obvious reason for such a statement is to make the implication that since it’s been around for so long, it must therefore also be effective. Of course, longevity doesn’t argue for efficacy, otherwise everyone would likely agree that astrology is the way to chart one’s life; astrology has been practiced for many more years than acupuncture.

What’s maddening about the acupuncture longevity myth is that it isn’t true, and demonstrably so. In human medicine, “needling” was illustrated in the 17th century by western observers: no points, no “meridians,” just a big awl-like “needle,” driven in with an ivory-handled circular hammer. In addition, the rationale for hammering these little spikes into various spots (of the practitioner’s choosing) was said to be “exactly the same” as Greek humoral medicine (see, Carruba, RW, Bowers, JZ. The Western World’s First Detailed Treatise on Acupuncture: Willem ten Rhijne’s De Acupunctura. J Hist Med Allied Sci (1974) XXIX (4): 371-398).

The same fallacious assertion is repeated (repeatedly) in veterinary medicine. Acupuncture proponents may assert, for example, that acupuncture is “4,000 years old.” While the assertion isn’t true, it’s also ridiculous, since the Chinese hadn’t invented writing 4,000 years ago. Even if the assertion were true, there would be no way to possibly know about it, since no one could have written anything down about the practice.

Regardless, recently, we published the first detailed research paper on the history of veterinary medicine in China. The paper was published in July, in the historical journal Sudhoffs Archiv (Buell, P, May, T, Ramey, D. Greek and Chinese Horse Medicine: Déja Vu All Over Again. Sudhoffs Archiv. 2010: 94: 31-60). It is one of the first papers published that looks at the actual historical source material, and the only one that compares the veterinary medicine of ancient China to contemporary practices in the ancient world.

Based on the historical source material, it can be stated that Chinese veterinary medicine isn’t unique, and it isn’t even particularly Chinese. That is, what is presented to the eager public as the essence of Chinese thought and practice is, in fact, just an adaptation of contemporaneous practices in Greece and the Middle East. In fact, most Chinese practices, such as bleeding, and burning at points, appear in Greek, Egyptian, and Arabic sources long before they were ever mentioned in China. Such practices first appear in China during a period of maximal western influence on China, corresponding with regular traffic on the Silk Road (during Han times, approx. 200 BCE – 200 AD), as well as with the coming of Buddhism, which brought in influences from Indian traditions.

It’s remarkable – and particularly so in the face of all of the modern crowing about the antiquity of acupuncture in animals – that there is no reference to what can even be remotely considered as modern acupuncture in any of the pre-modern Chinese veterinary works (which deal mostly with horses, camels, and water buffalo). This may be due to incorrect translation of the Chinese word zhen, which means “incision” or “penetration,” and also used to describe cauterization and bleeding, but which has been apparently somehow morphed into “acupuncture” anytime that the word appears in Chinese sources. It’s absolutely clear that zhen has nothing to do with modern acupuncture, even as it’s equally clear that acupuncture proponents will insist on misinterpreting the Chinese language to suit their preconceived notions.

The Chinese, as with every other ancient culture, didn’t have much of an idea of horse physiology, and their treatments were based on anecdote and tradition. The fact is that the Chinese didn’t have any better idea about what caused conditions such as colic (abdominal distress) or foot pain than did other cultures, and they really didn’t treat them much differently. Until scientific investigations came along, people didn’t really know what they were doing when it came to practicing medicine. There’s no reason to try to go back to such traditions; there’s especially no reason to do so when they didn’t exist in the first place.

Posted in: Acupuncture, History

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