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logo icon The History and Development of Traditional Chinese Medicine

The History and Development of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the oldest medical systems in the world. It can be traced to two thousand years ago. The earliest record of Traditional Chinese Medicine is the Huangdi Neijing (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic), written in the 3rd century BCE.  [1]

TCM has been passed down from generation to generation and has become a huge part of our healthy daily routines. In this article, we will go back to the very start of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and discuss its development over the past centuries, its modern-day existence, and what the future holds.

What is TCM and How Does It Work?

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a medical system that is built on the body’s ability to naturally heal itself. According to TCM, health is the existence of a state of balance between the mind, body, and spirit. TCM uses a holistic healing approach that is designed to account for an individual’s physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being.

TCM is governed by two main ideas:

  1. Qi
  2. Yin and Yang

Qi is the life force or energy that flows through all living things. Qi is responsible for physical, mental, and emotional well-being; if the flow of Qi in the body is disrupted, it can lead to sickness.

Yin and Yang are complementary but opposing forces that are believed to exist in a state of balance. Yin and Yang are represented in different universal elements like fire and water, heat and cold, masculine and feminine, light and darkness. These opposing forces maintain balance in the body, and an excess or deficiency of one element leads to imbalance, causing potential dysfunction. 

Therefore, the goal of TCM is to maintain the balance between Yin and Yang, and to promote the flow of Qi in order to keep the body healthy.

TCM is a wide system that utilizes different healing techniques, including:

  1. Acupuncture: This technique dates back to 2,000 years ago and involves the insertion of very thin needles into specific points to unlock the body's natural healing abilities.
  2. Herbal medicine: This involves using natural herbs to support the management of symptoms and help maintain optimal health.
  3. Massage (Tui na): The TCM practitioner stimulates body tissues to promote relaxation, relieve pain, and improve circulation.
  4. Dietary therapy: In TCM, diet is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle. This involves recommending specific foods and diets depending on an individual’s health needs and goals.
  5. Qi Gong: This technique relies on movement exercises to promote breathing, meditation, relaxation, and the flow of Qi in the body.

Now that we’ve covered what TCM is all about, let’s look at how it started and how it has developed over the years.

Early History of TCM

TCM can be traced back to ancient China during the Shang dynasty (14th - 11th centuries BCE). This was during the time of the religious deity Shag Di, who, according to folklore, lived in heaven with dead ancestors. At this time, there wasn’t a particular established system of medicine. However, shamans acted as mediators between the ancestors and the people and would use scapular bones or tortoise shells to interpret the will of the ancestors. According to British sinologist Joseph Needham [2], acupuncture might have existed during the Shang dynasty, given the stones and bone needles that were found in ancient tombs. Different TCM principles and teachings emerged after this, during the Warring States period (475 - 221 BCE). This period was characterized by numerous teachers and multiple TCM ideas.

TCM during the Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty existed between 206 BCE - 220 CE. It is during this time that the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine (Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon) is believed to have been compiled. This is the earliest written record of TCM and contains central principles like Qi, Yin and Yang, and the Five elements. This classic is a vital part of TCM history and is still an important reference for practitioners today.

During this era, herbal medicine was introduced in China, and herbalists began creating extensive lists of herbs, their medicinal properties, and their benefits. This list was later compiled into medical texts like the "Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing" (The Divine Farmer's Materia Medica).

Acupuncture was also developed during this period, with the earliest written records of acupuncture dating back to the Han Dynasty. That’s not all. The diagnosis and treatment of internal disorders were also developed during the Han Dynasty. In fact, the  "Huangdi Neijing" contains detailed descriptions of the symptoms and causes of various internal disorders, such as digestive problems, respiratory issues, and gynecological conditions. This period helped form the foundation of internal medicine in TCM.

TCM during the Tang Dynasty

The Tang dynasty ruled China from 628 to 907 CE. During this period, TCM was highly respected and practiced among common people and the ruling class. The first systematic medical text, the "Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders" (Shang Han Lun), was created in the Tang Dynasty.

The Tang Dynasty also experienced a lot of trade and cultural exchange with other countries like India and the Middle East, which led to the introduction of new ideas and techniques in Traditional Chinese Medicine. e.g., acupuncture and herbal medicine.

Another notable development during the Tang dynasty was the pulse diagnosis. This technique involved feeling the pulse of the patient to determine the state of their health. It was during this time that the first pulse chart was created to diagnose various conditions.

The Tang dynasty also saw the development of pharmacology as the study of herbal medicines became more systematic. The first pharmacopeia, which was a compendium of medicinal herbs and their properties, was created during this time. This helped to standardize the use of herbal medicines and ensured that patients received safe and effective treatments.

TCM during the Ming and Qing Dynasties

During the Ming and Qing dynasty (1368 to 1912 CE), TCM was codified, standardized, and made available to a wider population. The most significant contribution during the Ming Dynasty was the publication of the "Compendium of Materia Medica" by Li Shizhen. This book contained the properties, indications, and uses of over 1,800 medicinal substances, including herbs, minerals, and animal products. It was considered the most authoritative TCM reference by practitioners.

The medical education system was expanded during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and medical schools were established in different regions. This led to the standardization of the curriculum to include subjects like anatomy, physiology, pathology, herbal remedies, acupuncture, and other TCM therapies.

During this time, TCM grew beyond China’s borders as a result of cultural exchange with missionaries, merchants, and diplomats. And in the 19th century, Chinese people went to work in the transcontinental railroad and the California Gold Rush in the US, leading to the introduction of TCM in the west. In 1970, a popular New York Times journalist was treated with TCM after emergency surgery in China. When he wrote about his experience, his article spread like wildfire, and with it, fame about acupuncture.

TCM in Modern Times

TCM growth and adoption in modern times is on a steady rise despite the challenges it faced in the 20th century. There is more scientific interest in the mechanisms of how different TCM techniques work, and with advanced research, we’re seeing more studies on the effectiveness of Traditional Chinese Medicine in supporting a range of conditions.

There’s also an upsurge in TCM growth globally as more and more people continue looking for alternative natural medicine. This has led to increased collaboration and exchange between TCM practitioners and medical professionals, which has helped advance the field.


Traditional Chinese Medicine is not a U.S. government-recognized product category and, therefore, can be overlooked as a legitimate form of medicine from a regulatory perspective. However, it is gaining popularity as an alternative and holistic complementary approach to wellness plans. More and more people recognize the value of TCM and are making an effort to make TCM a part of their lifestyle and daily health routine.

Solstice Medicine is an industry-leading trusted distributor of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and we are committed to serving our international audience with authentic and verified quality products. We vet our suppliers and distributors to ensure the highest quality and only stock the best products in the market. Try Traditional Chinese Medicine today.


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