Acupuncture: A Brief History

The history of Acupuncture is long and varied. Acupuncture is a medical practice that goes back at least 2000 years. The earliest written text describing the treatment is still regarded as one of the most important; the Chinese ‘Huangdi Neijing’, The Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine, dates from about 100 BC, while archaeological evidence of stone needles have been found in ancient Chinese tombs dating from the same period.

As with all systems of medicine, acupuncture attracted some of the most brilliant minds in Chinese history to treat, research, and develop its effectiveness. The difference between acupuncture and Western medicine in this context is that acupuncture has a 2000 year history of continuous study and refinement behind it.

Influences on Acupuncture

The treatment itself has developed from different theoretical and practical ideas. It was also influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism,  The ancient Taoist observations of nature brought to light understandings of a continuous flow of energy as exemplified by the seasons; the latent power of winter gives rise to the growth of spring which finds full expression with the summer before decreasing again with the autumn and falling back to winter. This flow of energy can also be seen in the human body as oxygen and food is taken in, circulated and waste expelled in a continuous flow throughout one’s life. It is also reflected in the cycle of

Yin and Yang

Ideas of Yin and Yang also developed as light turned to dark throughout the day and as heat turned to cold. Within the body illness came to be understood in such terms as inappropriate heat or cold penetrated the system, or certain organs were recognised as deficient in energy (think of people being tired all the time) or having an excess of energy (headaches or throbbing pain, for example).

Looking for balance

Over the centuries, a comprehensive understanding of how the person is in balance and how the natural homeostasis of a person can be disrupted emerged. Returning a person to balance i.e. perfect health, became the aim of the acupuncture practitioner. Research into the placement of fine needles into specific points or areas of pain, cold, heat etc. gave us the treatment we have today.

Massage therapy would also have been an early forerunner of acupuncture with practitioners developing a detailed understanding of the anatomical body. Sports massage today relies on the application of pressure to areas of injury. Once effective needles were developed it would have made sense to needle these areas as the pressure can be applied for much longer periods. From such practice certain areas would have been noted for their strong therapeutic effect and from this standardised acupuncture points would have developed.

Meditation practise will have also played its part in the development of acupuncture. An understanding of the internal energetic nature of the body gave rise to concepts of deep meridians that flow with energy, especialy through the spine and the head. Ancient texts from around 200 BC reference the existence of channels of life force circulating through the body. Herbal medicine, Chi Kung and moxibustion (the application of heat into the body) also influenced acupuncture’s development.

The precise historical and theoretical roots of acupuncture are ancient and undoubtedly diverse. The aim of this blog is only to highlight the more obvious of these, and most importantly to draw attention to the fact that acupuncture is the effective treatment it is today because its roots are grounded in centuries of research relating to the natural world and restoring body and mind to health and harmony.


With thanks To Paul Cooney for this blog.

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