According to Chinese tradition, the origins of medicine are linked to three legendary figures, three mythical emperors11:
Fuxi: he is credited with writing the I Ching (Book of Changes), generally considered the oldest Chinese book.
Shennong: father of agriculture and phytotherapy. He is called the “divine ploughman”. He was given the first Bencao 本草 (Treaty of Medicinal Substances).
Huang Di: the Yellow Emperor, creator of rites and medicine. He is credited with writing the Nei Jing (Huang Di Nei Jing 黃帝內經 or Classic of the Esoteric Tradition of the Yellow Emperor) which will last for centuries.
For prehistorians, the Neolithic period in China was preceded by a long transition period (20,000 – 9,000 BC) when major innovations appeared independently of each other: pottery, polished stone tools and millstones, sedentariness, domestication… and this among hunter-gatherer communities12.
The emergence of Neolithic cultures began in 9,000 BC in areas rich in diversified fauna and flora12, the best known being that of Yangshao (permanent villages, the beginning of agriculture based on millet, domestication of dogs and pigs, etc.). The first written signs (pictogram) appear around 5000 BC13.
The first written medical terms appeared under the Shang dynasty (around 1700-1500 BC), visible on turtle shells or animal shoulder blades, used as divinatory means (scapulomancy). For example, there is the chi (disease) character composed of two elements “man” and “bed” surrounded by one to four features interpreted as blood drops or arrowheads. This sign is combined with a part or function of the body. Similarly, there are the characters for “witch-healer” and “wine” (alcoholic beverage, remedy)13,14.
In Shang society, the living live with the dead (ancestor worship) in reciprocal exchanges, the living honor the dead to receive happiness and benefit. The disease is caused by a break in this bond. The diviner healer must discover and question the ancestor in question, for a reparative offering14.
In some inscriptions, the disease is attributed to a “bad wind” or “snow”. This would be the beginning of the attribution of the disease to “natural” influences. The divinatory methods questioning the world of the dead will gradually be replaced by more “down-to-earth” approaches to the world of the living15.
Under the Zhou dynasty (xie in the second century BC), there was first of all a medicine of demons, where the disease was caused by hostile forces (demons, spirits…) that attacked the bodily soul (state of waking) or the one that detached from the body during sleep. This magical medicine uses exorcisms techniques (incantation, talismans, breathing modes, drugs…)16.
In the last centuries of this dynasty, in synchronization with the Greek world (around the fifth century BC), a philosophical and medical thought appeared that no longer thought in terms of gods, demons or ancestors, but in terms of natural forces, sources of cyclical changes in the world17. For the first time, doctors constituted a corporation independent of priests and magicians. At the top of the hierarchy there are master yishi doctors, jiyi intern doctors, yangyi wound and external doctors, shiyi dieticians, veterinarians18.
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