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Chinese Medicine

In an age when ideas of health and disease largely centered around the four humors, and blood-letting was a common “cure” for a variety of ailments, Europeans turned to traditional Chinese medicine for new and more effective techniques.  Chinese medical treatises were among the first to be studied and discussed by missionaries, and by the late seventeenth century, acupuncture, pulse diagnosis, tongue diagnosis, and moxa had all been introduced to European readers.  China was also thought to be the source of two of the best pharmacological ingredients in the world, Chinese musk and “true” rhubarb.

Athanasius Kircher. China illustrata. [Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1667]. Courtesy of Timothy Billings.

In the sixteenth century, musk was not just a perfume; it was a potent medicinal ingredient in both Chinese and European pharmacopeias, and was considered a priceless commodity, often named along with gold, silver, and precious stones in early lists of treasures from China and India. It was widely held that the best musk in the world came from the musk deer native to the mountains of China. The musk deer was adopted as an emblem, and seems to have been used by the Jesuits as a symbol for China, often appearing as an illustrated detail on Jesuit maps of the period. 


Also not thought of today as a valuable medicine was rhubarb (da huang 大黃)—another chief prize of early trade with China. In Europe, the stalk of the “common” rhubarb had been esteemed for its purgative qualities for centuries, but the root of the Chinese “true” rhubarb was extremely precious—considered a potent medicine on par with ginseng—and its cultivation eluded Europeans until the nineteenth century.


We recognize other Chinese medical practices such as acupuncture, acupressure, and moxibustion from alternative and homeopathic remedies still practiced today, and these were introduced to Europeans in the sixteenth century. Acupuncture is the technique of inserting and manipulating fine needles into specific points on the body along which qi (material energy) flows. “Moxibustion” (jiu ) is the therapeutic practice of burning compressed cones of “moxa” or mugwort (Artemisia) on the skin in order to stimulate the flow of blood and qi along the same meridians


Illustrations of the acutracts of the human body (used both for acupressure and moxibustion) could be found in Andreas Cleyer’s Specimen medicinae Sinicae sive opuscula medica ad mentem Sinensium (1682). These illustrations were copied from two seventeenth-century Chinese texts: Zhang Jiebin’s 張介賓Lei Jing 類經(Classics Classified, 1624) and the 1680 edition of Yang Jizhou’s 楊繼洲Zhenjiu Dacheng 針灸大成(Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, first printed in 1601).


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Joachim Camerarius. Symbolorum et emblematum centuriae quarta. Frankfurt, 1661

Giovanni Battista Ramusio. Navigationi et viaggi. Volume 2. Venice, 1559

Athanasius Kircher. China illustrata. [Amsterdam: Jan Jansson, 1667]. Courtesy of Timothy Billings.

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