History of Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese herbal medicine has great antiquity, with therapeutic roots extending back to Zhou Dynasty, Late Bronze/Early Iron Age at about 2500 to 3000 years ago. From its shamanistic origins, herbalism in archaic China evolved in response to aetiological concepts current at the time. These notions of the causes of disease in human society related directly to the troubled socio-economic environment that prevailed in early China in the latter half of the first millennium BC. Somewhat euphemistically termed the Warring States period, the general uncertainty of life during these dark times gave rise to the belief that sickness was due to the malevolent action of demonic forces. Incipient herbal medicine was employed to extirpate these unwanted intruders, laying the foundation of what was to become traditional Chinese herbal medicine.

The earliest extant evidence of nascent herbalism in China comes from two graves from the Han Era at 202 BCE to 220 CE. In 1973, the grave of a Han aristocrat was found at Mawangdui in Hunan Province. This exciting find included valuable medical data written on silk scrolls. The herbal literature included reference to 247 substances that were used by these early people for many different maladies. The body had been placed in the grave in 168 BCE. This means that the medical information is well over 2000 years old and is the oldest extant therapeutic material.

A year earlier, Chinese archaeologists discovered the tomb of a Later Han (25 to 220 CE) physician in Wu-Wei County, Kansu Province. The grave contained 92 wooden bamboo slips, which provided important pharmaceutical data. The medical records included a list of some thirty prescriptions, which featured about a hundred drugs. It is evident from the extant material that some three centuries after the burial of the Han elite at Mawangdui, Chinese herbal medicine had developed to an increased level of therapeutic sophistication. This development was to continue and in 500 CE, the first extensive materia medica or compendium of herbal substances was published. It was the work of the Daoist adept Taohong Jing and had 364 entries.

By 1596, the Ben Cao Gang Mu of the Ming medical literatus Li Shizhen (1518-1593) exemplified the apogee of Chinese herbalism. Published three years after his demise, this Grand Materia Medica contained no less that 1892 entries. In the succeeding centuries of the Imperial Era, Chinese herbal medicine continued to develop. Despite the temporary setbacks incurred following the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911, it remains on equal footing with biomedicine in China today. So to, it is now of interest to those seeking a more natural approach to their medical problems in many countries outside the People's Republic of China.

Since the 1980s, increased migration to Australia from the People's Republic of China, Government support for multiculturalism, and the growing popularity of Chinese herbalism within the wider Australian community has led to widespread acceptance of TCM as an avenue of primary health care.

The University of Technology, Sydney, is in the forefront of education in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in the Western World. It was the second University in Australia to introduce an undergraduate degree in acupuncture, and remains one of only a few English language universities, anywhere in the world, that offer professional education in TCM.

The Bachelor of Health Science in Chinese Herbal Medicine was offered by UTS up until 1999. This course provided graduates with a professional entry level for the practice of Chinese herbal medicine. As of 2000, the University has offered the Bachelor of Health Science in Traditional Chinese Medicine, an integrated degree in acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.