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Newly-discovered tombstone of Confucian doctor in China with inscription.

700-Year-Old Tomb of Confucian Doctor Unearthed in China


The tomb of an important Confucian doctor who legend says fed his sick mother with his own flesh to show filial piety has been unearthed in China. The doctor lived more than 700 years ago.

The doctor, Wu Jing of the Ru Yi (Confucian doctor) family lived during the Yuan dynasty, from 1271 to 1368 AD, in Zhouzhi Village in the northwest Shaanxi Provice.

The tomb has an inscription of 665 words saying who he was and giving the story about feeding his sick mother.  Wu Jing was buried with 76 objects, including jade and pottery. The tomb has a passage to a burial chamber with a door. Bone residue from an unknown source, iron nails and wood ashes were found in the burial chamber.

Ancient Chinese doctor Huangfu Mi, 16th century AD woodcut

Ancient Chinese doctor Huangfu Mi, 16 th century AD woodcut (Wikimedia Commons)

"The tomb is an important discovery that will shed light on unknown aspects of medical history and social culture in the Yuan dynasty," archaeologist Duan Yi said.

The tomb is in Xi’an City, capital of Shaanxi Province, Duan, who is with the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, told Xinhua.

Confucian doctors were a special group proficient in both Confucianism and medicine, which allowed them a high status during that period. Wu was appointed to a post in charge of local medical services and education, similar to today's head of a medical school, the inscription on the gravestone said. A story was recorded in the gravestone that he once cut flesh from his own arm to feed his ailing mother to show filial piety.—Xinhua.

According to the Shanghai Daily, “there were two kinds of doctors in old times—Ru Yi (Confucian doctor) and Shi Yi (generational doctor). A lot of … doctors in the past were Confucian doctors. They were well-educated, good at music, chess, calligraphy and painting. They learned everything fast and the most important thing was that they were kind, responsible men due to the deep influence of Confucianism.”

Stories inspired by the ancient sage Confucius tell of the great lengths people went to to show devotion and love to their associates, especially parents and family members.

A painting of Confucius from c 1770 AD

A painting of Confucius from c 1770 AD (Wikimedia Commons)

The story of Wu Jing feeding his mother from his own flesh is an extreme example of filial piety, though there are many other such legends.

In another legend, told in the book Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety, a man’s father has died and he is left to care for his mother. He cut wood in the mountains daily, and she wove cloth such that they were barely able to make ends meet. One day she had a visitor who had come from far away. She was agitated because she had nothing to offer the guest. Finally, in exasperation she accidentally bit her finger. Her son suddenly has a pain in his heart and thinks something is wrong with his mother and returns home.

“Arriving before his mother, he knelt in the doorway and asked her what was the matter. Relieved and happy, she said, ‘A guest has come and I was so upset that I bit my finger. You must be a truly respectful child that you can know your mother's thoughts from a distance!’”

These stories inspired by Confucius’ exhortations to honor and love one’s parents may be read at

China has an ancient tradition of medicine. The ancient ways are now considered traditional as opposed to modern, but many people around the world continue to practice ancient Chinese medicine.

According to Chinese mythology, the origins of traditional Chinese medicine can be traced back to three legendary emperors: Fu Xi, Shen Nong and Huang Di.  One of the mythical rulers, Shen Nong, who lived 5000 years ago, is hailed as the "Divine Cultivator" by the Chinese people because he is attributed as the founder of herbal medicine and taught people how to farm. In order to determine the nature of different herbal medicines, Shen Nong sampled various kinds of plants, ingesting them himself to test their individual effects. According to the ancient texts, Shen Nong tasted a hundred herbs including 70 toxic substances in a single day, in order to get rid of people's pain from illness.  As there were no written records, it is said that the discoveries of Shen Nong was passed down verbally from generation to generation.

In December 2013, archaeologists found more than 900 bamboo strips at a construction site in the south-western city of Chengdu in China, which reveal recipes for treating ailments that date back around 2000 years. The discovery provides new insight into the methods used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Xie Tao of Chengdu's archaeology institute said that some of them are lost medical classics written by the successors of Bian Que, reputed to be China's earliest known physician. According to legend recorded in the Records of the Grand Historian, Bian Que was gifted with remarkable abilities from a deity. The story states that he was given a packet of medicine that gave him the ability to see through the human body.  He thereby became an excellent diagnostician with his s-ray like ability. It is said that he pioneered pulse-taking, used anesthesia and even performed an organ transplant.

Featured image:  Newly-discovered tombstone of Confucian doctor in China with inscription. Credit: Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology

By Mark Miller



i teach qi gong!

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Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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