Rare Chinese Anatomy Text Links Earliest Dissections and Acupuncture
Researchers studying ancient Chinese texts have found that they are anatomical works. These Chinese anatomy texts are possibly one of the earliest anatomical atlases of the human body. The researchers’ investigations of these extremely old Chinese anatomy texts indicate that China was first in the development of anatomy, many centuries before the ancient Greeks.
A team of researchers from Bangor University in the UK and other universities, re-examined the Mawangdui medical manuscripts that were found in a Chinese tomb in the 1970s. These texts were found at a Mawangdui burial site, in Changsha, in south central China, which held three elite tombs. The texts were written in the 3 rd and 2 nd century BC, about 2,200 years ago.
A part of a Taoist manuscript, ink on silk, 2nd century BC, Han Dynasty, unearthed from Mawangdui tomb 3rd, Chansha, Hunan Province, China. (Hunan Province Museum / Public Domain )
Ancient Acupuncture And Confucian Prohibition of Dissection
The Anatomical Record states that “The texts describe the organization of the human body in the form of divisions or pathways, each of which has associated disease patterns.” These pathways are similar to descriptions of acupuncture pathways that have been recorded in classic Chinese works. Through these pathways, Qi (vital energy) circulates and this concept is still particularly important in modern acupuncture. It appears that portions of the Mawangdui texts were subsumed into larger medical compendiums like the Neijing, which had a huge influence on East Asian medicine.
The researchers wrote in Anatomical Record that “In ancient China, the development of anatomy is generally considered not to have involved dissection.” This was because Confucian ideas on filial piety, which were very influential during the Han period and beyond, effectively prohibited dissection. Therefore, any descriptions of the human body in Chinese medical works were believed not to have been based on an internal physical examination of the human body.
The Established History of Dissection: The Greeks Were First
Because dissection was prohibited in China, it was widely presumed that the ancient Greeks produced the world’s first true anatomical atlases. The Greeks Herophilus (335–280 BC) and Erasistratus (304‐c.250 BC) were believed to be the first to carry out dissections of the human body, although their works have both been lost. However, the team’s research has refuted this, and their reinterpretation of the texts demonstrate that China possibly produced the earliest anatomical atlas.
The researchers, instead, adopted a new approach to the texts. Vivien Shaw, who teaches anatomy and took part in the study stated that “We have to approach these texts from a different perspective than our current Western medical view of the body’s separate systems of arteries, veins and nerves,” according to Phys.Org. The team reinterpreted the texts from the perspective of Yin and Yang , the principle of balancing opposites.
Ancient Chinese Daoyin tu chart for exercise to improve health and for the treatment of pain. Based on a reconstruction of the 'Guiding and Pulling Chart' excavated from the Mawangdui Tomb 3 in the former kingdom of Changsha. (Welcome Collection gallery / CC BY 4.0 )
Establishing Links Between Early Han Texts And Anatomy
The Conversation reports that the researchers “spent huge amounts of time cross-checking and confirming translations of the meridian descriptions.” Then they produced new translations of the texts, which they called “test descriptions,” which allowed them to clarify the meaning of the works.
The team wrote in the Anatomical Record that they then named “the physical structures that we have identified through dissection and anatomical examination as the most likely structures being described in the Mawangdui.”
The researchers established links between the meridian descriptions in the Han era texts and anatomical features, especially in the arms and the legs. Izzy Winder, one of the study’s lead researchers, told Bangor University that “We have been able to show significant parallels between the descriptions in the text and anatomical structures, and thus rediscover the ancient interest in the scientific study of the human form.” Interestingly, some of these structures are visible only during dissection and this is believed to be proof that the Chinese, in fact, did dissect bodies.
Were Chinese Criminal Dissections The Exception To The Rule?
This study revealed that the contents of the Mawangdui documents are not esoteric but based on empirical investigations. The study authors believe that the ancient Han medical documents were based on dissections of the human body. While Confucian principals forbade dissection, historical evidence strongly indicates that dissections were performed in ancient China. The researchers wrote in the Anatomical Record that “the Han Shu (Book of Han) records the dissection of the criminal Wang Sun‐Qing.” The researchers therefore argued that dissections may well have been allowed on the bodies of executed criminals.
The reinterpretation of the texts shows that dissection was involved in the production of the texts. Therefore, the researchers argue that the Mawangdui texts are the world’s first anatomical atlas. This conclusion challenges the Eurocentric view of the development of anatomy as a science that originated in ancient Greece. Moreover, the findings show how advanced ancient China was in terms of science and medicine. Vivien Shaw told Bangor University that “The contemporary Han era was a time of great learning and innovation across arts and sciences, so this type of classical anatomical science fits with the prevailing culture of the time.”
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The major acupuncture meridian lines on the back of the human body (Birgit Reitz-Hofmann / Adobe Stock )
Ancient Chinese Anatomy Texts And The Origins Of Acupuncture
The team’s discoveries are also helping them to better understand the origins of acupuncture. Shaw is quoted by Bangor University as saying that “We believe that our interpretation of the text challenges the widespread belief that there is no scientific foundation for the anatomy of acupuncture.” This refutes the idea that acupuncture is based solely on esoteric ideas and shows that it emerged out of the work of early anatomists who were trying to understand the structure of the body. This may explain why acupuncture is widely regarded as effective all over the world, especially in the management of chronic pain.
Top image: An ancient Chinese anatomy text and acupuncture needles. Source: Yu Lan / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan