How was medicine in ancient china influenced by Confucian thought, Daoism, and Buddhism?
Understanding how Confucian thought, Daoism, and Buddhism influenced medicine requires insight on what these ways of life and styles of medicine replaced. Prior to the Warring States period (475 – 221 BCE) disease was thought to be brought about primarily by the wrath of ancestors. Wind and/or Snow were also thought to be causes of disease, however the root cause for unfavorable wind or snow always came back to vengeful ancestors.
Communicating with the ancestors and determining what course of action was necessary to maintain order, peace and health was a central theme of thought in pre Warring States periods. In order to appease the ancestors each emperor obtained the mandate of heaven, which essentially thinned the veil of the emperor so he could hear the ancestors’ wishes. If a natural disaster, famine, epidemic, etc. happened to occur during the reign of an emperor the mandate of heaven was stripped away and gifted to the next true emperor.
Within the past 150 years oracle bones dating back to the Shang Dynasty (1523 – 1028 BCE) have been collected and preserved. These priceless artifacts once prescribed as “dragon bone” now provides a glimpse into this early magical thinking around ancestral appeasement ritual, health and cultural prosperity.
Land mass ruled by the Zhou Dynasty (1027 BCE – 256 BCE) began sprawling across much of modern day China. This meant power to communicate with the heavens/ancestors also was dispersed. In order to keep up with the mandate of heaven emperors granted wu (comparable to early Shamen) power to decipher the will of the ancestors along with eradicating unwanted gui (something like wandering demon spirits).
During the Eastern Zhou period (770 – 256 BCE) civil unrest ensued. These tumultuous times fueled innovation. This is when Confucius and Daoist thought were consolidating and started to be disseminated to other scholars & officials. Confucius thought and Daoism were both heavily influenced by Yin Yang and Wu Xing, which were two other novel philosophical constructs that were also developed during the Warring States Period (475 – 221 BC). These two new (?) schools of thought were adopted gradually throughout China and seemed to balance the more amoral/cynical school of thought called Legalism that was dictating decision making as power shifted to the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE). While Legalism may have been the guiding force for Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di of the Qin Dynasty, there were strides made in medical thought coming from Daoism. During this initial stage of Daoism it was recognized (or claimed?) that humans living before the Warring States period lived much longer than those living during Warring States and after. This could possibly be one of the first acknowledgements to something modern evolutionary medical scholars now call mismatch diseases.
Confucius thought and Daoism in the Warring States Period planted seeds of logic that would later be sowed as systematic correspondences during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). This would allow a shift of cultural perception away from the magical medical thinking towards a more logical systematic correspondences model. Wu would lose power/respect in certain social circles and the idea of the mandate of heaven would again change. During this time period Daoism and Confucian thought continued to permeate the decadent walls of the shi (scholar – officials) and original texts that would later be re-written/compiled began to appear.
While Confucian thought and Daoism permeated the collective consciousness of pre-China, Buddhism was only starting to make its journey north and east. It’s introduction may have been during the Qin Dynasty ((221 – 206 BCE) and while the practices of Buddhism were not immediately adopted, Taoist scholars were interested in the novel forms of movement and more importantly, herbal medicine coming from the region now called India. These new herbs and health practices intrigued the Taoists to learn and transcribe Buddhist texts during Han Dynasty.
With or without the seal of approval from authority, Buddhist practices (including healing/medicine) spread throughout the Asian continent, but most heavily influenced the Indo-China region (modern day Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore) along with Korea and Japan. One reason Buddhism took root in these cultures over the span of a few hundred years was because Buddhists made their practices available to the masses. Buddhist hospitals and temples welcomed and treated all. This method of health care delivery was very different than what ancient China had seen prior. No longer was medical care reserved for the wealthier classes. This bottom up integration tactic allowed Buddhism to become entangled with ancient Chinese culture and inseparable from medical, religious, and political tactics. Buddhist thought/medicine was held in such high regards that by the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD) Buddhist scholars could study and test for a position as an Imperial Physician.