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Still not so ancient after all

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

(The “ancient” thing again? This topic is getting old!)

In my main acupuncture article, I make the case that acupuncture as we know it is basically a modern invention and “not so ancient after all.” A reader politely complained to me that there were indeed needles and meridians and points in ancient Chinese medicine, and therefore acupuncture is ancient. Is there anything to that criticism?

Not really. There were some recognizeable antecedents to the modern forms of “points” and “meridians” and “needling.” However, they were so different that there is no meaningful continuity between them. David Ramey (see “A true history of acupuncture”) elaborated on this for me via email:

There is nothing from the time that describes what was actually done. When we have descriptions and pictures, it shows something wildly different from modern acupuncture. And, yes, the ancient Chinese used “needles.” The first written description of the needles was that of ten Rhijne, which showed that the needles were large awls that were pounded in with a hammer. I have a Japanese picture from the early 1600s that showed that the “needles” were lancets and hooks (not needles). And, yes, there were channels (“mai”). The points didn’t necessarily rest on the channels, and there were all sorts of different channel maps. But all this eventually turned into today’s mostly French interpretation (Soulie de Morant).

Ergo, modern acupuncture is its own thing, and ancient practices were clearly something else. Calling acupuncture “ancient” is like saying scientific medicine is ancient wisdom because the Greeks got the ball rolling 2500 years ago.

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