Spirit, Science & Sophistication

23 July 2010

Although it is common knowledge that Chinese medicine has been utilised for centuries, less is known about its sophisticated evolution and the scientific scrutiny it has undergone throughout its lifetime. Several ideas and concepts of medicine, assumed to be developed in the West, were actually developed in China and predated the West by thousands of years. For example the concept of how blood circulates around the body via the heart is attributed to William Harvey in 1628. It is well documented that the theory of circulating blood was developed prior to this, however Harvey substantiated the theory utilising experimental methods and therefore gained credit for the idea. Interestingly, the scholars whose theories dominated before Harvey were based on texts of an Arab of Damascus, al-Nafis, who historians believe, may have obtained his knowledge from China.

In China, the concept of circulating blood in the body was established by the second century B.C., two thousand years before it had been accepted in the West. For the Chinese, this was not just theory. The Chinese researched corpses, stretching out arteries and veins to be methodically measured and weighed in order to estimate the time it takes for blood to circulate the body (Temple, 2007, p. 136-8). Their findings were published and discussed among academics. New ideas were launched from this discourse including descriptions of the 28 pulse characteristics and pulse diagnostics.

Unique to the Chinese concept was the dual circulation of Qi which flowed throughout the body as well as through the blood. Additionally, the Chinese linked an individuals spirit or Shen with the heart and blood. A statement of fact in Chinese medicine says: “If the blood vessels are harmonious and uninhibited, the essence spirit has an abode“. In other words, if the blood is not flowing as it should, an individual's spirit may be effected. An example would be a state of delirium that can occur in a severe illness.

Despite the elusiveness of certain topics such as “spirit” the Chinese were methodical researchers. Utilising incredible skills of observation, they documented, tested and discussed their theories among scholars. Observation was made not just on individual patients but groups of patients and populations and then compared with other regions. From there, ideas were developed upon, questioned, and modified. These are the same considerations required for quality research today. This evolving, methodical and rigorous research over a large population, over an extended amount of time is what has made Chinese medicine effective. This process continues to this day.

Even the more elusive topics such as “spirit” are gaining credibility today. Recent studies in neuropsychology show that the heart has its own intrinsic nervous system that processes information independently of the brain or nervous system. Research has also revealed the heart's ability to release a number of hormones including noradrenaline, dopamine, and oxytocin (the “love' or bonding hormone). A 2004 study showed that when heart rhythm patterns are coherent the effect is heightened mental clarity, improved decision making and increased creativity. In Chinese medicine these are signs of a strong Shen (spirit). The similarity to this 2004 statement and the two thousand year old statement of fact would not surprise a practitioner of Chinese medicine: “If the blood vessels are harmonious and uninhibited, the essence spirit has an abode”.

Liz Evans


Flaws, B. (2008). Statements of fact in traditional Chinese medicine. Boulder: Blue Poppy Press.

McCraty, R. (2000). Psychophysiological coherence: A link between positive emotions, stress reduction, performance and health. Proceedings of the Eleventh International Congress on Stress, Mauna Lani Bay, Hawaii.

Temple, R. (2007). The genius of China: 300 years of science, discovery & invention. London: Andrew Deutch. (based on the research of Joseph Needham)

Tiller W, McCraty, & Atkinson, M. (1996). Cardiac coherence; A new non-invasive measure of autonomic system order. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine; 2(1): 52-65.