The first traces of therapeutic activities in China date from the Shang dynasty (14th–11th centuries BCE). Though the Shang did not have a concept of “medicine” as distinct from other fields, their oracular inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells refer to illnesses that affected the Shang royal family: eye disorders, toothaches, bloated abdomen, etc., which Shang elites usually attributed to curses sent by their ancestors. There is no evidence that the Shang nobility used herbal remedies.

Stone and bone needles found in ancient tombs have made Joseph Needham speculate that acupuncture might have originated in the Shang dynasty. But most historians now make a distinction between medical lancing (or bloodletting) and acupuncture in the narrower sense of using metal needles to treat illnesses by stimulating specific points along circulation channels (“meridians”) in accordance with theories related to the circulation of Qi. The earliest evidence for acupuncture in this sense dates to the second or first century BCE.

The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, the oldest received work of Chinese medical theory, was compiled around the first century BCE on the basis of shorter texts from different medical lineages. Written in the form of dialogues between the legendary Yellow Emperor and his ministers, it offers explanations on the relation between humans, their environment, and the cosmos, on the contents of the body, on human vitality and pathology, on the symptoms of illness, and on how to make diagnostic and therapeutic decisions in light of all these factors. Unlike earlier texts like Recipes for Fifty-Two Ailments, which was excavated in the 1970s from a tomb that had been sealed in 168 BCE, the Inner Canon rejected the influence of spirits and the use of magic. It was also one of the first books in which the cosmological doctrines of Yinyang and the Five Phases were brought to a mature synthesis.


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