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Chinese classical story and quintessence of Chinese medicine

By: Lisa Tang

The Legend of Bian Que

“Medical treatment is not to be given to those who have fallen ill, but to those who are not ill.”

This precept comes from the Classic of Internal Medicine, written 3000 over years ago. It means that attempts to cure a disease should not be made after the disease has been incurred. Nourishment of life and preservation of health should be carried out prior to the arrival of the disease and efforts must be made to avoid illness or to try to fall ill on as few occasions as possible.

Chinese physicians of all past generations paid great attention to treatment of sicknesses before they are contracted. Here I would like to tell you a story about a famous Chinese physician. This story, which is carried in Historical Records by Sima Qian of the Han Dynasty, is widely adopted by primary-school textbooks in China.

Bian Que was an eminent medical expert 2,500 years ago. It is said that he had high attainments in acupuncture and moxibustion, diagnosis by pulse-feeling, surgery, etc. Once, he passed through the capital of State Qi on his way to some destination. The monarch of State Qi personally received him in his palace.

When they were talking, Bian Que noticed that the monarch’s complexion was not good at all. He told the monarch of it and said, “Your Excellency has got some disease. It is at present in superficial parts of the body. If it is treated in good time you will soon be well.”

On hearing this, the monarch shook his head and said, “I am in perfect health. How could it be that I’m ill? ”

After Bian Que had left, the monarch said to people at his side, “Physicians are apt to crave for fame and profit; they tend to speak of someone who is very well as being ill, for the purpose of glorifying themselves by treating people as patients who actually are good in health, so as to claim credit and ask for a reward.”

Five days later, Bian Que called on the monarch again and said to him, “Your illness has spread to the blood vessels. It will become more serious if not treated in time.”

The monarch was greatly displeased and said to Bian Que, “I have no disease at all!”

Five more days after that, Bian Que visited the monarch once more and told him, in all seriousness, that the illness has spread to the intestines and the stomach and it would be incurable by any medicine if procrastination should continue. The monarch still ignored his advice.

Several days later, when Bian Que encountered the monarch unexpectedly on his way somewhere, he turned his back and hurried away. The monarch felt quite surprised. He sent people to inquire Bian Que about his behavior. Bain Que said, “When the illness was in the early or middle stage, it could be cured yet by some means. Now, the disease is in the bone marrow. It can’t be cured by any means. So, I had to avoid meeting the monarch.”

The monarch died of illness before long.

If you are a Western reader, you would have some doubt in your mind after reading this story. China had no scientific instrument at all of any kind 2,500 years ago. How was Bian Que able to know that the monarch was ill?

It is not something to be accomplished in one day or one night if you want to digest the quintessence of traditional Chinese medicine of thousands of years. Here I would like to give you just a succinct explanation first. The method of diagnosis of traditional Chinese medicine is by the "Outside-to-inside method" This means that the internal essence is inferred from external phenomena. This is also the Eastern mode of thinking.

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