Chinese Philosophy and Medicine

Yin and Yang symbol
Eight Trigram symbol

Eastern thought encompasses the principle of balance in all things - in nature, in the human mind and body, and in the universe. The Yin and Yang symbol depicts the perfect balance between the interaction of opposites in the universe. The Eight Trigrams are patterns of lines based on yin-yang symbols, which together represent stages in the continuous process of change as well as connections between past, present, and future.

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glove puppet
Mu Lan painting
Glove Puppet - Chinese warrior holds a shaker; early 20th century from Taiwan.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the Center for Puppetry Arts, Atlanta, Georgia
Oil Painting on silk, "Hua Mu Lan Goes to War" - based on an ancient Chinese heroine who went to war instead of her father because he was aging and had no sons. Hua Mu Lan symbolizes a brave spirit, and was featured in a recent animated movie by Disney, "Mu Lan."
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Abilene, Kansas

Opposite elements in the universe interact in a perfect balance. In the yin-yang symbol, both light and dark are contained in one circle, thus showing that both powers are within one cycle and are mutually interdependent. Opposite elements are always present, and one cannot exist without the other.

The yin-yang symbol has its roots in the ancient Chinese view of nature's cycles, and originally represented aspects of the mountains. "Yin" represents the female or shaded slope of the mountain, including the earth and valleys, darkness, the moon, honor, and peace. "Yang" represents the male or sunlit slopes, as well as heaven, sun, light, vigor, and activity.

The terms "male" and "female" do not indicate the genders of human beings, animal and plant life, or even an object. Instead, the terms describe masculine or feminine attributes that are found in all things, and each trait contains a portion of its opposing force. The yin and yang are not judgmental, and do not represent good and evil.

Today, the yin-yang philosophy emphasizes a dynamic balance in human life. As people strive to harmonize opposing forces within their minds and bodies, they can become at peace with themselves. Practitioners of Chinese medicine also believe that disease is due to an imbalance in the body between yin and yang.



Brass Candlestick - statuette in brass depicts a heron (longevity and communication) standing on a tortoise (strength and endurance), 1880. The tortoise is also a messenger who brings - on his back - the eight symbols of divination to the human race.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the Salisbury House Foundation, Des Moines, Iowa

Much of Chinese culture is based on respect for the past, whereas the future often depends on events in the past. Emperors would hire seers to read the Eight Trigrams, or symbols of divination - patterns of lines based on yin-yang symbols - to foretell the future.

Symbols used to divine the future were formulated in the 3rd millennium BC by studying the markings on the shell of a tortoise. Groupings of three horizontal lines (trigrams) were made up of the two symbols associated with yin (broken in the middle) or yang (continuous lines). Combinations of the eight trigrams yielded 64 hexagrams (six-pointed star), each representing a particular stage in the continuous process of change. Fortune-telling occurred through the random selection of a hexagram.



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The meanings behind the symbols form the basis of an ancient book, the Yijing (formerly the I Ching) or "Book of Change," which asserts that no amount of human precaution or intervention can truly alter the cycles of nature or human affairs. Its ancient lesson is to learn not to give in to despair when faced with misfortune, nor become too complacent when fortune is favorable.




doll bed, pill container and opium pipe

Chinese compass with a metal spoon - The compass works when a lodestone (a piece of naturally magnetic iron ore) was placed on a polished bronze surface, it would rotate to align itself north and south. Gift from the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs to George Bush.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, College Station, Texas

Pill Container of blown glass - early 20th century, was a cure-all for stomach disease from an apothecary shop, "Li-Chung-Sheng Co." in Canton province, whose slogan reads "Maintaining good health and cure all diseases which meet the 10000 needs of people."
Pipe - carved ivory figure attached to the pipe with a metal ornament.
Opium Doll Bed - carved teakwood miniature like the full-size beds used for smoking opium. Inset in the center is mahogany jade and it has a brocade seat with floral motifs.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the Brunnier Gallery, Iowa State University-University Museums, Ames,Iowa
acupunture chart
Acupuncture chart - brought back from Nixon's historic trip to China, 1972.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the Richard Nixon Birthplace and Museum, Yorba Linda, California
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the Putnam Museum of History and Science, Davenport, Iowa

For hundreds of years the Chinese led the world in the study of many sciences. They are credited with the invention of dynamite, fireworks, papermaking, and the Chinese compass, among many ideas that Western man adopted. Eastern medicine, however, has only recently begun to influence Western science.

According to Eastern practices and philosophies, the body's natural vital energy ("qi") can be controlled and redirected. Practitioners of Chinese medicine believe that disease is due to an imbalance in the body between yin and yang. Therefore, illness can be remedied by a variety of physical actions, including the intake of certain foods such as fruit (yin) or grains (yang) to restore balance.

Another practice affecting the "qi" is the 2,000-year-old study of acupuncture, where needles are carefully inserted into one or more of the 100 points on the body. These points are mapped according to diagnostic systems of energy that have functional connections, rather than a physical network such as the nervous system. Nevertheless, most acupuncture points correlate with important nerve junctions near the surface of the skin. The needles act like a pain reliever, possibly by stimulating the production of endorphins, or the body's natural sedatives.

Opium was another sedative introduced to China in 400 A.D. by Arab traders, and was originally used as a pain reliever. Opium is a narcotic analgesic, and its actions and side effects work on and through the central nervous system, releasing a feeling of well-being throughout the body. But the drug is highly addictive and results in aching bones, drowsiness, and trembling - symptoms that can usually be relieved only through the smoking of more opium. Derivatives of opium, such as morphine, codeine, and heroin, are two to three times more potent than the original drug.

Other Chinese medicines and practices popular in the West today include herbal teas and treatments, massage, meditation, and the exercise and breathing techniques of Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art.


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