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June 15, 2024

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Ancient advice on the best way to treat illness? Nip it in the bud

BIAN Que (扁鹊) was a fabled doctor during the period of the Yellow Emperor, who reigned from 2697 BC to 2597 BC. But later, people gave the name to Qin Yueren (407-310 BC), who is widely regarded as the first medical doctor and physician in ancient China.

The most popular legend of Bian Que is how he once resurrected a “dead man.”

One day, when the doctor was traveling in the State of Guo, he learned that the prince of the state died suddenly. Curious about the cause of the death, he went to have a look.

Once there, he carefully examined the body of the prince. Then he told the duke that his son was only in a “feigned death.”

Everyone there was stunned by his remark. Half believing the diagnosis, the duke asked Bian Que to treat his “dead” son.

After giving the patient acupuncture and force-feeding him a prescribed herbal tea, the prince came back to life, and after two more days of treatment, he had fully recovered.

As a result, Bian Que’s reputation as a “divine physician” soon became a household name across the land.

Bian Que had two not-so-famous brothers, who were also physicians.

One day, in a conservation with Duke Wen of the State of Wei, the monarch asked Bian Que: “Of your three brothers, which is the best physician?”

The divine doctor answered: “My eldest brother is the best, then the second, and I’m the least competent of the three.”

Then the duke asked him why people all called him the “divine physician,” while few had ever heard of his two brothers.

Bian Que explained that his eldest brother specialized in helping people thwart symptoms before they occurred. So, his fame remained only among families and relatives.

His second elder brother was good at treating diseases when their symptoms were still subtle, so his name was unknown outside the village.

He himself often used extreme means to treat the seriously sick or dying patients. If they were cured, people would praise his exceptional medical skills. If the patients died, people usually wouldn’t blame him, believing that the patients were beyond help.

“Thus, my name has become known among all the feudal lords,” Bian Que explained.

His definition about the best physician is echoed by the concept zhi wei bing (治未病), or literally “treating a disease before it arises,” in the “Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon,” the earliest theory of the traditional Chinese medicine written more than 2,300 years ago.

In Chapter 2 of its first volume, called “Su Wen” (素问), the “Canon” says that sages do not treat those who are already ill, but treat only those who are still healthy.

“When drugs have to be administered for therapy after a disease has become fully developed, and when attempts must be made to restore order only after disorder has set in, it’s like digging a well only when one is thirsty or manufacturing weapons only after warfare has begun. Would this not be too late?”

The “Canon” also says in Chapter 55 of its second volume, entitled “Ling Shu” (灵枢), that the superior practitioner initiates a cure before the disease manifests itself, but he does not provide a cure when disease has set in.

In the Western medicine, the concept of treating those who are not yet sick may be called prophylactic, which means employing procedures and treatments to prevent something from happening.

In traditional Chinese medicine, one may say that the concept of zhi wei bing means the same as the traditional Chinese concept of yangsheng (养生), or “health preservation,” which advises people to take necessary steps to maintain health and well-being as the way to prevent the onset of disease.


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