Flood Control and the Origins of Acupuncture in Ancient China


Although acupuncture has gained increasing acceptance throughout the world, a number of questions concerning its origins remain unanswered. Acupuncture is generally referred to as an Eastern system of healing that originated in China. However, it has also been suggested that acupuncture may have first arisen in India or even Central Europex. In this article we will discuss parallels between the theory and practice of acupuncture and the development of flood control in ancient China, which support the conclusion that acupuncture is a uniquely Chinese invention.

The techniques and terminology of flood control offer a vivid analogy of the therapeutic mechanisms of acupuncture. The meridians of the body are seen to correspond to the river courses of the earth, channeling the qi and blood which nourish the tissues, just as the rivers’ waters irrigate the land. Blockages in these “energy rivers” act as dams, obstructing the flow of qi and blood and causing it to back up in connecting channels. Needling the acupuncture points removes the obstructions, curing disease by reestablishing the regular flow of qi and blood, just as dredging a river clears away sediment, preventing flooding by allowing the water to flow freely.

These and similar descriptions have been applied to acupuncture since it first appeared as a complete system of healing early in China’s Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD). Many examples may be found in the Neijing (c. 104-32 BC), the oldest extant work on acupuncture. Such hydraulic terminology was employed not simply for its evocative imagery. Rather, it indicates the understanding the Chinese ancestors had attained by this time of the correspondences between Nature and Human, river and meridian, flood and disease. The development of flood control in China, which reached its peak late in the Warring States Period (476-221 BC), and the application of its principles to the healing of the human body, was an essential precondition for the invention for acupuncture (4). The context thus established was unique to China, and did not exist in India, Central Europe, or anywhere else in the classical world.

Water can capsize a boat, as well as float it. The dual nature of water – its ability to harm as well as help – has driven humanity to put great effort into harnessing its power. The history of flood control in China is as long as that of Chinese civilization MONOGRAFIAS PRONTAS. The ancient Chinese who lived in the Yellow River and Changjiang (Yangtze) River basins regularly experienced severe and protracted flooding, as well as the benefits of these rivers. This remains the case even today. This defining aspect of Chinese culture is reflected in one of China’s oldest and most popular legends, the story of how Great Yu controlled the flood. It is said that during the Wudi or Five Emperors Period (c. 2700 to 2000 BC), severe flooding spread over the land and brought great disaster to the people. After repeated attempts to obstruct the waters by erecting dikes and dams failed, Emperor Shun (c. 2100 BC) appointed Yu to harness the rivers and control the flood. Great Yu noticed and took advantage of the downward flowing nature of water, dredging canals according to the physical features of the terrain to lead the waters finally to the sea. After thirteen years of hard work, the floods subsided. Because of Yu’s great contributions Emperor Shun abdicated the throne in his favor, and Great Yu became the first Emperor of the Xia Dynasty (c. 2000-1500 BC).

It may be difficult to separate fact from legend in the case of Great Yu, but China’s long history of hydraulic engineering is indisputable. The great philosopher Guanzi (c. 725-645 BC), who lived along the lower reaches of the Yellow and Changjiang (Yangtze) Rivers, is quoted as saying: “Among the five kinds of natural disaster [i.e. flood, drought, wind-fog-hail-frost, pestilence, and locusts], flood is the worst” Guanzi accordingly urged that control of flooding should take priority over other public works, and formulated detailed measures to prevent flood damage.

The most valuable principle the ancient Chinese learned from their work with flood control was that dredging or diverting water to flow naturally downward is superior to diking or other attempts to obstruct the water’s passage. Particular attention was therefore paid to the distribution of watercourses and the valleys in which they were located. The Classic of Watercourses (Shuijng), the world’s oldest monograph on watercourses compiled by Shang Qin (c. 1st century AD), discusses 137 watercourses in detail. The most famous commentary on this work, The Annotated Classic of Watercourses (Shuijing Zhu), written by Li Daoyuan (466-527 AD) during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD), records a total of 1250 watercourses. As noted by British China scholar Dr. Joseph Needham, “There seems to be no class of geographical literature in Europe quite corresponding to this” (1). The Chinese ancestors’ special interest in watercourses laid the essential groundwork for their recognition of the meridians or “energy rivers” of the body, and the subsequent invention of acupuncture.

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