Symposium “Plants in Health and Culture”

Plants and the Culture of Health and Politics

Two Thousand Years of Chinese Pharmaceutical History

by Paul U. Unschuld


A rich materia medica, a sophisticated technology, and an abundance of textual sources have characterized the history of Chinese pharmaceuts over the past two millennia. In fact, throughout the two thousand years of documented Chinese medical history, health care was based on the pharmaceutical approach, while acupuncture played only a marginal role. Nevertheless, while the sciences of systematic correspondences, i.e. the yin-yang and five-agents doctrines, were used to form the basis of ancient Chinese physiology and pathology beginning with the 2nd/1st centuries BC, it took more than ten centuries until a pharmacology of systematic correspondences was developed beginning with the 11th century. It was only then that systematic attempts were undertaken to explain the effects of pharmaceutical drugs in the human organism on the basis of the yin-yang and five-agents doctrines. This paper will throw some light on the deep ideological rift between Confucian-Legalist socio-political world views on the one side, and the Daoist perception of an ideal social body on the other side, and it will point out some examples how this rift is reflected in the history of Chinese medicine and pharmaceutics.