CHEN Bao-xing and Garé LeCOMPTE

A medical worker at a neighborhood clinic, located in the basement of an apartment block in the Eastern District of Beijing. Behind him are the charts that guide his application of acupuncture for the treatment of various ailments. PHOTO AND CAPTION BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medical treatment that involves inserting needles at specific points in the body to release blocked qi (life energy), which results in healing. The practice is used today in China (as well as in the West) to treat diseases in nearly every branch of medicine, often in conjunction with the burning of medicinal substances and herbs.

The ancient medical treatment called acupuncture, which uses very fine needles inserted at specific points along the body to heal ailments and provide relief from pain, is still a viable part of traditional Chinese medicine and has gained popularity in Western medicine as well. The Huangdi Nei Jing (Canon of Medicine), compiled between 475 BCE and 23 CE, is the oldest extant medical book that mentions acupuncture. One of its components, the Ling Shu (Canon of Acupuncture), describes nine instruments, some of which are still used. Techniques for making bamboo needles and for casting bronze needles for use in acupuncture developed during the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE). Acupuncture developed widely in China during the Song dynasty (960–1279), the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1125–1234), and the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). However, the treatment was banned for general use by decree during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) because it was perceived as being suitable for application only to the emperor.

Despite its being banned, acupuncture continued to flourish in general use. In the United States, although it had been popular in the Chinese-American community for more than one hundred years, non-Chinese Americans became more aware of acupuncture after President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.

An understanding of acupuncture requires an some knowledge of the concepts of channels and collaterals. In Chinese medicine channels are the main trunks that run lengthwise through the body, and collaterals are their connecting branches. Together they connect the superficial, interior, upper, and lower parts of the body. Qi (life energy) courses through the channels. The twelve regular channels include the three yin channels of each foot and hand and the three yang channels of each foot and hand. Yin and yang are the basic, complementary principles of which all phenomena partake. For example, introversion, wetness, and cold are yin characteristics. Extroversion, dryness, and heat are yang characteristics. The eight extra channels are du, ren, chong, dai, yinwei, yangwei, yinqiao, and yangqiao.

Acupuncture points (or acupoints) are distributed along the channels and collaterals; 361 channel points and 231 common points are named in Chinese and also are named using the Roman alphabetical and Western numerical systems. For example, the often-used acupoint zusanli, which is located along the channel connecting the stomach to the foot, is internationally named “S-36.” When a practitioner inserts acupuncture needles at the points, their stimulation releases blocked qi, which in turn results in healing.

Acupuncture is used to treat diseases in nearly every branch of medicine in China, whether it is cardiology or obstetrics, dentistry, or infectious diseases. Acupuncture techniques also have embraced such new technologies as laser and electrical stimulation. In Chinese hospitals where acupuncture is performed, the acupuncture section is called the “department of acupuncture and moxibustion” (moxibustion is the burning of medicinal substances, usually herbs, on the acupoints for therapeutic effect). Although the primary treatment in the department is acupuncture, moxibustion also plays an important role.

Even as Western medicine becomes more common in China in the twenty-first century, the practice of acupuncture continues, especially in hospitals that rely on traditional medicine and those that combine traditional and Western techniques.

Further Reading

Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. (1978). An outline of Chinese acupuncture. Monterey Park, CA: Chan’s Corporation.

Cooperative Group of Shandong Medical College and Shandong College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. (1982). Anatomical atlas of Chinese acupuncture points. Jinan, China: Shandong Science and Technology Press.

Geng Junying & Su Zhihong. (1991). Practical traditional Chinese medicine and pharmacology: Acupuncture and moxibustion. Beijing: New World Press.

Zhang Enqin. (1990). Chinese acupuncture and moxibustion. Shanghai: Publishing House of the Shanghai College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Choose the right medicine for each symptom.


Duì zhèng xià yào

Source: Chen, Bao-xing, & LeCompte, Garé. (2009). Acupuncture. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 9–11. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Doctors perform an operation combining modern surgical technology with the use of traditional acupuncture as anesthesia. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Acupuncture (Zhēncìliáofǎ 针刺疗法)|Zhēncìliáofǎ 针刺疗法 (Acupuncture)

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