In ancient China, there was no CT, ultrasound, X-ray, or Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Ancient doctors were able to rely on the body’s senses to gather diagnostic information.
In modern times, after years of trying, a new theoretical system has been established — Chinese Medical Science. Its theories rely on the collection of external pathological manifestations to reveal the nature of the pathology. But in ancient Chinese medicine, Hua Tuo was a doctor whose genius was second to none.
Hua Tuo was born during the Eastern Han Dynasty’s later years. He had comprehensive medical technologies and was good at operating. Later generations have called him “Master of Surgery” and “Surgical Originator.”
His use of mafeisan (an anaesthetic made from wine and cannabis) to anaesthetize patients during the implementation of laparotomy is the earliest application of general anaesthesia for surgery in recorded history.
He developed Wuqinxi (exercise of the five animals), which imitated the movements of the tiger, deer, bear, ape, and crane. These exercises provided an excellent way for people to maintain fitness. Later, Cao Cao, the prime minister of the Eastern Han Dynasty, conscripted him into his palace as his attendant doctor. He died in prison and his writing Green Capsule Book (Qingnang Shu) never reached the world.
Loss of his father makes life harsh; gifted intelligence elicits a character of extraordinary agility
Historical legends portray Hua Tuo as clever and intelligent. When he was seven years old, his father died, leaving his family destitute. His mother allowed him to learn medicine with Dr. Cai, who was a close friend of his father. Dr, Cai wondered whether Hua Tuo had any talent for medical studies and decided to test him first.
There was a mulberry tree in Dr. Cai’s courtyard. The highest branches were out of reach and too far to climb up to. So Dr. Cai asked Hua Tuo:
“Can you manage to pick the mulberry leaves off the highest branches and bring them down?” Hua Tuo retorted: “It’s easy!”
So he got a piece of rope and tied a rock to it. He simply threw the rope over the branches and pulled the rope till he was able to bring the branches down. He then picked the mulberry leaves with his hands.
The blowing wind helps diagnosis; thoracotomy is used to cure apparently incurable diseases
Hua Tuo once saw a cart driver who had a yellow face and was breathing fast. His illness seemed serious. After examining his situation, Hua Tuo immediately concluded the person was suffering from appendicitis.
Hua Tuo let the patient drink mafeisan and then used a knife to cut open the patient’s abdomen. He cut off the festering part of the intestines, washed inside then sewed the patient up. He smeared an antiphlogistic ointment on the wound. A few days later, the wound healed and the patient returned to normal.
Different treatments for the same symptoms
Two government officials named Ni Xun and Li Yan came to Hua Tuo to have their diseases healed. Both had headaches and fever — their pain symptoms were identical. Hua Tuo said:
“Ni Xun should release the pathogenic factors via diarrhoea; Li Yan should dispel illness via diaphoresis.”
When questioned about the two different treatments, Hua Tuo replied: “Ni Xun was getting a real disease from outside, but Li Yan was getting a disorder from inside, so they should have different treatments.” After taking the medicine, they both returned to health the next day.
Death in prison; medical writings fail to reach the world
Hua Tuo’s magnificent medical skills were superb. They were known far and wide. His fellow townsman Cao Cao often suffered from chronic headaches and many medical treatments were ineffective. Cao Cao heard that Hua Tuo was skillful, so he asked Hua Tuo to heal him.
As soon as Hua Tuo treated him, Cao Cao’s headache immediately ended. Cao Cao was afraid of a recurrence of the disease, so he forced Hua Tuo to remain in Xuchang as his own attendant doctor. Later, Cao Cao’s headache did recur, so he asked Hua Tuo to diagnose the cause, Hua Tuo replied:
“The prime minister’s disease can only be eliminated at its root by opening the head and undertaking surgery.”
Cao Cao was shocked upon hearing this, and thought Hua Tuo meant to harm him. He ordered that Hua Tuo be detained in prison. Hua Tuo later died while in the prison.
Before dying, Hua Tuo finished his medical writing Green Capsule Book and handed it to the head of the prison. But the prison head didn’t dare to accept it for fear of offending Cao Cao. Eventually, Hua Tuo burned the book.
Translated by Xianghai.