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  • Writer's pictureNazan Garcia

Acupuncture was originally an anatomical science

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

Although Chinese anatomy appears to be a rather esoteric description of the human body (like invisible lines), it is based on anatomical landmarks that can be translated into western terminology

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Chinese anatomy. Hua Shou, Shisijing fahui, 1341, Fujikawa Collection, Kyoto University Library.

Western Anatomy vs Chinese anatomy

Anatomy in Western medicine is studied via dissection of the human body as has been the case in India, Persia and China for thousands of years. However, the tendency in the West has been toward the Eurocentric view (especially in Greece) disregarding other medical texts from other traditions (Shawn et al 2020).

The familiar anatomical nomenclature of modern medicine was first codified in 1985 (Di Dio, 2010) That terminology will resonate more with the works of Galen (129-c.210 CE) and Vesalius (1514 -1564 BCE). However, this unified nomenclature may conceal the fact that, prior to 1985, different ways of looking at the body existed, even among westerners.

According to Kuriyama (1999, pag127) "dissection is never a straightforward uncovering of truths plain for all to see. It entails a special manner of seeing and requires an educated eye. The dissector must "learn" to discern order, through repeated practice, guided by teachers and texts. Without training and long experience, Galen insists, one sees nothing at all. That is, one sees just a cadaver. And this does not count as anatomy"

However, this "special manner of seeing" as Kuriyama refers to is a way of interpreting reality and as Unschuld (2009, page 211) states "Reality knows no meaning, reality is simply there. Meaning is interpretation. Interpretation is a private matter"

This way of interpreting reality is known as a paradigm and according to Kuhn (1970, page 10)

defined as "universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners". When Kuhn says "for a time", he implies that paradigms have changed over time and have provided different ways of interpreting reality as illustrated in the image below (Image 2). He also explains that the scientific progress is not due to accumulation of knowledge but by changes of new aspects of reality. Paradigm, according to Kuhn, is a method with flaws and unable to respond to all interrogations and it should not be designated as truth.

Image 2. Different ways of interpreting reality

Looking at the same body.

If we think about dissecting a cadaver, just by looking at it with the naked eye it would be difficult to discern between veins and arteries, all we could see is a collection of tubes running through the body. The interpretation of those tubes would vary according to the paradigm/knowledge of the person looking at them. Similarly, we have a way of studying the body into functional systems (circulatory, respiratory, lymphatic, nervous...) that would be hard to differentiate from a cadaver (Shawn et al 2020)

The division of the body into parts is an attempt to study the human body from a rational point of view; however, the body functions as a unit and cannot be separated. The theoretical divisions we apply to study the human body are part of the current Western medical paradigm. However, the body can be understood or divided in a different way by employing a different understanding of the universe (paradigm), as in the case of Chinese medicine.

Although Chinese anatomy (Figure 1) appears to be a rather esoteric description of the human body (like invisible lines), it is based on anatomical landmarks that can be translated into western terminology, as the work of Shaw et al (2020) suggests. Chinese anatomists were "able" to put different structures (veins, muscles, fascial tracts, etc.) into the same category (by using the Chinese paradigm) that a modern Western anatomist would find impossible to link, Shaw et al (2020).

Figure 1. Acupuncture meridians

It turned out that all traditions were looking at the same bodies, and the only variations were in how they chose to interpret what they were seeing in front of them therefore, Shaw et al (2020) concluded that "acupuncture was originally an anatomical science"


Di Dio, L.J., 2010. History of International Anatomical Terminology. FCAT, Terminologia Anatomica: International Anatomical Terminology. Stuttgart: Thieme, pp.157-162.

Kuhn, T.S., 1996.The structure of scientific revolutions. 3rd edition. University of Chicago Press

Kuriyama, S., 1999. The expressiveness of the body and the divergence of Greek and Chinese medicine. Zone books.

Shaw, V., Diogo, R. and Winder, I.C., 2022. Hiding in plain sight‐ancient Chinese anatomy. The Anatomical Record, 305(5), pp.1201-1214.

Unschuld, P.U., 2009. What is medicine?: Western and Eastern approaches to healing. Univ of California Press.


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