Moxibustion, called Moxa for short, is the use of burning plant material, usually based on Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), to heat up an acupoint, acupuncture needle, or sore joint. In much of the acupuncture literature from China, you’ll see the term “Acupuncture & Moxibustion” used together regularly. The Chinese term for acupuncture therapy is most commonly “Zhen Jiu” where Zhen=Needle and Jiu=Moxa. ”Acumoxa” is a word made up to communicate this concisely.
I’ve spent the past few days reading the highly academic and interesting translation of some of the earliest known Chinese medical texts, Donald Harper’s _Early Chinese Medical Literature: The MaWangDui medical manuscripts_. Without a familiarity with Chinese medical terms, Daoist alchemical symbols, and pre-Han dynasty esoteric and philosophical movements in China, this would be a tedious book to crawl through. Fortunately I’m equipped for this task, and found it amazingly revealing about the medical practices before the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing) burst onto the scene.
The texts Harper translates here for the first (and only?) time were found in a tomb known as the Ma Wang Dui tomb, from 168 B.C.E. Along with these early medical, magical, and sexological (yes, that means Taoist erotic sex manuals) texts, the earliest known copies of the Laozi (Tao Te Ching/Dao De Jing, by Lao Zi/Lao T’zu) were found, as were some of the earliest surviving Yi Jing/I Ching texts. This was such an important find (in 1973) for students of early Daoism, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and occult lore, yet the implications and interpretations haven’t yet trickled into the more mainstream TCM and Taoist studies worlds. Harper’s rare book (the next cheapest copy online after mine is $480!) is the main available resource, so I’m looking forward to sharing the most interesting tidbits and insights with my blog readers.
Before I get to the details of the early cannabis use in Chinese medicine, I must point out that the medical practices back then were very crude. I guarantee you wouldn’t want to go back to 200 B.C.E. (when these copies were written) and have those doctors work on you. While there may be a few gems of insight, many of the therapies mentioned are somewhat unsuitable for the modern clinic. For example, one way to get rid of the demons that caused a lot of the disease back then was to take a bath in dog feces. I’m saving some of the even “better” examples for future posts. For a teaser, one involves boiling a rat in urine.
There were only so many conditions they treated back then. A lot of them involved pus and swellings. Hemorrhoids were another big concern. And worms.
Cauterization is what Harper calls the predecessor to moxibustion. Since moxa refers to mugwort and most of these prescriptions don’t specify what is used (though some use cattail reeds), it is more appropriate to use a general term for burning someone with medical intent.
These texts predate acupuncture as we think of it today. Two of the texts describe 11 vessels, the forerunners of acupuncture meridians, first described in the Huang Di Nei Jing Ling Shu (Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic: Spiritual Pivot). The vessels in the MaWangDui texts aren’t directly associated with organs and don’t have points on them. Metal needles aren’t referenced, it is mostly cauterization. Sometimes lancing is prescribed, using sharp rocks. Harper disagrees with Joseph Needham about what qualifies as acupuncture. Lancing and draining boils with sharp rocks isn’t acupuncture,
according to Harper. Needham puts acupuncture back a few hundred years before Harper does because of this difference. After reading the MaWangDui texts (which Needham didn’t have access to during most of his research for _Science and Civilization in China_), I agree with Harper–there is little in these texts that makes you think of “acupuncture.”
The section we’re looking at for the cannabis-moxa-joint is under Inguinal Swelling. This is most likely an inguinal hernia or scrotal hernia. I won’t shock you by putting a picture of it on this page, but I will put a link here so you can shock yourself if you don’t know what they can look like. Clearly that is a condition caused by demons. Only a good exorcism could possibly cure that!
There are a few exorcistic practices that should be tried before sparking the moxa joint. The first one has a special incantation dealing with Mother and Father and the number 7. It ends:
Members of the same clan must be made to carry the person with the inguinal swelling, set him down by an east-facing window looking out, and beat him with the exorcising rod. (Harper, 260)
If that doesn’t work, here’s the next one:
Another. At the time of clear brightness [dawn] have someone whose foot has been cut off face east and stamp on the person twice-seven times with the amputee peg.
Harper points out that the peg is most likely made of bamboo, and foot amputation was a mutilation punishment not uncommon in that era. It’s nice the amputee would have useful employment.
The next involves beating the herniated person with an iron mallet (don’t forget they should be facing east).
I was of course thrilled to be able to track the medicinal use of women’s menstrual cloths back to 200 B.C.E., since when I last left off I had only found traces going back to the Ben Cao Gang Mu around 1590 C.E.. The Ma Wang Dui tomb texts report a used pad can treat an inguinal hernia with this recipe:
Another. Soak a woman’s (menstrual) cloth. Boil meat in the liquid. Eat it, and drink the liquid.
I know, I should have given you some warning about that one. Virgin’s menstrual cloths are said to be the best. I think the name ‘Virmenex’ would be catchy if this made it to the market today, what do you think?
Skipping forward through a few more exorcistic beatings and a name changing (it apparently tricks the demon into leaving if the person’s name changes), we come to our main course for this post (Harper, 263):
Another. Take xi (hemp) refuse [footnote 6] and wrap in ai (mugwort). [footnote 7] Use this to cauterize the center of the crown of the head of the person with inguinal swelling. [footnote 8] Let it blister and no more.
Footnote 6: Xi is a general name for hemp… Xi gou must refer to the refuse produced when hemp is processed to obtain the fibers.
Footnote 7: Ai (mugwort) is associated with cauterization therapy in Suwen 14… and Lingshu 51… While the use of moxa (prepared ai leaves) which is burned on the skin is implied in Lingshu 51, there is no Han period description of moxa (Lu and Needham 1980:175-76). The earliest description of a method of performing cauterization with ai is [this passage] which describes not moxa but a kind of cigarette with hemp filling rolled in ai leaves. Yamada… speculates that the use of ai in cauterization is related to its earlier use as an exorcistic fumigant… Perhaps the use of ai leaves… in contrast to… where warts are cauterized with a cattail cord–is related to the strong association between the ailment tui [inguinal swelling] and demonic causation…
Footnote 8: The center of the crown of the head is also used for a counter-irritant treatment [in another Ma Wang Dui text]. While this is the location of a well-known acupuncture point–the baihui (hundred convergence…)–there is no indication [here] that performing cauterization there is related to vessel theory, just as there is no evidence of vessel theory [in the other Ma Wang Dui reference].
OK, hippy kids, there you have it! Chinese doctors were burning spliffs with mugwort wrappers to blister acupoints before they were even called acupoints and before needles were being used to do acupuncture. The first reference to using mugwort to heat a distal point (a point away from the area with the symptom) was as a blunt wrapping on a hemp stogie. No wonder they thought disease was caused by demons!