For this update, I would like to share with you some of the history of thought on a natural phenomenon which affects us all, patient and practitioner alike. The following shows a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of thought, spiritual belief, medicine and society; I hope you enjoy it. (I have used Paul Unschuld’s Medicine in China: a History of Ideas as a source for my information.)

Historically, the concept of ‘Wind’ appeared in many ancient cultures. In ancient Chinese culture, some physicians thought the concept of ‘Wind’ explained all illnesses, and in fact all events – positive and negative – depending on the occasion and direction of the wind. Wind also literally meant the wind at different seasons, coming from different directions.

‘Wind Spirits’ were once considered to be angry ancestors, or ‘demons’ who lived in caves. Over time, however, these views transitioned into a belief that wind had a natural origin. (Interestingly, the term for caves or holes, hsüeh, has also been used in acupuncture literature in reference to acupuncture points. These are the places on the body that act as portals between the internal and external environments, allowing Qi to penetrate into the organism or flow out from it, and where needles may be used to influence the inner Qi.)

During the third and second centuries B.C., wind came to be seen more as being a natural phenomenon, but one caused by a heavenly response to the movements of T’ai-i, the supreme celestial spirit and the head of the demon-spirit hierarchy. In this way, winds were seen as portents of future events. The most significant eight dates for wind-fate included the cross-quarter days – the first day of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter – along with the Autumn and Spring equinoxes, and the Winter and Summer solstices. The determining factor for whether or not one of these days was considered auspicious was the wind direction on that day, in relation to the residence of T’ai-i.

T’ai-i soothsayers believed in eight palaces at the eight principle directions of the compass, and it is in these palaces that T’ai-i would reside, in a certain order corresponding to the season, throughout the year. Wind blowing from the direction in which T’ai-i was presently residing was considered auspicious; however, wind blowing from the opposite direction would be an unfavourable sign for health and crops.

In addition, the wind-oracle could also be applied to the first day of the year, and certain days each month. Mitigating factors were the phases of the moon, particular years of susceptibility to illness – each ninth year after the seventh year of life – and whether or not one was in harmony with the seasons during critical phases of life.

By the close of the Warring States era – a period of approximately 250 years which ended with the unification of China by Qin Shi Huang in 221 B.C. – the view of wind as a ‘demon’ or angry ancestor had gradually been largely replaced. Qin Shi Huang introduced the short-lived Qin Dynasty, during which many separate state walls were joined to become part of the new Great Wall of China. The Wall became the Skin Wei Qi for the entirety of China, protecting it from the barbarians (the ‘External Wind’).

With the onset of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.), for the first time ‘Wind’ and other environmental influences were described by at least one author as ‘Qi’, defined as “finest matter influence”. Qi was influenced externally by wind, cold, heat, damp, and fire: the environment. Internally, it was affected by sadness, grief, excessive joy, anger, worry and body condition. Qi was the approximate equivalent of ‘breath’, ‘life’ (Father Larre), ‘prana’ in India, and ‘pneuma’ in Greece in same time period.

However, the term Wind was still used as mentioned above for another reason. In the Shanghan Lun and other ancient texts, many, many effective herbal formulas were presented associated with the term Wind: Internal and External. ‘External Wind’ was distinguished from ‘Internal Wind’; ‘Internal Wind’ involved each organ, and even function, having its own ‘Wind’.

In the Yuan dynasty the Shanghan Lun teaching receded, replaced more by concepts of Warm diseases (Wen-Bing) that likewise invaded into deeper and deeper levels of the body. Kung T’ing-hsien reemphasized ‘Wind’ as an etiological factor in Chinese medicine in 1615, listing wind-related sources of illness as cold, heat, damp, fire (summer heat), incorrect food, and overexertion in sex.

Today, the teaching of the Shanghan Lun, and especially its explanation of Wind-Cold, is again increasingly appreciated as an important discourse on the etiology of a diverse number of internal conditions. Invading ‘Wind-Cold’ creating stagnation, combined with Qi deficiency especially of the Lungs and Spleen, can lead to severe chronic internal illness (Internal Wind) that resists treatment applied only to the Qi aspect (Tai Yin etc.). The use of herbs and acupuncture to expel the ‘Wind-Cold’ is a necessary component of a combined therapy.

As our medicine is one that has grown and developed over many centuries, I feel it vital that we all strive to learn as much as we can about its history and origins. In this way, we will understand the present when we come to know the past.