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Was acupuncture developed by Han Dynasty Chinese anatomists?

Shaw, Vivien; Mclennan, Amy K


Amy K Mclennan


Anatomical dissection has begun to reveal striking similarities between gross anatomical structures and the system of nomenclature used in traditional Chinese acupuncture. This paper argues that acupuncture point nomenclature is rooted in systematic anatomical investigation of cadaveric specimens, and that acupuncture points and meridians are purposefully named to reflect observable physical form. Two types of evidence are compared: observations of physical structures based on anatomical dissection, and translation and analysis of original Chinese texts. Evidence is contextualized through in-depth practical understanding of acupuncture. Points designated as [Chinese character] tian (heavenly/superior), [Chinese character] xia (below/inferior), [Chinese character] liao (bone-hole), [Chinese character] fei (flying), [Chinese character] wei (bend), and [Chinese character] xi (mountain stream/ravine) are investigated. These acupuncture point names: (a) specify position; (b) reflect function and/or form; (c) indicate homologous structures; (d) mark unusual structures; and/or (e) describe the physical appearance of a deep (dissected) structure by likening it to a homologous everyday object. Results raise intriguing possibilities for developing an understanding of acupuncture points and meridians firmly based in the material and functional anatomy of the human body. Such an understanding has the potential to open new fields of thought about functional anatomy. It also has implications for future investigations into the mechanisms of acupuncture, and gives some insights into the possible origins of this iconic area of Chinese medicine.


Shaw, V., & Mclennan, A. K. (2016). Was acupuncture developed by Han Dynasty Chinese anatomists?. Anatomical Record: Advances in Integrative Anatomy and Evolutionary Biology, 299(5), 643-659.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Dec 23, 2015
Online Publication Date Feb 9, 2016
Publication Date 2016-05
Deposit Date Oct 22, 2021
Journal Anatomical record: Advances in Integrative Anatomy and Evolutionary Biology
Print ISSN 1932-8486
Publisher Wiley
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 299
Issue 5
Pages 643-659
Keywords Acupuncture; Gross anatomy; Chinese medicine; History of anatomy; Anatomical nomenclature; Acupuncture point nomenclature
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