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Anatomy in Ancient China: How Acupuncture Meridians Were First Identified

Shaw, Vivien; Winder, Isabelle C.


Isabelle C. Winder


Acupuncture meridians are usually considered esoteric structures which serve as conduits for invisible Qi or life force. We argue, however, that the earliest texts describing meridians, the Mawangdui medical manuscripts, are in fact an anatomical atlas. Our research shows this atlas could only have been constructed through direct observation of the dissected human body.The Mawangdui texts were developed during the Han dynasty (206BCE-220CE) in China, and discuss only meridians, with no mention of acupuncture points. They were built upon to create the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine (Huangdi Neijing), which describes the meridians and points that have formed the basis for acupuncture practice for the last two millennia. Here, too, the meridians and acupoints constitute an anatomical description of the body, albeit with more detail and greater complexity than we find in the Mawangdui. Significantly, modern research into the mechanism for acupuncture assumes there is something physiologically unique about acupuncture points that can be elucidated through scientific experimentation. If, as we have shown, meridians and acupoints are instead an early anatomical atlas, this implies that there could be not one but multiple explanations for acupuncture’s healing outcomes.


Shaw, V., & Winder, I. C. (2021). Anatomy in Ancient China: How Acupuncture Meridians Were First Identified. Acupuncture in Physiotherapy : Journal of the Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists, 33(2), Article 11-18

Journal Article Type Article
Conference Name AACP Virtual Annual Conference 2021 - Ancient Wisdom in the Contemporary World - 8th May
Conference Location Online
Acceptance Date Sep 4, 2021
Publication Date Sep 3, 2021
Deposit Date Oct 22, 2021
Journal Acupuncture in Physiotherapy
Print ISSN 2058-3281
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 33
Issue 2
Article Number 11-18
Keywords Meridians; Anatomy; Han dynasty; Acupuncture; Dissection
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