Friday, 22 April 2011

Hua Tuo华陀 legendary traditional healer of Ancient China

                               Qing Dynasty Block Printed Portrait
                                             of Hua Tuo
Chinese medical practitioners world wide have revered Hua Tuo (145AD-208AD) as their founding guru since 200 AD, when the legendary master practiced medicine with wide usage of herbs and acupuncture to treat the sick, heal wounds, and cure diseases. He was always inculcating good healthy measures for longevity. Hua Tuo left an impeccable legacy of traditional medical practice that had far reaching effect on Asian society till this day. His ethics of practice and his refusal to bow to powerful war lords of China at that time won overwhelming respect from all his contemporaries, protégé and followers, and the general mass.

                                  General Guan Yu 關羽(Guan Gong 關公) receiving
                        treatment from Hua Tuo for an arrow inflicted injury

Sanguozhi, 三國志 (A chronicle of three kingdoms.) An analytical book preceding the more well-known historical novel Sanguo Yanyi, documented many exemplary works of healings of Hua Tuo during the early 3rd century. The author Chen Shou 陳壽, (233AD-297 AD.) a diligent scholar, travelled extensively in China to reach out many country folks so as to complete his works. The legend of Hua Tuo was only one part of his many chapters of the book Sanguo Zhi. Here are some interesting anecdotes on accounts of Hua Tuo’s many famed healings:

A scholar himself, Hua Tuo was a traditional medical physician in and around Xhi Zhou. He was keen on herbal remedy, specialized in internal medicine and the intricate study of longevity. He was well travelled so as to harvest and discover new species of natural herbs in his quest to find cure for complicated sicknesses. The fame for his medical touch knew no boundary and everywhere he went, he was warmly welcome and loved by the general mass.

Upon consuming his prescribed medicine, his patients usually recovered fully in two days. He would pick just one single or two vital points of the human body when he applied acupuncture while treating his patients. They eventually recovered fully and would not have to worry about recurrence. He induced unconsciousness by feeding patient with his own concoctions of anesthetic potions, when there was a need for surgery.  After a month of convalescence, his patient would be healthy enough to go on living normally.

                      Ancient portrait showing vital points of human
                         body for acupuncture treatment of illness

Well into the pregnancy of six months, a district officer’s wife was having unbearable pain at her abdomen. Hua Tuo measured her pause and instantly knew that the unborn fetus was dead. He induced the miscarriage by offering the poor woman some potions, and sure enough, no sooner a still-born baby was discharged. Hua Tuo was quite blunt in telling the patients his diagnosis. He found that one local clansman’s limbs were feeble and was bedridden for months. His lips were dry and cracked, and he could not hear nor talk. Besides that the person had difficulty in pissing.  The master healer told the patient’s family to feed him with freshly cooked hot rice. “If he sweats after eating the rice, he will be okay; and if he does not sweat, then he will die a painful death within three days.” The wretched man died while sobbing after three days as his body did not respond positively. Hua Tor told the family that the man’s internal organs had already failed before he sought treatment. 

An officer of the palace complained to Hua Tuo that the royal medical physician had applied acupuncture on his stomach the day before, but he still was not well, unable to sleep and was coughing the whole night through. After careful examination Hua Tuo told the patient that the needle in use had pieced through his liver, not onto his stomach where it hurt badly. He declared that there was no cure, the man would not be eating well and would die very shortly. The palace staff died five days later.


One day Hua Tuo was intercepted by a man seeking treatment for his father’s sickness, while he was out ridding in a horse-pulled carriage. He visited the patient at his bedside and realized that the poor chap was unable to swallow food. Master Hua told the family: ‘There was a shop in town that sold mashed yam and vinegar; go get them!’ They quickly bought and fed their father the liquid mixture. Almost immediately the older man threw out some large worms that had been thriving in his intestines; the worms were also found in abundance in his stool. He was promptly cured. Soon after his recovery the family visited Hua Tuo’s residence with lavish gifts. They were shocked to find the old master healer had jars in display at home that contained preserved parasitic worms of all kinds, soaked in crystal clear rice wine.    

                                     Modern day Acupuncture treatment

Hua Tuo was approached by the son of a powerful and snobbish governor to treat his ailing father. Followed by an extensive examination, he found an unusual formula to end the sufferer’s misery. After whispering to the younger man, he demanded loudly an exorbitant fee for his service, for which he was given readily. He left with his assistants without leaving any prescription, neither any medical potion nor acupuncture work, but a scornful letter of contempt attacking the patient of his lavish life style, as well as insulting him without reservation. The old man flew into a wild rage and sent out instantly his guards to track down Hua Tuo with order to kill him. Of course the order was stopped by his son as the younger man had been told that what his father needed was to become angry. Once he had cooled down after his outburst of fury, he would be cured.

                              Ming Dynasty block printed drawing of Cao Cao
                           The Tyrannical War Lord of Northern Wei Kingdom

The reigning ruler at that time, Cao Cao, (a.k.a. Wei Wu Ti –Emperor of Wei Kuo ‘Kingdom of Wei’, born 155AD, died 220AD.) had long heard about Hua Tuo’s many miraculous healings, so he sent out his guards to seek Hua Tuo’s help to attend to his perpetual migraine.  After his initial diagnosis, Hua Tuo told the suffering emperor that it needed a fairly long period of time of meticulous care, observation and treatment to rid of his nagging pain. He carried out surgery on Cao Cao’s head and removed a small tumor that was the source of the emperor’s headaches. The emperor was at first aghast and doubtful over Hua Tuo’s ability to relief him of his misery. Just looking at the latter’s array of acupuncture needles and small surgery scalpels were enough to simmer him with further stress. After Cao Cao’s seemingly recovery, Hua Tuo was retained in the palace ground and not allowed to leave. The medical master was reluctant just to attend to one person’s need for medical and health care, particularly to that of a powerful war lord. After all he was used to spend his life travelling all over the country in search of rare herbs, finding more remedies and rendering medical treatment to the sick and the poor.

                    Dried herbs and traditional medical ingredients
                                 on sale in modern day China

Hua Tuo told the tyrannical emperor that he had been away from his home for a long time, and he missed his wife who had fallen ill. Cao Cao relented and granted Hua Tuo a short period of leave to attend to his wife; though he suspected the medical master making up a story. After thirty days, the suspicious emperor did not see the return of Hua Tuo to the palace. Obviously he was not pleased with the defiance of this herbalist physician. Cao Cao sent out his palace officers and guards to check what had incurred the non-showing up of Hua Tuo’s return. He gave the order to the fact finding team that if Hua Tuo’s wife were to be genuinely ill, then Hua Tuo would be bestowed with 40 sacks of beans and grains. Otherwise he should be arrested at once and be brought back to the palace. Upon arriving at Hua Tuo’s cottage, the team found that the medical master’s wife was well and very much alive. He was promptly arrested and brought to Cao Cao’s presence.  In his great anger and annoyance, Cao Cao ordered the execution of the master healer despite the many pleads for leniency from some of his palace officers and advisors.

While awaiting execution, Hua Tuo handed over a medical journal which documented his works, and research of his herbal formulae and healings to the prison warden, telling him that the precious book could save lives. Fearing possible retribution, the latter refused to accept. The disheartened master healer had no choice but burnt the records of his toiled labor. He died in his fifties. After the death of Hua Tuo, Cao Cao began to regret his unwise move as his migraine was slowly yet surely coming back; he felt some tingling pain brewing in his head. Still, in the usual manner of his obstinacy and conceit, he exclaimed that there were hundreds, in not thousands of good medical practitioners in the country who would be too willing to treat him. The emperor lamented that all Hua Tuo wanted was to gain fame by treating him, and even if he did not order the killing, Hua Tuo would never had cured him thoroughly. Eventually the remorseful ruler admitted that only Hua Tuo could alleviate his health condition, but then it was already too late. The real excruciating agony for Cao Cao came when his son Zhang Xu fell gravely ill. No other herbalist, traditional medical physician and healer could nurse him back to good health. A distraught Cao Cao yelled and grunted to watch his son dying of a painful, slow and tormenting death. He whimpered and whispered in soliloquy: “I really regret killing Hua Tuo; my callous decision costs me the life of my dear son.” Cao Cao died shortly after his son Zhang Xu’s demise. He was succeeded by his second son Cao Pi who posthumously crowned Cao Cao “Wei Wu Ti” as the founder emperor of the Wei Kuo (Kingdom of Wei).

                          An old Chinese traditional drugstore

Till this day, whenever one visits a Chinese traditional drugstore, it is common to see a hand drawn portrait of Hua Tuo hanging on the wall, even in modern day Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China, as well as in other parts of South East Asia with Chinese communities. That is how the master herbalist, healer, traditional medical physician was respected and revered as a legendary character in the Chinese society all over Asia.

Article written and translated by Alan CY Kok with reference to Sanguozhi, 三國志,
an analytical book compiled by Chen Shou 陳壽of the 3rd Century, ancient China.
Portraits were obtained from Wikipedia Chinese.

Alan CY Kok

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