Hua Tuo, a Miraculous Healer in Ancient China

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Hua Tuo, a Miraculous Healer in Ancient China

Hua Tuo (145 – 208 AD), courtesy name Yuanhua, was from Peiguojiao County, known today as Hao County, Anhui Province. He was such an outstanding doctor in ancient China that he was known as a “miraculous healer.” Hua Tuo did not yearn for fame or money. Instead, he was completely devoted to studying medicine. He was highly accomplished in various fields of medicine, a fact which reflected the high level of medical knowledge during the 2nd century of China. 

Hua Tuo appeared to be very smart from an early age. He lost his father at the age of seven. Because the family was poor, his mother sent him to study medicine with Dr. Cai, a very close friend of Hua Tuo’s father. Hua Tuo went to town and met with Dr. Cai. After he expressed his wish to become a doctor, Dr. Cai thought to himself, “Hua Tuo’s father was my friend. If I don’t take the boy as my disciple, the townspeople will think of me as one of those people who ‘cuts off the relationship with the family after a friend passes away and treats friends with no loyalty.’ I’d better take him as my disciple. However, I need to test the boy to determine if he is cut out for medicine.” 

At that moment, Dr. Cai noticed that several of his disciples were collecting mulberry leaves in the yard, but they were having difficulty reaching the leaves on the highest branch and they weren’t able to climb the tree. He decided that this would be the first test for Hua Tuo. He asked Hua Tuo, “Can you think of a way to collect the leaves on the highest branch of the tree?” Hua Tuo said with confidence, “That is easy.” Hua Tuo asked for a piece of rope and tied a small rock at the end of the rope. He threw the rope over the highest branch and collected all the leaves on the branch, which was now bent from the weight of the rock. 

Next, Dr. Cai saw two goats fighting, their eyes red with rage. No one could separate the goats. He decided that this would be the second test for Hua Tuo. He said, “Hua Tuo, are you able to separate these two goats?” Hua Tuo answered right away, “Certainly.” He fetched two handfuls of grass and put one next to each goat. The goats had gotten hungry from fighting, so they were quick to turn their attention to enjoying the grass. The fight was stopped effortlessly. Much impressed with Hua Tuo’s intelligence, Dr. Cai readily took him as a disciple. 

Hua Tuo studied diligently. He valued actual clinical practice and eventually became a legendary doctor in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 – 220 AD). Even after he gained a famed reputation, Hua Tuo was never partial to any patient. He would provide his services wherever he went. He displayed a noble spirit by focusing on curing diseases and saving lives. He practiced medicine all his life. He developed innovative medical theories and excellent medical techniques in various medical fields, including external medicine, internal medicine, gynecology, acupuncture, parasitology, and physical therapy as medical treatment. He was an outstanding medical expert in ancient China. Hua Tuo was especially good at performing surgery. In fact, he was the first doctor to perform a colostomy in Chinese medical history. In order to reduce the pain of surgery for patients, he invented a drug, Ma Fei San, which was used to provide general anesthesia. It was not until 1,600 years later that Europeans began to use general anesthesia in surgery, at the beginning of the 19th century. 

Hua Tuo once saw a person pushing a cart on the street. The person had a brownish-yellow complexion. He was short of breath and looked very ill. Hua Tuo approached him to find out that he had colic in his stomach. Hua Tuo quickly diagnosed him with intestinal carbuncle (appendicitis), which required immediate surgery. Hua Tuo had the person drink Ma Fei San and was soon anesthetized. Hua Tuo cut the person’s abdomen open, removed the infected part of his intestine, cleansed his insides, sealed the wound with stitches, and finally applied ointment that would diminish inflammation and expedite the growth of tissue. The patient recovered in a few days, and his surgical wound healed very quickly. The story proved the clinical effect of Ma Fu San, as well as Hua Tuo’s understanding of anatomy. 

Hua Tuo also proved to be an excellent obstetrician. The Book of Late Han recorded a complex medical case that Hua Tuo treated successfully. General Li’s wife had an illness and he asked Hua Tuo to treat her. After taking the woman’s pulse, Hua Tuo declared that the cause of her illness was that she had injured herself during pregnancy and had failed to deliver the fetus as a result. General Li confirmed the pregnancy but informed Hua Tuo that his wife had already given birth to a stillborn baby. Hua Tuo replied, “Her pulse disagrees. It appears that she still has a fetus in her.” General Li hesitated to believe Hua Tuo’s diagnosis, so Hua Tuo could not provide any treatment at the time. A hundred days later, Li’s wife became worse. Hua Tuo was again invited to provide treatment for her. Upon examining her pulse, Hua Tuo said, “Her pulse is the same as my last visit. This is what I think happened. She carried twins. The first fetus was stillborn and caused the mother to bleed excessively, so the second fetus was not expelled. The fetus has died in her. It has withered and became attached to a place near her spine.” In order to remove the fetus, Hua Tuo tried to induce labor. First, he used acupuncture on Li’s wife and prescribed herbal medicine. Before long, she started to enter labor, but she still couldn’t deliver the fetus. Hua Tuo explained that it was difficult to deliver a withered fetus naturally. The fetus would have to be taken out by hand. He gave instructions to a woman in General Li’s house, who indeed removed a withered fetus from General Li’s wife. 

In addition, Hua Tuo made innovative discoveries in the field of acupuncture. Once a patient sought treatment from Hua Tuo because he had problems with his feet and couldn’t walk. After checking the pulse, Hua Tuo marked several acupuncture points on his back and applied moxibustion seven times on each spot. The patient began to walk quickly after the treatment. Based on his own experience in acupuncture, Hua Tuo discovered the “Jia Ji Acupuncture Point,” an acupuncture point that nips the spine. Today the acupuncture point in this area is still referred to as the “Hua Tuo Point.” 

Hua Tuo also invented a set of exercises called “Exercises of the Five Animals,” which imitated the movements of five kinds of animals, including the tiger, the deer, the bear, the monkey, and the birds. The exercises became very popular in his time. One of Hua Tuo’s students, Wu Pu, continued to practice the Exercises of the Five Animals on a regular basis. Even in his 90s, Wu Pu remained very strong and healthy with sharp ears, eyes, and good teeth. 

Hua Tuo is a major figure in Chinese medical history for his excellent medical techniques, as well as his spirit of saving and helping people. 

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