Tibetan medicine, an important part of the Chinese medical...


Tibetan medicine, an important part of the Chinese medical tradition, has been evolving for nearly 3,000 years. During the third century BC, a primitive medical system had existed on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, comprising theories on daily life, food and drink, and health care. Although a complete medical theory had not yet formed, simple therapies were used such as blood-letting, massage, using butter to stop bleeding, and using distillers' grains from highland barley to treat wounds. They had also hypothesized that "toxins and medicines co-exist."


During the 7th century, Tibetan King Songtsan Gambo united the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and established the Tubo Kingdom. He invited medical experts and translators from neighboring states, together with medical experts of Tibet, to compile medical classics such as A Complete Collection of Medical Works, Fearless Weapons, Medicine and Diagnosis of Moon King, and Four Medical Classics. He encouraged Tibetan medical researchers to incorporate Indian and Han Chinese medical principles into their work. These efforts promoted the development of traditional Tibetan medicine and laid a solid foundation in the fields of physiology, diagnosis, and treatment.


In around 1450, two contradictory schools of thought-northern and southern-arose. Each school had it own views concerning prescription methods and the Four Medical Classics. This conflict in ideas marked a new stage in the development of traditional Tibetan medicine. Sukar, a representative of the southern school, and his disciples conducted research on diseases caused by dampness in southern Tibet. They based their studies on the Four Medical Classics and created a unique theoretical system for diagnosis and medication. They wrote more than ten representative medical works. Qamba and Namgyai Zhabsang were representative figures of the northern school. They conducted research on diseases caused by the cold climate in northern Tibet and based their work upon the Four Medical Classics. They wrote more than ten representative medical works. The contention between the northern and so/uthern schools of thought greatly promoted the development of traditional Tibetan medicine.


Between 1600 and 1959, traditional Tibetan medicine developed slowly, without any dynamism. But after the peaceful liberation of Tibet, the Party and the central government have been aiding the development of Tibetan medicine. After China adopted economic reform policies in 1978, traditional Tibetan medicine has rapidly developed. Research centers have been established in Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu and Scihuan. Provincial-level hospitals and pharmaceutical production bases have been set up in Tibet and Qinghai. Also, prefecture medical organizations have been established in Sichuan, Gansu, Tibet and Qinghai. Traditional Tibetan medicine is being standardized.

Unique Theoretical System:"Theory of Three Factors"

Traditional Tibetan medicine is based on the "theory of three factors." The theory centers around the "seven substances" and "three excrements" of the human body. The three factors are lung, chiba, and peigen; the seven substances include diet, blood, flesh, fat, bone, marrow, and seminal fluid; and the three excrements are sweat, urine and stool. When a person is in good health, the relations between the three factors, seven substances and three excrements are in good balance. Keeping balance is an important principle of traditional Tibetan medicine.


Traditional Tibetan medicine is based on traditional Tibetan culture and thus incorporates life science (combination of heaven, earth and human beings) into its theories. Traditional Tibetan medicine differs from medical traditions of other ethnic groups and modern medicine.

Representative Personages

Yutog Yoindain Goinbo, founder of traditional Tibetan medicine, is among the 200 famous Tibetan doctors recorded in the Four Medical Classics. Yutog wrote more than 20 medical works and presided over the compilation of the Four Medical Classics and related annotations. He laid a solid foundation for the development of traditional Tibetan medicine. He also established the first Tibetan medicine training school.


Dainzin Puncog, a famous pharmacologist, had a unique understanding of more than 2,000 medicinal ingredients, including plants, minerals, animals, and gems produced on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. He traveled extensively and compiled pharmacological works Jingzhu Materia Medica and Selected Practical Works on Pharmaceutics. He also trained a large number of medical personnel.


Sanggyai Gyamco was a famous doctor during the rule of the fifth Dalai Lama. His representative works include Blue Glaze, which corrected the errors in the Four Medical Classics. His annotations on the Four Medical Classics are the most authoritative. He made a series of hanging charts on the Four Medical Classics and established a medical school to train doctors. Other well-known Tibetan doctors include Kyenrab Norbu, Gyiba Cewang, Budong, and Qamba Chinlai.

Representative Brand Names of Tibetan Medicines

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau produces more than 3,000 different medicinal materials of traditional Tibetan medicine. After China adopted reform policies in 1978, the central government invested 200 million yuan in two large, modern pharmaceutical plants in Tibet and Qinghai equipped with advanced facilities. More than 20 pharmaceuticals produced by these plants were listed in the 1995 edition of the Pharmacopoeia of the People's Republic of China.


Representative patent medicines include "72-ingredient pearls," "25-ingredient Pearl Pills," "70-ingredient Coral," "Ruyi Zhenbao Pill," and "20-ingredient Agalloch Eaglewood Pill" for treating heart and brain diseases and disorders; "Rinqen Changjue," "5-ingredient Pomegranate Pill" for treating stomach and intestine diseases, and medicines for treating liver and bone diseases. Four patent medicines, including "70-ingredient Pearl" and "25-ingredient Turquoise Pill," have obtained certificates from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Qizheng-brand "Xiaotongtie" (Pain-Killing Plaster) produced by the Qizheng Tibetan Pharmaceutical Group won a gold medal at the World Invention Exposition held in Geneva.

Education and Scientific Research

Before the liberation, traditional Tibetan medicine was taught in major temples and hospitals in Lhasa. Education techniques were traditional, and the number of trainees were limited. But since the peaceful liberation of Tibet, the training situation has been improving. School have been set up throughout the region. In 1983, a secondary school of traditional Tibetan medicine was established in Tibet Autonomous Region. In 1985, the Department of Traditional Tibetan Medicine was set up at the University of Tibet, and in 1989 the College of Traditional Tibetan Medicine was established, the first higher education school of Tibetan medicine. Tibetan medicine schools in Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan where Tibetans live in compact communities have trained more than 3,000 doctors.


Publishing houses in Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan have published more than 50 medical titles including Four Medical Classics, Jingzhu Materia Medica, Blue Glaze, and the New Collection of Traditional Tibetan Medicine. In the mid-1980s, well-known traditional Tibetan medicine experts from Tibet, Qinghai and Sichuan, gathered in Lhasa to compile textbooks on clinical practics, internal medicine, surgery, gynecology, pediatrics, five sense organs, prescriptions, pathology, and diagnosis. In the early 1990s, textbooks for university and secondary students were compiled, and basic theories of modern medical science and diagnosis were added.


Scientific Tibetan medicine research has been gradually spreading. In Traditional Tibetan medicine centers in Tibet, Qinghai and Gansu, research and development have been conducted in the fields of historical document research, Tibetan medicine uses, diagnosis techniques, and pharmaceutical production. The Hospital of Traditional Tibetan Medicine of Tibet Autonomous Region and the People's Hospital of Tibet Autonomous Region work together to improve treatment of chronic atrophic gastritis. Patients take pharmacist-prepared Tibetan medicines and doctors used modern pathological methods to check results. The hospitals' cooperation has won a third-class prize for scientific and technological progress from the Ministry of Public Health. The two hospitals and experts from the pharmacological research institute of Huaxi Medical University jointly conducted research on medicinal herbs unique to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, including rhodiola, Chinese caterpillar fungus and Drosera peltata. Lab tests indicate that these plants contain anti-aging compounds as well as anti-oxidants. In addition, more than ten pharmacist-prepared Tibetan medicines have been found to have anti-bacterial inflammation reducing functions.


More than ten cities in the interior have set up Tibetan medicine centers. One of the largest is the Beijing Hospital of Traditional Tibetan Medicine. Over the past few years, the hospital has received nearly 200,000 patients. The hospital plays a decisive role in publicizing traditional Tibetan medicine.