Moxibustion, a form of heat treatment, was one of the earliest and most important methods for treating the channels. Being more accessible and cheaper than needles it was a more popular and widespread treatment. The dried and ground leaves of mugwort (artemesia vulgaris) burnt on and over the body are first known in atropaic techniques used to protect the household from attack by demons. Chinese medical practitioners nowadays will burn it on the end of metal needles, use cigar-shaped rolls of moxibustion, or roll cones to stimulate particular points or painful parts of the body.
A Song dynasty painting depicting a country doctor performing treatment on a patient’s back.Image courtesy of the Needham Research Institute.
The Earliest Surviving Moxibustion Charts
Among the thousands of Buddhist manuscripts discovered a century ago in a hidden cave library at Dunhuang on the Silk Road were some 100 medical manuscripts. One damaged series of sketches of the body, now held in the British Library, gives simple instructions for the treatment of specific conditions with moxibustion. The figures constitute the earliest surviving moxibustion charts and pre-date the Northern Song acupuncture bronzes that lay out comprehensive networks of acupuncture loci, by some three or four centuries. Characteristic of the Dunhuang archive is that it preserves a very wide variety of technical manuscripts in which we find intimate glimpses of popular medical theory and practice in Tang dynasty (618 – 907 CE) China at this Northwestern outpost of the empire.