The History of Moxibustion in Asia: Ancient Fire Therapy Still Used Today
Moxibustion, a Chinese traditional medicine that combines heat with the application of moxa, (commonly known as Mugwort) has a history that is almost as convoluted as the therapy itself. While the origins of many traditional medicines cannot be pinpointed to specific dates and times, there are some references to the practice throughout the years. Understanding the historical timeline of this relatively unknown (outside of Asia) therapy is important for grasping the concepts of moxibustion.
A Practice as Old as Time
The origins of moxibustion may go hand in hand with the beginning of technology itself. Some references place the practice as far back as the 16th century BCE, during the Shang Dynasty. This is the same period credited with the development of a lunar calendar, convex mirror, and basic calculation. There are, however, no official records of moxibustion, although it is believed to have occurred during this period because, by the end of this dynasty, there are records of it being used.
Early forms of moxibustion are based on the belief that the body needed to be directly heated in specific places in order to heal. It isn’t too hard to recognize the effects of the seasons on the body, and in northern (present-day) China they were well aware of the good feelings that come from warmth. They combined this general knowledge with the current Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) terms of meridian points, Qi, Blood and concept of Yin and Yang to create a therapy that counteracted the effects of cold.
For the next thousand years, Chinese medicine practitioners created various methods of applying moxibustion, all using a direct application of the moxa and heat to the skin. It wasn’t until the Han Dynasty (206-220AD) that a reference to the safer indirect moxibustion method of implementation was discussed.
The Spread of Moxibustion
By the time a written discussion of standardized moxibustion application had begun, it had already spread to other nations. Unofficial records track the practice to Japanese texts dating from around 400 BCE. Recent discoveries have found texts mentioning the practice in Japan dated from 168 BCE. The practice gained momentum in the 7th century, when Chinese culture, including their traditional medicine, highly influenced Japan due to imperial conquests.
Unlike China, the practice of moxibustion in Japan did not likely develop over thousands of years. It was always seen as a foreign medicine, even when officially practiced by the ruling dynasty. It wasn’t until the 10th century that a blind practitioner added a Japanese influence to the popular practice. Because of his limited site, Waichi Sugiyama used palpation to determine appropriate locations for therapy. Interestingly enough, this same moxibustion practitioner is credited with being the father of Japanese acupuncture.
Meanwhile, in China, moxibustion practitioners began developing ‘safer’ ways of performing the practice. The word safer was quoted because although there is no record of a documented decreased risk with indirect therapies, references to the contraindications (potential hazards) were beginning to be published. It is therefore assumed that people began to look for methods of application that would reduce these risks.
During the Jin and Tang eras, (approximately 2nd-9th century), just before the practice distinctively split in Japan, indirect moxibustion became very popular. Instead of applying the moxa directly on the skin, which could sometimes result in scars, substances were used as a buffer. This practice is commonly used in China and Japan today.
The Influence of the West
Although moxibustion has been a staple of Chinese culture for thousands of years, it may have remained unknown to Western society had it not become popular in Japan. It first left the Eastern part of the world in the 1600s due to trade relations with Holland. It was through Dutch traders that history reveals the first English account of the practice.
While Japan may have been the first advocates of Eastern medicine to the Western world, they were also the first to abandon it for Western medicine. It wasn’t until World War II, when a decline in Western-style medical supplies met an increase in medical need, that Japan was forced to return to its traditional medicine roots. They lifted their ban on the traditional medicine in 1947, regulated the practice and licensed moxibustion practitioners, calling them moxibustores.
Continuing to Evolve
China, on the other hand, retained its practice of the traditional medicine therapy and continued to seek out new ways of performing the practice. These included blistering herbs, fire needles, copper plates and the moxa stick. During the Ming Dynasty, (1368-1644CE) moxibustion began to be compared with acupuncture and became less popular. During that time, many written accounts referred to acupuncture as a means of differentiating the two therapies. The most noticeable development was discussion of the appropriateness of moxibustion for conditions attributed to heat– also known as warm diseases.
The development of moxibustion in Asia – although possibly based on the fundamental view of yin and yang– is anything but linear. In its over 3000 year history, it has traveled to different cultures (due to Chinese imperialism), developed into specific subsets, been adopted and forbidden by numerous dynasties, used in war time, and challenged by competitive therapies. To this day, it is still maturing into a practice that is commonly used by millions of people to treat a variety of conditions.