Hua Tuo, A Miraculous Healer in Ancient China

PureInsight | June 17, 2002

Hua Tuo, also named Yuanhua, was from Pei Guo Jiao, today’s Haoxian, Anhui Province. He was such an outstanding medical 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 medicine in 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 living in poverty, his mother decided to send 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 medical doctor, Dr. Cai thought to himself, “Hua Tuo’s father is my friend. If I don’t take him as my disciple, the town people would think of me as one of those people who, ‘cut off the relationship with his family after a friend passes away, and treat 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 the moment, Dr. Cai noticed that several of his disciples were collecting mulberry leaves in the backyard, but had difficulty in reaching the leaves on the highest branch while climbing up 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 on the tree?” Hua Tuo said with confidence, “It’s a piece of cake.” 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 that branch which was now bent from the weight of the rock.

Next, Dr. Cai saw two goats fighting with their raging eyes turning red. No one could separate these two 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 them next to the goats on each side. The goats had been hungry from the fighting, so they dashed over to enjoy the pasture. The fight was stopped effortlessly. Much impressed with Hua Tuo’s intelligence, Dr. Cai joyfully took him as a disciple.

Hua Tuo studied diligently from the beginning. He valued actual clinical practice and eventually became a legendary doctor in the Eastern Han Dynasty. Even after he earned a hard-won a reputation as a medical doctor, Hua Tuo was never partial to any patient. He would provide his services wherever he went. He displayed a noble spirit by 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 who performed 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 ran into 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 intestine carbuncle, or appendicitis, which required immediate surgery. The person drank Ma Fei San and was soon anesthetized. Hua Tuo cut the person’s abdomen open, removed the part of the infected intestine, cleansed his insides, sealed the wound with stitches, and finally applied ointment that would diminish inflammation and expedite the growth of tissues. 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 his 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 asked for Hua Tuo’s medical treatment for his wife. After examining her pulse, Hua Tuo declared the cause of the illness was that she had injured herself during pregnancy and 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 disagreed. 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, the condition of Li’s wife turned worse. Hua Tuo was again invited over to provide treatment for her. Upon examining her pulse, Hua Tuo said, “Her pulse was same as my last visit. This is what I think happened. She carried a pair of twins in her. The first fetus was stillborn and caused excessive bleeding of the mother; therefore, the second fetus could not be born in labor. The fetus has died in her. It withered and became attached to a place near her spine.” In order to take out the fetus, Hua Tuo tried to induce the labor. First, he applied acupuncture on Li’s wife and prescribed herbal medicine. Before long, Li’s wife started the labor, but still couldn’t deliver the fetus. Hua Tuo explained that it was difficult to deliver a withered fetus in a natural labor. The fetus would have to be taken out by hand. He gave the instructions to a woman in General Li’s house, who indeed took out a withered fetus from General Li’s wife.

In addition, Hua Tuo made innovative discoveries in the field of acupuncture. Once a patient sought medical 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 as “Hua Tuo Point”.

Hua Tuo had also invented a set of exercise 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 exercise became very popular in his time. One of Hua Tuo’s students, Wupu, continued to practice the Exercises of the Five Animals on a regular basis. Even in his nineties, Wupu remained very strong and healthy with sharp ears, eyes and good teeth.

Hua Tuo remains as a important character in the Chinese medical history for his excellent medical techniques, as well as the spirit of saving and helping people.

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