Sun Simiao: The King of Medicine

By Arnaud
May 18, 2023

In the annals of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Sun Simiao stands as a towering figure. Born in 581 and living to the ripe old age of 101, Sun traversed the tumultuous Sui and Tang dynasties, earning the title "King of Medicine" for his significant contributions to Chinese medicine. A scholar, physician and writer, Sun Simiao dedicated his life to the betterment of public health, always prioritizing human life over wealth.

The Life and Legacy of Sun Simiao: The King of Medicine

From a young age, Sun Simiao was no stranger to illness. His family even fell into bankruptcy due to the cost of his medical care. This hardship, coupled with his innate fascination with healing, led Sun to study medicine at the age of 18. Despite offers of high-ranking positions from several emperors, Sun chose to practice medicine among the people, embodying the virtues of humility and compassion that remained central to his life's work.

His career was marked by a steadfast dedication to his patients, even during periods of societal chaos. Sun was known for his sincere and virtuous approach to medicine, treating all patients regardless of their social or economic status. His belief that "human life is of the utmost importance" underscored his approach to treatment. In his words: "If one has wealth it is worth spending a thousand pieces of gold to save a life. To save a life by prescribing a formula is an act of virtue that surpasses even a thousand pieces of gold."

Sun Simiao's two "Thousand Pieces of Gold" Books: Breakthroughs in Ancient Medical Literature

Sun Simiao authored two seminal texts that are to this days considered foundational for TCM: "Essential Formulas Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold" ("Beiji Qianjin Yaofang") and "Supplement to the Formulas Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold" ("Qian Jin Yi Fang"). Collectively known as the first medical encyclopedia in China, these texts offered comprehensive insight into TCM, including medical ethics, diagnostics, and treatment methods.

The "Essential Formulas Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold," completed before Sun turned 70, and its later supplement, contain over 6,500 medical formulas. These formulas draw from a vast range of sources, including prescriptions from famous medical practitioners and regional remedies used by ordinary people, including ethnic minorities in China and foreigners abroad. Many of these formulas are still in use today.

Sun's books also emphasized medical ethics, with two chapters in "Essential Formulas Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold" dedicated to the topic. In these chapters, Sun argued that medical practitioners should not only possess exquisite medical skills but also noble character.

The books also provide a detailed account of over 800 different types of medicines, including their collection time, processing method, and medicinal properties. This meticulous documentation demonstrates Sun's vast knowledge and understanding of pharmacology.

Sun Simiao's Pioneering Contributions to Traditional Chinese Medicine Pharmacology

Sun Simiao's legacy is deeply rooted in the field of TCM pharmacology. His two seminal works together contain more than 6,500 medical formulas. These formulas represent an amalgamation of medical wisdom, not only from celebrated practitioners of his time and those who came before him, but also from ordinary citizens across diverse regions. This includes ethnic minorities within China and even individuals from foreign lands, showcasing Sun's inclusivity and his quest to capture the broadest possible range of healing knowledge.

Many of these formulas have stood the test of time, continuing to be widely used by modern practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine. This is a testament to the enduring relevance and efficacy of Sun Simiao's work.

Sun Simiao's contributions to pharmacology did not stop at compiling and presenting these formulas. He also delved into the study of the medicines themselves, describing in detail the properties, optimal collection times, and processing methods of around 800 different types of medicines. These medicines encompass a wide variety of sources, including herbs, minerals, and animal parts.

A prime example of Sun's detailed work is his study on rehmannia root, where he differentiated between the raw and processed forms, each of which possesses distinct medicinal properties. This careful, meticulous approach was applied to all the medicines he studied, leading to a rich and nuanced understanding of their various uses and effects.

Moreover, Sun Simiao showed his remarkable organizational skills by classifying these medicines into 65 different categories, a move that greatly enhanced the clarity and accessibility of his work.

Sun Simiao's Innovative Contributions to Acupuncture and Moxibustion

Sun Simiao's influence extends into the realm of acupuncture and moxibustion, as demonstrated by the detailed exploration of these practices in his works. Volumes 29-30 of "Essential Formulas Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold" and volumes 26-28 of "Supplement to the Formulas Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold" are dedicated to these techniques, marking a significant contribution to the field.

Among his various advancements, Sun Simiao introduced a standard body inch measurement method for locating acupuncture points, providing practitioners with a precise and consistent approach. This standardization was instrumental in advancing the practice of acupuncture, enabling practitioners to ensure their treatments were accurately targeted.

Sun Simiao also introduced the concept of "odd points" and "ashi points". Odd points refer to acupuncture points that do not belong to any specific channel or meridian but have significant therapeutic relevance. Ashi points, on the other hand, do not have specific names or definite locations. They are characterized by the patient's reaction to pressure, primarily manifested by sensations of comfort, pain, and most importantly, relief of primary symptoms. These innovative concepts expanded the scope of acupuncture treatment and facilitated a more nuanced approach to patient care.

Sun Simiao's work in this area was not only theoretical but also visual. He introduced the first color meridian point chart, a valuable tool for practitioners. Unfortunately, this historic piece has been lost over the centuries.

In addition to these advancements, Sun Simiao strongly advocated for the combined use of acupuncture and moxibustion. He declared that "acupuncture without moxibustion, moxibustion without acupuncture is not a good doctor". He saw these techniques as complementary, and when used together, they could enhance treatment efficacy and produce a synergistic effect. Furthermore, he recommended the combined use of these techniques with the prescription of medicinal formulas for a more holistic treatment approach.

The Ethical Practice of Medicine: Sun Simiao's Influence on Medical Professionalism

Beyond his technical contributions to TCM, Sun Simiao is also renowned for his profound influence on the ethical practice of medicine. His text, "On the Absolute Sincerity of Great Physicians," often referred to as the "Chinese Hippocratic Oath," underscores his belief in the moral obligations inherent to the medical profession.

This work is still a required reading for Chinese physicians, demonstrating its enduring relevance. Sun Simiao emphasized the importance of virtue, stating, "If one does not embrace virtue with good behavior, longevity will remain beyond his reach even if he takes the best medicine and supplements." His life was a testament to these values; he was known for his dedication to his patients, offering treatment free of charge to those who could not afford it, and prioritizing their wellbeing over personal gain​.

The Enduring Legacy of Sun Simiao

Sun Simiao, often revered as the King of Medicine in China, made innumerable contributions to the field of Traditional Chinese Medicine, encompassing pharmacology, acupuncture, and ethical medical practice. His comprehensive texts, filled with thousands of medicinal recipes, diagnostic protocols, and treatment strategies, became foundational works in TCM. But it was his profound commitment to the ethical practice of medicine that truly sets Sun Simiao apart. His dedication to virtue and the wellbeing of his patients resonates across centuries, emphasizing the timeless importance of empathy, compassion, and selflessness in medical practice. Sun Simiao's legacy continues to influence and inspire, reminding us that the heart of medicine lies not just in knowledge and skills, but also in the moral character of the practitioner.

Article tags: Chinese Medicine theory