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Ancient Medicine: Guo Yu
Li Defu
3/8/2003



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This article was adapted from “The Biographies of Medical Doctors” in The History of the Eastern Han Dynasty by Fan Yie of the Song Dynasty who lived from AD 398 – 445. The History of the Eastern Han Dynasty, as well as The Historical Records, The History of the Western Han Dynasty, and The History of the Three Kingdoms, were revered as the four most important Chinese historical books. The biography of Guo Yu is brief, but very rich in content and a valuable historical record.

***

Guo Yu was from Guanghan County in the Eastern Han Dynasty, which is known today as Xindou County or Guanghan County in Sichuan province. He was the most famous medical doctor during the reign of Emperor He in the Han Dynasty.

A long time ago, there was an elderly man that appeared out of nowhere. No one knew his name. But he was often seen fishing by himself on the banks of the Pei River, so people called him the fisherman of Pei River. Often, he did not have enough to eat and had to beg for food. As repayment for the food that he received, he treated those who were sick with acupuncture, and each patient was cured right away. He wrote two books of medical theories, The Classics of Acupuncture, and Practical Approaches to Diagnosis through Feeling the Pulse. Both were circulated widely all over China.

A man named Cheng Gao long wished to become a medical doctor and spent many years searching for this fisherman of Pei River before finally finding him. When the fisherman became convinced of Cheng Gao’s sincere wish to heal people with medicine, he taught Cheng Gao all his medical knowledge and skills. After receiving the training, Cheng Gao retired from the government and lived in seclusion while devoting himself completely to medicine.

As a young man, Guo Yu became an apprentice of Cheng Gao where he learned many skills such as how to make prescriptions, diagnose diseases, feel the Three Yin and Three Yang channels and how the channels change. Eventually Guo Yu became the imperial physician and was quite renowned.

Emperor He had a feeling that Guo Yu was more than a regular physician, and he wanted to test his skill. One day Emperor He asked an imperial concubine, as well as his favorite man servant whose hands resembled those of a lady, to sit behind an opaque curtain. He asked the concubine to stretch out her hand, and the servant sitting beside her to stretch out the other hand, so that from the front of the curtain it looked as if the hands belonged to one person. Emperor He then asked Guo Yu to feel the pulse for “his concubine.” After GuoYu felt the pulse on both wrists, he said, “The left hand has the pulse of Yin, the right one has the pulse of Yang. Judging from the pulses, there should be a man and a woman. I do not understand why this is happening.” After hearing Guo Yu’s diagnosis, Emperor He admired Guo Yu immensely.

Guo Yu was very compassionate towards others and was never a snob. Strangely, his treatments for rich and influential people were not as effective as those for poor people.

Emperor He once asked an ill aristocrat to dress like a poor person and move to a shabby place before Guo Yu arrived for the treatment. Amazingly, the treatment was very effective. The Emperor asked Guo Yu for the reason. Guo Yu answered, “The reason is very simple. The effectiveness of the treatment is related to the doctor’s thoughts and mind intent at the time. It is very subtle. A doctor needs to skillfully adjust the acupuncture to accommodate each patient’s qi and blood circulation. A tiny deviation from the required acupuncture can cause severe consequences. One can only have a tacit understanding of the secret to excellent acupuncture, but finds it difficult to describe with language. Poor patients respect and believe in doctors, so the doctor can feel at ease and thus utilize all his knowledge and skills during the treatment. The rich and the aristocrats are often arrogant and oblivious to doctors’ instructions. Therefore, doctors feel pressured by them, and are not in the mood for medical practice, let alone utilizing their knowledge and skills. Deep acupuncture insertion delivers a different treatment result from a shalow one. Good timing is more effective than bad timing. Also, diagnosis requires complete attention and care from a doctor. If I am distracted by a patient’s attitude, how can I treat the patient effectively? This is the reason that my treatments for the wealthy and important people are not as effective.” The Emperor He was satisfied with Guo Yu’s answer.

Guo Yu’s answer to Emperor He’s question showed us that one’s lifestyle, thoughts, behavior, and degree of confidence in one’s doctor makes a difference regarding the effectiveness of medical treatment. Guo Yu was an ancient medical scientist who had a unique view of the correlation between society, psychology, diseases, and treatment. He died while he was still working as the imperial physician.

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