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Anesthesia in ancient China
Katherine Combes, The Epoch Times
2/15/2004

Western medicine first began to use dimethyl ether as an anesthetic in operations in only the last century, but Chinese medicine had already invented and used anesthetics as early as the time of Hua Tuo, a famous surgeon, some 2,000 years ago.

Guan Yu is a legendary figure in China. He was a general in the kingdom of Shu during the Three Kingdoms period (from AD 222 to 265). In a battle in Fan City, a poisoned arrow injured Guan Yu's right arm. To treat him, Hua Tuo made an incision in the arm, and scraped off the poisoned muscle and bone.

During the operation, Guan Yu continued to drink and play chess. He talked and laughed as if nothing was happening. His composure brought him admiration and respect from all soldiers and other generals who had witnessed the operation. They were amazed by how Guan Yu was able to control himself so well in the face of such pain. But before the operation, Hua Tuo might have applied a topical anesthetic called mandrake to the arm.

Hua Tuo is probably the first person to invent and use anesthetics. Prior to Hua Tuo's time, in order to prevent the patient from squirming and moving restlessly during a painful operation, the doctors would tightly bind the patient by the hands and feet prior to surgery. Sometimes, doctors would strike a blow to the patient’s head or release some blood in order to induce unconsciousness.

In order to reduce a patient's pain during the operation, Hua Tuo had spent a great amount of effort to find an herb to induce anesthesia. One day, it happened that when Hua Tuo was on a mountain to collect herbs he came upon a woodcutter who had been severely injured. The woodcutter grabbed some leaves, mashed them and pressed them against his wound, eliminating the pain. Hua Tuo was pleasantly surprised at the effect of the amazing herb, and eagerly asked the woodcutter for the name of the herb. The leaves came from a plant called mandrake. After much trial and error, Hua Tuo produced the famous anesthetic, "Ma Fei San."

In the 16th chapter of a famous Chinese novel, “All Men Are Brothers” (also called “Shui Hu Legend”), a counselor from Liang Mountain [1] named Wu Yong put some narcotic in a drink of Yang Zhi, who was delivering a treasure, and successfully stole the treasure. After Yang Zhi and his guards drank the wine, the 15 of them could not do anything but helplessly watch as Wu Yong and his minions took the treasure. They couldn't stand up, move or speak a word. In fact, Wu Yong had mixed an anesthetic with the wine. The Chinese anesthetic he used was called the "men han" drug. In Chinese, "men" means "pass out" and "han" means "a grown man," so "men han" means a drug that causes a grown man to pass out. The main active ingredient in the drug was mandrake.

“The Illustrated Guide to Plants” explains, "Mandrake lives in the wild prairies in Guangxi Province. Bandits often take its stem, mash the stems and put them in the food of their targeted victims to make them unconscious so that they can steal their belongings. The “men han drug” must have been made of this kind of herb."

There are more than 40 other different kinds of Chinese herbs that can be used for anesthetic.

Note:
[1] Liang Mountain: The home base of a gang of hero-bandits in “All Men Are Brothers,” a very popular work of Chinese fiction written by Shi Nai-An.


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