In 1899, Chinese peasants in Henan Province of China discovered “dragon bones” inscribed with very ancient Chinese characters and apparently sold them to local pharmacists. During 1929-1933, scholars from the Historical Institute of Academia Sinica discovered tens of thousands of inscribed turtle shells, oracle bones, and other bones bearing archaic Chinese characters at Xiaotun in the Anyang district of Henan Province. Chinese archaeologists and paleo-linguists as well as European sinologists, identified that these inscriptions were most likely written during the years c. 1766 to 1154 BCE in the Shang dynasty, the first recorded Chinese dynasty for which there is both documentary and archeological evidence. This first significant corpus of recorded Chinese characters became known as the “Jia Gu Wen. They provided information on the politics, culture, religion, geography, art and medicine of the period. With their help, incomplete and vague historical data accumulated representing in writing the first critical insights on early Chinese civilization. Disease terms, mostly generic, were revealed on 36 oracle bones, such as “diseased skin”, “diseased nose”, “diseased body”, “diseased foot”, “blindness”, “childhood disease”, “diseased head”, “diseased eye”, “diseased ear”, “diseased tooth”, “diseased tongue”, “diseased complaint” and “disease termination”. These inscriptions did not mention the specific names of any drugs. The information from the “Jia Gu Wen” teaches us that Emperor Wu Ding suffered from eye disease; his son, cranial disease; and one of his concubines, foot disease; Emperor Zhen suffered from both tooth and stomach diseases; and many royal concubines, gynecological diseases. Of interest is that Emperor Wu Ding was the 23rd Emperor of the Shang dynasty, so most of the oracle bones date from his reign, more than 3250 years ago. These simple recordings also inform us that the diseases in the time of the Shang dynasty were mainly treated with prayers, incantations and witchcraft and above all patience - “Dr. Nature” was left to cure herself.
Names of drugs and therapeutic formulae first appeared on bamboo slabs and other wood cuttings (“slips”) dated to more than 2000 years ago. These inscribed artifacts were discovered in the desert, north-west of Dunhuang of Gansu Province in 1906-1908, and were named “Notes Scattered in the Slippery Sand”. Before the invention of paper, ancient Chinese scholars preserved their observations and records on wooden shavings linked together with double cords of silk thread and rolled into bundles. Among the hundreds of inscribed cuttings found, eleven contained descriptive names not only of diseases but also of herbal prescriptions for their cure. In 1930, archaeologists of the Chinese Scholars Association carried out further exploration in northwest China, and obtained over 5000 kg of wooden slivers from excavations in Juyan of Gansu Province. One of the cuttings bears the name “Four Kinds of Herbs for Febrile Diseases”, and another “Formulae for Horse Injury” which contained an elaborate concoction of ginger root (Zingiber officinale; Jiang), cinnamon or cassia twig (Cinnamomum japonicum; Gui Pi), asarum herb or Chinese wild ginger root (Asarum sieboldii; Xi Xin), Chinese honey locust (Gleditsia sinensis; Zao Jia), prepared aconite root (Aconitum; Fu Zi), polygala root (Polygala; Yuan Zhi), rhubarb (Rheum officinale; Da Huang), and lepidium or descurainia seed (Lepidium apetalum; Ting Li). These valuable medical records were written at a time frame ranging from the Warring States Period to the Han dynasty, and encompassing Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s unification of China in 221 BCE, establishing his capital city at Xi’an.
In 1972, 92 similar cuttings inscribed with medical prescriptions and acupuncture techniques were unearthed from an ancient tomb at Wuwei County of Gansu Province and dated to c. 30 to 70 CE. In these cuttings about 100 herbs, animal and mineral products to treat different diseases were recorded[. However, the use of animal biles in therapy were not documented in any of these discoveries.
Extending from the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046-256 BCE) into the Warring States Period (c. 403-221 BCE), the names of over two hundred different plants and animals were recorded in the Book of Odes (Shi Jing) (Anon, c. the 9th century to the 5th century BCE). This work summarized husbandry methods on the planting of crops and described experience with domestication of animals in China. Furthermore, in another well-known work, the Mountain and River Classic (Shan Hai Jing) more than one hundred specimens of plants, animals and minerals and parts thereof were summarized and documented for prevention and treatment of over fifty human diseases. Again, we find no evidence that animal biles were used as drugs in this important work at the beginning of the Qin dynasty (c. 221 BCE).
In the Winter of 1973, medical writings were unearthed from an ancient tomb at Mawangdui in Hunan Province. In this excavation most of the medical inscriptions were written on silk fragments, and a minority on bamboo cuttings. In some cases, the Chinese script resembles Qin bronze inscriptions rather than those of the Han dynasty, so the manuscripts may well date to as early as 300 BCE, although certain linguistic considerations suggest an even earlier date, perhaps in the Warring States period (c. 400 BCE). The texts of the manuscripts contain no titles, but the transcribing paleographers accorded them the following names: (1) Moxa manual of the eleven tracts on the upper and lower limbs; (2) Moxa manual of the eleven tracts according to the Yin and Yang; (3) Method of taking the pulse; (4) Fatal prognoses determined by the Yin and Yang; and (5) Prescriptions for fifty-two types of diseases (Wu Shi Er Bing Fang). The latter probably represented the earliest extant writings of Chinese medical prescriptions (c. 475 to 221 BCE) and included 291 prescriptions for the treatment of the 52 categories of disease. Short illustrated works on dietetics and calisthenics were also included.
Most notable is that in the Prescriptions for Fifty-two Types of Diseases, dog and ox biles were recorded for the first time as being efficacious in treating health disorders. Not only is this the earliest time that animal biles were recorded in an ancient Chinese text, but it is also significant that they were mentioned as being useful as drugs for therapeutic purposes! Additionally, the earliest recorded monograph on materia medica in China, Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic, which appeared in the years c. 475 to 206 BCE, recorded the use of common carp bile as a drug in addition to dog and ox biles. Therefore, these paleo-archaeological discoveries provide irrefutable evidence that animal biles have been employed therapeutically for more than 2500 years in China, with dog and ox biles being the first to be used, followed closely by common carp bile
The Chinese historical record mentions an anecdotal report of Hua Tuo (c. 110 to 207 CE), an outstanding surgeon who treated a patient with dog bile. The Annals of the Wei Kingdom (Wei Guo Zhi) recorded that during the Eastern Han period (25 to 220 CE), the daughter of Mayor Liu Xun of Henei City suffered from an abscess on her left knee. Hua Tuo was summoned to take care of her, and having examined the patient, he incised and drained the abscess. After evacuating the pus, he filled the empty space with fresh gallbladder bile of a domestic dog. This apparently caused the inflammation to abate, the girl’s pain disappeared and healing was induced. This medical record (c. 290 CE) was the first to document the use of an animal bile to heal a drained abscess cavity, and it is also the first example of the antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties of gallbladder bile.