Last weekend, I spent two days fascinated, attending a seminar with Jeffery Yuen on the treatment of epidemic disorders from the perspective of the Wen Bing School. Wen Bing refers to “warm diseases.” This school of thought was developed during the Ming and Qing dynasties and is often discussed in relation to the treatment of epidemic and infectious diseases. The concepts that evolved from this school are still applicable today.
But let’s go back a ways. Chinese medicine has grappled with epidemics for thousands of years. The earliest texts in Chinese medicine describe disease being carried by the wind. Wind is a metaphor for change. Wind carries cold, which causes blockage and constriction and gets trapped. As the body mobilizes, a yang (heat) battle ensues and symptoms arise. This climatic theory of disease transmission continues to influence Chinese medical thinking about illness. During the Han dynasty (220 AD) the famous physician Zhang Zhong Jing wrote what became the most influential text on Chinese herbal medicine, the “Shang Han Lun” or “Treatise on Cold Damage,” in response to an epidemic that is said to have wiped out hundreds of his family members.
Now, let’s catapult forward in time. Theories of disease transmission and progression evolve to reflect the changing culture and time in China often in response to very dramatic crises including famine, foreign invasions, and seismic demographic shifts. Not to overuse the word catapult, but during the Mongol invasions of the 13th century the Chinese experienced an early type of biological warfare, as Mongolian hordes catapulted corpses over city walls to spread disease among the inhabitants within.
By the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1912) China was dealing with rapid population explosion, Western influence, and the pressures of modernization. It was during this time that the Wen Bing School emerged, again in response to what is seen as a culture in crisis. The view that disease could always be treated from a perspective of cold invasion was no longer adequate. Theories of transmission must include the insight that illnesses can be transmitted from person to person and may be so powerful that they overcome even the strongest of individuals. A school of warm disease was born.
One of the most important models from the Wen Bing School describes the progression of heat (fever) to deeper and deeper levels of the body, eventually culminating with massive hemorrhaging and complete exhaustion of fluids. This is heat at the “blood level.” Watching last week’s “Frontline” on PBS about ebola I kept thinking, How could we better care for those patients if we were using both Western and Eastern medicine? Could we help care for those patients with Wen Bing treatments?