Chunyu Yi (c. 216–c. 150 BCE) was a famous physician in ancient China who could tell at a glance whether a patient would live or die. He treated patients with utmost care whether rich or poor, and he was revered for his brilliant use of ancient medical principles in unexpected ways. At the request of the emperor, Chunyu Yi wrote what would be the first medical textbook for Chinese medicine.
Chunyu Yi could have lived the life of a gentleman but instead followed his passion for medicine, becoming an itinerant physician after apprenticing with eminent doctors in his area. He was well-versed in China's ancient medical lore but felt free to buck tradition. He became so famous as a healer that the emperor asked him to write down his knowledge, which he did, creating the first complete medical textbook of Chinese medicine.
Chunyu Yi was born into a noble family of ancient lineage in what is now Shan-Tung Province in approximately 216 BCE, although the years of his birth and death are uncertain. He likely came of age during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–202 CE), which scholars view as a golden age in Chinese history. Details of his life are few, outside of the autobiographical commentary he would include in his famous medical textbook. Through his family's traditional relationship with the government, Chunyu Yi inherited the honorary title Tai Cang Gong, or “Grand Master of the Granary” for his region. Because this position gave him a financial stipend, but no actual responsibilities, Chunyu Yi would live a comfortable life until his early 30s, collecting his salary and raising a family.
As a boy, Chunyu Yi demonstrated a passion for medicine, and his study of medical texts sometimes allowed him to treat patients. When the opportunity arose, the youngster apprenticed with a respected doctor in his area, Kung-sun Kuang. The older man appreciated Chunyu Yi's work ethic, studiousness, and modesty and ultimately shared everything he knew with him. This meant revealing his personal range of healing arts and sharing access to the medical manuscripts in his possession. As a young man, Chunyu Yi took full advantage of the opportunity the doctor provided.
Chunyu Yi absorbed every bit of information his two teachers gave him and by adulthood he knew many ancient medical secrets and was a walking encyclopedia of the Chinese healing arts. Although he could have followed the paths of his teachers and be a doctor to the locals, his destiny was much greater. Chunyu Yi's unique talent was to use his wisdom creatively and never practiced by rote. He never treated any ancient prescription as a recipe that he had to follow; rather, he viewed it as a set of ideas he was free to use or not use, depending on his assessment of a particular patient.
Not long after his apprenticeship concluded, Chunyu Yi was called to assist a doctor named Sui, who lived in a neighboring kingdom. Falling ill, Sui remained very sick, even though he had taken the medicine prescribed for his condition: a preparation made from the powder ground from five special stones. Chunyu Yi felt Sui's pulse and told him that he was suffering from an internal fever that had been aggravated by the stone medicine, which was far too strong. The sick doctor became angry and quoted the medical text which prescribed the remedy he was using. Chunyu Yi agreed that the remedy was plausible but that Sui's personal physique and illness called for another alternative. If he did not change the treatment, he added, Sui would develop a tumor in his body and die. The doctor remained angry and insisted on continuing his “correct” treatment. As Chunyu Yi had predicted, after a few months, Sui developed a tumor in his chest and died.
Sui's case was one of many then reported in which Chunyu Yi's superior diagnostic abilities were evident and would benefit those who obeyed his instructions. As news of his success with extreme illnesses spread throughout China, he was called upon to attend to nobles and their families. Chunyu Yi treated peasants as well as rich people, however, viewing all patients as equal in his care. Due to poor health habits, such as heavy drinking and overeating, some nobles were so sick that Chunyu Yi could not help them. Because he was unwilling to nurse such people, he sometimes incurred the ire of rich families and local nobles. Nonetheless, Chunyu Yi continued to discern who would and would not listen to him and follow his directions, and he went only where his counsel was curative, respected, and followed.
Even as Chunyu Yi's fame spread and he became a hero to many, he also gained enemies. In addition to fellow doctors who resented his success and superior skills, there were powerful people who resented that he refused to serve them or their relatives. As Chunyu Yi later wrote, he decided to become an itinerant physician not only because of his enemies but because he feared being trapped by a royal family and forced to serve only them. He soon lived like a refugee, traveling from place to place in secret and relocating frequently so that he could be of service to more people. At one point, however, a Chinese noble filed charges accusing Chunyu Yi of a serious crime (now long forgotten). The physician was arrested and taken to the capital city, where he was put in prison. Rich and well-connected, his accuser sought to have Chunyu Yi punished severely, most likely by some manner of physical mutilation that would hamper his ability to be a healer.
Fortunately, Chunyu Yi had a daughter, Chunyu Tiying, who heard of his plight and wrote a heartfelt plea to the emperor to free her father. Praising him as a good man and a treasure of the empire, Chunyu Tiying offered her own life for his freedom. According to some accounts, her offer was accepted and she was made a slave of the state. In any case, the emperor was deeply moved, granting Chunyu Yi his freedom and also abolishing mutilation as a form of punishment.
The next time Chunyu Yi heard from imperial authorities, it was to answer a decree ordering a census of doctors able to discern whether certain medical treatments were successful in specific cases. Chunyu Yi obeyed the emperor's request and identified himself as one such physician. More questions arrived, quizzing him on his skills as well as how he had learned them and where he had practiced. Now older and settled in the capital city of Luoyang, Chunyu Yi answered these questions by authoring a veritable textbook. In his reply to the emperor were his autobiography, 25 modes of practice, detailed descriptions of diseases and prognoses, and numerous case studies drawn from his records. Far ahead of his time, Chunyu Yi was also a strict record keeper, making and retaining notes on every patient in his care.
In all likelihood, Chunyu Yi lived out his days in the capital city, serving all who called upon him until his death around 150 BCE. His writings continue to be valued by scholars for what they reveal about the origins of Chinese medicine, the workings of society during the Han Dynasty, and the nuances of Chinese thought and expression. Like their author, they continue to serve many.
Bates, Don, editor, Knowledge and the Scholarly Medical Traditions, Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Brown, Miranda. The Art of Medicine in Early China: The Ancient and Medieval Origins of a Modern Archive, Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Classical Chinese Medicine for Healing, http://www.ccmforhealing.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Chun-yu-I-and-Stages-of-Classical-Text-Transmission.pdf (September 2011), Steven Alpern, “Chunyu Yi and the Stages of Classical Text Transmission.”□