Bronze Men of Acupuncture

Acupuncture was first invented by Chinese thousands of years ago, and whoever studies acupuncture must have learned the legend about China’s “Bronze Men of Acupuncture” (针灸铜人).

Bronze Men of the Song Dynasty – for Acupuncture Exam

Bronze Men are statues made of bronze in life-size. They were created in the Song Dynasty and then kidnapped by Jin tribesmen invaded China from the north, and then cloned in full during the Ming Dynasty, and then copied again, but with empty facade only containing no contents within, since the modern technology in some certain fields are not as advanced as that during China’s Song and Ming eras.

It is said that in the time of the Song dynasty, acupuncture treatment was extremely popular, and doctors with needle skills were in high demand, which attracted many less qualified practitioners to try their hand and resulted in increased incidents of mistreatment. When Emperor Renzong (宋仁宗赵祯) learned the messy situation, he ordered to issue the national standard for acupuncture point locations in the human body. Thus in the year 1026, Dr Wang Weiyi (王惟一), a chief royal medical officer, compiled New Standard Acupuncture Points Diagrams (新铸铜人腧穴针灸图经), and one year later a pair of life-sized bronze men with 365 acupoints on the body were produced.

The bronze men measured 1.73 tall in standing posture with both palms facing the viewer. The whole body was assembled from the front and back two parts and could be dismantled to see the bones, muscles and organs inside – evidently, China’s anatomic medicine was developed at least 800 years earlier than that in the West. The acupoints on the bronze men are meticulously explained in New Standard Acupuncture Points Diagrams which was carved onto a dozen of stone tablets to make sure the contents would never perish in time.

Bronze Men of the Ming Dynasty – Mass Production

Initially, one of the bronze men was kept in government-run medical college (医官院) used for training, and the other was housed in the Hall of Benevolent Relieve (仁济殿) of Great Premier Temple (大相国寺) at capital Dongjing (东京) in today’s Kaifeng (开封), Henan Province (河南). Since then, the medical students needed to pass the strict test on the bronze man before receiving a licence to practice acupuncture.

A Bronze Man produced during the Ming Dynasty (明代针灸铜人, 1368 – 1644) for acupuncture training and examination.

Prior to each test, all the acupoints on the bronze man would be sealed by honey wax and made invisible. During the examination, a teacher uttered the name of a point and the student had to insert the needle into the corresponding acupoints. If he hit the right spot, a few drops of liquid would be discharged; and if the student struck the right pints for five consecutive times, he would pass the test and became a fully licensed doctor.

The secret to the un-exhausted effluent liquid lies in the dual-layer structure of the bronze men’s body, so the liquid could be re-filled through a hole at the top of the skull that was covered with a hair bun.

Sadly, the national treasures were looted a century later by monadic Jin people from the grassland and so far no one knows the fate of the statues.

Several hundred years later when Chinese expelled the invaders and once again united under the banner of great Ming, bronze men were recreated in large quantities. One bronze man made during the Ming has survived to this day.

A Lost Technology

Chinese conservation expert Wan Li (万俐) from Nanjing Museum has crafted 6 bronze men with acupoints on the skin but none of them has recreated the technique wonder that is reflected in the production of the bronze men of the Song and the Ming. To start with, the coating of the Ming bronze men, that gives the skin a healthy sun-tanning appearance, contains some special Chinese medicine materials, and these materials are no longer available today.

5 comments

  • Paul Lutfy

    Love these little history stories.

    • Hi Paul, you are soxfan right? 😀

      This is an article penned years ago by my friend & mentor and published on another website. That website no longer exists so it is reposted here.

      • Paul Lutfy

        Yes I’m soxfan (Boston Red Sox). Though I banter on the other site I really do like reading the history stuff.

        • 🖖🖖 History is the mirror to the current world. I’ll upload more posts on history.

        • Paul Lutfy

          True. Because we never learn from it we keep doing the same thing over and over. What fascinates me individuals do learn (in most cases). It’s as a soceity we seem to stumble.

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