Accounts of Psychiatric Treatment in Ancient China

Psychiatric therapy appears to be somewhat new to modern society, while in fact there are many cases in which psychiatric therapy was recorded in ancient medical books. I’m detailing two examples below.

In the Tang Dynasty an unknown doctor in China’s capital treated a women who had mistakenly eaten a worm. She came with her husband to Nanzhong, as she believed the worm had remained insider her. She had grown ill from being anxious over a prolonged period of time. She saw numerous doctors and no one could help her. Then she went to see the unknown doctor. The doctor asked her about her medical history and immediately understood what her ailment was. He chose one of her closest and most reliable servants, and told her, “I am going to prescribe some herbs that will produce vomiting and diarrhoea. You will be the one who cleans up the discharge. After she vomits, please tell her that you saw a worm in the discharge. But, don't ever let her know that you lied to her.” The servant followed the doctor’s instruction and indeed the women’s illness disappeared.

Another example is about a doctor named Zhao Qing. A teenager, who always saw a mirror in front of his eyes, came for a consultation with Zhao Qing. Zhao Qing made an appointment, and promised to treat him with sashimi (a meal that includes thinly cut raw fish, mostly tuna) the following morning. The teenager arrived at Zhao Qing’s residence on time. He was asked to wait in the living room for Zhao Qing, who had a prior meeting with another visitor. Zhao Qing was to see him as soon as the visitor left. After a while a servant put a table in front of the teenager and left only a bottle of vinegar with mustard on the table. There was no other food. He waited and waited, but Zhao Qing did not come. He sat there from sunrise to sunset, and still Zhao Qing didn't show up.

By that time, the teenager was close to starving himself. He smelled the vinegar and decided to take a small sip. After a while he drank some more. He suddenly felt light-headed and was no longer dizzy. Being pleasantly surprised, he decided to drink the whole bottle of vinegar. Zhao Qing knew the point in time when he had finished the bottle of vinegar and came back to the house. The teenager felt ashamed because he drank the whole bottle of vinegar and thus he apologised to Zhao Qing. Zhao Qing told him, “You ate too much sashimi. Since there was not enough vinegar in the meal, you had a lot of squama (scale and skin from the fish) in your chest. That was the reason you felt dizzy. So I prepared vinegar for you today and did not give you any other food. You had no choice but to drink it. It restored your health. I invited you for a sashimi, and that was only a strategy. Now you can go home and have your dinner.” Zhao Qing applied the same remarkable strategy to many patients.


Bei Meng Suo Yan

Note: Bei Meng Suo Yan was written by Sun Guangxian during The Song Dynasty. The book consists of a lot of historical records from the Wuzong Era and from the later Tang Dynasty to the Five Dynasty, including anecdotes of the imperial courts and events and social customs of a number of places. This book was a very important source for historians.

Chinese version available at

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