Ancient Chinese Anaesthesia

Guan Yu is a legendary figure in China. He was a general in the kingdom of Shu during the period of Three Kingdoms (from AD 222 to 265). In a battle in Fan City, a poisoned arrow injured Guan Yu’s right arm. The most famous surgeon at that time, Hua Tuo, made an incision in his right arm, and scraped off the poisoned muscle and bone. During the operation, Guan Yu continued to drink and play chess. He talked and laughed as if nothing was happening. His composure brought him admiration and respect from all soldiers and other generals that had witnessed the operation. They were amazed by how Guan Yu was able to control himself so well in the face of such pain. But the fact is that, before the operation, Hua Tuo might have applied a topical anaesthetic called mandrake to his arm. Hua Tuo is probably the first person to invent and use anaesthesia.

Prior to Hua Tuo’s time, in order to prevent the patient from squirming and moving restlessly during a painful operation, prior to surgery the doctors would tightly bind the patient by the hands and feet. Or the doctors would hit the patient’s head or release some blood in order to make the patient unconsciousness.

In order to reduce the patient’s pain during the operation, Hua Tuo tried everything to find an herb for anaesthesia. One day when Hua Tuo was on a mountain to collect herbs, he met a woodcutter who was severely injured. The woodcutter grabbed a couple of leaves, mashed them and pressed them against his wound. After a while, the pain disappeared. Hua Tuo was pleasantly surprised at the sight of the magical herb, and eagerly asked the woodcutter for the name of the herb. The leaves came from a plant called mandrake. After many trials and errors, Hua Tuo finally produced a famous anaesthesia called “Ma Fei San”.

In the sixteenth chapter of a famous Chinese novel All Men Are Brothers (another name for it is the Shui Hu Legend), a counsellor from the Liang Mountain [1], named Wu Yong, put some narcotic in the drink and successfully robbed the treasure off Yang Zhi, who was in charge of delivering the treasure. After Yang Zhi and his guards drank the wine, the fifteen of them could not do anything but helplessly watch the seven men take the treasure in front of them. They couldn’t stand up, move, or even speak a word. In fact, Wu Yong mixed anaesthesia with the wine. The Chinese anaesthesia he used was called “men han” drug. “Men” means “pass out” and “han” means “a grown man” in Chinese, so “men han” drug means a drug that causes a grown man to pass out. The main active ingredient in the drug was mandrake.

The Illustrated Guide to Plants explained, “Mandrake lives in the wild prairies in Guangxi Province. Bandits often take its stem, mash the stems, and put them in the food to make their target victims unconsciousness so that they can steal their belongings. The men han drug must have been made of this kind of herb.”

There are many Chinese herbs that can be used for anaesthesia. Besides mandrake, there are more than forty other different kinds of herbs that can be used as an anaesthetic. It was only since the past century that Western medicine began to use dimethylether as an anaesthetic in operations. But Chinese medicine had already invented and used anaesthetics as early as Hua Tuo’s time, some two thousand years ago.

Note:
[1] Liang Mountain: The home base of a gang of hero-bandits in All Men Are Brothers, a very popular work of fiction written by Shi Nai-An.

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