The History of Medicine in the Yuan Dynasty

Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty

The Yuan dynasty was the heir state to the Mongol Empire after its partition and a ruling dynasty of China founded by Kublai Khan, leader of the Mongol Borjigin clan, lasting from 1271 CE to 1368 CE. In Chinese historiography, this dynasty replaced the Song dynasty and scouted the Ming dynasty.

Although Genghis Khan had been crowned with the Chinese title of Emperor in 1206 CE and the Mongol Empire had ruled regions including modern-day northern China for decades, it was not until 1271 CE that Kublai Khan officially declared the dynasty in the classical Chinese style. The conquest was not finished until 1279 CE when the Southern Song dynasty was overthrown in the Battle of Yamen. His kingdom was, by this point, separated from the other Mongol khanates and dominated most of modern-day China and its neighboring areas, including modern Mongolia.


The Yuan court’s physicians came from different cultures. Healers were split into traditional Mongol shamans and non-Mongol physicians called otachi. The Mongols marked otachi doctors by their use of herbaceous remedies, which was separated from the religious cures of Mongol shamanism. Physicians gained formal support from the Yuan administration and were given proper legal privileges. Kublai founded the Imperial Academy of Medicine to accomplish medical treatises and the education of new specialists. Confucian scholars were drawn to the medical profession because medical ethics were compatible with Confucian virtues, and it ensured a high income.

The Chinese medicinal culture of the Yuan had “Four Great Schools” that the Yuan acquired from the Jin dynasty. All four schools were focused on the same rational foundation but supported different academic approaches toward Medicine and treatment. Under the Mongols, the practice of Chinese Medicine evolved to other parts of the mighty empire. Chinese practitioners were taken along armed campaigns by the Mongols as they extended towards the west. Chinese medical techniques such as moxibustion, acupuncture, pulse diagnosis, and numerous herbal elixirs and drugs were moved westward to the Middle East and the rest of the kingdom. Numerous medical advances were possible in the Yuan era. The physician Wei Yilin (1277 CE–1347 CE) invented a suspension method for overcoming dislocated joints, which he did by using anesthetics. The Mongol doctor Hu Sihui described the value of a healthy diet in a 1330 medical paper.

Western Medicine was also trained in China by the Nestorian Christians of the Yuan court. They would bring in doctors from India and get trained in Indian Medicine. The Nestorian doctor Jesus the Interpreter established the Office of Western Medicine in 1263 CE during the reign of Kublai in the same era. Huihui doctors living at two imperial hospitals were responsible for treating the imperial family and court members. Chinese physicians, sadly, opposed Western Medicine because its system contradicted the yin-yang and wuxing philosophy carrying traditional Chinese Medicine.

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