The Nine Needles Of Acupuncture: Really For Modern Times?

| May 4, 2010 | 0 Comments | 310 views

In the first book supposedly written (or compiled) on the subject of Chinese acupuncture, Qi Bo the minister gives his advice to the Yellow Emperor who wants to know which kind of needles should be used. The text is in the first chapter of the second part of the Neijing, called the Lingshu. This second part deals mostly with acupuncture, to show the importance the authors were giving to the topic.

Actually in this section the Emperor starts complaining about the bad health of his people who consequently cannot pay taxes, and then suggests the replacement of stone needles by metal needles. His minister goes on then explaining about the different kinds. To put this topic in its correct perspective one should point out that all this happened more than two thousand years ago,. The earliest copy of the book we are referring to dates back around one thousand years, and comprises many changes from the first version, which does usually not change much to the original contents.

The teachers, whether in China or in other countries, love to spend quite a long time on explaining about these Nine Needles. It is like a ritual, even in our time. In China they manufactured recently (the first lot dating from 1984) a glass show case with the Nine "instruments" neatly lying on a velvet cushion, and there have been several other versions made since then, in which many other instruments have been added.

In the first one they tried to be realistic: the needles looked very old and rusty to show the ancientness of the practice. I must say the case looks impressive because all the instruments, even the thinnest needles, are pretty thick. I measured the "Hao Zhen", which is supposed to be the ancestor of the needles we use now. Its gauge was 0.6 mm... and I am not sure the end is very sharp. So why spend sometimes more than an hour on these Nine Needles? It seems like an indirect way of giving more value to acupuncture, which so many years ago had already set up and organized its medical tools. Each of them have got a specific role, but in fact only 3 or 4 can be called needles: two are made for massage, one is obviously a lancet, another is made for bleeding points superficially, one more is in the shape of an arrow. Some of them are quite long (up to 5-6 inches). Each of them has a particular name, a specific purpose. They are related to natural elements or concepts: Yin Yang, Heaven or Earth, music notes, etc.

They are the ancestors of the delicate and fine needles that we use now, and represent the instrument case of a medical practitioner in those days, more than the tools for an acupuncture specialist (If there were such kind at that epoch!) Actually there are ten kinds of needles. One usually adds the "Fire needle", probably heated with a flame so as to safely pierce abscesses. It is thick and the tip is blunt.

The teaching of these instruments is part of the traditional information conveyed by the instructors, like many other topics which are no more of any use in our modern world. They are part of a "must" in the curriculum of acupuncture leaning. However, they do not encourage students to practice; they more often put them off from using needles, even though the teacher had insisted on the historical aspect. Because that is what it represents: the cultural, historical and technical features of Chinese acupuncture's evolution. So what to do? Skip the whole subject? It is an option because it will not make the needling skills better. Talk at length about them? This is rather a waste of time when there is so much to learn (in a limited time).

Some teachers (me included) have chosen the middle of the road. We mention them as part of the evolution of the technique, situate them in their cultural and historical context, underline the semi-exotic facets, but mostly emphasize that this moment of the teaching is recreation time and certainly not practical information. The useful information will come when we detail the needles that we use today. Just for fun, before demystifying the whole story, I present the nine (or ten) needles to my students very seriously, as the instruments they will have to use, first experimenting on themselves and then on each other. When the color has drained from their face I tell them it was a joke, and they feel greatly relieved...

There are too many rituals in the teaching and learning of acupuncture. One should stick to the useful essentials, basically spend more time on what kind of needles do the acupuncturists use today. It is one of the fundamental attitudes for approaching the concept and the most sensible application of how to do acupuncture.

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