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Tang’s “Imperial Medical Department,” The World’s Earliest Medical School

In the twentieth year of the Yuanjia reign (443 AD) of the Song Dynasty, the emperor Qin Chengzu permitted the creation of a medical education institution to teach students, as well as the currently established doctors of medicine, assistant professors of medicine, and other medical officials. In the 6th century AD, the Sui Dynasty created the “Department of Imperial Medicine” as an institution, which was a centralized office for several doctors, equivalent to the current administrative institution for medical education. It was under the command of the Taishang Temple, which was in charge of rites and music, temples, and the gods of earth, grain, and other things. Sui’s “Department of Imperial Medicine” had two masters of medicine, 200 physicians, two pharmacists, two doctors of medicine, two teaching assistants, two

In the twentieth year of the Yuanjia reign (443 AD) of the Song Dynasty, the emperor Qin Chengzu permitted the creation of a medical education institution to teach students, as well as the currently established doctors of medicine, assistant professors of medicine, and other medical officials.

In the 6th century AD, the Sui Dynasty created the “Department of Imperial Medicine” as an institution, which was a centralized office for several doctors, equivalent to the current administrative institution for medical education. It was under the command of the Taishang Temple, which was in charge of rites and music, temples, and the gods of earth, grain, and other things.

Sui’s “Department of Imperial Medicine” had two masters of medicine, 200 physicians, two pharmacists, two doctors of medicine, two teaching assistants, two massage doctors, and two doctors of incantation. However, due to the small size and incomplete setup of the Sui “Department of Imperial Medicine,” it could only be regarded as the primary stage of a medical school instead of a formal medical school.

The first official medical school organized by China was the Tang “Imperial Medical Department,” established in Chang’an in the seventh year of Emperor Gaozu Wude’s reign (624 AD). The Tang “Imperial Medical Department” consisted of four parts: administration, instruction, medical care, and pharmacology, similar to a present-day medical school.

Tang’s “Imperial Medical Department” was directly under the Royal Family. The two Imperial Medical Directors, who were the chief executives of the Department, were equivalent to the principals of medical schools nowadays. Additionally, two Ministers of Imperial Medicine were the assistants of the chief executives. Under them, there were four medical supervisors and eight medical correctors. These 18 people were all administrative officials of the Department.

The “Department of Imperial Medicine” was divided into the Department of Medicine and the Department of Pharmacy, similar to current medical schools. Medicine was divided into four main departments: medicine, acupuncture, massage (including injury), and incantation, similar to some of the majors in the current medical faculty. The medical department was the largest of the four departments, with 164 students.

Among them were 20 physicians, 100 medical workers, 40 doctors, two pharmacists, one doctor of medicine, and one assistant professor of medicine. After enrollment, students had to learn introductory courses such as “Suwen,” “Shennong Ben Cao Jing,” “Pulse Jing,” and ” Jia Yi Jing” and then divided into majors.

Students were taught by the doctors and teaching assistants in the “Department of Imperial Medicine,” divided into specialties of “one day of physical therapy, two days of sores and swellings, three days of pediatrics, four days of ear, eye, mouth, and teeth, and five days of the angular method.”

In every twenty people, “eleven people learn body therapy, three people learn sores, three people learn pediatrics, two people learn ears, eyes, mouth, and teeth, one person learns angular method.”

At that time, the years required for study were: “Seven years for body therapists, five years for pediatrics and sores and swellings, and two years for ear, eye, mouth, and articulation diseases.” In fact, physical therapy was equivalent to internal medicine, and pediatrics, sores and swellings were comparable to surgery. Ears, eyes, mouth, and teeth were the treatment of the five senses, and the angular method was a kind of external treatment.

Among the other three divisions, the Acupuncture Division had 52 faculty and staff members, including one doctor, one assistant professor, ten needle technicians, 30 needleworkers, and 20 students. Acupuncture students learned fundamental medical theories and then focused on acupuncture specialties.

The Massage Division had 36 staff and students, including one doctor, four massage therapists, 16 massage workers, and 15 students, focusing on studying massage specialties. There were 21 teachers and students in the Incantation Section, including one doctor, two incantation masters, eight incantation workers, and ten students, mainly studying the five prohibitions in Taoism and the Five Forbidden precepts in Buddhism. However, this specialty had the fewest people and the least influence.

The “Imperial College of Physicians” stipulated that students should have monthly, quarterly and yearly exams in addition to the entrance examination. Those who failed after nine years of study would be dismissed from school. For those who did well on the test, they would be rewarded. Such an examination system ensured the quality of students and allowed them to identify talented students promptly.

The Department of Imperial Medicine not only provided for the regular examination of students but “when it comes to physician, medical, medical workers, the number of diseases they’ve cured are set out as a test course.” The assessment system for teachers and teaching assistants assured the quality of the faculty, which also ensured the quality of education of the entire medical school.

Although the Department of Pharmacy was not as large as the Department of Medicine, it was a considerable size. The Department of Pharmacy consisted of “two officials, four historians, eight pharmacists, 24 pharmacy students, two herbalists, and eight herbalists students.”

The Department of Pharmacy also had a pharmacy garden, so it could teach students not only from the theory but also through the practice of cultivating pharmacy specialists. As the Tang Dynasty paid great attention to the pharmacy, they made it ready for the first Pharmacopoeia for China – “Newly Revised Materia Medica” to be introduced.

China’s first medical school–the Tang Dynasty, “the Imperial Medical Department,” trained many medical personnel for the Dynasty, and later generations set up similar medical schools. In 1102 AD, during the Song Dynasty, the medical school was under the management of the “State Prison.”

The “State Prison” was the high-ranking leadership organization in charge of education at that time. The scale of medical schools in the Song Dynasty also expanded. Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties’ medical schools were very similar to the Tang Dynasty, ” Imperial Medical Department,” not much changed. Many famous doctors came from the medical school, such as Zhu Gong and Chen Ziming in the Song Dynasty, Gu Yilin and Qi Dezhi in the Yuan Dynasty, and Xu Chunfu and Xue Ji in the Ming Dynasty.

Countries worldwide learned this medical school form from Tang’s “Imperial Medical Department” and set up some similar institutions, such as North Korea. In a later imitation of Tang’s “Department of Imperial Medicine,” North Korea set up Bo Tu, with Chinese medical books “Su Wen,” “Nan Jing,” “A Yi Jing,” “Materia Medica,” and so on to teach medical students.

Japan formulated the “Omuro Ruling” in 701 AD, setting up a medical education similar to the Tang “Department of Imperial Medicine” and stipulating that students must use Chinese medical books “Su Wen” and “Newly Revised Materia Medica” as textbooks.

However, the scale, scope, and form of these medical schools could not be formally classified as medical schools. The so-called earliest medical school in the world was the Salerno Medical School, founded in the 11th century. This medical school was not only 500 years later than the Tang “Imperial Medical Department” but also much shorter in terms of its organization and scale.


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