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Medicine on the Silk Road


Dunhuang was a hive of activity where everything — from the works of famous Chinese medical authors to anonymous Tibetan collections of recipes for contagious illnesses — were copied and translated into many languages for the peoples of the Silk Road. Modern scholars from all around the world now use the Dunhuang collections as an important resource for understanding the medieval world and the transmission of technical knowledge along the Silk Roads. Links to some of the medical manuscripts with brief descriptions are given below. Translations will be added in 2007–8.

Download 2,000 years of Chinese acupuncture (PDF 1.6MB). A brochure by Vivienne Lo & Volker Scheid covering the history of Chinese medicine including practices such as acupuncture and moxibustion.

Medical Manuscripts

Click on an image to see the full manuscript in the IDP Database.


We have many manuscripts which tell us of plagues and illnesses on the Silk Road. This manuscript was written before AD 803 and it is a text entitled 'The Ten Fatal Maladies'. The seventh column (from the right hand side) of this manuscript reads: 'This year when the crops were ripe, the was no-one to harvest them. People were dying of many illnesses.'

Manuscript Or.8210/S.3417


This is the earliest surviving moxibustion chart, dating from between AD 600–900. Moxibustion is a treatment which burns dried and ground leaves of the plant mugwort at points of the body. This is to ease pain and expel the causes of the illness. It is still used today in Chinese medicine.

Manuscript Or.8210/S.6168a


This is part of a book called 'Master Ling Yang's Secret Remedies'. The remedies include incantations to conjure up devils and spirits to help with the cure.

This fragment contains part of one prescription for a medicine containing Ginseng root. Ginseng in Chinese is called 'human spirit'. The root sometimes resembles a person.

Manuscript Or.8210/S.6030


This manuscript gives remedies for various illnesses or problems. This section is a cure for baldness. 'Rub in horse-mane oil regularly; the hair then begins to grow spontaneously.'

Manuscript Or.8210/S.4329

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