In Ancient China, Virtuous Doctors Received Heaven’s Blessings

In Beijing's Ditan Park, a sculpture of Sun Simiao, the Tang Dynasty medical scientist who was later known as the king of medicine.

Throughout history, there have been many doctors with exceptional medical skills and kind hearts who have exemplified the notion that 'medicine is a practice of benevolence.' (Image: Zjm7100 via Dreamstime)

The ancients valued moral conduct, and this was true across all professions and industries. For example, doctors should uphold medical ethics, merchants should uphold commercial ethics, and officials should uphold bureaucratic ethics. The famous physician Zhang Zhongjing of the Eastern Han Dynasty provided insightful explanations on the subject stating that “medicine is a practice of benevolence” in his book Treatise on Typhoid and Miscellaneous Diseases.

Sun Simiao, a renowned physician of the Tang Dynasty, also clearly stated in his book Essential Formulas for Emergencies [Worth] a Thousand Pieces of Gold that “human life is of utmost importance and worth more than anything else,” emphasizing that doctors have a responsibility to relieve the suffering of their patients. Throughout the various historical records such as the Twenty-Four Histories, as well as local chronicles and other literary works, there are many accounts of highly skilled physicians who also possessed strong medical ethics.

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Doctor He Cheng is rewarded by Heaven for upright behavior

The He family of Zhuangjiaxing in Shanghai’s Fengxian County was a renowned family of doctors during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties. There were over 10 famous He doctors recorded in local chronicles, and the first generation of the family’s famous doctors was He Tianxiang. He was skilled in treating many difficult diseases and had excellent medical ethics. For patients with financial difficulties, he charged only a small fee for medicine, and some patients didn’t even have to pay anything at all.

For patients with financial difficulties, the doctor charged only a small fee for medicine, and some patients didn't even have to pay anything at all.
For patients with financial difficulties, Dr. He charged only a small fee for medicine, and some patients didn’t even have to pay anything at all. (Image: Marilyn Barbone via Dreamstime)

He Tianxiang’s grandson, He Cheng, was a famous doctor in the Ming Dynasty. He also had excellent medical skills and high medical ethics. He never accepted money from poor patients. When he met poor people who could not afford to pay for treatment, he would use the money rich patients had given him to help the poor. He treated patients from far and near, and he would go to their homes to provide medical care.

Sun Mianzhi, who lived in the same town as He Cheng, had been bedridden for a long time and had been treated by many doctors without success. Then, his family invited He Cheng to treat him. He Cheng came to his house several times in order to gain a good understanding of the disease, and then he prescribed appropriate medicine to treat it. Sun Mianzhi improved soon after taking the medicine.

One day, when He Cheng came to the house for a follow-up consultation, Sun’s wife took him to an inner room and said to him: “Because my husband has been sick for so long, I have already pawned all the things we own and cannot afford to pay for your consultation. However, in order to express my gratitude, I am willing to offer myself as compensation.”

He Cheng refused, saying: “Madam, don’t do that. Your husband just needs to recuperate and he will surely be cured. If I agreed, it would not only make me a villain, but you would no longer be a virtuous woman.” Sun’s wife left the room in shame. Soon after, Sun Mianzhi was cured. 

On the very night that He Cheng refused the advances of Sun’s wife, he had a dream in which a divine being said to him: “Your medical skills are powerful and you do not allow yourself to engage in inappropriate behavior. Heaven favors you and has granted you 3,000 taels of silver and an official position.”

Soon after, the Crown Prince became seriously ill, and the imperial physicians were unable to diagnose the root cause of the illness. The Emperor issued a decree summoning skilled physicians from the general public to treat the Crown Prince. He Cheng responded to the summons and successfully cured the Crown Prince’s illness. As a result, the Emperor appointed him as a physician in the Zhenfu region, with a salary equivalent to the second rank, and granted him a reward of 3,000 taels of silver, which matched the divine reward he had received in his dream.

A pile of old Chinese coins.
He Cheng received an official position with a salary equivalent to the second rank along with the 3,000 taels of silver he had been promised in his dream. (Image: Yali Shi via Dreamstime)

Doctor Zhang Yanming receives divine protection

In the Ming Dynasty, there was a famous doctor named Zhang Yanming. He was also a doctor with excellent medical skills and a kind heart. When he met a poor patient, he not only did not charge for the consultation, but also used his own money to help. He would go to the patients as soon as they needed him, no matter how hot or cold it was outside, how close or distant they were, or how rich or poor they were.

One night, when it was snowing heavily, a patient’s family came to ask him if he would be willing to go with them to provide some treatment. When Zhang Yanming’s family saw that the weather was very bad, they advised him not to go. However, Zhang Yanming said: “Sometimes it is a very small thing that determines whether a patient will live or die. If it were not urgent, why would they have come to the house looking for me in such weather?” So he bundled up and followed them.

One day later, a big fire broke out in the city, and the area where the Zhang family’s house was located was also affected by the fire. Surprisingly, all the houses around the Zhang family were burned down, but only the Zhang family’s house remained unharmed. Could it be that they received divine protection? It is likely that Zhang Yanming had accumulated great virtue, which resulted in his descendants producing many distinguished people.

Throughout history, there have been many doctors with exceptional medical skills and kind hearts who have exemplified the notion that “medicine is a practice of benevolence.” However, in today’s world, how many doctors truly grasp the essence of this principle?

Translated by Eva

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