Well-Known Physician of Ancient China: Ge Lin (Part 1)

Imperial physician Ge Lin.

In this first of a series, we’ll look at physician Ge Lin from ancient China who had skills that could not only diagnose and treat serious and unusual diseases, but could even predict a person’s life expectancy. (Image: Violka08 via Dreamstime)

This is a three-part series; please go here for part 2

In ancient China, there were physicians with amazing medical skills and abilities. Despite not having modern equipment, they could diagnose, treat, and predict the course of a patient’s life and health, and they were able to do things beyond what even today’s modern medicine can do.  

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Receive selected content straight into your inbox.

In this first article in a series, we’ll look at one such physician who had skills that could not only diagnose and treat serious and unusual diseases but could even predict a person’s life expectancy based on their condition — the renowned imperial physician Ge Lin.

Curing the future emperor’s epilepsy with just one spoonful of medicine

In ancient China, it was very difficult to become enlisted by the Imperial Palace as an imperial doctor, and even more so to be handpicked by the royal family itself. Only those with excellent medical skills and a widespread reputation would have the privilege of serving the palace. Ge Lin was one of these doctors.

Ge Lin, also known as Mao Lin, lived during the Ming Dynasty and hailed from Qiantang County, Zhejiang Province, in China. He was extremely skilled in medicine and specialized in pediatrics. 

During the reign of Emperor Xianzong of the Ming Dynasty (1464-1487), stories of his curing illnesses were spread all over the capital. The emperor later appointed him an imperial doctor of the Imperial Hospital.

Painting of Ming Dynasty Emperor Xianzong of China in Imperial robes.
Emperor Xianzong of the Ming Dynasty appointed him an imperial doctor of the Imperial Hospital. (Image: Public Domain via Wikipedia)

When his son, Zhu Youcheng, was young, he was taken care of by the Empress Dowager. The Empress Dowager trusted Ge Lin and asked him to check the boy’s pulse whenever he was summoned to care for him. One evening, Zhu Youcheng had an epileptic seizure and his situation was very critical. 

The physician responsible for treating the boy during his seizures was unable to bring them under control, and he was struggling to find a solution. As a last resort, Ge Lin was called upon for assistance. Ge Lin administered only a single spoonful of medicine to the boy, after which his seizures subsided. The emperor was greatly relieved and expressed his gratitude by inviting Ge Lin to a royal banquet the following day. In recognition of his invaluable service, Ge Lin was generously rewarded with money for saving the prince’s life.

Warning about a life-threatening rash

A few years later during the next emperor’s reign, the 25-year-old son of Wang Zaiqian, who was the Minister of Rites, suddenly developed a smallpox rash. Despite having some knowledge of medicine, Wang Zaiqian did not think the rash was serious and neglected it.

Ge Lin, however, looked at it and did not think that was the case. He noticed that the patient’s pox rash continued for five days only. It slowly faded on the seventh day, and by the 14th day, even the scabs were falling off. He felt that the situation was not good and hurried to tell Wang Zaiqian: “Your son’s life may be in danger within a month!”

A month passed. Seeing that his son was safe and sound, and not in danger, Wang Zaiqian invited guests to his home to celebrate his son’s recovery. Ge Lin, however, was still observing his son carefully. When he saw that blisters grew out of the rash again on the bottom of the patient’s feet and left scars on the skin when they dried up, he told Wang Zaiqian: “Alas! your son will not live more than 100 days!”

Just as the hundredth day arrived, Wang Zaiqian’s son suddenly passed away. The heartbroken Wang Zaiqian was puzzled because he thought that his son’s condition did not seem serious, and so he went to Ge Lin to inquire about the cause. 

Ge Lin explained: “Smallpox is caused by toxins that cannot be eliminated from the body and accumulate into a rash. If the toxins are not completely eliminated, the person’s life is at risk. Your son’s pox toxins were accumulated in the kidneys, which could not work effectively to excrete them out, and so the condition was already very dangerous. The reason he survived 100 days was because the toxins were expelled through the bottom of his feet and the slow downward movement process also takes time.” 

Amber bottles with labels showing a skull and crossbones in black and the word "Smallpox" in red.
Ge Lin explained that his son’s body could not excrete the toxins from the pox which led to his death. (Image: Michalsuszycki via Dreamstime)

After listening to Ge Lin’s explanation, Wang Zaiqian gained even more respect for the imperial doctor.

A general’s son is revived and saved from burial

One hot summer day, during the reign of Emperor Shizong (1521-1567), the son of young general Yang Yiqing suddenly fainted from shock. It seemed as though he wasn’t breathing, so the family thought he was dead and planned to put him in a coffin. 

Seeing this, Ge Lin rushed to stop them, saying to Yang Yiqing: “Your son is fine. Carry him outside first!” Not believing his son could be saved, Yang Yiqing sighed: “When a person dies, what medicine can cure them?” 

Ge Lin said: “I have no medicine, but the clouds in the sky can bring your son back to life. You see, clouds have gathered in the air, and rain will soon come down. Yin energy will begin to flow, and the depressed Yang energy will be dispersed. I will boil water with some herbs that can clear heat and dampness. Lying the patient in the steaming hot air can then wake him up.” 

To the general’s amazement, his son did revive, and the illness never returned.

Physician Ge Lin’s amazing life and skills

Ge Lin lived a healthy life and had a lean appearance, sharp eyes, and the air of a wise person. He could tell what kind of disease a patient had simply by looking at his physique and listening to his voice. After taking his pulse, he could even predict his lifespan. He was well-versed in pharmacology, and the prescriptions he prepared were always able to cure a patient’s disease.

Ge Lin later became the chief physician of the Imperial Hospital. During his later years, he wrote a book titled Secrets of the Medical World, detailing his years of experience and various prescriptions. He lived a good, long life, and at the age of 88, he passed away peacefully.

Ancient Chinese doctors had amazing abilities that many people may find hard to believe today. However, these things are well-documented and were left to future generations to learn from.

​In our next story in the series, we’ll look at a​n ancient Chinese doctor who had the incredible ability to cure the seemingly incurable — ​​Dr. Wang Shi Zhong.

Translated by Cecilia

Follow us on TwitterFacebook, or Pinterest

Recommended Stories

TikTok on a smartphone.

Deadly TikTok Challenges for Teens That Parents Should Know About

TikTok is not inherently dangerous. But like many social media platforms, it gives people, especially ...

An elderly Korean couple.

Respecting Your Elders: Lessons From Korea

Respect for your elders is deeply ingrained in Korean culture. This respect is based on ...

Propaganda vs. truth.

Be Careful What You Watch or Read: Beijing’s Massive Propaganda Machine Is Global

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the main character, Winston Smith, rewrites history at the ...

The black capsule carrying samples from Bennu.

7 Years, Billions of Kilometers, A Handful of Dust: NASA Just Brought Back the Largest-Ever Asteroid Sample

After a journey of billions of kilometers, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission has culminated in a small ...

The spacecraft’s sampling arm.

OSIRIS-REx TAGs Surface of Asteroid Bennu

Captured on Oct. 20, 2020, during the OSIRIS-REx mission’s Touch-And-Go (TAG) sample collection event, this series ...

Beautiful, healthy skin.

8 Tips for a Nighttime Skincare Routine

Why is a nighttime skincare routine important? When you go to sleep, various organs, including ...

High tea.

Sip, Savor, and Soothe Your Soul: London’s Top 5 Tea Spots

London is a city full of history and tradition, and what better way to experience ...

Grandparents with their grandson.

7 Priceless Ways to Love Your Grandparents and Make Them Feel Special

“If nothing is going well, call your grandparents,” an Italian proverb goes. Your grandparents play ...

Asian female smiling with smooth skin.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Secrets: 3 Steps for Youthful Skin

The condition of your skin, complexion, and hair significantly impacts your appearance. Wrinkles around your ...

Send this to a friend