Not only his name and his titles of nobility were forged, but parts of the teachings of the man who introduced acupuncture to Europe were also invented. Even today, treatments are provided based on his fantasies.
— Hanjo Lehmann1
Decades before President Nixon’s visit to communist China, and before the articles in the Western popular press on the use of acupuncture in surgery, a Frenchman by the name of George Soulié de Morant (1878-1955), published a series of colorful accounts of the use of acupuncture in early 20th-century China. His work led to the creation of a school of thought known as “French energetics,” which has become the theoretical foundation for many proponents of acupuncture in the West, including Joseph Helms, MD, the founder and former director of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture (AAMA), and the founder of the acupuncture certification course for physicians.
But just as the medical community gradually learned that the reports of the use of acupuncture in surgery in communist China were inaccurate, exaggerated, or even fraudulent, we are now learning that the reports on the use and efficacy of acupuncture by Soulié de Morant were also fabricated.
According to a 2010 article published in Germany by Hanjo Lehmann in the Deutsches Ärzteblatt (a short version was published in Süddeutsche Zeitung), there is no real evidence that the Frenchman who is considered the father of Western acupuncture ever stuck a needle in anyone in China, and he probably never witnessed a needling.
A century prior to Soulié de Moran’s publications, the therapeutic use of needles enjoyed immense (though short-lived) popularity in Western Europe — mainly in France, Germany, Austria. This use of needles consisted mostly of the so-called locus dolendi treatment, where needles are placed solely in the vicinity of the affected area(s).2 But due to its lack of significant efficacy, this treatment vanished just as rapidly and completely as it had appeared.
During that time, paradoxically, acupuncture was excluded from the Imperial Medical Institute of China by decree of the Emperor in 1822. The knowledge and skills were retained, however, either as an interest among academics or through everyday use by rural folk healers. With China’s increasing acceptance of scientific medicine at the start of the 20th-century, final ignominy for acupuncture arrived, when in 1929, it was outlawed, along with other forms of traditional medicine.3
The practice of acupuncture, however, reappeared in France a few years after it was outlawed in China, and from there it gradually spread to Western Europe and the US. This time, its theories were based on the laws of meridians (where points distant from the affected areas are needled according to intricate algorithms). This renaissance was largely due to Soulie de Morant’s legacy.
Soulié de Morant was born in Paris in 1878, and attended a Jesuit school. The prevailing story is that he was a child prodigy, and in addition to speaking fluent English and Spanish, he also learned Mandarin from a Chinese man who lived in Paris, and who (according to family friend Judith Gautier, a French writer) spent an afternoon with the young George writing Chinese characters (or ideograms) in the sand.
Soulié de Morant went to China at the turn of the 20th-century at the age of 21 to work for a French bank. The legend goes that he was fluent in Mandarin before going to China, and that once there, he also learned Mongolian. Reportedly, his language skills and his knowledge of Chinese culture brought him to the attention of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who appointed him judge of the Joint French Court of Shanghai, and later the Vice-Consul of Foreign Affairs in Yunnan. Presumably, he then became the French Consul in several Chinese cities.
The legend also includes the story of how, while in office, Soulié de Morant witnessed a Chinese physician help the victims of a “terrible cholera epidemic that raged in Beijing at that time,” without recourse to modern medicine. His curiosity aroused, he began to read ancient medical texts, and studied acupuncture under several renowned physicians. Purportedly, he later practiced acupuncture himself, and it is reported that his knowledge and skills were such that he became respected by the Chinese — an incredible accomplishment for a foreigner, then or now.4
He returned to France in 1910, was married in Paris in 1911, and had two children. He then tried to return to China, but only succeeded to go back for a few months in 1917. After this final trip to China, he wrote several books on Chinese art and literature. Curiously, he didn’t mention acupuncture in any of his writings until 1929 — the same year it was outlawed in China.
Initially confronted with skepticism and derision, Soulié de Morant’s writings on acupuncture eventually managed to attract the support of several French physicians. His major work, L’acuponcture chinoise, outlines his “theory of energy” and its therapeutic manipulation by acupuncture. He is also known for coining the widespread term “meridian,” as a translation for the Chinese expression jingluo (經絡), which literally means “channel-network.” He translated the term qi (氣), the Chinese equivalent of the Greek notion of pneuma (πνεύμα), into the modern term “energy.”
One of the main people who challenge the authenticity of Soulié de Morant’s understanding of acupuncture and his interpretations of the Chinese classics is the American scholar, Donald (Deke) Kendall, PhD, who writes in the Dao of Chinese Medicine that by jingluo, the Chinese were simply referring to blood vessels. Kendall argues that Soulié de Morant’s theories are actually the result of profound misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the classics, which have resulted in the portrayal in the West of the rudimentary description of the vascular system by the Chinese as an elusive network of intangible “energy” channels.5
There is ample evidence in support of Kendall’s claims, including the work of the classics scholar Elizabeth Craik, who has convincingly argued that the Chinese notion of jingluo is quasi-identical to the Greek notions of phlebes (blood vessels in general) and neura (ligaments, nerves, etc.).6
But Hanjo Lehmann, the author of the recent article in Deutsches Ärzteblatt, goes a step further. Lehmann lists a set of contradictions and inconsistencies in Soulié de Morant’s account of his journey in the Far-East, which shed doubt on his overall character, the integrity of his narrative, and the credibility of his exposure to, and practice of, acupuncture in China. Lehmann calls him a scharlatan.
Lehmann first points out that it would be unlikely for a 21-year-old without any formal education in Chinese (and who had never lived in China) to master a complex language with several thousands of characters, even if he took courses regularly for several years. We recall that the only testimony of Soulié de Morant’s formal “studies” in Paris came from Judith Gautier (1845-1917), who affirmed that on one occasion, a Chinese friend of the family in Paris drew characters in the sand with him.
According to Lehmann, Soulié de Morant likely started his foreign service in 1903, as a low-level interpreter at the Shanghai Consulate, and not as a “judge” in Shanghai. The belief that he was actually nominated as a judge might come from the fact that in his book Exterritorialité et intérêts étrangers en chine, Soulié de Morant states that the French delegate in the Joint Court was “usually the first interpreter” of the consulate.
As for his consular nominations when he was only in his mid-twenties, Lehmann argues that they are certainly false. It is only after he left the French Foreign Office, (probably in 1924), that he received the title of “honorary consul.” In fact, it is only in his writings after 1925, that he calls himself Consul de France.
Lehmann also believes that his aristocratic name “Soulié de Morant” was a forgery, and that he was born simply Georges Soulié.
As for acupuncture, Soulié de Morant claims that he first saw and practiced the technique himself during a cholera outbreak in Bejing in 1908 — but no records of such an outbreak at that time exist. According to the History of Chinese Medicine by Wong and Wu, an epidemic of plague and typhus occurred roughly around that time, but in Hong Kong and Fuzhou in Jiangxi.7 There is no record of a cholera epidemic in Beijing or anywhere else.
Moreover, although Soulie de Morant recounts his studies with two renowned acupuncturists of academic rank, other Western writers remind us that during that time, only street practitioners and rural folk healers, worked with needles therapeutically; the use of needles was actually often associated with amulets and talismans, and thus frowned upon by the Chinese academia.8
These and dozens more inconsistencies that discredit Soulié de Morant, suggest that the his claims about acupuncture, and the lore of energy meridians and qi, are founded on sloppy translations, misconceptions, or even pure forgery. But the accuracy of these notions are never disputed by the Chinese, because — as Lehmann points out — the public image of acupuncture in China today is based mainly on its reputation in the West. The Chinese consider that any criticism or fundamental discussion would jeopardize that reputation.
Over the last half-century since his death, Soulié de Morant’s interpretation of the traditional tenets of acupuncture, known as “French energetics,” have inspired the creation of over a dozen methods, organizations, and schools abroad,9 each with different levels of orthodoxy, critical thinking, or even rationality.
Consider, for instance, a theoretical construct known as the “Energetics of Living Systems” that was developed by the French physician Maurice Mussat. He is one of the leaders of the French school of medical acupuncture, and has taught in the US under the auspices of Joseph Helms, MD. Mussast takes the fabulations of Soulié de Morant to the next level of absurdity by projecting cybernetics, complexity theory, and quantum mechanics onto meridian-based acupuncture.
Mussat indeed believes there is a parallelism between the energetics of the meridians and the “mathematical order inherent in the trigrams and hexagrams” of the I-Ching, a Chinese classic of geomancy (a type of divination based on patterns formed by tossed rocks, sticks, sand, etc.). Mussat, who believes he has connected the symbolism of the I-Ching with modern quantum physics, has devised “algebraic derivations” to measure meridian energetics, and has created a diagram that “incorporates nearly all of the fundamental energy relationships of acupuncture.”10 Mussat’s forced conflation of acupuncture and quantum physics is outlined in his 3-volume Energetics of the Living Systems Applied to Acupuncture, as well as in other creations of his overinclusive thinking.
The cognitive derailments of Maurice Mussat have, in turn, greatly influenced Joseph Helms, the founder and former Director of the AAMA.11 Helms, who combines family medicine, acupuncture, and homeopathy, served on the advisory panel of the Office of Alternative Medicine, NIH, and presented to the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy. In his book, Acupuncture Energetics, Helms writes:
Mussat inspired me with the strength of his conviction and his creative merging of two disparate traditions of thought and medicine. He guided me to perfect my clinical skills and to start teaching. My early clinical time with him, combined with the years we lectured together, created an indelible matrix of clear expression that I hope is manifested throughout this work.12
Since the 1980s, the AAMA has taught the fantasies of Soulié de Morant and Mussat on meridians and energy under the label of “medical acupuncture” to thousands of physicians in the US , many of whom were members of the military. In fact, in 2009, the office of the Surgeon General of the Air Force instituted a pilot program for active duty physicians to be trained by Helms Medical Institute, and gave out 32 scholarships on a competitive basis. According to Stars and Stripes, the US military’s independent news source, the program is now expanded to all service branches, and will certify 60 active duty physicians in 2011 as “medical acupuncturists.”
Meanwhile, well-conducted clinical trials have indicated over and over that needling location has little differential effect on outcomes, and that acupuncture is largely devoid of speciﬁc therapeutic effects.13 The support for this argument comes from a series of 8 large randomized controlled trials (RCTs) initiated by German health insurers. These RCTs were related to chronic back pain, migraine, tension headache, and knee osteoarthritis (2 trials for each indication). Their total sample size was in excess of 5000. Even though not entirely uniform, the results of these studies tend to demonstrate no or only small differences in terms of analgesic effects between real and placebo needling.14
This evidence indicates that the use of specific meridians, points, and particular types of stimulation are not critical factors independent of conditioning, expectancy or other neuropsychological factors. Needling seems to have a broad anti-inflammatory and antihyperalgesic effect, which could be attributed to the pain and tissue injury, or the neurostimualtion caused by the needle, regardless of the insertion point. In view of this, the meridian and point lore, and the premisses of “Acupuncture Energetics,” are all devoid of any scientific rationality.
Considering that acupuncture was reintroduced to the West based on a narrative that was apparently fraudulent; that its cultural assimilation has conflated it with New Age crackpottery; and that reliable RCTs contradict its medical claims, it’s time once-and-for-all to cease wasting taxpayer dollars on its dissemination.
NOTE: The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not reflect the positions of Hanjo Lehmann and Donald (Deke) Kendall.
- Lehmann H. Akupunktur im Westen: Am Anfang war ein Scharlatan. Dtsch Arztebl. 2010; 107(30): A-1454 / B-1288 / C-1268. Return to text
- Feucht G. Streifzug Durch die Geschichte der Akupunktur in Deutschland, Deutsche Zeitschrift fur Akupunktur, 10. 1961. Return to text
- Ma KW. The roots and development of Chinese acupuncture: from prehistory to early 20th century. Acupunct Med 1992;10(Suppl):92–9. Return to text
- Soulié de Morant G. L’acuponcture chinoise. 2 vols. Paris: Mercure de France, 1939-1941. Published in English as Chinese Acupuncture, edited by Paul Zmiewski. Brookline, MA: Paradigm Publications. 1994. Return to text
- Kendall DE. Dao of Chinese Medicine: Understanding an Ancient Healing Art. Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition. 2002. Return to text
- Craik EM. Hippocratic Bodily “Channels” and Oriental Parallels. Med Hist. 2009 January; 53(1): 105–116. Return to text
- Wong KC, Wu TH. History of Chinese Medicine. Oriental Book Store. 1977. Return to text
- Hillier SM, Jewell T. Health Care and Traditional Medicine in China 1800-1982. Routledge; 1 edition. 2005. Return to text
- Hsu E. Outline of the History of Acupuncture in Europe, The Journal of Chinese Medicine, 29. 1989. Return to text
- Mussat M. Energetique Physioloque de l’Acupuncture. Paris, France: Librairie le Francois. 1979. Return to text
- Birch SJ, Felt RL. Understanding Acupuncture. Churchill Livingstone; 1 edition. 1999. Return to text
- Helms JM. Acupuncture Energetics: A Clinical Approach for Physicians. Medical Acupuncture Publishers; 1st edition. 1995. Return to text
- Ernst E. The American journal of medicine, Vol. 121, No. 12. December 2008. Return to text
- Baecker M, Tao I, Dobos GJ. Acupuncture Quo Vadis? On the current discussion around its effectiveness and “point speciﬁcity.” In: McCarthy M, Birch S, Cohen I, et al, eds. Thieme Almanac 2007: Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. Stuttgart, Germany: Thieme; 2007:29-36. Return to text