Dr Hua Tuo and a Jail Guard

There is always a point where legend or myth takes shape as the beginning of history, as if there were an overlapping period between myth and history. This transit time is rather long, longer than people often imagine. Some people lived in the transition period as legend became historically proven fact. Dr. Hua Tuo was one of these. He was a legendary physician in ancient China. His birth year is unknown; his death, according to records, was in 208 AD. He was a doctor who performed surgery in the early third century, and he was the first doctor to use anesthesia for his surgeries in China. He treated and cured several historical figures who would have died without his care. These patients include Cao Cao, the first emperor of the Wei Dynasty of the Three Kingdoms.

His name appears historical documents including the “Book of Later Han” and the “Records of Three Kingdoms”. Both records are reliable sources. Historians have concluded that Dr. Hua was a genuine historical figure, but the stories about him are full of myths. For example, one story states that when he treated a general, he predicted that the general’s sickness would return in 18 years. It happened, but as Hua Tuo was dead when the general was sick again, the general died because Hua Tao could not treat him. Another story tells how people believed that Hua Tuo had invented a prescription for the elixir of life.

In later life, Dr. Hua served Cao Cao, the first emperor of Wei Dynasty in the Three Kingdoms period. Dr. Hua was the only one who could ease Cao’s chronic migraines. Dr. Hua eased Cao’s pain whenever it occurred, but did not cure it completely. The emperor asked the doctor if he knew any way to get rid of his migraine forever. Tuo thought for a moment, and then answered that he would be able to cure the migraine, but that the cure involved surgery on the emperor’s head. Emperor Cao was old and suspicious.

He did not believe the doctor could cure his migraine by cutting open his head. Instead, the emperor, Cao, suspected the doctor was trying to kill him. He put the doctor in prison and later executed him.

While the doctor was in jail, he met a young jail guard, Wu. Wu had studied medicine before becoming a jail guard. Wu treated Dr. Hua like his father during the doctor’s time in jail. Dr. Hua told Wu, before his execution, that Wu could have all of his medical books after his death. Wu received Dr. Hua’s entire collection, including a book describing a prescription for the elixir of life. Young Wu was glad. He resigned from his position at the jail and went home to study the doctor’s books. At home, Wu found his wife burning the entire collection. He was upset and asked his wife why she was burning them. She said it did not make sense to be a general surgeon because the emperor had put Dr. Hua in jail and killed him. Hua Tuo’s entire collection of medical books was burned to ashes. Nothing significant was left. This is why human beings today do not have the elixir of life.

Even though there is no elixir of life, it is unfortunate that the genius doctor’s medical books were lost. However, the author understands Wu’s wife’s reasoning and actions. Which would you prefer: life or execution? Would you run the risk of being executed if you could be a legendary doctor?