Challenges of Studying Nèijīng (內經)

The classical language of Nèijīng (內經) presents many complications. I wrote a blog piece recently about the challenge of determining if a particular phrase refers to the macrocosm or microcosm. Another ubiquitous challenge is that classical Chinese has no punctuation — that’s a big one, and I’ll write about it more in the future. Yet, in addition to these challenges peculiar to the difficult and foreign language of the text, Nèijīng (內經) includes common ambiguity in the attribution of pronouns. In some passages, simple vagueness introduces diverging meanings, including multiple streams of interpretation. These “Type 3” conundrums each have an obvious reading, but those interpretations express only a superficial layer of meaning. What else might there be?

The deepest meanings of Nèijīng (內經) are available only to those who know how and where to look for them, and how to recognize the classic’s theory in its sometimes ambiguous language. How would one know to recognize such layers of meaning in the text’s strings of characters? I suggest the written text, which until the tenth or eleventh centuries a student had to copy by hand from his teacher’s copy, was originally intended as ongoing inspiration for those who had already been initiated into its subtle and dynamic worldview. Thus, the written text is only a portion of the teaching; the more important portion of the teaching is a schema for interpreting and applying its language, built on practical knowledge based in experience working with the dynamics of the Dào (道) within the microcosm of individual life.

Some of the classic’s most profound conundrums were styled with very simple language like “ (其),” which is just a pronoun that means “its” or “their.” Chapter 52 of Língshū (靈樞) provides a good example. It begins (my translation, implied punctuation added by sinologists):


The Yellow Emperor said:
The five zàng are where the embodied spirit and hún-pò are treasured.
The six are where water and grains are received, and consequently substances are moved and transformed.
Their [moves toward] the inside into the five zàng, and outside it connects with the limbs and joints.
Their surface , which does not follow the channels, it constitutes wèi qì.
Their refined , which moves into the channels, it constitutes yíng qì.

Notice the character “ (其)” begins each of the last three lines quoted above. So, what is its reference? By far the most common “literary reading” of these lines interprets it as “the person’s…” or “the body’s…” This interpretation is very common throughout Nèijīng (內經), it makes good sense here, and it reinforces very basic theory — concerning the locations of the five zàng (臧) and the limbs and joints, and the locations and nature of wèiqì (衛氣) and yíngqì (). There’s no problem with any of those meanings, and indeed Sabine suggested one of those wordings to me as a more clear translation for this passage. However, perhaps the three uses of  (其) in this  chapter were purposely ambiguous; I chose to preserve that ambiguity to suggest the possibility of multiple streams of meaning. In this case, I believe the ‘deeper meaning’ of  (其) refers back to the six (俯).

This ‘alternate’ interpretation of these last three lines places the six (俯) between the five zàng (臧) and the outside structures of the limbs and joints, which is slightly more detailed than the other interpretation. However, it is not particularly new or inspiring. However, the next two lines suggest that the surface () of the six (俯) is the wèiqì (衛氣), and that their refined (or essence) () is the yíngqì (). That is far more interesting! The fifth line relates the six (俯) with the internal sinews, which communicate with the external sinews. The sixth line recognizes that the six (俯) are responsible for refining the water and grains they receive into the  () that flows inside the channels — the yíngqì (), which is clearly characterized as the refined product of what the individual ingests. Combined with the third line (above), which says the six (俯) are responsible for transforming the water and grains they receive, this is a substantial divergence from modern TCM theory, where this function is attributed to the spleen’s ().

Okay, so this passage may introduce some new theory. Is that important? Does it introduce anything other than confusion? The relationship between the six (俯) and the sinews in the fifth line is very important clinically, as it highlights how closely related are the flows of the internal and external sinews. This line can fundamentally deepens one’s understanding of wèiqì (衛氣). The sixth phrase of that line enriches the theory of Chinese medicine, by differentiating more clearly than modern TCM between the functions of the six (俯) and five zàng (臧). And, all of this rich theory is hidden in plain sight — available only to someone initiated into the teachings!