shù (數)

literally means “number;” in some contexts, shù (數) means “numerous times” or “frequently.” It is used this way in Sùwèn 3, lines 4 and 6 (of my rendition) to suggest pathology can arise from cumulative violations of one’s life. However, in Sùwèn 3.1, shù (數) refers to the ‘numbers’ of groups of poetic and symbolic images (xiàng (象)), which lay at the core of classical Chinese thought. The most common translation for shù (數 when used in this way is “theory;” so, we have expressions such as ‘yin-yang theory’ or ‘five phase theory,’ as concrete expressions of the numbers, shù (數), two and five. In Sùwèn 3.1.4, the text specifically characterizes two such numbers (shù (數)) — three and five, which are each quite important in Chinese medical thinking.

Nathan Sivin rendered shù (數) as “regularities” in his article of primary scholarship about Chunyu Yi based largely on a biographical sketch in the official history of the early Han Dynasty. I wrote an essay about the thinking process of classical Chinese medicine and how to learn it based on a few key ideas from Sivin’s article. My essay includes some comments on the challenges and opportunities offered by these healing arts for individuals within today’s society. Does all this talk about classical Chinese thinking process have any value today? Or, has the idea or regarding classical medicine as natural philosophy been supplanted by a clinical science of well-defined diagnostic categories and definable standards of care? I suggest these questions need further attention, based in experience and practical transmission of classical Chinese medical teachings, rather than speculation based only in reading the text. In the meantime, Elisabeth Rochat suggested I go even further in articulating this idea about shù (數), and translate it as “natural laws” in Sùwèn 3.1.5 (of my rendition).

Students of classical Chinese medicine learn to use several ‘numbers’ of symbolic images, such as yīn-yáng (陽), tiāndì (天地), sānqì (三), sānjiāo (三焦), sānbǎo (三寶), the wǔxíng (五行), liùhé (六合), and the interactions among the movements symbolically represented within these groups of symbolic images (xiàng (象)). Indeed, cultivating such symbolic thinking can form a cornerstone for an individual’s growth in classical Chinese medicine, and it is a HUGE undertaking. So daunting is the scope of this investigation into classical Chinese thought that many students and practitioners with the philosophical inclination to approach Chinese medicine this way tend to focus primarily on just a few groups of images. For instance, many focus their attention primarily on the the wǔxíng (五行), and the fundamental importance of the liùhé (六合) is not recognized beyond their each being part of the precise names of the channels. While the wǔxíng (五行) are the best system for discussing the zàng (藏), as there are five of them, the twelve jīngmài (經脈) naturally exhibit the liùhé (六合). There is one jīngmài (經脈) for each of the six (liùhé (六合)) on both upper and lower extremities: 6 x 2 = 12.

If one follows Nèijīng (內經) and uses the liùhé (六合) to identify the various jīngmài (經脈), the idea of shifting to the wǔxíng (五行) to differentiate them diagnostically is like trying to squeeze a pentagonal peg into a hexagonal hole. The wǔxíng (五行) is the appropriate shù (數) for discussing and differentiating the five zàng (藏), and the liùhé (六合) is the shù (數) to use for the jīngmài (經脈). The aspiration to understand the dynamics of life challenges one to study and use not just the wǔxíng (五行), but also the liùhé (六合), and especially the dynamic relationship between these shù (數). Why are there five zàng (藏), yet there are six fǔ (府) and twelve jīngmài (經脈)? How do five and six differ as shù (數)? What do each of them mean, symbolically, within classical Chinese thought?

Probing students of Nèijīng (內經) aspire to use ALL these shù (數): yīn-yáng (陽), tiāndì (天地), sānqì (三), sānjiāo (三焦), sānbǎo (三寶), wǔxíng (五行), liùhé (六合), and undoubtedly others — flexibly and incisively. Through cultivating the symbolic and synthetic thinking process of the shù (數), one may eventually discern the dynamic patterns within the flux of life, and understand the rhythms of Dào (道), as it expresses within the microcosm of each individual. These fundamental groups of symbolic images serve important roles in articulating various theories of physiology and patho-physiology within Chinese medicine. They can help practitioners identify key crucial dynamics (jī (機)) within each patient, which ‘trigger’ the individual’s physiological processes, and can also trigger their transformational healing.

« Back to Glossary Index