zhǔ (主)

literally means a “lord, master, owner, or host” (as a noun) and also to “manage, direct” (as a verb). Specifically within an investigation or practice like Chinese medicine, zhǔ (主) means “main principle,” as in zhǔyào (主). Within Shennong Bencao, zhǔ (主) is used to signify the treatment principles expressed by various herbs. Sabine has rendered zhǔ (主) in her translation as “in charge,” as in this text’s initial discussion of the functions of upper, middle, and lower ‘level’ herbs.

Certainly, this is a correct translation, and it leaves a lot of latitude for individual interpretation. How much of this treatment is a matter of mastering a pathology, through asserting one’s main principle as the host (see Lingshu 1.2, where the pathogenic factor is referred to as (kè), so the individuals are the host)? How much is it a matter of illuminating one’s unconscious and somatic projections, by bringing them out to conscious awareness? While zhǔ (主) does not actually mean “to illuminate,” according to Shuōwén (說文), it is the pictogram of a lamp that is lit, so it then “masters” the dark. What is the meaning of mastery?

From early in the history of Chinese herbal literature, zhǔ (主) has indicated the therapeutic functions of an herb or formula. A particularly Daoist perspective in reading zhǔ (主) believes the therapeutic function of an herb formula is generated by it illuminating the dynamics of pathology for the patient’s embodied spirit — jīngshén (精神), and thereby provides it some (somatic) guidance toward resolution.

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