Working with Sabine to Decipher Nèijīng (內經)

Classical Chinese is a difficult language, and I’ve been lucky enough to find the perfect person to help me undertake direct study of Nèijīng (內經) with all its beauty and challenges in classical Chinese. I wrote a little about Sabine and her background in a previous posting, but that brief review focused primarily on her external qualifications. Far more important than her literacy in classical Chinese, and even the specific usages of classical medical writings, Sabine has been willing to support me in finding my own reading of the text. While her reading of chapters of Nèijīng (內經) is informed by her long term work with classical Chinese medical writings, she is not a practitioner. While she shares the benefits of her  ‘literary’ reading, she does not impose it onto my process. Instead, Sabine challenges me to clarify my reading as a practitioner.

When I started working with Sabine last summer, I was nearly illiterate. Oh, I had been using a wonderful software Chinese dictionary for well more than a year, including to re-translate about eighty pages of excerpts from Nèijīng (內經) that Ed Neal had given as handouts for his series on “Neijing Acupuncture.” Although I had reworked his translations to correct many mistakes and misconceptions, and had grown familiar with a much larger vocabulary of Chinese characters, my knowledge of classical grammar remained rudimentary. None the less, that early work with the Chinese text convinced me to focus on translating whole chapters of Nèijīng (內經), which allows any statements drawn from the classic to be understood in context. Almost ANY idea, including some very bizarre ones, can be supported by pulling specific lines out of context. It’s a bad idea, and fraught with dangers! I will only do so AFTER translating the entire chapter, which at this point includes going over it with Sabine (at least for me). Sometimes, scholarly discourse requires discussion of specific passages, such as comparing and contrasting different readings of a passage, as I’ve done below with Paul Unschuld’s translation of a short passage. However, I believe study of the text should focus on entire chapters, and consider the placement and role of each chapter within the text as a whole.

Most chapters of both Sùwèn (素問) and Língshū (靈樞) are snippets of dialogue, generally between the legendary Yellow Emperor and one (or in a few instances more) of his advisers. Context is everything! Yet, translating and studying whole chapters requires much more focus and intention than pulling out short excerpts to translate, and then using them as the basis for study. Working with entire chapters seemed to me the only responsible course, so while taking a year long series of seminars from Elisabeth Rochat, I started with a couple dozen of them. Elisabeth graciously spent a whole afternoon with me near the end of that series, as a sort of classical Chinese ‘boot camp,’ which convinced me that I needed to learn A LOT more classical Chinese syntax and semantics in order to do a credible translation of Nèijīng (內經). I bought a couple books at her suggestion, and that recognition also led me to Sabine (who also encouraged me to expand my library).

Many chapters of Nèijīng (內經) (especially Sùwèn (素問)) are VERY challenging, even for someone well trained in classical Chinese language. A couple months ago, Sabine wrote back to me with some exasperation after working for an entire day on one short chapter I’d sent to her; she declared that I must be interested in only the hardest chapters! Well, I admit I’m particularly interested in the myriad conundrums presented by the classic texts, though only one type exhibits language that is particularly difficult for Sabine.

The three types of ‘conundrum’ one faces in studying Nèijīng (內經):

  1. the grammar and/or usage is very obscure or complex; these passages are easily misunderstood, even for readers with good classical Chinese language skills
  2. the language seems fairly clear, but its ‘literary’ meaning makes little or no sense; a practitioner must find meaning based in his or her experience and understanding of the medical theory
  3. the language seems straight-forward, but the ‘obvious’ interpretation (of a literate reader) is limited or even misleading

The first of these requires someone with A LOT of experience with classical Chinese. Sabine has led me through several of these, and gradually I’m learning some of the many ‘quirks’ found in the classical language of Nèijīng (內經). However, I can’t simply hire Sabine or any other academic sinologist to translate these texts. No matter how open they may be toward Chinese medicine, the last two types of conundrum are far too common. A practitioner’s reading, when informed by classical Chinese literacy, is qualitatively different from an academic’s reading.

While Sabine is highly skilled in reading classical Chinese, she is also refreshingly humble about Chinese medicine. Unlike some other sinologists who concentrate on historical Chinese medical texts, she recognizes that literary reading of Nèijīng (內經) by itself is incomplete. When she comes across a passage she doesn’t understand clearly, she simply says so. On a few occasions she has said, “the language of this passage literally means…; you’re going to have to use your clinical experience to understand what it signifies.” One of these in Língshū (靈樞) 1, which I had not gotten by myself, astounded me — it was so specific and clear. I’d not realized the classic’s discussion of the theory of wèiqì (衛氣) was SO explicit. As soon as Sabine gave me a clear literal rendition, I recognized the meaning of the statement in my clinical understanding, but without that experience the statement had little meaning.

I’ve found the third type of ‘conundrum’ even more interesting, and have already found a couple dozen of them. They are particularly interesting because they provide a wonderful way to obscure profound Chinese medical theory ‘in plain sight’ in the text. That is, ideas discussed this way are available to those who already understand them to some extent — at least well enough to look for them effectively, but are glossed over by most readers. Wow! Can this be real? Why would the authors do such a thing? Well, the ancient Chinese had already discussed the issue of transmitting medical teachings, which highlighted the central role of experience rooted in direct study with a teacher, who understands how to apply the subtle complexities of the texts, as the foundation for understanding.

The Benefits of Illiteracy

So, how does this third type of conundrum obscure the deeper meanings within the texts? While each case is individual, most have a rather obvious literary reading for those who is literate, which also misses some important piece of Chinese medical theory. One good example, which occurs many times in Sùwèn (素問), involves the expression shízhīxù (時之序). This is a VERY common expression used in a wide range of Chinese writings, where it refers to the intrinsic ordering or rhythm () of the timing (shí) of the four seasons — the 四時. This is the ‘literary’ reading of this phrase, which is generally understood ONLY in the macrocosm. The potential meaning of this expression within the microcosm are particularly interesting to the practitioner, who is constantly focused on the nature of life process within individuals — the Dào (道) in microcosm. We are studying, after all, the Nèijīng (內經) — the Inner Classic. Might one consider (even give priority to) other internal aspects of studying Nèijīng (內經)?

My work with the text is very different from that of a literate reader. I’ve been working with interpreting and applying ideas from the classic for twenty years, yet am only now learning the language well enough to study the text. My limited literacy has forced me to devote a couple hundred hours to each short chapter I’ve studied carefully, so I’ve grown very familiar with their language and content. I’ve begun to discern an ‘inner’ network among chapters, where one chapter comments on another, sometimes where a chapter in Língshū (靈樞) expands on an idea first mentioned in Sùwèn (素問).

While I ponder the meaning of any passage, I think about my understanding of the medicine as well as the language. While shízhīxù (時之序) SOMETIMES refers to the usual ‘sequence of the seasons’ in the Nèijīng (內經), it frequently refers to the “the rhythm of the timing [of wèiqì (衛氣)].” This ‘alternate interpretation’ considers 時之序 (shí zhī xù) within the microcosm of an individual’s life, rather than the literary interpretation in the macrocosm. The text gives only subtle clues of this ‘inner’ interpretation, including a few lines later in the chapter of Sùwèn (素問) discussed below, but it does not clearly indicate when to choose between these two fundamental interpretations.

Perhaps the best clue that one should consider this ‘inner’ interpretation is that the usual ‘outer’ one doesn’t make much sense. One example can be found in Sùwèn (素問) 3, lines 2.1 and 2.2 (of my rendition):


Professor Unschuld’s translation (volume 1, p. 60-1; his rendering devotes a new line at each comma, and places the first comma after rather than two characters later as in the text above):

The of the hoary heaven,
it is clear and pure, and as a result the mind is in order.
If one lives in accordance with it, then the yang qi is strong.
Even if there is a robber wind,
it cannot bring any harm.
This [is so because one] follows the sequence of the seasons.

My translation:

When the of deep dark Heaven is clear and clean, then the purposeful intent governs [well]; when one aligns with it, then yáng qì consolidates.
Although one is exposed to the thieving wind, it cannot harm, due to the rhythm of the timing [of wèiqì].

While this short passage demonstrates a few divergences in our translations, I’ll focus here on the meaning (in context) of the last three characters “時之序.” While Professor Unschuld and I render the first line somewhat differently, we agree that is describes the conditions that make a person’s yáng qì consolidated or strong (則陽固). Then, he renders the text to claim that when there is a robber wind, that is doesn’t harm such a person because he or she follows the sequence of the seasons. Really? That’s utter nonsense! There is no reason to switch scale in this passage from the microcosm to the macrocosm, and that change suggested by the ‘literary reading’ of this phrase simply introduces confusion and makes the classic appear incoherent. This is clearly an instance where 時之序 (shí zhī xù) should be interpreted within the microcosm of individual life as the “rhythm of the timing [of wèiqì].”

[Note: My translation of this short passage differs from Professor Unschuld’s in several other ways. One concerns the meaning and significance of zhìyì (志意). My translation of Lingshu 47 discusses the meaning zhìyì (志意), which I translated here as “purposeful intent,” with húnpò (魂魄) and jīngshén (精神). These are the three complexes of shén () that animate the Three ().]

While Unschuld is a famous sinologist with unquestioned literacy in classical Chinese, he failed to recognize this ‘inner’ interpretation, and consequently his rendition of this passage is quite limited. By making the classic appear only oriented to the environment, rather than discussing the individual’s responsiveness to the environment, he missed important theory and a deeper stream of meaning. Alas, I’ve found too many such misunderstandings among the chapters of Sùwèn (素問) I’ve studied carefully, and I have A LOT more work to do with both that text and Língshū (靈樞). Collected together, professor Unschuld’s interpretations produce a literary translation that misses much of the incisive power of Nèijīng (內經). While he and his team have done Herculean work in producing his two volume translation of Sùwèn (素問), many of the historical comments he included were written by editors who were not primarily practitioners. Thus, their comments were limited to their own ‘literary reading,’ which didn’t substantially challenge or deepen the translator’s own reading.

On the first page of his Prolegomena, Professor Unschuld noted, “this translation was not prepared primarily with an eye on the contemporary clinical applicability of its physiological and pathological views, as well as the text’s therapeutic advice, provided by the authors of the Sùwèn (素問)…” Well, he got that right! Unfortunately, Professor Unschuld’s translation conveys his misconceptions concerning the content and meaning of the classic, misses its deeper logic, and consequently leaves the reader little opportunity to find its clinical value. Of course, that doesn’t matter to him. I understand Professor Unschuld considers the very concept, that we may diligently study today to practice ‘classical Chinese medicine,’ absurd. Might his translations not be our best possible resource for the Chinese medicine classics, especially when we are seeking clinical insight and inspiration?

Professor Unschuld also noted in his Prolegomena that Nèijīng (內經) is heterogeneous, while Nánjīng (難) is homogeneous. I agree completely, though he misinterprets the significance of that perception. He considers the tangled collection of contrary information in Nèijīng (內經) a sign it was still immature and confused, and that the later Nánjīng (難) clarifies Chinese medical theory and makes in coherent. On the other hand, I consider Nèijīng (內經) a complex tapestry of ideas and perspectives, which weave together into a profound investigation of life in health and disease. It is far more subtle and complex than the author(s) of the received version of Nanjing recognized. Unschuld believes Nánjīng (難) completes the evolution of Chinese medicine as a ‘medicine of correspondences;’ instead, perhaps it merely simplifies Nèijīng (內經) into a medicine of correspondences. He assumes the ‘progress of history’ brought clarification; I understand Nèijīng (內經) is much more subtle and profound than Nánjīng (難), which exhibits only one approach in conceptualizing classical Chinese medicine.

While Nánjīng (難) presents one relatively accessible conceptual model for understanding and practicing Chinese medicine, doctors throughout history have returned to Nèijīng (內經), for its ‘heterogeneous’ theory, when seeking clinical inspiration. In many circles of Chinese medical practice in the contemporary world, there is an emphasis on detailed discussions of theory and practice from the (relatively) modern Qing and Ming Dynasties (1368-1911). While those authors provide some detailed guidance, they lack the breadth and depth of insight available through studying Nèijīng (內經).

The pervasive influence of Unschuld’s misunderstandings on the professional practice of Chinese medicine arise from our weakness, rather than his mistaken assertions, no matter how egregious. Can’t someone produce a careful translation of the Nèijīng (內經) based in practical understanding of the practice of Chinese medicine? [Everyone takes three steps backwards.] While academics scoff at Wu Jing-nuan’s translation of Língshū (靈樞), I used it for many years, and now that I’m working on chapters myself find that it portrays the meaning and import of the text with more fidelity than Unschuld’s translation of Sùwèn (素問), which was produced according to his academic ‘rigorous philological principles.’ Yet, Wu’s work certainly lacks notes to help the reader explore the text’s textured meanings, he inserts some of his own interpretations into his translation, and it misses some subtle points; so, his work needs careful updating.

Maoshing Ni’s rendition of Sùwèn (素問) was published nearly twenty years ago. It seamlessly includes his interpretations and clarifications of the often challenging text. While it has made the classic much more accessible to an entire generation of practitioners and students, it has done so only through his interpretations, which were not clearly differentiated from the text itself. This is light reading.

The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine, translated by Wu Liansheng and Wu Qi, benefits through including the Chinese text with the English translation. However, their English is poor, which severely limits their ability to convey the subtle meanings woven into the text. They insert their own interpretations fairly liberally, which limits the value of their translation, even if one wishes to weed through their obvious problems with English.

I look around, and it seems everyone has withdrawn from my imploring request for a ‘clean’ translation of Nèijīng (內經) that arises from a practitioner’s sensibilities, which thereby can convey the beauty and power of classical Chinese medical thinking. I seem to be standing by myself. Uhm…Oh my! I seem to have volunteered. Oops! How did that happen? What the…

Well, working with Sabine is a great help! I couldn’t do this without her support. She is stringent with me and insists on clarity and accuracy, yet she also supports my efforts to find wisdom for myself in the texts of Nèijīng (內經), based in my experience and/or lineage training. As I struggle to understand the text’s syntax and semantics, I’m contemplating my nearly twenty years experience working with my lineage’s interpretations, and several years teaching the content and dynamic thinking process of our approach. Sometimes, I believe a certain passage in Nèijīng (內經) has multiple readings, where one is the ‘literary’ (or obvious) reading, and others share deeper ‘coded’ ideas or theory. I consider these ‘alternate’ readings little messages to the initiated — those who  understand medicine well enough to find and understand them. I’m discussing the ‘messages’ I find in my commentaries for the chapters I’m translating. It’s a BIG project.

Stay tuned for more news concerning my work on “An Acupuncturist’s Nèijīng (內經).”

I’m already working on a posting focused on another ‘type 3 conundrum’ from the opening lines of Língshū (靈樞) 52. The literary reading of that one is SO obvious it even ‘took me in’ for almost two weeks early last month. Shocking! Well, I hope I don’t grow too literate.