The past is back

I have often been asked to suggest books for understanding ancient healing in China, and despite the many texts that exist, this simple request is usually very difficult to fulfil. I would like to suggest Zhang Jingyue’s Leijing《類經》,  Leijing Tuyi, 《類經圖翼》, and for acupuncture Zhenjiu Jiayi Jing《針灸甲乙經》,and 《子午流注針經》, but I know that most people find these texts very difficult to understand even if they are adept readers of Chinese. One alternative to reading original texts is to read the translations. Translations, however, are rarely straightforward. The purpose of a translation is to convey the meaning of the source text, but difficulties arise when the translators don’t have sufficient understanding of what they are attempting to translate or can’t deduce accurate meanings. Even seemingly non-technical words can easily lead to misinterpretations.

If one were to look up the Huangdi Neijing (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon) on Wikipedia, the entry provides three translations of a verbal exchange between Huangdi and Qibo. In this exchange the phrase 陽氣未散yang qi weisan occurs in relation to when is the best time to examine a patient’s illness. The character san in two of the translations is translated as dispersed, giving the translation “before yang qi has dispersed”.  In the other translation san is translated as “spread”. San might mean to disperse or dissipate or scatter but if one isn’t aware that in yinyang theory that yang qi begins to rise and grow stronger in the morning, and yin qi begins to wane, then it would be very easy to mistranslate this phrase as  “yang qi dispersed” rather than as “yang qi has spread”. Consequently readers of these various translations will receive very different understandings of what is happening to yang qi at this time.

Often under the mask of revealing the ancient past, the modern translations miss the pillar for learners to grasp, as Hugo Hørlych Karlsen has stated: “A mask that just introduces itself to the traditional or classical Chineseness that it excludes”. The misinterpretation may not always be wilful or intentional among current scholars, but recent Chinese governments, as I have argued before, have deliberately fostered reinterpretations of classical healing and their principles through attempting to impose concepts coherent with modern scientific thinking. Furthermore there is no lack of willing participants to this endeavour of masking the past.

In his article Hugo Hørlych Karlsen has given various examples of how the modern interpretations of天地(heaven and earth), and八 紘 (ba hong), 九野 have disguised their meanings. I would add to these the example of the word bing  (病).  Bing病is a word to signify that someone has lost balance and needs to lean against something, not too unlike the English term falling ill, with the stress on falling, but the modern interpretation of bing is all about disease, and treating disease categories such as cancer, diabetes, etc. In a strange twist, in modern discussions of yinyang theory, the idea of balance has somehow come into prominence with the suggestion of a kind of ideal equal distribution between yin and yang, a 50-50. However, yinyang is much more about the regular changing between yin and yang, as night becomes day and day becomes night with neither necessarily being of 12 hours duration to be in “balance”.  If we think of yinyang theory primarily in terms of balance then we lose focus of the important and main concept of change.  

The Canon of Yi (Book of Changes)《易经》is a central text for yinyang theory, and explains the ever changing cycle of yin becoming yang and yang becoming yin. Without change, the concepts of yin and yang are static and no longer have relevance in explaining illness, which is why yinyang has very little relevance in the modern practice of TCM. Zhang Jingyue has stated that physicians must understand yi (易). Nevertheless, I know of no present day educational institution of traditional Chinese medicine that teaches the Canon of Yi. Part of the reason for this may well be the bind in which traditional healing is inadequately understood, and so its original sources of understanding are neglected. But if a more widespread and deeper understanding of traditional healing develops then I suspect the Canon of Yi will become compulsory reading in the curriculum of these schools.

It is an enormous task to bring back to light the ancient knowledge and philosophies such as yinyang wuxing theory, but there do appear to be growing efforts and I am thankful for the work of authors such as Hugo Hørlych Karlsen for helping the past come back.      

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