“Yellow Emperor’s Classics and Difficult Classic” Translated by Henry Lu.
(Revised edition of Henry Lu’s 1978 Neijing, “A complete Translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine and the Difficult Classic.”

Review by Roisin Golding. First published in the European Journal of Oriental Medicine, 2006

This is the only full English translation of Huang Di Nei Jing, the Han dynasty ‘acupuncture bible’. Organised into three volumes, the Su wen, Ling Shu, and Nan Jing, each consisting of 81 ‘chapters’ or sections, the book sets out the largely Daoist principles of contemporary Chinese medical sciences.

Su Wen has been translated as Basic Questions, Ling Shu Axis of the Divine Soul, and Nan Jing, written at the end of the Han dynasty, Classic of Difficulties. Chapters 66-74 of the Su Wen were added to the earlier version by Wang Bing in 762 AD, (minus chapters 72 and 73) although Wang Bing quite credibly claims that “it was feared that the wrong person might secure this information hence at times this book was hidden. And thus the 7th roll (containing the missing chapters) was hidden by Mr. Shih…” and which he then subsequently acquired. Wang Bing’s assertion seems plausible given that these chapters contained closely guarded astronomical knowledge, considered amenable to astrological interpretations concerning the Emperor. Chapters 72 and 73, which were missing from Wang Bing’s version as well as from Lu’s 1978 edition, are now included. Lu offers no explanation as to the origin of these bar that they were added to the Su Wen by Chinese physicians. These chapters give details of treatments and conditions which belong to stems and branches theory.

The principles which govern traditional Chinese medicine, based on the concept that Heaven, Earth and Mankind are an interconected whole, are set forth. The theories of Yin and Yang and the Five Elements, as the correlatives of Heaven and Earth, are expounded. >From the metaphysic to the physic, encompassing the spirit, blood and qi, these intricate theories are rigorously applied. So, from the universal principles, the details of energy production, meridian pathways, energy flow, organ function etcetera are outlined. The clinical applications, pathologies and their treatment are explained. Needle techniques, diet, and herbal remedies are also given.

This book is inspiring and poetic, and in parts written with amazing patience and consideration for the reader. However, much of the text remains difficult for the modern acupuncturist chiefly because the imagery is unfamiliar. One needs to have some knowledge of quite archaic five element associations. Other parts of the text refers to star constellations with which the reader is unlikely to be familiar. In addition, organ function and pathology is not compartmentalised with reference to their yin or yang aspect, nor is there any reference to eight conditions.

Some organ function, as described by Worsley, is briefly described in chapter 8, Su Wen: “The heart is the monarch from whom spirits are derived. The lung is the minister from whom policies (regulations of governing) are derived.” General statements such as “anger affects the liver” are frequently encountered.

More detailed five element character analysis is found in Ling Shu chapter 64:

“Fire people are like upper Zhi (fire sound) and they are like the people in the south. They look red, with a skinny face, a small head, good shoulders and back and upper thigh and abdomen, small hands and feet, stable steps in walking, a quick apprehension, swaying shoulders while walking, full of muscles in the back. They are energetic, unconcerned about material wealth, with little confidence, plenty of worries, sharp, and fond of beauty, hasty, unable to obtain longevity, with a likelihood of a premature death.”

Elsewhere character according to the divisions of yin and yang are explored in some depth.

“People of little yin are fond of small profits and tricking others; they take pleasure in seeing others suffer and fond of hurting people; they are jealous of someone else’s glory and they are cruel and not sympathetic.” Also, “They look clean and ‘selfishless’ on the surface but in fact they are hypocritical and dangerous. When they stand up they are nervous and insecure. When they walk they cannot maintain a straight position.” Ling Shu chapter 72.

Lu’s book is huge in scope, depth, and not least in size! It is 860 pages, almost A3 size. That’s a good 30 by 37 cms on your desk and weighs roughly ‘a ton.’ This is not a book you’ll take with you on the train. But it is beautifully presented in gold coloured, silky binding (hard back.) It is a sea of information, and as such you probably won’t want to throw yourself into the deep end, but rather test the waters over a long period of time, checking through chapter headings for topics of interest, perhaps pulse diagnosis or the spirit. Gradually you’ll feel safer to just dive in and immerse yourself in the deeper waters of ancient tradition.

This edition is much better organised than the 1978 version. It is fully indexed and pertinent chapter numbers are printed at the top of each page. Each paragraph is also numbered for easy referencing. There is, however, one idiosyncrasy to the page layout, and that is the columns do not always flow logically from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next. There is no clear dividing line on the page to let you know that text at the top of the column belongs to text adjacent to it, and then text can quite suddenly flow into a paragraph below which belongs to an entirely new chapter. Although individual paragraph numbering helps solve this problem, one occasionally has to search to find the follow-on. But there is one major compensation for all those who struggled with Lu’s 1978 version. Acu points in the text, which previously were numbered 1 through to 361 and which then had to be referenced at the back of the book, are now referred to using standard numbering along with their names, e.g. Renying, St. 9, in the main text.

Lu also provides ample tables, for instance a précis of treatment methods, (including a cure for hiccups involving tickling the inside of the nose to induce sneezing!) In addition, Henry Lu has provided a more thorough introduction and an appendix which discusses stems and branch theory. Lu also provides copious footnotes throughout.

Otherwise, as one would expect, the actual translation is virtually unchanged, except in a few instances where he curiously switches preference from one choice of translation to another without explanation. For instance chapter 52 Su Wen, one forbidden point described as on either side of the 7thvertebrae and originally interpreted as lateral to T 7, but now he chooses lateral to L3, without explanation for the switch (although both versions are given in each edition.)

Dr. Henry Lu’s dedication in translating such a monumental and difficult piece of work makes it hard to criticise this. If there is any criticism at all, it is that in places Dr. Lu has attempted to give too much. In his introductions and appendices Dr. Lu tries to explain difficult passages in too short a space. Often Lu uses simple repetition of the main text in a way that implies ‘you can’t get it any clearer than that,’ even for extremely esoteric subjects. In other places large chunks of duplicated text appears to be an oversight by the editor.

Lu’s tables certainly organise the main points, but in some cases create confusion because there is not enough explanation. For instance Lu links, in table form, the earthly branches with the lunar mansions (xiu) and the twenty four seasonal dates (jieqi.) The confusion arises because the jieqi from the farmer’s calendar naturally follow the solar path through the lunar mansions, while the branches (and stems) follow the direction of the four palaces through the xiu which flow in the opposite direction. An explanation of this is beyond the scope of any translation of the Neijing, (and obviously beyond the scope of this review) and I wonder if this just adds to the mountain of confusion already out there on the subject. More serious confusion is introduced by his translation of the 11th month as November. According to the Chinese calendar the 11thmonth falls on the winter solstice, and this is the first branch Zi. This has been a calendar rule since the introduction of the Taichu calendar reform of 104 BC, and this placement was used from much earlier times. However, when branches or months are mentioned in Lu’s translation they follow the Gregorian (modern Western) numbering system rather than the traditional Chinese. This puts them all out by one month.

One must briefly compare Dr. Lu’s monumental work with other partial translations into English. Dr. Ilza Veith translated the first 34 chapters of the Suwen in 1949, oddly claiming that the entire medical philosophy was contained in these 34 chapters. Veith’s introduction is full of scepticism of Chinese medical philosophy. However, this does not mar her translation, which often sheds light on passages which remain unclear in other translations, including Lu’s. For instance, in her treatment of Chapter 16 she more fully explains the reasoning behind the associations of months with organs. Translating ‘the first month,’ as simply that, rather than Lu’s ‘January’, in itself helps to clarify. (Maoshing, see below, correctly translates the 1st month as February.) But in other places she misses the poetic reasoning entirely, for instance chapter 5 Su Wen, her translation of, “the principle of yin and yang is the basic principle of the entire universe,” doesn’t have quite the same meaning as Lu’s “yin and yang are the ways of heaven and earth.” Throughout Lu’s translation, (Lu is himself an acupuncturist and TCM teacher) his deeper understanding of the medical principles involved, as opposed to those of medical historian Veith, often elucidates subtle differences.

Maoshing Ni’s translation of 81 chapters of Su Wen, 1995, is always accessible. For instance, he strongly emphasises the emotional and mental aspects of the organs from Su Wen chapter 8: “The heart is the sovereign of all organs and represents the consciousness of one’s being. It is responsible for intelligence, wisdom and spiritual transformation.” In other chapters, however, Maoshing appears to skim the surface, perhaps to maintain simplicity, but in so doing loses much of the depth and detail. For instance, in Su Wen, chapter 16, he merely associates the liver with February and March, and gives scant other detail. And there are no explanatory notes to the text anywhere.

Wu Jing Nuan translated 81 chapters of Ling Shu in 1993. This is a concise and very readable translation, but again, in comparison with Lu’s, he loses on attention to detail. As in Maoshing’s Su Wen, there is little offered by way of explanation. The extremely brief appendix on stems and branches (half a page) contains an erroneous alignment of the branches with the months, and his two page elucidation on the five elements seems more feng shui than medical: “Fire creates earth: When volcanoes erupt or wood burns out, the ash remains and becomes part of the earth.” Elsewhere mistakes, such as claiming that the clepsydra, the ancient water clock, had fifty divisions marked on it (instead of one hundred) also undermines confidence.

So far, the only published English translation of the Su Wen by Unshuld are in an appendix to his Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen. These are selections from Wang Bing’s scroll 7 and are virtually identical to Lu’s translation. The occasional variation in wording does nothing to change its essential meaning.

Why should any acupuncturist buy this book, given that it is not required reading in today’s acupuncture college? I can put it no better than Wang Bing (taken from Veith.)

“Even if one should have spontaeneous natural talents, deep and profound and wonderful knowledge, nevertheless we are still in need of textual and philological elucidations to put our knowledge into exemplary form.” Wang Bing 762 AD.

860 pages. Pub. by the International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Vancouver. $195.00 (US), plus pp from ritac@tcmcollege.com. The original Chinese texts can be ordered separately.