Ancient Chinese Medical Theory 101: Do I Need to Learn Chinese?

Several of my recent posts have focused on ancient Chinese medical literature, so I thought now would be an appropriate time to share my thoughts on the use of English translations in the classroom. There is a notion within the East Asian medicine community that in order to truly understand the ancient medical literature, it must be read in the original classical Chinese. This notion is perpetuated by some who feel that the literature is otherwise inaccessible to the English-speaking student. Unfortunately, it deters students from reading these ancient texts, and should therefore be abandoned. This article will focus on the specific ways that English-speaking students and teachers of East Asian medicine can utilize existing English translations of ancient Chinese medical literature (and other ancient Chinese literature) to gain a better understanding of the medicine. *Note: for the purposes of readability, I will simply refer to the Chinese language as a whole, instead of writing “modern Chinese and/or classical Chinese” each time. Astute scholars will recognize that the ancient medical texts were originally written in classical Chinese, but have since been transliterated into modern Chinese.*

DAOM defense

Doctoral Research Presentation and Defense

I do not read Chinese, yet I did my doctoral research on the Huáng Dì Nèi Jīng, the foundational text of Chinese medicine. More specifically, I created a consensus-based curriculum for this ancient medical text. To some in the field, it is inappropriate—even blasphemous—for an American who cannot recognize more than 100 Chinese characters to undertake research on the Chinese medical classics. In fact, I have heard tales of native Chinese teachers telling their American students that they will only be able to understand <50% of the Nèi Jīng without being able to read it in Chinese. Even American practitioners perpetuate this nonsense, and make statements suggesting that one can only get “the ‘impression’ of information, rather than the information itself,” when reading English translations of the ancient texts. Statements like these are disrespectful not only to students, but also to the translators of these great works.

Professor Yanzhong “Kevin” Zhu (Five Branches University)

Dr. Dong Ji, PhD (Pacific College of Oriental Medicine)


Barry Xin (Pacific College of Oriental Medicine)

Thankfully, my classics teachers, Yanzhong “Kevin” Zhu, Barry Xin, and Dong Ji, did not subscribe to this divisive viewpoint, and supported my enthusiasm for the classics, despite what others might have perceived as linguistic inadequacies. After graduation, I considered enrolling in a master’s program for classical Chinese, but I ultimately discarded the idea for practical reasons. It is unreasonable to think that every English-speaking student and practitioner of East Asian medicine needs to learn Chinese in order to gain an understanding of the classics. As a community, we must reject this idea that the ancient medical literature can only be accessed by those who read Chinese, because:

  1. It discourages English-speaking students from approaching the ancient medical texts.
  2. It leads to the implication that the classics are reserved only for those who can read Chinese.
  3. It is impractical and fundamentally flawed.

In many ways, classical Chinese is to modern Chinese as Middle English is to modern English. Take a look at this passage from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales:

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc that highte theseus;
Of atthenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour,
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.

—The Canterbury Tales

Though it was originally written in Middle English, which ultimately developed into the form of English we speak today, it reads almost like a foreign language. Based on my limited understanding of the Chinese language, classical Chinese would likely appear as foreign to the modern Chinese reader as Middle English does to the modern English reader. So, the ability to read the ancient texts in the original classical Chinese is the privilege of a select few—even amongst native Chinese speakers! Luckily, there are Western scholars and academics who have already published stacks of research on the ancient medical literature. The ability to read Chinese is therefore just one potential way of approaching the classics; an understanding of ancient Chinese history, philosophy, and culture can be equally effective. The idea that simply reading the text in classical Chinese will give one a profound understanding of it is a fallacy!

Let me return to my example of The Canterbury Tales. Here is the modern English equivalent of the same passage quoted above:

Once on a time, as old tales tell to us,
There was a duke whose name was Theseus:
Of Athens he was lord and governor,
And in his time was such a conqueror
That greater was there not beneath the sun.

—The Canterbury Tales

Look back at the original. As a native English speaker, do you feel that something is lost in the translation to modern English? In my opinion, it would be far more beneficial to have some background on Theseus, or to have some understanding of the socio-political factors surrounding the time at which The Canterbury Tales was written.

Now let’s take a look at a passage from the Nèi Jīng Sù Wèn (Chapter 5):

Heaven is not sufficiently present in the North-West.
Hence the North-West is yin,
and the ears and the eyes of man on the right are not as clear as on the left.
The earth is incomplete in the South-East.
Hence the South-East is yang,
and the hands and feet of man on the left are not as strong as on the right.
—Unschuld, 2011, p. 116

Here’s the same passage translated by Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee:

Heaven is deficient in the north-west, therefore the western and northern quarters are yin, and in man the ear and eye are not as clear on the right as on the left.

Earth is not full in the south-east, therefore the eastern and southern quarters are yang, and in man the hand and foot are not as strong on the left as on the right.

—Rochat de la Vallee, 2011, p. 122

…And the same passage translated by Ilza Veith:

Heaven is not complete with only the West and the North; the West and North are the regions of Yin.  Man’s hearing and eyesight are not so clear on his right side as they are on his left side.

The Earth is not complete with only the East and the South; the East and the South are the regions of Yang. Man’s left hand and foot are not so strong as are his right hand and foot.

—Veith, 1965, p. 122

We have now looked at three different translations of the same passage. Despite different word and grammatical choices, each of these passages conveys the same basic idea—with the exception of the specific directions. Is it North and West or Northwest? Is it South and East or Southeast? We could consult Maoshing Ni’s translation as well, where we would find “Northwest” and “Southeast,” but that still leaves the translators equally divided. Seemingly this is a question that could only be answered by an in-depth knowledge of Chinese language. But just as we could learn something about The Canterbury Tales through historical research, so too could we learn more about this passage through similar means. We could consult English translations of other ancient Chinese texts for the answer. I happened upon the answer in my readings of the Huái Nán Zǐ, a text that was written at roughly the same time as the Nèi Jīng:

Anciently Gong Gong and Zhuan Xu fought, each seeking to become the Thearch. Enraged they crashed against Mount Buzhou; Heaven’s pillars broke, the cords of the Earth snapped. Heaven tilted in the northwest, and thus the sun and moon, stars and planets shifted in that direction. Earth became unfull in the southeast, and thus watery floods and mounding soils subsided in that direction.

—Major, 1993, p. 62

This ancient legend, found in an English translation of the Huái Nán Zǐ, not only solves the directional ambiguity in the Nèi Jīng passage above, it gives us more to think about. The mythical conflict between Gong Gong and Zhuan Xu was probably so well known to the intended audience of the Nèi Jīng that the authors did not need to explain it further. Why did the ancient Chinese create this myth? Where is Mount Buzhou? I could answer those questions for you, but I’d rather inspire you to look them up yourself. I’ll even tell you where to look: John Major’s 2010 translation of the Huái Nán Zǐ (Chapter 3.1, p. 115; and the introduction to Chapter 4, p. 150). There you will find a description of Gong Gong, and the significance of Mount Buzhou: the mountain at the center of the Universe. You will learn that Mount Buzhou is the central peak on Mount Kunlun—a mountain that occupies the center of a 3×3 topographical grid in a cosmological theory that was popularized by Zou Yan, who is also famous for his role in the development of Five Phase theory. Mount Buzhou is the pivot around which the Universe turns. Why? Because, based the Earth’s orbit, the stars appear to move in a westerly direction around the celestial pole (Schafer, 2005). Mount Buzhou was the earthly counterpart to this celestial pole. In addition, due to the topography of China, the major rivers flow in an easterly direction toward the ocean. Simply put, this ancient myth was a way for the ancient Chinese to explain the celestial mechanics they observed from Earth, and to explain the directional flow of their rivers as well.

Did I lose you? Good. I want you to be lost. I want you to search for answers. I don’t want you to wait any longer to approach these ancient texts, and I certainly don’t want you to listen to the myopic views of those who would discourage you from doing so. Since I discovered the origin of this passage on my own, two additional Nèi Jīng books have been published that explain this particular chapter of the Sù Wèn (Kong, 2010; Rochat de la Vallee 2011). Every few months, more books and research papers are published in English that can help us to better understand East Asian medicine. The medical anthropologist, Paul Unschuld, has devoted his career to studying and translating the ancient Chinese medical texts—surely his translations of the Nèi Jīng and Nán Jīng should be suitable for all but the most erudite and discriminating scholar. Nigel Wiseman has produced outstanding translations of the Shāng Hán Lùn (with Craig Mitchell and Feng Ye) and Jīn Guì Yào Lüè (with Sabine Wilms) that contain excellent commentary. John Major has produced a detailed translation of the Huái Nán Zǐ. There are multiple English translations of the Yì Jīng, Dào Dé Jīng, and Zhuāng Zǐ—and the list goes on…

Long Hu Shan (Daoist Monastery)

Long Hu Shan
(Daoist Monastery)

Translation of the classics is just one piece of a much larger puzzle: one that also involves an understanding of the political and cultural factors that surrounded the creation of these texts. In fact, I chose the Nèi Jīng passage above precisely because it would still be ambiguous if you understood the Chinese language but lacked an understanding of Chinese mythology. You would still have to read the Huái Nán Zǐ, and though you could do so in the original Chinese, you would ultimately arrive at the same conclusion about this Nèi Jīng passage that could have been reached by utilizing existing English translations! By examining the work of Western scholars on topics like Chinese history and philosophy, we can gain a deeper understanding of the classics without ever learning Chinese. Let me be clear: I am not saying the work of translators is over—far from it—I am simply suggesting that students and practitioners not put limits on their ability to access the ancient medical texts. The field of East Asian medicine in America will always benefit from more English translations of the medical classics and their associated commentaries, but unless you are intent on pursuing a degree in classical Chinese, why not read the information available in English first? Then, if you are still driven to learn Chinese, I am sure you will be an amazing asset to our profession; for the rest of us, English translations can still be used to unlock the secrets of the classics.

As part of my doctoral research, I employed the method outlined here in the creation of a master’s level Nèi Jīng curriculum; I utilized multiple English translations of the Nèi Jīng for each passage, and then explained these passages with research from other disciplines. This method is, in my opinion, the best way to approach the ancient medical texts in the classroom—especially because the majority of American students are dependent upon English translations (Pritzker, 2014). Access to multiple English versions of each passage enables students to get a foundational understanding of the material, while research from scholars in complementary disciplines reinforces the concepts and theories described therein. I would like to see more teachers adopt this method in their classrooms. It undoubtedly takes more work, but the benefits to the students and to the profession are many.

Click to read part 2…


Geoffrey Chaucer, (14th Century). The Canterbury Tales. Available online.

Y.C. Kong, (2010). Huangdi Neijing: A Synopsis with Commentaries

John Major, (1993). Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought

John Major, (2010). The Huainanzi

Maoshing Ni, (1995). The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine

Pritzker, S., Hui, K.K., & Zhang, H, (2014). Considerations in the Translation of Chinese Medicine

Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee, (2011). The Rhythm at the Heart of the World

Edward Schafer, (2005). Pacing the Void

Paul Unschuld, (2011). Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen

Ilza Veith, (1965). The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine

© Dr. Phil Garrison and Ancient Chinese Medical Theory, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Dr. Phil Garrison and Ancient Chinese Medical Theory with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

  1. September 3, 2015 at 7:39 pm

    I have a far easier time understanding olde English 😉 than I do understanding the nuances of the Chinese language! When Kevin and Weiyi came to visit, she and I laughed long and hard at how neither of us understood what the other was saying, though we were SO close. Still, unintelligible! Simple example: I would say Beijing (bay-jing) – no recognition(!) BeiJING (and jing spoken more like jeeng and ever so quickly!) took me awhile to master. So I give you huge credit for undertaking the learning of this language!

    • September 4, 2015 at 12:08 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience! Spoken Chinese is a whole different beast. My herb pronunciation is pretty good by Western standards, but I still had a tough time in the herb shops in China! Although I would like to be fluent one day, my ability to speak Chinese is a far cry from my ability to translate it.

  1. September 2, 2015 at 10:19 am

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