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  • Writer's picturePhilip Niño Tan-Gatue

Ancient Chinese Medicine Books: Huangdi Neijing

Unlike some other forms of so-called alternative medicine, Chinese Medicine was not born from the experiences of single persons.  Homeopathy is ultimately based on the theories of Samuel Hahnemann; Osteopathy based on the teachings of Andrew Taylor Still; and Chiropractic based on the musings of Daniel David Palmer.  Chinese Medicine, on the other hand, is the product of the collective experiences of various physicians throughout the centuries.  One advantage that Chinese Medicine has had over other traditions of medicine is the fact that China has had a magnificent preserved written record throughout the millenia.  Knowledge was able to pass vertically from generation to generation, and horizontally throughout the different parts of the ancient empire.

There must have been thousands of texts on the topic of medicine.  Sadly, most are lost due to the ravages of history and war.  Even the ones that survived are mostly no longer original copies but edited and re-edited versions sometimes from centuries later.  Still, if you think about it. that’s better than nothing.

It would have been much better if ancient Chinese doctors had these in those days.

It would have been much better if ancient Chinese doctors had these in those days. Image by adamr courtesy

The earliest extant medical work is the Huangdi Neijing (黄帝内经) otherwise known as the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic or Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine. Nei (内)means “interior” or “internal” as opposed to “wai” (外) which means “exterior” or “external”. To illustrate it’s meaning, airplane flights in China can be divided into “guonei” (国内)- or “inside the country” and “guowai” (国外) or “outside the country. Neijing can mean internal classic – referring to internal medicine as in the modern sense. Internal Medicine as a specialty is called “neike” (内科) – “internal science” while surgery is called “waike” (外科)- “external science”. Before this confuses us, recall that surgery in both the east and west during ancient times was pretty much limited to cleaning and closing wounds, amputations, draining abscesses and the like. These were all considered “external” procedures as opposed to dealing with the internal organs.

The Neijing traditionally was ascribed to the ancient and legendary Yellow Emperor or Huangdi.  The mythology dictates that the Yellow Emperor (2698-2589 BC) wrote it personally.  Historical research has shown that this classic was probably compiled over the course of several years by several authors during the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.)  The book is also traditionally divided into the Su Wen (素问), “Plain questions” and the Ling Shu (灵枢), “Divine Pivot”.

The Su Wen is the first part and is composed of 9 volumes with 81 chapters.  Why 81?  It is said that it has 81 chapters because 81 is 9 x 9.  Apparently the ancients had this thing for numerology.  Unfortunately, only 8 volumes were left after the ravages of the wars of the Three Kingdoms era.  The version that survives up to now was compiled in the Tang Dynasty by Wang Bing (王冰)and even this edition was compiled again with notes and additions by Lin Yi (林亿) in the Northern Song Dynasty.  We no longer have this text in the original form, but we can be assured based on other books similar to it that the content is generally preserved.

The content of the Su Wen is written in dialogue form, with the Emperor Huangti asking questions of his physician Qi Bo.  Hence, the term, “Plain Questions” or “Simple Questions”.  The book deals with the basic tenents of Chinese Medicine such as yin and yang, the five elements, qi, blood and vital substances and more.  In addition, this book gives early descriptions of body parts, which shows that as early as this time Chinese physicians conducted dissections on the human body.

The Ling Shu, on the other hand, has younger physicians asking Huangdi their questions.  This part has a more detailed description of the channels or meridians of acupuncture, of needling techniques.

Now, in this modern day and age, there is a tendency to dismiss the old and the traditional as outdated and supplanted by modern science.  To these skeptics I quote a passage from the Su Wen.  I thus end this short article with this, adapted from the translation of Ni Maoshing:

(Huangdi asked), “I’ve heard that in the days of old everyone lived one hundred years without showing the usual signs of aging.  In our time, however, people age prematurely, living only fifty years.  Is this due to a change in the environment, or is it because people have lost the correct way of life?” Qi Bo replied, “In the past, people practiced the way of the Tao, the Way of Life.  They understood the principle of balance, of yin and yang, as represented by the transformation of the energies of the universe.  Thus, they formulated practices such as Dao-in, an exercise combining stretching, massaging, and breathing to promote energy flow, and meditation to help and maintain and harmonize themselves with the universe.  They ate a balanced diet at regular times, arose and retired at regular hours, avoided overstressing their bodies and minds, and refrained from overindulgence of all kinds.  They maintained well-being of body and mind; thus, it is not surprising that they lived over one hundred years. “These days, people have changed their way of life.  They drink wine as though it were water, indulge excessively in destructive activities, drain their jing – the body’s essence that is stored in the kidneys – (note – this refers to excessive sexual activity particularly for men) – and deplete their qi.  They do not know the secret of conserving their energy and vitality.  Seeking emotional excitement and momentary pleasures (note – sounds like party time!) people disregard the natural rhythm and order of the universe.  They fail to regulate their lifestyle and diet, and sleep improperly.  So it is not surprising that they look old at fifty and die soon after.”

Reading this, does it not sound suspiciously sound like a warning against the modern “work hard, play hard” lifestyle?  Amazing, coming from a 2000 year old book.


Ni, Maoshing. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine: A New Translation of the Neijing Suwen with Commentary.  Shambala Publications, 2012.

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