In the long history of Chinese medicine commentators have produced literally thousands of texts on many aspects of the art. The problem suffered by many Western students has always been the linguistic gap between Chinese and our own native languages and thus has borne our reliance on translations of important medical works. It is unfortunate to say that even with acupuncture being widely accepted and available in the West good translations of such works are rare; the noticeable exceptions being the Nei Jing, Nan Jing and the Shang Han Lun. Seeking to readdress this imbalance comes a group of practitioners based around the thriving Chinese Medicine community in Portland (USA) who have started The Chinese Medicine Database (CMDB). Since its inception the database has collected an impressive array of medical texts and begun the long task of having these works translated into English, a bold venture indeed and not one for the faint of heart (qi).
Originally compiled in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by Yáng Jìzhou, The Great Compendium was written in an effort to summarize clinic experience to date, incorporating learnings from ancient texts and to provide a reevaluation of point location and their actions. It has been one of the best sellers in its field for over three hundred years and holds itself as one of the premier sources for modern day acupuncture prescriptions.
This is the second book published by the CMDB that I have read and I think it’s fair to say that the intention is to provide translations and not to expand much beyond that. It is largely up to the reader how to interpret the clinical use of the material presented and as such these books tend to lean themselves towards more experienced practitioners than college students. The format of this particular book is thorough, listing the original Chinese text with a corresponding translation into English line by line. The first section of this volume is a summary of the most commonly used acupuncture points; with illustrations, depths, indications, contraindications and for those who are feeling really adventurous, an incantation for effective needling; all originating from a previous work, the Shén Yìng Jing 神應經 (Divinely Responding Classic). A total of 119 points are discussed; it is always interesting for me to see which points that I prefer to use in my practice have been omitted from such lists.
It is often heard in modern TCM circles that one of the great strengths of our medicine is the use of pattern based differential diagnosis and that we do not diagnose disease, rather we identify the pattern of imbalance and seek to correct that. Texts like the Great Compendium were not written in modern TCM differential parlance and the bulk of the book consists of a list of prescriptions based on categories of disease instead. The categories are: 1. All types of Wind 2. Cold Damage 3. Phlegm, Panting, and Cough 4. Various Kinds of Accumulations and Gathers 5. Abdominal Pain, Distention, and Fullness 6. Heart, Spleen, and Stomach 7. Heart Evils, Mania and Withdrawal 8. Cholera [Sudden Turmoil] 9. Malaria 10. Swelling and Distention (Appendix: Red Jaundice, Yellow Jaundice) 11. Sweating 12. Impediment (bì) and Reversal (jué) 13. Intestines, Haemorrhoids, and Defaecation 14. Yen [Genitals], Shàn [Mounting], and Urination 15. Head and Face 16. Throat 17. Ears and Eyes 18. Nose and Mouth 19. Chest, Back and Rib-Sides 20. Extremities, Lower Back, and Axillae 21. Women’s Diseases 22. Paediatrics 23. Sores and Toxins
Each category has a list of often quite succinct prescriptions, some of which will be very familiar to modern TCM standards such as the use of hé gu 合谷 LI4 and fù liu 復溜 KI7 in controlling copious or scant sweating and some which are less familiar, for example the use of shàng qiu 商丘 SP5 for oppressive dreams of ghosts.
I guess that part of the charm of reading old texts such as this is the discovery of how illness was perceived and categorized at the time of writing and just what sort of illnesses held precedence. Many of the terms will be quite unfamiliar to the modern practitioner and this poses the question how one could introduce many of the prescriptions into our own practice. On many of the Chinese disease names, such as that of the one sided sagging of ‘swollen Kidney’, the translator has provided footnotes on the general pattern of the disease and symptomatology, in this case it is explained that the word Kidney 肾 shen refers to the testicles and not the organ.
The publishers have done exactly what they set out to achieve by providing a very clear and accurate translation of a historically important acupuncture text. It is up to the practitioners themselves to decide on whether this information can be utilized in clinic. Overall, whilst I have enjoyed this book I am not sure whether it would cause me to make any changes to my practice as the diagnostic model used at the time is far removed from modern TCM practice and from my preferred Han Dynasty six conformation model. If you are looking for a more classically oriented internal medicine style book that provides information to apply immediately in clinic then you will no doubt be rather disappointed. However, if you have an interest in Ming Dynasty medicine and are keen to interpret that into modern clinical practice but don’t have the linguistic ability to read the original texts then this book and the greater work of the publishers will give you hours of reading pleasure.
For those in the latter group it would be well worth considering looking online at further options for accessing classical texts beyond those which CMDB print. For the last few years there has been a dedicated effort to collect as many historical Chinese medical texts as possible and have them translated by a team of well known practitioners such as Sabine Wilms and Arnaud Versluys. Operating on a monthly subscription (of between $15 to $30 depending on the range of features you require) you are able to access another twenty or so translations of thought-provoking texts, videos of various lectures and a very useful database of points, herbs and formulae. The premium subscription enables you to use the online translation tools so that you can access, make and share notes on untranslated texts that you find interesting with other members of the community. I was a little disappointed to discover that texts published into books are not available for online reading. That difference would have made membership to CMDB a must-have expense for my practice, without it I am less convinced about the expenditure. There is no other service quite like it though and if you have a keen interest in accessing a huge amount of literature on Chinese medicine then this database could well be for you.
Hugh Lutley Hugh Lutley practises both acupuncture and herbal medicine in Warwick, England with a preference towards classical Han Dynasty herbal medicine. He is one of the few herbal practitioners in the UK to have qualified with The Institute of Classics in East Asian Medicine’s Canonical program.