An Exposition on the Eight Extraordinary Vessels - Acupuncture, Alchemy and Herbal Medicine
Charles Chace and Miki Shima Published by Eastland Press, 2010 Softback £31.78 (jcm.co.uk, $45 Eastland press, £28.50 Amazon)
(Reviewed by Tony Todd, EJOM Vol. 6 No. 5)
As practitioners and students of Chinese medicine living in a cultural setting far removed from the evolution of our art, particularly for those of us who do not read classical Chinese, we are fortunate that in recent years there are more and more windows opening into how this art may have developed. This translation is of the only surviving book from the pre modern period to have been written on the subject of extraordinary vessels and so is a welcome addition to the body of knowledge emerging in the English language on classical medical theory.
The authors have already published much, both independently and together, on a range of topics related to Chinese medicine, notably Chace’s co-translation of the The Yellow Emperor’s Systematic Classic of Acupuncture and Moxibustion (Huang Di Zhen Jiu Jia Yi Jing), and Chace and Shima’s Channel Divergences, Deeper Pathways of the Web which includes modern treatment strategies incorporating extra vessels. This work however is focused purely on the translation of Li Shi Zhen’s work and its legacy in modern times.
The book is divided into five sections totalling 500 pages. Section one deals with preliminaries and includes an introduction to the book, helping the reader to orientate themselves to the material and to prepare themselves for the inevitable culture shock that is to follow. We are given an introduction to the life of the man as well as to the range of Li Shi Zhen’s thought and how his thinking on extra vessels encompasses herbal and alchemical thinking as well as acupuncture. We are introduced to Li Shi Zhen’s style of writing; his presentation of earlier ideas from classics such as the Ling Shu and Mai Jing and his way of simultaneously restating earlier ideas and expanding upon them based on his understanding and clinical experience.
Section two consists of the translation of the exposition proper, it begins with an overview of the eight vessels and then deals with each one in detail and finishes with a chapter on extra vessel pulses and a chapter on pronunciation.
Section three covers commentaries on the exposition. Each vessel (or pair of vessels in the case of qiao and wei) contains commentaries on the nature and trajectory, points etc as well as on diseases specific to the vessel(s). At the end of the section there are commentaries on the pulses related to extra vessels.
Section four covers the legacy that the book has had with examples such as the 17th century masters Ye Tian Shi and Luo Dong Yi’s adoption of extra vessel theory in diagnostics and treatment, to such theoretical constructs as the ‘Grand Thoroughfare’ and the origin and mediation of primal qi in the body. The section closes with some cases from the modern period that utilise treatment approaches discussed in the text, and then two sections by Chace on qiao vessel pathodynamics and internal cultivation. Finally there are numerous appendices covering extra vessel points, single herbs, formulas as well as material pertaining to extra vessels in Li Shi Zhen’s Pulse Studies of a Lakeside Master.
As a contemporary reader what stands out about this book is that its contents don’t always neatly fit in with modern ideas around extra vessels that are typically taught in the UK today. The extra vessels are presented here simultaneously as needing to be experienced and understood from the perspectives of acupuncture, herbal medicine, and internal cultivation. This book both expands our understanding of the vessels and yet seems to ever keep them beyond our grasp as it uncovers more questions in its attempts to elucidate. Even our commonly assumed ideas (as acupuncturists) namely the treatment method of master couple points are called into question; though historically in existence at the time the authors go some way to point out that Li Shi Zhen’s omission of these points for treatment is unlikely to have been an oversight. Needless to say that many of our specific treatment protocols such as hormonal regulation, octahedral structural balancing, etc. do not feature here, neither do restrictions on use, or simplistic notions of what flows within these channels.
Comparing the book to other works in the English language, the first thing to note is there are not many, notably in recent years Monkey Press’ publication of the Eight Extraordinary Meridians by Claude Larre and Elizabeth Rochat de la Vallée (Monkey Press 1997) and Birch and Matsumoto’s Extraordinary Vessels (Paradigm Publications 1986) stand out as focusing on the subject. All three works overlap to some degree in grounding their work in appropriate chapters of Nei Jing and Nan Jing, and in presenting Li Shi Zhen’s description of channel trajectories and points, along with pathology of the channels. However Chace and Shima elaborate much more on the commentaries and in presentation of Zhen’s thoughts on the vessels from the perspectives of herbal medicine and internal cultivation. In terms of practical application and advice for treatment there is more in this work than perhaps the Monkey Press publication, though it is not as prescriptive as some of the chapters in Birch and Matsumoto’s work. On balance, if one is interested in this subject it is not really either/or, rather it complements and in many ways deepens one’s access to the subject that has been opened up by the other authors.
The book is both a fascinating peek into classical thought as well as throwing a spotlight on to our current ideas and treatment applications. It makes us reflect on what is taught today and what often passes as classical thinking is often the product of modern imagination. While not necessarily a bad thing in itself we are perhaps reminded that when we make claims about what these channels are and how they should be used it would be as well to know where these ideas come from. Though the work is not prescriptive in terms of set treatment protocols, it does open up the subject and suggests how we might creatively use points and formulas in ways that can invoke extra vessel function and physiology. Happy reading.
Tony Todd Tony Todd has been practising acupuncture since 2000 after graduating from ICOM in East Grinstead and then going on to further training in the manaka system and in toyohari style meridian therapy. He also trained in kampo herbal medicine and more recently in shang han lun with Arnaud Versluys. Tony also teaches at ICOM and co-prdinates the college's first year module in Chinese medicine theory.