Ted Kaptchuk Contemporary Books, 2000. Paperback, 500 pages, with drawings Revised second edition, £15.99
(Reviewed by Alan Hext, EJOM Vol. 3 No. 6)
Almost twenty years ago Ted Kaptchuk wrote The Web has no Weaver which became a major break-through book in popularising Chinese medicine. Since 1983 there has been an unprecedented growth in the West of publications, education, practice and understanding of the depth and power of acupuncture and oriental herbs. Ted has grown too. He has proved the clinical value of what he writes of, as well as been honest about its limitations. This has led him to extensively research the classical literature and to explore and lecture about Chinese medicine in ways which have sometimes challenged his initial supporters. Ted has gained wisdom and experience. This second edition of the Web admirably reflects this.
The process of exploration that Ted has gone through is one shared by many practitioners of his generation. Comparing the two editions of the Web gives fascinating insights into the path that many of us have also trodden. Some of the changes are major. The second edition has extensive rewrites in its entries on qi, spirit as well as the patient-physician relationship. There is a new appendix concerning the scientific encounter with East Asian medicine, its efficacy and adverse effects. This is accompanied by a valuable bibliography of papers on clinical trials. Other changes may appear minor but are important, reflecting a more relaxed viewpoint. In the appendix on the Five Phases the new edition drops the line that ‘true understanding (of them) is rare among people involved in the practice of Chinese Medicine in the West’. The book has grown from 400 to 500 pages in quantitative terms. Qualitatively it reflects true practice and inner reflection. The chapter formerly entitled ‘The Fundamental Substances’ is now named ‘The Fundamental Textures’. How refreshing, how Ted.
In the new Introduction Ted writes ‘Instead of forsaking my first book, I have decided to gently update it, allow it to have a natural expansion. I did not want it to become an entirely new book; I wanted it to keep its established identity. In this second edition, I raise and emphasize new questions and underline different connections. My growth is reflected in what has been altered.’
So the section on Spirit grows from 1 to 8.5 pages, whilst the section on body fluids remains the same one page. He writes as he now lectures of the five Spirits and their Virtues. In the passages describing qi we now read ‘qi is the pulsation of the cosmos itself....qi is the thread connecting all beings’. The functions of qi are increased to five in number rather than previous four. They now include ‘qi ensures stability and governs retention’, a welcome addition in our culture’s tendency to translate qi as only denoting yang energy. Qi gong is mentioned along with a useful selective bibliography. In the notes accompanying the chapter on meridians he includes an extensive review of recent research into the scientific investigation of acupuncture along with references.
In the first edition, the appendix on The Five Phases, (originally written in collaboration with Dan Bensky and the assistance of Kiiko Matsumoto), was read with resentment by many British practitioners who later designated themselves as ‘Five Element’ acupuncturists. The revised appendix now no longer reads like fuel for the style wars which have trapped many in insular identifications. Ted now writes ‘In fact one could write the whole book from a five phase perspective’. However, he decided against a major re-write of the Web so this opportunity has been missed. The reader is left to make their own weaving of the fabric of Dao-Yin/Yang-Five Phases from the new threads Ted has introduced.
In the original edition the first figure illustrating the pulse qualities had the placement of the labels designating of bone and skin level reversed. In the second edition this has unfortunately increased so that now 17 of the 18 figures repeat this error turning these excellent visuals into puzzles. Correct spelling in the first edition now occasionally becomes a new error. Needling in the first edition changes to Beedling on page 140 of the new one!
One measurement of the richness of activity in the West in the last twenty years is reflected in the bibliography listings. Whereas in the new edition there are no changes in the number of books on Chinese sources there are thirty new western language books listed, published since 1983. Ted is an avid reader of original Chinese texts. The one surprising omission in his bibliography are the publications on translations and commentaries on Chinese medicine and philosophy by Monkey Press.
In his major rewrite of the chapter ‘Chinese Medicine as an Art’ Ted shows the brilliance of his perceptiveness and I encourage all practitioners to read it. The whole and the parts of a patient need to be seen in relationship. ‘Chinese medicine is never addition - gathering the parts (i.e. complaints, signs and symptoms) to make a whole...In the clinical landscape, the Chinese physician can see whole in any part’. He also introduces what is translated as the ‘Penetrating Divine Illumination’ (tong shen ming), as the true secret art of examining patients which ‘penetrates to the essence’. Mentioned in the Nei Jing (and other texts predating the Nei Jing) they reverentially insist that this method is the true Spirit of medicine compared with more linear and primitive forms of examining patients. Ted praises his first teacher, Dr Hong, who clearly embodied this practice.
It is instructive to look back at the original passage from which Ted chose the book’s title, written by the renowned biologist and sinophile, Joseph Needham. In Volume 2 of Science and Civilisation in China there is a section which describes the Chinese insights into the inner workings of the world. Needham (as did also Derek Bodde), makes the case for the need to distinguish between the Chinese view of the internal arising of life which has its own implicit natural order and the western view of an external force imposing ‘laws of Nature’. Needham writes ‘..the conception of a net is close to that of a vast pattern. There is a web of relationships throughout the universe, the nodes of which are things and events. Nobody wove it, but if you interfere with its texture, you do so at your peril. In the following pages we shall be able to trace the later developments of this Web woven by no weaver, this Natural Pattern, until we reach, with the Chinese, something approaching a developed philosophy of organism’
Ted is a brave explorer who, as he writes, has had to ‘contend with the contradiction between a Talmudic intellect and a Hasidic soul’. In this new edition he continues to share the fruits of his restless curiosity. His writing has depth and insight whilst being a very accessible entry into the science and art of Chinese Medicine. I highly recommend this second edition to readers of EJOM who may already own the first or to those for whom it is an unfamiliar work. For those for whom the original work provoked contradictions or for whom Ted has become a politically incorrect iconoclast, I suggest you look at it anew and transcend past prejudices. It is also a useful book for the general public looking to read something more substantial than what is to be found in the variety of shorter introductory books available. Ted quotes from a recent New England Journal of Medicine debate recognising the limitations of modern biomedicine. Such inclusions makes this new edition ideal for the enquiring western health care practitioner wanting to find out about oriental medicine and be introduced to its philosophy in practice. It opens doors of understanding to anyone who wants to find out why Chinese medicine has become of such vital importance as both a complementary as well as an alternative approach to health care.
Alan Hext Alan Hext is director of the Cambridge Traditional Acupuncture Centre. He teaches traditional acupuncture and Zero Balancing bodywork internationally.