Helen Q. Zhang and Stephen X. Guo Published by the People’s Medical Publishing House, Beijing, 2011 Softback, 460 pages + audio CD International Standard Library of Chinese Medicine series. Price: £42.95 ISBN: 9787117127332
(Reviewed by Douglas Wile, EJOM Vol. 6 No. 6)
Any new entry in this field begs two questions: What are the merits of TCM students learning Chinese? How does this book stack up to comparables?
The debates surrounding the value of TCM students mastering the Chinese language are almost as contentious as those surrounding the various competing translation regimes. Authorities like Wiseman, Rose, Zhang, and Flaws contend that claims of mastery in Chinese medicine must rest on a high level of linguistic proficiency, though Flaws dissents in regarding only reading knowledge as essential. Taking mastery of language one step further, Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée and Claude Larre believe that knowledge of the classical language is necessary in order to grasp the evolution of terminology over more than two thousand years in the pre-modern medical literature. In the opposite camp we find figures like Beinfield, Korngold, and Seem, who react against what they perceive as a hegemonic and dogmatic attitude in Wiseman, pointing out that he is not, after all, a practitioner. They believe that loyalty to the Chinese language is actually an impediment to releasing the full growth potential of acupuncture and to the emergence of (for instance) a truly ‘American acupuncture’.
Looking at this debate dispassionately, it is in reality a difference in emphasis between universal and local knowledge. Structurally it is similar to debates among the followers of Jesus over whether to consider themselves a Jewish movement or a new religion, between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhists, and more pointedly, the importance of Hebrew, Latin, Sanskrit, or Arabic for authentic transmission of the true word versus popularization through the vernaculars. If we say, for example, that mastery of Western medicine is dependent on knowledge of the ‘original language’, would that be the Greek of Hippocrates, the Latin of Galen, or English, German, or French? Certainly there are skilled practitioners of biomedicine today around the world who do not speak any Western languages and may have studied exclusively from texts in their own language. Or, do we want to say that the two situations are not comparable because in the case of Western biomedicine what terminology refers to are real verifiable entities, and thus translation is perfectly adequate to represent these realities. Such a position would obviously put Chinese medicine on a very shaky epistemological foundation. If the transmission of Chinese medical knowledge through the medium of Chinese language follows the same pattern, we can expect cycles of universalism and adaptation to alternate with calls to return to roots.
While allowing that there is no strict right or wrong in this matter, it is perhaps possible to point to a few practical advantages to learning Chinese that both sides could agree on. First, bodies of knowledge are culturally produced and embedded, and even those with objective and universal pretensions are better understood in cultural and historical context. If Chinese medicine is more akin to local knowledge, how much more so is it important to encounter it in its original language, which is the key to understanding culture? Second, only a tiny fraction of TCM’s pre-modern seminalliterature is translated into Western languages, and even less of the current literature, which is voluminous. Practitioners with access to this literature have a real advantage in digging into the past and staying on the cutting edge of the future. Third, study opportunities in China are greatly enhanced by the ability to communicate in the native language. To be sure, there are shortterm programmes that provide translation accommodations every step of the way, but for in-depth, long-term study, language is essential. To expect international conferences on Chinese medicine to be conducted in English is simply a relic of Western imperialism. Finally, non-Chinese learners of TCM are often required to learn many hundreds of terms for concepts, points, and herbs in Chinese, and learning to pronounce them accurately in Mandarin would contribute greatly to standardisation and intelligibility.
For native speakers learning medical or any specialised language domain, this is normally layered over conversational competence and general literacy. Skipping conversational Chinese and proceeding directly to literacy and translation skills can follow the classical or contemporary track, or utilise the inductive or deductive method. I believe that the strength of Fast Track to TCM Chinese: A Language Primer (by Helen Q. Zhang and Stephen X. Guo) is that it offers some of all of these, allowing the reader to take a comprehensive approach or to pick and choose specific areas of interest. One unique feature in this book is that sample passages based on TCM theory are followed by vocabulary and dialogues covering the same content.
In assessing the value of any new book, we must ask is it worse than the competition, just as good, or better. There are several ways of being better: combining the best features of previous books or blazing a new trail. No primer can guide one to the summit of Chinese language mastery, which is a journey of decades not days, but Fast Track to TCM Chinese: A Language Primer deserves to be in the backpack of anyone starting on that journey.
Douglas Wile Douglas Wile received his Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Literatures from the University of Wisconsin. He is Professor Emeritus of Brooklyn College (City University of New York), former instructor at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (New York), and currently Professor of Chinese Language and Culture at Alverno College. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Chinese martial arts, medicine, and philosophy.