C. Larre & E. Rochat de la Vallée Monkey Press, Cambridge1999 Paperback, Fully Indexed, 137 pages, £15.00
(Reviewed by Ken Shifrin, EJOM Vol. 3 No. 3)
This latest text from Monkey Press provides a further, substantial instalment in their excellent series Chinese Medicine from the Classics. This series, based upon an ongoing sequence of seminars given by the authors over many years, has come to represent a unique body of work, providing great scholarship and deep insight into the subtle meanings of Chinese medicine's most fundamental concepts. The present volume continues in this fine tradition.
Essence, Spirit, Blood and Qi are the four fundamental constituent elements underpinning human life, and an understanding of them is essential for the proper practice of traditional acupuncture. The challenge, as with so much classical theory, is to gain an appreciation of what the original authors of these ideas actually meant. It is this quest for understanding which Larre and Rochat have done so much to facilitate.
Typically, and significantly, the book begins with a discussion of the meaning of couples in Chinese medicine. The reasons why so much of traditional acupuncture theory is expressed in terms of couples (e.g. yin/yang, heaven/earth, zang/fu) are thoroughly explored, providing an essential context for the discussion that follows. Such contextual explorations are a well known feature of the authors' approach and represent, in my view, one of the most rewarding aspects of the book.
Each of the four fundamental elements is thoroughly discussed. These discussions are based, primarily, upon a detailed analysis of the statements and explanations found in the classics. Great emphasis is placed upon the actual words and characters found in the classical texts. The characters for many of the words are shown and described, which is extremely helpful for readers unfamiliar with the Chinese language.
Of particular interest is the extensive discussion of the relationship between blood and qi. The complexities and apparent paradoxes of this particular coupling continue to bemuse and confuse many students and practitioners of traditional acupuncture. The authors take a systematic, step-by-step journey through the classics (especially the Su Wen and Ling Shu), explaining clearly and precisely how this relationship is understood. For those who have struggled at times to grasp these essentials, this book will prove a valuable resource.
The central role of spirit (shen) in human life is explored at various points, although not as extensively as this reader might have wished. The relationship between essences and spirits (jingshen) is described, as is that between blood and spirit. Such discussions are important, emphasising as they do the core values that lie at the heart of Chinese medicine. (For a further, excellent account of the place of spirit in Chinese medicine, I strongly recommend Rooted in Spirit by the same authors, published by Station Hill Press).
You will have gathered by now that I think this book, along with the rest of the Monkey Press series, to be extremely good. It is also fair to say that not everyone will find it easy to read, especially those unused to, or uninterested in, exploring the classical texts in such great detail. An effort of concentration may be required at the outset, until one begins to enter into the atmosphere of the texts themselves. Indeed, the authors' ability to bring these texts and ideas to life in such a wonderful way is, I think, one of their great strengths. The structure of the text lends itself to selective (re)reading, and would make an excellent resource for small, collaborative study groups interested in exploring the ideas in depth. Interestingly, many of the seminars upon which this series of books is based have the feel of such study groups.
I recommend this book, without hesitation, to all those interested in acquiring a deep appreciation of the heart of Chinese medicine.
Ken Shifrin Ken Shifrin qualified at the College of Traditional Acupuncture, Leamington Spa, in 1977, and completed further advanced studies programmes in 1979 and 1981. He is currently Dean of the College, as well as Vice-Chair of the British Acupuncture Council. He served as Vice-Chair of the British Acupuncture Accreditation Board from 1990-1998. He lives and practises in Oxford.