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  • Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Text
  • Aerin Caley
Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Text. By Paul Unschuld. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003. Pp. ix + 520. $75.00.

As a student in my final year of formal training in Zen Shiatsu, I am looking to my future. While I will soon begin my practice, I also intend to continue my studies, particularly with respect to the history of Chinese and Japanese medicine. My biggest [End Page 130] challenge will be that I don't understand either of these languages, leaving me at the mercy of translators, in a field where meaning is often dependant on nuance.

I was, therefore, very interested to read Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Text by Paul Unschuld. Although it is considered a seminal text, the Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen is not a unified manual of medicine but the accumulation of writing and experience that predated its compilation. In his efforts to translate this book, Unschuld attempted to take into consideration the broad variety of influences that would affect its intent and meanings.

The body of work that is known by this name underwent many revisions through the years, attaining the form we recognize today approximately twelve hundred years ago. Even working within the original language this presents several challenges. The first is that language and meanings change, and this sometimes obscures the intended connotation even for a scholar conversant in the original language. Unschuld also took into consideration the fact that the book had many editors, each working within a different social, political, and religious milieu. Medical knowledge grew with each generation, based on and referring to the writings of the time, many of which are no longer extant but are assumed to have been available to readers of the Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen.

If one were to postulate that this work was perfectly understood in Chinese, Unschuld would still face a challenge in his attempt to translate it into English. There are concepts in Chinese that have no equivalent in English and therefore present a challenge for someone trying to remain true to the original intent. He explains that this difficulty begins with the title itself, which is normally given as "The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Chinese Medicine." Although Huang Di is usually translated as Yellow Emperor, there are implications of the word emperor that are not part of huang, and, in fact, Unschuld prefers to leave the word untranslated, as there is no English option that does not alter the intent of the original.

Like most important books, the Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen cannot be fully grasped in one reading. I expect to revisit it many times throughout my life, as my experience in life and my practice leaven my understanding. I truly believe that texts such as Unschuld's will be an important part of my developing perception. Knowledge that is examined divorced from its formative circumstances loses the heart of its meaning, and Unschuld has made important progress in revealing the keys to the essence of the Su Wen.

Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Text is a dense but fascinating read. Unschuld has done a good job of providing the information needed to be clear and thorough without getting bogged down in what are probably intriguing details. The layperson in Chinese history and textual analysis will likely find it occasionally rough going, but I found it an inspiration to learn more. Overall, I believe Paul Unschuld's work to shows him to be a worthy disciple of Wang Bing, one of the Su Wen's editors, who wrote: "I hope to elucidate the message of the sages and to make their mysterious sayings shine. They should resemble the stellar constellations hung up on high.... [T]hey should resemble the crystalclear water in a deep spring where scales and shells can be distinguished." [End Page 131]