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Huangdi Neijing Suwen

By Robert Felt
Created Aug 6 2009 - 2:02pm

My, I don't write very often do I? I suppose that is OK given the great volumes of stuff that gets onto the web.

 

We were recently in Berlin and had the opportunity to see Paul Unschuld's institute at Charite, a large hospital and medical school. We also saw his finished Huangdi Neijing Suwen in the form of its publication. After a much discussion, the University of California Press is preparing a two volume slip cased edition. We don't know the price but it will probably be in the just-under $200 range. Considering that these days we pay that price for books translated by groups of who-knows-who's and edited with who-knows-what standards, that seems unquestionably fair.

What in my opinion is really important about this book is that it is not an opinion text. Paul and his colleagues have not prepared the "The Paul Unschuld Opinion Book of the Su Wen." In fact, the question Dr. Unschuld has asked is not "What do I want you to think about this book?" Instead he has asked the most basic question "What is this book?" This is a much more important question than most in our field grasp. The Huangdi Neijing Suwen is not a book you can walk to your library shelves and read, or to your bookstore and buy. It was prepared early in Chinese intellectual history, has been edited uncountable times, sometimes by China's early and important thinkers. It is true that you can buy Chinese editions, and their English derivatives, but the process of what to include, what to consider as valid content, is anything but transparent. In other words, what Dr. Unschuld has done is to make plain and public those decisions that determine what the text could have been. This has involved both objective and subjective scholarship of a breadth and depth that has never before been applied to the foundations of Chinese medical literature.

The first step in answering the question "What is this book' could easily be called "archeological." To determine the content, and what period or author that content may have derived from, the project collected 8,000 artifacts such as bamboo strips and references. Obviously, the presence of particular text on an ancient and reasonably datable physical medium is a good indication of what the people at that time believed the text to be. So too are references in other texts. If, for example, the Su Wen is quoted in texts with a known dating, this is a positive evidence that the text contained those passages at that date. Where those are consistent, appearing in multiple texts over time, the presumption of authenticity is strong. Where they are not consistent, that is where changes can be seen in quoted text over time, ideas of who,what, where and when can be more reliably tracked. In other words, for the first time in any language, including Chinese, we will see the best-available idea of what these Chinese medical foundation texts had to say, who may have said it, and when it might have been said.

The importance of this cannot be understated. Questions of authenticity in Chinese medicine are permanent because generations faced different medical challenges, acquired new information, and the discipline itself admits of no final arbiter of truth like the western medical sciences. Thus, it is critical to productive debate that we have a valid notion of the who,what, where and when.

The second layer of authentication comes from a three part analysis of the texts assembled from the archeological sources. First, using sophisticated data analysis, the project was able to accomplish a number of firsts. By recognizing the structure of the Chinese text, that is, the use of characters, the syntax of the text, and the appearance named-concepts it is possible to understand where and when different passages may have been added. If a particular character does not appear in the Chinese literature until, for example, the Song-Jin-Yuan period, its appearance in a supposed ancient text is probably specious, the work of a later compiler or editor. If passages appear as couplets, or in four character phrases, their use can be traced to particular periods or authors based on recurring patterns. If ideas that were not current in Chinese medicine until later eras appear in supposed text or translation, these too must be considered later editions or a translator's suppositions.

Another layer of authentication involved the use of "code-breakers." Chinese prisoners of war, for example, tried to use their character language in many ways to send secret messages in their letters. By accessing experience in spotting these devices, the project was able to deterimine if they were present in their collected versions of the text, thus strongly suggesting that something was not right. Finally, Dr. Unschuld looked at every idea, every claim and asked the question: "Given our experience with the literature, what is the chance that this could have appeared when and how it is supposed to have been written." Again, with all three layers, the goal was not to "sell us" an opinion but to alert us to these possibilities through notes and annotations.

Perhaps it should go unmentioned now that everyone in the term debate has declared victory and gone home, but - no matter what - you cannot fairly represent a hundred concepts with fifty words, no matter how brilliantly popular those fifty words may be. Here again, Dr. Unschuld's project has excelled. By rigorously paralleling the Chinese text in the English translation the project achieves the highest degree of fidelity that can be achieved. It is noteworthy that the translational vocabulary has already been published in a Dictionary of Huang Di Neijin Suwen [1]making the translation totally transparent. [2]

 As those of you with whom I speak and correspond know, it is my opinion that Dr. Paul Unschuld's work has established the intellectual foundations by which we are able to study Chinese medicine. I think nothing shows this better than the fact that even those who disagree with his writings need speak in the conceptual context he has described to express their disagreement. This new text, likely available within the coming year, is a fantastic new stage laid upon that foundation.

 There's a new interview with Z'ev Rosenberg up at the references section, enjoy.

 


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