torsdag 21 april 2011

Chinese medical texts and confused students

Right. Today we had a go-through of Chinese medical texts. Which turned out to be only an intro to the Daodejing and the Neijing. Daodejing – the Book of the Way and the Power – is a core text of Daoism, and since Chinese medicine is very based on Daoism it is often included as a medical classic too.

We were recommended to read a version which was rather strangely translated (to me, who can read some of the original, and who have studied Daoists texts). The students were then given chapters which they were to discuss. For some, it was the first time ever they read anything Daoist, even Philosophical Daoism, (which has as much to do with the real version as a picture of a car has to do with driving one). But we´re still in...the first month, I think, of the course. Hopefully, we will read more and in depth further on.

The discussion ranged widely and all over the place. Some students were very grounded, some critical, some took a conscious stance of not knowing enough to comment. It bothered me that several questions were due to the bad translation of some characters in the text, as well as some simply bad translation of the concepts. One of the main examples in one chosen passage was the character de, power.

This weekend, I attended two lectures with Elisabeth Rochat De la Vallée, a famous and very skilled translator of chinese medical texts (see previous post on Studies of the Heart). I can really recommend her series of books for those interested in Chinese medicine, or those who want more of the background depth in written format about qigong and meditation. (You can get an overview of them here: and buy them online at several places. If you´re in the states, might be easy. Don´t think they´re on Amazon, but you can check.) She did one lecture on the concept of Phlegm (tanyin) in Chinese medicine, and one on Healing and transformation in Chinese medicine. I took the chance to ask her specifically about de and its background in the early texts.

Through Chinese history, different groups have had power at different times. It has always been a kind of tug-of-war between Daoists, Confucians and Buddhists. During the late 100´s BC to 100´s AD, confucian thinking had more of a rise. Many Daoist texts were re-written or re-commented along confucian lines, something that has happened a lot through Chinese history. Daoism has, as a general rule, never wanted to be on the stage, but rather standing around practicing in the backdrop.

The character de is one of the more typical mistakes. De in its old, Daoist explanation, means ”power”. The connotation is of spiritual power, the huge amounts of energy and power that is built through the practices of living Daoism and then channeled to make a being more free, relaxed, complete and compassionate, with a living heart and individuality. It is slightly different to moli, magical power, the old, shamanic power. De can also mean the active choice of using de: moving with the universe in a conscious act, linking your energy and intent to de in Dao.

Confucianism is a Metal tradition. It is big on lines, hierarchies and clear structures in society. Everybody should know their place and support the places around them so that society as a whole functions well and wisely. They retranslated de as ”virtue”. This is the reason you can see some older, Western translations call the Daodejing ”The Book of the Way and the Virtue”. Even most scholars these days will translate de as ”power”.

I think the two terms are, well, slightly different. In a Confucian society, a person with power and lots of spiritual energy would be seen as a risk to the stability that confucian thought wants.

But so it was translated in the recommended version at the course. Many questions were around this specific thing, and how it could fit with Daoism: the teachers didn´t know the old meaning of de, which means that the students left the class still thinking Daoism talked about building ”character” and ”virtue”, when the text itself used de all the way through.

Oh well. These teachers are not specialists in Daoism, or how the texts actually still work in the living traditions. I have to give plus points that they even talk about them, and for the intent they have in linking the course to the old classics that is the root of Chinese medicine. Many courses would simply go for the TCM version straight off, and scoff at the old knowledge in CCM, losing the root to wave with the branches.

And for readers who want more, the oldest version of it, the Guodian Daodejing written on bamboo slips, translated by the same translator and translated well:

In it, Henricks also compares the now three extant versions of the DDJ. Personally, when reading the comparisons, I found the Guodian (older, 350 BC) DDJ slightly more daoist than the first one, which was found in the tomb at Mawangdui, sealed at 168 BC. Something had changed already, or simply changed between the different scribes who copied it. Very interesting. Well, for geeks like me.