Huangdi Neijing, one of the earliest and most important classics of Chinese medicine, consists primarily of two texts: the Suwen (Plain Questions ??) and Lingshu (Spiritual Pivot ??). These texts articulated the basic theoretical construct of Chinese medicine and laid the foundation for the primary diagnostic and therapeutic methods of the tradition.

One of the earliest and most important classical texts of Chinese medicine, Huangdi Neijing (Inner Canon of the Yellow Lord) has been attributed to Huangdi (Yellow Lord) and some of his ministers. Huangdi was the first of five legendary predynastic Chinese rulers and cultural heroes who was believed to have ruled the North China Plain in the third millennium BCE. Since the eleventh century the majority of Chinese critical philologists (scholars of literature and of disciplines relevant to literature or to language as used in literature) have begun to treat the Huangdi Neijing as the work of a single author composed during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), but studies of the medical manuscripts excavated in 1973 from Mawangdui tomb No. 3, a Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) tomb situated at the northeastern part of the city of Changsha, Hunan Province, demonstrated that the Huangdi Neijing was a collection of interrelated short essays composed at different times from different medical lineages but were brought together sometime in the first century BCE.

Huangdi Neijing was listed in the bibliographical treatise History of the Former Han Dynasty as a single work of eighteen juan (fascicles—the divisions of a book published in parts), but it survived in four extant partially overlapping recensions (revisions) of varying lengths: Suwen (Plain Questions), Lingshu (Spiritual Pivot), Taisu (Great Simplicity), and Mingtang (Bright Hall). Since the tenth century Suwen and Lingshu, the most complete and influential of these recensions, have been collectively known as the Huangdi Neijing or simply Neijing. Both texts consist of eighty-one chapters and were written in the form of dialogues between the Yellow Lord and his ministers, among whom Qi Bo appears most often. As a whole, these texts provided the basic rubric (rule) for classical Chinese medicine. Contrary to shamanistic or demonic medicine that had dominated earlier medical practices, Neijing takes a strongly naturalistic approach to diseases and healing. It regards the human body as a microcosm that functions on the same principles operating in the macrocosm: qi (Ch’i), yin, yang, and the five phases. Applying these basic cosmological concepts to understanding the human organism, it articulates the basic theoretical construct of Chinese medicine in terms of yin and yang, the zang-fu organ systems, and the circulation of qi within the meridians. Health or illness is seen as dependent on the state of balance between the individual’s yin and yang powers within and between the body and the environment without. Neijing discusses various aspects of human anatomy, physiology, and pathological processes, the effects of nutrition, living habits, emotions, and environmental factors such as winds on a person’s health, the signs and symptoms of illnesses, as well as diagnostic and therapeutic measures. Whereas Suwen treats these topics in general, Lingshu is more focused on how to apply acupuncture to the circulation tracts (meridians).

Humans, Sky, and Earth

In this excerpt from the Huangdi Neijing, the Yellow Emperor asks Bogao about the relationship between the human body and the earth and sky.

Bogao replied, “The sky is round, the earth rectangular; the heads of human beings are round and their feet are rectangular to correspond. In the sky there are the sun and moon; human beings have two eyes. On earth there are nine provinces; human beings have nine orifices. In the sky there are wind and rain; human beings have their joy and anger. In the sky there are thunder and lightning; human beings have their sounds and speech. In the sky there are the four seasons; human beings have their four extremities. In the sky there are the Five Sounds; human beings have their five yin visceral systems. In the sky there are Six Pitches; human beings have their six yang visceral systems. In the sky there are winter and summer; human beings have their chills and fevers. In the sky there are the ten-day ‘weeks’; human beings have ten fingers on their hands. In the sky there are twelve double-hours; human beings have ten toes on their feet, and the stalk and the hanging ones complete the correspondence. Women lack these two members, so they are able to carry the human form [of the fetus]. In the sky there are yin and yang; human beings are husband and wife.

Source: de Bary, W. T., & Bloom, I.. (1999). Sources of Chinese tradition, vol 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 275–276.

Huangdi Neijing is not only an influential text of classical Chinese medicine but also a critical source for understanding early Chinese philosophy and cosmology. Its views on the relationship between the interior and exterior of the body—and between the human organism on the one hand and the environment and the cosmos at large on the other both—drew upon and provided the ultimate expression for the correlative thinking that underlay the mainstream of the broader Chinese philosophical discourse during the last three centuries before the common era.

Further Reading

Harper, D. J. (1998). Introduction. In Early Chinese medical literature: The Mawangdui medical manuscripts (pp. 3–13). London: Kegan Paul International.

Keegan, D. (1988). Huang-ti Nei-Ching: The structure of the compilation; the significance of the structure (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1988). (UMI No. 8916728)

Sivin, N. (1993). Huang ti nei ching [Inner Canon of the Yellow Lord]. In M. Loewe (Ed.), Early Chinese texts: A bibliographic guide (pp. 196–215). Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China and Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California.

Unschuld, P. U. (2003). Huang Di nei jing su wen: Nature, knowledge, imagery in an ancient Chinese medical text. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Veith, I. (Trans.). (2002). Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen: The Yellow Emperor’s classic of internal medicine. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. (Original work published 1949/1965)

Wu Jing-Nuan. (Trans.). (1993). Ling Shu, or the spiritual pivot. Washington, DC: Taoist Center.

Yamada, K. (1979). The formation of the Huang-ti Nei-Ching. Acta Asiatica, 36, 67–89.

Source: Zhang, Qiong (2009). Huangdi Neijing. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1094–1095. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Huangdi Neijing (Huángdì Nèij?ng ????)|Huángdì Nèij?ng ???? (Huangdi Neijing)

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