Aug 05, 2014


The Huangdi Neijing ( 黄帝内经, given the title The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine in one of the latest translations) is an ancient treatise on health and disease said to have been written by the famous Chinese emperor Huangdi around 2600 BC. However, Huangdi is a semi-mythical figure, and the book probably dates from later, around 300 BC and may be a compilation of the writings of several authors. Whatever its origin, the book has proved influential as a reference work for practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine well into the modern era. The book takes the form of a discussion between Huangdi and his physician in which Huangdi inquires about the nature of health, disease, and treatment.

The ideas in the book have a basis in Taoist philosophy. The key to a long healthy life is to follow the Tao, the natural way of the universe. Health and illness are caused by an imbalance of the two basic forces, yin and yang, and by the influence of the five elements (water, fire, metal, wood, and earth) on the organs of the body. The organs themselves were thought to interact in ways that seem physiologically strange nowadays: the spleen “ruled” over the lungs, for example, and the lungs were connected with the skin. There was an understanding of the connection between the heart and the pulse but not in terms of circulation of the blood as understood today.


Diagnosis was mainly carried out by pulse taking, a complex process involving taking into account the time of day, season, and sex of the patient. Treatments included drugs, diet, acupuncture, and guiding the patient towards Tao.

Many of the book’s ideas, particularly those relating to anatomy and physiology, would obviously seem primitive and outdated to modern readers but no more so than ideas from a similar time in Western medicine. The strength of the work, and possibly the reason for its widespread influence and its place even today not just as a reference source for those interested in traditional Chinese medicine, is that its basic ideas are still valid and of appeal to anyone interested in understanding more about the custom and practice of medicine. The Huangdi Neijing recognises that, for everyone, the processes of the body follow certain natural rules and that health and disease are influenced by natural ageing processes, as well as the environment. All this needs to be understood to ensure accurate diagnosis and specific treatment for a condition.

In terms of English translations, Ilza Veith’s 1960s version is written in a straightforward style and has explanatory footnotes. More recent versions by contemporary practitioners of Chinese medicine, Maoshing Ti and Zhu Ming, are also available; these are more readable and truer to the spirit of traditional Chinese medicine.

Compiled roughly two thousand years ago, this great work forms the theoretical basis of TCM. As TCM's history developed over the millennia, nearly all significant medical works benefited from the enlightenment of this unparalleled book. Covering not only medicine but also philosophy, sociology, anthropology, military strategy, mathematics, astronomy, meteorology, ecology, The Medical Classic of the Yellow Emperor demonstrates that even in ancient times, people accomplished scientific achievements that are applicable, relevant, and innovative even in modern times. The world-famous medical masters and saints in the history of TCM such as Zhang Zhongjing, Hua Tuo, Sun Simiao and Li Shizhen, who lived hundreds to thousands years ago, are greatly enlightened by the academic thoughts of The Medical Classic of the Yellow Emperor. All of them researched into this great book deeply and mastered the essence of this book and thus became the most famous practitioners of TCM in Chinese history.

The first text, the Suwen, also known as Basic Questions, covers the theoretical foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine and its diagnostic methods. The second and generally less referred-to text, the Lingshu, discusses acupuncture therapy in great detail. Collectively, these two texts are known as the Neijing or Huangdi Neijing. In practice, however, the title Neijing often refers only to the more influential Suwen. Two other texts also carried the prefix Huangdi neijing in their titles: the Mingtang and the Taisu , both of which have survived only partially.

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