Yin-Yang Theory, the Human Organism, and the Bai hu tong: A Need for Pairing and Explaining

in Asian Medicine

Abstract

This paper discusses some terminological consequences of the acceptance of a seemingly all-pervasive yin yang dualism by ancient Chinese naturalists, with a focus on the origin of certain technical terms introduced to designate morphological and functional items in the emerging Chinese medicine. These terms were selected from words not originally linked to morphological and physiological notions. They served as metaphors to illustrate both function and the yin yang nature of the items they were chosen to designate. How to translate these terms into Western languages is a complex issue not sufficiently discussed among philologists.In 79 CE, the historian Ban Gu (32‐92) published the Bai hu tong , based on contributions by an unknown number of participants in one of the first documented meetings of intellectuals in antiquity. Chapter 8 offers a discourse on the meaning of qing , ‘emotion’, and xing , ‘moral disposition’. Two terms were available that had been in long use in this arena of meanings, albeit without a clear-cut distinction along the lines of a Yin-Yang categorisation. No metaphors were required here. Rather, a redefinition of qing and xing was required to assign a yang nature to the former and a yin nature to the latter.The Bai hu tong is a telling example of a continuing heterogeneity of explanatory models in early Chinese life sciences. The following discussion offers an impression of the merger of what may originally have been a neutral attempt at a dualistic categorisation of all phenomena in terms of two natural categories of yin and yang with another doctrine. The second clearly valued yang phenomena more highly than yin phenomena and applied this distinction to more and less desirable moral categories. Also, the Bai hu tong offers evidence of different metaphorical usages of the term fu in physiological theory from as early as Han times. To the older meaning: ‘short-term storage facility’ a second meaning of ‘palace’ was added. The question of an adequate translation of such terms in modern languages is worth further thought.1

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Yin-Yang Theory, the Human Organism, and the Bai hu tong: A Need for Pairing and Explaining

in Asian Medicine

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