Huangdi Neijing

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Huangdi Neijing (Simplified Chinese: 黄帝内经; Traditional Chinese: 黃帝內經; pinyin: Huángdì Nèijīng), also known as The Inner Canon of Huangdi or Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon, is an ancient Chinese medical text that has been treated as the fundamental doctrinal source for Chinese medicine to this day, for more than two millennia. It is comparable in importance to the Hippocratic Corpus in Greek medicine or the works of Galen in Islamic and medieval European medicine. The work is composed of two texts, of 81 chapters or treatises each in a question-and-answer format between the mythical Huangdi (Yellow Emperor or more correctly Yellow Thearch) and six of his equally legendary ministers.

The first text, the Suwen (素問), also known as Basic Questions, covers the theoretical foundation of Chinese Medicine and its diagnostic methods. The text, however, includes topics on feng sui, Qigong, acupuncture, herbal medicine, fortune telling, meteology, and astrology. The text is also one of the major texts in Taoism. The second and generally less referred-to text, the Lingshu (靈樞; Spiritual Pivot), discusses practical elements, particularly 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 (明堂; "Hall of Light") and the Taisu (太素; "Grand Basis"), both of which have survived only partially.

According to the Neijing, the universe is composed of various principles, such as Yin and Yang, Qi and the Five Elements; human health is maintained by the work of these cosmic principles; the cosmic principles are both physical and spiritual; and moral virtue is an essential element for self-control. Thus, the Neijing describes, for example, how saints and sages maintained their health by being virtuous and keeping their spirit high. The integration of the spiritual and the physical, holistic approaches are some of unique characteristics of the Neijing, which is inherited by subsequent developments of Chinese medical traditions.


The relations of 10 heavenly stems with yin & yang, the five elements and the five directions.

The earliest mention of the Huangdi neijing was in the bibliographical chapter of the Hanshu 漢書 (or Book of Han, completed in 111 C.E.), next to a Huangdi waijing 黃帝外經 (“Yellow Emperor’s Outer Canon”) that is now lost. A scholar-physician called Huangfu Mi 皇甫謐 (215-282 C.E.) was the first to claim that the Huangdi neijing in 18 juan 卷 (or chapters) that was listed in the Hanshu bibliography corresponded with two different books that circulated in his own time: the Suwen and the Zhenjing 鍼經 (“Needling Canon”), each in 9 juan (Sivin 1993, 197). Since scholars believe that Zhenjing was one of the Lingshu's earlier titles, they agree that the Han-dynasty Huangdi neijing was made of two different texts that are close in content to the works we know today as the Suwen and the Lingshu.

The most important ancient book of Chinese medicine, as well as a major book of Daoist theory and lifestyle, is the Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic (Huangdi Neijing, 黃帝內經). The question-and-answer format predominant in the Suwen links together otherwise disjointed texts and is possibly useful for the (anonymous) authors to avoid attribution and blame [2]

The Neijing departs from the old shamanistic beliefs that disease was caused by demonic influences. Instead the natural effects of diet, lifestyle, emotions, environment, and age are the reason diseases develop. According to the Neijing, the universe is composed of various forces and principles, such as Yin and Yang, Qi and the Five Elements (or phases). These forces can be understood via rational means and man can stay in balance, or return to balance and health, by understanding the laws of these natural forces. Man is a microcosm that mirrors the larger macrocosm. The principles of yin and yang, the five elements, the environmental factors of wind, damp, hot and cold and so on that are part of the macrocosm equally apply to the human microcosm.

Three distinct philosophical perspectives of Neijing should be noted, which also influenced the framework of the traditions of the Chinese medical science.

First, the "nature" does not simply mean "material" or "physical" devoid of spiritual element. It is the characteristics of Chinese medical thought that the mental and the physical, the spiritual and the material are integrated and "nature," thus, means both components.

Second, the spiritual aspect or mental attitude plays a key role in controlling body or maintaining a balance (health) in human body. Since the principles of mind-body unity are exhibited as moral virtues such as self-control, medical science is inseparable from morality. For example, the Neijing describes how saints, sages, and "true-person" (morally perfected person) can live longer by observing the principles of the cosmos, which is both moral and physical. One must maintain a peace of mind and embody the moral virtues to maintain healthy body.

Third, a human being is an integral part of the cosmos. The principles of harmony of human body is, thus, an integral part of the cosmic principles of harmony.

Date of composition

Historian of science Nathan Sivin (University of Pennsylvania) is of the opinion (1998) that the Suwen and Lingshu probably date to the first century B.C.E. He does not go into detail other than mentioning the Mawangdui excavations. Sivin (1998) is also of the opinion that "no available translation is reliable."

In pages 89-90 of the book Celestial Lancets (first published in 1980), authored by the highly respected scholars Joseph Needham (1900-1995) and Lu Gwei-Djen (1904-1991), it states that the consensus of scholarly opinion is that the Suwen belongs to the second century B.C.E. They further state that evidence shows that the Suwen is earlier than the first of the pharmaceutical natural histories, the 神農本草經 Shennong Bencao Jing (Divine Husbandman's Classic of the Materia Medica). So suggestive are parallels with third and fourth century B.C.E. literature that doubt arises as to whether the Suwen be better ascribed to the third century B.C.E., implying that certain portions of the Suwen may be of that date. The dominant role the theories of yin and yang, and the five elements play in the physiology and pathology, means that these medical theories are not older than about 320 B.C.E.

The German scholar Unschuld states several twentieth-century scholars are of the opinion that the language and ideas of the Neijing Suwen were composed between 400 B.C.E. and 260 B.C.E. Further, versions existing today are the last in a series of compilations, none of the versions that exist today are identical to the texts of the same name from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) era (Unschuld 2003, 1-3) (Sivin 1988, 68)

Lü Fu (呂複), a fourteenth-century literary critic, was of the opinion that the Suwen was compiled by several authors over a long period. Its contents were then brought together by Confucian scholars in the Han Dynasty era (Unschuld 2003, 1).

Wang Bing Version

In 762 C.E., Wang Bing finished his revision of the Suwen after laboring for 12 years. Wang Bing collected the various versions and fragments of the Suwen and reorganized it into the present 81 chapters (treatises) format. (Note, treatises 72 and 73 are lost and only the titles are known.) Originally his changes were all done in red ink, but later copyists incorporated some of his additions into the main text. However, the 1053 version discussed below restored almost all of his annotations and they are now written in small characters next to the larger characters that comprise the main or unannotated Suwen text (Unschuld 2003, 40, 44).

According to Unschuld (1988, 39, 62), Wang Bing's version of the Suwen was based on Quan Yuanqi's (early six century) commented version of the Suwen consisting of nine juan (books) and sixty-nine discourses. Wang Bing made corrections, added two "lost" discourses, and seven comprehensive discourses on the five phases and six qi, inserted over 5000 commentaries and reorganized the text into twenty-four juan (books) and eighty-one treatises (Unschuld 1988, 24, 39, and 46).

In his preface to his version of the Suwen, Wang Bing goes into great detail listing the changes he made.[3]

Not much is known about Wang Bing's life. He authored several books but is best known for his work on the Suwen. A note in the preface left by the later editors of the Chong Guang Bu Zhu Huangdi Neijing Suwen (version compiled by 1053 editorial committee) which was based on an entry in Tang Ren Wu Zhi (Record on Tang [Dynasty] Personalities) states that he was an official with the rank of tai pu ling and died after a long life of more than eighty years (Unschuld 1988, 40).[4]

Authoritative Version

The "authoritative version" used today, Chong Guang Bu Zhu Huangdi Neijing Suwen 重廣補註黃帝內經素問 (Huangdi Neijing Suwen: Again Broadly Corrected [and] Annotated), is the product of the eleventh-century Imperial Editorial Office (beginning in 1053 C.E.) and was based considerably on Wang Bing's 762 C.E. version (Unschuld 1988, 33-66) Some of the leading scholars who worked on this version of the Suwen were 林億 Lin Yi, 孫奇 Sun Qi, 高保衡 Gao Baoheng and 孫兆重 Sun Zhaotong.

For images of the Chong Guang Bu Zhu Huangdi Neijing Suwen printed in the Ming Dynasty, (1368-1644 C.E.) see the external links section below.

Recent Studies

Recently (2003), the Chinese medicine history scholar Paul Unschuld, Hermann Tessenow, and their team at the Institute for the History of Medicine at Munich University have translated the Neijing Suwen into English including, an analysis of the historical and structural layers of the Suwen. No publishing date has been given for this multi-volume work (Unschuld 1988, x-xi).

Significant portions of the above Suwen translation (but with only a fraction of the annotations) are currently available in Huang Di nei jing su wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text.

Comparison and Critique of English Translations (Partial List)

Note, none of following listed translations are perfect, they each vary in their interpretation of the text, but by comparing and combining individual translations a workable result can be obtained. The translations are organized below by type of translation. (Note, some of the translations listed are only partial translations.)

Sinological Translations

  • Handbooks for Daoist Practice, translated by Louis Komjathy. Ten volume set of pamphlets, where volume three of the set is Yellow Thearch’s Basic Questions. Only the first two discourses out of the total eighty-one are translated. A technical translation, with a good introduction giving the history of the text and an explanation of some of the more of technical terminology present in the first two chapters. Credentials: Sinologist and Daoist scholar. He received his Ph.D. in religious studies from Boston University under Daoist scholar Livia Kohn.

TCM Style Translations

  • The Medical Classic of the Yellow Emperor, translated by Zhu Ming, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, China, 2001, 302 pages. ISBN 711902664X. An edited version of the Neijing with the treatises reordered by topic. About a 20-25 percent of the Neijing (both Suwen and Lingshu) is translated. Includes annotations and commentaries by translator. Contains a Chinese-English glossary of important terms. Credentials: doctor of TCM from Hunan College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, plus many years of clinical practice.

  • Yellow Empero's [sic] Canon of Internal Medicine (stated to be Wang Bing's version, but a quick examination shows it to appear to be identical to the authoritative version, but without the commentary), translated by Nelson Liansheng Wu and Andrew Qi Wu. China Science & Technology Press, Beijing, China, 1999, 831 pages. ISBN 7504622311. Complete translation of both Suwen and Lingshu. Contains the Neijing text in simplified Chinese characters, along with alternate variants of Neijing text (also in simplified characters). The alternate variants of the Neijing are not translated, only the main version is translated. None of the commentary by Wang Bing is translated. Incorrectly translated in places along with additional "commentary" inserted into the translation, but not labeled as such. No notes. Credentials: unknown.

Medical History Translations

  • Huang Di nei jing su wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text, Unschuld, Paul U., 2003. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. ISBN 0-520-23322-0. Analysis and history of the Suwen. Includes significant portions of the Suwen translated into English. Unusual terminology choices, such as the non standard translation of "營氣 ying qi" as "camp qi," instead of the more commonly accepted "construction qi." Instead of translating 脈 mai as "pulse," Unschuld translates it as "[movement in the] vessels" or something similar. (Note, 脈 mai means both "vessels" and "the pulse." By context one can tell if vessels or pulse is meant.) In treatise seventeen he translates 切脈動靜 qie mai dong jing as "squeeze the vessels, whether [their movement] is excited or quiet," a more accurate translation would be "feel-closely the movement [and] the non-movement of the pulse." Further, 動靜 is likely a polar binome and indicates the entire action, so a non literal, but more semantically correct translation would be "feel-closely the entirety of the pulse." Credentials: sinologist and professor, head of the Institute for the History of Medicine at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich.

  • The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, translated by Ilza Veith. University of California Press, December, 2002, 288 pages. ISBN 0520229363. Translation of: (1) Wang Bing's 762 C.E. preface, (2) the circa 1053 C.E. Imperial Office's preface, (3) a historical account of the Huangdi Suwen from chapter 103 of the 四庫全書總目提要 Siku Quanshu Zongmu Tiyao (Complete Library of the Four Treasuries: General Catalog with Abstracts) and (4) the first 34 chapters (treatises) of the Suwen. Includes an extensive introductory study with illustrations. The first published English translation of the Suwen. (Originally copyrighted in 1949.) Though a pioneering contribution, it is badly mistranslated in many places—read with caution and compare with other translations. Note, the 2002 edition compared to the 1966 edition has a new forward by Ken Rose and perhaps a few sentences were changed; essentially identical to the 1966 edition. Credentials: medical historian, who received her Ph.D. in the History of Medicine, by the Institute for the History of Medicine at Hopkins.

Modern Chinese Translations & References (Partial List)

  • 黄帝內经素问校注语译 Huangdi Neijing Suwen Jiao Zhu Yu Yi (Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic: Plain Questions – Critically Compared, Annotated and Translated), Guo Aichun, 1999, vi, 1296 pages. Tianjin Kexue Jishu Chubanshe (Tianjin Science and Technology Press), Tianjin, China. ISBN 7530821148. Contains Neijing Suwen text in simplified characters, variants, annotations (both by present day author, Wang Bing and other sources) and Modern Chinese translation. Contains comprehensive index (220 pages) of Neijing Suwen terms. All Chinese in simplified characters.
  • 黃帝內經詞典 Huangdi Neijing Cidian (Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic Dictionary), Guo Aichun (editor-in-chief), 1991, vi, 1296 pages. Tianjin Kexue Jishu Chubanshe (Tianjin Science and Technology Press), Tianjin, China. ISBN 7530809067. Dictionary of Neijing terms in simplified Chinese.
  • 内經素問 Neijing Suwen (Chong Guang Bu Zhu Huangdi Neijing Suwen version), 王冰 Wang Bing, 林億 Lin Yi, 孫奇 Sun Qi, 高保衡 Gao Boheng, 1965. Series: Sibu Beiyao. Zibu, volumes 409-410. Taibei Shi: Taiwan Zhonghua Shuju Mingguo (Taibei City: Taiwan China Press, Republic of China 54). OCLC control number: 24985568. (Note, this volume is in the zishu (zibu) division of the series. The zibu is one of the four traditional divisions of a Chinese library concerning works related to areas of education, Chinese medicine, agriculture, military strategy, astrology, mathematics and so on.) Contains Suwen, Wang Bing's annotations (in small characters) and annotations by 1053 C.E. Imperial Editorial Office, also in small characters. The Imperial Editorial Office annotations are proceeded by 新校正 xin jiao zheng (newly compared and corrected). All characters in traditional (complex) form.


  1. All Chinese characters in this article are in traditional (complex) form, except for Chinese book titles which are as published and thus in simplified form. All pinyin terms are rendered without tone marks, but are otherwise according to the orthographic rules in Appendix I of ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary. (Note, contemporary pinyin book titles are as published.)
  2. Unschuld, 8-14 for more on these topics.
  3. Veith, Appendix II and Unschuld pages 41-43.
  4. Also see Veith, Appendix I for a translation of an abstract from the 四庫全書總目提要 Siku Quanshu Zongmu Tiyao about both the Huangdi Suwen and Wang Bing.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • DeFrancis, John (editor). ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary. Honolulu, Hawai'i: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003. ISBN 082482766X.
  • Lu, Gwei-djen and Joseph Needham. Celestial Lancets: A History and Rationale of Acupuncture and Moxa. New York, NY: Routledge/Curzon, 1980. ISBN 0700714588.
  • Mathews, R.H. Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary. Revised American edition, 19th printing. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. ISBN 0674123506.
  • Siku Quanshu Zongmu Tiyao 四庫全書總目提要 (Complete Library of the Four Treasuries: General Catalog with Abstracts), ed. by Ji Yun 紀昀 (1724-1805), Yong Rong 永瑢 (1744-1790), 1782. Shanghai: Shangwu Yinshuguan 上海: 商務印書館, 1933.
  • Sivin, Nathan. 1993. "Huang ti nei ching 黃帝內經." In Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, ed. by Michael Loewe. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press: 196-215.
  • Sivin, Nathan. 1988. "Science and Medicine in Imperial China—The State of the Field." The Journal of Asian Studies 47(1): 41–90.
  • Units of Time in Ancient China and Japan, PASJ: Publ. Astron. Soc. Japan 56: 887-904, 2004 October 25.
  • Unschuld, Paul U. Huang Di nei jing su wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003. ISBN 0520233220.
  • Veith, Ilza (trans.). The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine). Revised paperback edition. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972. ISBN 0520021584.
  • Wiseman, Nigel and Andy Ellis. Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine: Zhong Yi Xue Ji Chu. Revised edition. Brookline, Mass.: Paradigm Publications, 1995. ISBN 0912111445.

External links

All links retrieved January 16, 2018.


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