The Most Important Chinese Medicine Classics

There are four classical works in Chinese medicine: Yellow Emperor’s Classical Medicine (《黄帝内经》), Treatise on Febrile Diseases (《伤寒论》), Synopsis of Golden Chamber (《金匮要略》) and Doctrine for Seasonal Febrile Diseases (《温病条辨》). Among the four, Yellow Emperor’s Classical Medicine, initially compiled during the Warring State period (475BC – 221BC), is the earliest and most influential in the Chinese Medicine field, which systematically formulated the doctrine of Chinese medicine.

Based on the yin-yang principle and Five-agents theory (阴阳五行学说) derived from I Ching – Chinese comprehension of the fundamental laws of the universe and the philosophical groundwork for Chinese culture – The Classical Medicine drew upon the sophisticated knowledge of that time on pulse condition (脉象学说), visceral manifestation (藏象学说), meridian (经络学说), etiological (病因学说), pathogenesis (病机学说), pathognomy (病症学说), diagnostic methods (诊法), treatment determination (诊法), health preservation (养生学), as well as qi movement and manipulation (运气学).

The book consists of two parts, Simple Questions (《素问》) and Miraculous Pivot (《灵枢》). In the Simple Questions, the big questions about the disposition and transformation of nature are pondered and explained, and the relationships between man and his natural environment are asked and answered, while the Miraculous Pivot presents detailed studies on the tangible internal organs and intangible qi channels in the human body.

The view expressed in the book reflects an essential difference between Chinese medicine and that of the modern West. It does not see the world in a singular version of black and white that sets man and nature in the opposing mode, nor does it keep going extreme, from total self-denial to absolute self-obsession. Instead, it considers man as an organic whole, regards him as a micro version of the universe, and appreciates the fact that different versions of the universes are mirroring one another.

Yin and yang – from the viewpoint of the Yellow Emperor’s medicine – represent the negative and the positive qualities in each thing, and are the driving forces of all manifestations in the universe ever since the double expressions were split into existence from a united nothingness. As the relationship between the dual forces is highly volatile and incredibly dynamic, when human health is concerned, his well-being very much depends on the delicate balance between yin and yang.

Illustration by Yu Yige/Shanghai Daily

The Differences Between Chinese and Contemporary Western Medicines

There are four characteristics that set the Chinese medical approach apart from the modern Western methodology, as noted by some Chinese scholars:

Its mature and deep humanity, which regards patients, not as assembled machines, but as human beings with emotions and spirits;

Its recognition of the distinctiveness of each individual, which requires not a standard response but unique handling of each case;

Its holistic approach to health issues, which views illness, not as an isolated incident, but an event in a broad context and as the consequence of all previous occurrences;

Its organic and dynamic comprehension of life, which does not try to understand it exclusively through instruments in laboratories or by autopsy on corpses but through direct observation and inquiry of people.

To best comprehend classical Chinese medicine one will need to break out of the rigid confinement of the modern Western definition. Chinese medicine is something beyond current scientific expressions.

The Levels of Doctors

Ordinary doctors treat you when you’ve fallen ill;
Good doctors treat you when you are going to fall ill;
The best doctors treat you when you are not ill.


The best doctors are ignored;
Good doctors are noted;
Ordinary doctors are acclaimed.

An ordinary doctor can cure the ailments in your body;
A good doctor can resolve the troubles in your heart;
The best doctor will fix the problems in your fate.

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