In the previous two posts, we discovered that these Six Thing-a-ma-jigs were first named as Jīng, 經 by Qí Bó in NèijīngSùwèn, chapter 6.  Therefore, the next step in understanding what these Six Things are is to explore the meaning of 經.

To decide what any character “means”, one must look at the way it is used in different contexts and discover the consistent thread of meaning between these uses.  It is virtually impossible to accurately translate 經 as one word, though we often must.  For the student/practitioner, a bit of understanding of these complex meanings may expand our relationship to our medicine.

Jīng 經 is made up of the thread radical on the left and the image of water streaming below the surface on the right.  A possible definition of 經 is “an underlying structure or constant flow of threads or information that is invisible or enigmatic[1], giving rise to rise to and influencing visible phenomenon.

This broad definition covers the bases I think.  Let’s check.

Applying this definition of 經 as the warp of a weaving…The warp of weaving is an underlying structure of threads that gives rise to the visible tapestry on top.  The definition above works.

The channels of the body are an invisible, constant flow of information that gives rise to our bodies, so when we apply this definition to this, it also works.

Most of the Yuè Jīng, 月經, the monthly cycle occurring in women, is an invisible communication of information, manifesting, at the conclusion of its tides, as a monthly bleed.  That works too!

If we see 經 as the classic or canonical texts; yes, it still works!  The classic Chinese medical texts are an enigmatic flow of information that gives rise to many visible streams of Chinese medicine.

Now that we have a bit of a sense of what 經 means, let’s look at the 六經.

In in the last two posts, we saw Qí Bó was talking about great circular motions when he spoke of the three Yáng and three Yīn 經.  The 六經 are the six phases of the singular, invisible, circular, flowing motion of the macro and microcosm that create and support the myriad things.  But look, it took a whole sentence to define 六經.  To boil it down to a single word like warp, conformation or channel doesn’t give the rich depth of meaning the character depicts. These translations of 經 are correct but incomplete, as they must be.  This is precisely why translation at its best is a conversation.

A few things we can know 六經 doesn’t mean are the following:

Six Syndromes.  經 has been newly translated as “syndrome” in the context of the lineage of Dr. Hú Xīshù and his disciple Dr. Féng Shìlún.[2]  Dr. Hú strongly advocated for the necessity of differentiating between the 六 經 of the Shānghán lùn from the Jīng Luò, 經 絡, the channels and collaterals on the body.  This is clearly an important differentiation.  One translator of his work and lineage chooses to translate 六經 as “six syndromes” and in other contexts, consistently merges two characters, 証 and 經, into the one word, ”syndrome.“[3]   This is done as a way to prevent the readers from thinking that Dr. Hú was referring to Jīng Luò, 經絡 when he used the term 經.  However, this approach removes Dr. Hu’s use of the character he meant to use and fails to take into account the fact that Dr. Hú’s context always makes his meaning perfectly clear. He uses 經 to mean “classic” in the compound 經方, Jīng Fāng, classic formulas.  Whenever he refers to the channels of the body, he uses the compound, Jīng Luò, 經 絡.  When he uses the term 六經, it is always in the context of something that is a functional framework for understanding and not a description of pathology as in the word syndrome. For example, he will often write “六經八綱, Liù Jīng Bā Gāng,” referring to the framework of the 六經 along with the framework of the eight guiding principles as a means to understand pathology.  In fact, in the titles of more than one of Dr. Hú Xīshù and Féng Shìlún’s books use these four characters in a non-pathological context. For example, Hú Xīshù’s, Classical Formula Medical Studies: Using the Six Channel [Framework] and Eight Guiding Principles in Understanding the Treatise on Cold Damage (经方医学:六经八纲读懂伤寒论)[4] is not referring to pathology when using the term 六經.  For this title, the translation of 六經 as six syndromes makes little sense to me.[5]   Dr. Hú skillfully uses context to reveal meaning and the context prevents the misunderstanding of seeing 經 as the channels of the body.

Although this translation of 六經 as syndromes does not seem correct, it does follow a long history of referring to the Six; Tàiyáng, Yángmíng, Shàoyáng, Tàiyīn, Shàoyīn, and Júeyīn as pathological manifestations: 

Six Stages: The word stages as a translation of 經 does not sit right with me because, in the first place, it is not what 經 means and secondly, it is referring to the stages of disease.  This does not reflect the physiological and functional nature of the 六 經.  As we saw above, 六經, do not refer to six pathological states.  On the other hand, we also saw that the 六經 do refer to phases of circular movement; opening, closing and pivoting.  In this way they could be considered normal, physiological stages of circular movement.  However, when they are translated as the six stages, this is always in the context of pathology, as in the six stages of illness.  As with the word “syndrome,” it doesn’t work, because the 六經, do not refer to pathology.

With the above two translations, it is important to note that, though pathology can happen within the 六經, they themselves are not an expression of pathology, as is implied by translating 六經 as ‘six syndromes,’ or ‘six stages’.  This is like using the word engine to mean malfunction. An engine can go wrong in many ways, but it’s nonsensical to use the word engine as an expression of going wrong.

Six Levels.  The translation of the 六 經 as “six levels” comes from what seems to me to be a misunderstanding, of the Shānghán lùn as being about pathogens going from the outside inward, through levels, like descending down an elevator or coming in through layers of the body from the outside.  Though this view is entrenched in post-Han commentary, the clarity of the content of the Shānghán lùn as well as its clinical value and effectiveness is profoundly enhanced for me when I listen to Qí Bó’s words as the foundation of my understanding.  We could see from the previous posts that Qí Bó is not talking about stacked levels.  In fact, he is not even talking about fixed locations in the body when he refers to Tàiyáng, Yángmíng, Shàoyáng, Tàiyīn, Shàoyīn and Júeyīn.  He is quite clear that the 六經 are descriptions of non-linear, circular, movement.  In this way, in my opinion, “six levels,” as a translation of 六經, misses the target.

No Overlap in meaning with 六經

When the terms six levels and six stages are used to refer to 六經, it follows out of necessity to then reify Tàiyáng, Yángmíng, Shàoyáng, Tàiyīn, Shàoyīn, and Júeyīn as locations in the body into which pathogens enter.  Once we make this move, we are stuck trying to get pathogens out of the body with our methods.  We are stuck seeing the formulas as treatments to get them out of the body.  In my experience, this mindset leads to a can of worms that diminishes clinical clarity and effectiveness.  It leaves some formulas as particularly impossible to understand.  An example is Wú Mēi Wán, which is actually easy to understand and a very commonly useful formula when viewed from what I see as the right viewpoint.  There are many more examples like this.

Note that these apparent misunderstandings of the 六經 as syndromes, levels or stages are so ubiquitous that they have become a dominant stream of our medicine.  However, just because lots of people, over a long period of time have been basing an approach on a misconception, doesn’t mean it’s not a misconception.  From my point of view, these terms, as translations of 六經 are an imposition of a view that disregards the textual precedents of the Shānghán lùn and diminish its clinical potential.  In my opinion, none of these terms overlap with the meaning of 六經.

What are adequate translations of 經?

Though I can’t think easily of one word that succinctly matches the multilayered meaning of 經 in the context of the 六經, other terms that are used with more accuracy are:

Six Warps: This term is used throughout the text Formulas and Strategies[7].  Warp brings up the warp of weaving and I love the poetry of it.  It is a rather awkward term to use for medicine, which can be good as it stretches our minds out of fixed views of what 六經 means.  At the same time, it does not express the vibrancy and movement of the 六經.  When I think of a warp, I think of straight lines, which I don’t think the 六經 are.

Six Conformations: The word “conformation,” is okay partly because it is a relatively obscure word so we don’t bring too many preconceived notions to what it means.  Secondly, it is accurate in that it means structure; form, as of an entity or an arrangement of parts.   If we understand the idea of conformation in chemistry, it becomes a bit more dynamic with the idea that it means “any of the spatial arrangements which the atoms in a molecule may adopt and freely convert between, especially by rotation about individual single bonds.”[8] On the downside, it has a static feel that doesn’t reflect the movement of the 六經 as the movement of life.

Six Channels Perhaps the word channel best meets the broad definition of 經, though the circular motion and the idea of information traveling along these channels are missing from the word.  In my discussions with Sabine, we came upon the translation “six channelings.”  Turning channel into a ‘channeling’ implies communication between something invisible and enigmatic and our bodies. Naming them the six channelings, or referring to, for example, the Shao Yang channeling may be just uncomfortable enough to keep our minds open to the deeper meanings.  Something to ponder.

These three translations each overlap with the complex meaning of 六經.

What I’d like to call them is the six phases of the singular circular motion of the macro and microcosm but that’s a bit wordy! Luckily, we don’t need to decide.  We only need to keep the conversation going and avoid using terms that are inaccurate. Or perhaps it’s best to simply stick with the Chinese, Liù Jīng, as we do with Yīn and Yáng.

Where I have ended up in my teaching and writing is using the terms Liù Jīng, channels, conformations, and warps at different times, along with keeping the discussion open.  Once we have the discourse, the depth of meaning starts to open up so that, even when we narrow it down to a single term, the image of complex meaning comes to mind.  In the end, the discourse of the greatest importance.  We are back to the start of this series of posts, saying that “translation of Chinese medical texts is an ongoing conversation between the text and the readers, past and present as well as with our clinical reality.”

When I began to understand the 六經 as six phases of the singular, circular motion of the macro and microcosm, my clinical perception changed and so did my use of herbs and formulas.  Those of you who have followed my posts and teachings know the profound ramifications of this.

For those interested in how an understanding of the Huáng Dì Nèijīng can deepen your clinical understanding and especially your understanding of the Shānghán zábìng lùn, stay tuned for information about an upcoming series of classes with me and Sabine Wilms on Huáng Dì Nèijīng Sùwèn, chapter 1. 

[1] I like the word enigmatic because it means difficult to interpret or understand; mysterious. It also has the meaning of oracular.
[2] See Six Syndrome Guide to Classical Formulas. Féng Shìlún et. Robidoux, 2018, self-published.
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid, pg. 809
[5] Chinese Traditional Medicine Publishing House, Beijing 2014
[6] As suggested through personal communication with the translator
[7] Formulas and Strategies, Eastland Press, 2018