Huangdi Neijing

Huangdi Neijing (simplified Chinese: ????; traditional Chinese: ????; pinyin: Huángdì Nèij?ng), literally the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor or Esoteric Scripture of the Yellow Emperor, is an ancient Chinese medical text that has been treated as the fundamental doctrinal source for Chinese medicine for more than two millennia. The work is composed of two texts--each of eighty-one chapters or treatises in a question-and-answer format between the mythical Yellow Emperor and six of his equally legendary ministers.

The first text, the Suwen (??), also known as Basic Questions,[1] covers the theoretical foundation of Chinese Medicine and its diagnostic methods. The second and generally less referred-to text, the Lingshu (??; Spiritual Pivot), 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 (??; Hall of Light) and the Taisu (??; Grand Basis), both of which have survived only partially.


The earliest mention of the Huangdi Neijing was in the bibliographical chapter of the Hanshu ?? (or Book of Han, completed in 111 CE), next to a Huangdi Waijing ???? ("Outer Canon of the Yellow Emperor") that is now lost. A scholar-physician called Huangfu Mi ??? (215-282 CE) was the first to claim that the Huangdi Neijing in 18 juan ? (or volumes) that was listed in the Hanshu bibliography corresponded with two different books that circulated in his own time: the Suwen and the Zhenjing ?? ("Needling Canon"), each in 9 juan.[2] 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 Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic (Huangdi Neijing, ????) is the most important ancient text in Chinese medicine as well as a major book of Daoist theory and lifestyle. The text is structured as a dialogue between the Yellow Emperor and one of his ministers or physicians, most commonly Qíbó (Chinese: ??), but also Shàoyú (Chinese: ??). One possible reason for using this device was for the (anonymous) authors to avoid attribution and blame (see pages 8-14 in Unschuld for an exposition of this).

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.

Date of composition

The work is generally dated by scholars to between the late Warring States period (475-221 BC) and the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).[1]

Celestial Lancets (1980, by Joseph Needham and Lu Gwei-Djen) states that the consensus of scholarly opinion is that the Suwen belongs to the second century BCE, and cites evidence that the Suwen is earlier than the first of the pharmaceutical natural histories, the ????? Shennong Bencao Jing (Divine Farmer's Classic of the Materia Medica). So suggestive are parallels with third and fourth century BCE literature that doubt arises as to whether the Suwen might be better ascribed to the third century BCE, implying that certain portions may be of that date. The dominant role the theories of yin/yang and the five elements play in the physiology and pathology indicates that these medical theories are not older than about 320 BCE.

Historian of science Nathan Sivin (University of Pennsylvania) is of the opinion (1998) that the Suwen and Lingshu probably date to the first century BCE. He is also of the opinion that "no available translation is reliable."

The German scholar Paul U. Unschuld says several 20th-century scholars hypothesize that the language and ideas of the Neijing Suwen were composed between 400 BCE and 260 CE, and provides evidence that only a small portion of the received text transmits concepts from before the second century BCE.[3] The work subsequently underwent major editorial changes.[4]

Lu Fu (zh), 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.[5]

Scholars of excavated medical texts Donald Harper, Vivienne Lo and Li Jianmin agree that the systematic medical theory in the Neijing shows significant variance from texts found in the Mawangdui tomb (which was sealed in 186 BCE). Because of this, they consider the Neijing to have been compiled after the Mawangdui texts.

Wang Bing version

In 762 CE, Wang Bing finished his revision of the Suwen after labouring for twelve years. Wang Bing collected the various versions and fragments of the Suwen and reorganized it into the present eighty-one chapters (treatises) format. Treatises seventy-two and seventy-three 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. (See Unschuld, pages 40 and 44.)

According to Unschuld (pages 39 and 62) Wang Bing's version of the Suwen was based on Quan Yuanqi's (early sixth century) commented version of the Suwen consisting of nine juan (books) and sixty-nine discourses. Wang Bing made corrections, added two "lost" discourses, added 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. (See Unschuld pages 24, 39 and 46.)

In his preface to his version of the Suwen, Wang Bing goes into great detail listing the changes he made. (See Veith, Appendix II and Unschuld pages 41-43.)

Not much is known about Wang Bing's life but he authored several books. 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. (See Unschuld, page 40. Also see Veith, Appendix I for a translation of an abstract from the ???????? Siku Quanshu Zongmu Tiyao about both the Huangdi Suwen and Wang Bing.)

Authoritative version

The "authoritative version" used today, Chong Guang Bu Zhu Huangdi Neijing Suwen ?????????? (Huangdi Neijing Suwen: Again Broadly Corrected [and] Annotated), is the product of the eleventh-century Imperial Editorial Office (beginning in 1053 CE) and was based considerably on Wang Bing's 762 CE version. (See pages 33-66 in Unschuld) Some of the leading scholars who worked on this version of the Suwen were ?? Lin Yi, ?? Sun Qi, ??? Gao Baoheng and ?? Sun Zhao.

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

Recent studies

The Chinese medicine history scholars 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. This work was published by the University Of California Press in July, 2011.

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. (See Unschuld in cited references below.)

English 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.
TCM Style Translations
  • The Medical Classic of the Yellow Emperor, translated by Zhu Ming, Foreign Language Press, Beijing, China, 2001, 302 pages. ISBN 7-119-02664-X. 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.
  • 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 7-5046-2231-1. 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.
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.
  • The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine, translated by Ilza Veith. University of California Press, December, 2002, 288 pages. ISBN 0-520-22936-3. Translation of: (1) Wang Bing's 762 CE preface, (2) the c. 1053 CE Imperial Office's preface, (3) a historical account of the Huangdi Suwen from chapter 103 of the ???????? Siku Quanshu Zongmu Tiyao (Complete Library of the Four Treasuries: General Catalog with Abstracts) and (4) the first thirty-four chapters (treatises) of the Suwen. Includes an extensive introductory study with illustrations. The first published English translation of the Suwen. (Originally copyrighted in 1949.)

Sample Text from Suwen: Beginning of Treatise Seventeen

? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

? ? ? ? : ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? : ? ? ? ? ? ? ,? ? ? ? , ? ? ? ? , ? ? ? ? , ? ? ? ? , ? ? ? ?, ? ? ? ? , ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? , ? ? ? , ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ,? ? ? ? , ? ? ? ? , ? ? ? ? , ? ? ? ? ? ?

Wikipedia Translation

Treatise Seventeen. Discussions on the Essential and Finely Discernible Aspects of the Pulse

The Yellow Thearch inquired: "How is an examination <of the pulse> done?"

[Minister] Qibo answered: "The examination (zhen fa) [of the pulse] is usually [done] at dawn. The yin qi has not yet stirred, the yang qi has not yet dispersed, food and drink have not yet been taken, the [main] channel vessels [of qi and blood] are not yet overly active, the [qi and blood of the] network vessels [that branch out and enmesh the body] are harmonious and stable, and the qi and blood are not yet disordered -- thus, for these reasons, an abnormal pulse can be detected.

"Feel-closely the movement [and] the non movement of the pulse, then observe the essence clearness-brightness (jing ming). Examine the five colors [of the complexion] [and] inspect whether the five zang organs (internal yin organs) have overflowing-abundance [or are] insufficient, [if] the six fu organs (yang organs) [are] strong-and-powerful [or] weak, [if] the physical body <[and] qi> are flourishing [or] are decaying -- [then] integrate this set [of observations] to distinguish the demarcation [between] death [and] life.

Ping dan ?? is a Classical Chinese compound meaning: "dawn," but it is sometimes translated as: "calm dawn," but this is a literal character-by-character translation, "dawn" is more accurate. Wiseman et al. in Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine: Zhong Yi Xue Ji Chu, page 116: quotes part of the above Suwen passage.

Time: Elementary Questions (sù wèn) states: "The pulse should be taken at the calm dawn."128

128Calm dawn, ?? (píng dàn): The name of the watch corresponding to 3-5 a.m.

While it is true that ping dan ?? is an ancient term for the third earthly branch time period which prior to the Song dynasty corresponded to 3-5 a.m. (Sôma, page 904), the other occurrences of ping dan in the Neijing (such as in treatise four) unambiguously mean "dawn," not the third earthly branch. Further, the second paragraph in the above translation states the doctor is to observe the five colors of the patient, something that is not going to be accurately done at 3:00 - 5:00 a.m. using artificial light from an oil lamp or candle. To correctly perceive the colors of the complexion without bias, natural lighting (i.e., full spectrum sunlight) would be needed.

Zhen fa ??, can be translated as: "examination methods", "examination(s)" or "laws of examination." Zhen ? means: examine (verb) or examination (noun) and fa ? is often translated as: law or method. In this translation, zhen fa ?? is translated more idiomatically as "examination" as opposed to a more literal reading as a compound meaning: "examination method" or "examination methods."

Qie mai dong jing ????: "Feel-closely the movement [and] non movement (stillness) of the pulse," where dong jing ?? (movement [and] stillness) is likely a polar binome and thus denotes the whole action of the pulse and therefore this phrase could be translated as: "Feel-closely the entire pulse," or "Feel-closely the entire action of the pulse." Qie mai is often translated simply as: "feel the pulse." (See Mathews' page 111, for example.) However, qie ? also means: "intimate," so the term "qie mai" suggests feeling the pulse in a close or intimate manner.

Jing ming ??, is often translated as eyes or pupils. It may also mean the essence of the mind or emotions. Thus, it may be referring to judging the mental and emotional state of the patient as well as the general level of vitality and spirit present as observed via the patient's eyes.

In treatise seventeen we have this passage

? ? ? ? , ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? , ? ? ? , ? ? ? ? , ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

The essence clearness-brightness (jing ming) is the means for observing all material-things, distinguishing white and black, examining short and long. To regard long for short, to regard white for black, if this [occurs] then the essence is feeble-and-declining!

Translation and notes by Robert A. Threlfall, January 24, 2006.

Unschuld's Translation (page 242)

The laws of diagnosis [are as follows].
As a rule, it is at dawn,
before yin qi has begun its movement,
before yang qi is dispersed,
before beverages and food have been consumed,
before the conduit vessels are filled to abundance,
when the [contents of the] network vessels are balanced,
before the qi and blood move in disorder,
that, hence, one can diagnose an abnormal [movement in the] vessels.

Squeeze the vessels, whether [their movement] is excited or quiet, and observe the essence-brilliance.
Investigate the five complexions.

whether the five depots have a surplus or an insufficiency,
whether the six palaces are strong or weak, and
whether the physical appearance is marked by abundance or decays.

All this is brought together to reach a conclusion [enabling one] to differentiate
between [the patient's] death and survival.

Wu and Wu's Translation (page 86)

Chapter 17

Mai Yao Jing Wei Lun

(The Essentials and Fundamentals of Diagnostic Palpation)

Yellow Emperor asked: "What is the diagnostic method in pulse palpation?" Qibo answered: "The palpation of pulse should be carried on in early morning, when the Yang-energy has not yet stirred, the Yin-energy has not yet been dispersed thoroughly, the food and drink of man have not yet been taken, the channel-energy then is not in hyperactivity, the energies of the collateral branches of the large channels are in harmony and the energy and blood have not yet been disturbed. In this situation can the pulse condition be diagnosed effectively.

"At the same time of diagnosing the dynamic and static variations of the patient's pulse, his pupils and complexion should be inspected, so as to distinguish whether his energies of the five viscera are abundant or not, his six hollow organs are strong or not, his physique and energy are prosperous or not. When these aspects are considered comprehensively, one can judge the date of the death or survival of the patient.

Veith's Translation (page 159)

17. Treatise on the Importance of the Pulse and the Subtle Skill of its Examination

The Yellow Emperor asked: "What is the way of medical treatment.?"

Ch'i Po answered: "The way of medical treatment is to be consistent. It should be executed at dawn when the breath of Yin [the female principle in nature] has not yet begun to stir and when the breath of Yang [the male principle of life and light] has not yet begun to diffuse; when food and drink have not yet been taken, when the twelve main vessels (? ?) are not yet abundant and when the lo vessels (? ?) are stirred up thoroughly; when vigor and energy are not yet disturbed--at that particular time one should examine what has happened to the pulse.

"One should feel whether the pulse is in motion or whether it is still and observe attentively and with skill. One should examine the five colors and the five viscera, whether they suffer from excess or whether they show insufficiency, and one should examine the six bowels whether they are strong or weak. One should investigate the appearance of the body whether it is flourishing or deteriorating. One should use all five examinations and combine their results, and then one will be able to decide upon the share of life and death.

Modern Chinese translations & references

  • ?????????? 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 7-5308-2114-8. 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.
  • ?????? 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 7-5308-0906-7. Dictionary of Neijing terms in simplified Chinese.
  • ???? Neijing Suwen (Chong Guang Bu Zhu Huangdi Neijing Suwen version), ?? Wang Bing, ?? Lin Yi, ?? Sun Qi, ??? 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 CE Imperial Editorial Office, also in small characters. The Imperial Editorial Office annotations are proceeded by ??? xin jiao zheng (newly compared and corrected). All characters in traditional (complex) form.

Note on Pinyin and Chinese characters in article

All Chinese characters 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 but contemporary pinyin book titles are as published.


  1. ^ a b Title: The Su Wen of the Huangdi Neijing (Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor)
  2. ^ Sivin 1993, 197.
  3. ^ Unschuld, pp.1-3.
  4. ^ Sivin, p. 68.
  5. ^ Unschuld, p.1


  • DeFrancis, John (editor) (2003). ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary. Honolulu, Hawai'i: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0-8248-2766-X.
  • Lu, Gwei-djen and Joseph Needham (1980). Celestial Lancets: A History and Rationale of Acupuncture and Moxa. New York, NY: Routledge/Curzon. ISBN 0-7007-1458-8.
  • Mathews, R.H. Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary. Revised American edition, 19th printing. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-674-12350-6.
  • Siku Quanshu Zongmu Tiyao ???????? (Complete Library of the Four Treasuries: General Catalog with Abstracts), ed. by Ji Yun ?? (1724-1805), Yong Rong ?? (1744-1790), 1782. Shanghai: Shangwu Yinshuguan ??: ?????, 1933). OCLC control number:23301089.
  • Sivin, Nathan (1993). "Huang ti nei ching ????." 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 (Vol. 47, number 1): 41-90.
  • Sôma, Mitsuru, Kawabata, Kin-aki and Tanikawa, Kiyotaka (2004). Units of Time in Ancient China and Japan, PASJ: Publ. Astron. Soc. Japan 56, 887-904, 2004 October 25.
  • Unschuld, Paul U. (2003). Huang Di nei jing su wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23322-0.
  • Veith, Ilza; translator (1972). The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine). Revised paperback edition. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-02158-4.
  • Wiseman, Nigel and Andy Ellis (1995). Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine: Zhong Yi Xue Ji Chu. Revised edition. Brookline, Mass.: Paradigm Publications. ISBN 0-912111-44-5.

External links

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