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Traditional Chinese Medicine and Spoken Mandarin

Chinese Medicine
The study of any language must consist of the basics; vocabulary, grammar patterns, alphabet (if the language has one!)pronunciation etc… but the rate you progress with your learning can be helped if you have a particular interest within the culture. China has a long history and has contributed much to world culture. It should not be too hard to find something that catches your eye and pursue it. For example, you might like KungFu movies (武侠电影 WǔXiáDiànYǐng) and you could start by learning the Chinese names of your favorite action stars or the names of your favorite Chinese films. From this simple starting point you will be able to bring these topics up in conversation and find yourself in unexplored territory. It’s a great way to learn new vocabulary and new language patterns.

My first contact with China was acupuncture and Traditional Chinese medicine which have a strong philosophical basis and huge clinical tradition. Studying Traditional Chinese medicine has improved not only my spoken Mandarin but my understanding of Chinese culture – an essential part to mastering any language!

The Pulse把脉(BǎMài)

If you see a Chinese doctor they will take your pulse. Taking the pulse and understanding how it displays the disharmonies of the body is an art in itself and many books have been written on the subject. However, the idea of 把脉 does not stop with Traditional Chinese medicine. The ‘taking of a pulse’ forms such a central part in Chinese culture that it has become a common expression. If you get a new job then you may have to 把脉 your new boss. Obviously this expression should not be taken literally, taking their pulse will tell you what kind of person you’re working for, and if you understand this you can act accordingly.

Oddly enough, I have never found a satisfactory translation for 把脉 in English, ‘test the water’ comes close but this typically refers to a situation rather than a person. If you can think of a better translation please post it below in the comments, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.


Smooth Benefit 顺利(ShùnLì)

There are far too many theories and ideas within Traditional Chinese medicine to explain in a single article so I’ll focus on two principles. Firstly – 顺 (Shùn) to smooth, to make smooth, to follow. Chinese medicinal theory tell us that 气(Qì)and blood should flow smoothly in the body. If the smooth movement of these vital elements becomes blocked then a doctor may be employed to help clear the blockage and ensure things return to their natural state. The second principle is 利 (Lì), benefit. Typically this character means sharp, but not in this in this instance! The definition for this character seems to have come under intense scrutiny during the Spring Autumn 春秋 (ChūnQiū) / Warring States 战国 (ZhànGuó) periods when a philosopher called 墨子(MòZǐ) used the character 利 to mean bringing benefit to the State or country. 墨子(MòZǐ)`s argument was countered by a philosopher from the Confucian school called Mencius 孟子(MèngZǐ), he rendered the character 利 as profit. Even though this debate occurred over 2000 years ago both definitions are still used today! However, in medicinal circles we use MòZǐ’s definition because we bring benefit to the system, rather than profit from the system.

We find these two characters combined in modern expression 一切顺利 (YīQièShùnLì) everything smooth.

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AListair Hake

Alistair began his Chinese studies at Tianjin Technology Univeristy in 2007. In 2008 he obtained a Masters degree in Classical Eastern Literature with a speciality in classical Chinese. He is an avid reader of Chinese literature and this year he began a personal translation of the 'Simple Questions', the first part of the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine.

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