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Dan Stretton

Translation, misconception and the passage of time

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Translation, misconception and the passage of time post image

“To have a second language is to possess a second soul”   Charlemagne

Having had to learn a second language, I have realised that the learning of it is relatively easy. Understanding the culture in order to possess that language will take more than the rest of my life.

This problem is very evident when you look at the first translations of the Chinese medical language. The first translations influenced much of the teaching of western body-workers interested in Chinese medicine. With the passage of time we have realised that many of the inferences and meanings of the ancient texts, in the light of further cultural awareness, have lost the richness of their meanings.

Trying to understand Chinese forms of treatment in terms of western science is a little like reading a foreign language poem in translation. What you get is a pale outline of the thing without the soul or the central illuminating essence.

This statement is a vivid example of how mistranslation can permeate and create misunderstanding of certain concepts in Chinese medicine. Translating Chinese into western languages is a continuous challenge because of its context sensitive nature and the understanding of conceptual terms. It is acknowledged that some key terms in TCM have been mistranslated since the 1930’s and 40’s leading to many controversies in TCM.

Donald Kendal, the author of “The Tao of Chinese Medicine: Understanding an Ancient Healing Art” writes:- “These fundamental errors have been responsible for much misdirection in trying to understand the reality of Chinese medicine, and in the setting-design-research protocol to verify its basic theories”

He goes on to talk about TCM being best characterised as physical and physiological medicine and the Chinese vascular system being replaced with meridians. This means that substituting meridians for the neurovascular system has kept Chinese medicine on the fringes of conventional care for many decades. The knowledge of physiology that had previously been explained by TCM was then obscured.

Chinese experts understand their theories involve vascular circulation and the nervous system but tend to use the terms “Qi” and “Meridian” when writing in English. This unintended and unfortunate mistranslation has created much debate between those trained in the energy schools of thought and those who work via the vascular and nervous systems. This is one of the major reasons for the side-lining of eastern methods of healing and bodywork by conventional forms of treatment.

This is because they do not understand the language as it has been mistranslated.

How does this apply to body workers? It appears that Chinese physicians worked with vascular systems both physically and physiologically. But because of the initial translations, many body-workers still consider that working with the energy (Ki, Qi, Chi) should be the paramount focus of the therapist

IF the superimposed meridians follow the former vascular systems and we accept that Qi moves blood and Blood carries Qi, what’s the problem? For me, the problem is the focus. In that there is a powerful psychological difference in the attitude of the therapist toward the presented symptom if one is trying to move the vascular system rather than just an energetic concept.

I have seen many students and graduates struggling to create change by focussing on Qi, often in a meditative, should I say it, self indulgent way, when physical movement of the vascular system directed towards the blocked area would change the situation immediately. I am convinced it is the reason too many potentially good practitioners do not succeed as therapists once they have to deal with the general public. When a body has been made aware of its own energy flows, working with the Qi is very powerful. However, most people are simply not conditioned in this way and it is vital for the therapist to make a difference to the presented symptoms quickly.

Whether your clients are relatively well but, looking for relief from lesser conditions or those who have been through the conventional channels with no success, they all want to see a change, some kind of transformation. Successful body-workers do well to ensure that anything they do with a client makes a difference in their perception of their condition and themselves. Ensuring focus is on the vascular system and psychological aspects of the problem is the easiest way of doing this.

This means that when working for example on tight rhomboids, you have in mind not just the techniques to release them, but also an appreciation of the shu points, Lung, Heart and Pericardium and the related emotional and psychological aspects beneath them. Furthermore, there may well be emotional and psychological repercussions from the release of the muscle.

Put simply, work with the physicality of the problem. You are already touching the Qi.


If you want to know more about the poem featured in the image picture, read this





4 comments… add one

  • Hi Dan, Thank you so much for this article. I have been working with the duel language of Shiatsu and massage therapy for over 18 years. In the United States most states require you to me a Licensed Massage Therapist in order to do Shiatsu. Fortunately I started my Shiatsu training immediately after completing my massage training. This means my work as a Shiatsu practitioner has always been an overlay of information. With your information about the early translations, the visceral system and psychological aspects of the problem my intentions will change. I am looking forward to my clients benefiting from this shift in focus. My practice will be the stronger for it. Are there any other books or resources you can recommend besides Donald Kendal’s that will assist me in my new focus? Thank you. Sincerely, Tina Rea.

    • Dan

      Hi Tina,
      Thank you for your comment, it always amazes me who comes back to my site,because I forget that the “internet” is worldwide.

      However, in response to your comments. Personally I have found no books which give a clear comparison between Western medicine and CCM. I think this is because the two systems have some similarities ,but they they create great difficulties in reconciling others. They also have very different fundamental approaches, ie. CCM looks for the “source” of the energetic disharmony in the organ responsibilty ,whereas Western medicine seeks to largely ameliorate the “problem” without attending to the root cause.
      You have given me cause for much thought and a subsequent blog post will probably be on this subject, with the rider that it might take some time to clarify my thought processes!!!!.

      When a client presents with say, a bad shoulder, work out the musculature involved ,and then learn from just working on the presented problem with the anatomy in mind and use your palpatory skills ,via CCM and shiatsu techniques, to work the body.

      Regarding book recommendations, I can only tell you how I was able to cope with the “gap” that exists between Western and oriental medical models. I studied in depth, great depth, the anatomical strucutres I was working with, particularly bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, facsia and joints. Then I tried to go back to the chinese texts and the more considered translations and discussions of cultural influences and semantics. It was my attempt, short of learning the language, to get as close to the primary source material as I could. These two paths were further enriched by my ongoing clinical experience. I can describe this as resulting in a feedback system, whereby the information I received from my studies informed my treatments and my treatments informed my understanding of the texts I was studying.

      The books I found to be most helpful in this process were:

      The Seven Emotions, Psychology and health in Ancient China. by Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee, pub. Monkey Press (monkeypress.com)
      Monkey press publish a number of really useful texts on each of the organs, the extraordinary Fu and others.
      As regards anatomy I don’t know how deeply you have studied this but I am constantly referring to updated publications. If possible the best way to improve your knowledge on this is to find a medical library and find a book which “speaks” to you. One of my old favourites is Job’s Body by Dean Juhan which is a good starter book for fascial work amongst other things.

      Would love to know how you get on ,so please keep in touch.

  • Ron Kornfeld

    Some problems with Kendall’s conclusions: the channel system does NOT consistently map onto the vascular system, nor the nervous system. The vascular and nervous systems cannot account for all of the actions of the Qi xue (so called acupoints). The cutting edge research here is investigating fascial connections, the biosignalling capacities of connective tissue, etc. (see Helene Langevin and others)
    Kendall is the latest in the attempt to force Classical Chinese Medicine into the categories of the contemporary biomedical paradigm. The unique contributions of CCM are lost this way. (see Matsumoto and Birch, Hara Diagnosis) – the embryological connections, etc). His valid points re translation do not mean that his conclusions are entirely valid.
    Actually, he’s a good example of your quote:

    Trying to understand Chinese forms of treatment in terms of western science is a little like reading a foreign language poem in translation. What you get is a pale outline of the thing without the soul or the central illuminating essence.

    • Dan

      Ron, thank for your comments, they have given me several hours of reflection and creative thought.

      I fully agree, meridians do not fully follow vascular systems. Fascia definitely needs to be more fully investigated in relation to its capacity to transmit information. For me, the word information is enclosed in the word Qi.

      However, the point of using Kendal’s comment was to try to create a greater sense of reality in the minds of students and practitioners. Matsumoto and Birch also refer to the difficulties of translating “character language” and the loss of context when doing so. (Reflections on the Sea. Hara Diagnosis. Cahpter 5, Origins and Energetics, paragraph 2). As a practical bodyworker in 2013, with a good western knowledge of anatomy and physiology, I believe that to stay in one paradigm of treatment limits the ability of the practitioner to create change in the client, thereby enhancing their practice and livelihood.

      I believe that we MUST use every tool and concept available to us to assist the wellbeing of the client. The point of this blog post was an attempt to open the mind of the reader, practitioner, student to this.

      Over the years too many people qualify and then, because they have not been given the incentive or, very often permission, to explore outside of the rigid rules on how an Oriental practice should be followed, they fail.

      They fail, to either make a living or even worse, find enjoyment in something which years previously had made a deep connection within.

      Bodywork has to evolve and change, even as the pole star in Chinese Astronomy changed. We do ourselves, and our clients, an injustice if we do not change and evolve also. Part of that evoulution is to be aware of language changes as we become more able to absorb the time and culture from which it comes.

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