From TCM Practice to Classic Texts: The Case of Henry C. Lu’s A Complete Translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Classics of Internal Medicine and the Difficult Classic (Nei-Jing and Nan-Jing) : Chinese Medicine and Culture

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Special Section in Memory of Henry C. Lu

From TCM Practice to Classic Texts: The Case of Henry C. Lu’s A Complete Translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Classics of Internal Medicine and the Difficult Classic (Nei-Jing and Nan-Jing)

Jiang, Chen-Xue1,✉; Wang, Yin-Quan2

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doi: 10.1097/MC9.0000000000000027
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1 Introduction

In the long course of translating works related to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), classics like Huangdi Neijing (《黄帝内经》 The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic), Nan Jing (《难经》 The Classic of Difficult Issues), and Shang Han Lun (《伤寒论》 Treatise on Cold Damage) are always the first choice for scholars and doctors attempting to enter the world of TCM translation. Besides sinologists, historians, and anthropologists in the West who have made great contributions to translating TCM classics, a group of practitioners and acupuncturists have not only practiced TCM but also engaged in the translation of a great number of TCM classics since the 20th century. Most of them are overseas Chinese, either having practiced TCM abroad for years or dedicated to the TCM education for international students. As their practice and teaching are often limited by local regulations to pure TCM only, they have been seeking more effective methods from classical TCM books. In this case, their in-depth comprehension of TCM classics lays a solid foundation for their translation work. Meanwhile, providing TCM education abroad requires translated TCM classics, which in turn also promotes those practitioners to translate.1 For example, Dr. Henry C. Lu translated Nei Jing and Nan Jing, Dr. Ni Maoshing (倪懋兴) translated Su Wen (《素问》 Basic Questions), acupuncturists Wu Liansheng (吴连胜) and Wu Qi (吴奇) translated Su Wen, Wu Jingnuan (胡振南) translated Ling Shu (《灵枢》 The Spiritual Pivot), and Bob Flaws, the TCM practitioner and publisher translated Pi Wei Lun (《脾胃论》 Treatise on the Spleen and Stomach). Their translations undoubtedly play a significant role in the dissemination of TCM overseas.

Among the translators mentioned above, Dr. Henry C. Lu is an especially notable one, as he has provided a complete translation of two TCM classics. He was also the first overseas TCM practitioner to translate the classics in the last century. Unfortunately, this brilliant TCM practitioner, educator, and translator passed away on January 18, 2022, at the age of 85. In memory of his life-long devotion to TCM and his contributions to the spread of TCM worldwide, we provide an overview of his most representative work, A Complete Translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Classics of Internal Medicine and the Difficult Classic (Nei-Jing and Nan-Jing). We also use it as an example to further discuss the features of the TCM classics translated by practitioners.

To date, there have been only a few research into Dr. Henry C. Lu’s TCM translation. Qiu Le (邱玏) introduced Dr. Henry C. Lu’s two translated general books for TCM and praised them for their initial attempt at translating TCM theory.2 Xu Tianhu (许天虎) discussed the translation of Nei Jing by Dr. Henry C. Lu from communication perspective, and concluded that his translation showed reverence to tradition and provided proper interpretations.3 Yang Yu (杨渝) classified Dr. Henry Lu’s translation of Nei Jing as clinical application as it aimed to inform practitioners of TCM knowledge.4 Other discussions on Dr. Henry C. Lu’s translation appear scatteredly in articles regarding the translation of Nei Jing.5,6 These studies indeed reveal an outline of Dr. Henry C. Lu’s translation; however, there has been no close examination of his translated text, especially his complete translation of Nei Jing and Nan Jing, and the differences between his translations of TCM classics as a TCM practitioner and those of sinologists. The present study aims to provide insight in these areas.

2 Dr. Henry C. Lu and his TCM translation

Dr. Henry C. Lu received his PhD from the University of Alberta, Canada. He then taught at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary between 1968 and 1971. He started to practice TCM in 1972. He founded the International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine of Vancouver (ICTCMV) in 1986 and helped initiate TCM and acupuncture legislation in British Columbia, Canada.7

Dr. Henry C. Lu contributed many scholarly works in TCM. He wrote and translated over 30 books, such as Chinese Natural Cures: Traditional Methods for Remedies and Prevention, Traditional Chinese Medicine: How to Maintain Your Health and Treat Illness, Clinic Encyclopedia of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and A Comprehensive Clinical Manual of Chinese Acupuncture. However, he was best known for his translation of Nei Jing.

3 Dr. Henry C. Lu’s translation of Nei Jing and Nan Jing

Dr. Henry C. Lu’s A Complete Translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Classics of Internal Medicine and the Difficult Classic (Nei-Jing and Nan-Jing) was published in 1978. Twenty-three years later, he completely revised the translation by himself, and the revision was printed by ICTCMV in 2004.

Dr. Henry C. Lu once said,

“Nei Jing is the first and primary classic of TCM; it is the source of inspiration in the development of TCM. The classic has effectively guided the clinical practice and held in great esteem by all Chinese physicians for over two thousand years since its publication. The study of Nei Jing has gradually emerged as an important subject of study among Chinese and foreign scholars alike. Another classic, Nan Jing, is basically an exposition of the theory and philosophy of Nei Jing and remains so closely related to Nei Jing that it makes logical sense to translate and publish them together to facilitate the reader’s understanding of the two classics.”7

Therefore, this translation is named A Complete Translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Classics of Internal Medicine and the Difficult Classic (Nei-Jing and Nan-Jing).

Translating the two classics is a huge project, not to mention that it further incorporates various researches, annotations, and commentaries by outstanding physicians and scholars in the past. As a result, it is produced with 800 pages of text and notes, bound in luxurious green satin in desktop size.7

This monumental work is divided into five volumes as follows: Volume I contains Su Wen from Chapter 1 to 40; Volume II contains Su Wen from Chapter 41 to 81; Volume III contains Ling Shu from Chapter 1 to 40; Volume IV contains Ling Shu from Chapter 41 to 81; Volume V contains Nan Jing, the Illustrations and the Index.8 This book’s content unveils the whole extent of TCM classics; and is therefore considered as the earliest complete translation of both Nei Jing and Nan Jing to benefit foreign learners of TCM.

Dr. Henry C. Lu included a long introduction to this translation, beginning with acupuncture, and proceeding to herbal therapy and manipulative therapy to provide a broad view of TCM as a whole. Afterward, he introduces Nei Jing and Nan Jing in detail.8 By comparing the Nei Jing with Plato’s Republic in Western philosophy and Shakespeare’s English literature, he adeptly uses these analogies between the East and West to help readers appreciate the importance of this TCM classic and how this complete translation is difficult but deserved. He compares Nei Jing and Nan Jing to show their differences and explains some controversial questions related to Nan Jing in history.8 In this context, readers are provided with an easy but critical access to understand the background of the classic, paving the way to approach these TCM classics.

3.1 Translation ideology

As Dr. Henry C. Lu mentions in the preface, the translation of the Chinese text is conventional in that it follows the conventional interpretations of the original Chinese text already established in the course of Chinese history.8 His translation therefore does not aim to be philologically accurate; instead, it tends to follow what was considered widely acceptable by generations of TCM physicians and scholars throughout 2000 years of development. In contrast to the opinions that Dr. Henry C. Lu’s translation follows the original text of Nei Jing in previous studies,4 he in fact takes the common historical views of most TCM physicians as reference to conduct his translation, that is, the conventional interpretations. Such translation principle clearly distinguishes his translation from those of sinologists who attempt to cover all views of Nei Jing, and it succeeds in keeping the translated text fluent and easy-to-understand.

In case of ambiguities of the text or disagreements among Chinese scholars, Dr. Henry C. Lu suggests two principles: consistency throughout the text and conformity to the modern theory of Chinese medicine.8 Some studies propose that the two principles are specifically used in the translation of TCM terms.4 However, from Dr. Henry C. Lu’s original statements, it is clear that these principles can be employed throughout the text, for medical terms, phrases, or sentences alike. As a result, the translation not only reads fluently throughout, but more importantly, clinically oriented. Conformity to contemporary TCM theory promises the phrases in TCM classics continue to live in the modern real world. Thanks to Dr. Henry C. Lu’s wisdom gained from his long clinical experience, his translation helps make sense of the application of classical doctrine in modern practice.

3.2 Annotations and commentaries as translation features

The most distinguished feature of this book is the way the notes are presented. Statements inside parentheses are the translator’s notes intended to facilitate the reader’s understanding of the text. For example,

“The energy of Heaven is clear and bright, it contains indefinite sources of virtues and it will never descend (so is true energy in man which contains indefinite sources of power and it is never used up).”8

The sentence in the parentheses is Dr. Henry C. Lu’s note for the original phrases “天气清净, 光明者也, 藏德不止, 故不下也.”8 He transferred the implied meaning behind the description of nature to human features, thus reinforcing the idea of correspondence between human and nature. This fully illustrates his dual role of educator and clinical practitioner.

In other cases, when long passages require full explanations, they are provided under a separate heading “Translator’s Commentary,” where the translator’s personal understanding of the classical text and his interpretations are found along with the translation.8 Such notes are rarely seen in other translated versions of Nei Jing.

For example, the end of Chapter 1 says

“Henry Lu’s Commentary: In reading the Nei Ching, the reader should always keep two most essential things or concepts in mind, namely, the four laws of the five elements and the concept of ‘correspondence’, because the above two concepts play such an important role in the contents of the Nei Ching that anyone who fails to understand the two concepts in question will, without doubt, fail to understand the basic contents of the Nei Ching. So much so that logically speaking, the contents of the Nei Ching are built upon the Five Elements and their correspondence to others, such as the viscera and the bowels, the four seasons, the flavors, the colors, the atmospheric energies, the five senses, the five emotions, the five directions, the five sounds and so on and so forth.”8

This commentary that repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the five elements and their correspondence as the basis of TCM is like an untiring and sincere teaching. These are not merely empty phrases on a scrap of paper. The translator must have understood that this concept is critical for practicing TCM according to his clinical experience; otherwise, he would not have chosen to dedicate a half-page–long explication on this matter. Such commentaries often appear in other chapters where more practical suggestions would be appreciated by practitioners. These commentaries are evident that the translator is also a TCM practitioner and educator. These commentaries indeed make Dr. Henry C. Lu’s translation different from strictly scholarly ones.

A third feature that makes Dr. Henry C. Lu’s translation unique is the summary of key concepts in each chapter. For example, chapter 5 starts with,

“The Key Concepts in this Chapter: This chapter covers three essential aspects: first, it applies Yin and Yang to classify all natural phenomena; second, it applies the principle of Yin and Yang to explain human physiology, pathology, and diagnosis; third, it points out the importance of the Five Elements in diagnosis and treatment.”8

As known to all scholars, TCM classics are difficult both in language and content. Based on his profound study of Nei Jing and Nan Jing, Dr. Lu outlines the key points of each chapter for readers to help them grasp the main idea, which is especially helpful for beginners or those with little knowledge of TCM. At the same time, Dr. Henry C. Lu’s translation does not merely rely on his facility with the two languages, as there is no way to determine the essence of each chapter without a thorough comprehension of the classics and their clinical application. In this context, Dr. Henry C. Lu makes full use of his knowledge in the translation to build a bridge between ancient Chinese wisdom and the world.

4 Overseas TCM practitioners as translators of classics

The above analysis shows that A Complete Translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Classics of Internal Medicine and the Difficult Classic (Nei-Jing and Nan-Jing) has unique features that serves their purposes. It is, to some extent, a translation typical of those translators whose primary identity is that of a TCM practitioner and educator. It is therefore worthwhile to discuss the common features shared among such translations by overseas TCM practitioners.

4.1 Smooth flow of the translated text

First, one would be impressed by its smooth flow and easy-to-understand content when reading the text of A Complete Translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Classics of Internal Medicine and the Difficult Classic (Nei-Jing and Nan-Jing). There is no denying that translating from classical Chinese to modern English is quite challenging. But Dr. Henry C. Lu’s words are fluent, expressive, and full of variations. This is, certainly because of his long time living in English-speaking countries and his strong language ability. His free translation strategy contributed significantly as well. As illustrated in the previous example from Chapter 5, Dr. Henry C. Lu does not follow the original Chinese four-characters and four-phrases pattern. Instead, he reconstructs them into one sentence with intertextuality to make it readable in English.

For specific terms, Dr. Henry C. Lu applies the same technique of free translation too. For example, he translated “天癸” into “kidney’s energy” instead of explicating it or what the two Chinese characters mean, respectively. Compared with scholarly translations in which “天癸” is provided with a page-long footnote describing all major historical interpretations by TCM physicians,9 his approach is direct, simple, and comparatively reasonable. Dr. Henry states “I sincerely hope that the readers of this translation will find it sufficiently interesting and reasonably accurate in the course of their reading,” there are no doubts that such fluent translated text must be sufficiently interesting.

4.2 Making classics practical and applicable

Another common feature that TCM practitioners exemplify when translating TCM classics is that they seek to make traditionally obscure and profound classics more practical and applicable in clinical practice. This is well illustrated by Dr. Henry C. Lu’s annotations and commentaries. Translating classical Chinese characters and sentences inherent with varied meaning to convey the content meaningful and useful for clinical treatment rather than making sense philologically is challenging. The statements in brackets, “Translator’s Commentary” and “The Key Concepts in this Chapter” all reflect the ways in which he overcomes these challenges. This is not a unique instance. His counterpart Moshing Ni, another translator of Nei Jing wrote in his book The Yellow Emperors Classic of medicine: a new translation of the Neijing Suwen with commentary that “This translation, however, was never meant to be a scholarly edition. For that purpose, I am certain that other improvements can be made by expert sinologists. Instead, I have approached this from a clinician’s point of view, all the while keeping in mind the criteria of students of traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy as well as those of interested laypersons.”10 Although Dr. Henry C. Lu never specified that his purpose in translating TCM classics is to aid clinical practice, his translations make it obvious that he did in this way. Therefore, having the role of practitioner means that these translators hold a totally different attitude toward TCM classics than do sinologists and historians, and this attitude further influences their translation strategies and purposes. It also probably explains why readers who are TCM physicians and students favor the works of these translators, while scholars by contrast appreciate translations by sinologists, which have the advantages of being encyclopedic and useful for research.

4.3 Teaching oriented

A Complete Translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Classics of Internal Medicine and the Difficult Classic (Nei-Jing and Nan-Jing) reads: “This translation is dedicated to: WORLDWIDE EDUCATION CENTRE FOR TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE. An educational institution to serve the Western world in the field of traditional Chinese medicine.”8 As shown in the previous example, Dr. Henry C. Lu proudly acknowledges that this translation is specifically designed for TCM education. Thus, his translation primarily aims to equip students with the necessary knowledge from TCM classics. A review by Yang and Chen4 notes that “Dr. Henry C. Lu’s complete translation of Nei Jing is similar to that of teaching materials. Each chapter is preceded by a brief introduction of the content, and each subsection is preceded by the translator’s comments on the content of this chapter as a guide for students.”4 It also explains why TCM terms are translated in a manner used in clinical communication. For example, “任脉” is translated as “conception meridian,” “五脏” is translated as the “five viscera,” and “邪气” becomes “vicious energies,” which are all expressions frequently used in practice and teaching situation.

This book is not unique in its educational function. Bob Flaws, the translator of Pi Wei Lun, did so too. “I have retranslated this important Chinese medical text and added commentaries and case histories in order to make its wisdom more accessible to modern readers and learners,”11 he said. Therefore, serving the purpose of teaching appears to be common among TCM practitioners’ translation of classics.

4.4 Many favorable comments but few library collections

An interesting phenomenon regarding translation works by TCM practitioners is that there are many favorable comments online. Not only are they welcomed by readers but they are also highly spoken of. For example, an American reader commented on Amazon about Dr. Lu’s book, “I find this to be a great translation of the Huangdi Neijing, much more understandable than some translations, but still seems to keep the original meaning and intention.”12 Such comments may be found in reviews for translations of TCM classics by other practitioners like Dr. Ni Maoshing, acupuncturists Wu Liansheng and Wu Qi. Their translations are very popular among TCM physicians, practitioners, students, and common readers with zero TCM knowledge.

However, compared with the translations of TCM classics by sinologists such as Professor Paul Unschuld whose translation of Nei Jing tops the library collections worldwide, very few of the above are collected by libraries of the world’s distinguished universities and academic institutes. It seems that widespread acceptance in academia remains to be seen.

5 Conclusions

Despite the drawbacks, such as its limited presence in few library collections and a lack of rigorous philological examination, Dr. Henry C. Lu’s A Complete Translation of the Yellow Emperor’s Classics of Internal Medicine and the Difficult Classic (Nei-Jing and Nan-Jing) as well as translations of TCM classics by other overseas practitioners deserve attentive study to savor their essence and wisdom. These works undoubtedly promote the spread of TCM around the world, especially in the West, and have made great contributions to the improvement of clinical efficacy beyond China. Meanwhile, as the backbone of overseas TCM education, these translations bring the original TCM tradition closer to those who are interested in learning TCM. In this era of globalization, the achievements made by overseas TCM practitioners such as Dr. Henry C. Lu’s translation deserve further exploration.


This research was financed by the grants from National Social Science Fund of China (No. 20 CYY004 and No. 18ZDA322), the Jiangsu Social Science Application Project (No. 20SWA-02), and the Qing Lan Project (2022).

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by either of the authors.

Author contributions

Chen-Xue Jiang drafted and corrected the manuscript; Yin-Quan Wang guided and revised this article. All the authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

Conflicts of interest

The authors declare no financial or other conflicts of interest.


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Henry C. Lu; Nei Jing; Nan Jing; Translation of TCM classics

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