The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon 黄帝内经 Huángdì Nèijīng

The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon 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 Neijing is one of the most important classics of Daoism. The Neijing is generally dated by scholars to have been produced around 200BCE. 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, there are rules and relationships in nature that have universal validity. The practice of medicine is the application of the knowledge of these rules to the treatment of disease and the promotion of health. Man is a microcosm that mirrors the larger macrocosm. Here I present to you the first chapter – The Universal Truth – translated by Maoshing Ni of the first text, the Suwen (素問), also known as Basic Questions, which covers the theoretical foundation of Chinese Medicine and its diagnostic methods.


In ancient times the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, was known to have been a child prodigy. As he grew he showed himself to be sincere, wise, honest and compassionate. He became very learned and developed keen powers for observing nature. His people recognized him as a natural leader and chose him as their emperor.

During his reign, Huang Di had discussions concerning medicine, health, lifestyle, nutrition, Taoist cosmology with his ministers, including Qi Bo, and others. Their first conversation began with Huang Di asking, “I’ve heard that in the days of old everyone lived one hundred years without showing the usual signs of aging. In our time, however, people age prematurely, living only fifty years. Is this due to a change in the environment, or is it because people have lost the correct way of life?”

Qi Bo replied, “In the past, people practiced the Tao, the Way of Life. They understood the principle of balance as represented by the transformations of the energies of the universe. They formulated exercises to promote energy flow to harmonize themselves with the universe. They ate a balanced diet at regular times, arose and retired at regular hours, avoided overstressing their bodies and minds, and refrained from overindulgence of all kinds. They maintained well-being of body and mind; thus, it is not surprising that they lived over one hundred years.”

“These days, people have changed their way of life. They drink wine as though it were water, indulge excessively in destructive activities, drain their jing – the body’s essence that is stored in the Kidneys – and deplete their qi. They do not know the secret of conserving their energy and vitality. Seeking emotional excitement and momentary pleasures, people disregard the natural rhythm of the universe. They fail to regulate their lifestyle and diet, and sleep improperly. So it is not surprising that they look old at fifty and die soon after.”

“The accomplished ones, of ancient times, advised people how to guard themselves against disease-causing factors. On the mental level, one should remain calm and avoid excessive desires and fantasies, recognizing and maintaining the natural purity and clarity of the mind. When internal energies are able to circulate smoothly and freely, and the energy of the mind is not scattered, but is focused and concentrated, illness and disease can be avoided.”

“Previously, people led a calm and honest existence, detached from undue desire and ambition; they lived with an untainted conscience and without fear. They were active, but never depleted themselves. Because they lived simply, they knew contentment, as reflected in their diet of basic but nourishing foods, and clothing that was appropriate to the season but never luxurious. Since they were happy in their position in life, they did not feel jealousy or greed. They had compassion for others and were helpful and honest, free from destructive habits. They remained unshakable and unswayed by temptations, and they were able to stay centered even when adversity arose. They treated others justly, regardless of their level of intelligence or position.”

Huang Di asked, When one grows old, one cannot bear children. Is this due to hereditary or to the loss of one’s procreative energy?

Qi Bo answered, “In general the reproductive physiology of woman is such that at seven years of age her kidney energy becomes full, her permanent teeth come in, and her hair grows long. At fourteen years the tian kui, or fertility essence, matures, the ren/conception and chong/vital channels responsible for the conception open, menstruation begins, and conception is possible. At twenty-one years the kidney energy is strong and healthy, the wisdom teeth appear, and the body is vital and flourishing. At twenty-eight years the bones and tendons are well developed and the hair and secondary sex characteristics are complete. This is the height of female development. At thirty-five years the yangming/Stomach and Large intestine channels that govern the major facial muscles begin to deplete, the muscles begin to atrophy, facial wrinkles appear, and the hair begins to thin. At forty-two all three yang channels – taiyang, shaoyang and yangming – are exhausted, the entire face is wrinkled, and the hair begins to turn gray. At forty-nine years the Ren and Chong channels are completely empty, and the tian kui has dried up. Hence, the flow of the menses ceases and the woman is no longer able to conceive.

“In the male, at eight years of age the kidney energy becomes full, the permanent teeth appear, and the hair becomes long. At sixteen years of age the Kidney energy is ample, the tian kui is mature, and the jing is ripe, procreation is possible. At twenty-four years the Kidney Qi is abundant, the bones and tendons grow strong, and the wisdom teeth come in. At the thirty-second year, the body is at the peak of strength, and functions of the male are at their height. By forty, the Kidney Qi begins to wane, teeth become loose, and the hair starts to fall. At forty-eight the yang energy of the head begins to deplete, the face becomes sallow, the hair grays and the teeth deteriorate. By fifty-six years the Liver every weakens, causing the tendons to stiffen. At sixty four, the tian kui dries up and the jing is drained, resulting in Kidney exhaustion, fatigue and weakness. When the energy of all the organs is full, the excess energy stored in the Kidneys is excreted for the purpose of conception. But now, the organs have aged and their energies have become depleted, the bones and tendons have become frail and stiff, and movements are hampered. The Kidney reservoir becomes empty, marking the end of the power of conception.”

Huang Di remarked, “I notice, however that some people, even though they are quite elderly, can still conceive.”

Qi Bo replied, “This is because these individuals inherited an unusual abundance of jing and also realized how to lead their lives properly and protect their vitality. At sixty-four and forty-nine, for males and females respectively, these individuals still have excess Kidney energy as well as Qi and Blood, so they still have capacity to procreate. However, men past the age of sixty-four and women past forty-nine have normally lost this ability.”

Huang Di asked, “If a wise one who follows the Tao is over one hundred years of age, can he or she still retain the ability to procreate?”

Qi Bo answered, “Yes, it is possible. If one knows how to live a correct way of life, conserve one’s energy, and follow the Tao, yes, it is possible. One could procreate at the age of one hundred years.”

Huang Di asked, “I’ve heard of people in ancient times, spoken of as the immortals, who knew the secrets of the universe and held the world in the palm of their hands. They extracted essence from nature and practiced Qi Gong and various stretching and breathing exercises, and visualizations, to integrate body, mind and spirit. They remained undisturbed and thus attained extraordinary levels of accomplishment. Can you tell me about them?”

Qi Bo responded, “The immortals kept their mental energies focused and refined, and harmonized their bodies with the environment. So they did not show typical signs of aging and were able to live beyond their biological limitations.

“Not so long ago there were people known as achieved beings who had true virtue, understood the Way of Life, and were able to adapt to and harmonize with the universe and the seasons. They too were able to keep their mental energy through proper concentration.

“These achieved beings did not live like ordinary humans, who tended to abuse themselves. They were able to travel freely to different times and places since they were not governed by conventional views of time and space. Their sense of perceptions were supernormal, going far beyond the sight and hearing of ordinary humans. They were also able to preserve their life spans and live in full health, just as the immortals did.

“There was a third type of a person, known as the sage. The sages lived peacefully under Heaven and Earth, following the rhythms of the planet and the universe. They adapted to society without being swayed by fashions and trends. They were free from emotional extremes and lived a balanced, contented existence. Their outward appearance, behavior and thinking did not reflect the conflicting norms of society. The sages appeared busy but were never depleted. Internally they did not overburden themselves. they abided in calmness, recognizing the empty nature of existence. The sages lived over one hundred years because they did not scatter or disperse their energies.

“A fourth type were the natural people who followed the Tao, the Way of Life, and were called naturalists. They lived in accordance with the rhythmic patters of the seasons: Heaven and Earth, moon, sun and stars. They aspired to follow the way of the ancient times, choosing not to lead excessive lifestyles. They, too, lived plainly and and enjoyed long life.”

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 10.59.45 amTranslated by Maoshing Ni

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Alex Tan L.AC is a licensed Acupuncturist.  After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China.  A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex’s bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives.  He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. For more about Alex click here

Alex runs a clinic in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona. Alex welcomes comments and questions to his articles. To schedule an appointment in person or telco-appointment click here