On Standardization of Chinese Medical Nomenclature

Nigel Wiseman nomenclature debatesFirst, let me start by saying that I am not wholly familiar with the nomenclature debates.  I have read the most recent articles, had discussions with a few professionals and thought about it for about 6 months.  This by no means qualifies me as an expert on the subject!  I wanted to report about my AAAOM conference experience, and Wiseman’s talk on Chinese medical translation was the first, and most interesting, talk I attended.

I did not attend the debates on the prior day because I had midterms.  I hope to further familiarize myself with the full breadth of the debate and as I learn more I will write more about it.  I do most earnestly request that if you have an opinion or further information on this topic that you reply in the comments so we can have an open discussion.  It’s too important an issue to ignore.

My first impression:  Wiseman is composed, entirely rational and of impeccable intellectual achievement, also clearly passionate. The talk itself was frankly a bit of a marathon – four hours with no breaks.  For an NCNM student used to my breaks every hour on the hour, it was a challenge.  😀  Kidding – but not really.  I came to the talk with my mind completely open and ready to learn.

The bulk of the talk:

Wiseman started out by discussing the general way that transmission of knowledge and artifacts from one culture to another happens.  It was an interesting preamble and the general point seemed to be that transmission happens most easily from a culture with high influence to cultures with less influence.  He moved on to discuss the way that Western medicine was transmitted to China as a comparative model to analyze how Chinese medicine has been transmitted to the West.

In general, I took a few things from this portion of the lecture.  First, Western medicine was easily transmitted to China because the West had/has great cultural influence thus Chinese people tended to know Western languages and were generally open to Western ideas.  Second, Chinese medicine transmission has suffered in the West because of the absence of these things.  Third, and less overt in Wiseman’s actual words, Chinese medicine transmission to the Western world has been negatively impacted by the extremely high influence of Western concepts in the realm of medicine.

In other words, when the medicine is transmitted, there is a greater tendency to put everything in explicitly Western CONCEPTS, not just Western LANGUAGE.  Does that make sense?

He then moved on to the center of the lecture.  In short, Wiseman believes that Chinese medical terminology should be standardized and that the standard terminology should be as literal as possible, with few exceptions.  He seemed to be arguing largely against people who use biomedical translations for Chinese terms – for instance using “conjunctivitis” when translating the characters for “wind-fire-eye.”  风火目.   I am entirely behind the thrust of Wiseman’s argument on this point.  Not only is it simply annoying when book authors do this, as opposed to providing a list of POSSIBLE correspondences, it’s also flatly irresponsible.  Most of the biomedical approximations are just that, approximations, and often do not include important information that the Chinese term possesses.

In general, the lack of term standardization can be extremely confusing for people, particularly when Chinese characters are not available for a given concept.  Wiseman pointed out several situations in which certain translations were not only  merely confusing but actually misleading.  I have to say that I am frankly confused by people’s resistance to standardization, particularly when that standardization is literal.

If the standardization were clearly ideological (such as using all biomedical concepts) I could understand the resistance.  Some have expressed concern that the standardization would prevent them from being able to express their unique understanding of a particular concept or text.  However, the standardization would not mean that you couldn’t continue to explain to students or colleagues your understanding of a term, even when it differs from the standard.  In fact, it would provide a convenient place to start that conversation.

My thoughts:  I think the ideal situation is that everyone learns Chinese well, including Classical grammatical structures, before starting study or at least while they are learning the medicine.  With this standard in place, the Chinese can be used and we avoid the problem of terminology at least for the educational environment.  Whether we would still want to translate for the benefit of the general public and whether it would still be best to standardize in that situation is up for debate and largely unimportant.

But people aren’t going to learn Chinese, so this is simply impractical.  Would it be fair to have this as a requirement for Chinese medical education in English speaking countries?  I don’t know.  I haven’t learned Chinese in the way I should have – but I’m working on it and I hope to have basic mastery within the next few years.  Travel to China will certainly help me in this quest.  I think regardless of its fairness or unfairness, it’s just not going to happen.

Short of having people learn Chinese as a mandatory step in the Chinese medical educational process, a standard nomenclature seems best.  It will help people communicate with one other and streamline the learning process for students.  I’m looking forward to hearing your comments.

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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