Learning classical Chinese is foundational – an interview with Rick Goodman


As I’m working on some of the foundational materials for the upcoming Shennong Relational Herb Learning course, I’m revisiting some material from classical Chinese medicine texts that I don’t know particularly well.  It’s prompted me to get out my Big Chinese-English Dictionary and start slogging through the tedious process of translating passages when you’re not fluent in Chinese.

So, when I was looking for which archived post I wanted to release today, this short text interview with Richard Goodman seemed a natural choice.  Richard has produced an excellent set of texts for Chinese medicine students and practitioners that helps even hopeless language learners like myself make sense of the process.  I really cannot recommend them enough.  I hope you enjoy the interview (below).


Chinese Medicine Central (DH): What is the biggest impediment for English speakers in learning to read Classical chinese?

Richard Goodman (RG): “Every aspect of Chinese, and especially classical Chinese, is different from English. From learning and memorizing characters to grappling with a grammar that has no tense, much of what we encounter in Chinese is difficult to understand. When I was finally at the stage that I could start approaching classical Chinese medical texts, I was overwhelmed-where does one begin? The vast number of medical books written before the 20th century is alone enough to scare people away. This combination of learning a language that is different in every way from English with the sheer volume of classical texts available overwhelms people and even the most well intentioned people never begin.”

DH: How do your books help folks with that?

“My overall goal was to address as many of the frustrations I had in my own studies as I could in one series of books. The two I mentioned were two of my biggest frustrations and I addressed this first by just selecting texts that are fairly easy for beginners. Volume One starts out very slowly and builds very purposefully on the characters and grammar already taught. In both Volumes One and Two, 95% of the characters will be found in every medical text. I didn’t want any “filler” or terms that were rarely found. I was never trying to “wow” readers with impressive texts, but instead made language learning the priority. This does not take away all of the difficulty in learning Chinese, but learning slowly and building upon an ever increasing vocabulary makes the task seem a bit less daunting.”

“One thing I have heard from people over and over is that they did not feel overwhelmed by these books, and that is satisfying to hear because that was definitely one of my goals. Learners need confidence and they need it quickly.”

DH: Have you seen real clinical impact when people learn to read the classical Chinese medical texts? Why do you think this is?

“I think this very much depends on the type of practitioner one is when they begin to study classical texts. If one practices in a way that relies upon starting with a disease, moving on to its standardized differentiation, and then giving the formula and point prescriptions based upon that, that type of practitioner will not find classical texts clinically useful. There are virtually no classical texts that proceed in that way, which is why I suspect most people read translations of the classics and then decide learning to read classical texts is no longer relevant to modern day practice.”

“For practitioners who rely on understanding the underlying theories of Chinese medicine to treat patients, the classics are a treasure trove of information. Even rudimentary concepts like Qi, yin and yang, and the five phases are used to describe healthy and ill states with a depth that is quite astounding and much more refined than anything I have seen in English. I personally never had a really firm grasp on these basic ideas until I began reading them in the context they were originally discussed.”

“A lot of practical information also exists in the classics. For example, my views on pulse examination have transformed many times over by reading classical authors’ methods. Just one practical example is the relationship between the breath and the pulse. Most modern books teach us to use a watch, but rapid and slow pulses are determined in relationship to the number of times the pulse moves per breath. This changes the pulse dynamic considerably, leaving the focus entirely on the patient. Additionally, the terms for the pulses make much more sense to me in Chinese and the translations, such as slippery or choppy, do not really capture the image. Having access to all of the more detailed information on virtually every aspect of Chinese medicine, from prescriptions to diagnosis, will most certainly create a more refined practitioner.”

DH: Do you plan to write more books on the topic?

“There will be one final volume in this series which will focus more on herbal texts and their theories. I have already selected all of the texts and I expect that book to be available by early 2010.

I have already started working on what I am currently calling “learners’ editions” of the classics. That seems to me to be the next logical step so that people can continue studying while also tackling entire books. These will not be translations per se, but people who are not interested in learning the language could still use them as such. All together, I have about 10 books planned to come out over the next two years and all of them are related to Chinese classics and language.”

DH: What advice do you have for people in the field looking to write books? Any sagely advice? Tips and tricks? Things to avoid?

“I think the best advice I can give is simply do not try to force a book out of yourself. Everyone is different and I can really only share my own experience. I never really had the intention of writing books at this stage of my life and I just kind of fell into it. I found work as an editor at a publishing company to support myself while I studied Chinese. As my Chinese got better, I was moved to their Chinese language department and started translating Chinese language textbooks.”

“After editing what was probably hundreds of language teaching books, I got a real sense for what worked and what didn’t. My life circumstances were such that this series was just a natural extension of what I had been doing for the past five years. This is not to say that there weren’t times I struggled with the writing, but the idea and outline was very easy to come up with. Just write what you know and ask for help from others once you have something written—no one can write a book alone. “


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.

View all posts by Eric Grey - Website: http://chinesemedicinecentral.com