Written By Basilio Chen

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The famous 7th century doctor, Sun Simiao 孫思邈 discussed about the theory of ‘nurturing life’ (yang sheng 養生).

His writings provides great inspiration into prevention and living following Natural Law.

In in 652 CE, he compiled an enormous and comprehensive medical encyclopedia titled Essential Prescriptions for Every Emergency worth a Thousand in Gold (Bei Ji Qian Jin Yao Fang 備急千金要方, abbreviated below as Essential Prescriptions).

However, Sun Simiao radically changed the meaning of a key context in Chinese medicine, namely ‘nurturing life’ (yang sheng 養生). In the early history of Chinese medicine, the notion of health and longevity, achieved and maintained by personal cultivation, was the overarching goal.  This dual focus of health and longevity is quite obvious from the earliest of written medical records, the Huangdi Neijing.

This concept included such practices as dietetics, alchemy, a reclusive lifestyle, gymnastic and breathing exercises to stimulate the circulation of qi throughout the body, sexual cultivation (which, while emphasising the female orgasm as an essential component of complete intercourse, aimed at the male practitioner’s health benefits) and visualisation meditation.

By reinterpreting the meaning of ‘life’ in a social, moral and cosmological context, Sun Simiao was, one of the first – if not the first – author to widen individual practices, in order to improve the individual practitioner’s health and prolonging life. He included the female body in the larger perspective of life beyond just the individual body, as well as the survival of the family for generations to come, and ultimately the altruistic ideal of benefiting society and the macrocosm at large.   In order words, the female body was to become an important and complementary part to the male body.

The implications of this view of medicine becomes far-reaching, since the physician is no longer merely treating individual bodies in isolation but the entire family line, then by extension the state and society, and ultimately even the universe at large.  How the macrocosm afters the individual, and the individual its family and its micro-environment.

In one description of a consultation, he writes:

“In Heaven, there are four seasons and five phases; winter cold and summer heat alternate with each other. When this cyclical revolution is harmonious, it forms rain; when it is angry, wind; when it congeals, frost and snow; when it stretches out, rainbows. These are the constancies of Heaven and Earth. Humans have four limbs and five internal organs. They alternate between being awake and sleeping. In exhaling and inhaling and spitting out and sucking in, essence and qi leave and come. In their flow, they constitute the constructive and protective [influences of the body], they manifest as facial color, and they erupt as sound. These are the constancies of humanity. Yang employs the form, yin employs the essence. This is where Heaven and humanity are identical. “


After a historical introduction to Sun Simiao’s life and his perspective on ethics and the professional training of the ‘great physician’, is a brief representative quotations from the topics of physical cultivation, sexual cultivation and dietetics, in order to illustrate what Sun Simiao meant when he spoke of the ‘great physician’ (da yi 大醫) and of ‘nurturing life’ (yang sheng 養生).