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Sabine Wilms: What Happy Goats, Watermelon and Ancient Chinese Medicine books have in common.

Guest Blogger Alison shares her experience at the recent Wild Peach Continuing Education event in Ymir, BC. It was hot but it was very interesting!

The heat wave hovered around forty degrees Celsius; we gathered in Ymir at the old schoolhouse, climbed the steep wooden steps into a well-windowed room with jellyfish made of fabric scraps strung from the ceiling. As we entered, there were plates of watermelon and cucumber – key food-medicine to keep the summer-heat at bay – placed by the door. The seats arced around the projector and the presenter, Sabine Wilms, who had travelled to bring us tantalizing pieces of information from Sun Simiao, her thoughtful translations of many of his texts, and goat cheese.

The title of the class was “Ten Times More Difficult to Treat”. This translation brought up an interesting point of controversy in the Chinese medicine community. Bob Flaws translated this Sun Simiao quote as “I’d rather treat ten men than one woman”; whereas Sabine translated it thus: “women are ten times more difficult to treat than men.” This brought up an interesting point about the subjective biases and beliefs of many translators. Many scholars went to China in the late 1800s and early 1900s; this was a time when misogyny – foot binding, female infanticide, concubines, etc – was rampant. Through this lens, many translators viewed the entirety of Chinese culture and history. Numerous translations of the Yi Jing are based on a German translation that translates “yin-yang” as “female” and “male” – which would suggest that the nature of yin and yang are fixed, rather than relative.

Sabine’s style of translation reminds me of Anne Carson’s book, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, in which she translates poetry found on broken stone tablets with pieces missing; instead of filling in what she thought Sappho meant, she leaves it blank for the reader to fill it in themselves. In terms of Sabine, I noticed this when someone asked her if a part of her translation could be taken to mean ___. Her response was, “I’ll let you decide that. This is the translation, but I’m not going to make any guesses as to what that might mean.” I appreciated that she left the text open, allowing more input from the readers and their own knowledge. I imagine a book club of Chinese medicine practitioners and scholars gathered around, discussing the possible meaning of certain passages; how fruitful this could. The book club to end all book clubs, passed down from generation to generation.

The subject of accurate translation and interpretation was prevalent in this course. I’m thinking specifically of the example Sabine gave in which a course was being taught, (using her images), that prescribed, month-by-month, the meridians one is supposed to needle during pregnancy when in fact, the original text says to avoid those meridians during those specific months. This contradiction and murkiness is something many of us struggle with during our education in traditional Chinese medicine. I wonder how much of it is due to the quantity of writing over the last two millennia that couldn’t possibly hope to be cohesive; and how much confusion is in the translation?

Several ideas – such as “malign dew”, “nurturing the fetus”, the importance of post-partum care, and women’s inclination towards “intercourse with ghosts” – were introduced during this class. I would happily sit and chew on these fascinating and new (old) pieces of information, like a cow (or a goat?) chews its cud: chew, swallow, digest, regurgitate, chew some more, digest, and so on.

I left that old schoolhouse with a new appreciation for the incredible wealth of information in these classic texts – specifically the Zhu Bing Yuan Hou Lun. As more of these texts are translated, new tools become available to practitioners outside of China. I can’t wait to get my hands on some of Sabine’s upcoming translations, particularly the one concerning post-partum care (of which our culture is very deficient). It will be interesting to bring these pearls of Sun Simiao’s text into practice; to connect the dots between the words and the people those words are meant to help.

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