Applied Channel Theory in Chinese Medicine
Wang Ju-Yi’s Lectures on Channel Therapeutics
Wang Ju-Yi and Jason Robertson
The short description of this book might be, “An acupuncture doctor with 45 years experience tells what he has learned to one of his students”. What this doesn’t tell you is how this has happened in the most fortunate of circumstances. Applied Channel Theory is the work of a (relative) beginner (Robertson) transcribing and exploring the mind of an accomplished and experienced practitioner (Wang). Wang has an inquisitive mind, a great sense of humor, has spent decades studying the Neijing and other classics as well as applying those styles in a very busy clinical career. Robertson graduated from a Western TCM school, speaks and reads Chinese fluently and also has an inquisitive mind and a great sense of humor. Where Wang has the ability to pull the different elements of classic studies into a coherent form, Robertson has ingeniously put Wang’s words into a very readable and cohesive narrative.This is material that should be discussed in every acupuncture school, here and in China. Wang and Robertson have created one of the most important books about Chinese Medicine to appear in 30 years.
From looking at classic texts, the material moves from theory into practical application and the relevance and significance of the book only gets deeper as one continues to read. Wang has taken the challenge to delve into the most difficult yet basic concepts of Chinese Medicine and Robertson has the confidence to ask the “simple questions” that illuminate throughout the book. These are not issues of “translation” or cultural misunderstanding but concepts debated for many millennia in China. Yet these two manage to get the points across in a coherent manner. Robertson is a clear and confident writer and Wang produces the answers. As my colleague said when she read the book, “This is actually written in English!”.
The book really lets us know that as Chinese Medicine was created on the backbone of the channels, then knowing (or at least trying to understand) this theory will only strengthen all of TCM, be it acupuncture or herbs. Wang writes in the Preface: “…in order to dramatically improve one’s theoretical grasp of any of the field of Chinese medicine, one must delve as deeply as possible into basic channel theory.” Obviously this is a concern of not just Wang but of many traditional Chinese practitioners and teachers whether they reside in China or in the West.
As one gets further and further into Applied Channel Theory, this theme of the essence of the classics emerges and is then re-explored all through an interlocking discussion of Yin and Yang, 5 element, zang fu and channel theory. Each of these get in depth looks. If you thought you knew these subjects you might be surprised, if not amazed, at how Wang and Robertson approach them.
Many of the chapters are taken from lectures and workshops that Robertson organized with Wang. There is a consistent thread of questions that pull the reader back to the basics just as the ideas start to spin in complexity. The book has 20 chapters but has many threads. The first thread is a long discussion of each of the organs from the perspective of the 6 channels and an extended discussion of Ministerial Fire. This concept of the Ministerial will come back again and again throughout the book. It becomes especially evident in the 30 pages they devote to the Shao Yang. Another thread concerns the nature of the points as concepts and as functional processes. Robertson asks some basic questions that we often think of but never ask. “How does energy move through the channels?” “Does the qi from the limbs inward or outward to the limbs?” (Answered in an incredibly sophisticated manner by Wang.) “What does reinforcing and dispersing really mean?” “How do the five transport/antique/ting points work?” And Wang is not simply regurgitating texts, these are his unique explorations. By giving them full weight of his consideration it is apparent that the questions are neither stupid nor had Wang not thought that they needed answering. When Wang doesn’t have an answer for a question he responds that he truly doesn’t know. Robertson plays off his own naiveté as a recent graduate to extract these answers from Wang. Toward the end of the book there is a lengthy discussion about point combinations. Interspersed throughout are observations by Robertson about both the process of writing the book and the experience of Beijing. These digressions make the book more readable but lets us know that the book is not the final word about acupuncture but is itself an exploration. Its an ingenious (and time tested) form for a book.
Applied Channel Theory comes at a time when Chinese Medicine needs a little help. Even as the popularity of acupuncture increases around the world, its roots often seems to have been lost for a practical and expedient functionality. The process started in China over 100 years ago and has been accelerated in all forms of acupuncture education and practice. While some have attempted to tie modern practice to the classics, the original writings have been notoriously difficult texts for ages. Indeed, most of our classics are attempts to explain other writings now either existent or lost. As a result, classical concepts of acupuncture all too often are either fetishized or abandoned as quaint. The latter is perhaps more common where the consensus is that “acupuncture works” but not perhaps in the ways that have been traditionally explained.Wang looks beyond the physiological metaphors and tells us why the ancients may have had it right all along.
Robertson shows Wang to be not only “good with theory” but a practical and concerned practitioner. I particularly was taken by this passage.
In fact, below the surface of the best treatments is a complexity of technique not unlike that learned by professional musicians. Think of the movement of the hand during acupuncture as being somewhat like those of a violinist. There are a wide variety of sounds that a violin can make. You can move the bow with greater or lesser frequency and strength. One might bow loudly or softly with harmonic notes, or instead create a cacophony of contrasting sounds. Sometimes, one might not use the bow at all and instead pluck the strings to get the desired sound. An acupuncturist “plays” the channel system in a similar manner. The next paragraph compares organs to the instruments of an orchestra. It ends with Wang stating: A successful treatment should be like conducting a piece of beautiful music. (p. 548) For those who often talk about the “art of acupuncture”, words like these are a sweet confirmation.
When a chapter from Applied Channel Theory was released to the Journal of Chinese Medicine, I was a bit disappointed as it seems that the book would simply concern the palpation method of finding the points and diagnosis. Nothing could be further from the truth. Applied Channel Theory discusses the roots of acupuncture theory and so bridges the growing gap between acupuncture and herbal treatments. The future of acupuncture is not in another Method be it Tung, Tan or Wang. Applied Channel Theory doesn’t necessarily demand any Method although it does answer how the Neijing might approach it. Instead, the value of the book functions as a follow up to every TCM book we have ever seen. It takes up where Giovanni leaves off and explores what CAM only hints at. It takes Pirog and runs with it.This is one of the few TCM books that I wanted to read from front cover to back. And when I finished it, I started again from the front and reread it. It’s that good. It is that necessary.
Douglas Eisenstark L.Ac.
Los Angeles, June 2008.