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Lessons from the Nei Jing: How to Live Past 100 Years Old



The Huang Di Nei Jing, often translated as the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic, is one of the most important texts for Chinese medicine. This fancy sounding text is the main source of theory that dates back thousands of years and is written as a dialogue between Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor) and his minister Qi Bo. Huang Di asks medical questions or for clarification of theories while Qi Bo sagely answers.


One thing I personally find interesting about the Nei Jing is that one of the first questions that this legendary emperor asks is a strangely human one: Why can’t we live like the people in the olden days?


Mind you, this is coming from a person (and essentially a demi-god) who supposedly lived around 2690 BCE. Humanity always seemed to have a yearning for the “simpler times”, before things got complicated by technological advances or societal shifts. Every generation complains how things aren’t as they “used to be” even to this present day.


Huang Di asked why people in the past were able to live past 100 years old without much physical disability, while his people of “today” were weak by age 50 or so. Here is a proper translation by Unschuld & Tessenow (2011) of the exchange in the Nei Jing:


Now he asked the Heavenly Teacher.

“I heard that the people of antiquity in [the sequence of] spring and autumn, all exceeded one hundred years.

But in their movements and activities there was no weakening.

As for the people of today,

After half of a hundred years, the movements and activities of all of them weaken.

Is this because the times are different?

Or it is that the people have lost this [ability].”


Qi Bo responded:

“The people of high antiquity

Those who knew the Way,

They modeled [their behavior] on yin and yang and

They complied with the arts and calculations.

[Their] eating and drinking was moderate.

[Their] rising and resting had regularity.

They did not tax [themselves] with meaningless work.

Hence,

They were able to keep physical appearance and spirit together,

And to exhaust the years [allotted by] heaven.

Their life span exceeded one hundred years before they departed.


Qi Bo’s response of “[Their] eating and drinking was moderate. [Their] rising and resting had regularity. They did not tax [themselves] with meaningless work” is similar to what I call the “helpful yet unhelpful” advice for almost all conditions. The pieces of advice one might see are: Drink more water, stress less, eat healthy and balanced diets, have a good sleep schedule, and exercise regularly. These are all universally understood to be good for one’s health and well-being. It should be simple, however we generally find that it is extremely difficult to maintain and follow through. If even people around Huang Di’s time were unable to maintain healthy lifestyles, imagine how much more difficult it is for us in modern times!


This idea of moderation and balance permeates throughout Chinese thinking and is also core to Chinese medicine theory. When things are in balance, there are minimal stressors and therefore the body is able to function at its optimal capacity. One of key lessons from the Nei Jing is that health and lifestyle are intricately linked. By making adjustments to our eating habits or sleeping regimens we can bring ourselves closer to our ideal and healthy selves. Maybe we too can live past 100 years young with no weakening!


References:


Unschuld, P.U. & Tessenow, H. (2011). Huang di nei jing su wen: An annotated translation of Huang Di’s Inner Classic - Basic Questions. University of California Press.


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