The Divine Farmer on Thunder in the Body
A recent inquiry from an attentive reader whose opinion I value highly caused me to revisit my translation of the Shennong Bencao Jing 神農本草經 (“Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica”), which I published a few years back. For more information on this book, see this page on my website, which contains several links to related webpages on my site, including to the Chinese original source in the critical edition that I created as the basis for my translation. You will also find a link there to the Introduction of my book, which explains my editorial process and reasons for my critical academic approach, among other things.
To return to this reader’s question, they (correctly) noticed that in my rendition of the entry on xìnghérén (a.k.a. xingren, apricot seed, Prunus Armeniaca kernel), I present this list of symptoms as:
Treats counterflow cough with ascent of qì, rumbling sounds in the intestines, and Bì impediment in the throat; moves down qì; and [is indicated for] childbirth and breastfeeding [problems], incised wounds, cold in the heart, and Bolting Piglet.
Now this reader’s confusion stems from their belief that 雷鳴 refers to the noise of coughing, in support of which they cite the standard Chinese list of symptoms, presumably copied from an internet source. It is possible that their interpretation comes from another translation of the text.
As you may notice, the list of symptoms (besides the fact that it is in simplified characters) lacks the two characters 腸中 “inside the intestines,” as a result of which you can see how easy it would be to interpret the rumbling noise as a description of the cough. And so they asked me for an explanation…
腸中 means "inside the intestines."
雷 means "thunder" and 鳴 means "sounds" (originally the sound of birds"), so the compound 雷鳴 means "sounds like thunder" or "rumbling." It most definitely does NOT mean "coughing" as this reader believes. There are very specific terms for coughing in Chinese and they are used in this text to refer to that symptom, while 雷鳴 is standard technical terminology to refer to intestinal rumbling. This is important, as we shall see.
咳 (or in the other form 欬, which has the same meaning but is simply an alternate form of writing the character, depending on the edition of the text, so you can ignore that difference) means "cough" so the first symptom refers to cough that is related to a counterflow ascending movement of Qi, while the second symptom is definitely related to noises produced in the intestine.
I don't know where this reader got their above-cited list of symptoms from (the one in simplified characters). I just did a quick internet search of this phrase (google search is my best friend), and lo and behold, this list is cited all over the place in digital editions of the text under the Shennong text for xingheren 杏核仁. In this list, the important two characters 腸中 "in the intestines" are missing! There are a lot of digital editions of the Divine Farmer floating around on the internet and also many hard-copy ones that are not critical editions of the original Chinese but are just reprints of the most widely available standard Chinese edition. As a matter of fact, some of my more popular printed Chinese editions are also missing these two characters, as I just realized. For the Chinese source of my own book and the resulting translation, I did a whole lot of research into the original text and all its various editions and worked with some outstanding academic Chinese publications that aim to reconstruct the earliest form of the text based on extensive textual research, including editions found in archaeological digs over the past few decades, and even Japanese editions that also reflect a version of the text that predates the Song dynasty revisions that introduced some major changes. So that's where many discrepancies originate from.
My reasons for including the two characters 腸中 "in the intestines" in both the Chinese source text and the English translation are as follows:
Most importantly, I definitely trust the meticulous textual research of scholars like Ma Jixing 馬繼興, who is one of my heroes and was closely involved in two of my critical editions, both of which do contain these two characters based on some early versions of the text. I will spare you the details of their decision but basically, I bow my head to their expertise on this matter because they know far more about Han dynasty medical literature and have held countless conferences, written countless dissertations and articles, and studied manuscripts of this text for many decades, so I will not argue with them. This is their specialty and as a field, we owe these scholars eternal gratitude for the painstaking work they have performed for the benefit of the rest of us. Their reasons for including the two characters make perfect sense to me. Some early versions of the Shennong include the two characters, some don't. And yes, the standard cheap paperback editions of this text that you can buy at any decent bookstore in China with a section on medical history, may quite possibly not contain them or have them in square brackets. Some reasons to include the characters, besides just taking Ma Jixing’s and his team’s word for it:
It is far more likely for a mistake to consist of the OMISSION of characters than the ADDITION.
If you look at the surrounding symptoms they flow rhythmically as groups of four characters. Classical Chinese and the Shennong Bencao Jing in particular are very rhythmic and love parallelism. So it would be much less likely that you have a two-character phrase 雷鳴 surrounded by two four-character phrases (欬逆上气 and 喉痹下气). Of course you could argue that the later phrase 喉痹下气 is really two two-character phrases since in English you would punctuate in between, but if you read the text in Chinese, you can see how the whole list of symptoms flows with 腸中雷鳴 and how it wouldn't flow if you only had two characters there.
Perhaps most importantly, 雷鳴 (“sounds of thunder” or “rumbling”) is NEVER, at least to my knowledge, used as a reference to coughing in classical medical literature, and as this reader’s original question states, would make no sense here if it again referred to coughing. It ALWAYS refers to INTESTINAL rumbling when referencing a thunder-like noise inside the human body. So my guess is that 腸中 "in the intestines" was emitted by a lazy copier of the text at some point because it was obvious to this scribe that it referred to INTESTINAL rumbling. No other sound inside the human body, after all, rumbles like thunder. Coughing is certainly a very different sound.
And last but perhaps not least (and this is something a clinical practitioner can judge better than me), it makes sense clinically and in the progression of symptoms here, that xingren is indicated for symptoms of disturbed qi movement, such as counterflow cough with ascent of qi, blocked movement in the center, bi impediment, lack of downward movement as in childbirth and breastfeeding, bolting piglet, and that it would be indicated for conditions that manifest with intestinal rumbling because of its downward-moving properties, no?
In conclusion, I am grateful for these sorts of inquiries that sometimes cause me to take another look at my work. I am happy to report that I stand by my original editorial choices and have a solid answer to this question.