Nurturing life through the body, heart, and spirit with the wisdom of Chinese medicine

Fruehauf, "Introduction"

Heiner Fruehauf, "Introduction"

Written for and published in Let the Radiant Yang Shine Forth: Lectures on Virtue by Liu Yousheng and translated by Liu Zuozhi and Sabine Wilms (Happy Goat Productions 2014).

“The difference of being in command and losing command over the emotions is the root of life and death, and the starting point of living and dying.” Thus the 2,200 year old Confucian classic The Annals of Master Lü sums up the essence of being human, a timeless voice from the past reminding us that mastery of one’s emotions is an absolute prerequisite for maintaining health and longevity. Unfortunately, most systems of natural healing have failed to integrate this vitally important piece of experiential wisdom into their therapeutic approach. While traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) acknowledges the pathogenic influence of the “seven emotions” (qī qíng 七情), there are no concrete treatment methods that have made it into the mainstream of TCM practice. This fact is all the more unfortunate when considering that the original tenets of all holistic medicines are based on the premise that body, mind and spirit are intricately connected, and that the mental-emotional part of our being assumes the leading role.

Typically, religious sources from various tradition call for an outright “elimination” and “rejection” of the emotions. Confucian teachings generally prescribe a more moderate approach, advocating the balancing of strong feelings by channeling them in appropriate ways. The Chinese term used in this context is jie 節 (to harmonize, to moderate, to create rhythm). Many of the relevant texts, however, define moderation as a distinct quality of the sages, who alone are said to be capable of using emotions appropriately, achieving a state of deep spiritual connection without being led astray by selfish feelings and eventually succumbing to illness. For the average person, it was the institution of social rituals that was used to moderate the agitated spirit. The first century historian Ban Gu explains:

The human being contains both: the yáng influence of Heaven, and the yīn influence of Earth. Consequently, all of us manifest the emotions of partiality, hate, excitement, anger, sorrow, and pleasure; hence the divisive nature of humanity that is so hard to navigate. The sages alone are capable of moderating this aspect of the human condition. Guided by the example of Heaven and Earth, they created the institutions of ritual and music, using them to stay connected to the all-governing light of spirit. Furthermore, they established the laws of human behavior, rectifying the relationship between true human nature and the emotions, and seeking to achieve moderation in the myriad affairs of life. For the feelings between a man and a woman and the sensation of jealousy they created the ritual of marriage; for the bonding of older and younger members of the community they created the ritual of celebratory banquets; for the feelings of grieving the dead and missing loved ones they created the ritual of sacrificial mourning; for the desire to venerate one’s leaders they created the ritual of public audience. a mourning ritual features ritual wailing and stomping; music has a set format for dances and songs—sufficient to warm the sentiments of the straight, and to prevent missteps by those who are crooked. if the ritual of marriage gets abandoned, then the tao of husband and wife will become lacking, and consequently the sins of sexual decadence or radical abstinence will increase; if the ritual of celebratory banquets gets abandoned, the proper order between the older and younger generations will be lost, and the crimes of quarreling and flattery will blossom; if the ritual of mourning and burial gets abandoned, then the gratitude we owe our own flesh and blood becomes weak, and many of the dead will forget about the living; if the ritual of audience gets abandoned, then the proper position of ruler and servant becomes confused, and war and turmoil will gradually arise.
— Ban Gu, first century CE

As a scholar of chinese medicine, it was an illuminating experience to discover the intimate connection between ritual and emotional regulation in the Confucian classics. More importantly, I was positively surprised when in 2004 my colleague Dr. Liu Lihong introduced me to a group of Northern Chinese peasant healers who still utilize the Confucian teachings of virtue, ritual, and social relationship as their primary treatment tool. Their approach to healing is radical, especially when considering the fact that they are practicing in the territory of the People’s Republic of China. Their work is ostensibly devoid of pharmaceuticals, herbs, or needles, but exclusively uses methods of storytelling, ritual confessions, and chanted affirmations to heal the sick. Echoing the principles first introduced in ancient sources from more than 2000 years ago, these practitioners believe that most diseases originate from an overshadowing of the bright aspects of human nature by the veil of unmitigated emotions.

The origins of this healing modality—still practiced in the Northern Chinese provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang—are rooted in the teachings of Wang Fengyi (1864-1937), a Confucian educator and charismatic emotional healer who was extremely influential in this part of China during the early part of the 20th century. Wang’s biography relates that he grew up as a poor and illiterate peasant, and became enlightened to the nature of human emotions and their disease-causing consequences while listening to traditional storytellers who made rounds through the impoverished villages of the Manchurian tundra. These insights germinated and caused a spiritual awakening during his strict observation of the traditional three-year watch over his father’s grave. in a fortnight, he realized that all emotions arise from social interactions, especially within the most intimate nucleus of community relationship, one’s immediate family. Following this insight, an abdominal abscess he had suffered from for 12 years healed spontaneously overnight. Driven by an urgent sense of mission to help save his community from the curse of disease amidst the misery of poverty and eventually civil war, he began traveling from village to village, spreading a neo-Confucian version of everyday-life spirituality that focused on proper family relationships. His oral presentations, some of them preserved in the form of reprinted lecture excerpts, were legendary at the time, drawing large rural audiences. Many participants were reported to be crying, fainting, or vomiting when triggered into a state of recognition and ruefulness by the transmission of the peasant saint.

During his later years, Wang Fengyi packaged his educational philosophy into a comprehensive system of healing that incorporated the five element teachings of Chinese medicine. In this process, he greatly contributed to the revolutionary movement of bringing education to Chinese women. He was instrumental in establishing and maintaining 700 schools for girls, since he considered it to be a shortcoming of traditional Confucian doctrine that women were not entitled to an education. In contrast, Wang viewed the roles of women (mothers, wives, daughters-in-law) as the central element for the health of every family, and by extension, the health of every family member as well as the country at large. He felt, moreover, that women were best able to exemplify the core essence of his social philosophy, namely the virtue of granting compassion to others while reserving judgment and criticism for oneself.

As an often forgotten historical figure, Wang Fengyi thus needs to be recognized as the most important modern transmitter of the original Confucian teachings by Kongzi (551-479 BCE), Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BCE), and Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Many of his teachings, as well as those of his still practicing students, sound remarkably like the following passage written by Dong Zhongshu more than 2000 years ago:

What the annals are teaching us to regulate is how to deal with the self and how to deal with others. How to deal with the self and how to deal with others is exemplified by the virtues of compassion and selflessness. With compassion we make others feel good, while with selflessness we set the self straight; that is why compassion is associated with others, and selflessness with self. ... compassion is manifested by loving others, not by loving self; selflessness is manifested by straightening out the self, not by straightening out others.
— Dong Zhongshu, second century BCE


From the perspective of Chinese medicine, it is the elaborate system of five element associations that is the most significant part of Wang’s legacy. This system contains the familiar relations of the five phase elements with the five organs, the five colors, the five smells, etc., but synthesizes them with the ancient teachings on human virtue as well as Wang’s own remarkable insights and experiences as a therapist. Now as then, patients are generally asked to relate their stories and then are diagnosed with a specific breach of virtue caused by one of the five emotional poisons, specifically anger (wood), hate (fire), blame (earth), judgment (metal), or disdain (water). Wang himself was known to be an exceptionally clairvoyant healer and some of his students maintain this gift. At the same time, he left behind a system of detailed descriptions that outlines how affliction in different body parts may be related to specific emotions and specific family members.

The curative process of Wang’s system often involves the therapist’s weaving a narrative, ranging from very few words to night-long marathons of story-telling that are able to “turn the heart of the patient.” The material for stories is often taken from the treasure trove of Chinese moral history, but most typically involves the daily environment of the patient: stories of Master Wang curing someone just like them, or vivid tales of the cure or demise of someone in the next village, or, ideally, someone present in the room or the village square who offers heart-wrenching and tearful testimony of their own healing process. This method is referred to as xingli jiangbing, literally “talking the disease away by appealing to one’s higher nature.” The curative effect is considered to begin when the patient is moved to acknowledge his own emotional involvement in the disease-forming process, and commits to transform his/her blame toward others into a thorough reformation of self. At this point, which skillful story-tellers are sometimes able to trigger in minutes while others may need days or even weeks, the patient typically begins to vomit into ready-made buckets, or exhibits other sign of physical cleansing such as crying, sweating, or diarrhea. When I first visited Liu Yousheng, the author of this book, I was surprised to hear him remark matter-of-factly that “liver cirrhosis can be disgorged in one week, while in the case of some cancers it can take three weeks or longer until no more tar-like materials are vomited up.”

Transcripts of these healing sessions may often appear flat to the eyes of the modern Western observer, but both healers and patients insist that it is the transmission of the storyteller herself—achieved by a non-compromised lifestyle of virtuous conduct--that is needed to trigger a powerful response. These healing sessions may look similar to the phenomenon of the qigong baogao (Qigong transmission lectures), which were so common in China before the government crackdown on Falun gong and other Qigong practices during the year 2000. By virtue of their humble demeanor and their radically selfless conduct, however, the virtue practitioners of the Manchurian plains tend to cut a different figure than the entrepreneurial Qigong masters of the 1990s.

To me, the author of this book represents the most remarkable example of a living practitioner in the Confucian tradition of virtue healing. Like Wang Fengyi himself, Liu Yousheng travels much to conduct group healings, but primarily practices in his home near the Russian border. When I first visited him in his home village in 2006, his simple house had been converted into a make-shift hospice where deathly ill patients traveled to from far away and stayed for free, were fed for free, and received treatment for free--day after day for the last 25 years, sometimes adding up to 20-40 people per day. Prior to receiving permission from his mentor to start the practice of therapeutic storytelling, moreover, he had spent 20 years preparing for this work through the radical pursuit of clearing his own emotional issues. His patients, therefore, lovingly call him Liu Shanren—Liu the Good Man, a name generally only attributed to Wang Fengyi himself.

Since then, I had the privilege of spending many weeks with Liu Shanren and other practitioners of the traditional healing method synthesized by Wang Fengyi. I was able to directly witness and participate myself in the intense process of storytelling, ritual confession and ensuing physical cleansing. While it is premature for me to say that I can verify all of the miraculous outcomes that this method of treatment is said to have achieved during the last century, including the complete cure of diabetes, aplastic anemia, congenital heart disease, and many types of cancer, it is my distinct impression as a medical professional that I have the privilege of touching something very profound. Most important for the readers of this book, I can say that this method affects the “true nature” of humanity and thus works on all people, regardless of their cultural background. I have, for instance, witnessed one example where an American patient suffering from an aggressive type of stage IV cancer was healed completely after applying herself to the principles and practices introduced during a 2-week retreat fashioned after the original teaching sessions in Wang Fengyi’s schools for female cultivation.

It is important to note that Liu Shanren’s book represents the pure and unadulterated narration of his own life story. It is an uncensored account, presented through a cultural lens that is unique to the traditional villages of Northern China. Some of the case stories included in the book may appear disturbing to a Western reader who has carefully cultivated a sense of modern identity. The story of the woman, for instance, who was advised to offer a broom to her choleric and abusive husband, asking him not to injure his hand in the process of beating her. When looking beyond the trappings of Confucian household rules that appear to be limited to the social confines of Chinese village life, however, the essence of timeless wisdom begins to reach the heart of the reader. Liu Shanren’s life, conducted in the midst of a rapidly industrializing and increasingly materialistic china, represents a most inspiring example of the radical teachings of surrender, self-responsibility and compassion transmitted by most of humanity’s sages and saints. Therefore, I recommend that you open your heart and your mind as wide as possible when reading this book.

In conclusion, I feel that the Confucian healing system presented by Liu Yousheng offers a profound example of the relevance of ancient medical theories. Confucius himself once emphasized, “He who by reanimating the old can gain knowledge of the new is fit to be a teacher.” Wang Fengyi and his students have demonstrated that no matter how antiquated or outdated an ancient concept may look, truly classical knowledge is timeless and has the capacity of being fiercely relevant for the present.

Many people have cooperated in making the English version of this book possible. Many thanks to Dr. Liu Lihong, who has tirelessly worked for the last decade to recognize and preserve this forgotten style of ancient Chinese psychotherapy. Dr. Liu’s father Liu Zuozhi produced a first version of the translation, which was edited by Dr. Tamara Staudt, Gloria Joslove and Dr. Cindy Reuter. The indefatigable Anne Goldberg kept the process motivated. Special gratitude is due to Dr. Sabine Wilms, who graciously took on the time-consuming project of integrating (and frequently retranslating) all efforts into a coherent and academically accurate whole. The artistic talents of Sunjae Lee were shared in the form of radiant orange ginkgos on the cover. Kim Gray turned the entire work into the beautiful book you hold in your hands.

Heiner Fruehauf, PhD, LAc
Founding Professor, School of Classical Chinese Medicine,
National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon

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