Authorship in Chinese Literature

The practice of ascribing writings or teachings to mythological figures is a common Asian practice, and one worth saying something about. In my own studies of Chinese literature, I have noticed three patterns. One is the crediting of a body of knowledge to a mythological figure, which lived in some time before recorded or even actual history. The second is the crediting of a particular book to another respected person or teacher, who lived either around the same time or prior to the current author or authors. The third is the referencing of one’s own work to the teachings of another historical or even current person of high regard and stature. It appears to me that these have been a progression over time of the same tendencies.

The Yellow Emperor Huang Di and the Divine Farmer Shen Nong, both mentioned in this newsletter, are two examples of mythological figures credited not only with their respective written works, but also with the body of knowledge that underlies them. This brings to mind a few issues which intrigue me.

In western culture, particularly the sciences, information is old before it ever hits the streets. There is a continual push for new information and new discoveries, and older data is frequently discarded as outdated and obsolete. One need only look at our current view of medicine to get a good example of this. There is a cultural assumption that we have evolved out of the dark ages of medicine, and are rapidly progressing towards a time when even the limits of our own current knowledge will be overcome. Medical information from 20 years ago, much less 2000 years ago, is considered nostalgic at best. People routinely express the belief that “they / scientists” know all of these things that “they / scientists” did not know in the past. Along with this goes the belief that we are healthier and living longer, and that these are the direct result of increased medical knowledge and practice.

Yet in the writings of ancient books, in China, Asia, and all over the world, this mythological past is spoken of as the highpoint of human development, with the perception that knowledge is being lost and that we are becoming unhealthier. Even the Huang Di nei jing su wen, the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic, Basic Questions, which was compiled somewhere around 2000 years ago, speaks of an ancient time when people knew how to live properly and lived to be 120 years old. That we disregard this and think we know better is another topic to discuss.

What interests me the most is that Chinese writings (and I will limit myself to medical writings) always refer backwards, with regards to authorship of basic ideas, to a doctor or other person who knew more and knew better. In the West, a modern scientist takes credit for the work. No good Chinese doctor takes credit without citing the older sources that his or her work is based on. This is because there is reverence and respect for what has come before us. The inside joke of Chinese medicine is that there hasn’t been anything new for 2000 years. This is not literal. But it does imply that the fundamentals of Chinese medicine were laid down long ago, and because they are theoretical constructs which describe basic principles of reality, they do not change. Knowledge evolves and grows, but it does not continually replace all prior knowledge.

There are different types of knowledge. The sort on which we base much of our own science is of an external type. It changes rapidly, because it is not grounded on direct experience. There is also an internal type of knowledge. The flavor or expression of it may change with time and culture, but the principles it describes do not. In the West we have this sort of knowledge as well, but unfortunately it factors very little into the daily practice of science and medicine.

In modern times Chinese doctors no longer credit mythological figures with the works they write, but they do acknowledge the source of their ideas. All other Chinese doctors could easily see this, because they are required to study what other Chinese doctors throughout history have done. This lends more credence, not less, to the work. We would never dream of doing this in the West. Alan Watts, the well known teacher of Asian philosophy, describes that there is another issue at hand. This is, that there is not the belief that one owns the knowledge one is writing about in the first place, and therefore one does not possess the right to take credit for it. Compare this idea to the time of intellectual property laws in the West. This touches upon the even larger topic of personal ego in eastern and western cultures, but is too much to get into here.

For myself, I have come to enjoy reading works that are valued for their wisdom, not their authorship. It gives me a sense of the unbroken transmission of knowledge that spans millennia, which the great doctors of history have strived to understand and refine, and then pass on. I am personally more apt to consider seriously that which has stood the test of time, than that which was developed yesterday.