top of page
  • jiangxide1

How to become a sage, and making the best of the life one has (Learning from Shao Yong, Part 2)

Shao Yong’s strange claims about the gallbladder storing the po souls and the bladder generating the blood have intrigued our examiners. Hence, before embarking on the redesign their final year exam papers, they decide to find out a bit more about the man. They quickly discover that the interests and accomplishments of this most down-to-earth of all the famous Song polymaths were even broader than they might have imagined. (1)

Like all Song scholars working in the Confucian tradition, Shao Yong aimed to transform himself into a sage. In the mind of these scholars, a sage was someone who had succeeded to align their heart/mind with the dao of the cosmos. Or, to use another trope commonly found in the writings of these scholars, to form one body with the ten-thousand things. Someone who achieved this goal would be able to act effortlessly, effectively, and, most important of all, ethically in accordance with Heaven: which to them was not to some transcendent god-like entity, but the way the cosmos spontaneously constituted itself within processes of unceasing generation.

Such ethically informed knowing practice distinguished a sage from a skilled technician. A technician might excel in a particular field of human endeavour, but their knowledge did not necessarily tie back into the dao of the cosmos itself, nor were their actions always ethical. However, while technicians had teachers who could impart their skills with the help of words, diagrams, and practical instructions, Heaven did not speak. Which left scholars facing the question of how they might discern the dao to thereby transform themselves into sages.

Different Song scholars offered different solutions to this problematic. The most popular solution was to follow in the footsteps of historical figures like Confucius or Mencius. Accepted by all as having been sages in their own time, the writings of these men could be assumed to represent the authentic voice of Heaven. (Just as an aside for those not familiar with the history of Chinese medicine, it was in this historical context that Zhang Zhongjing was first elevated to the status of a medical sage, and his writings compared to those of Confucius and Mencius).

Mirrored observing

Shao Yong himself found this solution of limited use. The writings of the ancient sages, he noted, are but traces they have left behind. They need to be interpreted and are easily misread. Moreover, times change. What was useful at a certain moment in the past may no longer be useful in the present. Shao Yong, whose entire cosmology was constructed with a sensitivity to the effects of time, even criticised the fetishisation of the ancient past that is such a characteristic feature of Chinese literati culture. In the ancient past, he noted, today’s past had itself been the present, and therefore not possessed any of the aura it holds for us today.

Shao Yong therefore felt compelled to offer his own alternative pathway of self-transformation. Clearly borrowing from both Daoism and Buddhism, he centred this process on the concept of observation (guan 觀). Seeing the world as it truly was (hearing Heaven’s voice), he argued, required a mode of observation that succeeded in detaching itself from any “I”-based perspectives and, instead, observed things from the perspective of things themselves. He called this mode of observation “mirrored observing” (fan guan 反觀). Instead of imposing one’s own perspective on the world, it allowed the mind to reflect things simply as they are by themselves.

That which is called “mirrored observing”, is not observing things on the basis of one’s “I”. Not observing things on the basis of one’s “I”, is called “observing things on the basis of things.” When one is able to observe things on the basis of things, how can there be the “I” in between.[2]

Mirrored observing, as this quote makes clear, leads to the erasure of the space that separates the “I” from the world. It thus generates the possibility of forming one body with the ten-thousand things. This allows the sage “by means of his heart/mind to represent Heaven’s intentions, and by means of his mouth to represent Heaven’s words” (以心代天意,口代天言 yi xi dai tian yi, kou dai tian yan).[3]

Understanding the entire cosmos as constituted by the endless transformation of the four elements fire, water, earth and stone, was a direct result of Shao Yong’s attempt to observe things as things. This mode of observation, he claimed, allowed him to penetrate to the patterns or principles (li 理) behind a world of surface manifestations, and to understand things as dynamic phenomena connected to each other within the web of emergence and disappearance that constitutes the cosmos.

Following Shao Yong’s investigations in detail (understanding why he associated the gallbladder with the storage of the po souls and the bladder with the generation of blood) would take us far beyond the scope of a blog such as this. Suffice to say that despite its vastly more sophisticated and complex nature, Shao Yong’s system is not generically different from other systems that sort phenomena and things into categories with the help of images and numbers (xiang shu 象数). Such systems can be useful tools for accomplishing certain kinds of work, but they invariably leave something out: bodily spaces like the sanjiao or the moyuan (the membrane source) that lie outside the bodily territories mapped by the liu jing (the six divisions); miasmatic or miscellaneous qi that behave differently than the six regular disease causing climatic qi; demonic illnesses that do not respond to herbs and acupuncture; physical suffering that cannot be traced by any blood test or imaging device.

Perhaps Shao Yong, who noted that sages only appear rarely in the course of history and never claimed to be one himself, realised as much, when in his later years he turned away from cosmological speculations and focused, instead, on making the best of the life he already had. He came to terms with the fragilities of his ageing body, embraced the inevitability of death, and rather than concern himself with fame or immortality noted that laughter, wine, conversations with friends, and his poetry was the only medicine he needed

[I have been] suffering from migraines [and am] already ill.

How is it that now this new pain of a hurting arm is added?

It does not prevent me from holding a goblet, it only prevents me from bowing down;

Even though I put away my comb, I do not neglect my books.

In looking for an efficient [cure], I do not turn to the realm of medicine.

[Instead] I eliminate every [pain] by talking and laughing.

Every thing gets old and becomes ill.

How can it be that man would grow'old without illness?[4]


Poetry, or rather poeting as Sophia Katz calls it, was Shao Yong’s other great passion. It was an art he was also rather good at, and something he did not give up as he grew older. This poeting flowed from the same effort at seeking to become the voice of Heaven that had generated his cosmological speculations, but produced more easily accessible insights, at least for our examiners. It thus created a bridge between Shao Yong’s Song dynasty world and the more narrowly defined agendas of our own  contemporary protagonists. A poem entitled “Great Chant on Observing Weiqi” turned out to be particularly helpful in this respect.[5]

Weiqi 圍棋 is the Chinese name for a board game known more widely in the West under its Japanese name Go. Playing weiqi was a common past-time in late imperial China, valued by literati not only as entertainment but as a tool for training their strategic skills, and even as a substitute for actual warfare. Anyone who has ever observed a Go game, will find it easy to understand why Shao Yong found its very materiality - its black and white pieces, a few simple rules that generate a seemingly endless array of game progressions, the waxing and waning of players’ fortunes in the course of a game - to be a microcosm of the yin/yang patterned transformations he observed in the wider world, past and present, and to which his cosmological thinking oriented itself.

Hence, as Shao Yong explained, because “among the books of the past few are reliable, … observing a weiqi game is not in any degree less [efficient].” However, the players themselves were too emotionally involved with the game, driven by a desire to win and carried along by the highs and lows of their shifting fortunes, to engage in the mirrored observing Shao Yong was after. To a bystander like Shao Yong, however, observing a game revealed a world to which philosophers from different tradition could act as guides, and which, in return, held answers to the problematic of sagely transformation: “How do experts manage to perform highly complex tasks with little apparent effort? And how do they capture the critical elements of intricate problems so quickly and so accurately?”[6]

One of Shao Yong’s key take away messages for our examiners was his observation that precisely because in most contexts “the dynamics of Heaven are not set up to unfold in a regular (chang 常) manner” (they are too complex, and even the seasons rarely proceed as uniformly as their textbook descriptions suggest), “the grandmasters of weiqi do not employ standard moves.” That, of course, is precisely the reason, also, why the traces left by the ancients can only be of limited use for us today. They provide structure and guidance, but they cannot ultimately tell us what to do in a given situation.  Grandmasters of the weiqi game, just like sages, therefore know how to make the right decisions not because they have learned certain manuals by heart, but because unlike ordinary players they are able to view the unfolding game from the perspective of mirrored observation. Instead of being swayed by their own interests and emotions, they can see the deeper unfolding patterns of yin and yang transformation, grasp the most subtle signs of incipience (ji wei 幾微) on which events turn, and thereby give voice (in Shao Yong’s case through poeting, in the case of a weiqi grandmaster through a brilliant move on the game board) to Heaven.

Implications for medicine

The relevance of these observations for medicine are not difficult to make out by our examiners. Nor are they without historical precedent. Zhu Danxi, who as we learned in the previous blog, took Shao Yong as his most important guide, explicitly looked to military generals and captains at sea (and not to philosophers) as models for a medical practice centred on yi 意. With reference to Shao Yong, we can now translate yi 意 as a capacity for discernment that, in the act of writing a prescription, might allow one to become (albeit momentarily) the voice of Heaven.

Employing less prosaic language, our examiners condense Shao Yong’s guide to becoming a sage (or brilliant physician) into three simple propositions:

  • Sages (and brilliant physicians) know how to act effectively and ethically in any given situation because they are able to discern the unfolding of complex processes.

  • Although most of us will never become sages, we should work on ourselves as if that was possible.

  • Mirrored observation, the attempt to reduce as much as possible the distorting and limiting effects of subject positionalities, is key to this effort.

The term “subject positionalities” (in the scholarly discourse of the time conceptualised through terms like 私 si, meaning private or selfish, or pian 偏, meaning partial or prejudiced) refers to anything that prevents us from observing things from the position of things. This includes the very desire to cure illness (which is one of the reasons it is difficult for physicians to become sages), as well as our self-identification as practitioners of this or that tradition (which is another).

But even if as physicians we cannot become true sages, because we have fixed goals and invariably need to base our practice on a limited set of tools, we can nevertheless move in that direction over the course of time. We can do so more or less rapidly, and more or less self-consciously. We do that already when we employ all our senses in the act of diagnosis, rather than relying on just one. We can further facilitate this process through a variety of strategies that would consciously seek to overcome the limiting effects of specific subject positionalities without, in the process, surrendering their positive contribution to our knowing practices. One such strategy is to compare and contrast different perspective on the same topic in an effort to overcome the limitations of each.

Here, as promised in the previous blog, is one example of how our examiners seek to facilitate the development of such an attitudes in their students


Below you will find two tables. The tables sum up how two modern interpreters of the Treatise of Cold Damage organise the liu jing 六經 (six warps, divisions, confirmations, syndromes) into three sets of two based on a distinction between exterior, interior and half exterior/half interior. Give examples of how you might work constructively with the difference between both propositions?

Table 1 Hu Xishu 胡希恕 and Feng Shilun (冯世纶) aka ‘jingfang’ [7]

Exterior Yang

taiyang 太陽

Exterior YIn

shaoyin 少陰

Half-Exterior/Half Interior Yang

shaoyang 少陽

Half-Exterior/Half Interior Yin

jueyin 厥陰

Interior Yang (excess heat)

yangming 陽明

Interior Yin (deficiency cold)

taiyin 太陰

Table 2: Tian Helu 田合禄 [8]

Exterior of Exterior

taiyang 太陽

Interior of Exterior

jueyin 厥陰

Exterior of Half-Exterior/Half Interior

shaoyang 少陽

Interior of Half-Exterior/Half Interior

taiyin 太陰

Exterior of Interior Yang

yangming 陽明

Interior of Interior

shaoyin 少陰

Model Answer

What our examiners would be looking for from their students (based on what they learned in the course of their studies) is an awareness that both of these models for organising the liu jing belong to a tradition of interpreting the Treatise known as “three divisions and six domains” (san bu liu jing 三部六經). All of the various interpreters working within in this tradition share the assumption that the liu jing do not refer to acupuncture channels (as many other interpreters of the Treatise do), but to distinct bodily spaces or territories. Despite their apparent differences, this makes both interpretations part of the same historical current.

While the Hu Shixu/Feng Shilun system is widely known in the West, that of Tian Helu is not. This is not due to the fact that the former represents a more authentic reading of the Treatise, or that it is guaranteed to deliver better clinical outcomes. It simply reflects that fact the former has been disseminated in ways the latter has not. It follows that working with these different interpretations is not a matter of deciding which of them is right and which is wrong, but how they can help us in our own reading of the Treatise.

As for constructively working with both interpretations and taking the exterior division as an example, the Hu Shixu/Feng Shilun system draws attention to the differential diagnosis of formula patterns such as those between Ephedra Decoction (ma huang tang) and Minor Bluegreen Dragon Decoctio (xiao qing long tang) on the one hand, and Aconite Accessory Root Decoction (fu zi tang) and True Warrior Decoction (zhen wu tang) on the other. Ke Qin 柯琴, the famous seventeenth century commentator of the Treatise, had already singled out these formulas as representative of taiyang/shaoyin patterns respectively. Ke Qin’s differentiation helps us not only to understand similarities and differences between taiyang and shaoyin patterns with the help of key formulas. It also, not unlike Shao Yong himself, hints at how the introduction of further yin/yang variable (which in this case relates to whether cold or water is more predominant as a pathogen) yields  comparative matrices that can augment our understanding of illness process, treatment, and formula composition.

Tian Helu’s division of the exterior into a taiyang exterior and a jueyin interior, on the other hand, is more helpful for understanding the difference between Ephedra Decoction (má huáng tāng) and Cinnamon Twig Decoction (gui zhi tang) patterns. It also helps to explain the close association between Cinnamon Twig Decoction (gui zhi tang ) patterns and wind-type pathologies and presentations, as well as its uses in treating heart and stomach disorders, trauma, gynaecological problems (in each case due to blood stasis in the network vessels). Differentiating between a taiyang and jueyin exterior also gestures towards Ye Tianshi’s 葉天士 division of the exterior into wei/qi and ying/blood spaces respectively, the former treated by Ephedrae Herba (ma huang) and Gypsum fibrosum (shi gao) type formulas, the latter by Scutellaria Decoction (huang qin tang) and Prepared Licorice Decoction (zhi gan cao tang) type formulas. This facilities removing unhelpful conceptual boundaries between cold damage and warmth disorder therapeutics, enlarging our scope of clinical tools while reducing political infighting within the profession.

Much more could be said with regard to the above. However, I will leave it to readers themselves to employ these tables in their own attempts at answering our examiners questions.

My own reasons for writing these two blogs centred on the historical figure of Shao Yong have been more modest. I hope I have been able to show that exploring the history of Chinese thought and medicine independently of the pre-manufactured story lines through which it is normally told can help us to obtain a richer understanding of the tradition we work with; and how this kind of exploration can feed directly into improved pathways for personal growth and professional development.


Just to be clear, I personally think there is nothing wrong whatsoever with seeking to become an excellent technician or specialist rather than a sage (using the terminology Shao Yong and Zhu Danxi would have used). Zhuangzi’s butcher Ding may only have been a butcher, but he certainly knew how to butcher an ox. Or, put another way, talking at length about the dao does not necessarily improve our own lives or that of others. Yet, if becoming a sage was the stated ambition of scholars and literati physicians in late imperial China, then working within that tradition implies engaging constructively with their goals and orientations. The problem, as I see it, is therefore not trying to become a sage and failing to do so. The problems start when technicians and failed sages claim to be the real thing.


  1. For helpful studies of Shao Yong and his life in western languages see Arrault, Alain. Shao Yong (1012-1077): Poète Et Cosmologue. Paris: Collège de France, Institut des hautes études chinoises, 2002. Birdwhistell, Anne D. Transition to Neo-Confucianism: Shao Yung on Knowledge and Symbols of Reality. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989, Bol, Peter Kees. “On Shao Yong’s Method for Observing Things.” Monumenta Serica 61 (2013): 287–99, Katz, Sophia. “From Observing to Listening: The Intellectual/spiritual Path of Shao Yong Reflected in the Yichuan Jirangji.” Monumenta Serica 61, no. 1 (2013): 141–82, Katz, Sophia. “In the Beginning Was Observing. Shao Yong on the Sagely Self, Observing and “Poeting”.” Asian Studies 10, no. 2 (2022): 333–52; Wyatt, Don J. “The Transcendence of the Past: Objectivity, Relativism, and Moralism in the Historical Thought of Shao Yong.” Monumenta Serica 61 (2013): 203–26.

2. Cited from Katz (2022), pp. 339-340.

3. ibid., p. 344.

4. Cited from Katz (2013), pp. 170-171.

5. The poem is translated and analysed by Chen, Zu-yan. “Shao Yong’s (1011-77) “Great Chant on Observing Weiqi”: An Archetype of Neo-Confucian Poetry.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 126(2) (2006): 199–221. See also Katz (2022), pp. 341-344.

6. Chen, Zu-yan, p. 220-221.

8. Tian Helu 田合禄. Zhonguo waigan sanbu liujing shuo 中医外感三部六经说. Taiyuan: Shanxi kexue jishu chubanshe, 1990.

367 views0 comments


bottom of page