Yang sheng (養 生) is term that has become familiar to us in the context of various ‘nourishing life’ practices. It is an ancient term, and specific yang sheng texts have been found which date back to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. Some of these texts specifically stress diet, exercise and sexual practices which are considered to enhance the vitality and possibly even lengthen life. But the early chapters of the Neijing suggest that it is in the ability to observe what is appropriate at a particular time and for a particular individual that the real art of nourishing life resides.

Yang (養) is to nourish, and includes the most common character for eating food shi (食), but it has a wider meaning than simple nourishment for the body – it is to nurture, to care for, to maintain, not only physically. It is commonly used to describe the way parents take care of their children, and it includes the idea of education, a nourishment of the mind. It is found in early Daoist texts, such as the Neiye, for nourishing the heart/mind, and in Confucian texts for building character.

Sheng (生) can literally be translated as life, but it is more the process of life coming into being – the way that life is generated and maintained. We are familiar with this term from the sheng or generation cycle of the five elements/phases. A great modern translator of classical Chinese, Roger Ames, suggests that Chinese is a language of verbs and processes, whereas most western languages are languages of nouns and things. And at a time when Greek philosophers were looking at the nature of things, trying to find the building blocks of life, the Chinese were more interested in the way that life proceeds, the way things change, the movement of one phase into another. So yang sheng has this idea of the nourishment and development of the continual generation of life – from one moment to the next.

Neijing Suwen chapter 2 suggests that paying attention to the rhythm of the four seasons is one of the ways that we can ‘follow what is natural’ – because in order to nourish life it is suggested that we follow the order of heaven – which is nothing other than the natural order of things. Going against what is natural dissipates the qi and wears us out. Lingshu chapter 8, which introduces what we often call the ‘spiritual aspects’ and goes on to discuss the effects of the emotions on the various organ systems, summarises this knowledge as ‘nothing other than the ability to nourish life (yang sheng)’.

(First published in ACU Spring 2018)

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