This book is a study of the Huang Di nei jing su wen (Su wen), an ancient text that, together with its sister text, the Huang Di nei jing ling shu (Ling shu), plays a role in Chinese medical history comparable to that of the Hippocratic writings in ancient Europe. Progress and significant paradigm changes have reduced Hippocrates to the honored originator of a tradition that has become obsolete. In contrast, many practitioners of Chinese medicine still consider the Su wen a valuable source of theoretical inspiration and practical knowledge in modern clinical settings.
Available evidence suggests that at the basis of the Su wen is a layer of texts written beginning in the second or first century B.C., with some of its conceptual contents possibly dating from the third century B.C. Presumably in the first or second century a.d., several compilers or teams of authors, all unknown to us today, set out to bring together disparate texts of previous decades, thereby generating a second textual layer, to which were added further layers in subsequent centuries. The outcomes of these more or less contemporary efforts to combine a selection of statements and texts from an identical pool of writings by numerous previous authors in one authoritative compilation have come down to us in four major works: in addition to the Su wen and the Ling shu, the Nan jing and the Huang Di nei jing tai su (Tai su).
Although the Su wen corpus has so far escaped all attempts at reconstruction, scholars agree that it was subjected to significant rearrangements, emendations, and additions in post-Han centuries, culminating in the contributions by Wang Bing in the eighth century. The Imperial Editorial Office of the eleventh century decided to introduce only minor editorial changes, so that the corpus available today essentially reflects the text that existed twelve hundred years ago.