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ShinKyu 鍼灸 – Whats in a name?

Can you name the Odd One Out?

Yoga. TaiChi. Karate. Sushi. Capoeira… …Acupuncture. Reiki. Ayurveda. Shiatsu.

Yes, Sushi is the only food. But there is a more fundamental and glaring candidate here. Can you work it out?

Naming We have access to an astounding array of practices/ culture/ in our current globalised state (and hopefully more to come!) . As a general rule these tend to retain the name given to them in their origin culture. But now and then one slips through the net…

The word “Acupuncture” is clearly not Oriental… It was actually coined by Jesuit missionaries in China in the 17th century. It is made up from the Latin word “Acus” meaning “needle”, together with the English word “puncture”.

At first take, this appears to be logical and useful as a description which conveys meaning easily to the western mind. However, when we consider the actual meaning of the original Chinese word, 鍼灸 (ShinKyu), and what the traditional practice of this medical system involves, things may look a bit different.

Let’s take a look at the original Chinese characters: 鍼 Shin 灸 Kyu

鍼 Shin The first character – created some three thousand years ago – is 鍼. This is usually translated as “Needle”. This is (almost) accurate. However it does not mean a thin sharp needle for piercing/ sewing etc. There is another character for that simple meaning which is 針.

The “acupuncture needle” character 鍼 is made of 2 parts: – The bit on the left is 金 – meaning “metal”. – The bit on the right is more complex. This is an explanation given by my Sensei based on an etymological survey*:

“The right side is a combination of the characters for mouth, 口, and for a weapon [or “tool”] used to silence an opponent with great force, 戎. So the right half of the character has the sense of silencing or ‘sealing in’. The total character refers to a metal implement for sealing in tightly the Ki of a patient and for silencing his or her pain and suffering.”

This character conveys a depth of meaning far greater than simply a “needle for piercing” as suggested by the word “Acu-Puncture”.

So What Is a “Needle”? With our deeper understanding of the original (half-)word 鍼 (Shin), we are compelled to move beyond the limited idea of simply a sharp object for puncturing. My current preferred definition is something more like:

”A metallic tool which can be used to generate change in the body and overall health.”

9 “Needles” In fact, the “bible” of acupuncture (黃帝內經 Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, written a few thousand years back) describes 9 types of needle [ ]. Only 5 of these can be used for insertion; the other 4 are used to stimulate your body without breaking the skin’s surface! (Take a look at the images here and you will see what I mean.) These surface “needles” used for rubbing/ stimulating/ massaging the skin’s surface are the most appropriate tool in many situations (for example, when treating babies, children and the frail).

Limited? We can see that using the original word opens up our understanding of what might be involved in this therapy. This is important for patients. But perhaps even more so for practitioners who may otherwise find their concept of the range of the tools and possibilities accordingly limited…

…And we haven’t even got onto the second half of the word yet!

灸 Kyu The second character in our word “ShinKyu” means “Moxibustion” (or “Moxa”). My patients will know what this means, but you may be forgiven for being a little mystified if you have not had treatment at Genki clinic. (If so please look here for a brief explanation and some images.)

Yin without Yang? The amazing thing is that this part of the original word, ShinKyu, is completely ignored by the word “Acupuncture”. There is no mention of it. Its like Bonnie without Clyde, or Laurel without Hardy: If one is mentioned without the other, the context is lost and we are not sure what is being referred to.

In Japan, if you say “ShinKyu” everyone instantly understands what you mean. If you say just “Shin” or “Kyu” you are usually rewarded with a puzzled expression.

Better Together The important implication of this is that Acupuncture and Moxibustion belong together. I’m not quite suggesting that you can’t successfully treat using one without the other. But it does raise the question of why you would want to, considering that they form two halves of an integral whole that is far greater than the sum of the parts.

Moxa and Needles play to each other’s strengths and this is encapsulated in the linking of these two therapeutic methods in their very name.

“Acu-Moxa” If we must lose the original word and instead go for a pale western translation, we should at least acknowledge moxa and call it “Acu-Moxa” rather than “Acu-Puncture”.

The loss of the word “ShinKyu” and the use instead of “Acupuncture” is a good example of why retaining the original word for a foreign art is generally a good thing. The name in a foreign tongue invites us, each time we use it, to look beyond our initial perceptions to understand a little more of what is involved.


Numbers & Buddhas This is completely unrelated to the actual meaning or history of the word ShinKyu but it is a bit of fun and gives us a little bit of a view into Japanese culture and history. In Japan, words are often expressed as numbers (and vica versa). This is because the words for the numbers can make up the syllables necessary for a good number of Japanese words. In the case of our word ‘ShinKyu‘ we are looking at the number 49 (4=Shin; 9=Kyu).

By a rather nice coincidence, it turns out that the number 49 is deeply associated with the “Medicine Buddha” or “YakuShi“ (薬師, literally ” Medicine Master”) who was said to “Eliminate All the Suffering and Afflictions of Sentient Beings.” Ancient Japanese peoples turned to YakuShi when they had a serious disease. Amongst other, deeper, significances, his mantra would be chanted 49 times and 49 lamps would be lit. 49 (traditional five-coloured) banners would made and displayed if the person recovered.

This kind of linking of concepts and ideas through numbers (and other linguistic mechanisms) may, to us in the west, seem to be stretching things a bit. But in Japanese it is very common. It also forms the basis of one of my favourite Japanese joke-forms**, the “Oyaji Gyagu“.


Notes * Based on “Acupuncture and Moxibustion Medicine Compendium Su Wen Ling Shu” (鍼灸医学大系 黄帝内経素問霊枢) by Yasuzo Shibasaki (柴崎保三) published by Yu Kon Sha (雄渾社) in 1980. ** Actually, its quite probable that this is just the simplest joke-form in Japanese and therefore the one that I know the best! In any event, I love Oyaji Gyagu and they are a great tool for learning the language.

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