Another "Chinese proverb"

Paul Frank paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU
Sat Dec 11 05:56:37 UTC 2010

On Fri, 10 Dec 2010 13:23 -0500, "Jonathan Lighter"
<wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM> wrote:

> 1973 Erich Fromm _The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness_ (N.Y.: Holt) 28:
> As
> a Chinese sage said, "Reading prescriptions does not make one well."
> That's the earliest I can find.
> JL

I think I missed the beginning of this thread. Was there a question
about where this saying comes from? This is the only example of this
quotation I can find in Google Books. Erich Fromm repeats a German
version of this, "Ärztliche Verordnungen zu lesen, macht niemand
gesund," in Aggressionstheorie, 1980, p. 27. Eckart Wiesenhütter
translated Fromm's English version from 1973 as "Ärztliche Verordnungen
zu lesen, macht niemanden gesund" in his Die Begegnung zwischen
Philosophie und Tiefenpsychologie, 1979, p. 73.

My guess is that Fromm came up with this bon mot in 1973 (or before),
Wiesenhütter translated it into German in 1979, and Fromm copied
Wiesenhütter's translation (changing "niemanden" to "niemand") in 1980.

That something similar was written by a Chinese writer is not unlikely,
given that until the 18th century, the Chinese published more books than
the rest of the world put together.

A somewhat similar idea is expressed in the Huangdi Neijing (The Inner
Canon of the Yellow Emperor), a medical text compiled in the 1st century
BCE based on texts written between 400 BCE and 260 CE:

"The sage treats illness before, not after, it has arisen; he imposes
order on disorder before, not after it has arisen…. To administer drugs
after the illness has developed, or to impose order after disorder has
developed, is like digging a well when one feels thirsty, or casting
daggers in the midst of battle. Is that not too late?"

In the Huainanzi, a book dated to 1939 BCE, we read: "A skillful doctor
always treats illness when there is no sign of disease, and thus the
disease never comes."

And in the In the Daodejing, the poem attributed to Laozi and
traditionally dated to the 6th century BC, we read,

"The sage is free from the disease;
He recognizes this disease to be a disease
And therefore is free from it.
The best physicians always treat disease when it is not yet a disease
And so their patients are not ill."

See Joseph Needham et al., Science and Civiliation in China: Biology and
biological technology: Medicine, Volume 6, 2000, p. 68. (Actually, I
don't see the last line in my Chinese edition of the Daodejing, but
never mind.)

The same idea is expressed in many Chinese texts. And it's good advice
for all of us today.

You also find the opposite idea expressed in Chinese texts. Emperor
Xiaoming of Wei (r. 515-527 CE) rejected a shaman's treatment saying
that "illnesses should be cured by medical prescriptions, why believe in



Paul Frank
Chinese, German, French, Italian > English
Espace de l'Europe 16
Neuchâtel, Switzerland
paulfrank at
paulfrank at

The American Dialect Society -

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