Tokyo’s imperial archives advise what science now confirms: the secret of longevity lies in the gentle arts of the bedroom
Denis Noble is emeritus professor of cardiovascular physiology at the University of Oxford. He was the first to develop computer models of the heart, published in Nature in 1960, and is one of the founders of the field of systems biology. His books include The Music of Life (2006) and Dance to the Tune of Life (2016).
Edited by Pam Weintraub
For more than 1,000 years, the Imperial Family of Japan and its physicians have preserved a treasure of oriental medicine: the complete 30 scrolls of the Ishinhō, or the ‘heart of medical prescription’. This compendium was derived from sources in India, China, Korea and elsewhere, though many of the original documents have since been lost or destroyed. In 2012, I found myself in the Imperial Archives in the Tokyo Palace examining the precious scrolls.
I was delighted to discover a holistic approach: not only did I find herbal remedies, and nutrition and lifestyle aids, but also, in Scroll 28, instructions for the creation and preservation of jingqi (the life force), with a focus on sexual energy. These prescriptions, which originated at least 2,000 years ago in East Asia, were almost the opposite of Western ideas, since they required the achievement of orgasm without the loss of semen.
The idea dates to the 10th century, during the Heian period, a golden age for Japanese poetry and literature. The poet Sei Shōnagon (c966-c1025) wrote The Pillow Book, while Murasaki Shikibu (c978-c1014), a fellow lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court, wrote one of the world’s first and greatest novels, The Tale of Genji, relating the adventurous romantic life of a prince. All these works and more reveal the natural approach to sexual relations common in ancient Japan. Such naturalness was also a feature of ancient China, evident from the tomb excavation at Mawangdui in Hunan Province, revealing texts on the art of love, dating from around 200 BCE. A poem in those texts, The Union of Yin and Yang, may be the first sex manual the world has preserved. Throughout these works, colourful metaphors describe the unhurried and careful approach to the joys of sexual intercourse. The emphasis was on exceedingly slow and gentle movements, beginning with caressing what seem to be the mysterious energy meridians within the body.
What a perfect setting for the great compendium itself, written by the Japanese court physician Tamba Yasuyori in 984. It was in Scroll 28 of Tamba’s masterpiece that the classic Chinese narrative is revealed through the teachings of three women said to have advised the mythical Yellow Emperor on his longevity exercises. When I was able to revisit the scrolls again in 2018, together with leading members of the modern medical establishment in Japan, I could identify for my medical colleagues the prominent red marks over the names of the three women. One of them, whose name I translate as the ‘original woman’ (Su-Nu), a kind of Chinese Eve, uses one of the oldest of the intimacy poems, from around 200 CE:
Each line in the poem could be interpreted either as individual intimate acts or as acts with different partners, as would be the case for monarchs with multiple wives and consorts. In this translation, I have attempted to reproduce the four-character rhythm of the original. Each line, and its response, contains four Chinese characters, each pronounced as a single syllable, making eight syllables in the two lines together. The much older Mawangdui poem, The Union of Yin and Yang, is also a character poem of this type, but it uses three characters instead of four. Repetitive rhythm was important in the transmission of texts, such as sutras and poems, when writing materials were scarce, and monks and poets had to memorise long texts. That was also true in the 10th century. The rare paper on which the scrolls are written is extremely fragile, and the original version is now a national treasure kept in the National Museum in Tokyo.
Of course, this poem, like many other ancient Chinese poems on the arts of love, needs metaphorical interpretation. Words such as ‘immortal’ do not carry the same meaning as when is used in Western religions. The aim of the poem is to encourage the general improvement of health and longevity…