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Table of Contents
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 74-79

Nguyen Van Nghi (阮文义 1909–1999): Pioneer of traditional Chinese medicine in the West in the 20th century

Faculty of Medicine Paris, Lecturer at Sciences Sorbonne University, Consultant Doctor at the Saint-Jacques Health Center, Paris, France

Date of Submission15-Apr-2020
Date of Acceptance25-Apr-2020
Date of Web Publication29-Jun-2020

Correspondence Address:
Dr. B U I Anita
Saint-Jacques Health Center, 37 rue des Volontaires 75015 Paris
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_14_20

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Traditional Chinese medicine in the 20th century, along with acupuncture, took off in France. Nguyen Van Nghi is one of the most important carriers of Chinese medical knowledge outside of China. He is a doctor by Western training, but can read oriental texts; he contributes to the spreading of this knowledge in France and in Europe. He left a rich legacy to French acupuncturists.

Keywords: Nguyen Van Nghi (NVN), traditional Chinese medicine, Western-Eastern, France, acupuncture, translation, inheritance

How to cite this article:
Anita B U. Nguyen Van Nghi (阮文义 1909–1999): Pioneer of traditional Chinese medicine in the West in the 20th century. Chin Med Cult 2020;3:74-9

How to cite this URL:
Anita B U. Nguyen Van Nghi (阮文义 1909–1999): Pioneer of traditional Chinese medicine in the West in the 20th century. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2020 [cited 2022 Jan 24];3:74-9. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2020/3/2/74/288531

The practice of Chinese medicine in Europe spread very fast from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. This Chinese know-how attained a global level in a social and cultural context at that time. Among the healing techniques of Chinese medicine, acupuncture was best developed in France: George Soulié de Morant and Nguyen Van Nghi (NVN) were the main players in the evolution of this practice.[1] The reasons which favored the arrival of acupuncture in France were, on the one hand, the particular interest of French doctors for needle techniques, and on the other hand, the value of the translation into French of the medical texts of these two actors, that is why we must know the importance of their Chinese medical itinerary. For George Soulié de Morant, I'll refer you to the remarkable article by Doctor JC Dubois in the “Chinese Medicine and Culture” magazine in Shanghai.[2] Here, I'll pay a modest tribute to my master, the late Dr. NVN.

  Biography Top

NVN was born in Vietnam in Hanoi on January 11, 1909. This date is important for his destiny; Vietnam was then called French Indochina. French colonization began in 1858 during the reign of Emperor Gia Long. The Western influence was thus made quite naturally from his youth; his vocation of doctor also came to him naturally by his generous nature, his desire to relieve and to cure. After classical studies in Vietnam with the Jesuits, he continued his training in Hong Kong between 1925 and 1929. In 1931, he arrived in France, enrolled at the University of Montpellier and Marseille, where he obtained his medical degree in 1938.

Conventional doctor

NVN first practiced conventional medicine. Between 1940 and 1958, he lived in Tourves, a small city in the Var (South of France); he worked as a real country doctor. During the Second World War, he treated the local population with the means available during wartime. He distinguished himself by assisting American airmen shot down by the German army on July 12, 1944, in Seillons. Honored as a hero and in recognition of his care, the inhabitants of Tourves paid tribute to him on July 12, 2019, by placing a commemorative plaque and flowers in front of his house [Figure 1].
Figure 1: Flowers and commemorative plaque in front of the house of Nguyen van Nghi on July 12, 2019, in Tourves

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Doctor acupuncturist

In 1959, NVN moved to Marseille. From that date, he practiced acupuncture exclusively.

Even though he had been trained in Western medicine, he had always been interested in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

The fall of the Nguyen dynasty in 1945, the end of French colonization in 1954, and the advent of the Republic had an important impact on the dissemination of TCM in Viet Nam. Indeed, the official Chinese writing imposed by the Nguyen dynasty ends, and is replaced by Quoc-ngu. This writing with Latin alphabet created by Alexander of Rhodes in the 17th century became the official Vietnamese writing. The classical texts written in Chinese language were then translated into the Sino-Vietnamese language practiced by an elite, but anyway accessible to cultivated non-Sinologists. NVN who didn't know Chinese language found his place in the translation of these texts.

As an autodidact in acupuncture, NVN benefited greatly from his relationships with Vietnamese friends who stayed in Viet Nam, most notably a pharmacist named Nguyen Van Than, who was also an executive at the Ministry of Health in the 1950s. Knowing NVN's interest in TCM, Nguyen Van Than sent him works from Chinese Classical texts, now translated into Sino-Vietnamese, and this in agreement with Nguyen Van Huong, the Minister of Health at the time.

Thanks to this material sent from Viet Nam, NVN began to study and translate these texts into French. He founded his work on the original sources of Acupuncture in Chinese medical theory. As a medical practitioner of Western medicine, he knew how to give a scientific basis to the translation of his texts.

As publications in French multiplied, the circulation of an original, traditional knowledge was released freely, and NVN began to have an important impact in France. He became one of the important carriers of Chinese medicine outside of China. He was credited as the founder of a school of traditionalist French acupuncture; traditionalist because it is based on exact data from the Chinese tradition, which does not exclude its scientific aspect from a doctor trained in the West, like NVN bringing together the West and the East.

While continuing his work as a translator, NVN multiplied his practice in TCM in France and abroad. He founded several associations and schools of acupuncture and Chinese medicine. In 1973, he founded his first acupuncture journal: “The Monthly of the Acupuncturist” which, in 1982, became “The French Journal of Chinese Medicine.” In 2000, this review joined the review “Meridians”, founded in 1968 by Doctor Didier Fourmont who was the Director until 1997, then succeeded by Doctor Jean-Claude Dubois. From this fusion was born “Acupuncture and Moxibustion”, under the direction of Dr. Jean-Marc Stéphan until today, He continues to carry the spirit of NVN, the conception of traditional and scientific medicine.

Like a true pioneer of the cause of TCM, NVN led the translation of classical Chinese texts and their publications, associations, reviews, and teachings, without forgetting his patients, whom he continued to take care for in his practice in Marseille until his death on December 17, 1999.

  Bibliography Top

As early as 1969, along with Dr. A. Chamfrault, he published Human Energetic in Chinese Medicine and the Anatomical  Atlas More Details by the Charente-Angoulême Printing Office. His collaboration with Dr. Chamfrault lasted only a few years, until his disappearance in 1969, the same year of these publications [Figure 2].
Figure 2: (a) First publications. Human Energetic in Chinese Medicine, Charente-Angoulême Printing Office 1969. (b) Pathogeny and Pathology Energetic in Chinese Medicine, Edition Imprimerie Ecole Technique Don Bosco-Marseille, 1971

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In 1971, his first work Pathogeny and Pathology Energetic in Chinese Medicine with the collaboration of Emmanuel Picou. Edition: Imprimerie École Technique Don Bosco-Marseille was published; this publication is followed just by Energy Topology in Chinese Medicine in the same publishing house. These two books begin to truly establish NVN in the world of acupuncture [Figure 2].

In 1973, he published the first volume of Huangdi Neijing Su Wen(《黄帝内经素问》 Plain Questions of the Internal Classic of the Yellow Emperor) . To compose this classical work of Chinese medical literature, the foundation of TCM, in particular of acupuncture, NVN used the Sino-Vietnamese translation of Dr. Nguyêễn Tử Siêu published in 1954. He wrote in his introduction: We worked on Wang Bing(王冰)'s version through a translation into classical Vietnamese (Sino-Vietnamese): Hoang-đế.. Nội-kinh Tố-vấn, by Nguyêễn Tử Siêu, Hông Khanh Hanoi Edition 1954.[3] This publication was most likely sent to him by his friend, the pharmacist Nguyen van Than. The author very closely follows the Chinese text as well as the comments of Ma Yuantai alias Ma Shi (马莳) and Zhang Yin'an (张隐庵). The book was prefaced by Ma Yuantai himself. NVN has enriched these comments with his own reflections, from his experience by using medical language more understandable by his Western peers.

The translation of Plain Questions of the Internal Classic of the Yellow Emperor took 18 years; it is made up of four volumes. The first appeared on October 15, 1973, in Marseille SOCEDIM Edition. In 1974, NVN created his own publishing house and from then on, his works were published by Edition NVN. The second volume, written with Dr. Mai Van Dong, in collaboration with his son Dr. Nguyen Viet Bao, appeared in 1975, and was edited in Marseille by his own publishing house. The third volume did not appear until 1988 in collaboration with his son Nguyen Patrick and the last volume in 1991 in collaboration with his daughter Dr. Christine Recours-Nguyen [Figure 3].
Figure 3: (a) Huangti Neijing So Ouenn. Edition NVN, 1973–1991. (b) Dr. Nguyễn Tử Siêu Hà Nội (1887–1965). (c) Hoàng-đế Nội-kinh Tố- Editions Hông-Khê, 1954

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In 1974, another work of great importance was published: Theory and Practice of Analgesia by Acupuncture, by NVN, Mai van Dong, and Lanza Ulderico. It is a basic treatise by the team having carried out the first anesthesia by acupuncture in the West. It contains basic notions of TCM and a particular study on the analgesic points of the meridians, the mechanisms of action of acupuncture, the technical protocol of analgesia by acupuncture, and finally the indications for different surgical pathologies.

This publication is designed largely from the personal experience of NVN. Since 1971, NVN has been involved in the acupunctural analgesia adventure. In 2002, the journal “Acupuncture and Moxibustion” paid tribute to him for marking his action in this new application of acupuncture in the West. Dr. Johan Nguyen (his son) wrote an article titled The First Anesthesia by Acupuncture 30 Years Ago,[4] he recounted this epic: On October 23, 1971 at the St-Joseph clinic in Marseille, Nguyen Van Nghi performed the first acupuncture anesthesia in the Western world on a wrist cyst operated by Jacques Rami [Figure 4].
Figure 4: (a) Theory and Practice of Analgesia by Acupuncture, NVN Edition. (b) Nguyên Van Nghi in the operating room, 1971

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This publication was successful with the Western public where its impact resonated throughout the West on TCM and benefited from Richard Nixon's trip to China in February 1972 where the President of the United States directly attended an operation with analgesia by acupuncture [Figure 5]. This begins the era of the worldwide spread of acupuncture and TCM and is the starting point for an exponential growth in clinical and experimental work in scientific and medical journals.
Figure 5: Analgesia by acupuncture

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In 1975, he wrote the translation of Huang Di Ba Shi Yi Nan Jing (《黄帝八十一难经》 Classic of Difficult Issues). For the entire year, he published nine articles in the review “The Monthly of the acupuncturist doctor,” nevertheless, the book was published under the title: Nan King: Difficult Problems of the Acupuncture by Pienn Tsiou with the collaboration of doctors Nguyen-Recours and Tran-Viet-Dzung, published by the Center for Teaching and Dissemination of Traditional Acupuncture.

In 1981, along with Dr. Mai Van Dong and Dr. Nguyen Christine, he published a foundational book entitled Semiology and Therapy in Oriental Energetic Medicine and in the same year with the same collaborators Pharmacology in oriental energetic medicine; it is a phytotherapy treatise comprising the generalities of the pharmacopoeia, the analytical study of plants, and their therapeutic use. In 1984, in collaboration with Dr. Nguyen Christine, another fundamental work Traditional Chinese Medicine was published. All the three books were published by the NVN publishing house [Figure 6].
Figure 6: (a) Semiology and Therapy in Oriental Energetic Medicine. (b) Pharmacology in oriental energetic medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Edition NVN, 1981. (c) Traditional Chinese Medicine, Edition NVN, 1984

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In 1982, he published the first volume of an important work: his translation of Zhen Jiu Da Cheng (《针灸大成》 Complete Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion) by Yang Jizhou (杨继洲 1522–1620), published in China in 1601. Yang Jizhou merges together all the achievements in acupuncture from the time of Huang Di until the 17th century. It is a veritable encyclopedia made up of essential extracts from the Nei Jing (《内经》 Internal Classic), Nan Jing (《难经》 Difficulties of Acupuncture), and collections of old songs whose historical, acupunctural, and literary importance remains extraordinary. He also inserts the rules of hygiene in the art of nourishing life, that is, Dao Yin Ben Jing(《导引本经》) . NVN titled the book: Art and Practice of Acupuncture and Moxibustion. The work was translated with the collaboration of doctors Christine Recours-Nguyen and Trân-Vint-Dzung. The translation was done thanks to an edition in Sino-Vietnamese language from 1963 by the publishing house Peopley the publi Huê City, authored by Phạm Tấn Khoa and Luʼơng Tu Vân, both doctors of TCM. There were several reprints of the book. I present here Edition Thuân-Hoa, Hue city, 2002.

Volume I was published in 1982, volume II in 1985, and volume III in 1989. All the three were published by the NVN Edition [Figure 7].
Figure 7: (a) Art and practice of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, Edition NVN 1982–1989. (b) Châm Cứu Đại Thánh, traductors Phạm Tấn Khoa and Luʼơng Tú Vân, reprint Ed. Thanh Hoa, 2002

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The translation of the Shang Han Lun (《伤寒论》 Treatise on Cold Damage Diseases) appeared in 1987; it is one of the main, classic books in Chinese medicine written by Zhang Zhongjing (张仲景) (II–III century) called by the West as the Chinese Hippocrates. It is a treatise on cold diseases, the oldest Chinese treatise on the therapy of febrile illnesses, written in collaboration with Dr. Christine Recours-Nguyen. NVN calls it, Progressive diseases of the 3 Yin and 3 Yang according to Zhang Zhong Jing, NVN editions [Figure 8].
Figure 8: (a) Mai Jing Classic Pulse of Wang Shu He (AD 210–285), Edition NVN, 1983. (b) Thuʼơng Hàn Luận, traductor Truʼơng Chung Ed. Ðông Nai

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In 1993, NVN translated a book on pulsology in collaboration with Drs. Christine Recours-Nguyen and Bui-van-Tho. The book's title was Mai Jing (《脉经》 Classic Pulse) of Wang Shuhe (王叔和 AD 210–285) [Figure 9].
Figure 9: Mai Jing Classic Pulse of Wang Shu He (AD 210–285 AD), Edition NVN, 1983

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From 1994 to 1999, after having translated Plain Questions of the Internal Classic of the Yellow Emperor, NVN returned on the translation of the Internal Classic of the Yellow Emperor, in effect, by performing its second part the Ling Shu (《灵枢》 Miraculous Pivot), although this part is written before the Plain Questions of the Internal Classic of the Yellow Emperor.[5] The Huang Di Nei Jing Ling Shu (《黄帝内经灵枢》 Miraculous Pivot of the Internal Classic of the Yellow Emperor) consists of three volumes. The first volume was published in 1994 in collaboration with Drs. Christine Recours-Nguyen and Tran-Viet-Dzung, the 2nd volume in 1995, and the 3rd volume in 1999; all the three were published by the NVN Edition with the same collaborators [Figure 10].
Figure 10: Huangdi Neijing Ling Shu, Edition NVN, 1994–1999

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The Sino-Vietnamese texts translated from Chinese come from Hanoi and were shipped to France thanks to Dr. Trân-Quang-Hy, a member of the research institute of oriental medicine.

Here, I'm only citing his most important works, even though his bibliography is impressive given the wealth and depth of his knowledge. It was further enriched in 1970 by numerous articles published in the New International Journal of Acupuncture, then quickly in several other French and foreign journals. Between 1970 and the end of the 20th century, his publications marked the landscape of acupuncture in France and in Europe.

  The Legacy of Nguyen Van Nghi Top

In my previous article on the heritage of TCM in Viet Nam, I asked the question on this subject: “What is the part of the Chinese heritage in this tradition, what is its own specificity?” There were two giants in Vietnam working about the specificity of traditional Vietnamese medicine: Tue Tinh and Lan Ong, whereas, in France, there were also two giants working about the French specificity of TCM: George Soulie de Morant and NVN. If all the four authors sought to adapt this know-how to their world, they all preached their attachment to the Chinese medical tradition by “truthful” translations and by their respect for the original Chinese sources. Tue Tinh would say: To use the remedies of the South to cure the peoples of the South, but he clarified: the disciples of the old masters must venerate their doctrine. The innovations brought by the translations of NVN do not break from the teaching of TCM; these texts translated from Vietnamese describe the Chinese theory as it had been established and formulated in the 1950s, which was taught in Chinese and Vietnamese universities.

George Soulie de Morant spent his life translating the tiny Chinese ideograms with a magnifying glass to share this knowledge, while NVN not only spent his life translating as well, but teaching and tirelessly traveling the world to disseminate this knowledge. As French acupuncturists, we are their heirs and we greatly owe them recognition.

A special issue of the magazine “Méridiens” [Note 18][6] paid tribute to NVN. He was unable to attend the World Federation of Acupuncture Society congress which took place in Hanoi in November 1999. He wrote a letter on October 1999, it would be read during the congress. The editorial staff of “Méridiens” then published this letter in a special issue. This letter, written only 2 months before his death, takes on the appearance of a will. I would like to record here some of these lines, which shed light on his work and which leave French acupuncturists with an invaluable heritage.

Concerning the harmony of the two Western and Eastern medicines:

For us, it is essential to tackle two tasks:

  • The first is to fully master all of the knowledge of Traditional Chinese Medicine, still, unfortunately, not well-known, by the complete analysis of reference works such as Suwen (《素问》) and Lingshu(《灵枢》) ;
  • The second is to persuade the medical profession that there is no incompatibility but complementarity between Western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

To support his thesis, he gave us examples of the harmonization of these two medicines. Here is one:

We know that Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Energy and Western Medicine is based on Matter. At the beginning of the 20th century it was accepted in modern science that Energy creates Matter. Now, in the Lingshu, we read Qi forms Xing. These are two absolutely identical sentences 2,000 years apart!

Matter and Energy, or in other words, Qi-Xing are therefore two fundamental entities, inseparable, found by a totally different way in the West and in the East. Proof that these two medicines can meet.

We are far from R. Kipling's affirmation when he exclaimed: Oh, East is East, and West is West, and the two will never meet! NVN alone brought together the frontiers of these two medicines!

He ended his letter with a prophetic note:

We have the intuition that the beginning of this millennium will see the cohesion of these two medicines. This cohesion will lead to the birth of a universal or unitary medicine for the good of all.

For French acupuncture, this 20th century has kept its promise for its unprecedented momentum. The French University has opened its doors to TCM: the teaching of the TCM is done in Paris and in other big cities such as Bordeaux, Montpellier, Strasbourg, Nantes…, In Paris, most prestigious hospitals have an acupuncture consultation, we can cite European Hospital George Pompidou, Cochin Hospital, La Pitie-Salpetriere hospital etc.

NVN's work and heritage greatly influenced the fate of the practice of acupuncture in France. I have paid tribute to him for his impressive work in translating canonical Chinese texts from Vietnamese to French. He had cleared a forest to make it a flower garden for future generations of acupuncturists [Figure 11].
Figure 11: Nguyen Van Nhi (1909–1999)

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflict of interest.

  References Top

Hilaire-Perez L, Zakharova L. Techniques and Globalization in the 20th Century. Rennes: Rennes University Press; 2016. p. 230-4.  Back to cited text no. 1
Dubois JC. Revisiting the Medical Work of George Soulie de Morant. Chin Med Culture 2019;2:21-2, 53-6.  Back to cited text no. 2
Nguyen VN. Hoang Ti Nei King So Ouenn. Marseille: Imprimerie SOCEDIM; 1973. p. 18.  Back to cited text no. 3
Nguyen J. The first anesthesia by acupuncture 30 years ago. Acupuncture Moxibustion 2002;1:2.  Back to cited text no. 4
Durand M. Sino-Vietnamese medicine: Bibliography. In: Bulletin of the French School of the Far East 1959;49:671-4.  Back to cited text no. 5
Nguyen J. Bibliography of Nguyen Van Nghi. Meridians 1999;113:13-60.  Back to cited text no. 6


  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5], [Figure 6], [Figure 7], [Figure 8], [Figure 9], [Figure 10], [Figure 11]


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