Pulse Education and Translation Problems


One of the more frustrating problems Chinese medicine folks have in the English speaking world is getting past translations of pulse terms to arrive at less ambiguous descriptions of these different pulses.

Pulse translations problems:

  • Names of pulses are inconsistent between books.
  • Translation needs vary.
  • Poetic Chinese explanations provide little help.

Examples of inconsistent pulse names:

Pinyin Maciocia CAM Wiseman Eastland
se.mai Se choppy hesitant rough choppy
ruo.mai Ruo weak weak weak frail
ru.mai Ru weak-


soft soggy soggy

Translations needs vary:

  • Denotative or literal translations:
    ru = soggy (also translates to “immerse” or “moisten”)
  • Connotative or implied translations:
    ru = soft. What the early diagnosticians may have been trying to describe is a feeling that the pulse is soft, not hard.
  • Functional translations:
    ru = weak-floating. I believe that these are the most useful translations for the needs of English speaking practitioners. It describes the simple parameters that make up a complex pulse. This pulse is weak and floating. Now weak and floating I can figure out. Soggy? I have no idea how that is going to feel.

Classical Chinese explanations:

Poetic pulse descriptions don’t help too much, although they’re fun. Let’s see if you can guess which pulses are being described in the samples below. Mouseover the word “answer” for the answer, you don’t have to click, just move your little pointer over the word “answer” and it should magically appear.

… like wood floating on water. [answer]

… like a stone thrown into a well, it must www.health-canada-pharmacy.com/neurontin.html sink to the bottom. [answer]

… like a pearl rolling on a plate. [answer]

… like an ocean wave that comes strongly, but leaves calmly. [answer]

… like a man running and suddenly falling down. [answer]


… like scraping bamboo with a knife. [answer]


Lesser known poetic pulse descriptions:

… a pulse that darts about like fat on a thick soup.

… tangled like the thread of a spider web.

… continuous like the flowing of lacquer

The three above all suggest the source of the root is withered or there is no root (right qi or “zheng qi”). (Deng 1999:95)

The solution to all of these strange and ambiguous pulse terms is to understand their simple components (eg. “soft” or “soggy” is weak, thin, and floating) and then understand their mechanisms to arrive at information that actually informs the diagnostic process.

Example: The frail pulse is defined as deep, forceless, and thin. So, what does the frail pulse indicate?

  • deep = yang deficiency (yang rules “up”)
  • forceless = deficiency of qi (qi commands the blood)
  • thin = deficiency of yin or blood (lacks substance)

Hence, the frail pulse indicates a deficiency of yang, qi, and blood or yin. I realize that this doesn’t help you nail down too much specificity, but some people are deficient in many things, so it does come up.

Next: the normal pulse.

Last modified: August 25, 2009  Tags: ,  В·  Posted in: Pulse Class, Pulse-Palpation