Behind the Scenes of: ‘The Yellow Monkey Emperor’s Classic of Chinese Medicine’ with Spencer Hill

In this blog post, Spencer Hill recalls the process of drawing the cartoons for The Yellow Monkey Emperor’s Classic of Chinese Medicine and how he met and came to work with Damo Mitchell.

Damo first raised the idea for this book in July 2013 whilst we were on the Lotus Nei Gong retreat in Sweden. He wanted an aide memoire for students of Chinese medicine to recall the common Zang Fu syndromes, and he believed my cartoons were the answer. It wasn’t the first time we had used cartoons in this way. I drew hundreds of illustrations to show the dragon Dao yin movements in The Four Dragons, a diagram or two here and there, and in the first edition of his very first book Daoist Nei Gong: A Process for Change I supplied six cartoons to accompany his writing.


It was the creation of this book which started our friendship. I was already practising internal martial arts with his dad Paul in Somerset in 2008, when he asked me if I could help his son out with a project. I had collaborated on a number of books at that time and Paul knew I was working as a management consultant and liked organising people. It was Paul who introduced me to the internal arts, and from there to Damo.  He (Paul) is a superb teacher and I have many fond memories of the time spent training in Somerset. I know I wouldn’t be the better person I am today if I hadn’t found Paul, Damo and Lotus Nei Gong.


So, I agreed to help and Damo and I met in a cafe in Glastonbury to plan his very first book. We discussed the content, the implications of publishing his knowledge, layout, time-frames and drank lots of tea and hot chocolate.


“I’m not sure I will be very good at writing,” he said to me.


Yet, within a fortnight the first chapter on breathing was written. Within months the book was self published and the rest is history. Damo is one of those enviable people that can turn his hand to anything and do it well, including writing.


Damo and I have always believed that humour and the Daoist arts go hand in hand. He writes about it in his book White Moon on the Mountain Peak where he describes it as a ‘large part of the Daoist tradition’ derived from the Dao De Jing and the writings of Zhuangzi.  In every lecture I have attended of his in the past nine years you would find me sitting chuckling to myself and doodling as he explains a martial, medicinal or philosophical concept.


So, back to this book. I enthusiastically agreed to the concept, and Damo suggested that it would be a series of cartoon people showing the symptoms of each syndrome with labels to clarify them. The very first cartoons were similar to the summary pages within the book now, but using cartoon monks rather than animals. It didn’t feel right though, as clearly there were too many syndromes to display on one cartoon character, so I suggested a group of monks chatting about how they felt instead. This didn’t work either and although the concept of the book was intriguing to Singing Dragon at the time, my cartoons were not hitting the spot.


Time passed. A year to be precise, and in that time my partner Vicky and I created Cartoons from the Horse’s Mouth. In the creation of this collection of over 100 equestrian cartoons I developed a new style, and on my birthday in July 2014 I sent Damo a new proposal for the Zang Fu project. I suggested that it needed to be a collection of comics not single frame cartoons, with a cast of characters to get across the diverse symptoms and make them memorable. What about using the twelve astrological animals?


Damo was honest…he couldn’t see how I was going to make this work…but he would leave it to me. I started to research and make notes. I needed a world and some rules and themes to follow, and the notebook I created probably has had as many hours invested in it as the book itself! By January 2015 we had some examples to show Singing Dragon, and by March we had signed the contracts. 78 syndromes and many months later we produced the book.


For most people pictures are more memorable than words, and humour is supposed to increase this further. The book aims to make over 700 symptoms across 78 syndromes more memorable. These are animals which talk and walk upright, so clearly where I map a meridian or show an organ I am using an approximation of the human equivalent rather than delving into veterinary science. There are other hidden clues and references too, which I have included in the cartoons drawn from the Neijing Suwen, Damo’s books, Chuang Tzu, Daoist mythology and other Chinese medicine texts. If something or someone is specifically referenced or hinted at then I encourage you to go and find out more. This is a fascinating subject which requires several lifetimes of study to absorb it all, but you have to start somewhere, right?


There are moments in your life when you make a decision, have an experience, learn something or meet someone which confirms that you are following your Ming or destiny. Three of mine culminate to create this book; my belief in the power of Chinese medicine, the decision to learn to draw and become a cartoonist, and meeting Damo. It would be egotistical of me to hope that this book changes your life as much as those three things did for me, but if it makes you smile and you learn a few things whilst on your journey, then my work here is done.


Click here to read more about The Yellow Monkey Emperor’s Classic of Chinese Medicine.


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