Journal of Acuherb in Medicine

TCM model of the body

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TCM’s view of the human body is only marginally concerned with anatomical structures, but focuses primarily on the body’s functions[ (such as digestion, breathing, temperature maintenance, etc.):

“The tendency of Chinese thought is to seek out dynamic functional activity rather than to look for the fixed somatic structures that perform the activities. Because of this, the Chinese have no system of anatomy comparable to that of the West.”

Ted Kaptchuck, The Web That Has No Weaver

These functions are aggregated and then associated with a primary functional entity – for instance, nourishment of the tissues and maintenance of their moisture are seen as connected functions, and the entity postulated to be responsible for these functions is xu? (blood)- but this is mainly a matter of stipulation, not anatomical insight.

The primary functional entities used by traditional Chinese medicine are q, xu?, the five zng organs, the six f? organs, and the meridians which extend through the organ systems. These are all theoretically interconnected: each zng organ is paired with a f? organ, which are nourished by the blood and concentrate qi for a particular function, with meridians being extensions of those functional systems throughout the body.


Main article: Qi#Traditional Chinese medicine

TCM distinguishes not only one but several different kinds of qi (?). In a general sense, qi is something that is defined by five “cardinal functions”:

  1. Actuation (??, tu?dng) – of all physical processes in the body, especially the circulation of all body fluids such as blood in their vessels. This includes actuation of the functions of the zang-fu organs and meridians.
  2. Warming (??, pinyin: w?nx) – the body, especially the limbs.
  3. Defense (??, pinyin: fngy) – against Exogenous Pathogenic Factors
  4. Containment (??, pinyin: gsh) – of body fluids, i.e. keeping blood, sweat, urine, semen etc. from leakage or excessive emission.
  5. Transformation (??, pinyin: qhu) – of food, drink, and breath into qi, xue, and jinye (fluids), and/or transformation of all of the latter into each other.

Vacuity of qi will especially be characterized by pale complexion, lassitude of spirit, lack of strength, spontaneous sweating, laziness to speak, non-digestion of food, shortness of breath (especially on exertion), and a pale and enlarged tongue.

Qi is believed to be partially generated from food and drink, and partially from air (by breathing). Another considerable part of it is inherited from the parents and will be consumed in the course of life.

In terms of location, TCM uses special terms for qi running inside of the blood vessels and for qi which is distributed in the skin, muscles, and tissues between those. The former is called yng-q (??), its function is to complement xu and its nature has a strong yin aspect (although qi in general is considered to be yang). The latter is called we-q (??), its main function is defence and it has pronounced yang nature.
Qi also circulates in the meridians. Just as the qi held by each of the zang-fu organs, this is considered to be part of the principal qi (??, pinyin: yun q) of the body[49] (also called ?? pinyin: zh?n q, true qi, or ?? pinyin: yun q, original qi).

Xue (blood)

In contrast to most of the other functional entities, xu? (?, “blood”) is correlated with a physical form – the red liquid running in the blood vessels. Its concept is, nevertheless, defined by its functions: nourishing all parts and tissues of the body, safeguarding an adequate degree of moisture, and sustaining and soothing both consciousness and sleep.
Typical symptoms of a lack of xu? (usually termed “blood vacuity” [??, pinyin: xu? x?}) are described as: Pale-white or whithered-yellow complexion, dizziness, flowery vision, palpitations, insomnia, numbness of the extremities; pale tongue; “fine” pulse.[54]

Jinye (bodily fluids)

Closely related to xu? are the j?ny? (??, usually translated as body fluids), and just like xu? they are considered to be yin in nature, and defined first and foremost by the functions of nurturing and moisturizing the different structures of the body.Their other functions are to harmonize yin and yang, and to help with secretion of waste products.
J?ny? are ultimately extracted from food and drink, and constitute the raw material for the production of xu?; conversely, xu? can also be transformed into j?ny?.Their palpable manifestations are all bodily fluids: tears, sputum, saliva, gastric juice, joint fluid, sweat, urine, etc.

The zang-fu

Main article: Zang-fu

The zng-f? (simplified Chinese: ??; traditional Chinese: ??) constitute the centre piece of TCM’s systematization of bodily functions. Bearing the names of organs, they are, however, only secondarily tied to (rudimentary) anatomical assumptions (the f? a little more, the zng much less).As they are primarily defined by their functions,they are not equivalent to the anatomical organs – to highlight this fact, their names are usually capitalized.

The term zng (?) refers to the five entities considered to be yin in nature – Heart, Liver, Spleen, Lung, Kidney -, while f? (?) refers to the six yang organs – Small Intestine, Large Intestine, Gallbladder, Urinary Bladder, Stomach and S?njia?.
The zng’s essential functions consist in production and storage of q and blood; in a wider sense they are stipulated to regulate digestion, breathing, water metabolism, the musculoskeletal system, the skin, the sense organs, aging, emotional processes, mental activity etc.[63] The f? organs’ main purpose is merely to transmit and digest (??, pinyin: chun-hu) substances like waste, food, etc.

Since their concept was developed on the basis of W? Xng philosophy, each zng is paired with a f?, and each zng-f? pair is assigned to one of five elemental qualities (i.e., the Five Elements or Five Phases). These correspondences are stipulated as:

  • Fire (?) = Heart (?, pinyin: x?n) and Small Intestine (??, pinyin: xia?chng) (and, secondarily, S?njia? [??, Triple Burner] and Pericardium [??, pinyin: x?nba])
  • Earth (?) = Spleen (?, pinyin: p) and Stomach (?, pinyin: we)
  • Metal (?) = Lung (?, pinyin: fe) and Large Intestine (??, pinyin: dchng)
  • Water (?) = Kidney (?, pinyin: shn) and Bladder (??, pinyin: p?nggu?ng)
  • Wood (?) = Liver (?, pinyin: g?n) and Gallbladder (?, pinyin: d?n)

The zng-f? are also connected to the twelve standard meridians – each yang meridian is attached to a f? organ and five of the yin meridians are attached to a zng. As there are only five zng but six yin meridians, the sixth is assigned to the Pericardium, a peculiar entity almost similar to the Heart zng.


Acupuncture chart from the Ming Dynasty (c. 1368-1644)

Main article: Meridian (Chinese medicine)

The meridians (??, pinyin: j?ng-lu) are believed to be channels running from the zng-f? in the interior (?, pinyin: l?) of the body to the limbs and joints (“the surface” [?, pinyin: bia?]), transporting qi and xu? (blood).TCM identifies 12 “regular” and 8 “extraordinary” meridians; the Chinese terms being ???? (pinyin: sh-r j?ngmi, lit. “the Twelve Vessels”) and ???? (pinyin: q j?ng b? mi) respectively. There’s also a number of less customary channels branching off from the “regular” meridians.


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