7 Keys to Understanding the Classical Chinese Medicine Concept of Organs

HT = Heart, SI = Small Intestine, BL = Bladder, KID=Kidney, PC=Pericardium, TW=Triple Warmer/Heater/Burner, GB= Gall Bladder, LIV=Liver, LU=Lung, LI=Large Intestine, ST= Stomach, SP=Spleen.

I’d like to piggyback off of the organ clock post and introduce the Chinese medicine theory of organs in a little more
depth. It’s important to understand that there is not just one right way to view the body. There is no more validity in viewing it in the Western medicine manner than there is in viewing it in the Chinese medicine manner.

Each system (and many others) have taken different features of the human being to be primary, each system has used their own conceptual understanding to render a viable picture of the body and its interactions. Perhaps most importantly, each system uses their vision of the human being to craft effective treatments. It seems that different systems will create different spheres of effectiveness – a topic for a future post. With no further ado, here are seven things you need to know to enhance your understanding of Chinese medicine organ systems.

  1. There are twelve organ systems in Chinese medicine: Heart, Small Intestine, Bladder, Kidney, Pericardium, Triple Burner, Gall Bladder, Liver, Lung, Large Intestine, Stomach and Spleen. The typical convention is to capitalize when we are talking about Chinese organ systems and not to capitalize when we are referring to the anatomical organ known to Western medicine. Another convention is to refer to the in the singular. So, for instance, the Lung organ system includes the Lungs, but we don’t say – for example – The emotion of the Lungs is grief.
  2. They’re not ORGANS. Probably the most important thing to understand is that the Classical Chinese view is not based on materialism. Although the ancient Chinese did investigate the inside of the body and were clearly aware of the physical structures that Western medicine now names “organs” this is not primary for the medicine’s understanding. The organ is included in a larger concept that is often called the “organ system,” which you have already seen me use many times. This organ system includes the physical organ, it’s associated channel(s), the tissues, surfaces, functions and other bodily features associated with that organ and other more rarefied aspects of the system.
  3. The organs work together as a dynamic whole. While each system has specific functions and can be talked about in isolation, the beauty of the Chinese medical view of the body only becomes truly apparent when you focus on the interconnections. No system is complete without seeing its relationship to the rest. This can make it a little confusing to study because our brains seem to find it simpler to focus on one mono-dimensional thing at a time. TCM has largely lost its understanding of the physiological interactions of the organs except where those interactions are extremely simplified.
  4. The organs are a reflection of the macrocosm. This principle relates back to Chinese philosophical understanding of the holographic nature of reality. For a complete review of the holographic worldview, see Michael Talbot’s The Holographic Universe. The basic gist of this philosophy is that the fundamental nature of reality is reflected in its smallest pieces just as much as in its largest. The small reflect the large, and the large reflect the small – they’re both reflecting something much deeper than themselves. In Chinese medicine we study this principle all the time. On one level, each organ is a reflection of all the others – the parts reflect the whole. On another level, the total complex of organs and each organ individually reflect some aspect of nature. For example, the Heart reflects the nature of our Sun and acts as such within the body. Understanding these layers of meaning help us to fully comprehend the human body, and studying the human body through this lens helps us to gain a greater understanding about the Universe. It’s funny like that.
  5. Following from that, then, the organ systems can be understood using natural and governmental symbolism. For me personally, learning about the Chinese concept of the body was much easier once I learned to think about it as an ecosystem or as a country. With the former, I could simply walk in nature in a mindful way and reflect on the various features I found there. IS the Heart like the Sun? What would that mean if it were? How does that bear out in diagnosis? In treatment? I think this practice does its work on more subtle levels as well – it must be why we are constantly urged to spend time in nature as CCM students. Using metaphors about the government helped me a great deal in understanding the functional relationships between organ systems. If the Heart is like the Emperor (or the King, possibly the President) then what relationships should I see between it and the Lung, which is said to be like the Prime Minister (or Presidential Cabinet?).
  6. The organs’ interrelationships are therapeutically useful. Far from being a simple intellectual exercise, understanding the organ systems as networks of interrelationship bears out in treatment. An example: imagine we are looking at some kind of problem that – through the intake process, including tongue and pulse taking – we come to understand as being centered in the Heart organ system. A TCM process of differentiation would then focus on the Heart, most likely, only adding other organ systems in limited circumstances (such as adding Lung if there are breathing difficulties). A more nuanced approach will consider the interrelationships using various systems, such as five-element or six conformation. Using a five element approach, we might wonder whether fire is failing to be generated by wood, or whether it is being over-controlled by water. We would search for symptoms that might suggest this, we would recheck the pulse to see whether we had missed something. There are specific systems to use when doing these investigations, but the key is simply to dive deeply into the physiology in order to comprehend pathology. It will yield excellent treatment.
  7. Even with this complex understanding – the organ systems are not PRIMARY. In a sense, the organ systems are simply a useful way of organizing the overwhelming amount of information we can get from studying the human body. It is a convenient way because it has clear physical correlates. But we must also consider the fluids of the body (Qi, Blood, Jing, Shen, JinYe) as well as any more subtle aspects of the human being. We must also keep in mind that the body is not just a jumble of parts, but a integral functioning whole – when we treat we are not “tonifying the Kidney” but instead having a specific kind of impact on an infinitely complicated system using a particular technique. Maybe that’s splitting hairs, but it seems an important distinction.

There’s a lot more to know – but that’s a good start. Please put any questions or thoughts in the comments!

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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