Classical Chinese medical symbolism: Wood, Metal and Spring

Today I am featuring the first part of a two part guest post by my friend and colleague at NCNM, Michael “Delli” Dell’orfano. His article is a fine elaboration of the ideas I briefly presented in my post about Rest and Activity in the Year of Sagely Living. I will post the remainder of the article over the next few days. It will be followed up by another series that I’ve authored myself concerning treating external invasions with Classical Chinese Medicine.


As the vernal equinox approaches we find ourselves situated in the season of spring according to the Chinese calendar, yet the organ systems clock tells us that this time of year corresponds with the Lung and Large Intestine organ systems. How does one make any sense of this?

The relationship of the Wood organ systems and the Metal organ systems of Chinese Medicine can be understood through the use of Yin Yang theory. Yin Yang theory is one of the fundamental principles upon which our medicine was founded, and so I think it is worthwhile to explain a bit about the Taiji (太極) symbol (often called the Yin Yang symbol) and how it originated. It is important to keep in mind that ancient Chinese medicine is a science of movement and energy consisting of symbols. Symbols are bridges between matter and consciousness since they have the potential to resonate at the same frequency. The quality of the frequency can reveal to us similarities between the physical world and the holographic world. On one level, symbols are meant to be a simple way to convey an idea, but at the same time these symbols contain vast amounts of information that we must first comprehend in order to use them effectively.
Upon observation of the symbol we can notice the contrast in color. Light and dark are contained within it, but do not disregard the fact that a dark circle exist within the light area and vice versa. The fact that Yin always exists within Yang, and Yang within Yin, tells us that nothing is purely Yin or purely Yang, but rather that all life is a mixture of Yin and Yang. In my opinion, this clue leads us to reason that the two are mutually dependent on one another for the continuation of life.

The shape of the Taiji is a circle, which tells us that it relates to infinity or completeness. We also get a sense of movement when we look at the way the dark and light shades are drawn in. These clues turn out to be very important because the Taiji is telling us that yin yang theory can be used to explain the movements of nature, because it is based on the movement of the seasons, and thus the Wu Xing (五 行, five elements, five phases, five phase movements) are closely related to it.

The Taiji symbol originated from the ancient sages who observed the cycle of the Sun using an eight foot long pole posted in the ground at a right angle to record the position of the Sun’s shadow throughout the year. They found that the length of the year was 365.25 days and then divided the year up into twenty-four segments including the solstices and the equinoxes using the sunrise and Big Dipper positions.

They used six concentric circles, marked twenty-four segments points, divided the circle into twenty-four sectors, and then recorded the length of the shadow each day. After connecting the lines and dimming the portion between the solstices they created a picture that looked like the modern day Taiji symbol.

sun_tai_jiThe Taiji symbol is actually a diagram charting the movement of the Sun so that the ancients could then use this information to better understand the world. This scientific breakthrough would allow the ancient sages to better understand our relationship to time and space and give them a starting point for classifying different types of energies.

The yin yang theory background is pertinent to understanding the Wu Xing (五 行, five elements, five phases, five phase movements) because they resonate on many levels. Both the wu xing and yin and yang move in cycles throughout the seasons. One interpretation/understanding of the Wu Xing I came across stated that the elements are not five distinct things, but are one cosmic force, differentiated into five appearances by time and space.

Maybe this is good way to think about them because when first learning Chinese medicine many students tend to think of Jin (金, metal) and Mu (木, wood/flora) as being enemies since “Metal chops down Wood”. It is better to think of them as having a complementary relationship, because truly they balance one another out in a physiological state. When the relationship is in balance, Jin/metal works along the Ke (control) cycle to keep Mu in check since wood/flora can become relentless. If Jin over controlschinese_medicine_five_element Mu, then our internal “forest” would be destroyed and a pathological process would be underway.

Nature can also be described by Tian Gan Di Zhi (天幹 heavenly stems and 地支 earthly branches). Together, the ten Heavenly Stems and twelve Earthly Branches create the energy of the time and space continuum. Chinese think of the year as energy moving in a circular motion, while in the Western civilization we think of time as linear.

The stems and branches were originally a counting system used to keep track of hours, days, months, and years by the ancients after they had discovered the world moves in circles or cycles as proven by the Sun diagram. In the seasons, Jin/metal represents fall and relates to the Tian Gan (heavenly stems) Geng and Xin , while Mu/wood represents spring and relates to the Tian Gan Jia and Yi . Jia is the first Tian Gan, and it is classified as yang wood in character, while Yi, the second Tian Gan, is considered yin wood in character. Both are associated with the springtime.

Jia is picture of a very hard tree with scales or armor around it. The traditional Chinese etymology is the idea of a helmet on a big man. It also had the meaning of a claw gripping tightly on to something, meaning very great strength and protection. Yi represents the idea of a seed of a plant which is breaking through the earth. Together Jiayi means the movement of life as it bursts open. The spring season represents the movement of Heaven and Earth coming together after being separated in the fall and winter.


Editors note: I regret having to cut off Delli’s article here, there were really no great stopping points. However, the whole article would be too long to digest on the web in one sitting! In the next part of this article, we will learn more about metal and the interplay between the symbolism of both metal and wood.

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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