Learning about the Lung through the Chinese medicine organ clock

chinese medicine lung organ systemTo this day, some of my most popular posts involve the organ clock.

I find the organ clock to be fascinating, but lately I haven’t thought that much about it.  Thus, I haven’t posted much about it.

As our education has focused more and more on the superficially practical information (points, needling, formulas) it’s become easier to ignore all that esoteric stuff we learned earlier on.

However, in my mentorship with Heiner Fruehauf, I’ve come to understand how important this symbolism can be on a very practical level.  Because of this realization, I’m going to delve back into that material and offer it to my friends here at Chinese Medicine Central.  I’m going to go in the order of the clock, starting with Lung.  I’ll offer basic information and a few deeper gems.  Please remember that I’m a student and what I offer here is either a repackaging of what I’ve understood from my Professors or is my speculation and experience based on that material.

One more note – not all of this information comes strictly from the organ clock, per se, but much of it is informed by that symbolic powerhouse.

Lung : Minister of Purity

Name and official :  Lung is called Fei in Chinese.  The term Fei is related etymologically to a word Pei (I believe the character is 佩, I could be off) that anciently was a term for the insignia that ranked officials would wear on the outside of their garments to denote their rank.  Through this and many other symbols, I have come to associate the Lung with the face we show to the world and the external surface of our body.  It’s also a clear relationship to the official of the Lung, the Minister or Prime Minister.

The Minister is the functional arm of the Emperor in the world.  The Emperor (Heart) proclaims the direction of the nation (body) and the Minister figures out the practical implementation of the edict.  One way I think about this physiologically is through considering the role of metal connecting fire down to water.  It is through the descending power of metal that the fire of the Heart is able to warm and animate the cold Kidney water, thus steaming it upward – Shaoyin circulation.

As the minister, Lung gathers Qi from the entire body and distributes it where it is needed.  Some texts say that the Lung is like a lid on the whole system, catching everything that makes it up to its exalted level.  When this function of Lung is damaged, disorders of Qi are the result.  For instance, a Lung deficiency can create symptoms of Qi deficiency like fatigue and difficulty moving about.

One last important point is that I have learned never to call the Chinese organ system LUNGS as that makes too much of the physical aspect of this organ system.  Instead, simply call it Lung.  Remember that Chinese organ systems are both physical and energetic.  Further, the physical aspect includes a number of things that the Lung organ system energy regulates.  In the case of Lung, for instance, we have to consider the skin surface, the respiratory features of each body cell, etc…  Why is this important?  Language is powerful.  If you continually say Lungs Lungs Lungs, you will slowly (or quickly) come to oversimplify this broadly useful concept.

Element (Wu Xing) : The Lung is the metal zang/solid organ, paired with the metal fu/hollow organ Large Intestine.  This is the first place that the balance of purity and filth come into play for Lung.  The Lung is often said to be the sensitive organ system.  We can think about this from an elemental perspective – metal is malleable, manipulable by external circumstances (heat) to the degree that it can be melted.  In a polished state it also easily reflects the world around it.  On the Western side of things, we can think simply of how easily our lungs are affected by the outside world.  Dust, heat, cold, viruses and bacteria – the lungs are subjected to a wide variety of insults and while it’s amazing they take what they do (resiliance is another, perhaps paradoxical aspect of metal) they do become irritated relatively easily.

Thus, it is important for the Lung to have some degree of purity to function properly.  It likes things to be on the middle road, not too hot, not too cold, not too damp, not too dry.  Like cool, clear mountain air – unencumbered by heavy particulates.  One more note about purity – in Chinese medicine, metal is associated with the color white.  I think of pure white snow and the shining white of great white cumulus clouds.  These bring to bear the imagelung_cloudsry of water and dampness (discussed below) but also the purity of this organ system.  We need Lung’s purity to help us mediate the impurities in our environment, to distribute clean clear Qi throughout the body.

We can also consider the descending function of Lung through the lens of metal.  Lung sits in the highest place of any organ systems (though we often think of Heart as occupying this space) and extends fairly deeply into the body cavity.  Breathing, through the rhythm of the attached diaphragm, shifts all of the organs around at least a bit.  From such an exalted position, the only direction to go is down.  Further, through the association with the great descender – Large Intestine – the metal system of the body goes from upper orifice to lower, allowing the most complete passage through the human body.  (Clearly from a Western physical perspective, the Lung and Large Intestine do not connect – work with me, here.)  Lung is easily afflicted by problems in downward movement – the funniest example being hiccups/hiccoughs.  Note, hiccups aren’t funny for everyone.

Conformation (Liu Qi) : Lung is Taiyin damp, partnered with Spleen.  Taiyin is the first conformation on the Yin level – sandwiched between Shaoyang and Shaoyin.  Taiyin disease, from a Shang Han Lun perspective, is comprised mostly of digestive symptoms – not Lung symptoms (which are usually more at a Taiyang level).  So, what can Lung being Taiyin tell us about Lung?  Lung is closely associated with fluid metabolism in the body.  Taiyin fluid congestion can cause phlegm at the Lung level.  The Lung is also said to catch the fluids steaming upward from Kidney and Spleen.  We can think again about the sensitivity of Lung, not only to heat and cold, but to dampness and dryness.  Everyone can recall an experience of their Lung fluid metabolism being out of whack – coughing up huge amounts of white phlegm on the one hand or having a dry, hacking cough on the other.

Going back to the relationship of the Lung to Qi, we can consider the deep relationship of Spleen and Lung.  Spleen Qi and Lung Qi deficiency both involve similar symptoms of a low energy state.  When the Spleen is failing to lift essence of what we consume up to the Lung or when the Lung is failing to spread that essence throughout the body, the result is great fatigue and symptoms of low energy in all the organ systems.

The first month and spring Agricultural Periods : We’ve already had some discussion about the Spring association of the Lung on Chinese Medicine Central. Lung is on the first position of the organ clock, kicking off the year around the time of the western zodiac sign Aquarius, encompassing the Chinese New Year. Aside from the obvious water associations with Aquarius, the water bearer – we can simply consider the early spring.  This period is associated with the two Agricultural Periods 立春 lìchūn (beginning of spring) and 雨水 yǔshuǐ (rain water/establishment of spring).  Again we find water symbolism!  However, the greater issue here is that of spring energy.  The spring energy available at this early time is mostly submerged.  Sensitive people (and animals) can sense it – of course.  But anyone can see the early croci.  The world is under a kind of tension at this time.  The Yang energy is rising, but the cold Yin is still firmly in predominance.  It is this quiet tension, the calm before the spring storm, that exemplifies Lung energy.  Quiet, unhurried, life giving tension.

Lung 7 (LU-7) : 列缺, liè quē/Broken Sequence: I thought I would look at a commonly used point on the Lung channel to try to dig a little deeper into this material.  Lie Que is one of Ma Danyang’s 12 Celestial Points (Tain Xing Shi Er Xue), which are 12 points determined to be maximally effective for a wide range of conditions (compiled as such, I believe, around the 1400’s) and is a point used quite often in clinical practice.  It is the Luo connecting point for the Lung channel (thus an access point to the associated fu organ, Large Intestine).  It is the Ruler point for the back of the head and neck, so has an influence on pain and tightness in that area.  It is also the Master point for the Ren Mai/Conception Vessel.

I’ll quickly review the top 3 most important and interesting functions of Lie Que.  The first, most obvious, function is that this point strongly regulates Lung Qi and can be a great help in releasing the exterior in external invasion situations.  This relates to the metal element association of Lung and metal’s relationship to the surface of the body.

We can also think about the connection of Large Intestine and the way that this allows for swift purging of things out of the system.  The second interesting function relates to the Master connection to Ren Mai.  Ren Mai is most often associated with female reproductive physiology and pathology.  We can relate back to the descending function of metal to consider how this point might help to expel downward anything being retained in the uterus.  Particularly combined with Large Intestine-4 (contraindicated in pregnancy) we have a powerful, metal descending ability.

Finally, consider LU-7’s ability to treat urinary disturbances.  In the West, we don’t commonly think of the Lung when we think of urination.  But through the deep association of Lung with water, we can easily understand how a powerful point on the Lung channel might help to resolve incontinence or difficult urination.


As always, there is so much more symbolic information that could be included – consider this an introduction.  I’d be interested to hear any thoughts this has started for folks, and as always I would be happy to hear your contributions.  Thanks!


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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