Chinese medical symbolism: the organ clock

Established readers : this is one of many reposted articles you will see in the coming months.  It is part of the redesign process.  I hope you agree that all of these articles are worth another look!

Chinese language is symbolic – it uses pictures (now highly stylized and simplified) to represent concepts. Chinese culture, even today, is infused with symbolism.  What is a symbol?  There are many potential definitions, naturally.  For my purposes, I will simply say that a symbol is something perceptible that “points towards” a larger concept. There are many elegant and powerful systems of understanding symbols – one of my favorites comes from the work of Carl Jung.

To use a common example, the Apple logo () has come to represent a whole host of products, services, even people & communities.  You can, of course, look to religious symbols like the Christian cross, the Jewish Star of David, and so on.  These symbols hold great potency in many cases – in some real way they go beyond themselves.

Classical Chinese medicine takes the symbolic elements of the medicine very seriously. Over the thousands of years of the development of the medicine, a mind-boggling amount of symbolic information has been amassed and recorded.  So for those of us who are committed to a deep practice of this ancient medicine, nothing else could be more important in our study and practice.

Vast amounts of information usually ends up organized into more manageable chunks.  In Chinese medicine, various ways have been used to organize and help us find greater meaning in the symbols we encounter.  One of the ways we organize the symbolism concerning the organ systems of Chinese medicine is through the use of a 12 section “organ clock.”  Most people have heard about the organ clock – it’s one of the most popular Google searches that brings people to this website!  To get a sense for the basic layout of the organ clock – see my unbelievably amazing artistry below.

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.

Note: Focus on the general picture as some of the elements will not be explained right now (such as the constellation names “Wie, Mao, Bi,” etc).

The organs are laid out in the order of the energy flow through the channel system, then information known to be related is inserted in each section.

There are a lot of pieces of symbolic information that come in twelves. This is, I assume, why a twelve piece pie is so often used in discussing organ systems. We can use all of these to help us understand the organ systems, and thus the human body. Some of these groups twelves are:

  • The names of the organ systems, and thus the etymology of the Chinese characters associated with those organ systems. Also included here: information from a variety of medical systems concerning the physical organ associated with each organ system, information pertaining to the acupuncture channel associated with each organ system, etc…
  • Earthly Branches and their associated zodiac animals
  • YiJing (I Ching) tidal hexagrams
  • Two hour periods of the day
  • Month in the Chinese calendar, but also the related Western time of the year
  • Agricultural nodes – two per month, 24 total

We can also overlay information onto the twelve-part organ clock that comes in other multiples including (but not limited to):

  • The phase element (fire, earth, metal, water, wood) associated with each position (multiple of 5)
  • The direction of the compass and trigrams of the bagua (multiple of eight)
  • The six atmospheric influences or conformations (multiple of 6)
  • The relative concentration of Yin/Yang (multiple of 2)
  • The participation of each organ in one element of the Heaven, Earth, Human Being triad (multiple of 3)

Just imagine drawing several circles on tracing paper, one divided into twelve parts, one into eight, one into six and so on. Then imagine putting a representation of each piece of information in the correct section. When all of this information is put together, one begins to understand the complexity of the organ systems. For example, take the Heart. The Heart is explained as being the sovereign of the human body, keeping under control all of the other organ systems so they may work together in harmony. Using the organ clock we see that the Heart (only a partial list):

  • Is called Xin (心) in Chinese. This is often described as being a picture of the human heart organ with three drops of blood above it. Not particularly interesting, perhaps – though why there are three drops of blood is worth investigating. They could represent the ancient triad of Heaven, Earth and Human Being. Some primitive forms of the character look like a uterus, prompting an association between the Heart and femaleness.
  • Is associated with the Earthly Branch Wu (午), associated with the summer solstice and the animal of the Horse. The Horse is an interesting animal and deserves a post of its own, but everyone can agree that horses can work tirelessly (like the Heart) and that they tend to be very sensitive animals.
  • Is related to the Chinese agricultural periods (solar terms) called Xiao Shu and Da Shu, which are Small and Big/old summer heat, respectively. Summer heat is a heat with a damp quality – something anyone who has travelled in the American south in the summer can attest to. So, then, the Heart is related to this quality of intense heat.
  • Is associated with the element fire, in particular the Imperial fire that is pure, constant and the light of the whole body.

These are just a few of the elements we can use to expand our idea of what the organ system “Heart” represents. Now, because this is just a bit of an introduction and getting too long already, I won’t go into any greater detail. Let it suffice to say that when one investigates these elements to their fullest and combines it with more obviously medical information (like the kinds of herbs used to treat the organ, classical descriptions of physiology and pathology, etc) one has a true understanding of that system that is of great help in understanding difficult and complex diseases.

I hope to be able to continue to unpack the organ clock in future blog posts and possibly a course.  I’m particularly interested in demonstrating to others how this information can be used in Chinese herbal treatment.

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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