Numerology in classical Chinese Medicine

Founder’s note : this is a post by Brandon Brown, colleague and teacher of the Chinese Medicine Essentials : Six Conformations course. If you’re interested in learning more about that course – click here to be taken to the interest list signup.

When we start off trying to understand Chinese Medicine we start at the same place where we start when we try to understand anything: with numbers.

Soon after we have just entered the world we learn how to count the things we come in contact with, usually even before we begin speaking.  Right away, we are counting and taking stock of the world. So counting is fundamental to human experience. In Chinese  a number refers to something beyond simply the thing you are counting – in many cases a fundamental geography.  The numbers are truly symbols, pointing to something.  In the Arabic numeral system most of us use (1,2,3,4,5…), this is no longer the case – even if it was once so.

In Chinese, because of the symbology inherent in the characters, you have pictures describing an evolutionary cosmological landscape: 一,二, 三,四,五. To understand them you have to know about the creation myth that is embedded in them. This myth is described in something called the Hetu (diagram).  This ancient pictograph was allegedly discovered by the Great Yu on the back of a turtle who had an array of numbers with dots in a specific pattern.

This discover became the basis for counting in Chinese culture and formed the basis for the famous divining book of the Yijing (I Ching).

You can see the Hetu diagram to the right

When you overlay this diagram with the directions (South always being at the top, North at the bottom of Chinese maps) you get the following description in the Yijing of Heaven and Earth interacting with each other:

* Heaven one generates Water, Earth six matures Water.
* Earth two generates Fire, Heaven seven matures Fire.
* Heaven three generates Wood, Earth eight matures Wood.
* Earth four generates Metal, Heaven nine matures Metal.
* Heaven five generates Earth, Earth ten matures Earth.

In numbers, we have yin numbers and yang numbers. Yang are odd and yin are even. So in the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) you have “The Dao creates one, one creates two, two creates three, and from three come the 10,000 things.” The 10,000 things are created from a yang number.

So, for one through five we begin at one. ‘Yi’ 一 is one, and it is a single line like a stick much like ‘1’, but it is also a picture of heaven. Heaven is yang. The best place to see the picture of heaven is at the coast where water meets heaven. Evolutionarily we come from Water, so Water is where things start. Most creation myths include a devastating flood from which we emerge as we are today.

For ‘er’ 二, two, you have a drawing of heaven and earth together. This creates Fire, the opposing force to Water. But why if two is a yin number do we get Fire (clearly yang) as secondary? I’m not exactly sure, but I do know that elsewhere in Chinese metaphysics there is a strong preference to allow for yin within yang and yang within yin, as we see in the Taiji symbol. This allows for continual transformation and contact between the yin and the yang. If yang were above, and yin below we actually have separation and death, and what we are always after is a description of life, not death.

In the case of ‘san’ 三, three, there is a drawing of Heaven and Earth and something in between. This is the by-product of a functional contact of yin and yang. Something is always born out of such an interaction and therefore we have the birthing energy of Wood in the east. Three is a yang number and therefore something vital and motive has been created.

In the case of ‘si’ 四, four, we have to look a little bit deeper to understand the Metal correspondence. Firstly, we have something enclosed by four sides, like a coffin. Four is a yin number and Metal is opposite Wood. When we learn that there is a homophone ‘si’ 死 which means death, we have the smoking gun as it were. Four represents the contractive force of Autumn.

Finally ‘wu’ 五, five is found at the center of the Hetu. This is Earth and the reference point and the pivot that we stand at.

In ancient times this character was drawn as seen at right

The Shouwen Jiezi, an ancient dictionary says that ‘wu’ means ‘xing’ 行, or a crossroads or walking. This further reinforces the idea of a pivot or axle upon which life turns.

When we understand numbers in this way we can apply them to our diagnosis and generate treatments that take these numbers seriously.

For example, in the formulas courses that Chinese Medicine Central teaches the dosing of individual herbs follows this signature. The quantity of an herb will have a specific energetic direction for the formula. To support a Wood process, we can use a Wood number. The same is true in acupuncture, repeating a technique a certain number of times or at certain times of the day (as we see with the application of the Channel Clock) has a similar directional imprint that creates treatments that are very powerful indeed.

Interested in learning more about this, and figuring out how to apply it in situations you encounter daily?  Check out the six conformations course.  Just click here to learn more.

About Brandon Brown

In addition to obtaining the Masters of Science in Oriental Medicine, Brandon completed a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Classical Chinese Medicine where his continued study of the classical texts and cultural arts inform and deepen his practice of this ancient art form. His passion for education and learning have run deep throughout his life and he looks forward to exploring and discovering this beautifully ancient but still very applicable medicine with you. Learn more about Brandon

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