The fundamental concepts that underpin traditional Chinese medicine

Zhang Ciyun
Yin and Yang, the Five Elements and Qi form the basis of detecting and treating disease, but also extend into many areas of life, including naming children.
Zhang Ciyun

The theory and practices of traditional Chinese medicine are based on fundamental concepts of ancient Chinese philosophies, namely Yin and Yang (阴阳), and the Five Elements (五行). The Chinese apply these concepts not only to medicine, but also in fields such as astronomy, geography, sciences, literature, music, agriculture, the military and business.

Yin and Yang

More than 5,000 years ago, a cultural hero of mythology called Fuxi, widely regarded as one of the primogenitors of Chinese civilization, created “Zhouyi” — a text also known as “I Ching” or the “Book of Changes.” It is without dispute the true root of Chinese civilization.

In the book, the legendary Chinese forefather concluded that the whole universe and everything in the natural world are dominated by the constant interaction between two opposing but complementary energies, namely Yin and Yang.

The typical black-and-white Taiji Diagram (太极图) is widely regarded as the best representation of that relationship.

According to the World Health Organization’s definition, the qualities of Yin include coolness, dimness, descendancy, stillness, introversion and heaviness. Yang is the opposite, with qualities of warmness, brightness, ascendancy, movement, extroversion, lightness and clarity.

Yin and Yang have reciprocal roots and cannot be separated. Also, under certain circumstances, Yin may transform into Yang, and Yang into Yin.

In traditional Chinese medicine, disease is perceived as a disharmony of Qi, or “vital life energy,” which comprises Yin and Yang. When the flow of Qi in one’s body is insufficient, unbalanced or interrupted, Yin and Yang become unbalanced, leading to illness. On the other hand, balance and harmony of Yin and Yang are manifestations of health.

Five Elements

Ancient Chinese philosophers believed that all things in the universe and all natural phenomena can be represented by wuxing, or the Five Elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

The Five Elements interact with one other in the cycles of generation and restriction.

In the generation cycle, one element reinforces and promotes the vitality of another, while in the restriction cycle, one element neutralizes another’s ability to transform and develop.

For example, in the generation cycle, wood feeds fire, fire creates earth (ash), earth bears metal, metal carries water, and water nourishes wood. By contrast, in the restriction cycle, wood restrains earth, earth absorbs water, water quenches fire, fire melts metal, and metal chops wood.

The fundamental concepts that underpin traditional Chinese medicine
Huang Yihuan / SHINE

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners use the Five Elements theory and other tools to diagnose and treat diseases, and promote health.

In their eyes, the Five Elements are closely related to and have special effects on particular human organs. For instance:

• Wood is associated with the liver and gall bladder, and is responsible for the smooth flow of Qi.

• Fire is related to the heart and small intestine, and is responsible for the circulation of blood.

• Earth corresponds to the spleen and stomach, and is essential to transform and transport nutrients in the body.

• Metal is related to the lung and large intestine, and helps regulate water metabolism in the body and elimination of waste.

• Water is linked with the kidney and bladder, and is responsible for the production of Qi and adjusting the body’s water metabolism.

In Chinese astrology, every birth year is also assigned one of the Five Elements. For example, the current lunar year is the Year of the Dragon, but more specifically, it is the wood dragon, which is believed to have special ramification on natural conditions, business, the environment, personal affairs, and the health and fortune of people born in the year.

Therefore, based on the place, date and time of birth, a newborn’s horoscope may tell the parents that a supplement of one of the Five Elements will enable the baby to enjoy smoother fortune and better health.

Accordingly, parents often give their newborn babies names that include the Chinese character of a particular element lacking in the child’s horoscope.

For instance, some parents use the word xin (鑫) in the name of a child who needs supplementary metal in life, and this Chinese word is comprised of three Chinese characters of jin (金), meaning gold or metal.

Other words frequently seen in Chinese names include yan (焱), with three characters of fire in it; miao (淼), comprising three characters of water; and lin sen (林森), a two-word given name that contains five Chinese characters of wood.

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