When a body organ is more than just a stand-alone function of anatomy

Zhang Ciyun
The holistic approach of traditional Chinese medicine views organs as part of a complex, interactive system that requires treating causes as well as symptoms.
Zhang Ciyun

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and Western doctors both agree that organs are a vital part of the human body. However, the way they define organs in the physiological scheme of things differs.

When traditional Chinese medicine doctors talk about an organ, they are thinking not only of a body structure, but also of a series of functions attributed to the organ and its interactions with other vital organs in the body.

In other words, traditional Chinese medicine views an organ as part of a complex system associated with emotions, mental activities, tissues and environmental influences, as well as other internal organs.

For instance, when traditional Chinese medicine talks about a deficiency of Qi, or vital life energy, in the spleen, it does not mean the organ is diseased, but rather that the spleen is out of harmony in one of its functions.

In addition, the spleen and stomach are often regarded as a whole in the digestive system. They are not only physiologically related, but they also influence each other pathologically. If the spleen is not healthy, it will affect the functions of the stomach and vice versa.

In traditional Chinese medicine, zangfu (脏腑) is a collective term for the internal organs of humans. It encompasses five zang organs — the heart, liver, spleen/pancreas, lungs and kidneys — and six fu organs: the gall bladder, stomach, large intestine, small intestine, bladder and sanjiao (三焦), which translates literally as “triple burner,” referring to the hollow space inside the trunk of the body.

In addition, there are extraordinary fu organs like the brain, bones, marrow, blood vessels and uterus.

The zangfu organs mutually correspond with one another. For instance, the heart is internally connected with the small intestine, the lungs with the large intestine, the spleen with the stomach, the liver with the gall bladder, the kidneys with the urinary bladder, and the pericardium with sanjiao.

There is another term in traditional Chinese medicine called zangxiang (藏象), where zang refers to the internal organs and xiang refers to the external manifestations of their physiological and pathological visualizations and states.

For instance, traditional Chinese medicine doctors believe that a tooth-marked tongue often indicates spleen deficiency and dampness in the body, and pale, vertically ridged and brittle nails are related to a deficiency of blood stored in the liver.

When a body organ is more than just a stand-alone function of anatomy
Shanghai Daily/Hellorf

In traditional Chinese medicine, the zangfu organs are believed to link to the Five Elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the zangfu organs are also believed to link to the Five Elements (五行) of wood, fire, earth, metal and water — which were considered by ancient Chinese philosophers to be the basic components of everything in the natural world and universe.

Respectively, the five elements — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — are expressed within the human body by the liver/gall bladder, heart/small intestine, spleen/stomach, lungs/large intestine and kidneys/urinary bladder.

The Five Elements theory is used in traditional Chinese medicine to explain how our human body is influenced by the weather and by the world around us.

In other words, the human organs are not only independent and mutually interactive, but they are also affected by the outside world.

Traditional Chinese medicine always focuses on a holistic approach to understanding normal body functions and the processes of disease, emphasizing both prevention and treatment of illness.

No wonder, Chinese people still use the popular saying toutong yitou, jiaotong yijiao (头痛医头,脚痛医脚), or “treating only the head for headache and only the feet for a foot sore,” to describe incompetent doctors who treat only symptoms but not the causes of disease.

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