'Unity of heaven and man' a cornerstone of traditional Chinese medicine

Zhang Ciyun
Ancient Chinese philosophies tie humans, heaven and earth together in a harmony of life that needs balance to best survive.
Zhang Ciyun

“Unity of heaven and man” is a key concept in ancient Chinese philosophies and religions, including Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Historical researchers agree that the concept first appeared in “I Ching” (易经), or “Book of Changes” in English — one of the oldest classics in China’s history and widely deemed to be the true root of the Chinese civilization.

The concept emphasizes that man is but a part of nature and that heaven and earth are at one with man. Above us is the heaven, which includes the sky, sun, moon, air, wind, rain and snow; below us is the earth, which means water, mountains, animals, plants and all other features.

Only upon reaching a balance among these three parts can the world we inhabit tangibly exist.

This concept is also found in the “Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon,” the earliest text of the traditional Chinese medicine.

For instance, Chapter 79’s “The Dew of the Year” in the second volume of the book states that man is in exchange with heaven and earth, and responds to the sun and moon.

People may all know that ocean tides on Earth are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon.

Traditional Chinese physicians have always believed that the phases of the moon also regulate women's menstrual cycles. Some studies in the West a few decades ago also found that women with cycle lengths of about 29.5 days had menses onset that corresponded to phases of the moon.

In Chinese, menses is called yuejing (月经). Here, the first Chinese character yue means “moon” or “month,” and one of the second character’s meanings is “norm” or “regulation.”

'Unity of heaven and man' a cornerstone of traditional Chinese medicine

The concept of “unity of heaven and man” in traditional Chinese medicine holds that man is a part of nature, and heaven and earth at one with man. It helps people understand how their health is often influenced by nature, such as seasonal changes.

Chapter 75’s “Pricking the Joints of True Evil” in the same volume of the book stresses that man not only corresponds to heaven and earth, but is also in mutual agreement with the four seasons of the year.

This means that changes of seasons can also affect the functions of the human body. That’s why traditional Chinese medicine doctors always advise people to take timely measures to prepare their bodies to cope with the change of seasons.

There’s a quite common phrase in Chinese that may better illustrate this point. The saying chunwu qiudong (春捂秋冻) means literally “to keep warm in spring and stay cool in autumn,” or in other words, one should not rush to cast away winter clothes in spring nor put them on again while autumn still basks in some warmth.

The Chinese saying sounds akin to the English expression: “Button to the chin, till May be in; cast not a clout, till May be out.”

However, unlike the English idiom, which seems to warn people against being caught out in a cold spell in spring, the Chinese phrase emphasizes the necessity of adjusting one’s body and preparing it for the temperature changes that come with the arrival of a new season.

That is because temperature changes in different seasons may often cause disharmony and imbalance in the human body, thus resulting in illness, particularly in one’s respiratory, digestive and cardiovascular systems.

So, the concept of the “unity of heaven and man” in traditional Chinese medicine is meant to advise people to obtain a better understanding of the relationship between nature and human health.

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