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What is Chinese Medicine?

This is such a loaded question and I have struggled to be able to explain it in a “30 second elevator pitch”. Particularly because in the US, we aren't raised in a cultural environment that fully embraces the concepts and theories of Chinese medicine.  

Chinese medicine really began in a time when people were living in the elements, living with nature day in, day out. They saw how cold, heat, dryness, dampness, etc. affected the environment around them, the plants, animals and themselves. Over thousands of years a complete medical system was formed based around the foundational concepts of Yin and Yang (Yaw-ng) and the Five Elements. These concepts arose from people observing and trying to interpret natural phenomena in the world and the body in health and disease in hopes of living in harmony with its laws.  Disease will disrupt the flow of Qi in the body and thus the balance of yin and yang. The major causes of disease are thought to be from environmental factors, internal emotions and lifestyle factors like diet, sleep, exercise, etc.  

Yin and Yang 

  • Yang is associated with light and thus daytime: Sun, brightness, summer, activity, heaven, round, time, East, South, left, Qi, energy, expansion, fire, produces energy

  • Yin is associated with darkness: Moon, shade, winter, rest, Earth, flat, space, West, North, right, blood, fluids, contraction, water, produces form.


This list is only the tip of the iceberg as it has been said one can see Yin and Yang in everything in the universe. But the list is not everything. The real beauty in the concept of Yin and Yang lies in how they interact. Unlike many of the concrete concepts in western science, Yin and Yang exist in a continuum, like thinking about how night changes into day, winter into summer, etc. It encompasses the peaks and valleys and phases of nature. Pure Yin would be at the darkest hour of night or deep winter while pure Yang would be at the brightest hour of day and peak summer but once Yin reaches its purest state (darkness or winter) it is the Yang energy with Yin that pushes the change to create the sunrise and bring about spring and then summer.

So, Yin and Yang are opposites of each other and yet they are not independent of each other, nor can they exist without each other. This is why in the symbol that represents them there is a seed of Yin in Yang and vice versa. Nothing is completely Yin or Yang, they are compared in relation to each other like fall is Yin in comparison to summer and they depend on each other for the push and pull to create a dynamic balance of life.  

Five Elements

The 5 Elements in Chinese medicine are Water, Fire, Wood, Metal, and Earth. As stated in “The foundations of Chinese Medicine” by Giovanni Maciocia, “The five Elements are not basic constituents of Nature, but…  represent five different qualities of natural phenomena, five movements and five phases in the cycle of seasons.” 

The qualities, movements and phases of the five elements were observed and ascribed due to their qualities in nature and we use these correspondences to help guide our diagnoses when working with patients.  The five elements correspond to different Yin and Yang organs, seasons, colors, tastes, emotions, tissues, sounds, etc. For example, the element of wood represents Yin and Yang organs - the Liver and Gallbladder, a color of green, the taste of sour, the season of spring, the tendons, the emotion of anger and the sound of shouting. A practitioner can use this information in their intake when asking about general health to specific issues, like allergies, headaches, how stress manifests in their bodies, women’s cycles, etc.  When we take into consideration all of the different attributes that each element represents as well as how the elements work together to support, control or over-act upon each other, we can start to see a pattern of which elements are out of balance with each other. We then layer the Yin and Yang theories to determine if there is an excess or deficiency of energy or fluids and if there is heat or cold, and so on.   

These are not the only concepts or tools a practitioner of Chinese medicine uses when making a diagnosis and composing a treatment plan, there are many more! But these are the foundations that are used in all forms and variations of Chinese medicine. It is a beautiful form of medicine that has formed over many millennia of people observing nature, how it works and how it affects us positively and negatively.  It is complex and simple at the same time and it encompasses the whole person, mind, body and spirit.  

Cybil Kendrick, L.Ac.,MSOM, C.SMA, RMT is a licensed acupuncturist (L.Ac.) with her masters in Oriental medicine (MSOM) and is certified in Sports Medicine Acupuncture® (C.SMA) and massage therapy (RMT).


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