Understanding Chinese medicine terminology

Know your Yin from Yang

Chinese medicine represents an independent system of medical knowledge which has its own unique language of the body and terms to describe physiology and diseases.

Some concepts such as Yin and Yang are unique to Chinese medicine, while other terms such as Kidney Yin Deficiency or Liver Qi Stagnation are frequent causes of confusion between Chinese medicine practitioners, patients, biomedical doctors and allied health professionals.

Chinese medicine theory is closely influenced by nature and uses many metaphors from the natural world to explain the organisation and function of various systems of the body.

Here are some tips to help you better understand the language of Chinese medicine.

It all starts with Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang theory from Taoist philosophy is the most basic way to regard all things in nature, as opposite and dynamically interacting forces.

In Chinese medicine, Yin refers to the physical and material aspects of the body such as tissues, body fluids and Essence. Yang describes all the metabolic activity occurring in the body such as digestion, circulation, respiration and growth.

The 12 Channels and Organ Systems

Chinese medicine channels (meridians) are organised into 12 primary systems which are named after their respective organ systems. This is often confusing because Chinese medicine organ systems share the same names as anatomical organs eg. Heart, Liver, Kidney, Gall Bladder. Other names used in Chinese medicine include the San Jiao (Triple Warmer), Chong, Ren, Du and Dai channel systems.

Each Chinese medicine channel and organ system describes a specific set of physiological functions and symptoms, as well as areas of the body which are connected by the channel and acupoints. It is important to note that this understanding is different from, and should not be confused with the functions of these organs as understood in western anatomy and physiology.

In our articles refer to the Chinese medicine channel and organ system when the names of organs and their functions are discussed. When you hear terms such as Kidney Yin Deficiency or Liver Qi Stagnation, this does not mean that you have a problem with your kidney or liver organ.

What is Qi?

The word Qi in Chinese medicine is most frequently translated as a form of “energy”. Chinese is a contextual language, and Qi is a collective noun that can describe many aspects of the physical world, in both form and function depending on its context of use.

In Chinese medicine, when Qi is used alone it can describe fatigue or energy levels eg. Qi Deficiency. When combined with a channel or organ system, it refers to the function of that system eg. Spleen Qi Deficiency or Liver Qi Stagnation.

We wish to clarify that Qi does not describe the existence of any mysterious, heavenly energy or life-force. In the context of Chinese medicine, Qi may be best understood as describing your energy levels, or referring to a specific aspect of the body’s function.

What is Essence?

Essence (or Jing) is regarded by Chinese medicine as a Yin element of the body which governs a person’s constitution, growth and development. It is inherited from birth and closely associated with the function of the Kidneys and reproduction.

Unhealthy, stressful lifestyles and other causes that deplete Essence will lead to symptoms of early ageing such as impotence, infertility, greying or balding of hair, deafness and frailty. Aspects of Essence may be likened to the inheritance and function of genes in biomedicine.

Describing Syndromes

The language of Chinese medicine is concerned not with the diagnosis of diseases but Syndromes. Each Syndrome in Chinese medicine is not a disease, but a collection of signs and symptoms with a shared underlying pathology.

After investigating relevant signs and symptoms, a Chinese medicine practitioner will diagnose one or more Syndromes such as Liver Qi Stagnation with Heat, or Spleen Yang Deficiency with Dampness.

Each Syndrome represents an imbalance in a particular aspect of the body’s function which can then be corrected by Chinese medicine treatments.

Other Terms

Besides Yin and Yang, Chinese medicine also categorises physical imbalances into Heat, Cold, Stagnation and Deficiency.

The concept of Heat is often associated with symptoms of inflammation, and Cold or Deficiency with symptoms involving decreased metabolic activity.

Qi Stagnation and Blood Stasis syndromes describe conditions due to an impaired function or accumulation which needs to be cleared and restored. Stagnation patterns are often associated with pain or discomfort and may include impaired nervous system activity and circulatory disorders from a biomedical perspective.

Dryness can occur from Heat or Yin Deficiency of body fluids.

Wind describes externally contracted symptoms, as well as “moving” symptoms such as itchiness, dizziness and tremors arising from within the body.

Dampness and Phlegm describe an accumulation of body fluids when they cannot be cleared by the body.

Different ways of describing the same body

There are many similarities between Chinese medicine and western medicine concepts because they both describe the same human body. However, their differing points of view does make direct translations between Chinese and western medical terms very difficult.

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