Seasons in the Sun, part one: introducing Chinese medical theory

Chinese medical theory can be really baffling.  It’s safe to say it has a reputation for mystery, like the legacy of ancient secrets that it is.  I’ve been studying it for over fourteen years now, and I can assure the reader that once you’ve grasped some basic principles, the bigger picture does get clearer. Explaining it simply to impart that basic understanding, however, is another thing. No surprise, when you think about it, considering that TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) theories attempt to describe the workings of a fabulously complex world, and ourselves, one of the incredibly complex creatures in it.  On top of that, unlike bio-medicine, TCM describes it in very subjective, intuited terms, as energy, and a living system—not from the objective perspective of mechanics and chemistry. But that said, it mostly comes down to two ideas: Yin/Yang and the Five Elements.

Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang are familiar to most of us, if only as the simple image of white and black fish-shapes within a circle.  If you know this image at all, you will understand the idea behind Yin and Yang, and maybe some of its implications. Symbolically, the white shape in the image represents Yang, and corresponds to Fire.  The black shape corresponds to Yin, and to water. To offer more comparisons, Yang can be compared to brightness and light, action, heat, the sky, and looser states of matter, like air or gases.  Yin, related to these comparisons, would be darkness, stillness, cold, the earth, and liquids or solids. One thing that’s important to understand is, though white and black make us think of extremes, Yin and Yang are relative states of being, and as such can be applied to any two things, even very similar ones, or two states of being of the same substance, like ice and steam.  Nothing will be Yin or Yang without referring to something else.

So, Yin and Yang does not just apply to this or that abstract, inanimate thing.  In fact, one can apply it to any random pair of different objects. Right now in front of me I see an empty jar and a book about New Orleans.  In terms of their function, they are both tools to store things—a book contains information, and an empty jar can hold whatever you need it to hold. So which is Yin and which Yang?  This is my breakdown: the book is already full of words, with only a little potential for more information storage (if you were to write notes in the margins.)  The empty jar is full only with air, and its function—to hold stuff—is presently at 100% potential. You could fill the jar with beans or water, and it would become more Yin (and less Yang), holding that which it then contains.  The empty jar invites the action of filling it. So, I would say that the empty jar is Yang and the book is Yin. In our bodies, we have blood, muscle, nerves, bones, tendons, and organs of all sorts. Take two of these, say blood and bone. Blood carries oxygen all over the body and is constantly moving.  Blood is Yang. Comparatively, Bone is solid and changes very slowly, and is filled with marrow that makes white blood cells which are given out into the body. Bone is Yin.

When we think about or bodies and minds, it’s helpful to remember these ideas of “function” as opposed to “structure.”  The empty jar is fully functional, and invites action (filling the jar). The book, on the other hand, holds information, and when we read it, it remains as full as before.  Its Yin quality of storing is not diminished. That’s a very Yin way to be! So you can see that when you look at a thing’s form and function, you get insights into its Yin or Yang quality. 

The most Yang structures in the short list of parts of our bodies just named are the nerves, which though apparently inert and stable, hidden away, are constantly and furiously humming with transmission of signals and constantly changing in that regard—very Yang.  However, in Chinese medical theory, there is one aspect of the human creature that is still more Yang, and that is Qi, or life energy. Qi would be the velocity of the blood moving through our vessels and, perhaps the fuel—oxygen—stored in it.  Qi is the messages transmitted through the nerves, and the changes brought about from hormones and neurotransmitters. Qi is the action of acids and probiotic fermentation the digestive system brings to bear on the food we eat. Qi is all about function, and so it is the most Yang.

The last thing to know about Yin/Yang has to do with the eye-spots on the image. The white shape has a black spot in its middle, and the black shape has a white spot. This shows that both Yin and Yang hold their opposites within them. They can produce or even turn into their opposite! My favorite analogy for this has to do with the weather. Think of a hot and muggy day. The sun warms the ground and the air so much, and humidity is so high that it’s hard to move around in it, or do anything strenuous. But, as the day warms and more moisture is evaporated into the steamy air, a threshold is hit eventually—clouds gather, a wind whips up, and suddenly we have a nice refreshing rain-shower. The air temperature drops, even if only by a couple of degrees, and the humidity is less as well, as water vapor returns to the earth in raindrops. In life, we can compare this to an emotional transformation. If something has gotten you upset, the emotions build up inside, feeling almost like heat, a roiling and often confused mess. In time, if there is no other release from the emotion, we cry. Tears well up from our eyes, and inside, though the emotion is still there, it becomes stiller as the pressure is released. In the hot day analogy, after it rains it becomes easier to move around outside. In the emotional transformation, after we cry we can usually look at what has upset us more calmly, see different perspectives, and process. This movement from the intensity and tension of a Yang state into a calmer, stiller Yin state is reflected in the eye-spots of the Yin/Yang image.

To summarize, Yin and Yang are basically opposites, but not absolute opposites. There is an important aspect of relativity in this model. Many qualities about a thing can be considered to determine whether it is Yin or Yang. In the body, the most Yang thing is the unseen energy of life. And finally, each of the two, Yin and Yang, has within itself the seed of its opposite.

The Five Elements

Why are these elements five in number? In the West, we traditionally think of the elements as four—air, fire, earth and water. But the word “element” used in TCM terms is a rough translation, not quite the same as the Western elements. Another translation for the Chinese “wu xing” is “five phases”, and the literal translation is “five goings.” While the four elements are thought of as static and stable forms, the five elements of Chinese medicine describe states of matter, how they develop and influence one another. Maybe it is the presence of Earth, Fire and Water among the Five Elements/Phases that make the term “element” sort of inevitable. But clearly, by the trans-literal term “goings”, the idea of movement and change is clearly essential to this system. The arrows in the drawing above illustrate the actions between the five, and their order—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water.

The Five Elements of TCM theory are a model of changes in, and relationships between, material things, and environmental or seasonal periods. In this model, everything has a correspondence to one of the five, and based on the controlling and nourishing actions (the arrows in the diagram above), each thing has some specific relationship with other things according to their Element. Certain phenomena, like the seasons of the year, over the course of time will change from one to another Element, creating the cycles of life.

The seasons are a good place to start with to get an idea of what all this means. The Chinese New Year occurs in late winter, closer to the spring equinox than winter solstice, and the Five Elements are counted from that point in the year, corresponding to spring, which is Wood. Wood’s color is green, and its energy moves upward and outward, like young branches on a tree. Think of the antsy excitement we tend to feel when the cold of winter begins to warm and plants are sprouting from dormancy—that is the energy of Wood. It is also a time of building, and the wood that begins growing during spring is a real, solid thing.

This Wood energy leads to the next Element, Fire. Wood burns, and so there is a natural logic to this stage of the sequence. Fire corresponds to the heat of summer, the lengthening days, and the transformation of this heat into energy for growing plants. Fire’s color is red, and its heat-energy fills whatever it touches to the brim with its intensity and activity.

Again with a simple logic, Fire (which creates ash) gives way to Earth. The color of Earth is yellow, and its energy tends towards holding and nurturing that which grows in it. The Earth Element has its own corresponding season, called late summer or long summer. This is a season of fruiting, when the heat of summer has settled and dampness accumulates through the steamy months in later summer and early fall.

The Earth, as it accumulates nourishment, condenses into Metal—think here of minerals in the soil. Minerals, so essential to life, during this phase begin to concentrate, becoming gradually drier and less available. Metal corresponds to fall, and its dry nature is seen as the lush green leaves of herbs and trees turn dry and brittle, and fall away. The color of Metal is white.

The logic of the transition between Metal and Water, the next phase on the wheel, is less intuitive than that of the others. When I was learning the Five Elements, I thought of a few explanations. One is that metal is used to make blades which, when they cut, release sap or blood, the “water” within plants and animals. Another explanation is that Metal, if you think of it as minerals in general, acts to enrich water with salts or other trace minerals.

Admittedly, understanding the connection between Metal and Water is more elusive, but considering that the whole system is a set of metaphors intended to describe subtle energetics, a little skip in the logical flow is maybe unavoidable. Without either being able to read the original literature (since in Chinese language, there may be more clarity than in even the best translation) or coming up with a better way to say it in English (which TCM scholars are working on steadily), understanding this relationship demands a measure of both trust and imagination.

Water, at any rate, corresponds to winter, when water is most likely to manifest as a solid and therefore more concentrated form. Indeed, in many places (not so much in southern Louisiana) the whole world becomes blanketed in water, as snow, ice and frost. Its color is black, like the long nights of winter. Water, of course, feeds the spring growth of Wood, and so the cycle is completed.

The transitions between the Elements are also known as the “nourishing cycle”, that is, the order in which each Element feeds or creates the following Element. They have other relationships as well. The next most important such relationship is called the “controlling cycle”, shown by the red arrows in the diagram. This has to do with the way each Element acts on another specific Element in a controlling or restricting fashion. For example, Wood (think of the roots of a tree) moves through and breaks up the stagnancy of Earth. Fire melts Metal. Earth creates banks of a river, directing the flow of Water, or dams the Water altogether. Metal cuts down the tree (Wood). And Water, of course, quenches Fire. This system of relationships is very important as well in TCM.

In a human being, the Five Elements correspond to different TCM '“organs”. Not to get into details, which are plenty and not a good subject for an introductory essay, but these “organs” are not the organs of gross anatomy, though they use the same names. They are, rather, combinations of body functions—breathing, eating, filtering and adjusting body fluids and tissues, creating and moving blood, and so on, and they cover many psycho-spiritual aspects of our holistic selves. TCM organs are divided into Fu—”hollow” organs—that are involved in the movement of nourishment into and through the body, and Zang—”solid” organs—that store essences of life, including the nourishment derived from food and air, Qi, and so on.

But, in the interest of leaving this article at a size that will be easily digested by readers new to TCM theory, I will leave it at that for now. Next time, I’ll take on the topics of the TCM organ theory in moire detail, and the ways that Yin/Yang and the Five Elements apply to human life and the environment.

Have a great day, and thank you for reading!

Thomas McCarty