Overview of TCM

Chinese medicine is an ancient medical system based on the Daoist view of a universe in which everything is interrelated. Through thousands of years of observation and practice, the Chinese have developed a unique method of understanding the structure of the internal organs and the body's physiological processes. This method is called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

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Chinese medicine is designed to promote and maintain health through diet and exercise. If illness occurs, it is treated with acupuncture, herbs, and Qigong. Chinese medicine practitioners diagnose and treat all types of illness and disease. TCM is undeniably a valid and effective form of medicine.

Chinese medicine is very complex and intricate. Practitioners study for many years to grasp its concepts, which differ from Western medicine.

It is important to have a basic knowledge of these concepts to understand how Chinese medicine practitioners diagnose and treat illness. Many of the concepts can be difficult to understand because they have no counterpart in Western medicine. Chinese medicine practitioners view the mind and body as an energetic system that cannot be separated from one another or the universe. Organs are not separate structures, but are interconnected organ systems that work together to keep the body functioning well. Chinese medicine practitioners treat the patient, not the disease.

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Yin and Yang

The most fundamental concept of Chinese medicine is Yin and Yang. All things in the Universe are either Yin or Yang. However, nothing is ever all Yin or all Yang, but a balance between the two that is ever changing. They are opposites, yet complementary. They are not independent of each other but change into each other. For example, the day (Yang) turns into night (Yin) and winter (Yin) turns into spring (Yang.) Illness is caused by an imbalance of Yin and Yang in the body. In Chinese Medicine, treating illness is the process of rebalancing Yin and Yang. This is done through acupuncture, herbs, and Qigong.

The Yin-Yang symbol is a representation of Chinese medicine philosophy. The symbol is a circle divided by a curved line into a black (Yin) side and white (Yang) side. The curve represents the constantly changing balance between Yin and Yang. Each side contains a small circle of the opposite color which symbolizes that there is some of Yin in Yang and some of Yang in Yin (i.e., Yin exists in Yang and Yang exists in Yin.)

Listed below are examples of Yin and Yang.


  • Female
  • Earth
  • Night
  • Moist
  • Cold
  • Winter
  • Death
  • Structure
  • Small
  • Solid
  • Chronic


  • Male
  • Heaven
  • Day
  • Dry
  • Hot
  • Summer
  • Birth
  • Function
  • Large
  • Hollow
  • Acute

Vital Substances

Vital Substances interact with each other to nourish and sustain the body. Together they form the mind and body. The Vital Substances — Qi (pronounced chee), Blood, Body Fluids, Jing, and Shen — are described below.

Qi—The body has an energy force (also referred to as life force or vital force) running through it known as Qi. Qi travels through the body along channels or meridians. It is both energy and substance. The Chinese say, "When Qi gathers, so the physical body is formed; when Qi disperses, so the body dies." Qi nourishes, protects, and supports all systems and functions of the body. The other Vital Substances are manifestations of Qi. Health is affected by the flow of Qi through the body. If the flow of Qi along channels (pathways that connect all parts of the body) is disrupted, insufficient, or stagnant, then Yin and Yang become unbalanced, which may result in illness.

Blood—Blood has a different meaning in Chinese medicine than it does in Western medicine. Blood not only transports nourishment, but also vitality. Blood is a material form of Qi. The Zang Fu organs form blood from food and drink. Blood is the basis for the formation of our skin, bones, muscles, and organs. Illness may be caused by Deficient Blood, Stagnant Blood, or Heat in the Blood.

Body Fluids—Bodily Fluids, also known as Jin Ye, are formed from food and drink and serve to moisten, lubricate, and nourish the body. Jin fluids are light and watery fluids that lubricate the skin and muscles and exterior of body (sweat, tears). Ye fluids are heavy and thick fluids that lubricate the joints and brain and interior of body. Illness can be caused by Deficient Body Fluids or Accumulation of Body Fluids.

Jing—Jing gives the body vitality and health. It is the Essence or vital force. If the Jing is strong, the person's constitution is strong. If the Jing is weak, the person's constitution is weak and more susceptible to illness. Jing is the root of existence and reproduction. Jing is also responsible for growth and development. Illness presents as constitutional or developmental problems.

Shen—Shen is the Mind or Spirit.

Internal Organs—As the Chinese observed the world around them, they organized it into five primal powers or elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. The body was organized into corresponding systems known as Organ Networks. Solid organs are Zang and hollow organs are Fu. Zang Fu deals more with an organ's relationship to the body rather than to a specific function. The Organs have different functions, yet depend on each other to function properly.

Each Organ is predominantly Yin or Yang. Yang organs transform and digest. Yin organs store, in particular the Vital Substances.

The Zang Fu organs are associated with specific body tissues and emotions. A Chinese medicine practitioner understands these relationships and uses them to diagnose and treat illness.

The Zang Organs and their functions are described below.

  • The Lung governs respiration, the extraction of Qi from the air, and plays a role in fluid metabolism.
  • The Spleen governs the transportation and transformation of nutrients.
  • The Heart governs the circulation of blood and is the residence of Shen.
  • The Kidney is mainly responsible for fluid metabolism and the storage of Jing.
  • The Liver stores the Blood and is responsible for maintaining the free flow of Qi throughout the body.
  • The Pericardium, not always considered a Zang Organ, protects the heart.

The Fu Organs and their functions are described below.

  • The Stomach is responsible for initiating the metabolism of food and drink.
  • The Large Intestine and Urinary Bladder are responsible for excretion of feces and urine.
  • The Gallbladder governs the storage and secretion of bile.
  • The Small Intestine and Triple Burner (a Fu Organ that has no corresponding physical organ) assists the process of water metabolism and fluid flow.

Extraordinary Organsare less important organs to the processes of the body. Their names and functions are listed below.

  • The Uterus regulates conception, pregnancy, and menstruation.
  • The Brain plays a role in sensory functions, memory, and intelligence.
  • The Bones provide structure to the body.
  • The Bone Marrow fills the Bones and Brain.
  • The Blood Vessels circulate the Blood.
  • The Gallbladder, a Fu Organ, is also considered an Extraordinary Organ because it stores the Liver's bile.


The organs and all components of the body are connected by channels or Meridians. They are pathways for the flow of Qi throughout the body. There are Twelve Regular Meridians running vertically up and down the surface of the body with many branching channels. The Meridians are paired (the same on both sides of the body). Each Meridian is associated with a Zang Fu organ. Acupuncture points are Qi access points along the Meridians.

There are Eight Extraordinary Vessels, which do not connect to the Zang Fu Organs. Only two of these channels have acupuncture points. They mostly function as reservoirs of Qi and Blood for the Twelve Regular Meridians.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 08 Oct 2015