Circular Dynamics of Ancient Chinese Medcine I


by Peng Ziyi (1871-1949)

Translated from the Original Chinese by Bryan McMahon



The study of Chinese medicine is the study of the microcosm of the human body. People often laugh when they hear this, calling it an empty cliché. In fact, this is quite an extraordinary statement, grounded in truth. The original study of the human body as a microcosmic reflection was abandoned because the way of understanding the universe was lost, and with it, the way of understanding Chinese medicine. Owing to this deficiency, the true method for researching the body of Chinese medicine changed. The result has been progressive movement further and further from its root. The only remedy for this deviation is to rediscover the true method of researching Chinese medicine. The result of such a method is to immediately grasp the macrocosm. If one grasps the macrocosm, naturally they will also grasp Chinese medicine. This introductory chapter outlines the method for researching the macrocosm as the natural path to understanding Chinese medicine. The reader must not let the meaning of a single character slip by. Entering into the view as a true depiction of reality, one is sure to succeed. 

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A Brief Explanation of the Diagram of Circular Dynamics of the 24 Solar Terms


Those who would like to study Chinese medicine must first understand the reasoning for the names of the twelve meridians; in order to understand the reasoning for the names of the twelve meridians, one must first understand the principles of yin and yang, five elements and six environmental factors; in order to understand the principles of yin and yang, five elements and six environmental factors, one must first understand the 24 solar terms as the circular movement of the heat from the sun as it strikes the surface of the earth and descends, stores, rises or expands. 


Right, lower, left, upper, middle; descending, sinking, rising, expanding, centering; autumn, winter, spring, summer, middle; west, north, east, south, middle. The broken line in the diagram represents the surface of the earth; the space beneath is the area below the earth’s surface; the space above is the area above the earth’s surface. The space above the circle represents the cloud layer; the center point of the circle represents the axis around which the entire organic environment of a given organism circulates. The four directions are to be observed from the center in order to better recognize the scope of the universe from the perspective of an organism on the earth’s surface. Imagine yourself, the reader, positioned at this central point.  

Descending describes the action of the sun’s energy as it strikes the surface of the earth in summer and descends into the earth element. Storing is the continued downward action of this heat as it enters the water element. Rising is the emergence of this stored heat from within the water element through the surface; expanding is the continued rising action of this heat combined with that of the summer sun, above the surface of the earth. Centering describes the action of the middle position.


The beginning of autumn marks the initiation of descending; the beginning of winter marks the initiation of storing; the beginning of spring marks the initiation of rising; the beginning of summer marks the initiation of expanding. Prior to the autumn equinox, there is a greater concentration of heat above the earth’s surface than below; at the time of the autumn equinox, the two are equal. Prior to the spring equinox, there is a greater concentration of heat below the earth’s surface than above; at the time of the spring equinox, the two are equal.


The winter solstice is the point at which the heat within the earth that began descending at the beginning of autumn reaches its zenith. The summer solstice is the point at which the heat above the surface that began rising at the beginning of spring reaches its zenith. When descending reaches its extreme, rising begins; when rising reaches its extreme, descending begins. This continuous rising and descending gives birth to the power of the middle. This is a natural part of the circular dynamic of the environment. 


In autumn, plants shed their leaves; this correlates to the descending of heat. In winter, they extend their roots; this correlates to the storing of heat below. In spring, they spout anew; this correlates to the rising of heat. In summer, they grow abundant; this correlates with the expanding of heat above. The life cycle of plants is one of the simplest ways to illustrate this descending, sinking, rising, and expanding actions of heat. Describing this process as the descending, sinking, rising, and expanding actions of the heat energy of an individual plant is to describe the descending, storing, rising, and expanding actions of the heat energy of Nature, which is also to describe the descending, sinking, rising, and expanding actions of the heat energy of the human body. On the human body, this broken line that represents the surface of the earth is found on the abdomen two cun above the navel. 


The nature of heat is to rise and expand; it does not descend and sink. The descending and sinking of heat is maintained by the gathering power of autumn. Heat descending is the beginning of life for all organisms; failure of heat to descend is the cause of death for all organisms. This will be discussed in greater detail in the sections below. 


Yin and Yang


The light-heat of the sun that strikes the surface of the earth at a given location is yang; the space between the passing of this light-heat and its subsequent arrival is yin (this is the meaning represented in the yin gua and yang gua as drawn by Fuxi). The nature of yang is to expand upward, the nature of yin is to compress downward. Yang is straight up, yin is straight down. When yin and yang interpenetrate one another, a mutual attraction is created that adheres one to the other, giving birth to a circular dynamic. Yang is movement, yin is stillness. Motion leads to expansion, stillness leads to storing. From stillness to movement is rising, from movement to stillness is descending. The complete cycle of descending, storing, rising, and expanding gives birth to the middle. The middle qi is the life energy of an organism. This is the process by which the circular dynamic of Nature is created; it is also the process by which the circular dynamic of the individual is created. Human life is maintained by the creative power of the circular yin-yang dynamic of Nature. An individual human being, in turn, plays a role in the creation of their own individual genetic line. If you first understand yin and yang within the process that is Nature, you will naturally understand them at the level of the individual. The five elements represent the five material substances produced by yin and yang and their descending, storing, rising, and expanding actions. The character 行xíng actually means movement. An individual organism possesses both a yin and yang nature in keeping with Nature. This is the origin of the principles of yin and yang in Chinese medicine. This act of creation is the process of giving birth to and nourishing all life that is inherent in the circular dynamic of the universe; in fact, it is another name for the universe itself. 



Five Movements


Within the great qi cycle of one year, summer corresponds to fire when the energy of the sun shines down most strongly upon the earth’s surface. This heat of the sun that strikes the surface of the earth is fire. Heat causes rising and expanding. Therefore, the great qi of summer is characterized by expanding heat and corresponds to fire. In summer, the sun is strongest in the south, thus the south corresponds to fire. The 午period of each day (11am-1pm) also corresponds to fire as it is the time of day when the sun shines strongest. The heat from the spring equinox to the beginning of summeris called the emperor fire; the heat of the lesser fullness of grain to lesser heat is called the minister fire. 


Autumn corresponds to metal. The sun moves south during autumn, increasing the pressure along the surface of the earth as the metal qi pervades the atmosphere. This pressure of the great qi causes the descending action of metal qi. The metal qi of the atmosphere begins to manifest in autumn, creating the correspondence between the cool descending action of the heavenly energy and metal. The qi of creation is characterized by rising in the east and descending in the west; thus the west corresponds to metal. The 酉yǒu period of each day (5pm to 7pm) also corresponds to metal because this is when the cool descending action of metal qi is greatest. In physical space, this refers to the area above the surface of the earth. 


Winter corresponds to water. The life energy of all organisms is produced from the heat of the sun that strikes the earth’s surface. The fire-heat of the summer sun of the present year is the root of life energy for all organic life of the coming year. This   fire-heat must descend into the earth during autumn, be stored there within the earth during winter in order to continually generate life energy in all organisms. The sinking of the great qi during winter in order to enter into storage is the water element. When the great qi is hot, it expands upward; when it is cold, it sinks downward. Thus, the great qi of winter is cold, sinking and corresponds to water. The southerly direction corresponds to the space above the earth’s surface; the northerly direction corresponds to below, thus the north corresponds to water. The 子period of each day (11pm to 1am) corresponds to water, when the great qi reaches its apex of sinking. The macrocosm of organic life energy is arranged with above to the south, below to the north; the great qi expands upward in the south and sinks downward in the north.


The Spring corresponds to wood. In the annual circular dynamic of the great qi, winter is the end and spring the beginning. The end is the root of the beginning. During the summer of the previous year, the heat from the sun that strikes the earth’s surface descends via the action of metal qi in autumn and is stored within water during the winter. Water and fire transform and harmonize, warming the water qi and causing it to begin to rise. This warm qi emerges from the earth with the onset of spring and the grasses and trees begin to grow. Thus it corresponds to wood. Wood is the qi of fire within water, the energy of transition from a state of storage to that of rising and manifesting. 


The qi of the middle corresponds to earth. The great qi of one year rises in spring, expands in summer, descends in autumn and stores in winter. Thus spring qi corresponds to wood, summer corresponds to fire, autumn corresponds to metal and winter corresponds to water. Rising, floating, descending, storing – a full cycle of the circular dynamic that composes one year. The period between summer and autumn is the middle qi of the circular dynamic. The earth qi of the surface abides at the center of these rising, floating, descending and storing actions; it is the intersection of the rising and descending of the great qi. This is why the middle corresponds to earth. 


The five elements of the circular dynamic of an annual cycle should also be understood as the cycle of a single day. The five elements of the circular dynamic of a single day should also be understood as the cycle of a single breath. One exhalation and one inhalation together compose one cycle of the rising and descending movement of the great qi within the human body. 



Six Qi (Six Environmental Factors)


There is a circular dynamic to the great qi of the year; spring wood gives birth, summer fire grows, autumn metal gathers, and winter water stores. The middle earth transforms. Birth, growth, gathering, storing and transformation – completion of the annual cycle of the circular dynamic. The six environmental factors of wind, heat, summer heat, dampness, dryness and cold are the result of a loss of the circular balance of the five movements, which leads to an exaggerated manifestation of their corresponding action. Each movement corresponds to one element; fire has two, making six environmental factors. The key movement of the emperor fire is to rise; the key movement of the minister fire is to descend. The minister fire descends in autumn to enter into water and reemerges in spring, when it is called the emperor fire. The emperor fire than accompanies the minster fire along its path of descent. Together these are referred to as the five elements, but in fact are really six in total. 


The five elements and six qi are a deeply integrated balance of circular movement that cannot be separated. When wood energy is prominent, diseases of wind arise; when emperor fire energy is prominent, diseases of heat arise; when minister fire energy is prominent, diseases of summer heat arise; when metal energy is prominent, diseases of dryness arise; when water energy is prominent, diseases of cold arise; when earth energy is prominent, diseases of dampness arises. This gives rise to the names of the six conformations: Jueyin wind wood, Shaoyin emperor fire, Shaoyang minister fire, Taiyin damp earth, Yangming dry metal and Taiyang cold water. The Neijing states “earth has the five elements, heaven has the six environmental factors”, but in reality, they are inseparable.  

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Diagram of the Circular Dynamic of the Six Environmental Factors


This is a diagram of the five elements plus the minister fire – the five elements and six environmental factors. That yang rises and yin descends is a natural fact. Yin nature is to descend and so the rising action of the three yin is an attribute of yang within yin; Yang nature is to ascend and so the descending action of the three yang is an attribute of yin within yang. Metal, earth, water and fire separate and control the four peripheries. The minister fire and earth qi dominate the palace of the middle. The palace of the middle is in close proximity to the earth’s surface while the four peripheries are further away. 


Each aspect of the circular dynamic of the six elements (five plus minister fire) and six environmental factors corresponds to four solar termsor one qi. Great Cold, Beginning of Spring, Rain Waters, and Startling the Insects comprise the first qi; Spring Equinox, Clear Brightness, Valley Rains, and Beginning of Summer comprise the second qi; Lesser Fullness, Ripening of the Stalks, Summer Solstice, and Lesser Summer Heat comprise the third qi; Greater Summer Heat, Beginning of Autumn, Conclusion of Summer Heat, and White Dew comprise the fourth qi. Autumn Equinox, Cold Dew, Frost Descends, and Beginning of Winter comprise the fifth qi; Lesser Snows, Great Snows, Winter Solstice, and Lesser Cold comprise the sixth qi.


The area above the earth’s surface is yang; below the surface is yin. During the first qi, the environment transitions from cold to warm. The yang heat that was gathered during the previous autumn and stored through the winter within the subterranean water, begins to move and rise upward. This yang heat combined with the water element becomes wood qi. Wood qi is the root of the yang energy of the entire year. Great Cold is the time of greatest yin and thus named JueyinJue means extreme. Wood qi is responsible for movement; when it moves and meets obstruction, it gives rise to wind. That is why it is called wind wood


The second qi begins with the energy that wood has lifted to the surface from its yin position of storage beneath. At this time, the environment is relatively warm. It is no longer at the Jueyin point of extreme yin and thus is called Shaoyin. The qi that wood lifts upward is the yang qi that was gathered the previous autumn and stored within water. This yang qi lifts up from beneath the surface to bring light to the universe and illuminate the four directions. This brilliant rising action is like that of the truly enlightened individual (君位 jun wei) and so is called the emperor fire. The environment transitions from warm to hot and thus corresponds to fire.

During the third qi, the yang heat above the surface of the earth reaches its full expansion. It then descends into the water beneath the surface during the sinking coolness of night. During this period of soaring summer heat, there should be an alternation of energy spiraling upward and spiraling downward. The water beneath the surface is the origin from which all organic life emerges. This yang heat is the foundation of life and so during this period of full yang heat above, the storage below the surface is reduced. Thus it is called Shaoyang. This yang heat descends into the water below and gives rise to the middle qi. The turning of middle qi allows for the clear exchange of above and below, much like the dialogue between an emperor and his ministers. Thus it is called minister fire. When the minister fire does not descend, summer heat smolders and steams and is referred to as damp fire. 

During the fourth qi, the yang heat above the surface of the earth continues its fullness. The remaining subterranean yang qi rises upward; heat above the surface is extremely hot, while below the surface is extremely cold. Heat corresponds to yang and cold corresponds to yin. The yin of nature is abundant and so it is called Taiyin. When stored below within the water element, fire gives rise to qi, but when it is above the water element it creates dampness. At this time, yang heat is full above and has not yet begun to descend into the earth. Hot and cold press upon one another and give rise to copious amounts of damp energy. The earth element resides at the intersection of the rising and descending actions of the great qi, thus it is referred to as damp earth. 

The surface of the earth corresponds to the yang position. During the fifth qi, the full yang heat above gathers via the action of autumn. The yang qi beneath the middle earth position accumulates. As the dampness clears, the universe becomes clear. Yang qi is strong and bright; thus it is called Yangming. Metal qi grows strong; dampness resolves and dryness forms. The atmospheric pressure during this period is extremely strong and so is referred to as dry metal. 

During the sixth qi, all the yang heat above the surface has been gathered by autumn qi and descends fully into the water element below. The qi of transformation is rooted beneath the earth. Yang energy below is abundant and thus it is called Taiyang. This yang heat contained within the water element is tightly stored without leaking. The pressure of the environment bears down and all outside the water element is cold. When all outside is cold, the yang is stored within the water element. Thus it is referred to as cold water.

The circular dynamic of the five elements combine to form a single qi. Wood rises, metal descends. When wood does not suffer from wind, metal does not suffer from dryness. When water rises and fire descends, fire does not suffer from heat or damp heat and water doe not suffer from cold. When the earth moves within the middle, earth does not suffer dampness. When movements are not circular, rising and descending do not meet, each will manifest its own qi and there will be diseases of wind, heat, damp heat, dampness, dryness and cold. These diseases are imbalances in the great qi; the qi of the human body is the same. During the first qi, wood energy should be nourished; during the second qi, fire energy should be nourished; during the third qi, the minister fire energy should be strengthened; during the fourth qi, earth energy should be nourished; during the fifth qi, metal energy should be nourished; during the sixth qi, water energy should be strengthened. The descending of minister fire into the water is the beginning of the emperor fire; the emperor fire is the product of the minister fire. The emperor fire then follows the minister fire in descending.