It can be tempting to try to fit the concepts of Chinese medicine into the framework of Western medicine, making parallels and translations where they don’t quite belong nor make much sense. It’s better to take each on its own terms, as independently coherent systems of thought, rather than trying to conform one within the other.
If you’re new to Chinese medicine, you may feel puzzled at first, so covering a few of the fundamentals is a great place to start. Here, we’ll consider the notion of an organ. Unlike some of the other more foreign concepts like Qi, Yin, Yang, and Jing, “organs” are something most of us are readily familiar with. Surprisingly, this makes things especially tricky since the word may be the same, but the Chinese medical meaning differs from the one most of us were taught.
What is an Organ: East vs West
In Western terms, an organ is an anatomically fixed, discrete and self-contained bodily structure with a specific physiological function. From the Chinese point-of-view, an organ can only be defined in relation to the rest of the organism. It is known first by its holistic function, and does not exist as an easily distinguishable and isolated piece of anatomy distinct from the context in which it operates. Rather, it makes more sense from this perspective to speak of Organ Systems or Networks, rather than organs alone.
“The Organs are bundles or intersecting matrixes of resonating human activity.”
Together, the Organ Systems organize, modulate, contain, and disseminate the Five Vital Substances (Qi, Jing, Shen, Blood, and Fluids). Each oversees specific anatomical structures, bodily functions, and meridians (conduits of Qi), and corresponds with certain emotions, virtues, values, strengths/weaknesses, spirits, colors, sounds, odors, etc.
“As an aggregate of organs, tissues, channels, and physiologic functions, each Network is critical for the sustenance of life. Each embodies a distinctive intellectual, emotional, and behavioral style as well as physiological correspondences. Each has its own responsibilities (a job to do), a strategy (how to do the job), and a character (a way of being, a personality)...”
An Organ System is characterized by a particular quality or nature, and constitutes the embodiment of one of the Five Elements or Phases - Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal - inherent in all life forms. The Organs represent all of the functions, as well as somatic structures, that correspond to a particular Phase. They are sometimes likened to military officials or political entities, but I prefer to think of them as an alliance of archetypal presences, each bringing something uniquely indispensable to the table.
The Five archetypes of the Organ Systems:
- The Philosopher (Water): imaginative and relentless seeker of truth and explorer of mystery
- The Pioneer (Wood): courageous and independent adventurer of the unknown
- The Wizard (Fire): charismatic and inspirational generator of fusion
- The Peacemaker (Earth): centered and compassionate mediator and nurturer
- The Alchemist (Metal): analytical, precise, and deeply discerning defender of virtue, principle, and beauty
As microcosmic expressions of Nature writ-large, we are fashioned and animated by the very same ingredients as the ecosystem around us. And in both cases, life is a dynamic system of interrelated elements and energies, not a collection of isolated parts. Organizing our Being as a collaboration of Organ Networks - like essential members of a team with the shared goal of harmonious vitality - mirrors the properties and pursuits of the macrocosm and furthers this allegorical method of understanding ourselves as Nature, rather than separate from it.
Each Organ System is reigned by a pair of organs, one Yin (Zang), the other Yang (Fu), both belonging to the same Element/Phase. The Five Systems (denoted by the name of the Yin organ) and their main functions are:
- Kidney-Urinary Bladder (Water) stores and produces Vital Essence
- Liver-Gallbladder (Wood): stores Blood and ensures smooth circulation of the Qi
- Heart-Small Intestine (Fire) circulates Blood and houses the Spirit (consciousness/mind)
- Spleen-Stomach (Earth) transforms, generates and distributes nourishment
- Lung-Large Intestine (Metal) receives, generates and disperses Qi and fluids
“Together the Organ Networks comprise the team that gets the work of the body done. Through the division of labor, all tasks are accomplished.”