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The Connection of the Six Channels with the Five Viscera and the Six Bowels - Part Two

by Lorraine Wilcox

Part Two

Yang brightness (陽明 yangming)

The name yang brightness has the image of the brilliant and reflective nature of the heavens. The large intestine, paired with the lungs, is also metal. Yang brightness and greater yin are paired like the moon and the heavens: both reflect the light of the sun, but are not the sun itself. The greater yang channels are on the back, the yang side of the body. But yang brightness traverses the abdomen, the anterior of the body, because it is the reflection, not the source of light. The brilliance of the heavens would have no need to exist if it were not to illuminate the earth. Heaven and earth means the universe. There is no universe without the earth. The stomach is earth and is paired with spleen earth, the other greater yin channel.

Organs Lungs: greater yin taiyin
Spleen: extreme yin zhiyin
Channels Lungs: taiyin Large intestine: yangming Stomach: yangming Spleen: taiyin

Table 4. Designations for lungs, large intestine, stomach, and spleen.

Reverting yin (厥陰 jueyin)

The liver as a viscous was called lesser yang, but once we are considering all the organs, we can no longer call it yang. The liver organ has some special characteristics: as wood element, it tends to ascend. It is the military general, easily affected by anger. It gives rise to internal wind. As a channel, the reverting yin liver channel comes at the end of the cycle of qi flow, and connects upward with the lung channel, back to the beginning. It is also the only yin channel to go up to the brain and the vertex.

Yin should descend but reverting yin qi ascends. Wiseman (1998, p506) says reverting yin means "yin qi developing to its final stage and then reverting toward yang." The word jue originally meant shooting a stone, perhaps from something like a catapult, according to the Shuowen jiezi (Xu 2002, p1277). This is the image of liver wind catapulting up to the brain. It is the image of the general aggressively fighting. It is the image of anger rising up. Jue is also the name for a type of disorder with fainting or cold spreading up from the limbs. Wiseman (1998, p504-505), states the term jue means "Reverse, adverse, ebb, disrupt."

If the emperor (heart) can keep the general (liver) under control, he will not rise up too aggressively. If the water of the kidneys can keep the wood of liver soft and pliant, it will not rise up excessively. In fact liver wood needs to be between fire and water, as plants need sunlight and warmth (fire) and water in order to grow. However, the rising or reverting of the liver performs an important function, as long as it stays within its limits. The liver provides the connection between pre-heaven life gate fire (fire within water), sometimes called minister fire, and the post-heaven fire of the heart. The wood of liver can harmonize fire and water, or minister fire and sovereign fire. This is done, in part, because pericardium, another aspect of minister fire, is also reverting yin and closely associated with the heart.

As we have seen, what we call the pericardium channel was not included in the Mawangdui manuscripts. Neither is the pericardium included as one of the five viscera (see note 19).

Lesser yang (少陽 shaoyang)

The liver organ is lesser yang. Since its channel cannot be called lesser yang, then a closely associated channel must take its place: the gall bladder, internally-externally paired with liver as wood. Wood is yang (since it rises) but it is lesser yang than fire (small intestine, greater yang). In addition, gall bladder, also one of the extraordinary organs, has a yin characteristic: it stores a purified substance, bile. This makes it less yang than the other bowels. The other lesser yang organ is the triple burner, which is also quite different from the other bowels. Most physicians historically have considered it to be without form. If it does have form, then it is three cavities or spaces within the trunk, not tube-like or sac-like as the other bowels.

Organs Liver: lesser yang shaoyang
Channels Liver: jueyin Gallbladder: shaoyang Sanjiao: shaoyang Pericardium: jueyin

Table 5. Designations for liver, gall bladder, sanjiao, and pericardium.


We can summarise the connections between the yin-yang viscera designations and the six channels as follows:

Organ Yin-Yang Designation Channel Association
Heart greater yang paired with small intestine, greater yang channel
Lung greater yin directly becomes greater yin channel
Spleen extreme yin extreme yin becomes greater yin channel
Liver lesser yang paired with gall bladder, lesser yang channel
Kidneys lesser yin directly becomes lesser yin channel

Table 6. Channel association with yin-yang viscera designation.

This is one way to explain the logic behind the connections between the organs and the channels. Someone could also say, 'No need for logic. That is just the way the body was put together.' However, philosophy has always been a part of Chinese medicine.

Of course, there is much more to six channel theory, including:

• Opening, closing, and pivot (Elementary Questions, Chapter 6 and Magic Pivot, Chapter 5).
• Disease progression (Elementary Questions, Chapter 31).
• Amounts of qi and blood (Elementary Questions, Chapter 24 and Magic Pivot, Chapter 65 and 78).
• To treat atrophy, only select the yang brightness channels (Elementary Questions, Chapter 44). This theory is now applied to many more types of ailments.
• Anatomical location (anterior, posterior, or lateral; yin or yang aspect of limb).

However, there discussion of these applications is already available in the literature. In order to understand Chinese medicine, it is not enough to memorize information: organ functions, point functions, and the functions of the various medicines and formulas. We must learn to view this medicine with different eyes. We try to see the world (the big taiji) and the human body (the small taiji) the same way the ancients did. We must begin to perceive everything as interconnected and nothing as separate.

Reading the classics and even the Mawangdui manuscripts is important, not only because of the information that is in them, but also because of the opportunity to learn from the ancients their view of the universe. Not to let the viewpoint of the ancients change our thinking when practicing this ancient medicine would be like trying to speak using Chinese words with English grammar. The resulting speech would lack clarity and coherency. The resulting medicine would lack the power to heal.


Appendix 1. The yin-yang designations of the viscera in other chapters of the Inner Canon.

Elementary Questions, Chapters 4 and 9 and Magic Pivot, Chapters 1 and 41 all give yin-yang designations for the five viscera.
Elementary Questions, Chapter 9 includes the yin-yang designations while discussing organ image, as we have seen above.
Elementary Questions, Chapter 4 explains yin-yang within the body, telling us that the exterior, the back, and the bowels are yang while the interior, the abdomen, and the viscera are yin.
Magic Pivot, Chapter 1 provides the yin-yang correspondence in the context of the yuan source points of the five viscera.
Magic Pivot, Chapter 41 uses this system in an explanation of yin and yang, heaven and earth in the body. It includes a discussion of the ten heavenly stems (related to the arm channels) and the twelve earthly branches (related to the leg channels).

However, there is variation between these four chapters. Here are the yin-yang designations from each chapter:

Organ Magic Pivot Elementary Questions
Chapter 41 Chapter 1 Chapter 4 Chapter 9
Heart greater yang within yang greater yang within yang yang within yang
greater yang within yang
Lung lesser yin within yin (see note 20) lesser yin within yang yin within yang
greater yin within yang
Kidneys greater yin within yin greater yin within yin yin within yin lesser yin within yin
Liver lesser yang within yin lesser yang within yin yang within yin lesser yang within yang (see note 21)
Spleen extreme yin within yin extreme yin within yin extreme yin within yin in the category of extreme yin (see note 22)

Table 7. Yin-Yang association with the viscera in the Inner Canon

The lungs and heart, being above, are considered within yang (with the exception of the probable copying error in Magic Pivot, Chapter 41 for the lungs). The kidneys, liver, and spleen, being below, are all considered within yin (with the exception of the probable copying error in Elementary Questions, Chapter 9 for the liver). Elementary Questions, Chapter 4 does not give the specific aspect of yin-yang, only the general yin-yang designation. Let's check change theory and see if we can rectify this. 四象 The four images were originally mentioned in 《繋辭傳》 Appended Sentences, Part 1, Chapter 11 but not explained beyond "The changes have the great polarization. This gives birth to the two modes. The two modes give birth to the four images. The four images give birth to the eight gua. The eight gua determine auspiciousness or inauspiciousness." (see note 1) It was up to later sages to illustrate the four images with solid and broken lines. They also associated the four images with the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, etc.

Figure 2. The taiji, two modes, four images and the eight gua.

According to the Great Dictionary of Change Theory (Zhang 1995, p198 and p544), we can define the four images as follows (see note 24):
___ 太陽 Greater yang (also called 老陽 old yang, 陽中之陽 yang within yang): south, summer, summer solstice, wu branch.

_ _
_ _ 太陰 Greater yin (also called 老陰 old yin, 陰中之陰 yin within yin): north, winter, winter solstice, zi branch.

_ _ 少陽 Lesser yang (also called 陰中之陽yang within yin, young yang): east, spring, spring equinox, mao branch.

_ _
___ 少陰 Lesser yin (also called 陽中之陰yin within yang, young yin): west, autumn, autumn equinox, you branch.

Based on these descriptions, we can make the language of Elementary Questions, Chapter 4 a little more specific:

Organ Elementary Questions Chapter 4 Change Theory
Heart yang within yang greater yang
Lung yin within yang lesser yin
Kidneys yin within yin greater yin
Liver yang within yin lesser yang
Spleen extreme yin within yin not included

Table 8. A comparison of the four images with the organ designations in Elementary Questions, Chapter 4.

Of course this is speculative. The author(s) of Elementary Questions, Chapter 4 may have been using a different logic. However, as an exercise, let us now revise the table with the organ designations of these four chapters, correcting the two likely copying errors and adding in the more detailed description for Elementary Questions, Chapter 4:

Revised yin-yang association with the viscera in the Inner Canon
Organ Magic Pivot Elementary Questions
Chapter 41 Chapter 1 Chapter 4 Chapter 9
Heart within yang greater yang greater yang greater yang greater yang
Lung lesser yin lesser yin lesser yin greater yin
Kidneys within yin greater yin greater yin greater yin lesser yin
Liver lesser yang lesser yang lesser yang lesser yang
Spleen extreme yin extreme yin extreme yin extreme yin

Table 9. Revised Yin-Yang association with the viscera in the Inner Canon

All four chapters agree on the overall designation for the heart, liver, and spleen, but we find disagreement on the lungs and kidneys:

• Three chapters say the kidneys correspond to greater yin. Only Elementary Questions, Chapter 9 says the kidneys are lesser yin.
• Three chapters say the lungs correspond to lesser yin. Only Elementary Questions, Chapter 9 says the lungs are greater yin (see note 25).

The theory of Elementary Questions, Chapter 9 is that whatever is above, whatever is located within yang, is greater: the heart and the lungs, the emperor and the minister or the sun (taiyang) and moon (taiyin). This seems to be a more Confucian view: proper conduct (禮 li) in respecting those above you in social position or age, and filial piety (孝 xiao). The other three chapters agree that yin is greater when it is below, in the yin position: the kidneys are greater yin because they are considered the lowest (most yin) viscera of the body. The lungs are above, in the area of yang, so they are less yin that the kidneys. This idea views the body as a naturalist, not as someone concerned with human societal values. It would likely be the view of Laozi, who praised the feminine (yin) and discussed the virtue of water flowing to low places.

Appendix 2. Associating the Six-Channel Names with the Yin-Yang Organ Designations, Revisited

Earlier, we examined the relationship between the six-channel names and the yin-yang designations given in Elementary Questions, Chapter 9. A reasonable explanation of the connections could be constructed, but what about these other three chapters?

Organ Designation
Heart greater yang
Lung lesser yin
Kidneys greater yin
Liver lesser yang
Spleen extreme yin

Table 10. The designations of the five viscera.

If the kidneys are now associated with the greater yin channel of the leg, the spleen, extreme yin, will have to be something else. Could it become lesser yin? Yes, if the translation of zhiyin changes from 'extreme yin' to 'reaching yin.' The spleen, just below the diaphragm is just within the yin territory of the body. It has just reached yin, but is not as deep into it as water, the kidneys. The liver can remain reverting yin. One problem with this arrangement would be that it places the kidney channel on the anterior leg and the spleen channel on the posterior leg, yet the kidneys are closely associated with the back and the spleen is closely associated with the abdomen, the front.

In relation to arm yin channels, if we let the lungs retain their lesser yin designation, the heart must be greater yin. However, the organ designation for the heart is greater yang. It hardly seems right that greater yin channel could correspond to the greater yang organ. This would pair lungs and spleen as lesser yin. The heart and kidneys would be greater yin. They could retain the same six-channel relationship with each other. Besides this, the six yang channels would have to be renamed if their bowels remained paired with the same viscera. The channel system would need to undergo a major transformation.


Inherently, problems arise when two independent systems or theories are merged with each other. The six-channel names seem to be an older stable system, while the yin-yang organ designations were still evolving. Today, we rarely pay attention to the yin-yang organ designations but frequently use the six-channel names. However, at the time the Inner Canon was developing, it seems these organ designations must have been important, as they were included in four chapters. Three of the four chapters appear to have one set of designations belonging to a more natural, Daoist point of view. The one chapter that differs seems to take a Confucian humanistic point of view. The system of that chapter (Elementary Questions, Chapter 9) became the primary one when the channels and organs were paired up.


Note 1: Three other chapters of the Inner Canon (Elementary Questions, Chapter 4; Magic Pivot, Chapters 1 and 41) give yin-yang designations for the five viscera. These variations will be discussed in the appendix below.

Note 2: The superior man dwells peacefully in the sequence of the changes. In happiness he plays with the sentences of the lines. Therefore, when the superior man dwells, he observes the images and plays with the sentences. When making a move, he observes the mutations and plays with the oracle. Therefore, he is protected by heaven with auspiciousness and everything brings benefit. 君子所居而安者,易之序也。所樂而玩者,爻之辭也。是故,君子居則觀其象,而玩其辭;動則觀其變,而玩其占。是故自天佑之,吉無不利。《易經•系辭上傳》 第二章

Note 3: The reference for this whole section is Harper, 1998.

Note 4: The Mawangdui finds are the largest collection of medical writings from that period, but other tombs, some 60 or 70 years earlier, have yielded other editions of the same documents and/or other medical documents (Harper 1998, p30).

Note 5: 《陰陽十一脈灸經》, now called the Yin and Yang Vessels.

Note 6: 《足臂十一脈灸經》, now called the Foot and Forearm Vessels.
Note 7: Most books discuss these eleven channels as if one were missing, but perhaps there was a theoretical reason for it: The foot channels may be associated with the twelve earthly branches, so six on each leg (for a total of twelve) is an appropriate number. The arm channels may have been associated with the ten heavenly stems. Therefore, five on each side (for a total of ten) would be the proper number. We know the stems and branches were used on the oracle bones, long before the Mawangdui manuscripts were written. In addition, Magic Pivot, Chapter 41 uses a related idea. It is also possible that the five yin and six yang channels of the Mawangdui manuscripts did have a relationship with the five yin and six yang organs. However, these organs were not associated with the channels in these manuscripts; in fact, they were not discussed in the manuscripts at all.

Note 8: Elementary Questions, Chapter 31 also says that the greater yin channel spreads in the stomach, and does not mention the spleen.

Note 9: 《陰陽脈死候》
Note 10: Called the Grand Historian, the author of the Han dynasty Historical Records. 司馬遷《史記》

Note 11: 帝曰:臟象何如?岐伯曰:心者生之本,神之變也;其華在面,其充在血脈,為陽中之太陽,通於夏氣。肺者,氣之本,魄之處也;其華在毛,其充在皮,為陽中之太陰,通於秋氣。腎者主蟄,封藏之本,精之處也;其華在髮,其充在骨,為陰中之少陰。通於冬氣。肝者,罷極之本,魂之居也;其華在爪,其充在筋,以生血氣,其味酸,其色蒼,此為陽中之少陽。通於春氣。脾、胃、大腸、小腸、三焦、膀胱者、食廩之本,營之居也,名曰器,能化糟粕,轉味而入出者也,其華在唇四白,其充在肌,其味甘,其色黃,此至陰之類,通於土氣。《素問•六節藏象論篇第九》

Note 12: 'Within yang' could be an error here, as the liver is located below, and this disagrees with the other three chapters in the Inner Canon. The Systematic Classic of Acupuncture and Moxibustion [zhenjiu jiayi jing] and the Taisu both have 'lesser yang within yin.' It also destroys the symmetry of the four images. At this time, I am considering it a copying error. However, the liver is one of the more yang of the viscera, being associated with wood and up bearing. Therefore, it is also possible that the author did mean to say yang.

Note 13: In this passage, the stomach, large intestine, small intestine, triple burner, and urinary bladder are included along with the spleen. It says that these organs communicate with earth qi.

Note 14: 腎者,作強之官,伎巧出焉。《素問•靈蘭秘典論篇第八》

Note 15: Elementary Questions, Chapter 43 tells us that when bi impediment is contracted in zhiyin (obviously referring to long summer by the context), it becomes flesh bi. Of course, the flesh is associated with the spleen.

Note 16: The spleen and stomach are the officials of food and granaries, according to Elementary Questions, Chapter 8.

Note 17: Only Magic Pivot, Chapter 41 discusses both the channel and organ yin-yang designations. Other chapters do not discuss both together.

Note 18: While the san jiao traverses all three burners, it emerges from the kidneys.

Note 19: However, in most of the Inner Canon, the heart channel is not needled and the pericardium channel is substituted for it. See Magic Pivot, Chapter 71.

Note 20: The Taisu says the lungs are lesser yin within yang in the corresponding place.

Note 21: 'Within yang' could be an error here, as the liver is below the diaphragm, and this disagrees with Chapter 4. It also destroys the symmetry of the four images. At this time, I am considering it a copying error. The Systematic Classic of Acupuncture and Moxibustion [zhenjiu jiayi jing] and the Taisu both have 'lesser yang within yin.' However, the liver is one of the more yang of the viscera, being associated with wood and up bearing. Therefore, it is also possible that the author did mean to say yang.

Note 22: In this passage, the stomach, large intestine, small intestine, triple burner, and urinary bladder are included along with the spleen. It says that these organs communicate with earth qi.

Note 23: 易有太極,是生兩儀, 兩儀生四象,四象生八卦,八卦定吉凶。《易經•系辭上傳•第十一章》

Note 24: There are also alternate views on the four images, specifically with lesser yin and lesser yang.

Note 25: Elementary Questions, Chapter 2 also implies agreement with Chapter 9 on the yin-yang organ designations of the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. The spleen is not mentioned in this passage of Chapter 2.


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