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The Importance of the Channel Systems of the Ling Shu

by Nicholas Sieben

In the United States, Europe and other parts of the world, acupuncture is widely taught through the Zang Fu (TCM) approach. It has proven to be an effective system. However, its roots are considered by many to be a predominantly "herbal” way of thinking. Acupuncture is often taught alongside herbs; thought to be effective in the treatment of acute conditions, but dependent on herbal medicine for the treatment of chronic ailments.

Chinese Medicine hasn’t always been dominated by an "herbal bias.” Prior to the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD), acupuncture was practiced as a system of channel energetics, represented by the six Channel Systems. Before the unification of China during the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD), acupuncture was seen as the medical tradition of the North, while herbal medicine was the tradition of the South. Each modality was practiced as a complete system unto itself.

The channel approach to acupuncture is still practiced within the Vietnamese and French adapted systems, as well as through the teachings of Jeffrey Yuen. The Channel Systems are considered by many to be the heart of Classical Chinese Acupuncture. Teachers such as Mr. Yuen have reintroduced acupuncture as it was practiced during the pre-Sung era, reminding the profession of its classical origins.

The Channel Systems were first presented in the Nei Jing, compiled during the Han Dynasty (206-220 AD). The Nei Jing Ling Shu is popularly known as the "Zhen Jing” or "Classic of Acupuncture,” considered the foundational text of acupuncture. It begins with a mission statement: to preserve and protect acupuncture, so it won’t be "forgotten, obliterated and lost.”

The channel systems of the Ling Shu are presented as an integral part of acupuncture. To fully appreciate "the art of healing with a needle,” the wisdom of the Ling Shu, and therefore the channel systems must be understood.

The Primary Channels have become the standard for modern acupuncture treatment. These channels are presented in Chapter 10 of the Ling Shu as one of the six channel systems of Classical Acupuncture. The remaining five systems: the Sinew Channels, Cutaneous Regions, Luo Vessels, Divergent Channels and Eight Extraordinary Vessels have come to be known as the "Secondary Channels of Acupuncture.” Study of the "Secondary Channels” is rare in acupuncture colleges today.

By and large, modern study of the Primary Channels is taught differently than in the Ling Shu. The TCM tradition views the Primary Channels as extensions of the Zang Fu, using the channels to treat Zang Fu pathological patterns. This is where modern acupuncture has been criticized as utilizing an "herbalist’s” point of view within acupuncture treatment.

Acupuncture at the time of the Ling Shu was based on a "channel approach,” viewing the channels as stages within a progression of pathology and physiology. Treatment with the channels is not based on Zang Fu patterns, but on the channels themselves; representing stages within the pathological process.

The Ling Shu presents the Primary Channels as a continuum of physiology and pathology. The focus is less on Zang Fu functions and patterns; seen instead as a theory of pathological progression, from an external stage moving into the interior of the body to damage qi, blood, fluids and marrow. Displacement of the channels is representative of basic Chinese Medical pathophysiology, as presented in the Su Wen.

Ling Shu-inspired treatment with the Primary Channels differs from that of the TCM tradition. The depth of disease penetration governs how far into the channel continuum points are chosen. For example, a condition of Liver Fire, considered an excess condition, would most likely be treated with the Stomach channel in the Ling Shu tradition. Liver and Gallbladder points would not be part of the acupuncture formula. The Liver and Gallbladder channels, coming at the very end of the continuum, represent disease penetration into the level of the marrow. To treat with points relating to such a deep level of energetics would be considered "irresponsible” to a Ling Shu practicioner, running the risk of driving the pathology deeper into the body. Stomach channel points are fully capable of clearing excess conditions such as heat affecting any area of the body. The Stomach Channel represents the stage of pathological development relating to any internal excess condition within the body, including Liver Fire.

The Channels are not seen as segmented extensions of the Zang Fu within the Ling Shu. They are levels by which the pathological process progresses into deeper levels of the body. The Lungs represent a wind-cold external condition; the Large Intestine, as the transformation of wind-cold into wind-heat; the Stomach, as penetration into the interior; the Spleen, as taxation on the qi from the excess internalized condition; the Heart as taxation on the blood, affecting the Shen; the Small Intestine as the level by which the condition moves into latency, as it hides in the bones; the Bladder and Kidney represent taxation on Yang and Yin, respectively; the Pericardium and Triple Heater begin the process of the body’s loss of latency, where Heart and Kidney communication and the Fire/Water balance of the body are challenged; the Gallbladder and Liver are the levels where the Curious Organs become damaged.

Symptoms of the channels, presented in Chapter 10 of the Ling Shu, are illustrative of the progression theory of the Primary Channels. They detail disease penetration and the subsequent taxation on the body stage by stage.

The Primary Channels have come to represent the totality of acupuncture treatment since the Sung Dynasty. With the exception of the Eight Extraordinary Vessels, and the Luo Vessels to a lesser extent, the remaining "Secondary Vessels” of acupuncture were abandoned. The Imperial Medical Academy of the Sung Dynasty began a period of intense investigation into the points along the Primary Channels. Theory and function previously associated with the "Secondary Channels” were built into the Primary Channels to allow them to encapsulate the full pathological process. If one is interested in only learning the Primary Channels, it becomes necessary to understand all the points along the channels. Each point contains a piece of the code developed in the Nei Jing.

A purist Ling Shu practicioner would most likely suggest the importance of understanding all six channel systems; believing the Primary Channels are not enough. This is perhaps the best way to understand acupuncture as a complete system of medicine. The "Secondary Channels” are layered with theories and strategies, often in greater detail than is found within the Primary Channels. Their inclusion into acupuncture study and treatment helped illuminate and apply the subtle theories presented in the Nei Jing.

The channel systems can be explained as levels of energetics. Each channel system conducts a particular type of qi. Discussion of the levels of qi begins in Chapters 1 and 3 of the Ling Shu. There are three levels of qi in the body: Wei qi, Ying qi and Yuan Qi, which are interdependent. They can be seen as external, internal and constitutional energies.

The Sinew Channels and Cutaneous Regions are conduits of Wei Qi, The Luo Vessels conduct Ying Qi, and the Eight Extraordinary Vessels conduct Yuan qi. The remaining channels make connections between the levels of qi: the Primary Channels conduct both Wei and Ying qi, and the Divergent Channels make the connection between Wei and Yuan Qi.

The "Secondary Channels” provide an in-depth look into the pathological process, as relates to the levels of qi in the body.

The Sinew Channels are a lesson in Wei Qi: the most superficial layer of energetics within the body, which contends with external pathogenic factors. The trajectories of the channels illustrate how Wei qi works, as well as the pathological process within the Wei level.

If the Sinew Channels fail to deal with an external pathogenic factor, the Luo Vessels inherit the problem. Ying qi comes to the aid of Wei qi. Blood is used to trap the pathogenic factor, and translocate it into a holding vessel, or "luo.” Luo Vessels are "channels of latency,” or buffers for the Primary Channels. They are presented as such in Chapter 10 of the Ling Shu after the discussion about the Primary Channels.

Within the "Secondary Channels” is greater explanation of the theory of latency: the body’s mechanism of "shuttling” an overwhelming pathogenic factor away from the Primary Channels and Zang Fu. Latency is illuminated especially in discussion of the Luo Vessels and Divergent Channels.

The "Secondary Channels” are classically called "collaterals” or "luo.” They act as buffers for the Primary Channels and internal organs, which are considered vital to daily physiological function. The "collaterals” bring an overwhelming problem out of the flow of primary daily life. They are channels that "buy us time,” sweeping problems under the rug for the time being. They protect, without necessarily addressing the problem.

Latency is a very important concept in Chinese Medicine. It relates to what Jeffrey Yuen calls "the disease nemesis theory.” To protect the vital internal organs, the body translocates pathogens to less-important areas of the body, where they can be held until there’s sufficient resources to deal with the problem. Discussion of the Luo Vessels and Divergent Channels within the Ling Shu illustrate the concept of latency.

The role of the Luo Vessels is to translocate a pathogenic factor that has overwhelmed the Sinew Channels (Wei level), threatening to move inward and affect the Primary Channels. The Luo Vessels are conduits of Ying qi. They use blood and fluids to trap a pathogenic factor in a state of blood or fluid stagnation, which is held on the surface of the body as a varicosity or lipoma. This state is called "Fullness of the Luo.”

The Divergent Channels make the connection between the Wei and Yuan levels of the body. Their role is to translocate a pathogenic factor threatening to move into the Zang Fu. Instead of using blood to trap the pathogen, the Divergent Channels use Jing, as represented by the joints. The bones are related to the Kidneys and the level of Yuan qi and Jing; they are the external expression of the Jing. By trapping a pathogen within the joints, an organic disturbance is prevented.

Within both the Luo and Divergent Channels, latency is maintained until the body’s resources have become too deficient to finance it. Thereafter, the pathogens leak back into the Primary Channels, causing disturbance to daily physiological function.

Chapter 39 of the Su Wen contrasts the nature of pathology within the "collaterals” and the Primary Channels. The chapter discusses pain. If pain is eased by the use of moxabustion, the pathology is said to be affecting the "collaterals.” However, if moxa has no effect on the pain, the problem involves the Primary Channels. Issues involving the "collaterals” have a tendency to be intermittent: this is a quality of latency. Primary Channel pathology is described by Jeffrey Yuen, in his commentary on the Ling Shu, as "cruel;” causing "unbearable suffering.” When an issue is located within the "collaterals” it is dampened, showing itself intermittently when the body becomes relatively deficient in whatever resource is maintaining the latency. Whereas, pathology within the Primary Channels is inescapable: it is affecting the primary flow of life, showing itself in the everyday circulation of qi and blood.

"Emptiness of the Luo” occurs when the body’s Ying qi has become insufficient, allowing the latent pathogenic factor to leak back into the external or internal branches of the Primary Channels. This state often manifests as symptoms relating to the external or internal branches of the Primary Channels.

"Loss of latency” is represented by the Triple Heater in both the Divergent Channel progression as well as in that of the Primary Channels. The Triple Heater is responsible for maintaining the balance between Fire and Water within the body. Any stagnation within the body, including latency, eventually transforms into heat. When yin is no longer able to maintain the heat, the pathogen begins to leak back into the Primary Channels, causing organic damage. The level of Triple Heater indicates either Water failing to maintain Fire, or Fire failing to maintain Water, causing febrile or water diseases, which are not being controlled by the body. The Triple Heater is a late stage within the progression of the Channels: its points and trajectory illustrate the process and effects of loss of latency.

Contained within channel trajectories are statements about pathological process and treatment strategy. When studied in depth, the channel systems are shown to contain codes for the treatment of chronic diseases, even such serious conditions as autoimmune and degenerative diseases.

Chapter 1 of the Ling Shu sets an intention: the creation of a text establishing acupuncture as a complete healing system unto itself. The author writes: "I want to treat with a fine needle inserted into the skin instead of giving any medicine.” The Ling Shu teaches that acupuncture need not be reliant upon herbal medicine for effective treatment beyond the acute stage. The "Secondary Channels” establish the full potential of acupuncture, as a complete system of healing: for acute as well as chronic issues.

The TCM and Classical traditions of acupuncture have much they can teach one another.

Sun Si-Miao is the classical physician who encouraged clinicians to learn the theories and practices of both herbs and acupuncture; not because either system needed the other to become complete, but to enrich both traditions by seeing the world through the eyes of the other.

"Herbalized acupuncture” allows an acupuncturist the benefit of seeing acupuncture from an herbal point of view. Within the current state of acupuncture education, the Ling Shu’s acupuncture-specific view is largely missing. The theories of the Ling Shu, illuminated through the Channel Systems of Acupuncture, could greatly strengthen the Chinese medical profession as a whole. Even herbalists would benefit by examining their modality through the lense of acupuncture. Both points of view were considered by Sun Si-Miao, as beneficial for both acupuncturists as well as herbalists to know.


Nicholas Sieben, MS, L.Ac. earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and the Philosophy from Brandeis University, and a Master’s degree in Acupuncture from the Swedish Institute, under the direction of Jeffrey Yuen. Nicholas continues to study with Mr. Yuen, inspired by the wisdom of Classical Chinese Medicine. Nicholas practices acupuncture in New York City.


Yuen, Jeffrey. Light on the Essence of Chinese Medicine: The Ling Shu. New England School of Acupuncture, December 16, 2000.

Yuen, Jeffrey. Lecture on Early Acupuncture: Ling Shu at Chinatown Wellness Center, NY, NY. February 15-16, 2009.

Liansheng, Wu; Qi Wu (translators). Yellow Emperor’s Cannon of Internal Medicine. China Science & Technology Press.

Yuen, Jeffrey. Lecture of the Primary Channels at the Chinatown Wellness Center, June 20-21, 2009.

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