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What does that mean? Traditional Chinese Medicine Terms Demystified.

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

If you are new to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) then the terms and concepts that you might come across in our online content or in the treatment room may initially sound very foreign. Not to mention that the outcome that putting needles in seemingly random locations can have such an effect on your body!


Acupuncture is a Traditional Chinese Medicine therapy that dates back approximately 3000 years. “Acu-puncture” literally means needling or puncturing a specific point on your body. Acupuncture promotes natural healing and improved body function by using needles that are almost as thin as human hair, gentle heat, and other specialized tools to stimulate specific points and meridians around the body.

Now, while we do not want to ruin that amazing and almost mystical quality that acupuncture holds, we do want to help you navigate some of the language that we use so you feel you have a bit more of a grasp of what is going on.

In this blog we have put together a cheat sheet of some of the more commonly used terms that hold great meaning in TCM. No doubt you have heard many of them before.


Yin and Yang Theory….

Most people are familiar with the Yin Yang symbol.

Yin and Yang theory is probably the term that most people have some familiarity with. The yin yang symbol is commonly used to convey balance in many mainstream settings.

Early theory of Yin-Yang was formed in the Yin and Zhou dynasties between 1,600-221 BC and it appeared in the Book of Changes (Yi Jing) which dates back to about 700 BC.

TCM views everything in life as one harmonious entity, all working in balance with one another to create one whole. The theory of Yin and Yang is that amongst this whole there are two main components combining to complement each other and provide balance.

This originally stemmed from the observations of nature. These observations saw ‘Yin’ referring to the shady side of the slope and ‘Yang’ referring to the sunny side. This translates across other pairs in nature with opposing yet complementary characteristics. Day and Night, Water and Fire, Male and Female. When we consider Yang, we associate it with more masculine energetic properties such as movement, heat, action, expansion, and active states. Yin however is considered feminine, still, quiet, cold, dark, and lower energetic states.

Yin Yang thory stemmed from observatons of nature.

So how does this relate to your health? When supporting health from a TCM perspective the aim is to achieve balance in the body. Seeking balance in the Yin and Yang in each patient is fundamental in our clinical practice.

TCM views pain, disease, and ill health to be the result of imbalance of Yin and Yang and Qi (Qi is energy but more on that soon) flow around the body. Picture that you have a network of rivers running around your body that are all interconnected, these rivers are what we call the meridians. The ‘water’ flowing in these rivers is the Qi. When there is a blockage in the flow (think tree fallen over and creating a dam in the river) or a change to the strength of the flow from excess or deficiency then this manifests as ill health be it pain, illness, or disease.

Along the meridians are the acupuncture points. By identifying the root cause of the imbalance, we can stimulate the correct acupuncture points encouraging the Qi flow to be optimized and health to be restored.

In clinic the following four aspects of the cyclical Yin Yang relationship are considered when diagnosing a patient.

  • The opposition of Yin and Yang (day and night)

  • The interdependence of Yin and Yang (no night without day)

  • Mutual consumption of Yin and Yang (cold of night consumes the warmth of day)

  • Inter-transformation of Yin and Yang (day only appears after night is finished)

When looking at the structure of the human body, Yin and Yang theory can also be applied to assist with diagnosis used in TCM.

The YANG aspects of the body include, the back, the head, the exterior (skin and muscles), above the waist, posterior – lateral surfaces of limbs, yang organs (fu), organ function, qi and wei qi.

The YIN aspects of the body include, the front, the body (below head), the organs, below waist, interior medial surface of the limbs, yin organs (zang), organ structure, Xue (blood) JinYe (fluids), Nutritive Qi, Yin qi.

The ability to embrace the yin yang theory and step back from yourself to observe where imbalances in life may be impacting health is a wonderful skill to learn and something we are happy to facilitate for patients at Red Bridge.


What is Qi?

Qi (pronounced chee) may be interpreted as the ‘life force’ within us. Sometimes it is also described as the ‘vital energy’ within our body. The existence of Qi and its associated properties make up the basis of much of the principle of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The term Qi will come up in 99% of the content we write.

TCM looks at life differently to western culture. The body is viewed as one whole entity with connecting parts that all work in balance to maintain life and health. Everything in the body is interconnected with each other. As such if all the parts of our body are in harmony with one another then we experience health and balance. Disturb one component and there is disharmony and imbalance that ripples through the whole system causing dis-ease and ill health.

All these different components and connecting parts have different types of energetic qualities. Qi, blood, and fluids of the body are considered the most important of these qualities. Strong Qi is vital to healthy life.

Where do we get Qi?

Qi is derived from two different sources. We have Qi that is inherited. This is present from conception and is known as ‘the innate vital substance’. This could be interpreted as your constitution. Secondly, we can obtain Qi throughout life from our surrounds such as air, food, and water. This Qi is ‘acquired essence’ from nature.

Qi may be interpreted as the life force within us.

There is a multitude of types of Qi. Here is an example of 4 types of Qi.

  • Prenatal Qi (Yuan Qi) contains the prenatal and congenital properties. Inherited from the parents this Qi is stored in the kidney.

  • Lung Qi (Zong Qi) is made in the lungs. It is formed from oxygen taken in by the lungs and food essence from spleen and stomach.

  • Nutritive Qi (Ying Qi) governs the nourishment of the body. Derived from food essence created by stomach and spleen.

  • Protective Qi (Wei Qi) is our suit of armour against illness. Wei Qi is pushed to the surface by the dispersing action of the lungs and circulates on the skin in order to protect the body from external pathogens.

Noticing how many of the different types of Qi are influenced and derived from our food essence makes it clear the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle to obtain the vital Qi required by the body for healthy balance.

How does Qi work around the body?

Qi holds many different roles around our body. I have listed a brief description of each to give a picture of the importance of a strong healthy Qi and the impacts and related health concerns of any deficiency or Qi. Qi is an active energy in the body that is necessary for growth and development of our organs and tissues. It also drives the production and movement of blood and fluid around our body. When we encounter a deficiency of qi, these functions will become weak. Symptoms of weakness may include delay in development and growth and poor functioning of our organs leading to a multitude of health issues.

Qi contains heat energy for our body. As a heat source Qi maintains our body at a constant temperature for optimal functioning. Imbalances of deficiency in Qi may result in a lowered body temperature and symptoms such as cold extremities and poor circulation.

As mentioned earlier when discussing protective Qi our Qi acts as an armour against the many ‘evils’ that may lead to illness and dis-ease. Evils are environmental factors such as wind, heat, damp, dry, cold and fire. To liken it to a western medicine term our Qi defend against illness in a similar way to our immune system. Our Qi keeps also works to keep everything in place. It keeps blood flowing in vessels, controls secretion of fluids, stores, and conserves sperm, maintains positioning of the organs for optimal functioning. A deficiency in Qi may results in health issues such as, haemorrhage, frequent urination, premature ejaculation and prolapses. Qi has a transformational function in the body. Aiding the metabolizing of substances to transform them into essence or vital energy. For example, the food we eat is transformed into a food essence with is then further transformed into Qi and blood.

The impact of deficiency and excess on Qi.

The Qi we use in life is extracted in most cases from food we eat and air that we breathe. As such it is imperative that we have access to nourishment from high quality foods and the opportunity to breathe good clean air. Whilst diet and air quality are of the upmost importance a deficiency or lack of Qi can be experienced as an insufficiency of any of a multitude of things that may sustain and nourish us in life. Along with food these would include things like warmth, shelter, mental and physical stimulation, relationships, affection, and love.

Qi can also be impacted by negative excesses in life. This refers to the presence of something that is detrimental or in overabundance to our specific needs. Some examples of excess we may experience are, environmental toxins, excess in diet, heat, cold, humidity, emotion – particularly stress, worry, grief and anger or excess physical activity without room to rest and restore.

When restoring health from a TCM perspective strengthening Qi and restoring imbalances is critical to long term success and optimal health.


More about Deficiency and Excess…

From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective any experience of ill health signifies an imbalance in the body. These imbalances are caused by an excess or deficiency in one or more areas of your body.

We have just discussed in detail Qi. With that in mind know that each organ system in TCM has its own Qi. As such, symptoms of Qi deficiency and excess are many and varied depending on which organ system or systems are affected.

Generally, the Yin organs of our body are unlikely to be in excess, these are the organs where will commonly find deficiencies. The Yang organs however can tend towards excess.

Some examples of deficiency are as follows:

Digestive system

The digestive system is governed by the Yin organ of the Spleen. Symptoms of Spleen Qi deficiency may include digestive disturbance, weakness, bloating, loose bowel motions and disturbance of appetite.

Lungs (FEI)

Our Lungs are another Yin organ. Deficiency in Lung Qi may include asthma, weakness or breathy nature to the voice, weakness in the immune system and spontaneous sweating.

Heart (XIN)

Deficiency in Heart Qi will involve symptoms of poor circulation, heart palpitations, impacts on mood and emotions due to the connection with disturbance of Shen.

Kidney (SHEN)

Deficiency in the Kidney Qi may result in hair loss, fertility issues, memory issues, back or knee pain.

Some examples of excess are as follows:

Stomach (WEI)

The Stomach can easily suffer from excess patterns. It can be described as stomach heat or fire. Presentations may include abdominal pain, belching, indigestion, acne, mental confusion and hyperactivity.

Small Intestine (XIAO CHANG)

Similar to the Stomach, excess in the Small Intestine can cause abdominal pain, intestinal rumbling, diarrhea, or constipation.

The Gallbladder (DAN)

Excess in the Gallbladder may result in such symptoms as vomiting bitter fluids and jaundice.

Liver (GAN)

The Liver is one Yin organ that can develop an excess. An excess in the Liver may present with red dry eyes, anger, blood stagnation, heat, sore neck, and headaches.

Poor sleep and stess can impact our Qi.

So now that we know what a deficiency may look like how do we balance our Qi and avoid deficiencies?

Deficiencies and excess are generally the result of influences in our lifestyle, diet, and environment. There are also physical and emotional conditions that impact our Qi such as high levels of stress and lack of adequate rest or sleep.

Once we have identified the root cause to any Qi deficiency then we can use acupuncture and herbal medicines to restore balance. In conjunction with TCM support education and understanding around the optimal dietary and lifestyle choices and making the required changes will ensure long term optimal results.


What is Jing?

Jing is inherited from birth and is of great importance.

Jing is the Chinese word for essence. Jing is Yin in its nature, and it nourishes, fuels, and cools our body. It is inherited from birth and governs our constitution, growth and development and is intricately linked to the function of reproduction. Residing in the Kidneys, which are considered one of our most vital organs Jing is of great importance to our longevity.

Perhaps the best way to think of Jing is as energy. Individuals with optimal Jing are thought to be likely to live longer and experience increased vitality.

Our Jing is impacted by lifestyle factors that deplete us. Depletion of our essence may result in health issues like impotence, challenges with fertility, greying, balding, deafness or frailty. The traditional Chinese belief is that those with a deficiency in Jing will not live as long and suffer more of the problems associated with aging.

We are born with a certain amount of Jing which is slowly dissipated over the period of our lifetime. This is known as pre-natal Jing (or your constitution as described earlier) There is also post-natal Jing, which can be supported throughout one’s life. It is considered that certain herbal formulas may improve and increase the quality of a person’s post-natal Jing which in turn supports your pre-natal Jing. The real key to optimising Jing is in the way we live. Eating mindfully and avoiding lifestyle factors that deplete our Jing is crucial. The creation and maintenance of a healthy level of Jing through a combination of Traditional Chinese Medicine and a healthy lifestyle is vital for a long and happy life.


What is Shen?

Shen is the spiritual element of a person. The Chinese character for Shen is usually translated as ‘spirit’ It encompasses our consciousness, our mental health and mental function, our emotional presence, and our vitality. Shen is responsible for things like thinking and planning. Unlike Western medicine who view body and mind as quite separate, TCM views and treats the Shen as an essential and linked part of the human body.

Where there is healthy Shen there is Joy.

Shen energy lives in the Blood and Heart. It is said to retire to the Heart at night. Therefore, deficiencies in the Blood may fail to nourish the Shen or Heat created by deficiency may disturb the Shen. If Shen is disturbed insomnia may be experienced.

Shen, as an energy of the Heart maintains balance between the heart and mind. Someone who has a strong balanced and healthy Shen will have a noticeable bright and shiny quality to their eyes, they appear full of life and vitality. They maintain balance with universal rhythms and where there is healthy Shen there is joy.

Those experiencing disturbance or imbalance in Shen may experience an excess of emotions, nervous tension, anxiety, insomnia, and sadness. The mind is restless, and they may experience fatigue. As the Shen is often quite visible in the eyes people with a disturbance is Shen have often got dull eyes, veiled or vacant. This is something that is common in a person who has experienced long term mental health issues.

Our Shen is derived from two sources. The Shen with which we are born, our Prenatal Shen and the Shen developed after birth, Postnatal Shen. Our Postnatal Shen is shaped by our lifestyle, our habits and conditioning. It is directly impacted by our thinking processes and behaviours. Behaviours in excess can exhaust our Postnatal Shen and cause disconnection from our Prenatal Shen.

Healthy Shen depends on the strength of the essence otherwise known as Jing which is stored in Kidneys and Qi which is produced by Spleen and Stomach. The Shen will be well nourished if the Jing and Qi are healthy.


What is Blood Stasis or Stagnation?

Imagine your Qi to be like a current through a river.

Blood stasis or stagnation is the slowing or pooling of blood due to a disruption to the flow of Qi (energy). As we have previously discussed our Qi is instrumental in moving the blood around our body. When Qi flow becomes stuck or stagnant, we can experience a variety of health issues. If you imagine your Qi energy to be like a current through a river or stream and the blood to be the moving water. If the current is slowed and blocked by debris, falling leaves or a tree branch that current will be disrupted, and the flow slows down. Pooling at the sites of blockage may occur causing pressure, back log, or overflow. Downstream from the blockage there will be a lack of nourishment as the water is withheld. This is a descriptive image we have used before, and it is a useful way to explain what stagnation is but also paint a picture of the sort of flow on effects may be experienced from stagnation.

Blood stagnation is a quite common finding in TCM practice. You will mostly hear us refer to stagnation when we are talking about pain. If you reflect on the river analogy it is clear why pain is a common result of stasis and stagnation due to pressure around areas of blockage and deficiency or lack of healthy blood supply ‘downstream’ from any blockage.


Understanding Heat and Cold

As we discussed earlier the balance of Yin and Yang forms the basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory. A Yin -Yang imbalance is thought to be the cause of disharmony and dis-ease.

Stiff achey joints can be a sign of excess cold.

Heat is an extremely common condition in Traditional Chinese Medical Diagnosis. When we talk about heat being an impacting factor on a health condition or someone holding ‘too much heat’ it means there is an excessive amount of Yang, hot masculine energy in the body. A good example of a symptom of excess heat is inflammation.

In contrast the cold pathogenic factor occurs when there is too much evil Yin or cold, feminine energy in a person's body. The nature of Yin energy is to slow movement down. As such symptoms of ‘too much cold’ may include stiff aching joints, stomach-ache, diarrhea, fatigue, runny nose, poor circulation.

Applying Yin – Yang theory to excess heat or cold in the body is quite simple. If there is excess heat it should be cooled if there is excess cold, it should be warmed. Recreate balance and return the body to harmony.


Of course, the list of terms and explanations could go on in detail for some time! There is so much to explore and learn when we look at Traditional Chinese Medicine theory. We hope this blog has helped clarify some of the more common concepts you will encounter. If you ever hear us use a term that you don’t quite understand please stop us and ask us to explain.

Our goal at Red Bridge is to be able to facilitate your self-healing and education about the way we understand the bodies processes in Chinese medicine terms is certainly part of that.

To have a chat or make a booking you can contact us via our website or on (03)59061494.


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