Chinese medicine is diverse and highly adaptable.  No surprise–as it is estimated to be around 3-5 thousand years old.   To begin to understand and appreciate Chinese Medicine we must delve a bit into the history and philosophy during the time the medicine was developing. Don’t worry, my goal here is to give a brief overview–not to write a text book–consider it a crash course.

A Brief Look At The History of Chinese Medicine

Chinese medicine is estimated to be about 3-5 thousand years–likely the latter, as verbal passing of knowledge would have predated any written text.   Huang Di (The Yellow Emperor), who was believed to have lived from 2697-2597 BC, is considered the father of Chinese medicine as he is credited with the writing the  Huang Di Ni Jing (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine)–the founding text of Chinese medicine.

Like any other culture, the books, information and creations reflect the beliefs and theories of the era.  During the rise of Chinese medicine the dominate philosophy was Taoism, the teachings of Lao Tzu (400 BC) chronicled in The Tao De Ching (Book of The Way).  The term Tao literally translates as “the way” or “the path” and is considered the ultimate principle and the creative force behind everything that is manifested in the world–including what is going on in our bodies.  On a side note, I love Ursula LeGuin’s translation of the Tao Te Ching.

Tao is that state that exists before there is duality (Yin and Yang), before night and day, heaven and earth, hot and cold.    The ultimate nature of Tao itself is difficult to grasp  because our minds are inherently dualistic. We understand what is hot by knowing what is cold.  We understand light by knowing dark, night by knowing day.  Tao exists before the manifestation of duality–bit of a mind bend there. Chinese medicine places little emphasis on anatomical structures of the body, rather it focuses on identifying the functional entities of the body and their actions and duties.   Health is perceived as a harmonious interaction of these entities and the outside world.  Disease is interpreted as a disharmony in interaction or a disfunction. Assessments are made by tracing symptoms to patterns of an underlying disharmony.

Chinese medicine is holistic in nature.  It recognizes that the universe and our bodies are a highly interactive matrix of energies and space.  We are holons, with each individual part functioning together for a greater whole. Chinese medicine therefore, doesn’t look to break down (reductionism) the body to the smallest part, but rather focuses on the functional interactions of the body to treat the symptom while addressing the root cause.

Three Branches of Chinese Medicine

Chinese medicine is made up of three broad branches of medicine–acupuncture, Asian bodywork, and herbs and nutrition.  All branches treat the energy system and Qi. All branches use the same founding theories and assessment skills.  Where they differ is only in their form of treatment and their emphasis. There are literally hundreds of traditions and forms in which Chinese medicine is practiced including varying forms of acupuncture, bodywork, herbs, nutrition and qigong.


Asian Bodywork Forms

Forms of Asian bodywork include: Amma therapy, Jin Shin Do, and Shiatsu, etc. Amma therapy is a specialized form of bodywork that combines energetic, rhythmic massage to the energetic channels with precise pressure to specific acupressure points based on client’s needs and assessment. Rather than using needles Asian bodyworkers rely on the strength and sensitivity of their hand to access points. These treatments are energizing while calming and improve balance and health.


Acupuncture uses the precise placement of sterile of needles into points along the energetic channels of the body. Think of the channels as rivers of energy, the points are gateways to the channels and allow the acupuncturist to rebalance the energy of the body. Acupuncture is one of the most effective ways to unblock energy flow and restore the body to a state of balance and harmony.

Herbs and Nutrition

Herbal medicine and nutritional healing has been effectively used for more than thousands of years in China and worldwide. Chinese medicine is unique in that it categorizes all herbs and foods energetically using the founding principles. Recommendations are specific and individualized to the client.  Find out more about Holistic Nutrition.

An important thing to understand about the primary theories of Chinese medicine is they can all co-exist. Meaning you can lay one on top another to help further hone treatment.  Rarely do the theories not support one another.  It is also common that practitioners may have one theory that they use primarily or they may  utilize all theories for treatments.  Below is a glimpse of primary theories of Chinese medicine.


Theories in Chinese medicine

Yin & Yang Theory–At the very foundation of Chinese medicine is the logical concept of Yin & Yang. Polar opposites that compliment each other–Yin (dark) and Yang (light). Yin and Yang can never be separated from one another as they are necessary to define each other based on their relationship.  Literally, everything can be divided into Yin and Yang–from heaven (Yang) to earth (Yin) to disharmonies like fevers (Yang) to feeling cold hands and feet (Yin).

8 Principle Theory–The 8 Principles basically expands on Yin & Yang theory. Patterns in the body are view by 4 categories of of opposites: Interior or Exterior, Hot or Cold, Excess or Deficient, Yin or Yang.  Balance is created (in most cases) by doing the opposite of the pattern. Excess patterns (like phlegm) need decreased, hot patterns (like a fever) need cooled, etc.

5 Element Theory–The 5 Elements (or Wu Hsing) Theory ascribes patterns in the body and all of nature into five distinct categories: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood.  Each element has limitless correspondences(season, sound, flavor, emotion, etc) and flows of Qi in harmony and disharmony.

6 Jiao Theory–Further divides Yin and Yang into 6 categories (Great Yin, Absolute Yin, Lesser Yin, Lesser Yang, Bright Yang and Great Yang). All organ systems fall into a particular category and pathology can be identified by interactions within organ systems in each category.

Zang Fu (Organ) Theory–Organ theory focuses on identifying the functions in health and disharmony of the 12 primary organs and their channel system: Lung, Colon, Stomach, Spleen, Heart, Small Intestines, Bladder, Kidney, Heart Constrictor, Triple Warmer, GallBladder and Liver.

The 4 Levels–The 4 Levels is used to discern the stage or level where a pattern or pathogen is in the body ranging from most exterior to deep interior: Wei (defensive), Qi (energy), Ying (nutritive), or Xue (blood).

Observation or looking

It’s all about observation.  Look, touch, ask, smell and listen–that pretty much makes up the ways Chinese medicine assesses a client’s pattern.

Everything that can be observed about a client is taken into consideration when discerning patterns and and making assessments in Chinese medicine. From a client’s subtle demeanor and movements, to skin color, hair, posture and nails to detailed tongue assessment–they are all clues that help us assess and treat.

Touching or palpation

Touch includes palpating muscles, flesh and bone for temperature differences, changes in strength, and structural anomalies. Perhaps most importantly, this category includes  the highly refined art of pulse assessment which can give tremendous detail about the client’s state of health.


Practitioners of Chinese medicine will ask very specific questions in regards to a client’s pattern including history, current lifestyle, eating and sleeping habits and exercise to help formulate accurate assessment for treatment.  Don’t be surprised if sometimes these questions seem unrelated to the pattern at hand–there are many correlations in Chinese medicine that may be deemed unrelated in western assessment.


This not only includes the answers a client gives, but the qualities and tone of voice and other sounds like sinus congestion, wheezing or borborgymi (tummy gurgles).

What and who does Chinese medicine treat?

Everyone and everything–literally.  Chinese medicine is wonderful as preventative medicine, helping the body maintain health and becoming strong enough to fend of disease or expedite recovery. In acute patterns like colds, flus, shingle and hives treatment focuses on treating the immediate pattern.  And Chinese medicine is very beneficial in treating difficult or recalcitrant diseases, chronic diseases, as well as, providing support and comfort for those with terminal illness.  Although some practitioners may specialize or focus in certain areas Chinese medicine can treat from the youngest to the oldest.

Be well,

April Crowell Dipl. ABT (NCCAOM), AOBTA CI & CP, CHN