Lesson 4: Zangfu Theory

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The Zangfu are the internal organs, which are hidden from view and protected within the body. This is reflected in the Chinese term, Zangfu. One meaning is “internal organ” and another is “to hide” Zang Xiang is another term that is used in Chinese medical literature to refer to Zangfu. Zang Xiang means both “image” and “sign and symptoms showing in superficial areas.”

If you read The Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic you will see that Huang Du names five Yin and six Yang organs for a total of 11. This work does not include the Pericardium. Remember that the Chinese culture and Chinese medicine is very ancient and that theories change as people, society, and thought changes, so the details may shift a bit, but the core of the medicine remains the same.

This expresses exactly what a Chinese medical practitioner does, her/his methodology, when deciding the best strategy for treating patients: get to know internal organ function by examining the signs and symptoms on the superficial body. External signs will reveal what is internal without opening the body, without invasive procedures, and without expensive technological equipment. The image that is reflected on the outside reveals the condition of the internal organs. The image is the most important thing in TCM.

The purpose of Zangfu theory is to discuss internal organ functions (physiological functions), pathological changes, and the interrelationships of the 12 internal organs through the signs and symptoms (image) showing from the superficial areas.

The Categories of the Internal Organs

There are 3 types of internal organs: Yin (or zang), Yang (or fu) and Extraordinary. The greatest focus is on the regular meridians and organs.

The Six Yin (Zang) or Solid Organs
  1. Lung – Hand Taiyin
  2. Spleen – Foot Taiyin
  3. Heart – Hand Shaoyin
  4. Kidney – Foot Shaoyin
  5. Pericardium – Hand Jueyin
  6. Liver – Foot Jueyin
The Six Yang (Fu) or Hollow Organs
  1. Large Intestine – Hand Yangming
  2. Stomach – Foot Yangming
  3. Small Intestine – Hand Taiyang
  4. Urinary Bladder – Foot Taiyang
  5. San Jiao – Hand Shaoyang
    You can’t do an MRI and see something that equates to the San Jiao in the western medical world. The San Jiao is nevertheless a real Yang/Fu organ in TCM. It is the organ which controls of the movement of water throughout the body. The San Jiao is subdivided into three regions which correspond to ranges of the body. The Upper Jiao refers to everything above the diaphragm and includes the head, chest, lungs, heart and the five sensory organs. The Middle Jiao is the region between the umbilicus and the breathing diaphragm. The Middle Jiao includes the spleen, stomach, liver and gallbladder. The Lower Jiao is anything below the umbilicus on the trunk of the body: small intestine, large intestine, bladder and kidneys. You will also see the San Jiao referred to as the Triple Warmer, Triple Burner, or Triple Heater.
  6. Gallbladder – Foot Shaoyang
The Extraordinary Organs

The Extraordinary Organs are also called Heng Zhi Fu or the Strange Organs. These organs are not connected with the 12 meridians, but are connected with the 8 Extraordinary Vessels which are the Du, Ren, Chong, Dai or Girdling Vessel, Yin Wei, Yang Wei, Yin Qiao, and Yang Qiao. All of these vessels/meridians originate in the uterus in women (about a thumb’s width above the top of the pubis symphysis and in the center of the body) and in the “semen palace” in men. The semen palace is also called the jinggong and is located level with the top of the pubis symphysis in the center of the body.

  1. Brain
  2. Uterus
  3. Marrow
  4. Bone
  5. Vessels
  6. Gallbladder
    Indeed, you are reading that correctly. The Gallbladder has ‘dual citizenship’  as both a Yang organ and an Extraordinary organ. The reasons why will be covered in successive material in this lesson.
The Functions of the Internal Organs

This section is about the overall general functions of the categories of organs. More specific information about each organ’s function will be covered later in this lesson. Memorize the functions highlighted in orange below!

Common Functions for Yin or Solid Organs

The overall and general energy of Yin organs is upward moving. Common functions for these types of organs:

Yin organs generate and produce vital substances
These substances are:

TCM theory says the Blood is produced by the Spleen and Heart with the help of the Lungs and Kidneys.

Qi is generated by the Lungs, Spleen, and Kidneys

Body Fluids
Body Fluids are produced from the Spleen, Stomach, Small Intestine and Large Intestine.

Essence is derived from the Kidneys and Spleen.

Giovanni Maciocia’s Foundations book says that Shen is also a vital substance, though many scholars disagree and feel that Shen is more Yang in nature, probably because Shen is considered one of the three treasures. More on this later.

Yin organs store vital substances.
Yin Organs are static because they are solid and also because they store vital substances. Some examples are: 

Liver stores Blood.
Kidneys store Essence.
Qi and Body Fluids are stored in all Yin Organs.

Common Functions for the Yang or Hollow Organs

The general direction for Yang organs is downward moving.

Receive and hold water and food
The digestive organs are all connected together. All of them, the Stomach, Small Intestine, Large Intestine, and Gallbladder, hold food and water. This leaves the Urinary Bladder out as it is not in the digestive sequence, yet it too is connected to the rest through the San Jiao (which is also a yang organ). You might remember from the discussion above that the San Jiao is the organ with 3 zones (upper, middle, and lower jiaos) which is responsible for the movement of water in the body.When the Stomach is full, the Small and Large Intestines should be empty. Conversely, when the Small and Large Intestines are full the Stomach should be empty.

Transport water and food.
Yang organs are more dynamic than yin organs. Yin by it’s nature is more static and solid while Yang is more active and dynamic. Food and water should not stop at any one organ, but should keep moving downward, as this is the general movement direction of yang organs. If any of these organs stop their downward moving energy and store the substances that are supposed to be passing through them the result is inflammation.Each channel associated with an organ has a point called a He Sea point. He Sea points are located around the knees and elbows. The yang channels of the upper body, Large Intestine, San Jiao, and Small Intestine have He Sea points around the elbows, but they also have Lower He Sea points on the lower extremities. Actually, all Yang channels have He Sea and Lower He Sea points due to the downward moving nature of these organs/channels.

Common functions for the Extraordinary Organs

The only function of the Extraordinary Organs is to store vital substances. Together with the eight Extraordinary Vessels they work as reservoirs and are located deep in the body to store Qi, Blood, Essence, and Fluids.

  1. The Brain is called the Sea of Marrow
  2. The Uterus is one of the 3 Blood chambers
  3. The Liver is another of the 3 Blood chambers
  4. The Sea of Blood is the final organ of the 3 Blood chambers

These are the Extraordinary Organs because they do not fit into either Yin or Yang categories and do not produce substances, yet are hollow (like the Yang organs). They do store substances (like the Yin organs). They have yin organ functions, but yang organ shape.

A Gallbladder that is not functioning properly will super-concentrate the bile to the point that stones form. Gallstones, little pointy green nuggets that get stuck in the gallbaldder, will negatively impact digestion when fatty foods are ingested because this triggers a squeezing action in the organ to release the bile. When stones are present this can cause an awful lot of visceral pain.

So why is the Gallbladder both a Yang and and Extraordinary organ?

Because it does involve digestion which makes it Yang-ish. However, the Gallbladder stores and holds bile like a yin organ, but does not produce it which would then be yangish and hollow. Bile in TCM, per chapter 6 of the Neijing is part of the vital substances, “zhongjing” or central essence.

Like all other organs in the body, there is an emotion or personality component to it. Gallbladders are associated with courage – to have a “big gallbladder” is a Chinese idiom that means someone is very brave while someone with a ‘small gallbladder’ is very timid, easily startled, or frightened.

The Organ Pairs

Each Yin organ system is paired with a correspondent Yang organ system. These are sometimes called husband/wife combinations. Heart is paired with Small Intestine, Spleen is paired with Stomach, Lung is paired with Large Intestine, Kidney is couple with the Urinary Bladder, Liver is paired with the Gallbladder, and the Pericardium couples with the San Jiao.

To learn more about each pair, click on the links below. This will open another tab in your browser and will leave this one open so you can navigate more easily.

Heart and Small Intestine

The Heart governs blood and is dependent upon Qi to push the energy of the Heart and the Blood throughout the body. (Remember that the Liver stores Blood). [Read more]

Spleen and Stomach

The Spleen is the post natal center of Qi, or the Root of Post Heaven Qi. Spleen is closely tied to the Stomach in a Yin and Yang relationship… [Read more]

Lung and Large Intestine

The Lung is located in the chest and is more closely associated with the right side of the body than the left. Indeed when you study biomed you will discover that there are three lobes in the right lung but only two in the left. The Lung is the highest organ as far as the location of the organs in the body. It is for this reason that the Lungs are called the “Imperial Carriage Roof”… [Read more]

Kidney and Bladder

In TCM the Kidneys are considered to be the Root of Life, the Root of Pre-heaven Qi and the Root of the Twelve Internal Organs. Pre-heaven Essence is stored in the Kidneys – they are related to lifespan and longevity. The Kidney is the most important organ for men…[Read more]

Liver and Gallbladder

The Liver is the most important organ for women. Many women have Liver dysfunctions with endocrine and hormonal problems. When the endocrine and hormonal problems are in excess, treat the Liver; when deficient, treat the Kidney…[Read more]

Works Cited

  • Source: Wu, Qianzhi. “Foundations of Chinese Medicine.” AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine, Austin Texas. Fall 2007. Lecture Series.
  • Ni, Maoshing. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine. Boston MA: Shambhala Publications, 1995. Print.
  • Beinfield, Harriet. Between Heaven and Earth. New York NY: Ballantine Books, 1991. Print.
  • Kaptchuk, Ted. The Web That Has No Weaver. New York NY: Congdon & Weed, 1983. Print.