Introduction to Zang Fu organ theory

By: Dr Jason Chong (Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician)

The ancient theory of zang-fu organ systems goes beyond just organs. It’s a dynamic system intricately linked to the five phases of transformation and the flow of vital substances.

Each organ system has its own role to play in the grand scheme of things. They’re like cogs in a machine, each with their own unique set of functions.

But it doesn’t stop there. Each system is also related to a particular stage of transformation and transportation of vital substances.

It’s like watching a captivating dance, each system moving in perfect harmony with the others.

Each system is like a cog in the machine, playing a vital role in the transformation and transportation of the substances that keep you going.

And just like any machine, if one cog isn’t working properly, the whole system can break down.

That’s why it’s so important to take care of your zang-fu organ systems and ensure they’re all working at their best.

Think of it like maintaining your car—regular check-ups and maintenance ensure everything runs smoothly for years to come.

What are the Zang and Fu Organs?

In Chinese medicine, the body is understood as consisting of twelve main organs. Each internal organ has a specific role to play in the body, and they must work together harmoniously to ensure peace and wellness within the terrain of the human body.

The concept of each organ extends beyond the physiological function of the anatomical organ as in Western medicine. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, they involve a broad realm of functional influence. This includes the physical, emotional and mental aspects of our existence.

Each organ also has its own channel, which contains the points used in acupuncture treatment. Each organ also is associated with one of the Wu Xing or Five Elements.

We have within this our Zang or Yin solid organs and our Fu or Yang hollow organs. The Zang are often viewed as the principal organs as their role is to store our fundamental substances. These organs are functional entities, responsible for the maintenance of life activities. When they become pathological, then we observe the range of Zang Fu syndromes arise.

The organ systems are first introduced in the Han Dynasty (around 200BC-220AD) text, the Nei Jing Su Wen. This text is the oldest classic of Chinese Medicine theories, introducing the concepts of health and disease and the terrain of the body.

In Chapter eight of this text, the organs are likened to officials within a government. The basic theory is that each official holds a specific role to ensure the running of the country, a metaphor for our body.

What are the functions of the zang-fu organs?

Lung

The Lungs regulate rhythms

The Lung holds the office of minister and chancellor. The regulation of all rhythms stems from it.

Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 8

The Lung Organ is the official in charge of receiving heavenly Qi (air). It allows our connection and receptiveness to pure and spiritual influences. It empowers physical and mental inspiration, reminding us that there is more to life than our direct experience.

It is the minister issuing directives from the Heart, exerting power but not control. This relationship is the influence of the rhythm of breath on the rate of the heartbeat or the infusing of oxygen into the blood.

The Lung governs Qi & respiration and regulates the water passages. Through this, it infuses Qi throughout the body in its capacity of ‘ruling the hundred vessels’. This aspect of Lung Qi is reflected in the exchange of oxygen/carbon dioxide at a cellular level.

It houses the Po, which reflects our awareness of the physical strength of the body.

Large Intestine 

The Large Intestine releases the mundane

The Large Intestine is responsible for transit. The residue from transformation stems from it.

Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 8

The Large Intestine functions to empower us with the ability to retain our essence while letting go of the mundane in our lives.

It transforms and transports waste, providing a final separation before letting go. It creates a clear inner space, to allow us to receive quality and inspiration, through letting go of impurities, beliefs, emotions and attachments.

Stomach 

Stomach receives grains

The Stomach and Spleen are responsible for the storehouses and granaries. The five tastes stem from them.

Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 8

The Stomach is responsible for rotting and ripening, the first step of fermentation and digestive functions in our body.

Through this, it empowers the integration of our life experiences in a way that creates integrity in our persona.

It’s essential function is to nourish and mother us, controlling the transportation of the essences of food.

It is the place that receives grains and all that we take in – whether emotional, physical or mental. It holds a central place in ensuring we have the resource to survive and grow.

Spleen 

The Spleen is responsible for transformation and transportation

The Spleen handles transformation and transportation

The Spleen Qi provides the nutrition to power the Qi in its movement, and nourish the muscles and four limbs.

It controls the blood by empowering it with acquired, refined essence from food and regulating re-uptake at the capillaries. It houses the Yi – our thoughts, intellect and intent.

Heart 

The Heart is the emperor (penguin)

The Heart holds the office of lord and sovereign. The radiance of the spirits stems from it.

Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 8

The Heart in its role as the supreme controller coordinates the functions of the twelve officials. Its presence reassures the rest that all is in its place. Without this, there is anarchy, confusion and chaos in the realm of the body.

It empowers the recognition of one’s true self and oversees our mental activity. This enables it to initiate actions and control stemming from congruence with this awareness.

The Heart governs the Blood and controls the blood vessels. It is responsible for Blood circulation and with it our consciousness and Shen (awareness).

Small Intestine 

The Small Intestine is the organiser

The Small Intestine is responsible for receiving and making things thrive. Transformed substances stem from it.

Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 8

The Small Intestine controls receiving and transforming. It sorts pure from impure to determine what is important and essential for our life and survival.

It’s cardinal function is as the organiser, filtering our intake to extract nutrition from food, fluids, information and emotion.

It then sends the waste onwards for removal. Through this process it allows us to remove the mundane and thus empowers our transformation.

Bladder 

Like a dam, the Bladder stores fluids to supply power

The Bladder is responsible for regions and cities. It stores the body fluids. The transformations of the Qi then give out their power.

Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 8

The Urinary Bladder is the official in charge of the storage and expulsion of water.

Through the power derived from the Ming Men, the Bladder function is responsible for water metabolism. It transforms the fluids into useful forms, managing our reserves of energy.

Kidney

Kidney house our inner power

The Kidneys are responsible for the arousing of power. Skill and ability stem from them.

Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 8

The Kidneys store Jing (an essential vital substance) and are the house of the gate of vitality (Ming Men). This holds the fundamental spark for life and empowers our potency. The Kidney Yin and Kidney Yang are fundamental for all our bodily functions.

They govern our growth and development, unfolding our destiny and allowing our life’s purpose to flow into the world. Here our will power (Zhi) manifests, providing us with the perseverance to see things through.

Pericardium

Pericardium is the protector

The Pericardium as the charge of resident as well as envoy. Elation and joy stem from it.

Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 8

The Pericardium is the protector of the Heart. A protective soldier (bodyguard) who manages our affairs and is weak (overworked) when we fatigue.

It determines what can move inward and outward to / from the Heart. It discerns the internal and external cues that signify a safe environment in which the Heart can thrive.

This is the gate to our vulnerability, related to our intimacy and is the home of our hurt.It governs circulation and the influence of fire in our sexuality, empowering our virtue of openness.

It governs the blood through the material aspects of the Heart muscle and vessels.

Triple Burner 

Triple Heater regulates water movement
Image: Applied Channel Theory

The Triple Burner is responsible for the opening up of passages and irrigation. The regulation of waterways stems from it.

Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 8

The Triple Energizer, or San Jiao, regulates the three burning spaces, and with it our bodily and emotional temperature. Its closest Western organ counterpart is the Interstitium.

It controls the water passages to allow communication throughout our being and into the external world. It thus regulates our external social relationships and connection with the environment around us.

Within the Triple Burner is the pathway for the Yuan (Source) Qi. This provides the primary stimulus for all transformations of Qi and empowers our Wei (Defensive) Qi.

Gall Bladder

Gall Bladder makes judgements

The Gallbladder is responsible for what is just and exact. Determination and decision stem from it.

Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 8

The Gall Bladder empowers our vision into the world, directing the manifestation of the Liver’s plans into the world.

It stores and secretes bile to control judgement. It empowers our decisiveness and perspective over what we wish to integrate into ourselves and project into the world.

Liver 

The Liver is the General

The Liver holds the office of the general of the armed forces. Assessment of circumstances and conception of plans stem from it.

Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 8

The Liver is our general that creates plans and strategies, commanding from a place of stillness within.

It is the source of our creativity and houses the Hun, which provides us with the courage and self-esteem to pursue our ideas.

It opens into the eyes, allowing us to have a vision of our depths and the horizons.

It stores Blood in reserve, sending it out into action to where it needs to be. The Liver keeps the pathways clear to allow these supply lines to move freely with smooth flow of Qi.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Zang Fu organ theory is a fundamental concept in Traditional Chinese Medicine that provides insight into the interconnectedness of the body and mind. By understanding the functions of the Zang Fu organ systems and their relationships to each other, practitioners can effectively diagnose and treat various health conditions when pathogenic factors affect our internal landscape.

This theory emphasizes the importance of maintaining balance and harmony within the body, and can help individuals achieve optimal health and well-being. Whether you are seeking treatment for a specific condition or simply looking to understand your overall health, incorporating the principles of Zang Fu organ theory into your lifestyle can be a valuable tool.

What else would you like to know?

Thanks for reading this far. Have I missed your question? Was something unclear? Let me know in the comments below, I read and respond to everyone!

Feature image art by Gesine Marwedel

Photo of author

Dr Jason Chong (Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician)

Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician. Educator.

Jason is the owner and principal practitioner at Dantian Health, providing consultations for Classical Chinese Herbal Medicine and Japanese Acupuncture in Melbourne, Australia.

He is a qualified acupuncture physician, Classical Chinese herbal medicine clinician, shiatsu practitioner and tuina therapist, Oriental therapies educator and director at the Australian Shiatsu College.

Jason's qualifications include:

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