A Few Roots

The main theme of the I Ching is that everything is in a process of continuous change, rising and falling in a progressive evolutionary advancement… The Tao of I also discloses that when situations proceed beyond their extremes, they alternate to their opposites. It is a reminder to accept necessary change and be ready to transform… The Tao of I also says: In a favorable time and situation, never neglect the unfavorable potential. In an unfavorable time and situation, never act abruptly and blindly. And in adverse circumstances, never become depressed and despair.

–Taoist Master Alfred Huang


The theoretical foundations of Chinese medicine are ancient, elegant, complex and vast. One core tenet is that health is life lived in balance, and disease is life lived out of balance. Disruptions to balance can be external in origin (a pathogen like a virus, a car accident, extreme weather) or internal in origin (continuously strong emotions). They can be caused by actions we take or choices we make, like an improper diet, or too little or too much physical exertion. Each person is born with a unique amount of reserves, and some of us weather the disruptions more heartily than others. Acupuncture needles and herbs work to balance the flow of qi (pronounced “chee”) through channels (also called meridians). They serve to strengthen or smooth organ function, to regulate emotions, to expel external pathogens, and much more.

You may already be familiar with the images shown above. It’s believed that the series of three solid lines and dashes, taught in the I Ching as the “eight trigrams,” is one of the primary origins of Chinese medical theory. The eight trigrams show movement as changes in the balance of three solid and dashed lines: three solid lines are the most yang– ch’ien, heaven– and three dashed lines are the most yin– k’un, earth. The trigrams illustrate that as soon as we reach one extreme, we begin to move toward the other extreme. Reading in a clockwise direction, after ch’ien is reached, yin begins to enter as shown by the single dashed line at the bottom of the next trigram, sun. The moment high noon is reached, the earth begins moving us towards night. The taiji symbol in the center also shows this movement. The light represents yang, which is day, light, heat, and heaven, and the dark represents yin, which is night, dark, cool, and earth. Movement is always occurring, and the small dots (light in dark, dark in light) are meant to show that there is no absolute yin or yang– they are always moving, generating each other, transforming into each other. To be in health, we, like the earth, must eat, breathe and move through our days and nights in a proper manner, and in accordance with the seasons. Specific lessons on how to do this are taught in the Huangdi Neijing– The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Cannon.

Many scholars have written extensively and beautifully on the subject of Chinese medical theory, so if you want to learn more, I highly recommend the following resources:

Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée’s rich and wonderful collection of online resources (some free, some not)

Ann Cecil-Sterman’s excellent resources for the public

The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine, by Ted Kaptchuk, who is Director of the Harvard University-wide Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter (PiPS) at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts.