Nothing to Study – The Concept of an Organ in Chinese Medicine

The concept of organs in Chinese medicine can sometimes be a confusing topic for patients. In a Western culture, it can be very difficult to understand that Liver depression (this is the technical term for Liver Qi stagnation) is not going to show up on a blood test. This brings up the very important topic that in Chinese medicine, we do not study organs. In fact, there is no study of any body part in Chinese medicine. Chinese medicine does not study tissues, or cells, or organs, but instead studies relationships.

First, it is important to clarify that this perspective is fundamental in Eastern thought. There is no way to study a thing, separate from its function. Object, action, and consequence are inseparable, and their subdivision into pieces is artificial and limited in perspective in Chinese thought.

I remember when I was in college, and came across a hematology (blood) journal in the medical library. The picture on the cover was a photograph of red blood cells viewed under a microscope, and I was very excited to look inside and learn more about blood and the circulatory system. When I flipped through the journal, all I found was mathematical equations. The really exciting diagrams were graphs of vectors and wave functions. Western science, in this case medicine, seeks to investigate by looking more and more closely. First at a tissue, then at the cells, then at molecules, then at atoms, then at subatomic particles, on and on forever as we develop increasingly sophisticated tools for looking. At some point somewhere around the level of atoms, but most certainly by the level of subatomic particles, the original substance is lost. If you study blood deeply enough, looking for what it is made of, eventually you discover stuff that is the same stuff that everything is made of. And, this stuff is made of other stuff, infinitely divisible and limited in perception only by technology.

What has been discovered by theoretical physics, which is arguably the most sophisticated branch of western science, is that substance is actually created by form. In fact, substance is dependent upon form, as form is dependent upon substance. Form and substance are a basic Yin Yang pair, inseparable and interdependent on one another (see A Brief Introduction to Yin and Yang). What this means is that there is no fundamental stuff which the universe, or blood, or the Liver is made up of. If you look for the substance you find form, and if you look for the form you find substance. The description of blood as a function of mathematical equations actually illustrates this point.

Chinese medicine has the concept of an organ system. This is a sphere of influence which includes, but is not limited to, the physical tissue which we perceive as an organ. It might be described as the most condensed form of energy of the system. This is the fundamental model of the universe. We can observe an electron as the most condensed, particle form of a probability wave. We can observe Saturn and see a condensed planet with less condensed matter in the form of rings around it. Cities exist with suburbs around them, trees exist with root system, insects, and birds which extend out from them. It is the system which Chinese medicine perceives, not the isolated and obvious physical structure at its center.

This is not because of a lack of knowledge. The Chinese dissected long before anyone in the West. They saw the tissues inside the body, they just thought about them differently than we do today. So there is no further investigation into organs in Chinese medicine. Also, there is no isolated investigation into organ functions in Chinese medicine. The investigation of function and relationships takes place in a person. There is no way to study Liver function outside of or separate from the person it is happening in. Therefore, case studies and anecdotal information are invaluable in the learning process. There are no in vitro studies in Chinese medicine.

Each organ is described with a list of seven or eight functions. They are easy to memorize, and apparently simple when first learned. But it takes years of real life experience to begin to understand them, because there is no way to understand them separate from experiencing them. These functions describe organ systems according to what they do, and by default what they do in relationship to something else. Thus, the study of Chinese medicine becomes a very circular pursuit – one cannot understand what any system does without understanding what all of the other systems do, yet there is no starting point from which to understand any of them. The title of the well known English language text on Chinese medicine, The Web That Has No Weaver, by Ted Kaptchuk, alludes to this complexity.

I am sometimes asked by people what is new in Chinese medicine. This is because in the West, we believe we discover things – ideas, structures, compounds, etc., which are external to us. But in Chinese medicine, the there is never the thought of discovering something external to us, because there is no such concept as something external to us. What is new in Chinese medicine is depth of perception first, and clinical application second. For more on this topic, see also Authorship in Chinese Literature.