Acupuncture and the Meridians Explained

A miniature human figure in white plastic standing in front of a window with the meridian lines of Chinese traditional medicine painted in colors.

The practice of acupuncture originated in China around 2,000 years ago, making a long journey before it became the therapy we find in Chinese medicine clinics nowadays. In its early years, acupuncture spread to Japan as well as Korea and became integrated into their traditional system, remaining a mainstream medical modality offered in hospitals alongside Western medicine.

Acupuncture treatment consists of the stimulation of points in the body using needles. This practice dates at least as far back as the IV century B.C. Today acupuncture is found in any major city in the world. In modern Chinese medicine, technologies such as low-frequency lasers and electroacupuncture devices are utilized to enhance the therapeutic effects of the old techniques, but the basic underlying principles and theoretical body of TCM remain the same as it has been for the past hundreds of years.

Table of Contents

The Source Of Chinese Medicine

Jingluo is the transliteration of the Hanzi characters “经络” which represent what is known in the West as the meridians. It refers to a channel and network vessel system. The current universally accepted Chinese jingluo hasn’t been derived from a single source. The channel system that has survived is the final model that prevailed after many hundreds of years of development in traditional Chinese medicine. The jingluo reflects how Chinese contemplatives in antiquity felt about their position in relation to the cosmos within their immediate environment.

"Balance and wholism are the core of ancient Chinese philosophy, and the theoretical basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It is not merely a healing art, but the expression of thousands of years of Chinese culture. Evidence indicates that the identification of the meridians actually predated the appearance of acupuncture, and was a crucial precondition for its invention and the discovery of the various acupoints."

Excerpt from an article published on HSOA Journal of Alternative Medicine by TCM doctor Igor Micunovic

Although the Chinese channel and network vessel system is unique, it is not unparalleled. In the esoteric traditions of India and the Tibetan medical and tantric traditions, there exist other visually similar systems with detailed descriptions of distinct energy pathways.

The Meridians Explained

The Chinese channel and network vessel system is linked to shamanistic practices registered in the Neolithic period in China. It’s important to note that the term “shamanism” originated from Siberian people’s language root syllable ša, which literally means ‘to know’. The name shaman has been generally used in the West to refer to people who possess extraordinary perceptions of reality for a lack of more precise definitions.

There’s still much mysticism around ancient Asian esoteric practices. This is partially due to many of these practices being kept secret, only being revealed to adepts who were initiated, and protected from being misunderstood by the layman. Another reason why it is so difficult to decipher so-called esoteric practices is that they are themselves self-hidden. This means that untrained people rarely possess the faculties of cognition that are necessary to be able to penetrate them.

The people who created the jingluo were looking at the relationships between humans, nature, and the cosmos from an integrated perspective. We can verify this by looking at other practices that originated in China such as chi kungkung fu, and tai chi, which are among the most sophisticated physical arts of all time in terms of skills. These are not mere physical exercises, but elaborate trainings that lead the practitioner to embody the powers that operate within nature. The advanced practitioner of such arts acquires a seamless and elevated state of being by learning to control body, energy, and mind.

The Jingluo Channel and Network Vessel System

The zangfu are how the inner organs are called in Chinese medicine, they are polarized and paired according to an interior-exterior, yin and yang, physiological relationship. Since the channels that form the jingluo are an extension of the inner organs, they are also polarized. The classification of the inner organs into yin organs and yang organs is fundamental for the development of wu xing, “Five Phases”, the basic physiological theory of Chinese medicine.

The jingluo system is composed of twelve primary channels connected in pairs, making up what is known as the six great channels, the liu jing. Each one of the primary channels is attached to a zangfu. The channels are the means by which the inner organs communicate with the exterior, with their paired organ, and with the rest of the body.

The Heart and Pericardium hand yin channels run from the thorax to the hand. The Large Intestine and Triple Burner hand yang channels run from the hand to the head. The Stomach, Bladder, and Gallbladder foot yang channels run from the head to the foot.
The Spleen, Kidney and Liver foot yin channels run from the foot to the thorax.

 

Image form Atlas of Acupuncture, Claudia Focks

The channels are said to carry Blood and qi throughout the body, the organs to which they are connected included. Besides the six great channels, there are other channels and branches that stem from the twelve primary channels, as well as eight independent channels, the qi jing ba mai.

The flow of qi in the primary channels follows the nature of water springing from the earth, becoming a well, flowing into a stream, growing into a river, and finally joining the big ocean. In the areas where these transitions are more pronounced the five shu points are located.

Five long-term depots and five transport [openings]. Five times five is 25 transport [openings]. Six short-term repositories and six transport [openings]. Six times six is 36 transport [openings]. Of conduit vessels there are twelve. Of network vessels there are 15. Altogether these are 27 qi, including above and below.

Lingshu

This passage from the Lingshu makes reference to the five shu-transport points belonging to each channel of the yang organs (fu), and the six shu-transport points that belong to each channel of the yin organs (zang), and mentions the twelve primary channels and the fifteen extraordinary vessels.

Jing Bie – Divergent Channels

The divergent channels are branches that stem from the twelve primary channels and connect the yin and yang channels with each other and with their respective zangfu. The divergences are located deep within the body and do not have proper points of access. They are extra ramifications that intensify the circulation of qi and Blood through internal and external areas and also act like a bridge that connects the interior–exterior channels.

Luo Mai – Connecting Vessels

The luo-connecting channels are longitudinal branches that connect the main channels with their interiorly–exteriorly paired channel. The luo mai don’t penetrate the zangfu like the jing jin, but connects to the yuan-source points which are the spots where qi is retained and accumulates.

The luo mai have one point of access each from where it is possible to influence an extended area within the body, since each luo mai is connected to two channels. Luo acupuncture points are considered especially useful in balancing the emotions in Chinese medicine.

Sun Luo, Fu Luo, and Xue Luo

These are minor branches that stem from the primary channels towards the exterior of the body, splitting into finer ramifications in a similar way as that of the cup of a tree.

Qi Jing Ba Mai – Extraordinary Vessels

"The primary channels are the rivers, the extraordinary vessels are the lakes."

Nanjing

The extraordinary vessels are channels in the jingluo system that are not involved in the flow of the primary ones. These channels act as drainage pathways when there’s a surplus of qi and Blood in the primary channels. In the Nanjing, the qi jing ba mai are said to function as reservoir for the primary channels.

Among all 8 extraordinary vessels, only du mai and ren mai have proper points of access. The remaining six do not have access points, but it’s possible to access them through points of intersection that belong to the 12 primary channels.

    • Du mai, or “Governing Vessel”, is the drainage/reservoir extraordinary vessel responsible for all yang channels.

    • Ren mai or “Conception Vessel”, is the “drainage/reservoir extraordinary vessel responsible for all yin channels.

    • Chong mai or “Penetrating Vessel”, regulates qi and Blood of the twelve main meridians.

    • Dai mai or “Belt Vessel”, circles the body at the waist and binds the vertical trajectories of the primary channels.

    • Yang wei wai & yin wei mai are the “Yang Linking Vessel” and the “Yin Linking Vessel”, together they control the equilibrium between the exterior and the interior of the body.

    • The yin qiao mai connects the Kidney channel with the Bladder channel and controls balance.

    • The yang qiao mai connects the Bladder channel with the Gallbladder, Small Intestine, Large Intestine, and Stomach channels and controls activity.

Jing jin – Sinew Channels

The sinew channels are the muscles, sinews, and ligaments located along the pathways of the six great primary channels, and their pertaining connecting vessels.

Pi Bu – Cutaneous Zones

The cutaneous regions are the skin areas that surround the primary channels.

The Meridian’s Clock

 

Image from Atlas of Acupuncture, Claudia Focks

Qi runs continually through the jingluo system in a 24-hour circadian rhythm. In this system, the day is divided into twelve periods of two hours each, with each period corresponding to one of the twelve primary channels. When the time of the day that corresponds to a given channel arrives, the qi of that channel will be running at its peak flow.

Qi flows constantly. When the flow in one of the channels is at its peak, the following channel is just starting to receive more flow, and the previous one is decreasing its flow. In this graphic, the channel located at the opposite side of the channel running at its pick flow is at its lowest flow. This Chinese circadian clock is used for both treatment and diagnosis in Chinese medicine.

Lost Pages and Inconsistencies

Chinese medicine has had multiple collaborators since its beginning, many of whom are never to be known. In old China, there was a costume of publishing literary works under nicknames, or attributing them to existing famous figures. In addition to that, many classical Chinese works are degenerated or missing. As a result, many inconsistencies among the main scriptures and treatises on medicine can never be clarified.

Even with many important pieces that have been lost, classical Chinese medicine is doubtlessly highly sophisticated and rich. Chinese historical registers help to get a better insight into the mind of the great forefathers of TCM and, by placing the Chinese jingluo in juxtaposition along with other existing channel network and vessel systems from the neighboring civilizations we can develop a closer relationship with the extraordinary worldview of the great Asian contemplatives.

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