Classical Chinese medical symbolism: Wood, Metal and Spring (part 2 of 2)

wood_and_metal_in_chinese_medicineHere is the continuation of Michael “Delli” Dell’orfano’s article on the symbolism of wood, metal and the spring season in Classical Chinese medical symbolism. Please feel free to leave any thoughts you have on this two-part article in the comments. Lively discussion is always appreciated! If you missed the first installment, read it here.———————

In Neijing Suwen (素問) Chapter 7 – Yin Yang Bie Lun (陰 陽 別 論 篇) Huang Di asks Qi Bo,

人 有 四 經 , 十 二 從 , 何 謂

“A man has four channels and twelve equivalences, and what are the implications of them?”

Qi Bo answers,

四 經 , 應 四 時 ; 十 二 從 , 應 十 二 月 ; 十 二 月 應 十 二 脈

“The four channels are the four solid organs which correspond to the four seasons; the twelve equivalences are the twelve two-hour periods, the twelve, the twelve two-hour periods correspond to the twelve meridians.”

Keep in mind when talking about the four seasons that the Earth has no real season of its own, thus they speak of four instead of five. Qi Bo goes on to say the Liver corresponds to the spring, the twelve-hour periods are governed by the twelve months, and that the di zhi Yin, Mao, and Chen are the months of spring (earthly branches 3,4,5 respectively). Qi Bo correlates the twelve months with the twelve channels and states that the first month of the lunar cycle (February) corresponds to the Hand Taiyin channel. In terms of the four seasons, (maybe we can say this relates more to the solar cycle, or related to yang and heaven) we say February is associated with the Spring energy of the Liver, but in terms of the twelve months, (maybe more related to a lunar cycle, and thus yin and Earth) February goes with the Lung.

I interpret this as meaning the energy of nature around us in the external world is strongly Mu/wood in the spring, and so internally our energy should be strong in the Jin/metal channels in order to keep Mu/wood energy that is on the rise in check. If the Mu/wood energy is strong outside the body, it will inevitably penetrate into us as well, and so the body should have a natural physiological response to increase the Jin/metal element to prevent the Mu/wood energy from becoming too strong and causing imbalances in the body. Also, a little later in Chapter 7 of the Wu and Wu translation of the Neijing, it talks about the taboo times for Gan (Liver, 肝) are Geng and Xin days (associated with metal). I think this is trying to tell us that Gan 肝 problems are more likely to arise on these days since they represent Jin/metal energy, and Jin affects Mu because of their intimate relationship through the Ke (control) cycle.

It is instructive to analyze the hexagrams symbolically associated with the Spring Metal/Jin organ networks. First, we have Tai, Hexagram 11 going with the Lung and the first month (Feb-Mar). Next, we have Da Zhuang, Hexagram 34 going with the Large Intestine and belonging to the second month (Mar-Apr).tai_hexagram_11_lung_chinese_medicine

Hexagram 11 is all about balance and harmony with three yang lines below and three yin lines above representing the upward movement of Heaven coalescing with the downward movement of the Earth. The rising yang in the lines of hexagram is symbolic of what is taking place in nature- energy on the rise. At the same time, the yin energy is pushing down to create a pressurizer-like effect in nature like the Lung does in the body. The idea of balance and prosperity that go along with this hexagram make it a symbol of health. The Lung is crucial to our health, thus the important title of prime minister is placed upon it. It is also worth noting that some of the greatest ancient Chinese medicine doctors were also prime ministers.


Hexagram 34 is an image of the trigram Zhen, or Thunder, over the trigram Qian, or Heaven. It shows the progression of the yang energy on earth, as now four yang lines are on the bottom of the hexagram with only two yin lines above. Nature is starting to move away from balance as yang is starting to take over, thus the story of Yang dominance in the second month. This hexagram symbolizes great strength and power as nature is bursting forth from the earth. The earthly branch that goes with the second month is Mao 卯, which means to flourish or explode. Much movement takes place in nature as the green vegetation is starting to grow rapidly. This is the picture of foot yangming (Large Intestine) brute force. Yangming carries tremendous amounts of qi and blood, and so is associated with 2nd and 3rd months of the year. This is the microcosmic picture in the body of what is going on this time of year as reflected in the macrocosm of the natural world around us.

Hu (虎, tiger) is the animal that resonates with Fei (Lung 肺) and Yin (February). It is associated with Fei because it is a symbol of authority and justice. Tigers will growl and protect, and only use their sharp teeth and claws when they have good reason. Tigers also have beautiful colored skin patterns, and this is a Fei signature since the skin relates to the Fei network. The sharp teeth and claws are akin to metal weapons and the ability to protect can be associated with a metal shield or helmet. Other mu characteristics of the tiger include the mu voice. The jumping ability and strength of the connective tissue is related to Gan and mu, and so is their tendency towards rage. Neijing Ch.8 has reference to the tiger in the line for the Liver.

To point out another correspondance between Wood and Metal, consider where the Neijing (Chapter 8) says,

肝 者 , 將 軍 之 官 , 謀 慮 出 焉

gan zhe jiang jun zhi guan mo lu chu yan

The Liver is the general and is in charge of planning and strategizing.

The character lu 慮 contains the tiger radical. Here the tiger is used to symbolize foresight, clairvoyance, patience, intelligence as associated with Wood/Yin/Aquarius/Jupiter energy to demonstrate what characteristics a good general should possess. Here we can see the intertwining of Wood and Metal imagery in the classics.

Tu (兔 rabbit) goes with the Da Chang (Large Intestine 大肠) and Mao (March). Tu/rabbits have a hot yangming (ST/LI) condition, and so have dry hard pellets for feces. This is much like constipation, which is a condition related to Da Chang. The rabbit is associated with longevity, which is also a Jin/metal quality. Rabbits use feces instead of urine like most animals to mark territory. Also, in rabbit we find some Mu/wood characteristics as well. For example, their amazing jumping ability can be related to connective tissue strength and the springing forth of nature that is taking place. Rabbits are competitive, always in a race. This is also a Wood quality. Rabbits have a lot of nervous, windy energy, and so they are always moving around and do not like to be held. This can be seen as related to Mu/wood as it is said to dislike being contained. Yet more intertwining of Wood and Metal imagery is revealed to us!

Bringing it back to the human body

In general, we can say that Jin/metal and Mu/wood are balancing poles of activity in the body. Jin moves down and in, and Mu moves up and out, but what if imbalance and disharmony occur between jin and mu? One example of this might be the emotion of grief, which when experienced, has an energetic feeling of moving down and in like Jin or metal. This downward movement of Fei will oppress Gan and cause Gan/Liver Qi stagnation eventually. How about another example? Consider the relationship between Fei/Lung and Gan/Liver in breathing.

Fei is master of the qi, and a weakness in Fei qi can lead to a weakness of Gan qi, and so Gan may not be able to spring up. A progression from this might be that the Gan qi becomes stagnated because of a lack of qi from Fei, and then Gan fire could flare up and travel through the reverse ke/control cycle causing Fei to be scorched. In this situation, Fei will no longer be able to mist the organs because of heat/dryness and may lose the ability to exert pressure and descend downward. In this case, symptoms could arise on both the Gan and Fei organ systems such as coughing, blood in saliva, pain in sides and thorax, red eyes and anger.

Another example of a mu/jin pathology directly related to the spring is bi qiu- allergic rhinitis. Bi qiu is caused by the increased wind of the spring carrying the pollen from plants into the body of a person who has a disharmony of wei and ying (protective and nutritive). We can even say that the wei qi has a connection to the Lung and the Liver and that the Liver is also part of the ying, so it very likely this type of person already has an imbalance in the mu-jin axis to begin with, and so the symptoms all appear as related to these two organ systems. The itching is associated with the wind, and so by frequency correlation we can also say Wood. This pathology also has itching of the eye as a symptom, and the eye is the orfice of the Liver in CM. The problem is also related to the Lung since the nose is the orfice of the Lung and the symptoms are itchy nose, runny nose, anosmia, and nasal congestion.



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About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of Deepest Health. When I'm not writing here, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Community Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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