The Yijing and Chinese medicine : Hexagram 11, Tai 泰

As Chinese medicine students at NUNM, we are grounded in Chinese symbolism and cosmology before anything else.   Because of the research interests of one of the school’s founders, Heiner Fruehauf, we chiefly use the “organ clock” or holomap as a way to organize our thinking about these symbols.  Along with the many other layers of symbolism we learn (Yin/yang, the five elements and so on) an incredibly rich, clinically valuable, picture of the human body arises.

The Lung organ system

Most of us know the Lung as being the “upper source of Qi,” the source of attack for many external invasions, and the “sensitive organ” easily perturbed by cold, heat and various toxins (environmental and otherwise).

Lung is Taiyin, the first of the Yin layers of the body – paired with the oft-assaulted Spleen.  The two together are responsible for the majority of our “taking in” of nourishment from the world.  With the Yangming organs of Stomach and Large Intestine, they make up the rhythm of the body.  Breathing in, eating regularly, having regular bowel habits and distributing the energy to the four corners of the body.

What does Hexagram 11’s name mean?

Hexagram 11, Tai 泰 – sometimes translated as Pervading (Karcher) – is the tidal hexagram (十二消息卦) associated with the Lung organ system due to its assignment to the first month of the Chinese year, around the Gregorian calendar’s February.

The name Tai  泰 anciently looked like two hands with water flowing in between them and so recalls the benevolent flow of water/nourishment coming down from above – an apt description for the Lung.  The name lives in an etymological word field with 太 and 大 and so is associated with bigness, greatness – recalling the Prime Minister, the elevated position of the Lung.  Other English words that can be associated with Tai are peace, harmony, flow and balance.

What else can we learn about Hexagram 11?

Hexagram 11 talks about the great sacrifice on Mount Tai that only the great Kings could make.  They received the benefit of heaven which was then dispensed to the people.  It is the balancing of the forces of Heaven and Earth, the optimal arrangement of Yin and Yang (Yang below where it should be, physiologically, for human beings and Yin being above).

What does Hexagram 11 tell us about the Lung?

Well, I’ve already mentioned several things.  It does reinforce some of what we already know about the Lung.  It is above, it dispenses the blessings of Heaven down to the entire body.  It is a very important organ system, Great, the Prime Minister.  It likes or strives for balance – and thus may be very sensitive to imbalance.  It lives at the intersection of Heaven and Earth, taking in the air we breath in from Above and introducing it into the Earthly body.

Like you, I’m interested in the information above – it’s fascinating, it gives us another layer of interpretation about something we thought we knew.  But, there’s nothing really earth shattering in that information.  That’s fine, but I believe these symbols have layer upon layer of meaning – revealing themselves through introspection, clinical experience, and the simple passage of time.

I decided to sit with Hexagram 11 for a little while and derive what else I could from it.  Here’s where I veer a little bit, folks, hang on.

The contrasting hexagram for Tai is Pi, hexagram 12 – the tidal hexagram for the BL, clock pair to Lung.  Its name is often translated as Obstruction.  It is the Tai hexagram reversed – the reversed relationship of Yin and Yang.  For human beings, at least, not an optimal relationship.  It recalls, of course, Pi disorder where there is a blockage at the epigastrium.

In the text for hexagram 12, we are told (again from Karcher, linked above), “What is important is departing, along with your ability to realize your plans.  The time that is coming is small and mean.”  This is in great contrast to hexagram 11, where we learn, “What is unimportant is departing, along with the necessity to be small and adapt to whatever crosses your path.”

What can this mean for the Lung?

In my experience, the worst thing you can do when treating someone who has a dysfunction in the Lung organ system is obsess over the little details.  The Lung is one of the most powerful organ systems in the body, second only to the Heart, the Emperor.  It knows how to do the right thing, and it will do so, given the appropriate reminder.  You do not need to hammer it, pester it, or overwork it.  You do not need to introduce a hundred herbs for clearing this and that kind of phlegm.  You need only help reestablish the normal downward motion, and the flow returns.

For me, this has great consequence in the cleanup phase of a common cold.  Many patients end up with some phlegm in the Lung – sometimes with a cough, sometimes not.  I have always had the greatest impact when I do something very simple – adding downward drawing Xingren to a formula, for instance, or relying on the powerful downward energy of Sheng/unprocessed Banxia pinella (available through Classical Pearls).  I have also had great success using the very simple classical modification of Wuweizi + Ganjiang.  The former is the metal herb of the metal class in the Tangye Jing – thus giving a powerful reminder to the Lung of what “metal” really means.

These are, of course, just some simple and preliminary observations about this single hexagram and its relationship to a single organ system – what a wealth of information out there for us to dive into!  I’d love to hear from folks who may have a different interpretation of Tai, or who can add their wisdom to the conversation.


  1. Yael ernst says:

    I think you just found another regular column for your renewed website Eric.

    I think that many people in CM have no information about the hexagrams, and after doing a bit of research on my own, including listening to the amazing Heiner Fruehauf, I find it to be a subject that should be talked about more and more.

    Thanks for the post, for the mention and I’m off to share this with people on my side of the globe.


  2. Ken Harbour says:

    Eric, I would be incredibly remiss if I didn’t agree with Yael ~ you have a future as symbol consultant in residence ~ please don’t let this be the last one.

  3. Magnificent web site. Lots of helpful information here. I am sending it to several buddies ans additionally sharing in delicious. And of course, thanks to your sweat!

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