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Five Viscera and Six Bowels – SRS

This separate article, derived from Beating, aims to introduce the “Five Viscera (Yin Organs) and Six Bowels (Yang Organs)” in Traditional Chinese Medicine, with simple and easy understanding texts. There are three parts made up of this article.


Part 1: Introduction Of How Everything Begins 

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), they believe that there are five viscera, and six bowels regulate our bodies’ function. While the body’s organs in western medicine are explained in terms of their anatomical structure and physiological functions, the approach from TCM is a different story.

*Word definition*
 – Viscera is the plural form of internal organs. Viscus is an internal organ of a body.
– Bowel refers to a part of the digestive system, like small bowel (small intestine).

The ancient Chinese simply use the Yin-Yang concept as a core idea and register certain organs to either Yin or Yang to explain how humans get sick. Of each related organ, they’ll have an interior or exterior relationship from one another. These relationships assist the TCM doctors in determining the kind of sickness or disease during diagnosis to look for disharmony patterns ( syndrome) with four examination methods; Inspection, Listening and Smelling, Inquiry, and Palpation.

But to understand, just why would somebody suddenly suggest that this organ is yin and that organ is yang, we need to look back at the history first.

Back in the days, TCM did not develop at the same time, at the same place in China. It’s rather a collective effort to keep and refine its medical practice.

As early as 1.5 million years ago, herbal medicine was already being practiced by early humans who dwelt in China, while other forms of the healing method, like acupuncture and moxibustion, we do not know when exactly they started but evidence of unearthed artifacts suggested they can be dated back before the creation of Chinese characters.

When the ancient Chinese started to record their work, many medicinal books subsequently emerged followed by the very first detailed medicinal book: Huang Di Neijing.

This book is a very classic, influential, and informational that some even labeled it as “Medicinal Bible” of TCM. While it’s up to everybody’s opinion on its name, this ancient book had set a prominent foundation in TCM for the later generations of people to refine their medical practices, and still, it’s influencing today in TCM communities.

The book has two sections and they both explore various topics in conversational writing style; ranging from principles of human physiology, pathology, disease treatment principles, basic theories of man and nature, to human anatomy, meridian system, acupuncture, and moxibustion and so on.

One of the explanations on why they were intelligent in such a way is because they didn’t have advanced technologies like us. The simpler living condition and the mostly-experiential situation freed them a way to set eyes on nature itself, and they were able to come up several bold theories to explain what they learnt, and so, Qi, Yin Yang, Meridian system, were among few of them being developed in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

It also explains why the tenets of TCM are very matching with nature and sometimes too abstract to grasp for some.

With their observations, the ancient Chinese believed that certain organs are the dominant properties to regulate and maintain a person’s health. They looked at a person’s health as a whole in healing rather than separating certain areas completely for treatment, so when one interior organ is being affected, the other corresponding exterior organ will be affected too.

The physiological functions of our body are based on harmonious relationships between yin and yang organs and other parts of the body to live a healthy life.

Thus, TCM has always been advocating harmony on one’s health. When everything achieves good balance and harmony, there will be no sickness or disease.


Part 2: Yin Yang organs and their interior, exterior relationships

The yin organs are considered as the interior organs since they have less empty cavities, while the yang organs are exterior because they have much empty cavities in general.

Why cavity matters in TCM?
Well, it’ll escalate fast, so please bear with me.

The original concept of yin-yang came from the observation of the environment and nature. “Yin” originally referred to the shady side of a slope whereas “yang” referred to the bright side of its slope. Soon after, the ancient Chinese discovered any other things that were in pairs had complementary and opposing characteristics just like nature itself. For instance, front and back, up and down, left and right, day and night, water and fire, active and passive, sky and earth, and so on.

The old texts – 「陽化氣、陰成形」 – came from ” Suwen ‧ Yin Yang Ying Xiang Dalun” and deciphered by Zhang Jing-Yue (張景岳), a doctor of the Ming dynasty, suggested that:

Yang is “moving” as it spreads,
so it becomes Qi,
while yin is “still” so it stays,
it becomes shape;
「陽動而散,故化氣,陰靜而凝,故成形。」

Here, the yin-yang explains the characteristics of a substance; moving and still, pervade and concentrate, dissolve and condense in relative motions. We can see how substance and energy interact interdependently and interchangeably. 

So further developed its concept, the ancient people then suggested that when things have more hollow, an empty attribute could be divided as Yang, (like Sky, Qi). If things that have more concrete, shaped, quantity attribute, could be categorised as yin ( like earth, water). 

When it zooms back to the human body, organs that belong to yin are interior as internal organs will not be in contact with the outside, while the yang organs, the digestive and urinary tracts, belong to exterior for a better understanding of the diagnosis.

With “the interior and exterior relationships” concept (which does not limit to applying in organs), it can further assist a TCM doctor to recognise the body’s imbalances and the manifestation of disharmony patterns so they can perform the precise treatment(s). 

The interior organs (Yin organs ) are:

* The primary functions of Yin organs are producing, transforming, regulating and storing fundamental substances such as Qi, blood, and body fluids.

And the exterior organs (Yang organs) are:

** Whereas Yang organs are mainly responsible for digesting food and transmitting nutrients to the body.

Here is the table to see the relationships between them: 

Interior organs (Yin Organs) <——–matches——->Exterior organs (Yang Organs)
LiverGallbladder
HeartSmall intestine
SpleenStomach
LungsLarge intestine
Kidney(s)Bladder

* Notice that Triple Burner is a different property that doesn’t have a physical structure like other organs. While the actual structure is still remained debatable in our modern times, the ancient people suggested it’s the serosa (a smooth tissue membrane) we’re looking at.

Its function is similar to other yang organs as it helps the body to transport fluids and wastes. The Triple Burner is well-known for water-regulating functions. 

“Triple burner”, aka San Jiao, is divided into three parts. They’re the Upper, Middle, and Lower Burner. 

As we can see the picture above, the area of the Upper burner consists of lungs and heart, while the Middle burner has stomach, spleen in place and so on.

Here is how it works:

When food and drink arrive to the Middle Burner, the stomach and spleen will break down and separate the substances into fluids and divide them as pure and impure parts. Pure fluids will then send to the lungs which is at the Upper Burner, while the impure parts will be sent to the Lower Burner where the small intestine is located.   

The pure fluids in the Upper Burner the lungs distribute some of them out to the body in the form of a mist. This moistens the muscles and skin. Some others will send to the Kidneys where the organ will heat the pure fluid into a mist and send it back up to moisten the lungs.

At the Lower Burner, the small intestine continues the separation of purifying parts. The impure fluids will send to the large intestine for a further refinement and the pure parts will go to the bladder. Large intestine will reabsorb any fluid that is still pure enough for the body’s function whilst the pure parts in the bladder is redirected to the skin as sweat. All remaining impure fluids are finally release by the bladder. Generally, pure fluids travel up and impure fluids travel down.   


Part 3: Outro

To me, TCM works because the concepts are easy to understand and fitting the natural changes from nature. Even if one doesn’t believe in eastern medicine the concepts within are too profound to be ignored. 

Obviously, it’s not reading this article and we’re all become an expert in TCM, as this article only touches the surface of the ocean. We still need to consult experienced doctors for treatments when things go south!

I hope this article can provide helpful information on how and why this ancient practice works, and more importantly, the meaning of five viscera and six bowels in Beating article! So we have the common grounds and continue with the rest of SRS articles. 😀



-A photo by 五玄土 ORIENTO on Unsplash
-special thanks for the free license use on the triple burner picture.

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