Your Chinese organ systems: Part one

One of the most important things to be aware of in learning a little about Chinese medicine is that all aspects of the body and mind are interconnected, and none is discussed in isolation from the others. This tenet applies whether discussing blood, body fluids, bones, the emotions, or what I am going to talk about here: the organs.

Those who wrote the classic texts we still reference today knew about the existence of the body’s organs. They chose the metaphor of an emperor and his court to describe the relations of the organs to each other and to the body. This concept would have been understood by all scholars–if an author named the Heart as the emperor, the reader would understand that this meant the Heart occupied a very important, dominant position among the organs. The organs took on something akin to personality in this metaphor, and things they could and could not do might be understood without explanation because everyone understood how royal court worked.

The actions ascribed in the classics to each organ often correspond to the functions of the physical organs as we understand them today in the West. For instance, we’ll say that the Lung “faces the 100 vessels.” This sounds like a poetic way to describe how our lungs oxygenate our blood and send fresh life through the vessels back to the heart, and in a way it does mean that. More relevant to a discussion about Chinese medicine, however, is the emperor’s court metaphor. We will also say that the Lung is in charge of a downbearing effect related to the body’s fluids, and this has little equivalent in a biomedical sense.

Questions such as “how is the lung related to the skin” are ones that prompted me to try to put together some basic descriptions of the organs and their functions at court. I will begin with the first four organs: the Lung, Large Intestine, Stomach, and Spleen. I intend to give an extremely brief overview of each of the 12 organs eventually, mention what parts of the body they correspond with, and how they interact with the whole. I fully expect that I’ll only get more questions in return after publishing this–and that’s what I want!

Please note when I use a Capital versus a lowercase when mentioning organs–that will clue you in to when I’m talking about a concept versus the physical organ.

The Lung

Think about how long you can go without eating versus how long you can go without taking a breath–that’s how important the role is that our lungs play. The air they take in is a very important part of how we generate qi, or energy, for the body. The constant bellows-like motion of the Lung is vital in aiding the Heart to disperse qi around the body. The Lung is considered a Minister in the metaphorical emperor’s court. The energy of the Lung spreads out and downward through the body.

Our lungs are considered the most superficial of organs, connected as they are with the external environment. The Lung therefore is related to the surface of the body–the skin, pores, and body hair. It is intimately connected with our early lines of defense against wind and other extremes of the outside world.

The Large Intestine

The Large Intestine is a yin/yang, interior/exterior pair with the Lung, and is also concerned with the exterior of the body. If you are aware that in Western thought, the food we eat isn’t “inside” our bodies until it gets absorbed into our cells, it will make sense that the L.I. is associated with the exterior.

The Large Intestine is a packaging center, to put things politely. After we have absorbed all we can from our food, it needs to be sent out of the body neatly and in a timely way. Issues with stools, the lower abdomen, and sometimes the skin correlate to the Large Intestine.

The Stomach

The Stomach is said to be in charge of “rotting and ripening.” This refers to its role in digestion, and very closely parallels the actions of our stomach organ. The area the Stomach is related to is the abdomen just below where your ribs separate. When the Stomach is working properly, food enters, is processed comfortably, and moves through to the packaging center (see above) to be handled in a timely manner. It operates in a downward direction–if it is disturbed and its energy flows upwards, we experience it as vomiting!

We shouldn’t notice most what our Stomach does in our day to day life–we should not experience undue rumbling, bloating, or discomfort in this process. If any of those things disturb you, it might be a good time to start a relationship with an acupuncturist!

The Spleen

The Spleen is an organ that performs a metaphorical function rather different from its role in our physical bodies. It is a yin/yang pair with the Stomach (which you recall acts in a downward direction), balancing out our digestive system. The Spleen is said to “hold the middle”–its energy is meant to lift and support our organs in their places, to assist in the ascent of qi and other energies that need to go up towards the upper parts of our bodies, and to send the good things we absorb from our food up and out to the places they are needed. This last function gives Spleen its title of Minister in charge of Transportation and Transformation.

The Spleen is often associated with the muscle layer. If we feel weakness in all four limbs, this may be related to a disruption in Spleen function.


Next time I’ll discuss the Heart, Small Intestine, Urinary Bladder and Kidney. Sign up for my email list and/or like me on Facebook to be notified when I publish my next post!

**None of this information is meant to help diagnose any medical disorders. If you have any questions please reach out to me or to your primary care physician.