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The Five Body Constituents

Foundation Concepts of Chinese Medicine

The metaphor of the root and branch is used in Chinese medicine: the branch is visible, yet growing from the roots that are concealed from view. What is seen (the expression of things) is based upon what is unseen (the essence of things). We infer a person's nature (roots) by observing his or her outward form (branches).


QI, the dynamic force responsible for the activity of life, initiates movement, and is the feeling of movement itself. It is also that which defines or gives things their shape. Lack of Qi is evident when someone cannot keep it together or maintain a shape, becoming dissipated or amorphous. Qi refers to the warmth and pulsatory rhythms which separate life from death. The refined essence of food and air becomes pure or Righteous (Zheng) Qi. Defensive (Wei) Qi helps the body adapt to external influences such as weather, or mobilize resistance to microorganisms and noxious substances in the environment. Qi refers to the resources which the human organism consumes, transforms, stores, and transmits.


MOISTURE refers to the body's liquid components, including digestive secretions, synovial, vitreous, and cerebrospinal fluid. Moisture creates a buffer between tissues. When the body is too dry, friction causes irritation; when too wet, a quagmire impedes movement. Moisture is a fluent substance, as well as the process of generating, distributing, and storing fluid.


BLOOD gives solidity to the shape that Qi creates. It encompasses all structural and connective tissue in the body. Blood creates and maintains matter, that which we can touch and taste. It is analogous to a stone, while Qi is the sculptor: the action of the sculptor gives the stone its shape. Blood is a viscous substance, as well as the process of generating, distributing, and storing nutrients.

By itself, Blood is passive, inert, thick, and tends to stagnate: to pool and congeal. It is Qi, active and warm, which moves the Blood. By itself, Qi has no material expression and no source for renewal. Blood is the material basis of Qi, linking it with physical form. They are mutually dependent upon each other: Where Qi goes, Blood flows and Blood is the mother of Qi.

Blood is also considered to be the material basis of the mind. In the modern Western vocabulary, it is described as the medium that transports neuropeptides, the chemical messengers that spread information (consciousness) throughout the organism.


ESSENCE can be considered the most fundamental constituent in that it is the basis from which all else arises, including the ovum, sperm, and genetic material itself. We are endowed at birth with Essence, which is replenished on a daily basis by food and air. Longevity is dictated by the quality and amount of Essence. Like Qi, Moisture, and Blood, Essence can be eroded by abuses such as stress, overwork, exhaustion, sexual excess, and poor nutrition.


SHEN refers to the organizing force of the self. It is more immaterial (Yang) than Qi, just as Essence is more dense (yin) than Blood. To comfort the Shen is to soothe the Spirit and relax the Mind. The term Shen-Jing refers to the totality of an individual, encompassing both the tangible and intangible realms of personal experience. Shen is responsible for the integrative function, and is undermined by anxiety and stress.

Qi, Moisture, Blood, Essence, and Shen are interdependent, co-generating, and mutually regulating constituents and processes. Moisture cannot be separated from the function of moisturizing, Blood from nourishing, or Qi from moving. Without proper Moisture, Qi becomes Hot and agitated and Blood dries up and congeals. Without Blood, Moisture is dispersed and Qi is scattered. Without Qi, both Moisture and Blood stagnate, coagulate, and stop circulating. Without Essence, the body has no material source; without Shen the body lacks presence, having neither spirit nor mind. Thus, Chinese medicine identifies disease as a disorder of relationships, not as a singular, unvarying entity.

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