Zangfu is the term used to describe various yin and yang organs in the body. A yin organ is called a Zang, while a yang organ is called a Fu. Although the organs are identified by their western anatomical names, Traditional Chinese medicine views their function on a far broader scope, due in part to the concepts of Qi, and essence, their flow, and storage responsibilities. The twelve organs of Chinese medicine, which correspond to the twelve meridians, or channels within the body, are classified according to the functions oftransformation (yin organs), or transportation (yang organs).

The Zang is made up of the si x solid (yin) organs:

  • heart
  • pericardium (sac surrounding the heart)
  • lungs
  • spleen
  • liver
  • kidney

The Fu consists of the six h ollow (yang) organs:

  • small intestine
  • triple warmer (an organ function)
  • stomach
  • large intestine
  • gallbladder
  • urinary bladder


Represents cool and the substance of the body, including blood and bodily fluids that nurture and moisten the organs and tissues. The night is considered Yin as well as the feminine.

Yin organs are defined by structure and storage of pure, refined substances. They store the Vital Substances (Qi, Blood, Essence and Body Fluids) received from the Yang organs. Yin organs do not have a direct opening to the exterior of the body. Due to the lack of direct access to the exterior of the body, the Yin organs are considered the ‘Interior’ organ in their pair-up with their respective Yang Organ counterpart.
This is a “false” heat condition, versus “true” heat, that results in symptoms of night sweats, fever, nervous exhaustion, dry eyes and throat, dizziness, blurred vision, insomnia and a burning sensation in the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and the chest
This is an imbalance of excessive fluids in the body with symptoms of fluid retention, a plump or swollen appearance, lethargy and overall signs of dampness – although those with excess yin may still have adequate energy levels


The heart covers blood circulation, brain and nervous system as well as spiritual and mental health. In western medicine the heart is simply listed as the anatomical structure that maintains circulation of the blood. This definition is reflected in Chinese Medicine as well. But again, that is just the start of the functions of the Heart.
The Heart stores the Spirit and blooms in the Face. This is much more like a romantic’s view of the heart. As the seat of consciousness in TCM, the Heart is responsible for mental vitality and unclouded thinking.


The Liver includes digestion, circulation, clearing toxins from the blood, regulating the endocrine system, and creating harmony in mental and emotional states. The liver is the organ responsible for storage and filtration of blood, secretion of bile and metabolic actions such as converting sugar into glycogen. This function is matched in Traditional Chinese Medicine where the Liver stores and governs the Blood, ensuring its free movement.
Liver also has many more functions in Chinese Medicine, including governing the sinews and joints, the eyes, and most interesting – the Liver governs the making of strategies. In other words, a healthy Liver function is necessary in order to make sound decisions. Anger and fear are within the realm of Liver. Liver Qi Stagnation results in anger, impatience and rash actions.


The Spleen is responsible for the digestive system, blood production and circulation, water metabolism and concentration. The role of the anatomical spleen in western medicine is that of a blood reservoir which also breaks down red blood cells and releases hemoglobin. The similarity is that in the TCM definition creating Qi, Blood and Fluids is a role for the Spleen. However, that definition also includes assimilating nutrients, which would be a function of the digestive tract in western medicine.
The Spleen also governs the flesh and limbs, meaning a healthy Spleen is necessary for healthy muscles and strong limbs. The spleen is responsible for holding organs and vessels in place so if you have a prolapse of an organ, or varicose veins then you likely have a spleen imbalance. It also has a part in water regulation. Edema and respiratory congestion can be related to a poorly functioning Spleen.


The Lung is in charge of respiration, water metabolism, blood circulation and some functions of the immune system. The lungs in western medicine are the anatomical structures responsible for respiration and the aeration of the blood. Chinese medicine states that the Lungs govern the Qi, which corresponds to the breathing function in western medicine.
The Lungs also govern the exterior, meaning they have a protective function in keeping pathogens or ‘external evils’ out of the body. In some ways this reflects the western concept of airborne disease transmission. The Lungs also govern the movement of water, giving them a role in metabolism of fluids.


The Kidney includes urinary and reproductive systems, growth and development, endocrine system, hormones, brain and nervous system, metabolism, bones, hair, and respiratory functions. The Kidneys as an organ in western medicine are responsible for filtering blood, balancing electrolytes in circulation and excreting metabolic waste. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine the Kidneys govern water, part of which is the filtering, regulating and excreting functions listed above. But the Kidneys also store the Essence, which is responsible for growth, development and reproduction. Essence may also be called Qi or Chi. and the Kidneys rule the bones and the hair and open at the ears, reflecting the link made in TCM between hearing and healthy Kidneys.


Represents heat and the body’s ability to generate and maintain warmth and circulation. The Sun, daytime, is Yang as well as the masculine.

Yang organs are defined by function and excretion of waste products. They are hollow organs and do not store but are constantly filled and emptied. They transform food and drink in order to extract pure essences which are passed on to the Yin organs for storage. Yang organs have a direct opening to the exterior of the body. Due to this direct access to the exterior of the body, the Yang organs are considered the ‘Exterior’ organ in their pair-up with their respective Yin Organ counterpart.
This is a cold condition due to lack of the heating quality of yang. Symptoms include lethargy, poor digestion, cold, lower back pain and decreased sexual drive.
This is similar to excess heat with symptoms of rapid pulse, hypertension, aggressive actions, loud voice, high fever, red complexion or restlessness.

Gall Bladder

The gall bladder is attached to the liver and stores bile. There is an ancient saying regarding the close relationship between the liver and bile, “The remaining Qi of the liver flows to the gall bladder and turns into the juice of essence (bile).” Bile is continuously excreted into the intestinal lumen to assist in digestion. The bitter taste and yellow color of bile are significant in disease manifestations of bitter taste in the mouth, vomiting of bile, jaundice, etc. As the liver and the gall bladder are externally and internally related, the gall bladder is also involved in the free flow of Qi concerning emotional activities. Clinically, when some mental disorders or emotional symptoms such as fear and palpitation, insomnia, dream disturbed sleep, etc. occur, treatment can be applied by considering the gall bladder.


Situated below the diaphragm, the stomach’s upper outlet connects with the esophagus, and its lower outlet with the small intestine. Its main physiological function is to receive and digest food. The stomach is also known as the “sea of water and cereal.” Food is digested here, and then sent downward to the small intestine, where the essential substances are transformed and transported by the spleen to the whole body. The spleen and the stomach collectively are known as the “acquired foundation,” that is, their proper nourishment establishes the foundation for a healthy life. Clinical diagnosis and treatment place great stress on the strength and weakness of the stomach and spleen Qi. Generally, it is considered that whatever kind of disease occurs, if stomach Qi is still strong, the prognosis will be good. It is said, “Stomach Qi is the foundation of the human body. When there is stomach Qi, there is life. When there is no stomach Qi death will follow.” Preserving stomach Qi is therefore considered an important principle of treatment.
Normal stomach Qi descends. If it fails to descend, symptoms such as anorexia, fullness, pain and distension of the upper abdomen, nausea, vomiting, hiccough, etc. will appear.

Small Intestine

The upper end of the small intestine connects with the stomach, its main function being to receive partially digested food from the stomach and further divide it into clear and turbid. The small intestine transfers the turbid residues to the large intestine. The spleen
transports the clean essential substances to all parts of the body, and part of the water contained in food to the urinary bladder. Therefore, if diseased, the small intestine will not only affect the function of digestion and absorption, but also lead to urinary problems.

Large Intestine

The upper end of the large intestine is connected to the small intestine by the ileocecum, and its lower end connects to the anus. Its main physiological function is to receive the waste material send down from the small intestine and, in the process of transporting it to the anus, absorb a part of its fluid, and convert it into feces to be excreted from the body. Dysfunction of the large intestine produces the symptoms of growling/gassy intestines and diarrhea; if the fluid is further exhausted, the symptoms will be constipation and so on.

Urinary Bladder

The main function of the urinary bladder is to store and discharge urine. It has an exterior and interior relationship with the kidney. Pathologically, if the urinary bladder has a dysfunction of Qi, dysuria or retention of urine will appear. If its restrictive function is lost, there may be excessive urination or incontinence of urine.

San Jiao/Triple Burner or Triple Warmer

It represents the three production centers for warm energy and water. The upper burner is the heart/lung system, the middle burner is the spleen/stomach, and the lower burner is the kidney/bladder/intestines.

Upper Jiao: distributes the fluids in a mist-like form all over the body through the use of the Lungs.

Mid Jiao: digests and transports the essential nourishment from food and drink to the whole body.

Low Jiao: separates the essences from the dirty in our foods and fluids. This function ensures excretion of urine.

Thus the heart and lung function is to distribute Qi and body fluid by a spreading and moistening action. The spleen and stomach must digest, absorb, and transfer the Qi, blood, and body fluid transformed from the essential substances; a similar process to that of soaking in water to cause decomposition and dissolution. The kidney and urinary bladder function to transport fluids and water. Pathological problems in any of the three Jiao will affect the organs located there.

Yin Organs ——— Yang Organs
Liver paired with Gall Bladder
Heart paired with Small Intestines
Pericardium paired with San Jiao/Triple Warmer
Spleen paired with Stomach
Lungs paired with Large Intestines
Kidneys paired with Bladder

Causes of Disharmony

Traditional Chinese Medicine views the cause of disease in three main areas: external causes, internal causes, and a group of miscellaneous causes which primarily involve lifestyle. These are outlined below:

The six external causes of disease, also known as the six evils, are causes of disharmony that relate to climatic conditions. Just as extremes of wind, cold, heat, dampness, dryness, and summer heat can have devastating effects on the world in which we live, they can also seriously alter the balance within the body by diminishing, or blocking the flow of Qi in the organs.

Wind is the most prevalent of the six external factors, and refers to the ability of an illness to spread within the body. Symptomscommonly linked with wind include chills, fever, colds, flu, nasal congestion, headaches, allergies, arthritic and rheumatic conditions, stroke, as well as dizziness and vertigo. It causes the sudden movement of a condition. Examples are a rash that is spreading, onset of colds, fever, chills, vertigo, spasms or twitches.

Cold related imbalances manifest as conditions that diminish the body’s immune system, such as colds, cough, upper respiratory allergies, as well as poor circulation, anemia, and weak digestion. It is the term used to describe decreased functioning of an organ system and presents as any of the following: body aches, chills, poor circulation, fatigue, lack of appetite, loose stools or diarrhea, poor digestion, pain in the joints, slow movements and speech, aversion to cold and craving for heat. Cold is present in all “hypo” conditions such as hypo-adrenalism, hypoglycemia and hypothyroidism.

Heat conditions are described as hot and inflammatory, exacerbated by hot weather and exposure to direct heat. They represent an over-active metabolic process, which can result in hypertension, hyperthyroid, ulcers, colitis, inflamed arthritic joints, as well as flu and skin rashes. It results from malfunction of the internal organs or from extreme mood swings. Symptoms include fever, red or bloodshot eyes, swelling, sore throat and flushed face. May also include dry mouth, bleeding or inflamed gums, and a desire for cold drinks.

Dampness symptoms are created throughenvironmental conditions like wet weather, as well as nutrition and lifestyle factors such as the intake of beer, dairy, cold, oily and fluidic foods with a weak spleen. Anything that damages the spleen qi, such as over thinking or over studying can cause an accumulation of dampness. These symptoms may include swelling, obesity, the formation of cysts, tumors, and lumps, and an increased production of phlegm. This phlegm production can affect the sinuses and upper respiratory passages, including the lungs and bronchioles. It causes excessive fluids in the body with symptoms of abdominal bloating, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, lack of thirst, feeling of heaviness or being sluggish, and stiff, aching or sore joints

Dryness can damage vegetation, and creates similar imbalances within the body, causing disorders of the lungs, sinuses, large intestine, skin, digestion, and reproductive organs. It is characterized by dry hair, lips, mouth, nose, skin and throat, extreme thirst and constipation.

Summer Heat, or an overexposure to sunlight and hot weather, can yield conditions such as heat stroke, dizziness, nausea, extreme thirst, and exhaustion. It is the overactive functioning of an organ system resulting in symptoms of thirst, aversion to heat and craving for cold, infection, inflammation, dryness, red face, sweating, irritability, dark yellow urine, restlessness, constipation and “hyper”conditions such as hypertension.

The seven internal causes, otherwise known as the Seven Emotions, are illnesses brought about by intense, prolonged, or suppressed feelings, and are defined as follows: Sadness decreases the flow of Qi in the lungs and heart, and is associated with depression, fatigue, and amenorrhea, shortness of breath, asthma, allergies, cold and flu. Grief is similar to sadness, and injures the lungs, decreases immunity to colds and flu, as well as chronic upper respiratory diseases such as emphysema, allergies, and asthma. Pensiveness or over-engaging the mind in activities such as worry, thought, or study can deplete spleen Qi, and may result in edema, digestive disorders, low appetite, and fatigue. Fear or paranoia causes Qi to descend, resulting in potential harm to the kidneys, lower back, or joints when this emotion is ever present. Fright or shock is unlike fear in the sense that the onset is very sudden, causing one’s Qi to diverge. The rapid change in flow first affects the heart in symptoms such as breathlessness and palpitations, then moves to the lower body in a similar fashion to fear, damaging the kidneys, lower back, and joints.
Anger encompasses all the negative emotions of rage, irritability, frustration, and resentment, and causes the Qi to rise inappropriately. Anger is associated with headaches, mental confusion, dizziness, and hypertension. Joy in Chinese Medicine refers to excess, or overabundance, and relates to illness relative to overindulgence. Damage to the heart may result, and the conditions of hysteria, muddled thought, and insomnia may arise.

Glossary of Traditional Chinese Medicine Terms

Aromatic stomachic – herbs that are aromatic and promote digestion by moving dampness
Blood is used as a broad term to describe the physical blood in the body that moistens the muscles, tissues skin and hair, as well as nourishing the cells and organs
Blood deficiency – a lack of blood with signs of anemia, dizziness, dry skin or hair, scant or absent menstruation, fatigue, pale skin and poor memory. This can also be a type of Yin deficiency.
Calmative – has a sedative or calming effect on the mind and the nerves
Damp Heat – a condition of dampness and heat combined with symptoms of thick yellow secretions and phlegm such as jaundice, hepatitis, urinary problems, or eczema
Decoction – a combination of herbs which is cooked or brewed to make a soup ormedicinal tea
Deficiency – any weakness or insufficiency of Qi, blood, yin, yang or essence
Deficiency heat – heat due to yin deficiency. Results in weakness and emaciation because of the lack of moistening fluids (yin) Diuretic – rids the body of excess fluid
Eight Principles – four sets of factors used by TCM practitioners to assess a person’s health. Represented by internal/external, cold/heat, excess/deficiency, and yin/yang (they should all be in balance with their counterpart)
Empty Heat – a deficiency of yin energy resulting in symptoms such as hot flashes, mood swings, night sweats and other changes in hormonal levels. Also known as empty fire
Essence – a fluid substance that provides the basis of reproduction, growth, sexual power, conception and pregnancy. It is the material foundation of Qi and is stored in the kidney. Also referred to as Jing
Excess – generally refers to too much heat, cold, damp, yin or yang
External – the location of illnesses such as fevers and skin eruptions / on the surface of the body
Five Elements – the five energies of wood, earth, metal, water and fire which exist in nature. Each transforms and controls one another to maintain a harmonious balance
Internal – the location of illnesses such as those that affect Qi, blood, and organs inside the body
The Pericardium – is very closely related to the Heart. The fact that it is a bag forthe Heart comes from both TCM and western science. TCM believed that this bag was there to protect the Heart from external pathogenic invasions. The pericardium governs blood, and houses the mind, both functions being the same as the Heart. As a practitioner or student we know that the Pericardium meridian points have a powerful influence on the mind. The Pericardium also has an effects on a person’s relationships
Phlegm – may be a visible, sticky substance such as mucus or metaphorical to indicate a disorder that causes a reduction in the flow of Qi
Qi– pronounced “chee”, this is the vital energy or life force which flows through the meridians and is used to protect, transform and warm the body
Qi deficiency – a lack of Qi which is seen with symptoms of lethargy, weakness, shortness of breath, slow metabolism, frequent colds and flu with slow recovery, low or soft voice, palpitations and/or frequent urination Shen – the spirit and mental faculties of a person which include the zest for life, charisma, the ability to exhibit self-control, be responsible, speak coherently, think and form ideas and live a happy, spiritually fulfilled life
Six External Evils – the six external evils, like the seven emotions, are causes of illness and disease. Also known as the six climatic factors, the six excesses and the six evil Qi. The six external evils are terms from nature that are used to describe the condition. These include wind, cold, summer heat, dampness, dryness and fire. Terms are also used metaphorically to indicate the behavior of a particular ailment or condition
Stagnation – a blockage or buildup of Qi or blood that prevents it from flowing freely. Is a precursor of illness and disease and is frequently accompanied by pain or tingling.
Stomach heat – too much heat in the stomach is represented by bad breath, bleeding or swollen gums, burning sensation in the stomach, extreme thirst, frontal headaches and/or mouth ulcers
Tonification /Tonify – to nourish, support or strengthen the condition of Qi, blood or weak organ function
Toxicity – applies to any inflammation, infection or severe heat disease Wei
Qi – defensive energy, the TCM equivalent of the immune system