The importance of numerology, part 2 medicine

An overview of the applications of numbers in Huangdi neijing

Authored by: Deborah Woolf

Routledge Handbook of Chinese Medicine

Print publication date:  June  2022
Online publication date:  June  2022

Print ISBN: 9780415830645
eBook ISBN: 9780203740262
Adobe ISBN:




This chapter examines the numerological bases inherent in the Huangdi neijing 黃帝內經 (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon), in particular the integration of Five and Six in the Wuyun liuqi 五運六氣 (Five Circuits and Six qi) chapters of 762 CE. Wang Bing’s revision of the Suwen 素問 (Simple Questions) followed his interests in self-cultivation and his ideals of health. His seven interpolated chapters on Wuyun liuqi were the culmination of a Tang dynasty attempt to resolve and systematise earlier discontinuities between the number of organs and channels in the human body, focused on Five and Six. Wuyun liuqi was a complex map of the cycles of the cosmos designed to predict seasonal imbalances. Climate change was the seen as the root of disease, so Wuyun liuqi theory offered a way to predict times of extreme climate change which could lead to epidemics or pandemics.

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The importance of numerology, part 2 medicine

Numerology and Chinese medicine

The texts of classical Chinese medicine testify to creative tensions between numerical continuities with the ancient world and changing conceptions of the human body as they relate to medical practice. They draw on number-related clues to understanding innovation, in the way they draw on, systematise and pluralise the earlier numerical traditions described in Part I. The Huangdi neijing 黃帝內經 (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon), the locus classicus of classical Chinese Medicine, is a selection of different texts and traditions that have accumulated over various centuries. This has resulted in the received text having an eclectic range of number systems, which have been deployed at different times and for different effects. The Huangdi neijing is in two parts: the Suwen 素問 (Simple Questions) and Lingshu 靈樞 (Numinous Pivot). In 751, Wang Bing 王冰 began his revision of the earlier version of the Suwen, with an emphasis on self-cultivation and the importance of aligning oneself with the movements of the cosmos (Chapter 7 in this volume; Unschuld 2003: 41). His revision of 762 CE included seven extra chapters (Suwen 66–74), 1 specifically focused on Wuyun liuqi 五運六氣 (Five Movements and Six qi) theory, which he claimed were secret knowledge from earlier times, received as a master-disciple transmission (Ibid.: 46). This new version demonstrates an attempt to order what at first sight might seem like a confusing and fragmentary medieval legacy. Wang Bing’s focus, seen uniquely in his Wuyun liuqi chapters, reflects a post-Han view of the imperial cosmos, based on the interplay between the numbers Five and Six. 2

This chapter argues that number sequences provided a structural organisation that was the basis for various arrangements over longer periods of time by introducing innovative arrangements which, nonetheless, seemed to ground these innovations in ancient wisdom. We see in the Wang Bing chapters permutations of all the basic numbers sequences introduced chronologically in Part I, beginning with One, and the identification of qi as the unifying factor (Yang 1997: 56–7). Human life, itself an expression of the merging of the duality of Earth/yin and Heaven/yang, was animated by qi, the vitality of life.


Yin and yang are the way of Heaven and Earth, the rule and order of the myriad beings, the mother and father of change and transformation, the beginning and end of life and death.

(Suwen 5, 2.61) 3

The totality of an ideal human lifespan is discussed in the first chapter of the Suwen: life was presented therein as dependent on a finite amount of essence (jing 精) allotted at birth and gifted by Heaven. This essence was the basis of the growth and development of the human body according to seven- and eight-year periods: men were thought to follow a cycle of eight years, while women followed a seven-year cycle. Human life was in constant interaction between Heaven and Earth, following underlying numerological cycles. The rubric of Four (or doubled here to make the Eight of the male cycle) had been a basic design following the Four directions and the seasons since Shang times. The rubric of Seven appears here as the female cycle but is less pervasive throughout classical medicine as an organising principle, and perhaps reflects a period before gender difference was clearly and consistently articulated as a feature of medicine (Chapter 23 in this volume).

Thereafter, the numerological organisation of the chapters Suwen 2, Suwen 4 and Suwen 5 4 turns to elaborating correspondences that structure human health and the body to the Four seasons and also to the Five Agents (wuxing): these numbers structure direction, colour, taste, organ, orifice, animal, planet, etc., through a new integration of the old rubrics of Four and Five. This was a shift from the early Shang idea of Four directions to a more integrated imperial view of the cosmos based on Five, identified as ‘correlative cosmology’ in the secondary literature (Henderson 1984; Graham 1986; Wang 2000).

Microcosm and macrocosm

The Five Agents interacted in different ways, following cycles of ‘mutual conquest’ (xiangke 相剋 or xiangsheng 相勝) and of ‘mutual generation’ (xiangsheng 相生). The earliest introduction and use of Five Agents as an interpretive structure that we know is evident in the ‘conquest’ cycle: a cycle that regularised the succession of dynasties and their regime change by giving the conquering rulers a cosmological legitimacy. The advice to (mythical) rulers was to devise rituals associated with their ruling Agent, using the colours associated with their Agent, and interpreting omens accordingly (Loewe 2005: 152–4).

When an emperor or king is about to arise, Heaven must first manifest good omens to the people below. At the time of the Yellow Emperor, Heaven first caused giant mole crickets and earthworms to appear. The Yellow Emperor announced ‘the qi of Earth is victorious’. Since the qi of Earth was victorious, he valued the yellow colour and used Earth as a rule for his affairs.

(Lüshi chunqiu, 13.2, 284) 5

The ‘Great Plan’ (Hongfan 洪範) chapter of the Shujing 6 lists the Agents following the conquest or control cycle sequence.

Five Agents: the first is Water; the second is Fire; the third, Wood; the fourth, Metal; and the fifth, Earth.

(Shujing, 12.357)

The conquest cycle was a strong feature of the daybooks 7 or almanacs (rishu 日書) and other divinatory texts of the Han (Liu 1994: 434; Li 2000a: 131; Harper and Kalinowski 2017: 169). Reflecting relationships of control and violence, the conquest cycle first structured divinations used for the purposes of government and warfare.

The virtue (of the ruler) is only from good government, good government nourishes the people. This comes only by studying Water, Fire, Metal, Wood, Earth, and grains.

(Shujing, 4.106)

In contrast, the xiangsheng 相生 (mutual generation) cycle, that was to become so important to imperial medical theory, was virtually absent from the daybooks and this contemporary evidence allows us to imagine a chronology for the numerical sequences (Harper and Kalinowski 2017: 169). The xiangsheng cycle, one indicating nourishment or support, like a mother to a son, was expressed in Dong Zhongshu’s 董仲舒 (ca. 179–104 BCE) Chunqiu fanlu 春秋繁露 (Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals), a text of the Western Han (202 BCE–9 CE) period, which consolidated Five Agent theory to uphold Dong’s theory that humans should follow the cycles of the heavens closely and look to the lessons of the past for guidance, especially the hierarchies of social relationships at the basis of the traditions of Kongzi 孔子 (Confucius). The emergence of the xiangsheng cycle is a clear reflection of the work of Han scholars in whose interests it was to promote the new imperial priorities of unification, rather than conflict.

Wood gives birth to Fire, Fire gives birth to Earth, Earth gives birth to Metal, Metal gives birth to Water, these are father and son.

(Chunqiu fanlu, 38.315) 8

The change in focus from ke/control to sheng/nourishing imitated the ‘Great Plan’, but followed the order of generation instead of conquest:

Heaven has Five Agents: the first is Wood, the second is Fire, the third is Earth, the fourth is Metal, the fifth is Water. Wood is the beginning of the Five Agents; Water is the end of the Five Agents. These are the sequence of Heaven’s order.

(Chunqiu fanlu, 42.320) 9

The Chunqiu fanlu also gave the correlations and qualities of the Five Agent cycle of generation, relating each Agent to a direction and season: except Earth, which was placed in the centre, establishing its special relationship to Heaven.

Therefore Wood resides in the Eastern direction and rules spring qi, Fire resides in the Southern direction and rules summer qi, Metal resides in the Western direction and rules autumn qi, Water resides in the Northern direction and rules winter qi […] Earth resides in the centre, it acts as the enrichment of Heaven. As for Earth, it is Heaven’s trusted aide.

(Chunqiu fanlu, 42.322) 10

The early chapters of the Suwen mention both the conquest and generation cycles, but more emphasis is put on the harmonious cycle of life, the growth and regeneration cycle: spring gives birth to summer, just as Wood and the liver give birth to Fire and the heart.

The East generates Wind; Wind generates Wood; Wood generates sour [flavour]; sour [flavour] generates the liver; the liver generates the sinews; the sinews [representing East/Wind/Wood] generate the heart.

(Suwen, 2.67) 11

This transition from a cosmological polity numerically modelled on the dynamics of warfare and violent control to one of harmonious central imperial governments reflects the priorities of the new administration in medical terms. Suwen 8 12 introduces the twelve organs (zang 臟, the yin storage organs or ‘viscera’; and fu 腑, the yang transporting organs or ‘storehouses’) as homologous with the collaborative hierarchy of the Emperor and his court officials. Medicine, in this way, echoed the transition from the final decades of the Warring States to the new forms of government of Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han (202 BCE–220 CE) – shifting focus from the conquest to the generation cycle. This centralised government relied on a strong bureaucratic hierarchy to mediate between the Emperor and his people (Unschuld 2003: 325–6).

The heart holds the office of sovereign, the radiance of the spirits stems from it. The lungs hold the office of chancellor, regulating rhythms stems from it. The liver holds the office of general, conception of plans stems from it.

(Suwen, 3.93) 13

The reflection between human beings and their environment was emphasised in Suwen 3, Suwen 6 and Suwen 9, which discuss the notion of Six. Six in the macrocosm were the Six climates or Six qi (liuqi 六氣 (Chapter 4 in this volume), which in the human form corresponded to the liujing 六經, the Six Channels (jing 經 hereafter body ‘Channels’). In this way, the human body became a microcosm of the environment and each Channel was thought to respond to its associated climate, qi (Yang 1997: 64–9) (Table 5.1).

Table 5.1   Channels and Climates















This meteorological body thus began to map the ideal harmony between human anatomy and physiology against changes in the external environment, in terms of the combination of Six Channels and Five Agents (Chapter 2 in this volume). While the combination of Five and Six had been a foundational concept first emphasised in the Warring States text, the Zuozhuan, 14 then systematised in the Han medicine of the Huangdi neijing – these numbers were then combined in innovative ways in the interpolated chapters of Wuyun liuqi theory – written more than half a millennium later than the rest of the Huangdi neijing material.

Four and Five in classical medicine

Number systems were neither exclusive nor fixed in practice. Different systems co-existed, and the aligning of plural numerological theories responded to both political expediencies and the practicalities of medicine. This plurality in the use of numbers facilitated continuity, even as different systems generated one set of numerical combinations from another.

In the body, the fundamental significance of Four was represented by the Four limbs, dependent on the centre, the trunk; similarly, the Four lands of the Shang of the ancient world had been defined from their centre, the residence of the Shang king. In ritual texts, Four easily became the basis of Five: Four with their intersection, the centre. The increasing systematisation in the medicine of the Huangdi neijing highlighted a fundamental tension between the priority of Four and Five in early imperial Chinese numerology. This tension was to play out in the Yellow Emperor corpus through the spatio-temporal characteristics of the Five Agents, through the position allotted to the agent of Earth; it first emerged in the discourse of auspicious days in the daybooks (Liu 1994: 435; Li 2006a: 303) and was later systematised in Suwen 4 and Suwen 5.

The calendar provided the cosmological framework (Harper and Kalinowski 2017: 153) which marked time and space in an integration that was codified in the ‘cord-hook diagram’ (二繩四鉤圖 ersheng sigou tu – literally the ‘two cords and four hooks’ diagram; Li 2006b: 91–105; Li 2006a: 74, 84, 316; Harper and Kalinowski 2017: 162–9). This diagram is the basis for many divinatory systems and the locus classicus for its definition is found in the astronomical chapter of the Han dynasty Huainanzi 淮南子 (Masters from Huainan, compiled 139 BCE). 15 The rubric of Four is present in the two ‘cords’ marking the North-South and East-West axes, which also represents the summer-winter solstices and the spring-autumn equinoxes, respectively (Li 2000b: 131, 163; Li 2006b: 69–85). The Branches of the Shang calendar (Chapter 4 in this volume) in the quotation that follows serve to plot the seasons onto the diagram:

Ziwu [b1 and b7], maoyou [b4 and b10] are two cords, Chouyin [b2 and b3], chensi [b5 and b6], weishen [b8 and b9], xuhai [b11 and b12] are four hooks.

(Huainanzi, 3.207) 16

The twelve calendrical Branches, represented by the ‘b’s on the diagram, were evenly spaced around the outside of the cord-hook diagram (b1–b12), each Branch representing a lunar month. Four of these Branches, (b1, b7) and (b4, b10), plotted the ends of the two cords, which also formed a central cross of the vertical and horizontal axes. These four Branches at the North, South, East and West of the diagram were the lunar months containing the two solstices and two equinoxes, representing the midpoint of each of the Four seasons on the four sides of the diagram (Yang 1997: 59–61). Each season plotted three Branches along one side: the solstices and equinoxes in the four directions and the two Branches placed either side of these. The two Branches either side of the solstices and equinoxes were then connected by a right-angled line to the previous or next seasons linking across the corners of the diagram. These right-angled corners of the diagram were the four ‘hooks’.

The Stems (s1–s10) add a further dimension to the Four directions, spatial markers that were arranged around the cord-hook diagram just inside these outer seasonal arrangements (Liu 1994: 434; Yang 1997: 252). The ten Stems, unlike the twelve Branches, had an Earth/central component: two Stems (s5 and s6) were placed in the centre (Liu 1994: 159), next to the intersection of the two cords, emphasising the Fifth dimension of the Centre (see Figure 5.1).

The Day Court (or cord-hook) diagram – representation by the author

Figure 5.1   The Day Court (or cord-hook) diagram – representation by the author

This interweaving of Four and Five in the two cords and four hooks design can therefore be interpreted as defining ‘spatio-temporal spaces’ (Li 2000b: 162–4). The daybooks, in particular, allow us to see critical points at which the Five Agents were refined and standardised from pre-existing correlative systems (Liu 1994: 283, 346–7, 431–40; Li 2006b: 156–171). By the end of the Warring States (475–220 BCE), the Five Agents had, in this way, been used extensively to construct daybooks and divinatory schemes (Harper and Kalinowski 2017: 171).

Where Five Agents were primarily an indication of powers located spatially and directionally, through this process, they became increasingly associated with the passage of time. The calendar, its seasons and months, was thereby enshrined in the late Warring States ritual texts that were not only a feature of everyday life, but also guided the Emperor’s behaviour – in this case according to a ritual calendar (the Monthly Ordinances, yueling 月令 in the Lüshi Chunqiu). It was largely this temporal organisation that provided the basis for the calendar’s incorporation into medical practice (Liu 1994: 416; Li 2006a: 62–72).

However, the persistent prevalence of the rubric Four, perhaps more naturally manifest in the cardinal directions and four distinct seasons of North China had to be reconciled with the Five of the Five Agents, which had an overarching political imperative. This was accomplished by dividing the summer season in two, making a fifth season, Late Summer (changxia 長夏). The attempt at reconciling potentially conflicting ritual sequences, through adding the Late Summer sequence in time, is first evident in Book Six of the ritual almanacs of the Lüshi Chunqiu – an eclectic text, tellingly compiled by Lü Buwei 呂不韋, advisor to King Zheng of Qin the first Emperor of China-to-be (and possibly, according to Sima Qian, his father). The Central Region was, in this text that heralded the rise of the Five Agents, as emblematic of imperial unity, summarily appended to the description of the last month of summer, creating a special fifth season, related to Earth (Knoblock and Riegel 2000: 152–6). In texts such as the Huainanzi and the Chunqiu fanlu of the mid-Western Han period, the Earth (tu 土) was no longer the Centre but just one sequence in the generative cycle of the Five Agents, just as the ritual centre was regularised as part of an integrated spatial unity of empire itself. 17 Nevertheless, there remained a creative tension between the two rubrics of Four and Five.

The Five Agents, the Four directions and their intersection, the Centre, symbolised all possible movements of life: their effects on the body were described in Suwen 4 and Suwen 5. Here are the correspondences with the Agent Metal from Suwen 5:

The West generates Dryness; Dryness generates Metal; Metal generates acrid [flavour]; acrid generates the lungs, the lungs generate skin and body hair […] These in Heaven are Dryness, on Earth are Metal, in the body are skin and body hair, among the zang [organs] it is the lung; among the colours it is white; among the tones it is shang; among the sounds it is weeping; among the transformations it is coughing; among the orifices it is the nose; among the flavours it is acrid; among the states of mind it is sorrow.

(Suwen, 2.71) 18

Over the course of the Han dynasty, in texts applying the Five Agents as the framework for all patterns of the cosmos, such as the Chunqiu fanlu, while Earth was just one of the Five Agents, it often retained its temporal significance as Late Summer and was emphasised as the most important Agent.

As for Earth, it is the son of Fire. Among the wuxing there is none as valuable as Earth.

(Chunqiu fanlu, 38.316) 19

In later discussions, however, immortalised in the Baihutong delun 白虎通德論 (‘The Virtuous Discussions of the White Tiger Hall’, 20 58 CE – a treatise on politics and philosophy keyed to cosmological ideas such as Five Agents and yin-yang), the cosmos was seen as ordered and symmetrical through the alternation of the Four seasons, and thus incompatible with Earth as a discrete fifth phase. Emphasis on the role of the Earth was as an intermediary place of transformation from each season to the next, so it was allotted an eighteen-day period at the end of each of the Four seasons. This mediating role can be seen in early Han astrolabe shi instruments for divination. The Earth-related Stems (s5, s6) were no longer placed in the centre, as in the cord-hook diagram, but were in the four corners. These became the ‘four gates’ simen 四門 – see Figure 5.2 – the four diagonals radiating out from the centre (North-East, North-West, South-East and South-West) enabling a smooth transition from one season to the next (Harper and Kalinowski 2017: 163).

Earth between each season: as Four Gates which radiate out as diagonals from the centre of a two-dimensional representation of a Six Dynasties (220–589) liuren 六壬 shi divination board. Reproduced from

Figure 5.2   Earth between each season: as Four Gates which radiate out as diagonals from the centre of a two-dimensional representation of a Six Dynasties (220–589) liuren 六壬 shi divination board. Reproduced from Steavu, 2017: 200, on the basis of Abe no Seimei to Onmyōdō ten 安倍晴明と陰陽道展 [Abe no Seimei and the Way of Yin and Yang: The Exhibition], 53

The flexibility which the rubrics of numbers Four and Five maintained throughout the early empires was to endow medical theory with an enduring plasticity that was critical to Wang Bing’s calculations in his new interpretations of classical medicine in the Tang period (618–907).

Five and Six in medieval medicine

Central to Wang Bing’s medieval additions to the classical tradition was a systematisation of the rubrics of Five and Six as embedded in the Wuyun liuqi chapters. His attempt to integrate these numerological traditions was not new. It was a Tang systematisation of earlier solutions to numerical disagreements about the total number of organs and channels in the body.


There is evidence of a long running discourse on the priorities of Five and Six in the determining of the number of Channels of the body (vessels mai 脈 and Channels jing 經). 21 Manuscripts from the two Western Han tombs (Mawangdui 馬王堆 closed in 168 BCE, 22 and Zhangjiashan 張家山 closed in 186 BCE; Li 2000b: 110) reveal numerical ideas about Channels in the human body which exemplify different stages in the rubrics and relationships between Five and Six (Ibid.: 206–9; Figure 5.3). 23

Bronze Man acupuncture figurine, front view, Chinese woodcut. Wellcome Collection (Ming dynasty): 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Figure 5.3   Bronze Man acupuncture figurine, front view, Chinese woodcut. Wellcome Collection (Ming dynasty): 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The twelve Channels of systematised classical medical theory evident in the Huangdi neijing developed from various earlier theories, which we can glimpse in the excavated medical texts. These excavated manuscripts listed eleven Channels ‘tied’ to the feet like threads and at the head like warp threads, each with associated symptoms to be treated by cauterisation techniques. 24 The eleven Channels were differentiated into numerically significant yin and yang elements (Five yin and Six yang Channels). 25

Two wooden lacquered figurines have been found in Han tombs, showing the changing ideas around Channel theory. Both could have been used for various medical purposes, such as self-cultivation, diagnosis or as models of pathology. The Shuangbaoshan 雙包山 figurine excavated in 1993 (latest date 118 BCE) has ten red carved lines, nine lines from the extremities to the head and one line following the spine on the posterior midline, over the head to the nose (Lo 2007: 387–8). These lines appear to be only yang Channels (Ibid.: 404; Figure 5.4). 26

Shuangbaoshan 雙包山 figurine, showing channels (

Figure 5.4   Shuangbaoshan 雙包山 figurine, showing channels (Lo 2007: 419)

Another figurine surfaced in 2012–13, from the Laoguanshan 老官山 site near Chengdu (tomb M3, closed between 157and 88 BCE). The Laoguanshan figurine has eleven red lines painted on it and twelve white lines carved on it (Huang 2017). This figurine also has 109 white dots 27 clustered around joints, and bears the names of the five yin storage organs (zang) near the spine in a sequence that mirrors the conquest cycle of Five Agents. Although the Channels are not identical to those listed in the Mawangdui and Zhangjiashan texts, both figurines appear to be medically relevant, perhaps illustrating stages in Channel theory, before the systematic correspondences of the Huangdi neijing (Harper 2014; Zhou 2017).

These examples from tombs show that early Channel theory was evolving, focused on the rubrics of Five and Six. The version of twelve Channels with Six yang and Six yin as described in the printed texts of the received tradition can be found in Lingshu 10. 28 Lingshu is also the locus classicus of an interconnected circulation, with each Channel linked to one of the internal organs, zang or fu (Yang 1997: 64; Harper 1998: 87; Li 2000b: 117).


The Huangdi neijing listed a seemingly coherent correspondence system where each Channel was associated with an organ, organised according to Five Agents. The attempts to rationalise Five Agents theory with the six bilateral yin and yang Channels meant that some innovative compromises had to be made in the enumeration of the organs (Li 2000b: 206–7). The ‘Classic of Difficult Issues’ (Nanjing 難經 compiled after 100 CE) 29 made the conundrum explicit, and demonstrated the contemporary quandary about reconciling the figures.

Zang are only five, yet fu are six, why is this?

So: the reason fu are six, is called sanjiao.

(Nanjing, 3.71) 30

The solution to these differing numbers of organs was to add a Triple Burner (sanjiao 三焦), an organ attributed a function but no physically visible form. Now there were eleven organs but twelve Channels. How was one to rationalise the five zang and fu with the Channel system now structured around Six, yin and yang channels? The Nanjing provided a solution again:

There are twelve Channels, [but] five zang and six fu only [make] eleven, as for this one [other] Channel, what kind is it?

So: this one [other] Channel, it is hand shaoyin and xinzhu [as] separate Channels.

(Nanjing, 2.52) 31

This was the introduction of another non-physical organ: the Heart Protector (xinbao 心包), with its associated Channel, Heart Master (xinzhu 心主). The heart which we have met representing the emperor in the body was here related to Heavenly, spiritual matters: xinbao possessed the more physical functions of the heart. The heart channel, or hand shaoyin, was thus associated with spirit (which in Chinese medical parlance refers more to psycho-emotional faculties than to a disincarnate soul) and was not needled on account of the perceived fragility of the heart. Instead, the xinzhu channel was used for any physical heart issues and to protect the heart from any external pathogens (Lingshu, 20.322). 32

Additionally, the two organs with a ‘name but no form’, the Triple Burner and Heart Protector, complemented the two existing Fire organs, the Small Intestine and the Heart, each with their respective channels taiyang and xinzhu, thus completing the organ-channel relationships between the Five Agents and Six Channels.

Wang Bing made extensive use of the rubrics of Five and Six in Suwen 66 to consolidate the links between the Six Channels and the Five Agents. 33 To assimilate the Five Agents to the Six Channels, he divided the Fire Agent into two different types of Fire: Sovereign Fire (junhuo 君火) was to be the Fire of the heart, the emperor of the body. 34 Minister Fire (xianghuo 相火) was the Fire necessary to maintain physiological functions, and came into play after birth, represented by two organs (Heart Protector, xinbao 心包 and Triple Burner, sanjiao 三焦) (Figure 5.5).

Five Agents with Sovereign Fire and Minister Fire: modern representation by the author

Figure 5.5   Five Agents with Sovereign Fire and Minister Fire: modern representation by the author

Each Channel linked internally with the organs and externally with one of the meteorological and climatic factors, the Six qi in Heaven (Wind, Cold, Dry, Damp, Heat and Fire) (Sivin 1987: 80–3). The interplay between Five Agents and the Six Channels (through the shared interface of the climates) comprehensively defined the body and its interactions with the Universe, in health and in disease (Table 5.2).

Table 5.2   Six Channels, Climates, Five Agents as Represented in Wang Bing's Wuyun liuqi Chapters of 762 CE















Agent 行


Sovereign Fire

Minister Fire




Cold, Heat, Dry, Damp, Wind, Fire, these are the yin and yang of Heaven; the three yin and three yang attend to what is above [Heaven]. Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, these are the yin and yang of Earth: birth, growth, change, gathering and storing reflect what is below [Earth].

(Suwen, 19.524) 35

Wuyun Liuqi 五運六氣 (Five Circuits 36 and Six qi): the integration of the numbers Five and Six

Wuyun liuqi was a legacy of the intertwining of divination and medicine in China: incorporating many aspects of the astro-calendrical divinatory systems, based on Five and Six (Porkert 1974: 55–106; Ren 1982; Fang and Xu 1984; Unschuld 1985: 170–1; Liu 1990; Despeux 2001: 121–65; Unschuld 2003: 385–494). Scholars studying the Song dynasty consider this doctrine as one of the more significant intellectual changes (Goldschmidt 2009: 183). These chapters were a complex map of the movements of Heaven and Earth designed to predict seasonal imbalances: if the cosmos moved according to Wuyun liuqi, then the body, as a mirror of the macrocosm, would adjust itself accordingly to maintain health, by alignment with the prevailing climates (Goldschmidt 2009: 83). Weather prediction, keyed to the calendar, provided a yardstick to measure whether the seasons and associated climates would come too early, or too late, either of which could be the cause of disease and impel its aetiological processes (Hinrichs 2003: 140). These seven chapters provided a method to establish normative physiological and cosmic cycles in order to diagnose seasonally related illnesses: they offered the hope of prediction, which could lead to the control of devastating anomalies such as epidemics (Unschuld 1985: 141).

The interplay between Five and Six was embodied in the terminology used in the Wang Bing chapters: ‘Five Circuits’ (wuyun 五運) and ‘Six qi’ (liuqi 六氣). The Stem and Branch of a year (an ancient calendrical example of the combination of Five and Six) 37 gave the overall climate for the year which would then vary predictably according to Wang Bing’s innovations (Yang 1997: 794–7). Each year was then further divided into smaller seasons: a series of five seasons, known as the five host Circuits (zhuyun 主運) 38 and a series of six seasons, known as the six host qi (zhuqi 主氣). 39 The Five host Circuits and the Six Host qi followed the expected seasonal climates occurring at set dates: Wind in spring, Cold in winter, etc. To allow for the considerable climatic variation within each season, there were also guests (ke 客). These guest Circuits and guest qi spanned the same time periods as the host Circuits and qi (Yang 1997: 797–800). The relationships between an unchanging host and a variable guest were interpreted through the generating and conquest cycles of Five Agents, introducing further flexibility in the potential to predict climatic variation for the year. 40

The concept of Five Circuits is specific to the Wuyun liuqi chapters, and has some parallels with Five Agents, but refers to a symbolic system keyed specifically to the movements of the Heavenly bodies (sun and moon, constellations and planets), and used uniquely to determine climatic and physiological anomalies. Suwen 67 matched the Five Circuits to the Five Agents by repeating exactly the same relationships from Suwen 5 where it is stated that, for example:

The Southern direction generates Heat, Heat generates Fire, Fire generates bitter, bitter generates the heart (Suwen, 2.68–70; 19.539–41). 41

This parallel emphasised their essential similarity, and provided the normative state, since the Circuits from Heaven 42 were harmonised with those of the human body through the resonance of the Agents. 43

Suwen 69 listed the climates expected in each year of the sexagenary cycle. 44 A particular year would be associated with one of the Five yang Great Circuits 45 (active or excess, taiguo 太過), or one of the Five yin Great Circuits (passive or insufficient, buji 不及) and a tendency towards particular pathologies (Unschuld 2003: 410).

Search for the [season’s] arrival […] when it is not yet [expected] to arrive but arrives, this is called taiguo [excessive] when it is [expected] to arrive but does not arrive, this is called buji [insufficient].

(Suwen, 3.103–4) 46

If a year had an active Great Circuit, then the qi associated with that Circuit was expected to manifest itself violently, giving an excess of the associated climate. During Earth active Great Circuit years, for example, one would have to be vigilant against diseases of Dampness and cold. If it was a year with a passive Great Circuit, then the climate associated with that Circuit was weak. During Earth passive Great Circuit years, one would have to be vigilant against diseases of excess Wind (Ibid.: 409). The active or passive actions of a Great Circuit applied the conquest cycle of the Five Agents to predict the expected climate of the entire year. Further spatio-temporal flexibility was introduced through grouping the Branches in different ways according to their seasonal relationships or according to cycles of climatic change following the cycles of the Six qi.

The core Wang Bing chapters, especially Suwen chapters 71 and 74, provide exhaustive tables with which a physician could predict the disease profile of a particular year. 47 To do that, he would have to have specialised training to interpret the quality of an individual year and all its shorter (Five and Six) seasons. All these predictions were prefaced on innovative arrangements of the rubrics of Five and Six, as understood in their relations to the xiangsheng and xiangke cycles of generation and control.

Practical applications of Wuyun liuqi

The cyclical flow of Heaven (space: sun, moon, stars) and Earth (time: seasons, day/night) created and maintained the constantly changing climates, the sphere of human existence (Unschuld 2003: 393). Wuyun liuqi was an attempt to order what seemed to be in disorder: the occurrence and duration of different climates, following a sexagenary cycle. Huangdi neijing and Wuyun liuqi theory was based on the premise that climates were the root of disease, and humans could maintain health by adapting to their climatic environment (Yang 1997: 801–2). Climate prediction allowed humans to integrate themselves in their environment, thus following the natural laws of Heaven and Earth to maintain their health (Unschuld 2003: 394).

Hence as for yin-yang and the four seasons, they are the end and beginning of the myriad beings, the root of life and death; if you oppose [them] then there is disaster and harm to life, if you follow then severe illness will not arise, this is called to obtain the way.

(Suwen, 1.39–40) 48

A map of future climatic variations was important for the prevention of disease (Unschuld 2003: 335) and as advance warning for too much of one particular climate, which could precipitate disease. Climate prediction acted as a standard against which to measure any variations (unseasonal climates), which caused disease especially in people who were unable to adapt to it sufficiently, as they were already depleted.

The overall rule for treatment was to adapt to, or counteract the effect of, the predominant climates calculated according to the specific climatic predictions of that year (Suwen 69, 71, 74). If these predicted climates were overwhelming, they could attack the body, so the overwhelming climatic qi needed to be calmed and cleared from the body. If the climatic qi were weak, the body’s qi could be strengthened to oppose any pathological influences.

For each [instance of unruly climate] pacify its qi, clear and calm it; then disease qi declines and leaves, returning to its place of origin; these are cardinal principles of treatment.

(Suwen, 22.736) 49

Suwen 74 lists pathological indicators for the whole year and seasons (Circuits and qi) of the year, with expected illnesses, ending with some basic rules for herbal medicine, finally exhorting the practitioner to focus on the underlying cause which, we can only assume, could be found by fully applying Wuyun liuqi theory.

The culmination of the iatromancy inherent in Wuyun liuqi theory may not have had many clinical applications until the Song dynasty (960–1279), three centuries after Wang Bing devised the theories (Despeux 2001: 129), when it came to prominence along with renewed interest in cosmology (Hanson 2008: 344). The physician Pang Anshi 龐安時 (1042–1099) author of ‘Discussions on Cold Damage and general disorders’ (Shanghan zongbing lun 傷寒總病論) incorporated Wuyun liuqi into Cold Damage theory (Chapters 4 and 8 in this volume) (Hinrichs 2003: 110). Both Wuyun liuqi and Cold Damage theories drew on the Six qi, and predicted the source and course of a disease based on unseasonable climates: so together they could be used to predict and treat the epidemics which plagued the dynasty (Hinrichs and Barnes 2013: 114). In 1099, the Director of Studies of the Imperial Medical Service, Liu Wenshu 劉溫舒 (late eleventh century), presented his ‘Discussion of the esoterica of the circulatory phases and the seasonal qi as formalised in the Suwen’ (Suwen rushi yunqi lun’ao 素問入式運氣論奥) 50 claiming that each season was dominated by certain climatic influences that inevitably caused certain illnesses. Liu explained Wuyun liuqi in detail, its application to physiology, pathology, diagnosis, treatment and the integrated use of medicinals: it was the first step in applying Wuyun liuqi theory to medicine as a whole (Goldschmidt 2009: 184).


Wang Bing included the names but no text for chapters 72 and 73, which were already missing from Quan’s edition: later Song editors added these, based on texts written in Tang-Song (Unschuld 2003).

A note on the use of capitals: I have used capitals for any concept that is significantly different in Chinese thought, e.g. Heaven is more than just the sky and is not related to the Christian concept of life after death. I capitalise a Number when I am referring to its numerological significance. Where I refer to the specific Chinese category of one of the wuxing, they are capitalised as Agents, similarly for the Chinese category of organs, Viscera and Storehouses.

Suwen 5, Yinyang yingxiang dalun 陰陽應象大論 (Comprehensive Discourse on Phenomena Corresponding to Yin and Yang); Unschuld and Tessenow (2011: 1, 95).

Suwen 2, Siqi diaoshen dalun 四氣調神大論 (Comprehensive discourse on regulating the spirit according to the qi of the Four seasons); Unschuld and Tessenow (2011: 1, 45–57). Suwen 4, Jingui zhenyan lun 金匱真言論 (Discourse on the true words in the golden cabinet); Unschuld and Tessenow (2011: 1, 83–94). Suwen 5, Yinyang yingxiang da lun 陰陽應象大論(Comprehensive Discourse on the Phenomena Corresponding to Yin and Yang); Unschuld and Tessenow (2011: 1, 95–126).

‘Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn annals’ (Lüshi Chunqiu呂氏春秋 239 BCE), Book 13 part 2, Yingtong 應同 (Resonating with the Identical); Knoblock and Riegel (2000: 283).

The Shujing, or Shangshu 尚書, is series of historical records compiled between the Western Zhou period (1046–771 BCE) and the Warring States period (475–221 BCE).

Daybooks were collected miscellanies of information with information on the auspicious or inauspicious nature of a variety of daily activities, keyed to calendrical divination.

Chunqiu fanlu 38, Wuxing dui 五行對 (Responding to the Five Agents).

Chunqiu fanlu 42, Wuxing zhi yi 五行之義 (Meaning of the Five Agents).


Suwen 5; Unschuld and Tessenow (2011: 1, 106).

Suwen 8, Linglan midian lun 靈蘭秘典論 (Discourse on the secret treatise of the numinous orchid); Unschuld and Tessenow (2011: 1, 155–62).

Suwen 8; Unschuld and Tessenow (2011: 1, 155–6).

Zuozhuan, Duke Zhao 1.1222 and 25.1457.

Huainanzi 3, Tianwen xun 天文訓 (The Treatise on the patterns of Heaven); Major (1993: 55–139).

Ibid.: 84.

See Ibid.: 186–9 for a presentation of various Five Agent cycles, where Earth no longer regulates the Four seasons, but is integrated within the Five Agents, although it is still acknowledged as the starting point, thus emphasising the importance of the Centre.

Suwen 5, Unschuld and Tessenow (2011: 1, 109).

Chunqiu fanlu 38, Wuxing dui 五行對 (Responding to the Five Agents).

Compiled by Ban Gu 班固 (32–92 CE) who also compiled the second official dynastic history, the Hanshu 漢書 (Book of the [Former] Han) which was completed ca. 80 CE.

Jing 經 is a difficultterm to translate, since it is used to indicate not only the idea of a vertical warp thread on a loom. Jing, combined with mai 脈, describes a vessel (sometimes containing blood) along which something flows, in a connected network, like underground streams in the Earth. Mai is also the term for ‘pulsation’, a further link to blood and its impulse from the heart (Harper 1998: 82–3).

Mawangdui tomb contained a variety of medical and hygiene texts, including the ‘Cauterisation canon of the eleven vessels of the foot and forearm’ (Zubi shiyi mai jiujing 足臂十一脈灸經) and the ‘Cauterisation canon of the eleven yin and yang vessels’ (Yinyang shiyi mai jiujing 陰陽十一脈灸經安定) (Ibid.: 22–25).

Zhangjiashan tomb had two medical and hygiene manuscripts, the Vessel Book (Maishu 脈書), listing eleven Channels with related ailments (very similar to the Mawangdui manuscripts); and the Pulling Book (Yinshu 引書), a more developed version of the hygiene texts from Mawangdui. The prevention of disease was focused on exercises to ward off climatic factors (Wenwu 1989; Engelhardt 2000: 88–89; Li 2006b: 281–295). See Lo (2007) for an analysis of the Mawangdui and Zhangjiashan texts.

Channels were vertical and parallel, without intercommunication; health depended on qi flowing in a downward direction, so a healthy person had a cold head and warm feet. If an excess of qi caused upward movement, cauterisation and exercises were used to move qi downwards (Harper 1998: 81, 86).

Yang Channels, the qi of Heaven, caused less fatal ailments. Yin Channels, the qi of Earth, were called the ‘vessels of death’, causing fatal disease (Ibid.: 79, 88).

See He and Lo (1996) and Lo (2002: 123–5) for an analysis of the Shuangbaoshan figurine.

The number 109 is probably not numerically significant, as there may have been many more dots, now erased; or dots of other colours, also no longer visible.

Lingshu, 5.83–105, Lingshu 10, Jingmai 經脈 (Channels and Vessels); Unschuld (2016: 175–208).

The Nanjing comments and discusses the Five Agent systematic correspondence system aiming to reach coherence and consistency.

Nanjing 38, Zangfu dushu 藏府度數 (The Principles of Zang and Fu Organs); Unschuld (1985: 395).

Nanjing 25, Jingluo dashu 經絡大數 (The Channels and Vessels); (Ibid.: 310).

Lingshu 71, Xieke 邪客 (Evil Guests); (Ibid.: 639–40).

Suwen 66, Tianyuanji dalun 天元紀大論 (Comprehensive Discourse on Arrangements of the Principal [Qi] of Heaven); Unschuld and Tessenow (2011: 2, 173–88).

Suwen, 19.526; (Ibid.: 2, 184).

Suwen 66; (Ibid.: 2, 181).

I have translated yun 運 as ‘Circuit’ to emphasise its regular circulation; it has been translated elsewhere as ‘Circulatory Phase’ (Despeux 2001) or ‘Period’ (Unschuld 2003).

The Ten Heavenly Stems are Five yang and Five yin; the Twelve Earthly Branches are Six yang and Six yin.

Suwen 66; Suwen 67, Wuyun xing dalun 五運行大論 (Comprehensive Discourse on the Progression of the Five Circuits); Unschuld and Tessenow (2011: 2, 189–212); Suwen 70, Wuchang zheng dalun 五常政大論(Comprehensive Discourse on the Five Regular Policies);(Ibid.: 2, 285–356).

Suwen 66; Suwen 68, Liuweizhi dalun 六微旨大論 (Comprehensive Discourse on the Subtle Significance of the Six [Qi]); (Ibid.: 2, 213–39).

These smaller cycles were like fractals: the larger cycles were mirrored in smaller cycles, so the whole calculation of Wuyun liuqi for a particular time period could illustrate very complex patterns of climates.

Suwen 5; (Ibid.: 1, 107–8). Suwen 67; (Ibid.: 2, 205–6).

Circuits, yun were described in Suwen 67 (Suwen, 19.531; Ibid.: 2, 192–3) as coloured paths in the sky, with reference to a no longer extant text (Unschuld 2003: 406–7). Circuits were keyed to the lunar mansions (xiu 宿) fixed constellations which were used as reference points by ancient Chinese astronomers.

Both yun and xing mean ‘to move’ and ‘to circulate’; however, yun also means ‘luck, fate or fortune’ possibly alluding to circulations in the heavens, whose movements determine the fate of those on Earth.

Suwen 69, Qijiao bian dalun 氣交變大論 (Comprehensive Discourse on the Changes of Qi Interaction); Unschuld and Tessenow (2011: 2, 241–84).

A Great Cicuit, dayun 大運 related to the Circuit of a complete year.

Suwen 9; (Ibid.: 1, 172).

Suwen 71, Liuyuan zhengji dalun 六元正紀大論 (Comprehensive Discourse on the Policies and Arrangements of the Six Original Qi); (Ibid.: 2, 357–533). Suwen 74, Zhizhenyao dalun 至真要大論 (Comprehensive Discourse on the Essentials of the Perfect Truth); Unschuld and Tessenow 2011: 2, 535–642.

Suwen 2; (Ibid.: 1, 56).

Suwen 74; (Ibid.: 2, 587).

See Hanson (2008) for more on Liu’s book.


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