From Zhou Xuehai, Reflections Upon Reading the Medical Classics (Du Yi Suibi), ca. 1895:
The physician who knows how to harmonize the liver knows how to treat the hundred diseases.
From Tang Rongchuan, A Treatise on Blood Disorders (Xuezheng Lun), 1884:
Spreading is the nature of wood. The transformation of food qi relies entirely on the spreading and dredging function of liver wood once the food enters the stomach. If the liver’s pure yang does not rise, it cannot spread and dredge the grain and fluids, and distention and discomfort in the middle region will inevitably result.
The liver is associated with wood. Wood qi is characterized by its upward momentum and its innate desire to be straight. As long as the flow of liver qi is not impeded, the blood vessels will remain open and unobstructed.
The liver is the organ that is in charge of storing blood. It also commands the ministerial fire (xiang huo). If there is sufficient blood, this fire will be warm but not fierce. As a result, the blood can circulate smoothly through the body’s three burning spaces; it will reach the pores, and every single place in the body will benefit from its warming and nourishing function.
From Zhang Xichun, Chinese at Heart But Western Where Appropriate: Essays Investigating an Integrated Form of Medicine (Yixue Zhong Zhong Can Xi Lu), 1933:
Liver and spleen function together by assisting each other. However, people are always quick to point out that an excess of liver wood can injure the spleen earth, and thus have a detrimental affect on the proper digestion of food. But nobody seems to pay attention to the fact that a weak liver cannot circulate the spleen qi and thereby also cause maldigestion. Below, the liver connects to the Sea of Qi [lower dantian, associated with the kidney], which means that the liver is closely associated with the body’s ministerial fire. It can utilize the power of this fire to produce earth. The food which enters the spleen and stomach relies on this power to be ‘cooked.’ This is what is meant by saying that the liver and the spleen function by assisting each other.
From Ye Tianshi, A Handbook of Clinical Case Histories (Linzheng Zhinan Yian), 1746:
The liver is known as both the wood organ and the wind organ. Because it houses the ministerial fire within, we can say that the structure of the liver is yin while its function is yang. Its nature is firm and resolute, and it is in charge of moving and ascending. The liver relies entirely on kidney water to sustain it, on blood to moisten it, on lung metal’s clear nature and descending function to keep it in check, and on the generosity of the middle palace’s earth qi to nourish it. In this way, a firm and unrelenting character is being fitted with a soft and harmonious body, resulting in the liver’s balancing and free flowing nature.
From Zhang Huang, A Compendium of Illustrated Texts (Tushu Bian), Ming Dynasty:
The liver is associated with wood. It stores the blood and is the home of the hun spirits. Among the seven human emotions, only anger is of an intense nature. It dries up the blood and dissipates the hun spirits. The person who understands the way of nourishing the liver, therefore, never throws fits of anger.
From Yu Bian, Medical Teachings Continued (Xu Yishuo), 1522:
The Classic of Sagely Benefits states: ‘The seasonal cycle of transformation begins with the wood phase. In the body, therefore, the process of germinating and nurturing the twelve channel systems is initiated by the liver. During the first month of pregnancy, for instance, a woman’s fetus is nourished by her jueyin liver network.’ The liver, therefore, marks the beginning of cyclical action, the stirring of spring yang which all living things rely upon as a catalyst for their growth. By avoiding outbursts of anger and by fostering this particular type of yang energy, your prenatal qi will keep generating forever. The liver is also in charge of color; if its qi is in harmony, the body will exhibit a healthy luster. If its qi is injured, the body will appear dry and brittle. Nourishing the liver, therefore, first of all means to refrain from anger. This is the key for the maintenance of good health.
From Yang Jizhou, The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion (Zhenjiu Dacheng), ca. 1590:
The eyes represent the orifices of the liver. When a person closes his/her eyes and falls asleep, the blood returns to the liver. From there it is transmitted to the eyes, and the ability to see results from this. When a person sleeps, now, the nameless fire within grows dim in order to revitalize. Although it may be impossible to refrain from sleeping altogether, it is advisable not to just let this energy dissipate for the mere sake of falling into a slumber.
Insomnia caused by a cold deficiency pattern of the gallbladder is accompanied by symptoms of restless thought and a sensation of extreme mental weariness. Excess heat in the liver will typically cause a person to sleep too much, resulting in the mirror of intelligence gathering dust and a deterioration of the root of good health. None of these conditions, obviously, are the result of proper nourishing of the liver and gallbladder nor an appropriate way of subduing the sleep demons.
This is what you should do: do not get angry, do not lay down during the day, and always retire your body but not your shen. The essence of sleep, after all, is the soul of the body. If you can manage to sleep little, then the master mind will be bright and alert. Not only will your shen qi be flowing freely and purely, but you will also not be disturbed by dreams. Every time you are overcome by a craving for sleep, blood rushes to the heart and the original shen is forced to leave its abode. The clouds then cast a gloomy shadow over the heavenly realm of spirit, and the shen itself will grow dim and unconscious just like its domicile.
The Daoist master Zhang Sanfeng once said: ‘Grasp the dream in the dream; behold the darkness within the darkness. Since I saw the face of the girl, I can happily view the paradise, Penglai, right in front of my eyes. This is precisely what I mean! The Neijing , furthermore, states: ‘The three months of spring are the period of commencement; heaven and earth are born, and all living things are flourishing. Get up early in the morning, walk around in the courtyard, loosen your hair and relax your body. By doing so you will generate mental strength and act in harmony with the qi of spring, thus following the way of nourishing life. If you live contrary to this principle, you will harm your liver.’ Everybody should be aware of this basic principle.
From Cai Luxian, Chinese Medicine and Pharmacology: A Collection (Zhongguo Yiyao Huihai), 1936:
The gallbladder stores the essential fluids. It is thus called the ‘chief of staff’ and the ‘store house of essence.’ All the organs are of a murky nature, only the gallbladder is clear. All the other fu organs are called “bowels in charge of transporting” or something like this; only the gallbladder is not labeled as a transporter, but stands out as a ‘store house.’ It is a fu (transport) network, but has the characteristics of a zang (storage) network.
Blood flow varies according to the time of day, the season of the year, a person’s constitution, and the state of physical and mental quietude or agitation. The blood flows at a reduced rate when sleeping, and at an increased rate when physically working. Thirteen centuries ago, the influential Tang dynasty scholar Wang Bing described this function of the liver in the following manner: “The liver stores the blood, and the heart moves it. If a person moves about in a waking state, then the blood is distributed throughout all channels; if a person rests, the blood returns to the liver.”
Emotions such as anger, embarrassment, or unexpected joy can also increase blood flow, causing the ears and face to turn red. In situations when less blood is needed, it is “stored in the liver,” which thus assumes a warehouse-like function. The actual storage of blood is done in the penetrating vessel, one of the eight extraordinary vessels that extends from the lower dantian to the head; this vessel is often considered to be part of the liver network. The liver is best compared to a managing clerk, who moves goods in and out of the warehouse as they are needed.
Just as important is the liver’s function of maintaining a smooth and uninterrupted flow of virtually all body substances (including qi, blood, jing, and liquids and humors). The term shu (sometimes translated as coursing or smoothing) is used to refer to the action of maintaining a mode of operation in the body that is not stagnating, not overly agitated, and continuously flowing. The term xie (sometimes translated as draining) is used to refer to the liver’s action of purging stagnation in the spleen/stomach. Proper coursing and draining, or lack thereof, is mostly reflected in the relation of emotions to qi and blood circulation and to the influence of the liver on digestive system functions:
Emotional aspect: the ancient Chinese observed that human emotions are largely governed by the heart network. However, they also concluded that mental well-being or various shades of depression have an association with the coursing and draining function of the liver. Only if the liver carries this task out properly can the body’s qi and blood flow unobstructed, and thus facilitate a feeling of ease, harmony, and peace. If for some reason the liver fails to maintain this state, depression (of liver qi) or pathological rising (of liver yang) may result. As the Qing Dynasty classic, A Treatise on Blood Disorders (Xue Zheng Lun), states: “The liver is classified as wood; wood qi is characterized by its determination to go straight to where it wants to go to; if it is not blocked or suppressed, the movement in the vessels will be smooth.”
Digestive aspect: since this moving function of the liver regulates the qi flow in the entire body, it influences the dynamics of the other organ networks, particularly the neighboring digestive systems. It assists the upward and downward flows of the spleen/stomach system (the stomach is to move the food mass downward, the spleen is to move the extracted qi upward), passes bile into the intestines, helps to transport food essence, and aids the unobstructed movement and metabolism of water. The Treatise on Blood Disorders says “Coursing and draining is an integral part of liver nature. Once food qi enters the stomach, it is entirely up to the liver wood to course and drain it. Only if this process is intact will grain and water transform properly.”
Hun is originally an ancient astronomical term, describing the light of the moon (as opposed to its material body). Just like moonlight is a reflection of sunlight, hun stands for a particular type of consciousness that is reflecting waking consciousness (shen) on another plane. The Neijing comments in its typical terse code: “Hun is that what follows shen going in and out.”
Hun can be interpreted as the realm of the subconscious that is particularly active during sleep time. Therefore, all Chinese words that include the character hun describe states of dreaming or trance. As Zhang Jingyue, master physician of the Ming dynasty, put it: “This dim state of consciousness during dreaming, or the elusive visions we see meandering during nocturnal sleep, all fall under the category of hun.” Hun, in other words, can be understood as an ethereal type of consciousness which can separate from the body during sleep and interact with other “souls” (as hun is often translated) during this time.
Different from po (see the chapter on lung for more information), the vital instinctive spirit that is tied closely to the material body, hun is what is believed to leave the body after death and what can be called upon in prayers. The wandering ghosts (that usually cause trouble) described in Chinese stories are actually hun that roam about aimlessly, because they have nobody to perform the pacifying sacrificial rites for them.
According to traditional concepts, male physiology is mostly based on qi (yang), while female physiology is primarily based on blood (yin). Males tend to have an abundance of qi that they can afford to spend freely, while females have an abundance of blood that they can give away freely (as becomes evident from the menstrual bleeding). Liver function, therefore, has great influence over an important part of female physiology-menstruation.
The penetrating vessel and the conception vessel, are two pathways linked to the liver that are intimately involved with the transportation of blood. The penetrating vessel, above compared to a warehouse, is also called the Sea of Blood; and the conception vessel, as the name indicates, is credited with the function of nourishing the uterus and the fetus. Both the conception vessel and the penetrating vessel belong to the category of the eight extraordinary vessels. Both these vessels are involved in the liver’s ability to store blood; they set out from the uterus, and are also closely linked with the kidney channel.
The Neijing says: “In females, the tiangui (ability to conceive) arrives at the age of two times seven; at this point, the conception vessel will be open, the penetrating vessel will be exuberant, and therefore menstruation arrives in regular intervals and pregnancy becomes possible….At the age of seven times seven, the conception vessel becomes deficient, the penetrating vessel is exhausted, the tiangui dries up, and menstruation stops; aging is taking place and there will be no more pregnancies.”
The tendons connect the muscles to the bones. In accordance with the characteristics of the liver, they facilitate smooth and continuous movement. Because of this basic concept, some scholars have recently included the nerves (which do not have a separate designation in classical Chinese theory) under the category “tendons” (jin). The proper functioning of the tendons relies entirely on their nourishment by liver blood.
The nails are considered the surplus of the tendons: as such, they are an exterior manifestation of the general quality of the tendons, and thus, liver blood within. Dry and brittle or extremely pale nail beds always indicate a poor quality of liver blood, while pink nailbeds and firm nails indicate a healthy state of liver blood.
Hair is also associated with the liver blood: it is called the “surplus of the blood” (xue yu). The rich liver blood of females is expressed in lush, long, and fast growing hair on the head; males have more facial and body hair, which is governed by the qi organ, lung. Dry and brittle hair can be an indication of liver blood deficiency, while hair that suddenly falls out (alopecia) is usually because of both deficiency of blood and impeded flow of liver blood to the head, usually due to sudden emotional trauma.
The eyes are nourished by the essence of all five organ networks, and thus differentiated into five organ specific zones which may reveal important diagnostic information. The eyes as a whole, however, represent the opening of the liver, and are thus considered to be more closely linked to the liver than to any of the other organ networks. “Liver qi communicates with the eyes,” states the Neijing, “and if the liver functions harmoniously, the eyes can differentiate the five essential colors….If the liver receives blood, we can see. The liver channel branches out to the eyes. Both liver qi and liver blood flood the eyes to maintain proper eyesight. A person’s eyesight may therefore also serve as an indicator for liver function.
Just as trees (wood) tend to unrelentingly pursue their upward quest for the light, the liver represents the innate will of the body/mind to spread outward. Just like qi and blood have to spread within the body to ensure physical survival, human shen needs to spread freely through the social environment to guarantee an uninhibited passage through life. Individuals with strong liver qi and blood are usually excellent strategic planners and decision makers: they know how to spread themselves into the world. Due to these qualities, they often make outstanding business managers. If, however, this tough and determined spreading nature of the liver is not in a state of harmonious balance with the softer side of liver wood-ease, smoothness, flexibility-the wood-endangering state of rigidity arises.
The Liver Is Unable to Store the Blood: if the liver fails to be properly nourished by the qi derived from food via the spleen/stomach, or if for some reason the function of storing and regulating the blood becomes affected, symptoms of blurred vision, cramping, inhibited joint movement, dry eyes, night blindness, trembling hands and feet, numb extremities, dry, brittle, malformed, or grey nails, dry and split hair, scanty menstruation, or amenorrhea may occur.
The Liver Loses Its Ability to Course and Drain: if qi gets stuck, the inhibited coursing action of liver qi immediately manifests in the form of mental and emotional symptoms; depression, sensation of emotional pain, or crying are typical examples. If liver qi flares up and upsets the harmonious interplay between body and mind, outbursts of anger, or pain and distention in the sides of the chest may result.
This condition has also immediate consequences to the functioning of the spleen/stomach, specifically the actions of absorbing, transforming, and transporting grain qi (postnatal essence). Typical signs of a liver qi disorder implicating the neighboring spleen/stomach system are belching, regurgitation of stomach acid, vomiting, and diarrhea.
If the liver is not coursing the qi, body fluids (which also rely on liver qi to be moved) may stagnate, with a potential development of edema or ascites. And very importantly, if liver qi stagnates for a long time the proper circulation of blood will be impaired. Therefore, people with chronic diseases that involve liver qi stagnation often present with symptoms of both qi and blood stagnation, such as piercing pain in the chest, tumors and growths, and irregular menstruation.
Liver Disharmony Reflecting on the Emotions and Mental Activities: a deficiency of liver qi typically causes a person to be indecisive and adrift, with a marked inability to plan ahead effectively. If gallbladder qi is deficient, the person will be fearful, have a panicky disposition, and have difficulty making decisions.
Certain emotional states can result from, or cause, liver qi disorders. For example, a state of depression brought on by an unexpected event can eventually cause physical symptoms attributed to liver qi stagnation; liver qi stagnation, in turn, can cause mental depression. An intense outbreak of anger can induce sudden headaches, dizziness, chest pain, and other signs of liver-qi flare up (as the Neijing points out: “When a person is angry, the qi moves up); liver qi flaring up can cause one to feel anger. Sometimes a person will suffer a stroke (“qi and blood rushing to the brain”) during or shortly after an outburst of anger. Anger is a physiologically normal emotion and will usually not cause disease. The constant suppression of anger or putting oneself always in a situation that generates anger, on the other hand, can be the cause of long ranging problems, since it promotes a chronic state of internal qi stagnation.
Excess Pathogens in the Liver Channel: wind-heat (external heat) entering the liver channel causes red, swollen, or painful eyes. Upflaring liver fire from internal causes may also produce red eyes, or a white film on the eye. Hyperactivity of liver yang manifests in upwardly mobile symptoms, especially hypertension and dizziness. Liver-wind (internal wind) may produce seizures, uncontrollable eye movements, lock jaw, or tetanic cramping. The Neijing points out that: “All wind and dizziness disorders belong to the liver.”
Cold pathogens have a coagulating affect on the liver channel causing abdominal pain radiating to the genitals, testicular pain, or vaginal atrophy.