Basic Principles

Chinese medicine has been developed on the basis of two assumptions. First, the human body is a complex bio chemical machine with highly complex interactions of internal organs via a set of circulation systems, aiming to maintain balance in all essential aspects of the body's operation under continuous variation of the environment and external factors. Second, the human body is an intelligent machine attempting to repair itself under any adverse circumstances. A state of imbalance triggers the body to repair, a process that causes the body to develop symptoms. These two basic assumptions actually form the guiding principle for formulating treatments for all kinds of diseases in Chinese medical practices.

Energy: Xue Qi (血氣)

Xue Qi (血氣): The central concept in Chinese medicine is xue qi (血氣) which is a measure of the "energy level" of a human person. Xue qi powers all activities that the body carries out including all normal operations, repairs, immunities, etc. Chinese medicine classifies energy under three broad categories:

  • Yang (陽): Energy derived directly from sources which are being circulated through our complex circulation systems that include the blood circulation system and a subtle inter-organ network known as jing luo (經絡); this kind of energy is readily consumable.

  • Yin (陰): Stored energy which can be released immediately when yang begins to exhaust.

  • Huo (火): Energy extracted from storage which will be used when the yang and yin are exhausted. Huo is the main storage, and the ability to store huo diminishes as we get older. So, sometimes, huo is regarded as our reserve and when it dries up, our life ends.

The first type of energy is often referred to as yang (active), the second type as yin (reactive), and the third type as huo (advance). Being an electronic engineer, I cannot help making the analogy that yang energy is like the power directly generated from the generator, the yin energy is like reactive storage similar to that released from a capacitor, and the huo energy is like the charge stored in a battery.

The concept of energy is scalefree! So, it can be described in different time scales, e.g., a short duration, a day, and even a whole lifespan.

Typically, in the morning, the human body has generated enough yang power to support various operations as the process of generating power is believed to be done mainly when the body goes into deep sleep. The process also requires good supply of blood as the power has to be distributed to various parts of the body. As time moves during the day, the body becomes tired and yin power gradually takes over. In the late evening, huo would have to be used. The kind of feeling that we have after sticking up late for many nights in a row is a typical sign of utilizing too much huo.

If we look at a shorter duration, like swimming in a standard 50 m pool, our body consumes yang at the beginning. When we start to feel tired, we are switching gradually to yin, and when we feel very tired but still insist to keep going, we are likely to burn huo. Marathoning apparently consumes a lot of huo especially toward the later part of the running.

Taking a longer-term perspective, young people have high levels of yang, middle-aged have gradually increased their consumption of yin as their yang has reduced, and aged people have lost much of the yang and yin powers and are already burning too much huo and their energy level is low. When the energy level is insufficient, the body becomes weak in the sense that many less essential activities would not be supported. Eventually the body cannot even maintain the essential functions, and die.

How do we generate energy? The Importance of Quality Sleep

We generate energy from food and adequate rest. When we sleep, the body produces xue qi. Good-quality sleep ensures enough xue qi. For children, this also means a good investment for future use (i.e., saving up more huo.). Unfortunately, most people nowadays do not have good-quality rest. Even worse, some people have very little sleep, let alone having quality sleep. They are using up their huo much more quickly, and will be more prone to chronic illnesses as they do not have enough energy to self-repair.

A key belief in Chinese medicine is that lack of xue qi is the origin of all kinds of disorders in a human body. The lack of xue qi can be intrinsic (or inherited), i.e., some people are born with a low level of xue qi and they are inherently weak. Consumption of certain Chinese herbs, like ginseng, has proven to help raise the xue qi level. Moreover, the enhancement of xue qi can be gained by improving the functions of certain organs. A Chinese herbal doctor should be consulted for detailed diagnosis and prescription of appropriate herb.

Self Repair and Illnesses

When the human body becomes sick, symptoms show up. In Chinese medicine, this is sometimes a sign of good health because this shows that the body has enough xue qi and is able to perform self-repairing. Only when the body is healthy and with enough energy, symptoms are allowed to surface. If the body is weak and lacks sufficient energy, it could only afford to deal with the more essential life-keeping functions, and relatively less important problems, e.g., a viral attack, would not be attended to.

We don't fall sick! So, we are healthy! Are we, really? The biggest enemy to our own health is our own life style. In Hong Kong, people often work for long hours without proper and adequate rest, the xue qi level is low. Yet, apparently they find themselves pretty healthy and won't even complain about a cold or flu symptom, especially when they are very busy and have no time to take a rest. But when they slow down and take a few days off from work, they fall sick immediately! This is normal from the Chinese medical viewpoint as the body, having gained more rest, has more xue qi and hence becomes more ready to repair and react to problems which were ignored when the xue qi level was low. This is why a person could be more "healthy" if he or she could show symptoms of cold or flu as it is a proof of the body's ability to repair.

When a flu symptom shows up for example, we should take more rest so as to gain sufficient xue qi to let the body do the repair job. Chinese herbal medicine helps the body re-gain its balance. The application of herbs is a complex issue as it involves diagnosis of the patient's status and basic body conditions. Details of the issue of balance involves a much bigger body of knowledge of Chinese medicine.

Metabolism and Exercising

Chinese medicine strongly believes in the balance of generation and removal processes. This corresponds to metabolisam in western medicine. In Chinese medicine, we refer to the useless substance that has to be removed as du (毒), which literally means poison.

The various organs are connected and communicate with one another through the blood/fluid circulation network, nervous network, and a subtle network called jing luo (經絡). Failure of the removal process causes excessive accumulation of du in all communication networks within the body, as manifested by increase in body weight, increase in blood cholesterol level, etc. The problem becomes more prominent as we get older.

Exercising is an effective means to improve metabolism. In Chinese medicine, exercising is a means to trigger and maintain a good balance of the generation and removal processes. We need to do sufficient exercise to maintain a good balance. But it is inappropriate to over-exercise as it hurts the body by burning off huo which is our main energy storage. Doing exercise in the late evening is also bad because the body is likely to consume huo after a long day of work.

To keep our body fit, we need good rest and adequate (not excessive) exercise. In fact, people wishing to lose weight (if they are genuinely overweighed) should actually try to improve their sleep quality in the first place and to do adequate exercise. Inadequate rest would only reduce the body's level of xue qi. With a low level of xue qi, the body has to shut down relatively less important functions, and removal of du will be slowed down or even halted. Remember that removal needs a lot of energy too! Therefore, it is conceptually wrong to use exercise as a means to burn more calorie in order to lose weight. It won't work (unless you don't eat or eat very little!) In fact, only when the body has sufficient energy, it can do the removal job as appropriate and maintain a healthy metabolism. The body then would lose weight naturally and to an appropriate point.

Losing Weight "Positively"

Eating too much and exercising too little are becoming a common problem among city dwellers. Watching one's calorie intake and counting one's dissipation have virtually become a standard approach for keeping one's body fit, as would be advised by doctors and nutritionists. Losing weight by eating less and burning more can sometimes be destructive. Indeed, one can lose weight by starving, exercising heavily, and even having less sleep. But this is a negative (destructive) weight loss approach. Basically your energy level goes down when you do not have adequate rest and are deprived of good nutrients. You then lose weight because your body fails to generate sufficient xue qi to maintain the normal body building. Well, you get what you want anyway, but negatively!

Weight loss can in fact be done positively. As mentioned above, the trick is: get adequate rest and take good food to ensure your body have a good supply for generating xue qi. Also, you need adequate exercise to maintain a good level of metabolism. Then your body will properly function to carry out the removal task and hence lose weight naturally. This weight loss is positive and your body knows when to stop and maintains an equilibrium.


The key to good health, from the traditional Chinese medical viewpoint, is to smartly utilize and manage our energy. Remember to take adequate rest and stay balanced! 

See other topics on eating well and making herbal teas.

December 2007


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