The Zang Fu are a central element of TCM theory. Although they bear familiar names such as lung, liver and spleen, they do not refer to the physical organs as we understand them in the west. Rather, when we speak of Lung or Spleen, we are concerned with the function and purpose of that organ. Thus when we speak of the Lung in TCM, we are more concerned with the transformation of Kong Qi (air qi) into qi our bodies can use or the Lungs function in dispersing this qi around the body.
The term Zang refers to the organs that are Yin in nature – Lung, Heart, Spleen, Liver, Kidney. The term Fu refers to the organs that are Yang in nature – Large Intestine, Small intestine, Gallbladder, Urinary Bladder and Stomach and Sanjiao.
A helpful way to remember the split is that yang organs (Fu organs) are more concerned with the the digestive system. Zang organs (yin organs) are more related to the processing of vital life forces such as qi, blood and water processing.
Another way to remember them are that Fu organs are like vessels/warehouses, waiting to hold waste, liquids, qi and and foods for processing. They do not store substances long term but rather serve a temporary holding facility, being filled and emptied contiously according to the needs of the body. Yang organs have a direct opening to the exterior of the body.
Zang organs are more machinery/factory orientated, they take the substances from the Fu organs and are responsible for processing them and sending them around the body or back to the Fu organs for further storage.
Zang organs are more interior in nature and do not have any direct opening to the exterior.
Each Zang organ is paired with a Fu organ and each zang-fu pair is also related to one of the five phases (wood, fire, earth, metal, water). In summary they are;
Lung : Large Intestine (Metal)
Kidney : Urinary Bladder (water)
Liver: Gallbladder (wood)
Heart : Small Intestine (Fire)
Spleen : Stomach (earth)
The sixth Fu organ, the Sanjiao is paired with the Pericardium which is similar to the Heart.
Each of the organs is paired with one of the twelve major meridians which bear the same name (The Sanjiao is also known as the triple burner or triple warmer).
It is important to remember that Zang and Fu organs work in tandem with one another. For example, the Stomach holds food qi (Gu qi) which is then processed by the Spleen. Similarly, when illness affects one, the related organ can also be thrown out of balance.
There is a another category of organs that are known as the extraordinary fu organs. These are the Uterus, brain, marrow, blood vessels, bones and gallbladder (which is also a Fu organ but because it stores bile it is also classed as extraordinary).
In TCM, no organ body part is seen as individual – everything operates as a whole and only imbalances are possible – these are ‘cured’ by re balancing the body as a whole. The yin-yang balance is also to the forefront and harmony is of the essence. Therefore it is not possible to isolate the zang-fu organs from each other in treating illnesses nor ignore the pathway of the meridians or the flow of energy around the body. The body as a whole is connected, both internally-externally, centre to distal and top to bottom. In this sense, we often treat points that are far removed from the zang-fu organ we are treating and even select points that may not be directly on the zang-fu meridian.
An overview of the correspondences of the zang-fu are given below.
Body Substances (storage, processing, transportation and replenishment)
- Heart governs blood.
- Liver stores blood.
- Lungs govern Qi & disperse & descend body fluids.
Spleen governs Gu Qi (food qi) and holds blood in the vessels. Also influences body fluids.
Kidneys store Essence and influences body fluids.
Heart controls the blood vessels and the health of the heart can be seen in the facial complexion
Liver controls the sinews/tendons and its health can be seen in the nails.
Lungs control the skin and their health can be viewed on the body hair.
Spleen controls the muscles and shows its health on the lips
Kidneys control the bones and show their health on the head hair.
Heart is related to the tongue and taste
Liver controls the eyes and sight
– Lungs control the nose and smell.
Spleen controls the mouth and taste
Kidneys control the ears and hearing
Heart is related to joy
Liver is related to anger
Lungs are related to sadness, grief and worry
Spleen is related to thinking
Kidneys are related to fear
Heart is most susceptible to heat
Lungs are most affected by dryness
Liver is most affected by wind
Spleen is most affected by dampness
Kidneys are most susceptible to cold.