What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a rich medical system that has existed in some form for more than 3,000 years. The earliest found writings were done on pieces of tortoise shells and bone and date back to the Shang Dynasty (15th to 11th centuries BC). Foundational Chinese medicine texts date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 ACE). These ancient writings describe a healthcare system that is focused on the movement of qi (pronounced “chee”, air or vapor) and xuè (pronounced “shui”, blood). In TCM, there is a belief that all presentation of illness comes from stagnation, deficiency or the improper movement of qì or xuè, and may result in an imbalance of yīn and yáng. So, what is Traditional Chinese Medicine and how does it relate to health?

The concept of health in TCM is more than the absence of disease. It is a holistic concept of balance in all things and that good cannot exist without bad, light without dark, building without breaking down. By restoring and maintaining harmony throughout the body, and understanding the body as an integrated whole, a TCM practitioner is able to support the body to be as healthy as possible, even when there is disease present.

Four TCM Principles

  1. Your body is an integrated whole. You are more than systems, organs, and tissues. Every part of you makes up the entirety of the person. Your mind, emotions, spirit, and physical body forms a complex being powered by life force, or vital energy.
  2. You are completely connected to nature.Changes in the seasons, where you are in the world, and even time of day, genetics and your body condition all play a role in your health issues. These changes in nature are always reflected in your body.
  3. You were born with a natural self-healing ability. Your body has an innate intelligence and capacity to heal. Nature is regenerative and so are you. Sometimes a physical challenge may inhibit the body’s ability to find balance again but the ability is not lost. This is when support is needed to restore the pathways of energy and movement.
  4. Prevention is the best cure. Symptoms are like road signs, pointing us in the direction we need to go. Instead of ignoring them or covering them up, TCM encourages us to see these as signs of imbalance and teaches us to interpret the language of the body.

Wise Woman Herbals® has been a producer of Western herbal formulas for more than thirty years yet we recognize and embrace the vitalistic approach of TCM. Many of the herbs we use in our Western formulations also cross over into the principles of TCM and can be used easily by TCM practitioners. Let’s explore some basic concepts in TCM theory.

Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang are two universal forces that create a harmonious life. They are opposite but relative to each other and cannot exist on their own. Yin is believed to be the internal energy and Yang is the physical body.

In TCM, Yin is considered the feminine energy and is associated with cold, dark, conditions of deficiency and the moon. On the other hand, Yang is considered to be masculine energy and is associated with heat, conditions of excess and the sun. They both affect each other in various ways. In fact, Yin’s coolness can extinguish Yang’s heat while Yang’s heat can burn up Yin. Yin creates outward movement, moving energy to the periphery while Yang creates inward movement, drawing energy towards the center. Yang grows and flourishes because of Yin.

Five Elements Theory

In TCM, the five elements outlines the relationship between the elements in nature and the life force, Qi, that flows through them. The basic elements are fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. Each person is a blend of these elements, and in order to truly experience health, the elements must be in balance with each other.

The five elements are constantly moving and changing, each one dominating at different times in the natural cycle of life. The elements are used to interpret and explain the physiology and pathologies in a body. Each element is associated with different organs, colors, flavors, senses, emotions, and even weather.


  • Body: liver, gallbladder, tendons, eyes
  • Color: green
  • Emotion: anger
  • Flavor: sour
  • Weather: mild


  • Body: heart, tongue, pulse
  • Color: red
  • Emotion: joy
  • Flavor: bitter
  • Weather: heat


  • Body: spleen, stomach, mouth, muscles
  • Color: yellow
  • Emotion: pensive
  • Flavor: sweet
  • Weather: damp


  • Body: lungs, nose, skin
  • Color: white
  • Emotion: sadness
  • Flavor: pungent
  • Weather: dry


  • Body: kidneys, ears, bones
  • Color: black
  • Emotion: fear
  • Flavor: salty
  • Weather: cold

We have created a simple TCM Fundamentals Chart to illustrate the concepts we have discussed. This chart also applies taste, energetics, and five elements theory to our top western formulas so that you are able to determine how to use them based on TCM principles. Download your TCM Fundamentals Chart here.


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