Often times the Western-minded student of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has difficulty understanding fundamental concepts when they begin to learn TCM. It is because TCM is not rooted Western ideology. For example, In TCM, diabetes is called "wasting and thirsting disorder" and does not consider the pancreas an Organ1. This novice to TCM will likely attempt to explain, convert and/or integrate TCM into their understanding of Western medicine and science. This often leads to confusion, frustration and hindered understanding of TCM.

This article explains basic TCM theory in a manner that eliminates both TCM and Western terminology altogether. The explanation is simple and somewhat crude.

"Stuff" And Structures

"Stuff" is a simple word that seems crude and ambiguous for Traditional Chinese Medicine but TCM terminology is often ambiguous out of context. Therefore "stuff" – a vague yet common word devoid of medical or scientific connotations – is appropriate to explain TCM concepts with minimal complexity.

There are a few basic structures in TCM—Organs, channels and acupoints and stuff that is associated with those structures. This is the where stuff is made, transformed and distributed throughout the body.


As a substance

  • Moves- in/out, up/down and vice versa.
  • Nourishes something else.
  • Moves other stuff.
  • Is transformed to other stuff. (There are different types of stuff.)

As an action

  • Can transform one stuff to another stuff.
  • Is a driving force to move other stuff.
  • Holds other stuff in its proper place.


In TCM theory, Organs are and their functions are not exactly the same as those of Western biology. In TCM, diabetes may be attributed to dysfunction of the Kidneys or Lungs and not the pancreas (which isn't an Organ in TCM).

Organ functions

  • Makes stuff.
  • Stores, fills and empties stuff.
  • Needs stuff to function properly.
  • Interacts with other Organs.


The channels in TCM are akin to water pathways or "channels". They are located on the surface of the body and progress inward and then return toward the surface. The channels are connected; they intersect, form circuits and pass through Organs. Like water pathways, the TCM channels' characteristics and movement of stuff change at different depths of the body.

Channel functions

  • Serve as conduits for stuff to move throughout the body.
  • Prevents bad stuff from the environment from getting into the body.


The acupoints are located on the surface of the body, on or off the channels. The acupoints not on the channels are called "extra points".

Acupoint functions

  • Channel acupoints are considered as "gates" on the channel—similar to a dam.
  • Some acupoints penetrate deeper into the body than others.
  • Some channel acupoints are places where channels intersect.
  • Some acupoints behave like tiny Organs.
  • Some channel acupoints are places where different types of stuff accumulate—similar to ponds and lakes.
  • Some acupoints perform functions.
  • Extra points have a variety of functions which are not necessarily limited to the local region.

Imbalances, Illness and Treatment

Illness in Traditional Chinese Medicine occurs in many different ways; just like Western medicine—problems in diet, exercise, trauma, inherited etc. One may reasonably state that when imbalances are severe enough they become illnesses. Thus, an illness is an imbalance but an imbalance is not necessarily an illness. The goal of treatment, also like Western medicine, is to restore balance or to stop, hinder or make illness less problematic.

Disharmonies and Treatment Principle

Stuff related

  • If too much then drain or transform to something else.
  • If too little then tonify something to produce more.
  • If the wrong place then move it to the proper place.

Movement related

  • If too fast then calm.
  • If too slow then invigorate.
  • If going the wrong way then raise or downbear.
  • If stuck then dredge or course.


After removing the unfamiliar terminology from Traditional Chinese Medicine, a simple logic emerges. There is proper movement and production as well as pathways and systems for it to occur. Illness is due to anything that is too much, too little, going the wrong direction or in wrong place. The Western-minded person is more familiar with this logic.

In fact, the simple logic is already used in Western medicine but is easily overlooked when comparing Eastern and Western medicine. For example, what is diabetes? It is too much glucose (sugar) in the blood and not enough in the cells (wrong place) because the glucose can't get into the cells where it is used (wrong place). What is a treatment for diabetes? Take something (insulin) to move the glucose into the cells where it is needed (proper place).

Once the common logic of TCM and Western medicine is understood the novice should feel more at ease learning TCM than before. Next, is to add the context—terminology and theory—then to apply the logic and observe the results; all within the context of their respective systems. From this simple common logic one may conclude that although TCM and Western medicine are sometimes incompatible and at other times overlap, there is a perspective where they are consistently not very different.

Footnote: (1) In this article, Traditional Chinese Medical terminology in TCM is capitalized to distinguish it from common Western usage. The "Kidneys" are different from the "kidneys" in TCM.

Lawrence Howard, LAc, MSAc is a New York State licensed acupuncturist in practice since 1998. He is currently an instructor and clinic supervisor as New York College of Health Care Professionals.

Reprinted department article from Qi Journal, Autumn 2017