Idea of the body in the West and the East. A comparative approach.
Author: Electra Peluffo
Miraguano Ediciones. Madrid, 2009
The initial stories of both cultures have archetypical mythical components based on observations of nature, the man init, or speculatively imagined to cover emotional or psychological objectives seeking stability. The planetary movement, the water and the fire, the foreseeable or unforeseeable meteors, are all necessary elements for the explanation of the origin of the whole universe. Neither Greek nor Chinese conceived creation so as it is understood in the West.
Both conceptions found resemblance between the human body constitution and the cosmos constitution, however the different ways of seeing things, conditioned by various previous factors, made them conclude different consequences although both approaches fulfilled requirements that today could be considered almost scientific. Both cultures used the verb to be born or the concept of birth to speak about.
Ambas concepciones asemejan la constitución del cuerpo humano a la del cosmos pero por la diferente forma de ver las mismas cosas, condicionada por variados factores previos, concluían distintas consecuencias aunque ambos enfoques cumplieran requisitos que hoy podríamos considerar casi científicos.
physis for Greeks and xing for the Chinese. Greek and Chinese based the elaboration of the concept nature on the observation of themselves and of the surroundings/environment in its movement and evolution. For the Greeks this subject also included zoe and bios. Zoe makes us grow and develop form the embryo and bios establishes our social behavior. Both variants of life have an influence on the physis which determines our physical form and on the dynamis which is operative in the functions of such form. Zoe keeps our health, the harmony of the organism and its functions thanks to two agents: the congenital inner innate heat and another external one provided by the food. Jing is the essence that initiates the new being that will incarnate through qi energy and its yingyang variants, life that will be kept healthy through the quality of inherited blowing/breathing and the energy provided by air and food. For both medicines nature with its seasons and annual distribution of climatic meteors, was not the only one but also the first cause of illness.
As for pneuma-qi Greeks and Chinese conceived abstract notions from objective basis (pneuma- elements, qi-movements) in order to explain concrete constituents and functions in the body, accepting the Greeks the fact that pneuma and dynamis had to be synchronized to keep the organism working. Pneuma, being in disuse as a concept nowadays (aer, an ampler pre-Socratic proposal, did not prevail) was more limited than qi (still effective) in its application to the cosmos and the human organism since for Chinese, qi may have physical manifestation on objects. The four Greek elements no longer are the substances of the organicism, but wuxing, the very Chinese five symbolic movements of qi inside the body (the whole nature represented in the process) continue playing their role in the explanation of the organic dynamic in health and disease In spite of the so concrete and practical origins of the concept of energy in Greece, in the West it has been kept as something subtle, abstract; something which can be thought but not seen and which is in any case indirectly perceived, whereas in China the evolution was inverse.
Change (movement) concept that repeated itself, in the sky as well as in the interior and exterior of human body and was the microscopic reflection of dynamic planetary images, is the origin of qi, yinyang, wuxing in China and of dynamis, kynesis, both of physis and pneuma, and of humors in Greece. For both medicines the movement in the living body manifested existence and was morphogenetic as well, so constituting the structures, the figure.
The four elements
The four Empedocles’ elements, fecund although discussed and rigid, were –upon concretion as categories- a classifying aid which facilitated the arrangement of the ideas on what is natural, the most fruitful concept of physis and everything derived from it; even though they became a very difficult to surpass structure: they were unique and indivisible. From pre-Socratic to Galen and much later after him, and with numerous influences in their evolution, concepts were re-elaborated in the light of new reasonings and speculations whose basis, although clarified, were always elements-humors –pneuma, conditioning therefore the results of the respective searches.
Wuxing, an original notion of five phases of the rotation of the energy in nature, which due to its conception and functioning do not play the same role as the four elements that Greeks of the time here studied considered substances, although it’s not easy to substantialize fire or air among them. In China wood, fire, earth, metal and water are not substances but metaphors (Plato’s Idea?) symbolizing other orders in nature applied to the structure and functioning of the body. For the Chinese, objects by themselves were not the unit of analysis whereas the interrelation, the mutual influence and the resonance among them were. Thus it is explained that the Greeks say “element” and the Chinese “phases, movement” The Chinese reasoning creator of the yinyang-wuxing imbricate relations, sought to represent an active, interrelated and in constant change universe, whereas in the West the Greek emphasized different, discreet fixed identities, that is to say, separated , each element in itself discerned within one global physis.
Physis and pneuma
Although both conceptions agreed in concentrate-condensate the body -the Chinese in energyblood, the Greek in pneumahumor- it does not seem that physis and pneuma were in profound relationship because, if pneuma pre-Socratic in nature was the air, it is not deduced that they considered that -except in humans and some mammals breathing- everything in physis needed or made use of pneuma-air. This limitation contrasts with the ampler notion of the Chinese qi which while having equal air-wind origin as in Greece, incorporated nature in toto to their conception of the body.
Void: the Greek described and accepted the notion of void as a dialectic of reality that explained movement in the being but, in the West void is assimilated to nothing, being this latter concept horrifying in nature. Chinese made void the motor of all the energies which obtain, therefore, space to flow. Without void there is no movement, there is no space to conceive, to create, to be born and to grow.
Until the present time, they constitute the elementary form of reflection in China like a necessary tool of reasoning. A Chinese spirit is surprised that something as simple as yinyang is not comprehensible. The dynamic antinomies described in ancient Greece from Heraclitus, Empedocles, Alcmene were creative ways (enantiosis, elements, humors) although disputed, refuted or not accepted but, to my knowledge, they did not produce a lasting -and widely applicable- theory that could resemble yinyang, a functional duality by which everything has its origin and permanence in two opposed and complementary components, that is to say the one without the other one does not exist, does not act, does not occur.
The Chinese knew the body but, they did not elaborate the notion of anatomy from that therefore it would unwise to name, to approach in the same way something that is not such as Chinese anatomy and something that is, such as Greek anatomy. Meridian system is not an easy to apprehend concept. There are many and various researches that tie meridian paths with blood vessels, nerves, muscle bundles but all of them fail to convince of being the only and true one. Nevertheless the meridian and its network (jing, jingmai, jingluo) remain as the guide to Chinese anatomy knowledge. There are not described treatments on the meridians but it is recognized that the acting on the points has a favorable effect and this perpetuates the certainty about the existence of meridians since no other ways of transmission of therapeutic action from the point are known. Out of the thesis this book is based upon, a personal elaboration that associates and interweaves Chinese reflexive concepts valid to explain invisible yet otherwise manifest meridians, was born. I base my work on li (notion of order, previous structure established for the materialization of an idea: the Chinese lapidary is equivalent to the Greek carpenter) as well as on luo (unravel the yarn) and on cou spaces (void). Further theoretical elaboration is needed to verify it in practice, but I think it is a path, a very attractive one for me, among others.
Out of the thesis this book is based upon, a personal elaboration that associates and interweaves Chinese reflexive concepts valid to explain invisible yet otherwise manifest meridians, was born. I base my work on li (notion of order, previous structure established for the materialization of an idea: the Chinese lapidary is equivalent to the Greek carpenter) as well as on luo (unravel the yarn) and on cou spaces (void). Further theoretical elaboration is needed to verify it in practice, but I think it is a path, a very attractive one for me, among others.
It is my understanding that rather than meridians, points are anatomical matter in the Chinese way; they constitute topics of inquiry for another reason: the nodes, loci, or points do exist, they are not imagined; they are located through palpation, they give out symptoms and move (along the meridian path) according to changes in skin and muscles quality, the season of the year and the yinyang oscillation.
In my opinion, “anatomical” combination of meridian-points gets disrupted in nodules micro-systems such as those ones found in hands, feet, ears, nose and skull… systems which lack meridians although both blood circulation as much as the innervations that can correspond to the points to justify the blood vessels-nerves as means of the therapeutic signal transmission are specially emphasized.
Pairing up organs and entrails
Is more a physiological than an anatomical subject but it refers to defined organic structures studied among the components of the Chinese body. Chinese and Greek know two organic pairs: liver-gallbladder and kidney-urinary bladder bound by respective connective ducts, but the West fails to recognize la relationship between other neighboring organs: heart-small intestine; lung-large intestine and spleen-stomach, pairs that Chinese, in accordance with yinyang law, turn into unidualities and link them together through the wuxing phases. In Greece, they approached this notion of relationship among organs; when the concept of basic element was not enough to explain organicism and its interrelationships the Greek physician conceived various dynameis related to the elements. They also needed to pair up the humors: blood with black bile phlegm with yellow bile, each humor carries qualities from one of the elements of the physis: air, earth, water and fire.
Pairs of organs
Up to these days, I have not seen described in any other place the dynamism of the anatomical bonding hereby proposed to explain the pairing up of heart-small intestine through the toraxic duct and the big luo of stomach and spleen as well as the language component which links the joy of heart with the food intake.
Chinese physicians describe ximbaoluo-sanjiao pair which has been a constant/persistent subject of both study and interpretation up to our present days; not only had not the Greek bound these two constituents, they did not conceive them.
(uterus, gallbladder, brain, marrow, bones, blood vessels). Chinese medicine designs a series of extraordinary organs which once connected together in pairs, link with the rest of the organism. In my opinion, this is a unitary/wholistic/holistic global vision that I do not perceive in the Greco Hellenistic one. The descriptive system of ancient Greek anatomy isolates organs: the womb, the brain are separated and they relate with heart and liver through blood-circulation ducts but neither conceptually nor functionally.
Differences not only in seeing and perceiving but also in how to interpret and elaborate what has been seen, are well established in the valuation of the musculature done by each society. For Greeks, musculature was a basic element of authority as well as of beauty although Galen did not consider athletic muscles to be healthy. For Chinese the muscle was an organ with a relevant role in empty spaces (movement-rest) which has to be protected from excessive development so as to ensure the harmonic circulation of energy.
Plethora was the name Erasistratus gave to excess of matter he noticed inside the organic ducts, but the concept of insufficiency, antonym of the pair, the complementary opposites, which although not constituting an anatomy subject is a basic concept in Chinese medicine both for organicism and function, was not enunciated.
I reflect on the general interest of this work because the discussion among professionals from different specialties who endorse or reject the solidity of the foundations of the Chinese theory of medicine is still alive nowadays. It seems to me that revalidating basic knowledge which among other things obliges us to revise distant (and forgotten in practice) Greek bases of the western medicine, will always contribute to shape a less antonymic and more unifying vision between both conceptions. Throughout the writing of this text, as a western doctor with oriental medicine knowledge, I have personally experienced – beside the surprises that the past gives us – an agglutinating and at the same time concept synthesizing inter flow which led me to modify my ways of perceiving, of feeling my own body as well as the patients´. It also led me to value almost reverentially the evolution of thought in both cultures, in general, and in their predominant figures due to their contribution to the advances in the uninterrupted process of investigation.