TCM 101 – Restoring Balance

(What you need to know to restore balance to your life. The who, what, where, when, why and how of Traditional Chinese Medicine, as explained by Dr Clement Ng.)

Title images balance

What is TCM? An ancient art of healing, Traditional Chinese Medicine is a medicinal system that has triumphed over thousands of years of pandemic occurrences and has become an integral part of life for many. Known as Korean Medicine in Korea, Han Medicine in Japan, and Oriental Medicine in America, TCM is based on ancient wisdom passed down from generations in China.

Fundamentals and History

The theory behind TCM was greatly influenced by ancient Chinese materialism and dialectics. The Holism Concept, The Yin-Yang (阴阳) Philosophy and The Five Elements(五行) Theory all come from the ancient Chinese philosophy of interrelated things or phenomena in the natural world; and Treatment by Differentiation of Syndromes (TBDS) as the diagnostic and therapeutic features.

From TCM’s humble origins, observations of what is the optimal time to sow, plant, harvest and store our crops, simple pain-relieving massages as well as collective knowledge of therapeutic effects of plants and animals, were accumulated through centuries worth of wisdom and experiences. All this has been adopted by over 160 countries in the world today as a viable alternative to conventional western healthcare.

Through the rise and advancement of the Chinese civilization – the invention of paper, the printing press and the sheer hard work of medical practitioners – TCM has been able to continually evolve and is currently one of the most well-documented medicinal systems in the world.

The Holism Concept

Holism has two meanings: Firstly, the equilibrium and harmony of different systems within the human body; Secondly, the harmony and close relationship with the external environment in which we are part of.

The human body is composed of various organs along with visceral systems and tissues, each with its own distinct function, but all playing a significant role in our body, all existing in dynamic equilibrium. From a TCM perspective, these systems are interrelated and interdependent in physiology, and mutually influential in pathology.

As part of the universe, we are affected directly or indirectly by the changes of nature, to which the human body in turn, makes corresponding responses. A good TCM practitioner has to know the law of nature and geographical conditions when diagnosing and treating diseases. People from different parts of the world will exhibit different kinds of illness patterns. That is why TCM not only stresses the unity of the human body itself, but also attaches great importance to the interrelationship between the body and nature in diagnosing and treating diseases.

The Yin-Yang Philosophy ~ The Law Of Nature

The origins of yin-yang can be traced to the Book of Change or I-Jing (易经), an ancient Chinese philosophy. It is a general term for two opposites of interrelated things or phenomena in the natural world. From observing the relationship between the moon and the sun, and their impact on the seasons, this philosophy has developed into a relational theory, which may have direct influence to the development of the principle of relativity by Albert Einstein.

In TCM, “everything in the universe contains yin and yang”. The theory not only represents two opposite objects, but also analyses two opposite aspects existing in a single entity. It holds that the development and changes of everything in the universe result from the unity of opposites between yin and yang. It is used to explain the physiology and pathology of the body and to guide clinical diagnosis and treatment.


The Five Elements Theory

In ancient times, the Chinese believed that all things in nature could be respectively attributed to one of the five elements. This includes the human body, which allows the TCM practitioners to diagnose and prescribe the appropriate treatment for their patients. Let us explore the classification of things in nature and in turn, the five elements.

Wood has the nature of growing freely and unfolding. Thus, things that have similar characteristics fall into the attribute of wood. This corresponding analogy continues with the rest of the elements. Fire has the nature of flaring up. Earth has the nature of giving birth to all things. Metal has the nature of purifying and descending. Water has the nature of moistening and flowing downwards.

Among the five elements, there are inter-relationships where one generates and one control. This helps the practitioner diagnose and treat. To generate implies that one element can promote aid or bring forth another, i.e. wood generates fire, fire generates earth, earth generates metal, metal generates water; and water, in turn, generates wood. Each of the five elements contains the dual nature of “being generated” and “generating”.

To control means restraint, i.e. wood restricts earth, earth does water, water does fire, fire does metal, and metal, in turn, does wood. Any one of the five elements has two aspects, being controlled and controlling. For example, the element controlling wood is metal, and the element that is controlled by wood is earth.

The following table outline the classification of things in nature and their classification in to the 5 elements.

5 element

5 element circle

In generating and controlling the five elements, they oppose yet complement each other. Without generating, there would be no growth and development of things; without counter controlling, there would be no balance and coordination during developments and changes. So, how does this theory relate to our body? TCM practitioners observe external appearances presented by patients to understand any abnormal changes of the internal organ visceral systems’ functions and inter-relationships.

Changes in a patient’s skin complexion colour, sense of taste or pulse reflects the corresponding systems within the same element and can be used to diagnose disease. Take for example:

  • when a patient is presented with a flushed red face, accompanied by a bitter taste in the mouth and a forceful pulse, these external appearances may point to a heart visceral system disease with a symptom-complex flared up by heat-fire;
  • a person with a weak spleen system may look dull and yellowish in complexion with an appetite for all things sweet;
  • someone whose complexion has turned darker may imply that the kidney visceral system is deficient;
  • if a patient was observed to have a green hue to his complexion, a sour taste in his mouth, and his eyes are bothersome to him in some way, we would look toward the liver systems for further diagnostic;
  • when a patient is having a running nose with a pale-white complexion we would associate him with possible disease associated with the lung system vitality deficiency.

Its adoption also in the area of disease prognosis of disease development and prevention related to the mutual generating and controlling relationships. In one of the classical TCM text, the Nanjing (难经) says, “When the liver is diseased, the liver will transmit to the spleen, and so one should replenish the system vitality of the spleen.” This reflects the clinical application of five element’s controlling theory.


From the TCM perspective, the natural world and life processes are full of vitality because of such checks and balances among the different elements, the dynamic equilibrium between yin and yang, and the concept of holism. An occurrence of disease or illness signifies a corresponding breakdown of a dynamic equilibrium and corresponding syndromes will be manifested. During consultation, TCM practitioners will look into the syndrome presented from observing elements manifested from the individual. After which they will diagnose and prescribe the necessary treatment, with the objective of restoring balance and bringing the individual back to equilibrium.

This article written by Dr Clement Ng first appeared in Raffles Marina’s Magazine – Nautique Mar-Apr 2016.


For those interested learn more about TCM, you can attend the following classes conducted by Dr Clement Ng.  Email should you need more information. 

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