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The Importance of Numbers in TCM

The Importance of Numbers in TCM

The Tao gave birth to One. 
The One gave birth to Two. 
The Two gave birth to Three. 
The Three gave birth to all of creation. 
All things carry Yin yet embrace Yang. 
They blend their life breaths in order to produce harmony. 
--- Chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), numbers were thought to provide a basic framework for organizing Chinese concepts. It was said that numbers 1-5 describe all the processes of life or in the body and that 6-10 elaborate on 1-5. Odd numbers were believed to be yang (heavenly) and even numbers were believed to be yin (earthly). Below are descriptions of what the first 10 numbers stand for.

1 – Unity, The Tao

One is the beginning, it stands for the formless. In some texts the number one refers to unity, in others, a void because one is empty of any opposite and in TCM you can really only view things in relation to something else.

2- Duality, Yin/Yang

Two refers to the duality of yin/yang; of earth/heaven; of kidney/heart and the relationship between things.

3- The Three Powers

Three refers to the constant interaction of yin/yang and what is created between them (life or qi). The quality of qi is reflected in the number three. There are three treasures (shen, qi, jing), three jiaos in the body, upper, middle and lower. There are three influences that disrupt the flow of qi (internal, external and other). There are three regulations in Qi Gong, to regulate the mind, body and breath. There are three pulse positions.

4- Four Square

Four is the rising up of life from three. It is the doubling of yin and yang. Four is a way to describe the movement of qi (in, out, up, down). It is said that the level of the heavens lead to the 4 seasons and the level of the earth leads to the 4 directions. Any movement can be seen in 4 phases (2 yin and 2 yang - beginning, fullness, slowing down and dormant).

5 – Five Elements

Five has to do with the center. Five signals change and transformation. It is the return of qi to the center where it gets organized and then categorized (four directions that come back to the center). Four seasons moving around the earth. There are the Five Phases of Transformation. It was said there were five visible planets in the sky. There are 5 zang organs in texts that pair Pericardium with Heart. There are 5 emotions (joy, anger, worry, grief, fear).

6 – Six Levels of Disease

The movement of qi outwards can be described in 6 ways (the 4 directions, plus up and down). The level of disease in the body can be explained through the 6 channel pairs (Tai Yang, Yang Ming, Shao Yang, Tai Yin, Jue Yin, Shao Yin). There are 6 external pathogens (wind, cold, heat, damp, dry, summer heat).

7 – Five planets plus the Sun and Moon

Seven was thought to be fairly unique. It relates to an internal process that manifests externally. There are seven orifices/openings on the head which allow us to assess the inner state of a being.

8 – Eight is still Two

Eight in a way is still two, it takes us back to yin and yang when using the Eight Guiding Principles. We have the doubling of the four directions to give us SW, NW, SE, NE. There are 8 extraordinary vessels.

9 – Nine, the Tripling of Three

Nine is the tripling of three and three is the number proper to qi. There were nine chambers in the Forbidden City.

10 - Ten is complete

Ten shows us complete organization, everything is as it should be. Have been through all the transformations and back to one again.