Thursday, December 15, 2011

Winter Season and the Water Element


The season associated with the element Water is Winter.  It is the time of maximum Yin.  The essence of life is emphasised as the external display of life is absent and life is laid bare.  For example skeletons of trees are clearly visible, stripped to the bone.   In Neolithic times living inside the earth was common practice in Winter and something of this remains today.

One goes to bed early; one gets up late

                                                                                Sun Wen 2

Winter is a time for looking inwards and storing of energy.  It is a time to be less active.  We gather strength for the year ahead.  Having abundant reserves within give us courage and strength of will.  Su wen chapter 2 says that in Winter heaven and earth are like strangers, Yin and Yang have nothing more to do with each other.  According to the Book of Rites it is the period of the mysterious gathering of water inside the earth ready to receive the impulse of heaven, the Yang inside.

Contrary to what one does in summer, when the qi likes to escape outside and can do so safely, in winter it is contained under the skin, allowing it to be as concentrated as possible.  Once spring returns, the qi that is kept tightly within the body will be able to surge out strongly again.

Larre, Claude & De La Valle, Elizabeth Rochat (1994), p118


Winter is a season of “rest”.  We need to preserve our energy and draw upon our reserves to survive the lean months of Winter.  Though less obvious in the developed and richer countries such as we live in where supplies are generally available all year round in super markets, this absence of bounty is reflected in nature where for example animals hibernate and on the surface there is no sign of activity.  We as humans also need to follow a similar pattern of resting to remain healthy and in balance.  This is explored further later in this paper in relation to the Kidneys which facilitates our storing not only on a physical but also on a mind and spirit level.

Every living thing has a potential to grow and multiply.  What carries each through the dark age of winter is the ambition and drive to see its dark and impenetrable surface is a vast and unyielding force which powers the flow of season into season.

Worsley, J.R. (1998), p12

During Winter life seems to have stopped.  Life is however present but hidden underground.  This reflects the elusive nature of the Water Element which is associated with the season Winter.

Water is the alpha and the omega of all the elements, their beginning and their end.  It brings the cycle of the elements full circle.

Franglen, Nora (2001), p110

The human body is composed of more than 75% water.  We are in many ways like a large skin covered water repository.  Water has a function in our bodies right down to the cell level.  Our blood system is primarily water.  Water supports our life in transporting nutrients, oxygen and hormones.  It also carries away waste products, and through the work of it’s two Officials, the Bladder and the Kidney, filters out and removes impurities for us.  It is the basis of the secretions and fluids that allow us to move our joints. 

When the Element is out of balance, therefore, it affects every single cell in the body.

Worsley, J.R. (1998), p59

Indeed ageing is partly a drying up process a sign that the Water Element is weakening and that we are losing our water reserves.  The ageing process, it’s manifestations and seven year cycles for females and eight year cycles for males is to be found in Su Wen 1.

Water has many manifestations in nature which reflects something of it’s elusive nature.  It is the most Yin of all the Elements.  It is everywhere, but has no shape, taking only the form given by containers.  It is the only element, which can take on different states: liquid, solid and gas.  It knows where it wants to go and behaves in a determined manner to get there.

The primary correspondences for Water are listed in Table 1.

Yin Official / Zang Organ
Yang Official / Fu Organ
Yin Official Peak Time
5pm – 7pm
Yang Official Peak Time
3pm – 5pm
Sense Organ/Orifice
Tissue/Body Part
Fluid Secretion
Table 1 – Water’s primary correspondences

The Water Element within us provides us with the gifts and capacities to support our body, mind and spirit to survive the Winter and from year to year.  There will also be challenges to face.  Some of these gifts, capacities and challenges are discussed in the next sections of this paper.  

Gifts & Capacities

The Water Element provides us with reserves, flow, and cleansing power.  The reserves provide us with the strength to survive through each year and from year to year.  The significant volume of water in our bodies was discussed in the introduction to this paper.  The flow is important for the removal of impurities from the body, not only on a physical level but also at the mind level when we can clean out and dispose of old ideas and dreams and at the spirit level to maintain a purity of spirit.

To exist through the cold, dark months on the reserves gathered in the autumn takes will and determination, a powerful resolve to carry on through hardship.  The essence of Water is embodied in this indomitable strength.

Worsley, J.R. (1998), p61,62

The Water Element within us gives us the capacity to assess risks e.g. the security of our homes.  The normal process we go through is that we perceive a threat.  This is usually accompanied by a feeling of fear.  We assess the risk level and then finally we take action to ensure our safety.  We can carry out this process when our Water Element is in balance.

Another gift or capacity of the Water Element is the ability to protect ourselves.  Our fear alerts us to danger.  We feel a threat and to survive we respond appropriately.  This is our zhi (spirit of our Kidneys), in function.

The five will-powers, wu zhi, are the special natural living tensions which arise from each of the five zang.  For the kidneys it is fear , kong.

                                                                    Larre, Claude & De La Valle, Elizabeth Rochat (2001), p85

At the most fundamental level the zhi gives us the drive to survive.

When we move through life, enacting our destiny through the support of balanced Kidney Qi we accumulate the virtue of wisdom. 


One of the key challenges that Water presents to us is to be aware of not overtaxing our reserves.  To be aware of the literal truth of the idea of ‘living fast and dying young’.

Like every other blessing which we are given we have to use the power of will and endurance to its appropriate extent, and will pay the penalty if we do not allow ourselves an inner winter to rest and to re-build our reserves.

Worsley, J.R. (1998), p63

We will deplete the Kidney Offical naturally from cradle to grave.  Therefore we need to be aware of and avoid overtaxing our reserves for example by ‘burning the candle at both ends’ or through overuse of drugs.  The role of the Kidney Official on our “reserves” is discussed in more detail in the Kidney section of this paper.

When the Water Element is out of balance any aspect of fluidity within our body, mind and spirit may be affected, brittleness of joints, dryness and thirst, frequency or infrequency of urination, excess or deficiency of perspiration, the lack of flow of thought processes and emotions, feelings and fears of inundation, being overwhelmed by things.  People can experience the mind going blank, their mouth drying up or simply being paralysed by fear.

In our day-to-day parlance we can find references to imbalances of the Water Element within us.  Those who are fearless we describe as having a strong ‘backbone’ and those who are fearful as ‘spineless’.  This links into one of the functions of the Kidney to produce marrow, which is discussed in the Kidney section of this paper.

Associated with the Water Element we have the Kidneys (Shen) and Bladder  (Pang Guang) Officials.  The Kidneys plays an important role in storing Qi and
the Bladder in providing a reservoir for our body, mind and spirit. 

The Kidney (Shen) Official

 The Kidney Official is the Official who Controls the Waterways.  It is the Yin/Zang organ of the Water Element.  The Kidneys are the only Zang organ which are double, all the others are single.  The Kidneys are located low down in the body, which reflects their relationship to Yin, which reigns in winter.

The Kidneys are the foundation for all the Yin and Yang energies of the body.
Kidney-Yin also called ‘Primary Yin’ is the foundation for all of the Yin energies of the body, in particular that of the Liver, Heart and Lungs.  Kidney-Yang also called ‘Primary Yang’ is the foundation of all the Yang energies of the body, in particular that of the Spleen, Lungs and Heart.  Kidney-Yin is the fundamental substance for birth, growth and reproduction whereas Kidney-Yang is the motive force of all physiological processes.  Kidney-Yin is the material foundation for Kidney-Yang, and Kidney-Yang represents the physiological activity that transforms Kidney-Yin.

The functions of the Kidneys are listed in Table 2.

1 They store Essence and govern birth,
   growth, reproduction and development
2 They produce Marrow, fill up the brain
    and control bones
3 They govern water
4 They control the reception of Qi
5 They open into the ears
6 They manifest in the hair
7 They control spittle
8 They control the two lower orifices
9 They house the Will-power (Zhi)
10 They control the Gate of Life (Minister
Table 2 – The Functions of the Kidneys -  Maciocia, Giovanni (2005), p 155

Some of these functions are discussed in below.

1 They store Essence and govern birth, growth, reproduction and development
The Essence (Jing) of the Kidneys is a precious substance that is inherited from the parents but also partly replenished by the Qi extracted from food (Gu Qi).  It derives from both the Pre-Heaven and Post-Heaven Essence.  It determines a person’s constitution.  It circulates all over the body, particularly in the Eight Extraordinary Vessels.

2 They produce Marrow, fill up the brain and control bones
The ‘Marrow’ (sui) does not correspond to the bone marrow of Western medicine but in Chinese medicine it is a substance that is the common matrix of bones, bone marrow, brain and spinal cord.  The ‘Spiritual Axis’ in chapter 33 says: ‘The Brain is the Sea of Marrow’.  Kidney-Essence when strong will nourish the brain and memory, concentration and thinking.  This reflects the thinking of Chinese Medicine that the Kidneys are the origin of skill and intelligence.

The kidneys are double: they are not both kidneys.  The on one the left is the kidney; the one on the right is ming men, the door of individual destiny.  Ming men is the residence of shenjing, spirits/essences; it is where the original qi, yuan qi is attached.  There man stores the essences (sperm, jing) and woman attaches the reproductive organs (uterus, bao).  Thus the kidneys are unique.

                                                                    Larre, Claude & De La Valle, Elizabeth Rochat (2001), p9

The Ming Men also referred to as ‘Minister Fire’, ‘Gate of Life/Vitality’.  The Ming Men is an essential aspect of Kidney function.  It is an important link between Fire and Water in the body.  It warms the Jing and facilitates the conjoining of Kidney-Yin and Kidney-Yang to form Kidney Qi.

The main functions of the Ming Men are listed in Table 3.

1 The root of Yuan (“Source” or “Original”) Qi
2 A source of Fire for the Internal Organs
3 Warms the Lower Jiao and Bladder
4 Warms Stomach and Spleen and aids digestion
5 Harmonises sexual function, warms Jing and
6 Assists the Kidneys in the reception of Qi
7 Assists the Heart function of housing the Shen
Table 3 – The Main Functions of the Ming Men

In Ling shu 47 the Triple Heater is connected with the Ming Men.  The Triple Heater can be considered like a messenger or servant of Ming Men for the distribution of Yuan Qi through the body.

Some examples of points on the Kidney meridian which, describe their possible application in supporting the body, mind and spirit and also reflect their relationship to the Water Element are listed in Table 4 below:

Example point application

KI 1

Bubbling Spring
When patient lacks strength and stamina they need to take action.

KI 3

Greater Mountain Stream
To bring strength and certainty to one who is too scared to begin anything.

KI 5

Water Spring
Give patient a fresh perspective.

KI 6

Illuminated Sea
Bring ability to look at things more clearly.

KI 7

Returning Current
Strengthen zhi and support patient in overcoming fear and obstacles in their path.
Table 4 – Example of points and their application on Kidney meridian

It is also worth noting that Kidney chest points (KI 22 – KI 27) are useful for treatment of patients of any Causative Factor particularly in supporting Essence and Spirit.

The other half of the Water Element Officials team is the Bladder Official.  Whilst the Kidneys are more concerned with the quality of the fluids the Bladder is concerned with the fluid distribution. 

The Bladder (Pang Guang ) Official

The Bladder Official is the Official responsible for Storage of Water.  It is the Yang/Fu organ of the Water Element.  The Bladder is responsible for keeping dry areas separate from wet areas.

The functions of the Bladder are listed below in Table 5.

1 It removes water by Qi transformation
Table 5 – The Functions of the Bladder -  Maciocia, Giovanni (2005), p 205

This function uses the energy of the Yang aspect of the Kidney which provides Qi and heat.  The Bladder is also assisted in its function of fluid transformation by the Lower Heater function of the Triple Heater.

This Official is charged with disposing of the urine, which contains a large number of waste products, which have been filtered by the Kidney.  There is an active process of choice and decision with regard to setting aside the impurities for discharge and retaining water that is needed to maintain the reservoir of excess water, which the Bladder holds.  On a physical level if failure happens then water may be poured away too quickly and dehydration takes place, e.g. dry skin and dry hair.  If on the other hand not enough water is passed away then the reservoir overflows into the surrounding lands and a feeling of bloatedness occurs from being waterlogged.

On the mind level if properly irrigated then one can let ideas and thoughts flow.  On a spiritual level if there is a reserve we can feel safe and secure and have the fuel in place for the growth of spring and protection from the heat of the summer.


Many of the words we associate with the Water Element, such as endurance, ambition and determination, are founded on the ability to have and to maintain an inner reservoir upon which everything else we do depends.  By providing this on all levels the Bladder is the source of our deepest reserves and strength.

Worsley, J.R. (1998), p168

The Bladder Officials important function of storing water for the whole body is reflected by it’s having sixty seven points on it’s meridian, the largest number on any meridian on the body.  This is also reflected in the extent of the meridians superficial pathway which begins at the medial canthus of the eye, passing over the skull, down the neck and back, continuing down the posterior aspect of the leg ending on the lateral nail point of the little toe. 

Some examples of points on the Bladder meridian which describe their possible application in supporting the body, mind and spirit and also reflect their relationship to the Water Element are listed in Table 6.

Example point application

BL 1

Eyes Bright
To help patient have an uncontaminated higher vision and clear sighted mental level.

BL 10

Heavenly Pillar
When the patient is frightened of their future, provides strength to endure.

BL 52

Ambition Room
To re-awaken the urge to continue and and see through the authentic destiny of their life.
Table 6 – Example of points and their application on Bladder meridian

In conclusion in this paper we have looked at the importance of the energetic of the Water Element which provides us with the reserves to survive Winter and from year to year.  We need to be mindful of not over taxing these reserves by for example “burning the candle at both ends”.  When in balance it also provides us with the ability to assess risks and protect ourselves.  Out of balance we become overwhelmed by excessive fear or are unable to appreciate real danger.  These abilities we examined are provided by the two related Water Officials of Kidneys (Shen) and Bladder (Pang Guang).  


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Kent, England: Global Books Ltd.

Larre, Claude & De La Valle, Elizabeth Rochat (1994) TheWay of Heaven
Monkey Press

Larre, Claude & De La Valle, Elizabeth Rochat (2001) Chinese Medicine from The Classics - The Kidneys
Monkey Press

Maciocia, Giovanni (2005) The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, 2nd Ed.
Churchill Livingstone

Worsley, J.R. (1998) Classical Five-Element Acupuncture™ Volume III The Five Elements and The Officials.
J.R. & J.B. Worsley


College of Traditional Acupuncture (2004) Acupuncture Point Compendium

College of Traditional Acupuncture (2005) Blue Group S2005 Session Five Notes.

Connelly, Dianne M. (1994) Traditional Acupuncture The Law of the Five Elements.  2nd Edition.
Maryland, U.S.A.: Tai Sophia Institute

Hicks, Angela & Hicks, John (1999) Healing your Emotions
London, England: Thorsons

Hicks, Angela; Hicks, John; Mole Peter (2004) Five Element Constitutional Acupuncture
Churchill Livingstone

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