ITM Home Page | Article Index


Understanding of Acupuncture through Ancient Chinese Myths

In 1992, Lonnie Jarrett’s article Myth and meaning in Chinese medicine, was published in the Traditional Acupuncture Society Journal (No. 11, p.45–48).  Here I provide an introduction to the article, followed by a slightly edited version of it. 

Daoism (Taoism) is an important aspect of Chinese medicine.  A commonly mentioned depiction of the dao is that it flows like a stream.  In this article, a different aspect of the dao is depicted: its flood-like nature.  Jarret has selected a famous Chinese myth, about a great flood and the efforts to control it, and illustrated how this myth can help one understand the basis of acupuncture therapy.  As the story unfolds, the meaning of one of the key acupuncture points, GV-20, is elucidated.

The myth is based, largely, on the reputation of Emperor Yü, who is one of five legendary founders of Chinese civilization (one for each of the Five Elements; Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, was associated with the earth element; Yü, with the wood element).  Historically, Yü is known for his work in “draining and ditching” to control the flow of water, especially to control floods (it was reported that, in the time of Yü, there were 9 floods in a period of 10 years), and he is thus ascribed the position of founder of Chinese agriculture (his predecessor, by about six centuries, Shennong, taught the basics of agriculture, but Yü made its development possible).  Chinese agriculture evolved, as it did in all countries, along large rivers.  The southern Chinese staple grain, rice, requires intensive water regulation.  The farmers’ ability to produce plants, that ultimately resulted from Yü’s effective flood control, are, perhaps, the reason he is affiliated with the wood element (associated with growth) rather than with the earth element (manipulating the soil). 

Acupuncture meridians were originally thought to correspond to the great rivers (see Jingluo: Drawing a concept).  Acupuncture therapy—regulating the flow of qi through the meridians—corresponds, to a certain extent, to the draining and ditching.  As the rest of the myth about Yü illustrates, there are other aspects of the medical system that can be revealed through the Chinese mythology.

I believe this article is important for several reasons, aside from providing the specific insights just stated:

  1. It reveals how the study of Chinese culture, through its ancient literature, can enhance one’s understanding of medical practice.  That is, one does not need to simply read modern medical texts to gain a better understanding of the traditional medical practice.   Among the books revealing images of value are: Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History, Myth and Meaning in Early Daoism, and Chinese Mythology.
  2. It gives the reader an insight into acupuncture point functions (based on one specific example) that differs from the formulaic version, that “this point is useful for treating that disorder.”
  3. Readers are alerted to specific traditional Chinese texts, namely the I-Ching (Yijing), Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing), the writings of Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi), the Tao Chang (Dao Zang), Tso Chuan (Zuo Chuan), and the Scripture of the Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing). 

The article contains a caution about suppressing symptoms.  I have heard many people involved with Chinese medicine make the statement that Western techniques that alleviate symptoms necessarily suppress them.  This is not necessarily so; it is better to consider each treatment according to its specific effects.  Chinese medical philosophy emphasizes free movement as a fundamental remedy.   By contrast, suppressing the function of the immune system or the nervous system to get rid of a symptom of a disease—otherwise left unresolved by the suppressive therapy—may be exactly what is cautioned about in the flood control myth.

April 1998


Myth and Meaning in Chinese Medicine

All medical systems reflect the underlying beliefs and assumptions about life inherent in the culture in which they are formulated.  The ways of knowing in ancient China focused on understanding the movements of dao as represented externally in the universe and internally in human beings.  Chinese medicine, likewise, focuses on movements that reflect internally that which is observed externally.

Specifically, acupuncture meridians and points reflect the way in which the Chinese saw, in ancient times, the macrocosm of the universe mapped onto the microcosm of the body.  This map illustrates the functional relationships which maintain the integrity of the human being.  Just as the Yijing (I-Ching) is a tool to guide our intuition to an understanding of the dao’s implicit movement in the world, knowledge of the imagery of the acupuncture points gives us access to the ways in which the dao is striving to express itself through each individual, and the ways in which that effort is blocked, resulting in imbalance and ill health. 

In order to truly appreciate the function of the acupuncture points, it is helpful to understand how the Chinese thought about their world at the time when the collection of acupuncture therapeutics was codified as standard medical practice.  Since the early Chinese conception of the universe is well reflected in their mythology, by understanding this mythology (shenhua, spirit talk) the spirits of the points come alive and talk to us.   This article explores one of the fundamental myths of Chinese culture, and relates it to the spirit of the acupuncture point Governor Vessel-20.  In so doing, it also reveals the inner tradition of healing in Chinese medicine.


The Dao De Jing characterizes the dao as a vast whirlpool constantly moving away from and returning to its source in the process of its own self-becoming (1).  Chapter 25 of the Dao De Jing calls the fundamental nature of dao chaotic.  The sage, in aligning himself with the dao, steers by the torch of chaos and doubt (2).  In his book Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History, Lagerwey says (3):

“If chaos is eternal, the order introduced into chaos of the universe has an end, as it has a beginning.  This is because, slowly, names given cease to fit; political systems invented in simpler times cease to function; old irrigation ditches get choked up with new vegetation; the waters of chaos begin to mount.”

As the Dao De Jing says (4), “the great dao floods over.”  The dao is likened to a river whose waters are constantly rising and the Dao De Jing is a survival manual informing us that, through the cultivation of virtue [the de in the title] (5), we may channel the flood and avoid being inundated by it.  Hence, Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) states: “Though flood waters pile up high to the sky, he [the sage] will not drown (6).”

Controlling the floods was a continual problem for the early Chinese (as it remains so today).  The imagery and theme of a brother and sister surviving a great flood to land on Kunlun mountain, there giving birth incestuously to the human race, is pervasive in early Chinese mythology.  The flood itself represents the dao’s efforts to assert its original, spontaneous nature.  The flood does so in human society, where it (spontaneity) has been civilized, thus to wipe the slate clean for a new beginning. 

This drama of building and civilizing, followed by destruction, is played out eternally as humans lose their original natures of self-becoming (see: The Spirit of Chinese medicine: the return to original nature), and seek to control the ensuing chaos.


The theme of the epic flood is well represented in the myth of Gun and Yü which, I believe, lays the foundation for understanding the inner tradition of healing in Chinese medicine.   As the story goes, during the time of Emperor Yao (during the legendary period), the overflowing waters reached up to the sky.  Yao enlisted Gun, the great grandson of Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor), to control the flooding (7).  Gun set about building dams—to hold back the waters—out of rich earth which he stole from Huangdi.  The dams, however, continually collapsed under the weight of the flood waters.  For his neglect of orders in failing to control the floods, Gun was executed by Huangdi’s heavenly executioner, Zhurong, the spirit of fire, on Feather Mountain (8).  Finally, Gun fell into feather abyss, becoming its spirit in the form of a tortoise. 


Gun’s son, Yü, was then appointed the task of controlling the floods in Gun’s place.  Yü worked devotedly for thirteen years cutting ditches and tunneling through mountains to provide a way (dao, as in the title of Dao De Jing) for the water from the rivers to be channeled to the sea.  Here, the sea is that great abyss (taiyuan), which, like the dao, can receive all things without being filled, yet is never depleted though its waters are used constantly.  The acupuncture point Lung-9 is named taiyuan because it is the meeting point of the vessels, where the qi is plentiful and deep like an abyss (9).

Gun, in trying to directly suppress the flooding by blocking its expression, was unsuccessful.  Likewise, by suppressing any symptom of the body, it, like the dao, will eventually express itself, breaking any barriers placed in its path.  Only by opening the channels—and thereby assisting the patient in bringing life’s energy through them—can treatment be successful.  Zhaungzi informs (10):

In all things, the way does not want to be obstructed, for if there is obstruction, there is choking; if the choking does not cease, there is disorder; and disorder harms the life of all creatures....All things that have consciousness depend on breath.  But if they do not get their fill of breath, it is not the fault of heaven.  Heaven opens up the passages and supplies them day and night without stop.  But man on the contrary blocks up the holes.

The myth of Gun and Yü thus serves as metaphor for several fundamental principles of Chinese medicine.  In describing the way of heaven, the Dao De Jing states: “What has surplus is reduced, what is deficient is supplemented” (11).  It is the same message that is given repeatedly in the Neijing Lingshu (Spiritual Pivot of the Inner Classic; ca. 100 B.C.).  This notion is expressed nicely by Zhang Congzheng (12) in the Rumen Shihqin (ca. 1228):

[Physicians who] consider a supplementing for persons who have been affected by evil accumulations are followers of Gun, who drowned in the great flood [because he applied the wrong method].


The importance of channeling rather than suppressing is well-expressed in the Chinese word ming (destiny). According to Wieger (13), this character is a picture of a written order, with a seal of authority fixed upon it, and the mouth of heaven dictating to man his destiny between heaven and earthDestiny is to be met, not overcome.  Scholar Tang Qunyi defines ming as existing: “in the mutuality of heaven and man, i.e., in their mutual influence and response, their mutual giving and receiving.”  Mencius states: “What I command to myself is what heaven intended to command to me; thus, the heavenly ming is established through me. (14)”  For Mencius “The way to understand heaven is through understanding one’s own [original] nature, which, in turn, is known through the exhaustion or utmost devotion of one’s heart; on the other hand, the way to serve heaven is to preserve one’s heart within and nourish one’s own [original] nature” (15).   It is through acting as a vessel for the dao, and bringing the heart of heaven into the world, that one fulfills one’s destiny.  The Zuo Chuan warns that he who ignores his own destiny “probably will not return home again” (16).  Gun, who ignored his destiny, died in Feather Abyss never to return home.  Yü, the heart of commitment, returned to his home only after fulfilling his destiny and controlling the floods.

During the time Yü was busy channeling the waters:

Whenever he came to a famous mountain or a big swamp, he would summon its spirit and ask it concerning the deep structure of the mountains and rivers, about the kinds of precious stones, of birds, beasts, and reptiles found there, as well as concerning the customs of the people on all eight sides and the boundaries, soil quality, and size of the various states.  He and Yi and Gui wrote all this down and called it The Classic of the Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing).

In his journeys, Yü becomes familiar with the “hundred demons,” or spirits of the deep structures of the earth.  Similarly, the acupuncturist must know intimately the nature of the spirit present in each acupuncture point.  The meridians [mai] are the internal rivers of the microcosm, each acupuncture point representing a specific aspect of being in the individual’s inner kingdom.


According to the myth, after taming the floods Yü became emperor and founded the Xia Dynasty (2205–1766 B.C.), during which time he dealt successfully with numerous floods.  Yet, his greatest accomplishment was unification of a divided China (17):

After three years he examined the merit [of his ministers]; within five years his government was securely established.  He went on tour of all under heaven, and when he came back to Great Yueh, he ascended Mount Mao in order to receive in audience his subjects from the four directions and to inspect the feudal lords of the Central Province.  When Oppose-the-Wind arrived late, Yü beheaded him and displayed [his head] to the multitude in order to make clear that all under heaven belonged to him.  Then he had a great assembly to decide how to rule the state.  Inside, he praised the merit of [the text found on] Mount Cauldron [by means of which he had] stabilized the land; outside, he displayed the saintly virtue which made him a man after Heaven’s heart.  Then he changed the name of Mount Mao to the Mountain of the Assembly of Accounts.

Among his subjects, convened on top of Mount Mao, are the “hundred demons,” pulling China in different directions.  By bringing them together, Yü is able to bring spiritual unity to ancient China.  Oppose-the-Wind is “not a loyal subject but a rebellious energy,” one who will, like the stellar winds, “prevent the communication that is to occur during the ritual.”

In the microcosm of the body, the acupuncture point Governor Vessel-20 (GV-20), located on the vertex of the head, is named the hundred meetings (baihui).  The Dao Zang (Hidden Dao) states that the head is the meeting point of the hundred spirits (18).  Governor-20, then, can be understood to be the place on top of the head (the head corresponding to Mount Mao) that the 100 spirits meet.  The traditional function of GV-20 in draining wind from the head is reflected in the “beheading” of Oppose-the-Wind, the influence that threatens the integrity of the kingdom by opposing Yü’s rule.  For, it is Yü who establishes harmony by controlling the rising waters of chaos. 

Wind in Chinese medicine is revealed by signs and/or symptoms that change location and severity quickly.  Its general presentation is that of chaos and is exemplified by muscle spasms, seizures, fainting, violent outbursts of anger, or headaches.  The point GV-20 can help restore control and marshal the patient’s resources to quell the chaos.

Governor-20 is the point that aligns us with the polestar (19), to which “all the lesser stars do homage” (20) and it is Yü’s virtue in being a man after heaven’s heart that allows him to gain control of the kingdom.  It is his power of intention in visualizing the spirits that allows him to summon and transform them into one body, an assembly (hui) of all under heaven.  Yü’s intimate knowledge of the spirits of the rivers and mountains (maili: veins of the earth) enabled him to draw the waters off (out of the southeastern “door of the earth”) and out to the abyss of the sea (21). 

The medical implications of the myth are captured in Chinese characters and speech. The character zhi, meaning “to set in order,” is used in medical literature with the meaning “to heal” or “to treat.”  The name of emperor Yü is a homophone for the modern character yu, which is a picture of a boat over that for heart meaning “to heal.”  Another homophone is found in the character yu meaning “to meet.”

Lagerwey points out the similarity between the function of the priest in Daoist ritual and that of Yü in taming the floods and uniting the empire.  What Yü did for ancient China in controlling the floods and uniting the kingdom, the traditional acupuncturist, in much the same role as the Daoist priest, does for each patient.  By learning intimately the nature of the spirits living in the internal structures of the patient’s being, and channeling off the excess and supplementing the deficiencies, traditional acupuncture is able to maintain and restore harmony in the kingdom of the Body/Mind/Spirit.


  1. Chen EM, The Dao De Ching, 1989 Paragon House, NY, p. 60, 117
  2. Watson B, Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, 1964 Columbia University Press, p.38.
  3. Lagerway J, Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History, 1987 Macmillan, NY, p.11.
  4. Chen EM, The Dao De Ching, 1989 Paragon House, NY, p.137.
  5. The character de is translated as virtue and has three key components.  The first is a picture of a man walking and implies movement or action.  The second means “perfectly right” and suggests that a thing scrutinized by the eye from all directions, has shown no deviation.  The last component denotes the heart.  It may be interpreted to mean that the virtuous man’s behavior perfectly reflects his heart which, under scrutiny, shows no deviation.  Chen (ibid, p.184) defines de as: “The original endowment of nature prior to moral distinctions and conscious effort.”
  6. Watson B, Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, 1964 Columbia University Press, p.27.
  7. Girardot NJ, Myth and Meaning in Early Daoism, 1988 University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
  8. Christie A, Chinese Mythology, 1968 Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd., London, p.87.
  9. Ellis A, Wiseman N, and Boss K, Grasping the Wind, 1989 Paradigm Publications, MA, p 33.
  10. Watson B, Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, Columbia University Press, 1964, p.138.
  11. Chen EM, The Dao De Ching, 1989 Paragon House, NY, Ch. 77, p.223.
  12. Unschuld PU, Introductory Readings in Classical Chinese Medicine, 1988 Kluwer Academic Publishers, Boston, MA, p.216.
  13. Weiger L, Chinese Characters, 1965 Paragon Books, NY, p 47.
  14. T’ang Chun-I, The T’ien Ming [Heavenly Ordinance] in Pre-Ch’in China, Philosophy and Culture: East and West 1962; 12, p.34.
  15. Ibid. p.33.
  16. T’ang, Chun-I, (1962), The T’ien Ming [Heavenly Ordinance] in Pre-Ch’in China, Philosophy and Culture: East and West 1962; 11, p 208.
  17. Lagerway J, Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History, 1987 Macmillan, NY, p.160.
  18. Ibid. p.151
  19. Ellis A, Wiseman N, and Boss K, Grasping the Wind, 1989 Paradigm Publications, MA, p.344. 
  20. The pole star, di, is the heart of heaven as the emperor, di, is the heart of the nation.  The pole star is the center of the universe and the governor vessel is the meridian which centers the functions of the body/mind/spirit to the axis of heaven.  Chan, Wing-Tsit, p.22.—Most notable of these stars is the great dipper which is the giant spoon circling around the polestar churning us along through the whirlpool of life.  The big dipper is the central administration of heaven in which live the primordial gods of fundamental destiny (See Anderson, P., The Method of Holding the Three Ones, 1989 Curzon Press, Great Britain, p.61).  The alchemical texts refer to the process of being distanced from one’s original nature [de], which leads to illness, as “going along”.  Restoration of original nature is referred to as “reversing the course of the dipper’s handle.”
  21. Lagerway J, Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History, 1987 Macmillan, NY, p.11.