As an acupuncturist, I often hear a variant of the question: “Whoa! What does that point do?” This usually occurs when a point being needled elicits a unique or strong sensation or feeling. I often respond with a smile and tell the patient a little story.
Story-telling has been used throughout human history as a way to teach thoughtful reflection and cultivate insight. Each individual acupuncture point has multiple functions and physiologic effects on the body. Each point has aspects of its functionality that pertain to the realm of the mind or the emotions. Every time a single point is needled, many layers of our being are accessed. This is one of the holistic aspects of the medicine which provides insight for patients, connections to various facets of self beyond their chief complaint of shoulder pain or chronic fatigue. The names of the acupuncture points are tools, able to offer illumination into the human experience.
When an eager Western mind begins to learn the acupuncture points, they find a numerical system that is orderly and concise. Points with names such as Stomach 36, Kidney 16 or Liver 8 tell us exactly where to locate the point and which organ functions are primarily involved. Historically, this was not the case. When learning acupuncture points in China, the names of the points literally tell stories.
There are benefits to both systems. The Western system is relatively easy to learn and follows a logical progression, whereas the Eastern system is rich with context and meaning. Traditionally, information about Chinese medicine was handed down from father to son, teacher to apprentice, in an oral manner and often utilized mnemonic devices. Some of these memory tools are found in the point names and tell us the location or function of the point, similarly to the Western naming system. Often, there is hidden meaning or depth of understanding contained within the name itself.
Let’s look at some commonly used acupuncture points and the stories they tell.
Bladder 2 – zan zhu – Gathering Bamboo
The name of this point is made up of two characters: zan, which translates to collecting, gathering, saving or accumulating and zhu, meaning bamboo. At the literal level, when bamboo is gathered into bunches it can resemble a bushy eyebrow. The character zan also has within it the radical for ‘hand’. Bladder 2, zan zhu, can be found at the inner corner of the eyebrow, like a hand gathering bamboo. At the philosophical level, bamboo is seen as an example of good conduct. It is hollow yet flexible and exhibits great generosity, giving its leaves as food, its pulp for paper, its stems as containers and its sap as medicine. Zan zhu can be needled when someone needs to call upon strength of spirit to exhibit generosity, versatility and adaptation.
Heart 1 – ji quan – Highest Spring
Ji is the first character of this point name, meaning highest, best, extreme or most venerable. Quan is the second character meaning spring or fountain. This point is found in the armpit and it is where the energy of the Heart channel emerges from deep within the body to flow down the arm and into the hand. The analogy to a spring conjures up images in the mind of a fresh mountain spring bubbling up out of the Earth and flowing down into the sea, which is the literal movement of energy through the Heart channel. The name implies something of a more revered context. The use of the character Ji invokes deep reverence, as one might experience in the presence of the Emperor. It is this aspect of the name that invites deeper meaning into the use of this acupuncture point. When someone feels divided within themselves, or says one thing and does another, this point can be used to bring them back to their true source and help them feel deeply connected to their self.
Governing Vessel 4 – ming men – Vitality Gate
This point is also made up of two characters: ming, meaning life, vitality, command and men meaning door or gateway. Ming men tells a very literal story. This point is the opening or gateway to access greater vitality in the body. An alternate name, jing gong, palace of essence, reflects this same idea. This place in the body is considered the sea of blood and vital energy and is a primary area of the body that is stimulated in Qigong practice or used in meditation. Ming men strengthens the low back and the Kidneys and can command the vital essence of the body. It is often used in conjunction with moxa or the heat lamp to nourish the vital flame of life contained here between the two kidneys.
Bladder 57 – cheng shan – Mountain Support
Cheng means to support or to receive, whereas shan is a mountain. The location of this point is found in the little cleft where the two heads of the calf muscle divide and swoop out and down. The shape of the muscle looks remarkably similar to the character ren which means human. This point tells the story of the human that receives the strength of the mountain and is remarkably effective for treating low back pain.
Sometimes, the main physiologic effect of the point makes the most sense to the patient. “Oh this point on your shin? It builds your immunity.” But often, offering a little more insight into the names of the points can be both meaningful and beneficial for those receiving acupuncture. Grasping the Wind, by Andrew Ellis, Nigel Wiseman and Ken Ross, is an excellent resource for Western trained acupuncturists who are looking for historical context into the characters of the acupuncture points.
Julie Baron is an East Asian Medicine Practitioner at the Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, WA. Julie seeks to empower individuals and communities. As a movement and mindfulness educator, she has a penchant for functional anatomy. As an EAMP, she has also has a passion for herbal medicine.