Art of Nourishing Life According to the Kidney Meridian in Zhenjiu Dacheng (The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion) : Chinese Medicine and Culture

Secondary Logo

Journal Logo

Research Article

Art of Nourishing Life According to the Kidney Meridian in Zhenjiu Dacheng (The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion)

Bui, Anita1,2,✉

Editor(s): Wang, Er-Liang

Author Information
Chinese Medicine and Culture 5(2):p 91-96, June 2022. | DOI: 10.1097/MC9.0000000000000019
  • Open


1 Introduction

"Daoyin Benjing" (导引本经 Art of Nourishing Life) has been translated into Vietnamese from Zhenjiu Dacheng (《针灸大成》 The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion), a famous text written by Yang Jizhou (杨继洲) in 16011 .

Daoyin Benjing focuses on discussions of the protection of life, and supplements the descriptions of the five yin meridians of the system: the foot shaoyin meridian of the kidney (Fig. 1), the foot jueyin meridian of the liver, the foot taiyin meridian of the spleen, the hand shaoyin meridian of the heart, and the hand taiyin meridian of the lung. It takes into account the five zang organs: kidney, liver, spleen, heart, and lung.

Figure 1:
Foot shaoyin meridian of the kidney in Zhenjiu Dacheng (《针灸大成》 The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion)

The originality of this text lies in its language, which is almost mystical but is closely interwoven with the classical terms of traditional Chinese medicine. This prompted H. Maspero to comment that "One of the most curious features of the Taoist religion is the constant and intimate mixture of practices of a very absorbing public and private cult, of mystical practices going as far as concentration and ecstasy, and of practices of moral life, with practices that have only a purely physiological value and interest, diets of food, diets of sexual union, gymnastics of breathing, etc."2

Some of the original texts are written in verse. This gives a poetic quality and provides a different and more original perspective on the text.

2 Comments on the original texts

Physiologically, the kidney is part of a group of five zang organs. According to the correspondences of the five-element system, the kidney is linked to the cosmos (i.e., to the seasons, planets, space, and time). From a Daoist perspective, the kidney is the precosmic yang in the Kan trigram (Fig. 2). It contains the seminal quintessence jing (精), and thus comes directly from the energy of heaven and earth, which is why human longevity depends upon it.

Figure 2:
Kan trigram

Anatomically, the existence of two kidneys is associated with mingmen (命门) or the gate of life. This has produced much discussion over the long history of Chinese medicine, which indicates the importance of the role of kidneys in medicine and in the art of nourishing life. A documented review of the theory of mingmen (命门学说) was published in French by Dr. Jean-Claude Dubois in the journal Knowledge of Acupuncture (Connaissance de l'Acupuncture) in 2010. In his foreword, the author points out that "Mingmen is not a univocal expression. It is of interest to medicine, traditional philosophy, Taoism and the highest metaphysics."3 In this fascinating debate, Dubois quotes a study by Song Zhixing published in the journal Xin Zhongyi (《新中医》 Journal of New Chinese Medicine) in 1980, "Mingmen's Theories: History and Clinical Applications," which returns to the enigmatic description of this concept in chapter 52 of the Su Wen (《素问》 Basic Questions) in relation to the "small heart" and the 7th vertebra. Furthermore, he returns to the case of the Yixue Rumen (《医学入门》 Introduction to Medicine) and the transmission of the mingmen theory in France in the 1950s by George Soulié de Morant, whose work influenced all French acupuncture practices.

The influence of this philosophy on traditional Chinese medicine therefore remains, and is particularly strong in this text and other texts on daoyin. We can see that it is sometimes difficult to separate this philosophy from purely medical conceptions.

2.1 Paragraph 1

Man is born and lives by the energy of heaven and earth. Within man remains the Original Breath, an ancestral treasure rooted in the center, radiating life and abundance.

This inner breath that dwells in every person is the original breath, yuan qi (元气). It is one of the primordial breaths formed at the creation of heaven and earth. "Man on being born receives the original breath of heaven and earth, which becomes his spirits (神) and his body (形), he receives the breath of the original one qi (元一之气) which becomes his saliva and essence."2 Similarly, "The original breath of heaven and earth begins at the north place, belongs to Water, has the Kan trigram, and presides over the northern region and the Heng Peak, the region of ji. The original breath of man is the same as that of heaven and earth; in man it is born in the kidneys."2 The original breath is the vital principle; it occupies and fills the lower cinnabar field.

The kidney is the home of this original breath; it is the seat of an "ancestral treasure radiating life and abundance." To nourish life is to preserve this breath. All methods of prolonging life consist of internalizing this treasure, as explained by Zhuang Zi (庄子). "Man's life is due to the accumulation of breath; if the breath accumulates there is life, if it scatters, there is death."4

The end of this paragraph is illustrated by a metaphor warning against the dispersion of the heavenly breath. This breath is compared to the master of the house; if the master leaves the house, a hundred thieves will break in and seize the estate, and there will be ruin. If emptied of its energy, the kidney, the receptacle of the root of life, weakens the whole body and causes its ruin. In this respect, we read that "If the root is cut, the viscera, the nerves, the veins are like branches and leaves; when the root is destroyed, the branches wither."2

2.2 Paragraph 2

The reference to the sages discovering the secrets of longevity immerses us into the mysteries of Daoism. After denouncing the agitation that troubles and disperses the celestial spirit, the sages propose techniques of breathing to remedy this, "the breathing technique for breathing out and breathing in (expiration and inspiration) in the supine and prone position." [Note 1] The text gives no indications other than these two positions and the importance of this technique, because this technique alone can restore health. Here, we attempt a deeper understanding of this technique drawing on the writings of the daozang. The procedures for "nourishing the vital principle," particularly the techniques of the breath, are abundantly developed there. Among these techniques, embryonic breathingis the most important. "Those who practice the Dao, if they want to obtain embryonic breathing taixi, must first know the source of embryonic breathing and then practice it, which is like the fetus in the womb. By going back to the base, by going back to the origin, one drives out old age, and one returns to the state of the fetus. Really this exercise has a reason to be."2 The practice of this method is extremely complex; it has been modified over time according to the inspiration of the spiritual Masters and is only for the initiated. It consists of making the internal breath circulate. "This internal breath... is naturally in the body, it is not a breath that one goes to seek outside."2 The two internal and external breaths move in perfect correspondence. This is the mechanism that governs the circulation of the original breath, which is achieved in two steps: swallowing the primary qiand circulating it.

However, this circulation of the breath is not easy; there are many obstacles to overcome so the breath must be helped to circulate. Master Ning [Note 2] used to say, "The control of the breath regulates the interior, and thegymnastics regulates the exterior." Therefore, there is a close relationship between these two techniques. Thus, in the text, the term "breathing" is immediately followed by "position." It is therefore essential to associate these two techniques, the breathing technique and the gymnastic technique, because together they can restore health to the body.

The prone position or lying on the back is undoubtedly the first of the daoyin movements. There are many daoyin methods, and it is not clear whether the text refers to the Pengzu daoyin fa, which is first practiced in the prone position, or the Chisongzi daoyin fa, which also includes this position. However, it does not matter which text discusses the prone position first, for all methods transmitted by spiritual Masters must be adapted and dosed like remedies to obtain beneficial results and thus live harmoniously and achieve longevity.

2.3 Paragraph 3

Prophylaxis is of paramount importance in traditional Chinese medicine. Without minimizing the importance of therapeutics, the emphasis here is on preventive medicine. "Prevent disease before it happens," says Lao Zi5. Chapter 2 of the Su Wen contains the same idea:

"The Sages cure themselves before the disease arises and ensure peace before the trouble arises. Thus, waiting for illness to apply remedies or waiting for disturbance to impose peace is like waiting for thirst to dig a well or waiting for war to forge weapons."6

This concept in Huangdi Neijing (《黄帝内经》 The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic) reveals a profound influence of Yi Jing (《易经》 The Book of Changes). Yi Jing uses broken and solid lines (yin and yang) to describe the movement of life in its process of continuous transformation. All things evolve and transform according to certain laws. The orientation of the lines in Yi Jing represents auspicious or harmful influences. This is why it is good to be able to prevent harm and to observe the predictive nature of small details. "The noble man in time of peace does not forget the danger; while living does not forget the death; when the country is well governed does not forget the disorder, thus the bodies are in peace and the country is well protected."7

This concept of preventive awareness that characterizes Yi Jing is apparent in Huangdi Neijing, where it underlies the theory of the art of nourishing life, i.e., "treating illness before being sick." The commentaries on chapter two of the Su Wen give an example of the practice of this art by the famous physician of the Later Han dyansty, Zhang Zhongjing (张仲景). To the question, "What do you mean by 'Good doctors treat before the disease occurs?" Master Zhang answered, "Let us take for example a disease of the liver. This disease will spread to the spleen (liver-wood destroys spleen-earth). The spleen must be tonified so that it has enough strength to resist the destruction caused by the liver. Thus, the energy of the liver is obliged to follow its normal evolution towards the heart-fire (Fig. 3). To act in this way is to try to make normal what is abnormal, and to subdue rebellion to ensure peace. If we wait until the five organs are disturbed, how can we heal them?"6

Figure 3:
Normal and abnormal evolution of the liver-wood

Carelessness in one season harms health in the following season; knowledge of pathological processes allows one to take necessary measures from one season to the next season.Thus, to maintain the body in vigor and health, it is necessary to treat diseases before they appear, to nourish life before becoming old, and not to let diseases set in. This enables one to prolong life and slow down old age.

The use of the body's natural resources is advocated. The notion of "stone metal," which is abundantly present in the body may mean the natural exploitation of one's body to practice a method of internal alchemy to prolong life. Indeed, the great Daoist Masters realized very quickly that alchemical remedies had beneficial effects on health, although their effects on "immortality" were limited. The Masters thus turned to other practices. Drawing on external (operative) alchemy as a basis, they developed the practice of internal alchemy (内丹) using their own bodies as laboratories. The alchemical tools of the athanor, alembic, vessel, and the products of mercury, lead, and cinnabar were conceptualized as being within the body. On this subject, Ge Hong exclaimed, "When I study the books of yangsheng (养生), I collect the recipes of longevity, there is not one that does not end with alchemy!"8

Finally, the paragraph concludes with a dialogue between Qi Bo and Huang Di. "One must maintain the mind in serenity to keep the vital energy" provides more details of this dialogue. "The ancient sages advise to avoid perverse energy and wind, to have the heart always in a state of 'serenity and emptiness,' so that the ancestral energy remains harmonious, the jing and the shen remain solid inside. Thus, how could illness arise?"6

2.4 Paragraph 4

Wang Ziqiao asked Peng Zu [Note 3], "What is the essence of human energy?" Peng Zu replied, "No human energy is more essential than sexual energy."9 In humans, vital energy is the most precious resource and its integrity must be absolutely preserved. Nothing is more dangerous than wasting this energy through uncontrolled and dissolute sexuality. Reckless sexual union compromises the prolongation of life. This does not mean abstinence from all sexual acts; sexual union is useful to those who know how to engage in it properly. A Daoist author has the Daoist goddess say rather naively: "One does not fight against the natural inclination of man, and one can increase longevity, is this not also a pleasure?" However, it is advisable to be a master of oneself to avoid falling into debauchery. Specific principles and rules must be followed so that one does not destroy this essential energy capital; it must be cultivated to achieve harmony between body and mind.

The famous manuscripts of Mawangdui reveal an abundant literature on techniques for ensuring a healthy sex life. The rules are clear: "Sexual energy has eight pluses and seven minuses. If you cannot make use of the eight pluses and seven minuses, your physical energy will decrease by half when you are forty; when you are fifty, your activities will decline; when you are sixty, your hearing and sight will lose their acuity; and when you are seventy, you will be atrophied in the lower part and debilitated in the upper part; your sexual energy will no longer function, tears and mucus will flow. The eight pluses are as follows: the first is the mastery of energy, the second is the production of salivary secretion, the third is the knowledge of the right moment, the fourth is the accumulation of energy, the fifth is the continuous production of seminal fluid, the sixth is the aspiration of heaven's energy, the seventh is the maintenance of fullness, and the eighth is the stabilization of the erection. The seven minuses are as follows: The first is closure, the second is flight, the third is exhaustion, the fourth is impotence, the fifth is emotional disturbance, the sixth is alienation, the seventh is waste... so if you skillfully put the eight pluses to good use and eliminate the seven minuses, your eyes and ears will be bright and clear, your body will be light and alert, your sexual energy will be stronger and stronger, you will have a happy and long life."9

Finally, treatments are recommended to cure the abuse of the seven minuses; it is advised to "take herbs, do moxibustion to induce energy, take food supplements to increase physical strength."10

Following this advice, sex can provide good health, increase the power of concentration, reduce stress, and develop physical and mental serenity.

2.5 Paragraph 5

The sages say that, "When the oil runs out, the lamp goes out; when the marrow runs out, the man dies." However, if we fill the oil, the lamp lights up again; when we strengthen the marrow, the man becomes strong again.

The marrow is compared here to the oil of a lamp, and is the energy that ensures the vitality of the body. First, one should not waste this energy, but seek to conserve it by practicing different methods to obtain "regeneration" of the marrow. These methods are the application of measures such as tonic medicines, acupuncture, moxibustion, dietetics, living in accordance with nature, massages, and gymnastic techniques. The use of acupuncture and moxibustion can maintain health and combat aging. Bian Que (扁鹊) [Note 4] says, "When the man is not sick, frequent moxibustion on Guanyuan (关元 CV 4), Qihai (气海 CV 6), Mingmen (命门 GV 4), Zhongwan (中脘 CV 12) can also maintain longevity of more than one hundred years."

A clinical case observed in the Pain Treatment and Evaluation Center of the Cochin-Tarnier Hospital in Paris illustrates well the importance of the moxibustion method.

Mr. S, 84 years old, former engineer, referred on January 28, 2005, to the Center for chronic daily disabling headaches lasting more than two years. The patient had a left temporal hemicrania, also called chronic paroxysmal hemicranias, and this affection is frequent in older adults. The patient had sought multiple consultations and treatments for the pain, with no satisfactory results.

In the history, nothing particular was noted except for headaches that occurred in youth, the characteristics of which strongly suggested migraines without aura.

On examination, Mr. S was well groomed, alert, and very intelligent. The visual analog scale (VAS) of the pain was between four and five.

The face was pale, but turned pink during the painful attacks; the tongue was pinkish, without coating; the pulse was quite wide and superficial at the first consultation.

Mr. S complained particularly of reduced concentration, memory, and intellectual activity, which was an important aspect of his life.

The neurological examination data were completely normal. Two magnetic resonance imaging brain scans indicated no obvious pathological changes.

His current treatment was low-dose Elavil® and Doliprane® as needed. Attempts at drug withdrawal for chronic daily headache were unsuccessful; Mr. S. did not tolerate other allopathic treatments.

First acupuncture session: I treated the temporal headache by puncturing the gallbladder meridian points Fengchi (风池 GB 20), Shuaigu (率谷 GB 8), Yanglingquan (阳陵泉 GB 34), then Yintang (印堂 EX-HN3), Taiyang (太阳 EX-HN5), Hegu (合谷 LI 4), and Baihui (百会 GV 20).

After the session, the patient experienced relief. A second session was planned for the following week. The same points were used for a few sessions; the results were positive but lasted only a few hours. During a session in May 2005, after having removed the needles, I decided to tonify the kidneys by moxibustion on Shenfeng (神封 KI 23) and Mingmen. The following week, the patient reported remarkable results: Mr. S. had experienced no more pain (even from the bunion on his foot, which had been hurting him). He was radiant and had recovered most of his intellectual faculties. Since then, I have seen him occasionally to maintain this state, which he describes as "miraculous!" Moxibustion is a method of choice for elderly subjects. Bian Que's words are still relevant today [Note 5].

2.6 Paragraph 6

This paragraph focuses on rules for the maintenance of life in winter. It is a transcription of Su Wen chapter 2, entitled "Laws of Harmonization of the Mental Mind by the Four Energies." I translate here the text of the 1953 Hoang De Noi Kinh edition (reprinted 2001 VHTT Hanoi), starting at the beginning of the text to facilitate the understanding of Dr. Nguyen Tu Sieu's annotations.

The explanation of "paralysis of all four limbs"(wei jue痿厥)is an illustration of Chinese preventive medicine. Indeed, according to the law of the five elements, kidney-water precedes liver-wood. A deficiency of kidney energy in winter necessarily leads to a deficiency of liver-wood energy in spring, thus causing specific pathologies of liver energy insufficiency.[3]

The decrease in the energy of kidney-water leads to a deficiency of liver-wood energy; the nutritive function of the muscles becomes deficient, resulting in paralysis of the four limbs with a feeling of cold (Fig. 4).

Figure 4:
Relationship between kidney-water and liver-wood

In this commentary, importance is placed on the imitation of nature, an essential aspect of yangsheng(养生). To conform to the natural order is to nourish life, to slow down aging, and to prolong vigor. The person who conforms to the natural order of heaven and earth will have a happy and long life. This idea is based on conforming to the variations of the four seasons and the yin and yang; we must use these factors to our advantage to neutralize and avoid the unfavorable aspects of these natural variations. In short, to ensure vigor and longevity, we must conform to the times and preserve ourselves from perverse energies.

This includes circadian and seasonal conformity. Thus, at dawn, the energy of the human body increases, so it is advisable to get up early and do exercises. At dusk, the yang energy collects, so it is advisable to withdraw and to gather, as this time is conducive to meditation. The climate of the four seasons is divided into the warmth of spring, the heat of summer, the coolness of autumn, and the cold of winter. The process of growth and development of living beings is growth in spring, development in summer, recollection in autumn, and conservation in winter. Humans must follow these seasonal variations and order their activities and rest according to the season: in spring and summer, one should get up early and go to bed late; in autumn and winter, one should go to bed early and wake up late.

Humans are affected by environmental factors such as wind, rain, fog, frost, and other complex variations in weather. Traditional Chinese medicine groups these into six energies: wind, cold, heat, dampness, dryness, and fire. When these energies are in excess or deficiency, they are unfavorable to the human body and are called the six perverse energies. A powerful way to nourish life is therefore to conform to the normal conditions of the six qiand to preserve oneself from the abnormal situations generated by the six energies.

2.7 Paragraph 7

A small poem of four stanzas and a commentary ends this text. The rhythm of the verses is broken into seven syllables, and its meaning is difficult to grasp, "Naturally man must keep his Pure Spirit intact. To have the form is like not having it, that is to follow the Way. In the dark door of the woman is life."

The key is undoubtedly in the third stanza, which refers to Dao De Jing (《道德经》Tao Te Ching) chapter 6 "In the dark female door, resides the root of heaven and earth." In the context of sexual energy and sexual hygiene, we can interpret these verses as describing the creative act of life. Keeping the spirit intact can be translated as keeping the seminal essence intact. One way to achieve immortality through the sexual act is to avoid ejaculation, which saves sexual energy.

This is why the commentaries emphasize the expression jiao gan jing (Tinh Giao Cam), which can be interpreted as "the essence of compenetration" or as "sexual energy," or simply as indicating semen. The maintenance of life through sexual techniques consists of keeping the seminal essence intact. This strengthens the original essence and thus prolongs life.

3 Conclusions

The kidney, an organ that comes directly from the energy of heaven and earth, contains the seminal essence that is the origin of human life. The essence is the "precious good" sought by the sages of antiquity. All the rules of protection of life can be summed up in one rule: keep the seminal essence intact. The apostrophe, which ends this text "To speak like this is to say everything!" is well significant. The author incites us to act, to react in order to obtain long life and happiness.


Note 1. The Baihui (百会 DU 20) and Huiyin (会阴 RN 1) points are also considered as zi and wu according to Van Nghi. Zi refers to mid-day and wu refers to mid-night. Anterior zimay be the meeting of yin (hui yin), and posterior wumay be the point of Baihui. It may be the zi, wu, mao and you: four times and four regions of the body. To make the breath circulate in the governor vessel and the conception vessel, Daoists meditated according to the rule of the 12 periods of 2 hours each of the day; these are represented by twelve hexagrams symbolizing the modulation of the breath and the circulation in these two vessels.

Note 2. To my knowledge, this notion has not been mentioned in other translations.

Note 3. Master Ning was a contemporary of the Yellow Emperor and was Director of the Taozheng Potters. He was able to gather fire and not burn himself. He could place himself in the center of a fire and move up and down with the smoke; his clothes never got burned (Zeng Zao, Daoshu).

Note 4. Peng Zu, a great officer of the Shang dynasty, lived successively under the Xia and Shang dynasties and reached, the age of 700 years. He obtained the Dao by constantly eating cinnamon.

Note 5. Bian Que's real name was Qin Yueren (秦越人). Ancient records suggest that he was the first famous physician in history whose biography was published by Sima Qian (司马迁) in the Shi Ji (《史记》Historical Annals)"Biographies of Bian Que." In addition to the Historical Annals, there are later fragmentary notes on Bian Que in Zhanguo Ce (《战国策》Stratagems of the Warring States), Hanfei Zi (《韩非子》Han Fei Zi), Lie Zi (《列子》Lie Zi), and other ancient books.



Ethical approval

This study does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by the author.

Author contributions

Anita Bui wrote and revised the manuscript.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no financial or other conflicts of interest.


1. Yang JZ. The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion (针灸大成). Phạm Tân Khoa, Lương Tư Vân, translators. Paris: HCM publishing House;2002. p. 368–369.
2. Maspéro H. Taoism and Chinese Religions (Le Taoïsme et les religions chinoises). Paris: Gallimard;1971. p. 497, 504–505. French.
3. Dubois JC. Knowledge of Acupuncture Gate of Life (Connaissance de l'Acupuncture). Paris: You Feng;2009. p. 7. French.
4. Wieger L, Zhuang Zi. Intelligence Journey to the North (Les pères du système taoïsme). Paris: Edition Belles Lettres;1950. p. 281.
5. Wieger L, Lao Zi. Dao De Jing (Les pères du système taoïsme). Paris: Edition Belles Lettres;1950. p. 49. French.
6. Nguyen VN. Huangdi's Internal Classic Basic Questions (Hoang Ti Nei King So Ouenn). Marseille: Socedim;1973. p. 7–75. French.
7. Philastre. I Ching Traditional Commentary. Wilhem R. and Perrot E, translators. Paris: Medicis;1994. p. 827. French.
8. Robinet I. The Revelation of Shangqing in the History of Taoism (La révélation du Shangqing dans Histoire du Taoïsme). Paris: Ecole Française d'Extreme Orient;1984. p. 9. French.
9. Cleary T. Health, Sexuality and Longevity (Santé Sexualité et Longévité). Paris: Guy Trédaniel;2000. p. 24. French.
10. Anita B. Nguyen Van Nghi (阮文义 1909–1999): pioneer of traditional Chinese medicine in the west in the 20th century. Chinese Medicine and Culture; 2020;3(2): 74–79.

Daoyin; Kidney; Art of nourishing life; Yang Jizhou; The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion

Copyright © 2022 Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.