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The Chinese Theory of Life & Death

The Chinese Theory of Life & Death
– by Bob Flaws

People everywhere desire to live long, productive, happy, and healthy lives. In particular, the Chinese have traditionally made the search for longevity a conscious and integral part of their culture. However, before one can make sense out of the specific Chinese teachings on the preservation of health and long life, it is necessary to understand something about the Chinese ideas of life and death. These Chinese theories have developed independent of modern Western science and medicine. Nonetheless, they form a coherent and logical whole which has stood the test of time in clinical practice over not less than a hundred generations.


Qi means influence or energy. It is the Chinese concept for the motivating force behind all movement and transformation in the world and in our bodies. Every metabolic change occurring in our bodies, every movement, every sensation, and every thought is empowered by and is an expression of the movement of qi. As long as we have qi, we are alive. When we run out of qi or fail to make sufficient new qi to get us through our daily lives, we die.

At the moment of conception, we are endowed with qi from our parents. It is this force which empowers our growth and transformation in the womb. It also allows us to take our first breath. However, once we begin breathing and eating, we are constantly making new qi. When food enters the stomach, the spleen (or at least the Chinese idea of the spleen) distills the finest essence of the food and sends this up to the lungs. As the lungs breathe in, the finest essence of the air combines with the finest essence of the food to form qi. This qi is then sent out to the rest of the body to empower its growth, activity, and repair.

Jing Essence

At the moment of conception, we are also endowed with a very potent substance called jing or essence. This essence forms the initial material out of which our body forms. It also can be transformed into qi, and, in fact, as we go through life, every movement of qi in our bodies involves some consumption of this prenatally endowed jing essence. It is this jing essence which determines our individual make-up and constitution. Its quality and quantity are finite at the moment of conception. In a sense, this essence is the ultimate source of qi in our bodies since to make qi, some of this essence must be consumed. This prenatal jing is stored primarily in the Chinese idea of the kidneys. When it is used up, natural death occurs in the same way as a candle goes out when it has burned through all its wax.

Happily there is another kind of jing essence in the body. There is also what is called acquired or postnatal jing. This essence is manufactured from whatever surplus of qi exists at the end of the day when we enter deep sleep. As explained above, we are constantly manufacturing qi from the air we breathe and the food we eat. If, in a day, we manufacture more qi than we use in that day’s activities and functions, this excess qi is converted into acquired essence during sleep. This acquired essence bolsters the prenatal essence and slows down its consumption. The body uses this acquired essence and does not have to use as much prenatal essence.

When we are young and healthy and if we have adequate food and rest, we make abundant qi each day, more than enough to result in a surplus which can be converted into acquired essence. However, as we age, our bodily organs do not function as well as before and we no longer manufacture as much qi as we did in our youth. Therefore, we begin use up more and more of our prenatal essence. Eventually it becomes exhausted completely and we die.

Shen Spirit

In the Chinese literature, there are three treasures or san bao. These are the jingqi, and shen or spirit. This shen represents consciousness and our higher mental faculties. It is also associated with our vitality, the lustre of our skin, the sparkle in our eyes, and the harmony and steadiness of our thought as expressed by the tone and articulation of our voice. Li Dong-yuan, one of the four greatest doctors of the Jin/Yuan dynasties (1280-1368 ad), had this to say of the relationship between the jing, qi, and shen:

  • Qi is the forefather of spirit and essence is the child of qi. (Thus) qi is the root of essence and spirit. Great is qi!
  • When qi accumulates, it produces essence. When essence accumulates, it renders spirit wholesome.

This passage not only explains how generation of abundant qi can accumulate to become acquired essence, it also suggests that there is a direct relationship between the shen spirit and the jing essence. When the essence accumulates, the spirit is wholesome. This relationship helps explain from the Chinese point of view why our mental functions can deteriorate with age.

The Kidneys

According to Chinese medical theory, the kidneys are the organ which store the lion’s share of the essence, both acquired and prenatal. In fact, Chinese medicine sees the kidneys as the primary organ controlling growth, maturation, aging, and natural death. From the Chinese point of view, we are only as old as the amount of essence we have consumed. Another way of saying this is that we are only as old as our kidneys. In Chinese medicine, the ears, bones, genitalia and reproductive capacity, hair on the top of the head, teeth, mental clarity, and visual acuity are all related to kidney function and jing essence. Therefore, as we age, our hearing becomes impaired, our bones become brittle, our libido decreases and our ability to procreate becomes exhausted, we bald, our teeth fall out, our mind becomes unclear, and so does our vision.

Based on the above ideas, it is no wonder that Chinese systems for the preservation of health and nourishment of life primarily involve the following objectives:

  1. Maximizing qi production
  2. Minimizing qi consumption
  3. Maximizing jing production
  4. Minimizing jing consumption
  5. Maximizing the health of the kidneys

As we will see below, each of the topics and practices discussed in this book address one or more of these objectives. They provide the rationale for the various specific practices which make up the Chinese approach to the preservation of health and cultivation of long life.

A Healthy, Regular Lifestyle

In Chinese, the first element in the conscious promotion of health and longevity is the cultivation of a regular lifestyle. In Chinese, this means having normalcy in one’s habits of rising and dwelling and following and responding to nature. Humans exist within nature, or the universe, and our life functions are controlled by and resonate with the greater forces of the world of which we are but a part. By consciously identifying, understanding, and working with these greater forces and cycles, one can go with the flow of things and thereby conserve energy which would otherwise be squandered by bucking the tide.

Following the Changes in the Four Seasons

According to the Nei Jing (Inner Classic), “He who would nourish life surely follows (the changes of) the four seasons, adapts to cold and heat, harmonizes joy and anger, and dwells in calm.” This means that people should adjust their life schedule and activities to conform to the changes of the four seasons. Spring and summer are yang seasons. Yang means warmth, activity, upward and outward movement, and growth. Thus spring and summer are times of growth and greater activity. Fall and winter are yin seasons. Yin means cold, relative quiescence, and downward and inward movement. Therefore, fall and winter are times of rest, inward reflection, and storage and recuperation.

In particular, the Inner Classic says to rise early in the spring and take a leisurely walk. One should let their hair hang down (both literally and figuratively) and stay relaxed in all endeavors, and avoid becoming angry or uptight. Thus their yang energy will sprout and grow similar to the green shoots sprouting and budding in nature. In the summer, one should also rise early in the morning and take a sunbath. They should try to maintain a cheerful, expansive frame of mind. It is okay to work hard physically in the summer to the point of sweating since one is full of vigor in this season of abundance and maturation. In the fall, people should go to bed early and try to maintain a tranquil mind. In particular, they should try to avoid anxiety. Physical activity should begin to be curtailed somewhat during this season of harvest. In winter, the Inner Classic counsels to go to bed early and to get up later, avoid cold and seek warmth, and not perspire too much. Winter is a time for introspection and relative rest.

These basic guidelines were written over 2,000 years ago when people did not have central heat, good housing, warm clothing, and abundant food. Some of these suggestions may not be as important today as they were when life was more precarious and people were exposed to the elements more. However, there is merit to the idea of living with and modifying one’s activities to conform to the seasons.

Keeping Regular Hours

The Nei Jing says that the yang qi of the body begins to grow at sunrise. The yang qi becomes exuberant at midday when the sun is brightest, and begins to decrease at sunset. This daily growth and decline of yang qi suggests that humans should likewise rise at sunup, work during the middle of the day, and rest at sundown, remembering that yang qi is associated with function and activity. Further, Chinese medical theory says that the qi and blood of the body flow through certain channels or so-called meridians at certain times of the day in a rhythmic and orderly manner. These channels connect with the internal organs and their function reflects the rhythmic ebb and flow of qi and blood over these channels. Thus the majority of humans are healthiest when they live a regular lifestyle, rising in the morning, working during the day, and sleeping at night. In addition, it is best to eat at the same times each day and establish a routine. This leads to harmony within the body and the smooth functioning of the internal organs.

Several years ago, I had a patient who was in his late twenties. Because he could earn more money, he worked the graveyard shift from 12-8 am. He suffered from chronic low back pain and tinnitus or ringing in his ears. These are symptoms of kidney weakness in Chinese medicine. I told him that I thought his late night work schedule was part of the problem. He then told me that at the plant at which he worked they had an employee clinic. This clinic performed wellness checkups on all the workers and part of this wellness checkup included an assessment of one’s biological age. One’s chronological age is figured on the calendar from the day of birth. Everyone born on Feb. 20, 1946 will turn 50 on Feb. 20, 1996. Biological age, however, is the age the body is in terms of wear and tear. One 50-year-old might biologically be only 40 and another be biologically 60. This man was chronologically in his late twenties but biologically tested in his mid-thirties. He also told me that such advances in biological age were the norm in the workers on his shift. Kidney supplement herbs helped this man’s symptoms, but they never completely disappeared since he was not willing to give up the graveyard shift.

Healthy Surroundings

Because people are not separate from but are an integral part of their environment, a person’s surroundings greatly impact on one’s health and wellbeing. In China, a science developed which was designed to diagnose the energy and influences on humans of any environment or building. This science is called feng shui or wind and water. Based on this art, one can pick places most conducive to one’s health and success as well as alter their surroundings in a conscious and deliberate way, hence improving their health and chances of success. Although the art of feng shui vis á vis health and longevity deserves a book of its own, there are a few principles which can be stated simply and succinctly.

First, according to the theory of health preservation of traditional Chinese medicine, peaceful and secluded surroundings promote human health in both body and mind and help prolong life. Chinese experts on cultivation of life throughout the ages have consistently recommended living in peaceful, secluded places with plenty of fresh air, sunshine, good ventilation, moderate humidity, and a minimum of pollution, noise, and hustle and bustle. Such places include the seashore, the countryside, and the mountains. It is said that one should live far enough away from a town so as not to be bothered by noise and unnecessary interruptions but not so far away as to make one’s daily life difficult or onerous.

Secondly, since most people spend approximately half their lives within their house, the location and shape of that house is extremely important. Basically, feng shui masters are unanimous in recommending that one’s house face south with the bedrooms on the east. Thus the front of the house receives the warmth of the sun throughout the day and the bedrooms receive the first rays of the sun waking and warming the residents early in the morning. In that way their yang qi can respond to the rising yang in the external environment. In addition, the house should be situated in a place where there is good soil and pure water surrounded by trees and flowers. If one lives in the city, one can at least try to have a pond and garden within sight of the house. These recommendations not only affect one’s mood but also help insure proper lighting, warmth, and fresh air.

Lastly, one’s bedroom is an especially important room in terms of one’s health and longevity. People spend as much as a third of their lives in this room. A sound, restful, undisturbed sleep is vital to replenishing one’s energy each day. Nothing takes its toll on one’s energy any faster than failing to achieve deep, restful sleep. Further, since during sleep all one’s defenses are down, one is particularly vulnerable to the effects of any noxious or harmful energy. Such harmful energy can come from proximity to electrical appliances, including electric blankets and clocks, from subterranean water running under the bed, and from a wrongly positioned bed. Chen Zhi, a Song dynasty (960-1280 ad) longevity expert, has also written that, “Bedrooms must be kept clean and tasteful, open and empty in summer and warm and tight in winter.”

As mentioned above, feng shui is its own art and science, and there is much more to know about feng shui and long life. For more information on particulars concerning location, architecture, and decorating and health, interested readers should see Feng Shui, The Chinese Art of Placement and Interior Design with Feng Shui. However, it should be remembered that, as he felt the advance of age, the famous Dr. Sun Si-miao, the so-called Immortal Sun, moved to a secluded place with green hills and pure water where he built his house and ponds, planted trees and flowers, and died at 101 years of age.


This article is excerpted from Imperial Secrets of Health & Longevity by Bob Flaws. Bob is the author and/or editor of over 40 books on Chinese medicine. He maintains a private practice in Chinese herbal medicine in Boulder, CO.

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