Zang-Fu: Chinese Medicine’s Energy Physiology

Photo by Peter Franken on Unsplash

The zang-fu organs are the units of energy that, in Chinese medical theory, together create life in the body. Each is related by name to one of the body’s organs. (Well, that’s not quite correct! One of the twelve relates not to an organ but to the body itself.)

(If you’re new to Chinese medicine, this page isn’t where you should start! Better start with the Eight Principles – perhaps a bit easier!)

However, while a dysfunction in an organ will probably mean a problem in its related zang or fu organ, the reverse doesn’t necessarily apply.

What that means is that if your Liver zang energy organ isn’t working properly, you would not necessarily expect there to be anything wrong with your liver organ, unless there were symptoms for this.

Zang organs are yin, fu organs yang. (Read yin and yang, and ‘balancing yin and yang‘ if words like yin and yang are confusing.)

The zang (yin) organs are said to be ‘solid’, the fu (yang) organs ’empty’, or ‘able to contain’.  

The empty, fu organs are those through which food and fluids pass as nutrients are absorbed or excreted. Modern surgeons have found that we can do without them, at any rate to some extent.

The solid, zang, organs do the ‘heavy lifting’ and must be replaced if removed, or life stops. (However, it seems that we can do without our spleen organs though our bodies don’t work quite so well.)

Zang-fu: the body’s powerbase

Zang organs are the powerbase of the body in that they create from the matter entering or passing through the empty, fu organs, the essential means for life, our qi and Blood.

So, for example, in Chinese medicine the Stomach fu organ receives, then ‘rottens and ripens’ food passing through it. Then the Spleen zang organ helps to transforms that food into Qi (Energy) and Blood which it then transports round the body to wherever needed.

(Actually, there’s a bit more to it than that. The Spleen Zang organ combines with other Zang organs in the creation of Blood. See the page on Blood.)

Zang organs

Fu organs

Each of the acupuncture channels is powered by and enters its related zang or fu organ. So the Heart Channel is powered by and attached to the Heart zang and enters the heart organ, for example.

(However, other channels also enter the heart organ.)

The Five Elements and the Zang-fu

There are five zang fu organ energy systems based on the 5 Element system:

Five Elements
Copyright Acupuncture Points
  • Fire: Heart and Small Intestine (also Pericardium and Three-Heater)
  • Earth: Spleen and Stomach
  • Metal: Lung and Large Intestine
  • Water: Kidney and Bladder
  • Wood: Liver and Gallbladder


Each of these five systems is integral to the health of the individual and together they create life from the body’s inherited energy, food and air, and the emotional and other energies to which they are exposed.

To distinguish each zang or fu organ from its related body organ, zang-fu organs are given Capital First letters. Eg Heart zang organ, but heart organ.

A good knowledge of the properties and actions of the zang-fu energy systems is necessary to be able to practise Chinese medicine effectively. (However, that’s not the only thing you need to know!)

Zang-fu Syndromes

When ill, we display certain patterns of disease. Many of these were recognised as being related to specific zang-fu.

These ‘syndromes‘ include, for instance:

It frequently happens that you have more than one syndrome at a time. Deciding which to treat first comes down to skill and experience.

How Scientific is the Concept of Zang-Fu?

In terms of modern science, not at all. You can’t prove it or disprove it. Consequently it’s described as being a ‘pseudoscience’, which is a little unfair because when some of the most intelligent people who ever lived developed the theory over most of a 3000 year period, modern science hadn’t been thought of.

Those ancient thinkers did, however, find that it worked in practice. We find it still works in practice.

One day, I’m sure a modern scientist will discover the real energetic processes underlying health, and call them something else.

Until then, we’re stuck with this ‘short-hand’ version.

The art and pleasure of practising Chinese Medicine is in applying it to illnesses, pain and diseases experienced by real people who have often been failed by modern science and medicine, and most certainly attribute their improvement to the skill and experience of the Chinese medicine practitioner.

When you have a theory (scientific or pseudoscientific) and base your actions on it, with predictable and repeatable results, aren’t you being scientific? You may not know exactly why the zang-fu theory works but you can still be scientific in applying it.

Lots of people have only the dimmest idea of how the engine in their car works, but they can learn how to drive it and apply that knowledge in a huge variety of ways, improving their abilities as they go along, based on their experience. Highly scientific!

If you would like to consult an  acupuncturist and you live in Edinburgh or SE Scotland, where the author of this site works, click Edinburgh Acupuncturist. If you are further afield, click on BAcC.


Have You a Question About This Page?

What do you think about this ancient idea? If you’ve visited an acupuncturist did she or he tell you about it? If so and it helped you, would you share what happened with us?

Or, if you’re a practitioner, how do YOU use the zang-fu theory with your patients?

By the way, no need to identify yourself in what you write, and if you do give your email address or name, we shan’t give it (or rent, sell or otherwise dispose of it) to anyone else. Also, we shan’t publicise it on this site without your consent.


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