The Kidneys are considered a Zang or solid organ and their Fu counterpart is the Bladder. In energetic anatomy, the Kidneys are responsible for far more than the filtration of water. They are one of the first organs to form during pregnancy due to their role as the source of pre heaven Qi and the reservoir of essence or Jing.

(Note: the terms pre and post heaven may seem a bit illogical on first reading them. However the literal translation is “before/after the baby sees the sky/heavens”. When taken in this context the idea of pre and post heaven for before and after birth begins to make much more sense.)

Whilst the Kidneys have several functions, the most often discussed is this storage of essence due to it’s importance both within Nei Gong and alchemical practices and for general good health.

Jing as the closest vibration to matter is the vitality that nourishes the body whilst outlining it’s growth and repair. Jing is also closely tied to the process or reproduction, being the sexual fluids in men and the nourishing source for a growing foetus in women.

The other functions of the Kidneys include:

  • Anchoring Qi from the lungs to aid in respiration.
  • Providing the physical and energetic basis from the willpower or Zhi.
  • Nourishing the Marrow which flows through the bones and spine where it ascends to the skull to form the Brain (the Sea of Marrow).
  • The yang aspect of the Kidneys is responsible in part for the irrigation system of the body, through vaporising the fluids which then ascend to the Lungs.
  • The Yang aspect also governs the Ming Men Fire.
  • Providing the foundation for both the Yin and Yang of the body, specifically the Kidneys are the foundation of the (Yin and Yang) Qi of other Zang Fu organs.
  • The physical foundation of wisdom (when balanced) and fear (when imbalanced).
  • Open into the Ears
  • Manifest through hair on the head

By looking at the functions of the Kidneys it becomes clear why they are considered so vital within Chinese Medicine. They are an interesting organ due to their dual nature. Although tied to the water element in the Five Phases they actually house both the vital Water and Fire within their sphere.

The schools of Chinese Medicine are various and each uses different methods of organisation. The following table outlines the various associations the kidneys are given according to the school of thought.

Categorisation Type 
Five Elements Shui (Water Element)
Six Divisions Shao Yin (Small Yin)
Stems and Branches Yo (10th Earthly Branch)
Zang Fu Zang Organ

Classically the Yin and Yang aspects of the Kidneys was split between the right and left. The left Kidney governed the primordial Yin and Water aspect and the Right Kidney housed the Mingmen or Ministerial Fire. However current theory holds that the Mingmen is housed in the area of the Du 4 (Mingmen) point on the spine between the Kidneys but remains under their influence. The truth of this can be felt by any with a certain level of energetic sensitivity. The Heat (or lack of) can be felt pulsing out from this point when the hand is brought over it.

Note:

The Kidneys role in governing the Mingmen can account for discrepancies in styles of pulse taking. In some schools (including the one that your author trained at) the Chi or third position on both wrists pertained to the Kidneys, one to the Kidney Yang and one to the Kidney Yin. Other schools posit that the right Chi point actually pertains to the Pericardium and San Jiao/Ministerial Fire. Avoiding a digression into San Jiao theory (which could cover several rambling articles in itself) if we suggest that the right Chi position actually represents the pericardium and Ministerial Fire (both are concerned at least in part, with the regulation of Heat) and recall that Ministerial Fire and Kidney Yang are inextricably tied. Therefore both schools are correct and the issue becomes one of semantics.

YIN

The Yin aspect of the Kidneys is closely tied to the storage and nourishment of Jing, and indeed the body in general. Kidney Yin provides the foundation for the Yin Qi of the other organs, and is used in the creation of Marrow (Sui) which flows both through the bones and forms the Brain. The Kidney Yin also cools and moistens the Zang Fu and is easily depleted through (pretty much any) excess. Stress and too much sex aside (which drain the Kidney Yin through the overconsumption of Jing which the Kidneys then try and compensate) the over stimulation of the “modern” lifestyle can be very hard of the Kidneys. This is because excitation stirs the Heart, too much of this causes the Heart to flare and build up Heat within the Body. The Kidney Yin then attempts to neutralise this Heat cooling and moistening the body, often quite the uphill battle!

YANG

The Yang aspect of the Kidneys has been discussed to some degree already. Although its function in the distribution of water has not. It is the vaporising heat of the Kidney Yang which acts upon the “pure” water separated by the Bladder. The then ascends like a mist through the body (via the Chong Mai and San Jiao). Most of the water that isn’t used condenses upon the Lungs before descnding once more to the Kidneys.

EARTH FORCE

In Daoist schools the Kidneys or rather the Kidney Meridian has another important function. Yongquan the first point on the Kidney Meridian is located at the base of the ball of the foot. This point is the primary gate by which Earth Qi is drawn up into the body. By bringing the body weight over this point practitioners are able to open up the point, drawing more Earth Qi into the body and forms the basics of health and longevity exercises that Daoism is known for.

The concept of Zhi deserves its own discussion and I’d recommend “The Spine and Kidneys” article for an interesting lecture on the subject, which also covers the most common disorder of the Kidneys which is deficiency.

The Kidneys are prone to deficiency for a variety of reasons, but perhaps one of the most obvious is that they can’t really be excessive. This is again something in which the Kidneys are unique. The other Zang Fu can be deficient or excess and cause problems but with the Kidneys there isn’t really “too much of a good thing”*

*There are offshoot schools of thought in acupuncture that do consider patterns of Kidney Excess, notable Sasang Consitutional Medicine and the book “The Compleat Acupuncturist” covers this information in more detail for any who are interested. However the schools this pertains to deviate from classical understanding a fair bit and therefore in my (oh so humble) opinion are better left as a point of interest.

The more poetically minded might enjoy the Kidneys classical title of “The Black Emperor”. For those that are less poetically minded it is still a good reminder of the importance placed upon them within Chinese Medicine and why this is so.

A discussion of the Zang Fu could easily encompass several books, and indeed has done. In this article (and the others planned!) the aim is to cover some aspects which may not be as focused upon alongside the basics such as functions and organisation.

About the Author: Ben has a private acupuncture practice in Bristol.  He spends time training the Daoist arts and Chinese medicine with Lotus Nei Gong courses in the United Kingdom. Visit Ben’s site at www.thewitchdoctors.co.uk.