• Dr. Skylar Stumpf

Yijing and Yin Fire: An Exploration

Updated: Sep 29

Cultivating Earth to Keep Fire and Water Hidden

Yīn-yáng is the quintessence of Chinese philosophy, penetrating the foundation of the canonical texts Huáng Dì Nèi Jīng, Yìjīng, and Shāng Hán Zá Bìng Lùn. Yīn and yáng in their most macroscopic form are earth and heaven, kūn and qían. In their microscopic form, yáng and yīn are lí and kân: fire and water. The principle of water flows downward; the principle of fire flares upward. Fire and water constitute the basis of life, but life does not grow through water and fire as isolated entities—a channel is necessary to allow the fire to penetrate the water. The presence of qián within the human is expressed as the imperial fire of the heart, and this sovereign fire is propagated downward to connect with the kidney; the water of the kidney swells upward to cool and nourish. This very special linkage of fire-water steams the essence to form the source qì. The ministerial fire, which emanates from the space between the kidney, is the manifestation of the imperial fire’s presence within the heart and can be likened to the Fire of the Pericardium. Giovanni Maciocia gives a succinct synopsis of the zàngfǔ (organs) in relationship to the ministerial fire (1):

“Although many doctors such as Zhu Zhen Heng (1281-1358) identified ‘Minister Fire’ with the Fire of the Gate of Life (and therefore the Kidneys), others, such as Zhang Jiebin (1563-1640), identified the ‘Minister Fire’ with such internal organs as the Kidney, Liver, Triple Burner, Gallbladder, and Pericardium. In fact, the Minister Fire is said to go upwards to the Liver, Gallbladder and Pericardium (in so doing it is compared to the ‘Fire Dragon flying to the top of a high mountain’) and downwards to the Kidneys (in so doing it is compared to the ‘Fire Dragon immersing in the deep sea’).”

This is the relationship between Shâoyīn: Heart and Kidney. The minister is not equal to the emperor: the minister carries out the will of the emperor. This is the role the minister fire plays within the body, as the Ming Men Huo: Fire of the Destiny Gate.

In the Yìjīng, yīn-yáng is patterned in the form of hexagrams to represent all possible configurations of the tàijí within the frame of human existence. “The Changes as a book is vast and grand, whole and complete. It has the dào of heaven. It has the dào of humans. It has the dào of earth.” Medicine and the are often noted to “...have the same source”. As Zhang Jiebin writes, “The Changes contain the principles of medicine; medicine attains the application of the Changes...Medicine cannot be without the Changes. The Changes cannot be without medicine.” (6)

The hexagrams of the Yìjīng are constituted from the merging of two of the eight possible trigrams, one placed over the other ☲☷☱☰☵☶☳☴. When combined in all configurations, there are a total of sixty-four hexagrams. The first two hexagrams of the are Qían and Kūn, Heaven and Earth. The last two hexagrams of the Yìjīng are After Completion (Jì Jì), and Before Completion (Wèi Jì). The trigrams which image Qían are all solid-yang lines; for Kūn, all broken-yin lines. For the penultimate and ultimate hexagrams, Lí and Kân are the constituents. In Jì Jì, the inner trigram is Lí, while the outer trigram is Kân. In Wèi Jì, the inner trigram is Kân, and the outer is Lí. (2) Why is this all significant? If you take the nuclear trigrams of any of the sixty-four hexagrams, this process will eventually lead to Heaven and Earth, or Water and Fire. Yin and yang, the Taiji, is truly the supreme Ultimate! The vast cosmos constitutes the great Tàijí, the human constitutes the Minor Tàijí. Yīn and yáng flow and transform throughout all aspects of the universe— are all aspects of the universe. Zhāng Jièbīn said, “The human body is a small heaven and earth.” He also says, “the changes of heaven and earth are the outer changes and the changes of the body and mind are the inner changes.” Any trigram of the Yìjīng symbolizes Heaven and Earth, with the Human at the center: Sān Cái. This is also represented as fire and water together manifesting qì: the Three Powers


The ubiquitous nature of the tàijí means that the theory of Yin Fire, formulated during the Jin-Yuan dynasty by Lǐ Dōngyuán, can also be analyzed according to the principle of yīn and yáng. For it is the fire within the water, the yáng within the yīn, that generates the source qì, and when pathogenesis arises, it signals the balance is disturbed: the underpinning of the yin fire theory.

The Yin Fire theory developed by Lǐ Dōngyuán has this as the basis: if the Central Qì (Zhong Qì) is effulgent, the yuán qì is sourced in a balanced way, and the ministerial fire stays hidden within the water of the kidneys, causing no signs of heat while generating warmth and healthy transformative power within the system. This generation of qì comes from the transformation of essence, stored in the kidney. When there is enough essence and yin, and the heat is not excessive, but also not minimal, there is a steady and appropriate sublimation of essence to qì which is then transported and transformed throughout the Three Burners (Sān Jīao).

To go further, the basic qì huā (function and transformation) of the organs involved in the yin fire constellation should be addressed. The spleen is zàng, and through its function of transformation and transportation, essence of food and drink is extracted to form the Gu Qì, which is sent to the Upper Jiao. If the spleen qì is weakened due to poor/irregular diet, from pathogenic factors such as damp, from liver qì stagnation overacting on Earth, from blood deficiency, or from undisciplined desires and emotion, the spleen qì sinks into the Lower Burner and harms the kidney, and the ministerial fire flares and rises toward the heart, which ultimately is its source. The central qì of the Middle Jiao, when healthy and lustrous, prevents ministerial fire from flaring and injuring the body. Li Dong Yuan said, “This Yin Fire and the Yuan Qi are mutually opposed [cannot occupy the same place]: when one is victorious, the other is the loser.” (4) When this yin fire does rise uncontrollably, the postnatal qi is further weakened, and there can be damage to the yin of the zàng organs.

In viewing the human body in terms of yin and yang, let us map the yin and yang of the body onto the form of a hexagram. The Shang Han Lun, authored by Zhang Zhong Jing in the late Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 AD) explores in great detail the six conformations (or levels), their relationships to each other, and the way in which disease transmits, lodges, and transforms within them. If we compare the six conformations to the hexagram, we have three yang conformations situated above, and three yin conformations situated below. Each conformation denotes a same-name pairing linking the upper and lower parts of the body of the twelve primary channels and these twelve channels can be seen as forming two trigrams to make a hexagram. The twelve primary channels can be paired as same-name channels, or as Biǎo Lǐ, internal-external or yin-yang pairs. When paired as Biǎo Lǐ the order is yin-yang, when paired with the same-name the order is yang-yang and yin-yin. Let’s focus on the same-name pairing, as so masterfully described within the Shang Han Lun by Zhang Zhong Jing.

Tàiyáng, Shǎoyáng, Yángmíng are the upper trigram. Táiyín, Shǎoyīn, Juéyīn the lower. Taiyang is related to Shaoyin as Biǎo Lǐ (exterior/interior), as is Shaoyang to Jueyin, and Yangming to Taiyin. By unpacking these relationships we can better understand the way that the pathogenesis of yin fire develops. Furthermore, since the yang channels can be likened to a trigram, and the yin channels can be likened to a trigram, we can apply the Sān Cái to each, as the trigrams exhibit this nature. Taiyang and Shaoyin are Heaven. Shaoyang and Jueyin are Human. Yangming and Taiyin are earth. Taiyang and Taiyin open; Shaoyang and Shaoyin pivot; Yangming and Jueyin close (8). Heat is associated with Shaoyin, Fire with Shaoyang. Cold is associated with Taiyang, Damp with Taiyin, Dryness with Yangming, and Wind with Jueyin (3). The Imperial Fire of the Heart is the root of the Ministerial Fire of the Pericardium, which also descends to manifest as the Ministerial Fire in the Kidney. This is Shaoyin, the basis of the human being. Furthermore, the transfer of heat/fire from Heart-Small Intestine-Urinary Bladder-Kidney describes an important channel pathway in describing how Heart Fire moves downward to the Kidney in health and in pathology: this is the relationship between Shaoyin and Taiyang.

Shaoyang is also essential to the pathological (and healthy) development of rising ministerial fire and worth noting here. Shaoyang expresses the Yuan Qi generated by the Ministerial Fire interacting with the Kidney Yin (water). From Suwen Ch. 9 of Huang Di Nei Jing:





The gallbladder is the house of ministerial fire, it warms all organs. The fire comes from the kidney, and then dwells in the gallbladder and then spreads in the Sanjiao. Shaoyang ministerial fire warms to continue life. Yi Guan said:. "Food enters the stomach, as in a cooking pot, cannot be cooked without fire, the spleen can transform food and relies on Shaoyang ministerial fire. The “mild fire generates Qi”, not only the spleen takes advantage of it, all eleven organs rely on it to shine.” (ShuWen Ch 5 : Strong fire (pathological fire) disperses Qi, mild fire (physiological fire) generates Qi) (7).

The Gallbladder and Sān Jīao have special roles in differentiating this Yúan Qi, and the Jueyin zang/jīngluò harbor this ministerial fire as well, as they are paired in a yin-yang relationship with Shaoyang. There is also a San Cai relationship between Yangming and Jueyin. This explains the use of PC 6, PC 8, LU 10, and ST 40 to treat both the stomach and heart (pericardium) (5). The famous Four Gates (LV 3/LI 4) demonstrates clinical application of this fundamental meridian connection as well. So, when the spleen/stomach and Yuan Qi weaken, the yin fire from the lower Jiao rushes upwards, homing back to the Heart, in the process further “thieving” the Yuan Qi.

Giovanni Maciocia offers a translation of the Yin Fire section of the Pi Wei Lun by Li Dong Yuan, articulating the movement of the ministerial fire in pathology:

Dietary irregularity and excessive consumption of cold or warm foods damage the Spleen and Stomach. Joy, anger, worry and fright weaken the Yuan Qi. If the Spleen and Stomach are depleted and the Yuan Qi weakened, Fire of the Heart becomes excessive on its own. This Fire of the Heart is a Yin Fire. It starts from the Lower Burner and links with the Heart above. The Heart does not rule personally, rather the Minister Fire is its deputy. The Minister Fire is the Fire of the Pericardium (Bao Luo) developing from the Lower Burner. It is a “thief” of the Yuan Qi. This Yin Fire and the Yuan Qi are mutually opposed [cannot occupy the same place]: when one is victorious, the other is the loser. When the Spleen and Stomach Qi become empty, their Qi flows down to the Kidneys and Yin Fire has a chance to overwhelm the Earth. Because of this, with a Spleen pathology, there is raised Qi with breathlessness, fever, an Overflowing [Hong, Da] pulse, headache, thirst. There is a feeling of cold and of heat. As Yin Fire surges upwards [Shang Chong], there is raised Qi with breathlessness, fever, headache, thirst and an Overflowing pulse. As Qi of the Stomach and Spleen sinks, Gu Qi cannot rise and float. Therefore, there is no Yang to sustain Ying and Wei Qi. As these are unable to withstand Wind and Cold, there is a feeling of heat and of cold. All this is due to a deficiency of the Stomach and Spleen. The treatment of this condition is to use pungent, sweet and warm herbs to strengthen the Centre and lift Yang, together with sweet and cold herbs to drain Fire. The use of bitter and cold herbs is absolutely counterproductive (4).

The relationship between Shaoyin, Shaoyang, Jueyin, and Taiyang are crucial, as the heat generated by the yin fire moves along Shaoyang-Jueyin as the vector. Liver Qi becomes depressed generating more heat, blood and yin are damaged and in severe cases lead to more surging of the ministerial fire generating more heat, spleen/stomach are further weakened, while the heat rises to generate a pattern of Heat above and Cold below. Dampness complicates this syndrome as it begins to build due to the impaired spleen and lung function. This can further impede qi hua, and the dampness can combine with heat to create damp-heat (9).

By utilizing the powerful and endlessly generous divinatory application of the Zhōu Yì (Yijing), individuals may find a way to live in harmony with yin and yang, finding the way to maintain the balance of fire and water in the body. In addition, by recognizing the contributions of Li Dong Yuan toward the end of providing enough essence to transform, and in securing a strong and stable postnatal Qi by nourishing earth and tempering desires, the ministerial fire may remain undisturbed, and, “if movements of all five fires are normal, ministerial fire can only support nature’s creation and transformation, endlessly generating life.” (10).

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