Essence in Chinese Medicine

Essence in Chinese Medicine

Chinese: 精      Pinyin: Jīng

Summary: Jing - translated as Essence - is a substance that is the very foundation of life and the source of organic development. At different stages of our life, Essence is responsible for the processes of reproduction, development, growth, fertility, conception, pregnancy and ultimate physical decay of the organism.

It is the basic constitutional strength, vitality and resistance of the body.

Essence - a substance at the very foundation of life - encompasses the processes of reproduction, development, growth, sexual potency, conception, pregnancy and ultimate physical decay of the organism.

From our birth it is responsible for the growth of bones, teeth, hair, brain and during teenage, our sexuality. In maturity, it controls reproductive function, fertility, conception and pregnancy.

As Essence declines with age, there is a natural decline of sexuality, fertility, hair growth and coloring, skin smoothness and so forth.

Improper bone formation, retarded growth (mental or physical), delayed sexual maturation, premature aging, sterility or impotence are all symptoms of Essence Deficiency.

The three 'types' of Essence

The term ‘Essence’ occurs in Chinese Medicine in three different contexts with slightly different meanings: Pre-Heaven Essence, Post-Heaven Essence and Kidney-Essence.

Pre-Heaven Essence

Pre-Heaven Essence is a result of the combined potential of the mother, father and ancestors in the conceived child. It is is the only kind of essence present in the fetus and it is what determines each person’s basic constitutional make-up, strength and vitality. It is what makes each individual unique.

It determines our unique growth patterns and reproductive capacity. It represents the constitutional potential for strength, vitality and resistance throughout a person's life. Because it is inherited from the parents, it is considered fixed in quantity and quality, although it can be affected and supplemented through Post-Heaven Essence. It is also said that it can be renewed to some extent by regular and prolonged periods of focused breathing exercises as well as exercises such as "Tai Ji Quan" or "Qi Gong".

During puberty, the Pre-Heaven Essence ‘matures’ into the Kidney-Essence when it generates menstrual blood and ova in women and sperm in men.

Post-Heaven Essence

Post-Heaven Essence represents what happens to us after birth. It is affected by what we derive from air, food and drinks. Because the Stomach and Spleen are responsible for the digestion of food and the transformation and transportation of food Essences ultimately leading to the production of Qi, Post-Heaven Essence is closely related to Stomach and Spleen.

The Post-Heaven Essence is therefore not a specific type of Essence, but simply a general term to indicate the Essences produced by the Stomach and Spleen after birth, as opposed to the Pre-Heaven Essence which is formed before birth. For this reason, the Stomach and Spleen are also known as the ‘Root of the Post-Heaven Essence’ and the Kidneys as the ‘Root of the Pre-Heaven Essence’.

Post-Heaven Essence is replenishable daily and can also supplement an eventual lack of Pre-Heaven Essence. Therefore in order to not dissipate our reserves of Pre-Heaven Essence or make up for a lack of it, it is wise for us to eat and drink pure, wholesome foods and drinks and attend to our basic physical and psychological requirements, including proper sleep, exercise and recreation. Herbs can also compensate for a lack of Pre-Heaven Essence by replenishing Post-Heaven Essence.

Kidney Essence

Kidney Essence derives from both Pre-Heaven Essence and Post-Heaven Essence. Like Pre-Heaven Essence, it is a hereditary energy which determines the person’s constitution. However, unlike Pre-Heaven Essence Kidney Essence is measurably replenishable by Post-Heaven Essence.

Kidney-Essence determines growth, reproduction, development, sexual maturation, conception, pregnancy, menopause and ageing. This Essence is stored in the Kidneys, but it circulates all over the body, particularly in the so-called "Eight Extraordinary Vessels". 

How does Essence differ from Qi?

Essence is often assimilated as Qi when both concepts have few key differences:

  • Essence is primarily derived from the parents before birth, whilst Qi is formed after birth
  • Essence is replenished only with difficulty, Qi can easily be replenished on a day-to-day basis
  • Essence follows very long cycles of 7 or 8 years, whereas Qi follows briefer cycles, some yearly, some even shorter
  • Qi moves and changes quickly from moment to moment, whereas the Essence changes only slowly and gradually over long periods of time

The evolution of Essence in men and women as they age

According to Chinese Medicine, men’s Essence flows in 8-year cycles, and women’s Essence in 7-year cycles.

The flow of Essence in women goes as follows:

  • Age 7: Essence is abundant, causes hair growth and replacement of baby teeth
  • Age 14: Menstruation begins, conception is possible
  • Age 21: Kidney Essence peaks, growth is fully realized and wisdom teeth appear
  • Age 28: Tendons, bones and muscles are the strongest and the hair is the longest
  • Age 35: Beginning of the decline of Essence, skin begins to wrinkle, hair falls and the teeth loosen
  • Age 42: The face darkens, the hair turns gray
  • Age 49: The "Dew of Heaven" dries, resulting in menopause

The flow of Essence in men goes as follows:

  • Age 8: Essence is abundant, hair grows, permanent teeth develop
  • Age 16: Sperm develops and conception is possible
  • Age 24: Kidney Essence peaks, wisdom teeth appear, growth is at its maximum
  • Age 32: The tendons, bones and muscles are at their strongest
  • Age 40: Beginning of the decline of Essence, skin wrinkles, hair falls and teeth become loose
  • Age 48: The face darkens, the hair turns gray.
  • Age 56: The "Dew of Heaven" dries up, resulting in infertility
  • Age 64: Hair and teeth fall out

The functions of Essence

Growth, reproduction and ageing

Essence is the substance behind our growth, our ability to reproduce and our ageing process.

In children, Essence controls the growth of bones, teeth, hair, brain development and sexual maturation. After puberty, it controls the reproductive function and fertility. Afterwards the decline of Essence leads to the decline of sexual energy and fertility. Ageing itself is explained by the decline of Essence in our bodies.

The basis for Kidney Qi

A good metaphor is to view the Kidneys as a large pot full of water. The fire under the pot is Kidney Yang and the Gate of Life, the water in the pot corresponds to Kidney Essence, and the resulting steam corresponds to Kidney Qi.

Therefore, Kidney Essence is necessary for the transformation of Kidney Yin into Kidney Qi through the warming action of Kidney Yang.

Essence produces Marrow

The concept of Marrow in Chinese Medicine has no equivalent in Western Medicine. The bone marrow, brain and spinal cord are all made of Chinese Medicine's Marrow.

Since Essence produces Marrow, if Kidney-Essence is weak, the brain may lack nourishment (as well as bone marrow and spinal cord). Physical symptoms of a Kidney Essence Deficiency may therefore include a lack concentration and memory as well as dizziness and a feeling of emptiness of the head.

The basis for our constitutional strength

Essence is the basis for our resistance to external pathogenic factors. Although the Defensive Qi is mostly responsible for protection from external pathogenic factors, it has its root in the Kidney Essence. A Deficiency of Essence may therefore result in one being constantly prone to colds, influenza and other exterior diseases.

The basis for the 'Three Treasures'

According to Chinese Medicine, Essence, Qi and Mind (Jing, Qi, Shen) are the three fundamental substances of a human being. For this reason, they are called the ‘Three Treasures’. A bit like water has three states (frozen, liquid and gas) Essence, Qi and Mind represent three different states of condensation of Qi: Essence being the densest, Qi being more rarefied and the Mind being the most immaterial.

Essence and Qi are considered to be the foundations of the Mind (Shen). If Essence and Qi are healthy and flourishing, the Mind will be healthy and fulfilled. On the other hand, if Essence and Qi are both depleted, then the Mind necessarily will suffer.

A healthy Mind therefore depends on the strength of the Essence, which is stored in the Kidneys, and Qi, which is produced by the Stomach and Spleen. The trinity of Essence, Qi and Mind is often expressed in Chinese Medicine as Heaven (the Mind), Person (Qi) and Earth (Essence), corresponding to the Organs Heart, Stomach/Spleen and Kidneys, respectively.