I recently re-read The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine by Ted J. Kaptchuk, O.M.D. More accurately, I read it thoroughly for the first time, from cover to cover, all notes and appendices included. This is a classic, foundational textbook for students of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
It had been recommended reading when I was in herb school. I bought a used copy of the 1983 original edition (there is also an updated 2000 edition). I read the first chapter. I skimmed the charts and diagrams. And then it sat on my bookshelf.
Recently, a friend asked me about the book, and my interest was renewed. I’m so glad we had that conversation, which inspired me to take the book off the shelf and really read it this time! It’s a fantastic review of some fundamental concepts.
The book is organized into ten chapters and nine appendices. There is a copious section of notes at the end of each chapter. I quickly developed a two-bookmark system: one to mark my place in the chapter, and one to mark my place in that chapter’s notes. It may sound like a lot, but I would encourage other readers not to skip the notes: there’s a lot of good additional information there!
Additionally, I sometimes left off the chapter reading to explore one or the other of the appendices. For example, a footnote in Chapter 1 references Appendix H, The Five Phases. I put Chapter 1 on hold, while I read about The Five Phases. I ended up reading some of the appendices as they were referred to in the chapters; others waited until I got to the end of the book.
Chapter 1 is titled “Medicine East and West: Two Ways of Seeing, Two Ways of Thinking (and the landscape patterns of nature and the body)”.
It provides a general introduction to the philosophical approach to health and medicine in China, as told from a Westerner’s point of view. It introduces the concept of Yin and Yang theory. It offers fine art painting as an analogy for how the Chinese practitioner views the body within its environment, and how this informs diagnosis and treatment approaches.
From there, the book goes chapter to chapter, explaining different fundamental aspects of Chinese medicine, each one building upon the last.
Chapter 2 covers The Fundamental Substances: Qi, Blood, Jing, Shen and Fluids. The Substance of Qi is further broken down into Origins, Functions, Types and Disharmonies. “The idea of Qi is fundamental to Chinese medical thinking, yet no one English word or phrase can adequately capture its meaning.” (p. 35) The author offers a comparison and contrast of this concept to Western medical thinking, and how the Chinese approach differs from the Western tools of chemistry, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology.
Once we are familiar with these Substances, we are introduced to the Chinese concept of Organs.
Again, there is a fundamentally different view of organs between the East and the West. “For example, the Organ known as the Liver is for the Chinese very different from the Western liver. The Chinese Liver is defined first by the functions associated with it, the Western liver by its physical structure.” The Chinese Organs are organized in Yin & Yang pairs, and this section gives an overview of the function of each one.
From the Organs, we move to the Meridians: the Warp and Woof. For me, this section was particularly helpful, since I am not an acupuncturist, and my herbal training has not delved very deeply into learning the Meridians. This section offers diagrams of the Fourteen Major Meridians:
1-2. Lung, Large Intestine
3-4. Spleen, Stomach
5-6. Heart, Small Intestine
7-8. Kidney, Bladder
9-10. Liver, Gall Bladder
11-12. Pericardium, Triple Burner
13. Governing Vessel
14. Conception Vessel