Li Dong Yuan: The Earth School

李东垣 Li Dong Yuan: The Earth School

李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán (1180-1251) is revered as one of the Four Great Masters of Traditional Chinese Medicine during the Jin (1115-1234) & Yuan (1271–1368 ) Dynasties, and founder of the great 补土派 Earth School of thought.

His name has been memorialized alongside legendary physicians such as 劉完素 Liu Wan Su (Cold and Cooling School), 張志和 Zhang Zi He (School of Attacking and Purging), and 朱丹溪 Zhu Dan Xi (Yin Nourishing School).

These Four Great Masters of Chinese Medicine shaped unique approaches to the causation, prevention and elimination of disease. All four were not afraid to challenge the existing medical framework. In doing so they innovated and brought forth revolutionary ideas and schools of thought, ushering in a renaissance of Chinese Medicine.

李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán is considered the greatest of the four masters and his book 脾胃论 Pí Wèi Lùn, or Treatise on Spleen & Stomach, is one of the most important medical written masterpieces in the history of Chinese medicine.

李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán 's Origin Story

李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán, also known as Li Gao, came from a wealthy family. He is believed to have been a talented child, calm and quiet and someone who loved to study. Regardless of his high societal status, 李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán was a young man of elevated morality who aspired to always maintain honesty and decency.

When 李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán was 20 years old, his mother passed away from an illness due to her physician’s malpractice. Heartbroken from losing his mother and not being able to save her, 李东垣Lǐ Dōng Yuán set his mind on studying medicine and becoming a physician.

His teacher, the famous physician 张亓素 Zhang Yuansu agreed to teach Li Gao medicine after the young man traveled 400 miles and paid Dr Zhang a handsome sum of money to be his disciple. His strong educational background helped him in his apprenticeship and several years later 李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán became a skilled physician.

It took 李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán no time to build his impeccable reputation which soon surpassed that of other physicians’ including his teacher. Dr Yuán was considered an expert diagnostician and treatment strategist, who excelled in moxa therapy, herbology and food therapy.

War & Pestilence

Medical professionals during this time approached each one of their patients individually. It was also widely known that various factors far beyond the physical symptoms contributed to illness and had to be considered and evaluated on both the individual and collective levels.


Master 李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán, also noted that a patients’ emotions, such as anger, joy, sadness and grief, triggered by lifestyle and outside factors such as famine, epidemics and poverty had a huge impact on the way illnesses manifested in the body.

During the Jin & Yuan Dynasties China was conquered by northern tribes as well as the Mongolian Empire. The land became plagued with epidemics of influenza as well as respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases.

It was during this time that Dr. Yuán became known for being noble. He dedicated himself to treating whole communities of people that were badly affected by the upheavals of being a conquered nation.

李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán insisted that extreme stress from grief, loss of life, impure water, malnutrition and lack of shelter were the cause and this resulted in an imbalance of Qi in the Stomach and Spleen organs, both Earth Elements in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The Earth School

As a result of all of 李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán’s findings and conclusions, Dr Lǐ developed his own school of thought called “Invigorating the Earth” and founded the theory of spleen and stomach. He believed that the spleen and stomach were the center from which all diseases originate, arguing that food, emotions and lifestyle affect the body’s internal Qi.

According to 李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán, weak digestion leads to exhaustion. Dr Lǐ emphasized that a distressed stomach and spleen affect one’s ability to problem solve and use intellect. He explained how such disharmony could lead to a tendency to over-ruminate and even failure to act on decisions.

In his monumental medical work 脾胃论 Pí Wèi Lùn, translated as Treatise on Spleen & Stomach, 李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán wrote:

“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 is 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 becomes 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 pulse, headache, thirst. There is a feeling of cold and of heat. As Yin Fire surges upwards, 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.”

Author: 李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán, Work: 脾胃论 Pí Wèi Lùn, or Treatise on Spleen & Stomach Tweet

Herbal Formulas & Legacy

Many still regard李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán as one of the greatest herbalists of all time. Dr. Lǐ was a master at knowing how to direct an herb’s function either upward or downward and even how to target a specific organ with it once the herb was inside the body.

The foreword to 李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán’s 脾胃论 Pí Wèi Lùn, or Treatise on Spleen & Stomach was written by his friend 元好問 Yuán Hào Wèn. In the foreword Mr. Wèn recalled a tragedy that happened several years earlier. During one of the long Mongolian sieges, citizens of one city ran out of food and began eating dead human flesh. That summer, a winter-like weather descended upon their city and an epidemic which followed killed almost a million people in just two months. Mr. Wèn believed that many lives could have been saved had the local physicians did not treated people for “cold damage”. Wèn emphasized that Dr Yuán’s theory of spleen and stomach should be embraced to avoid future tragic mistakes.

李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán had several disciples who continued his work after his death. Many famous doctors of later generations also learned from 李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán school of thought and further developed his theory “Invigorating the Earth”.

李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán’s herbal formula 生脈散 Sheng Mai San, or Pulse Generating Powder, is still widely used in Chinese hospitals in cardiovascular cases even today! As for his other famous formula 當歸補血湯 Dang Gui Bu Xue Tang, it is still used to quickly and deeply nourish the Qi and blood in cases of extreme blood loss.

李东垣 Lǐ Dōng Yuán was an avid proponent of self cultivation and nourishment of health in order to maintain well-being. He inspired people to live a proactively healthy life.

"Knowing how to treat the center brings all networks into balance."

– Chinese Proverb from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Tweet

Bao Gu: The Immortal Lady Bao

Bao Gu: The Immortal Lady Bao

Bao Gu lived during the 晉朝 Jin Dynasty (266 – 420 A.D.) and is celebrated as one of the four most influential female physicians of ancient China. Bao Gu’s name is among giants such as Yi Shuo, who was the first female Imperial Physician for the Empress of the 漢朝 Han Dynasty (202 B.C. – 220 A.D.), Zhang Xiao Niang Zi of the宋朝 Song Dynasty (960–1279 A.D.) and Tan Yunxian of the大明 Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 A.D.).

At a time when women learned embroidery and painting, and child bearing was their primary role, these extraordinary females rose above the societal norms and expectations, insisting on building names for themselves which still echo globally today. They served their communities with expertise, talent and unique vision.

Bao Gu gained popularity quickly amongst locals and became known by the people in her community as: Mugwort Lady Bao, Immortal Lady Bao and even Goddess of Acupuncture. Sometimes, however, she was just Aunt Bao.

She was married to the legendary physician Ge Hong, who was himself along with her father, a high-ranking Daoist magistrate and senior court official.

Bao Gu's Origin Story

Lady Bao grew up in a Daoist monastery where she learned alchemy and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Bao Gu hiked mountains with her father in search of medicinal herbs. Her father taught her everything he knew about alchemy, astronomy, geography and medicine while also infusing in her the art of healing, which she devoted her entire life to.

As a result of rigorous and devoted studies, Bao Gu became a highly skilled moxibustion practitioner. In fact, she is one of the first recorded female moxibustion practitioners in Chinese history. This allowed her to successfully treat severe cases of tumors and warts.

Bao Gu & The Crying Girl

One day Bao Gu was returning home after a routine foraging trip in the mountains to collect medicinal herbs. On her path, she noticed a young girl studying her face reflection in the river and quietly crying. Upon approaching the young girl, Bao Gu observed numerous black and brown spots on her face.

After a quick chat with the her, Bao Gu learned how the pigmentation on the girl’s face were making her feel insecure about her appearance. Hurtful remarks were often made by people in the community. The young girl feared that no one would want to marry her. She had even sought medical help, however, nothing worked. Without hesitation Lady Bao decided to help, and used the red-root mugwort herb for moxibustion treatments which were successful in clearing the girl’s face. The young girl was overjoyed and grateful.

Having grown up in the mountains, Bao Gu was a highly knowledgeable and experienced medicinal herb forager. People believe that she discovered Mugwort Floss from the Red-rooted Mugwort family on the Yuexiou Mountain and successfully used it in her moxibustion treatments. Bao Gu’s moxibustion therapy has been titled “Bao Gu Moxibustion”or “Highly Skillful Moxibustion”, expressing people’s love and respect for her work.

After scores of locals experienced miraculous cures, they started calling their physician Mugwort Lady Bao, Goddess of Acupuncture and even Immortal Lady Bao. Since it was highly unusual for a female of the time to treat patients, her name was known far and wide and even recorded in local county annals and on herbal formulations.

Together with her husband, the legendary physician Ge Hong, they traveled the local mountains healing the sick and continuously studying and perfecting the art of medicine, alchemy, and Daoism.

The Legend of Bao Gu

On a routine hike up the sacred 罗浮山 Mount Luofu in search of medicinal herbs, Bao Gu came across a village where all the people appeared weak and their skin was a dark yellow color. She inquired from the villagers on the details of their ailment but did not get her questions answered the way she would have liked. In her diagnostics of the condition which was expressing itself in the villagers, she turned to 伤寒杂病论Shang Han Za Bing Lun (Treatise on Cold Damage and Miscellaneous Diseases) by 張仲景 Zhang Zhongjing. Without hesitation Lady Bao stayed in the village to look for a cure.

Being a master of acupuncture and moxibustion, she used the two modalities to treat the villagers alongside a traditional herbal formula, which consisted of such ingredients as peach kernels, mulberry tree leaves and hawthorns to name a few. It took her a couple of weeks to cure the villagers. Before going on her way, Lady Bao shared the medicinal herbal formula she used to heal the villagers with them.

Bao Gu’s mastery of alchemy was so sophisticated that according to the Chinese folklore she never died. Instead she transformed into an Immortal. After Lady Bao transitioned, the locals constructed an Ancestral Hall at the base of the Yuexiou Mountains out of love and in tribute to her medical contributions.

For many centuries now Bao Gu has been a role model to all physicians aspiring to reach for the stars and become the best versions of themselves while in humble service to others.

Hua Tuo: The Father of Surgery and Anesthesia

華佗 Hua Tuo: The Father of Surgery and Anesthesia

Ancient China has had many highly skilled and humble physicians as well as herbalists born onto its land. We honor those who have preceded us in this lineage by highlighting them in our Famous Ancient Physicians Series.

Today we will be talking about 華佗Hua Tuo’s profound story and invaluable contribution not just to the society of his day, but to the entire global posterity.

華佗 Hua Tuo is commonly referred to as ‘The Father of Surgery and Anesthesia.’ He successfully introduced and practiced surgery on his patients during the late Eastern Han Dynasty, more than 1,500 years before Western Civilization even began to experiment with surgery!  He also is credited with being the first person to perform surgery on an anesthetized patient.

華佗 Hua Tuo's Origin Story

Born into a poor family in Qiao County in the State of Pei, records vary and estimate that his birth year was sometime between 108 and 140 A.D. Having lost his father at the age of 7, the young boy was forced to find work and did so at a local herbal pharmacy. Two of the earliest writings of Hua Tuo’s life state that he felt “called to study medicine after witnessing the bloodshed that came with the shattering of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) into the legendary Three Kingdoms (A.D. 220–280).”  During this time period there was continuous political unrest with constant battles and violence.

華佗 Hua Tuo only wanted to help humanity.  He continuously turned down offers to work in the Imperial court and insisted on being a “physician of the people”.

Treat people equally irrespective of their high or low status, of their poverty or wealth, of their distinction or obscurity. Do not run after riches, fear no hardships and toils, and take it as your first duty to take pity on the old and help the young.

華佗Hua Tuo was often called the “miracle working doctor” as he would use a small number of acupuncture points in his treatments as well as only several herbs in his herbal prescriptions for quick and effective relief and healing for his patients.  He could mix herbal ingredients so well that he never needed to measure them.  He was also a master at diagnosis, and incredibly accurate. People said that he bordered on fortune-telling. 華佗Hua Tuo believed that illness was caused in part by a lack of physical activity, and developed the Five Animals Play 氣功 Qigong exercise sequence for clearing the mind and eyes, boosting the cardio-pulmonary functions, strengthening the waist and kidneys and smoothing the joints.  You can read more about that here.

華佗 Hua Tuo and Chen Deng

One day Chen Deng, a Chinese military general and high level official over Dongcheng Commandery, fell ill and could not eat. He summoned 華佗 Hua Tuo to treat him. After checking the official’s pulse, 華佗 Hua Tuo told Cheng Deng:

“You have several sheng (1 sheng is equal to approximately 34-oz) of parasites in your stomach. I assume it happened because you like eating raw fish and meat.”

華佗 Hua Tuo gave the official 2 sheng of an herbal prescription, which caused him to vomit about 3 sheng of small parasites and led to his quick recovery. Before he left, 華佗Hua Tuo warned the official:

The kind of ailment you had will recur three years from now. Make sure you find a skillful physician by then.”

Just as predicted, Chen Deng experienced the same condition exactly 3 years later. He sent for華佗Hua Tuo who was away harvesting herbal medicine in the mountains at the time. Unable to quickly find another skilled doctor, Chen Deng died of his illness at the age of 39.

Prevention, Prevention, PREVENTION!

Although Hua Tuo was considered an exceptional miracle working physician, he always made his patients aware that PREVENTION is the best method to living a balanced life.  Physical activity is key to keeping dis-ease out of the home.

How do you keep you and your family well?  Tell us in the comments below!