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Li Gao, aka Li Dong – yuan (Dong – yuan being the style he practiced), lived during the Yin/Yuan Dynasty (1115 – 1368 CE). Li was born to a wealthy family and lived a privileged life in the city of Hubei. He started to study medicine because his mother fell ill and not one doctor could cure her or explain why she was sick; she later died. Li was an exceptional student under the tutelage of Zhang Yuan – su, who was the most famous physician in the province at the time. Li became an expert in every field of Chinese medicine covering acupuncture, internal medicine, pediatrics, pharmacology, gynecology, etc.
While Li’s contemporaries were focusing on external invasions as the cause of disease, Li contradicted this trend and attributed the root of disease as being derived from internal damage (nei sheng); and further exclaimed that external invasions were nothing more than a branch. This brazen declaration of viewing disease from a different perspective reminds me of the alternative practitioners of today who focus on internal causes, especially those originating in the gut health of individuals, as opposed to the majority of the medical community who still concentrates on germ theory (external invasions). Li Dong – yuan believed that the spleen (including the pancreas) and stomach were functionally at the center of one’s life in terms of health and disease. It was his idea that if these organs were deficient it would lead to illness, and if they were healthy and strong than the individual would be healthy. This is very reminiscent of today’s pathology of disease, most particularly in the West, where the population has poor diets, diets made up of low quality foods, high levels of stress, lack of physical activity, and emotional disturbances; which all affect the spleen and stomach. This subject was so important to Li that he wrote a famous manuscript called, Treatise on the Spleen and Stomach (Pi Wei Lun), which is available in translation.
One of Li Dong – yuan’s most well - known theories is called, the theory of Yin Fire. In a nutshell, this theory postulated that when there is a deficiency in middle Qi, namely spleen deficiency, this taxes the kidneys and the Ministerial Fire. The Stomach Qi which supports the kidneys and the Ministerial Fire cannot keep up, and an intense fire erupts in the lower burner (abdomen). Yin fire also generally includes some aspect of pathogenic dampness mixed with the already present deficiency. The danger in this situation is that this fire can flame upwards and harass the heart.
Li was recognized as an expert in acupuncture and moxibustion, as well as, an expert in the field of internal medicine. In practice Li often applied his theories, and this is what propelled him into such a high status as master in the realm of medicine as both practitioner and theorist. During his life Li’s acupuncture skills were renowned, and his needling techniques continued to be talked about, and written about in following generations. It’s not surprising that Li went on to found the School of Nourishing spleen and Stomach; a school of thought that still has relevance in today’s practice.
Li Dong – yuan also created many herbal formulas based on his studies in the Pi Wei Lun, his most famous formula being Bu Zhong Yi Qi Tang (Supplement the Center and Boost the Qi Decoction. This formula is still appropriate in today’s clinical setting, and is used quite often for various conditions relating to spleen deficiency such as, low – energy, various forms of prolapse, dull-headaches, dizziness, fatigue, hypotension, etc.
1. Treatise on the Spleen and Stomach, by Yang Shou-Zhong & Li Jian-Yong
2. Thoughts and methods of the Huo Shen school, by Gunter Neeb.
The Lantern: Volume VI, Issue 3 - Article #4
3. The Treatment of Modern Western Medical Diseases with Chinese Medicine, by Bob Flaws.