Are they Divergent Channels or Channel Divergences?

I say potāto and you say potäto… Does any of it really matter?

I talked with Andy Ellis a few days ago, who brought to me the question posed in the title of this posting. He mentioned that according to Chinese syntax and usage, the translated name should be “channel divergences,” rather than the commonly used “divergent channels.” Initially, I didn’t see the significance of that distinction, but within a few days decided to change the translation I use to reflect more closely the original Chinese syntax.

Does this change of syntax have any significance on how we understand and use these terms? I think it does, and understanding how leads into considering of the roles of the “primary” and “secondary” vessels of acupuncture. The primary channels regulate the moment-to-moment physiological process of the embodied spirit, and the “secondary” vessels (as they are sometimes called) work in various ways that support the primary channels in doing that. They are NOT LESS IMPORTANT than the “primary channels,” but “secondary” because they support the primary channels in maintaining life.

The channels distinctions and divergences facilitate the primary channels in two important and related ways:

As “distinctions,” they contain the individual’s learned interpretations and automatic patterns of activation and reaction that allow individuals to engage an increasing number and complexity of interactions. They project those interpretations and “pre-dispositions” onto all experience, which facilitates the person’s movement as an individual through life. The channel distinctions (along with the sanjiao mechanism) individuate the person’s implementations of the universal movements of the primary channels. They also make what Zen Buddhist practitioners call “beginner’s mind” so difficult to achieve!

As “divergences,” they absorb unresolved pathogenic factors, and provide the embodied spirit a place to suspend them in “dormancy.” This process allows individuals to “go on” to engage new experiences and opportunities in life, even when previous experiences have not been processed to resolution. However, these unresolved pathogenic factors accumulate and may fester; eventually, they exceed the embodied spirit’s capacity to contain them and they emerge as progressive or degenerative disease.

Indeed. some consider these “secondary” vessels MORE IMPORTANT than the primary channels . At the beginning of Book II of his Systematic Classic of Acupuncture and Moxibustion (Jiayijing), Huang Fumi (215-82) asserted:

The twelve channels are responsible for life in humans and the development of illness. They concern the origins and treatment of a person’s illness. They must be studied by the beginner and yet provide the skilled (practitioner) with limitations (they cannot exceed). The mediocre (practitioner) finds them easy, while the superior one finds them difficult.
The Yellow Emperor asked: What are the separations (bie — divergences and distinctions) and anastomoses, the exits and entrances (of the channels)?
Qi Bo responded: These (topics) are neglected by the mediocre, while the superior practitioner is familiar with them. Please allow me to inform you about them: [He then delineates the Six Confluences of the channel divergences and distinctions (jingbie)!]

Translation by Charles Chase and Yang Shouzhong (pg. 95-6)

The channels distinctions and divergences are centrally important in how they serve and support the primary channels. Their name in Chinese (jingbie) indicates that relationship; perhaps we should use a translation into English that conveys that meaning.



  1. Hi Steve,
    It's an interesting blog post and a good point to ponder. I was recently reading the Ling Shu transcripts from Jeffrey's NESA series wherein he translates the DM as Distinct or Separate; that 'bie' means 'other than' or 'separate.'

    And that in Chapter 11 it discusses the DM as the first to be studied, and that the DM are responsible for having humans match the 'dao of heaven' and, hence, Yang. Yang was classically considered the root of life. Also, that the fact they were to be studied first seems to imply that they are indeed 'separate' meridians, and not 'secondary' to the PM. Wondering what your take is on that, especially in light of your statement above that the DM seem to be supportive of the PM.

  2. Hi Ross,

    Thanks for visiting the site and posting this comment. I just noticed it; I have to get more familiar with the “back room” functions of the content management software I’m using.

    I certainly have no problem with the English “separate” as a translation for the Chinese character in question. However, I think Andy’s comment then suggests the translation “channel separations” for the entire name. Indeed, this may be superior, as it could include connotations of both of the meanings I delineated (distinct and divergent). Used as an adjective, “separate” suggest the “distinct” function, and as a verb it suggests the “diverge” function. That’s pretty cool!

    I heartily concur with your comment from Lingshu, chapter 11. While the channel distinctions and divergences support the “primary channels” as I briefly discussed in my posting, they also precede them — both historically and in forming the individual’s current experience. I don’t consider the “primary channels” fully formed at birth, so babies rely on the channel distinctions to condition wei qi, which then support the baby in generating Earth. That process conveys an increasing ability to internalize both physical and experiential inputs (ying), which then completes the forming of the primary channels (by flowing inside the channels). In this process, wei qi (which is yang) precedes ying (embodiment), and we continue to see this “form follows function” idea throughout classical and historical Chinese medicine.

    The “primary channels” are really part of the Dao. Their “time-clock” is inherent and universal, and all people exhibit the same basic functions of each of the channels. Each person is individuated by his or her implementation of those universal functions. The primary channels convey and regulate current physiological function, and the channel distinctions project the habituations that render each individual distinct. They convey the jing-essence out to “condition” wei qi. The channel distinctions separate the individual from the Dao by conveying his or her individual attachments, and projecting his or her interpretations and dispositions onto the events and circumstances of life.

    Were the channel separations really studied first? That seems a little surprising because they are conceptually a bit more challenging than the other systems. Yet, they are also FUNDAMENTAL. A very large portion of my treatments are inspired by them, though all five systems play a vitally important role. I hope our colleagues will grow more interested in the rich tapestry of life discussed by the five systems of channels and vessels as discussed in Lingshu.

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