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The Liu He 六合 and Suwen 5 (with comments by Kim Reed)

I have had my head stuck in Suwen 5 (The Great Treatise on the Responsive Manifestations of Yin and Yang 陰陽應象大論) lately, and spent far too many hours contemplating the meaning of 六合 about a third into the chapter. I have long heard people, especially Shanghanlun 傷寒論 fans, discuss the "Six Conformations," so I began to wonder about the connection between the two. This blog gives the context in Suwen 5, then my nerdy sinological notes, and then a much more interesting commentary by Kim Reed. Make sure you scroll down to that part.

Here is the original excerpt from Suwen 5:




1) The Emperor said: “I have heard that the sages of high antiquity discussed and patterned the human body in accordance with deeper organizing principles, arrayed and differentiated the zang and fu organs, and laid out the channels and vessels in a grid of vertical stems and horizontal branches.

2) In gathering and penetrating to the end, the six coordinates each follow their channel. As for the qi holes where they effuse to the surface, they each have their place name. As for the ‘ravines’ and ‘valleys’ [of the flesh], where they attach to the bone, each has its starting point. As for the spatial divisions and specific sections for the coming and going [of qi], each has its arrangement and organizing principle. As for yin and yang in the four seasons, every single aspect of them has its warp and weft. As for the correspondences between inside and outside, they all have their exterior and interior.

3) Is this something that we can trust?”

And here are my notes on the expression 六合:

  • The precise meaning of 六合 “six coordinates” here is an issue long debated by scholars. I have finally settled on reading in the sense of “perfect match,” with the connotation that the outcome of such a perfect match or union is what delineates intellectually perceivable reality from what transcends it. We can, of course, read it here simply as a reference to the six hand and foot pairs of the twelve cardinal channels in tri-fold subdivisions of yin and yang, as most commentators do: 足太陽與足少陰為一合。足少陽與足厥陰為二合。足陽明與足太陰為三合。手太陽與手少陰為四合。手少陽與手厥陰為五合。手陽明與手太陰為六合 (Foot taiyang and foot shaoyin form the first coordinate; foot shaoyang and foot jueyin form the second coordinate; foot yangming and foot taiyin form the third coordinate. Hand taiyang and hand shaoyin form the fourth coordinate; hand shaoyang and hand jueyin form the fifth coordinate; hand yangming and hand taiyin form the sixth coordinate).
  • These gradations of yin and yang, as explained in Suwen 6, can then further be read as the progressive levels of disease penetration into the body as laid out in the Shanghanlun, but such a connection is not made in the Neijing. While these six gradations of yin and yang are commonly referred to in English as “six conformations,” especially in the context of Shanghanlun-style diagnosis and treatment, it is important to note that the Shanghanlun does not contain either of the terms 六經 or 六合.
  • Moreover, Suwen 6, while explaining the six channel pairings as subdivisions of yin and yang, refers to them as three yang and three yin channels (三經), but uses the term only in the compound 離合 in the sense of “differentiating and uniting” or “separating and coming together.”
  • Much more commonly in classical literature, though, the compound term 六合 refers to the six directions (north, south, east, west, and up and down) that enclose the universe of material reality, and therefore the totality of material existence Under Heaven (see Suwen 3 for a perfect example of this usage).
  • This meaning is reflected beautifully in a passage in the “Discourse that Evens Things Out” 齊物論 in the Zhuangzi: “六合之外,聖人存而不論;六合之内,聖人論而不議。。。Outside the Six Coordinates, the sage is present yet does not discuss. Within the Six Coordinates, the sage discusses but does not dispute.” Here the phrase suggests a boundary, a “lid,” that delineates tangible material existence, that which you can grasp intellectually and therefore discuss, from that which is beyond the realm of speech and intellectual comprehension.
  • According to Zhang Jiebin’s commentary on this particular passage here in Suwen 5, “When the two channels intersect, it is called ‘gathering’; when they link up with other channels, it is called ‘penetrating’."
  • According to Zhang Zhicong, “the Six Coordinates are the coordinates of the twelve channels,” i.e. taiyin and yangming, shaoyin and taiyang, and jueyin and shaoyang, with hand and foot vessels in each of the three “coordinates,” to a total of six. See Suwen 6 and Lingshu 11 for more details on these subdivisions of yin and yang.
  • Dr. Brenda Hood suggests “congruence” as a possible translation for .
  • The etymology of the character depicts the notion of two perfectly matched sides coming down on top of something to cover it up, like a two-winged door or a two-part lid, hence the connotations of “closing,” “matching,” or “uniting.” Is this where the English term "conformations" comes from? I am still confused on that one...

Kim's comments:

For me, liùhé immediately brings to mind the idea of movement. Often the liùhé refer to the compass points and denote directions (north, south, east, west, up, and down). We have created this system of direction to help us navigate. Not just oceans or land but as we see in the Neijing, human bodies and acupuncture channels since these are just reflections of the heaven and earth that surround us. The microcosm of the macrocosm.

I briefly want to point out that numbers have great meaning for the Ancient Chinese. Numbers were not just used for simple or even complex mathematics. They were alive with symbolism. If the liùhé were just numbers one would wonder why there wasn’t eight to include all the diagonals. Why six? Because the number six has a very intentional meaning. The best answer I have found comes from Claude Larre’s book The Way of Heaven where he says:

6 is the modulation of the vital flux, the number of the currents that maintain life. It is the number of the modalities of exchange between Heaven and Earth, forming space-time in which the living are located and supported. 6 combines the alternation of 2 and the harmonized flux of 3. Heaven Earth is the field of the 6 junctions of the qi.

How perfectly this fits with the Zhuangzi passage Sabine uses in her summary on the liùhé.  Six is the exchange forming space-time!  We see this beautifully modeled in the hexagrams of the Yijing. So the liùhé create this great union or place the lid on the container in which space and time can exist and we can relate to the world through movement and relationship. It is here in this place we can engage with one another and actually have discussions.  Outside this container/universe is the void and there the sage knows it is pointless to engage in any sort of discussion because there is no movement or relationship. There is no exchange or differentiation (yin/yang).  It is Wuji, a place outside of our container.

Sabine Wilms2 Comments