It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere

by Jeanine Adinaro on October 5, 2010

in Chinese Culture, General Health

These pot stills are used for making whisky

Quite a bit of the difficulty the average American has with traditional Chinese medicine theory, I think, comes from the fact that TCM theory is often presented in metaphors that lack any cultural context or relevance to our lives.

Take the description of how the human body transforms food and fluids into useable energy, for example.

First- and this is very important- when TCM theorists talk about organs, they aren’t just talking about the hunks of meat in your chest. They are talking about the roles and functions of those organs in the context of the human condition- physical, emotional and spiritual.

When explaining how the body transforms food, there exists a fundamental relationship between the kidneys, the spleen and the lungs (not just those hunks of meat, remember, but their broader context). This is typically represented by cooking a pot of rice over an open fire, and there’s some steam in this discussion. I don’t know- as a kid who grew up in a house where rice came from a box and got cooked in the microwave, this metaphor made exactly no sense to me when I first heard it.

So I am going to tread where angels fear to go- I am going to attempt to explain this metaphor of traditional Chinese medicine in a culturally accessible way that will do my Irish ancestors proud.

Distilling alcohol takes some fermented grain, called mash, and 3 basic components. First, you need a heat source (enter the Kidneys). Next, you need a covered pot or some other vessel to contain your raw material and put over that heat (hello, Spleen). Leveraging the fact that alcohol evaporates at about 173° F and water evaporates at 212° F, you heat the vessel to a temperature within that range such that the alcohol portion of your mash will depart the mixture, but the water and waste materials will stay. Finally, the alcohol now in vapor form has to be trapped, cooled and recaptured by some sort of condenser (Lungs, thanks for joining us). And Voilà!- you have hooch.

As seasoned moonshiners know, there is ample opportunity in this process for things to go terribly amiss. If you start with improperly prepared mash, toxins abound. Too little heat and you won’t get enough alcohol. Too much heat and you will get a bunch of garbage, some of it toxic, mixed in with your alcohol. A poorly constructed still and you’re likely to introduce heavy metal contamination, or worse, blow yourself up. But when it’s done right, boy howdy do get to get a good party.

When TCM folks talk about the healthy transformation and transportation of food and fluids, this is exactly what they mean- just the right balance of clean raw ingredients mixed with heat, the good stuff got separated from the garbage, that good stuff got recaptured in a desirable form, and a good time was had by all! And when TCM folks talk about patterns of disharmony in the Kidneys or the Spleen or the Lungs, really what they mean is something has gotten monkeyed up in that process.

I am making a lot of simplifications here. Certainly the TCM powers that be wouldn’t have demanded a 4 year curriculum in acupuncture school if TCM theory was as simple as making whisky, but I think this should serve as a nice jumping off point.

Photo by sashafatcat

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