Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Another Way to Think About Qigong's Tricky Gates

In the Chinese acupuncture and qigong systems, many acupoints include the character for "gate" or "door". Some of these points are in areas of the body that may be difficult to sense/feel into thus making them difficult to "open". These have been nicknamed "tricky gates”. In this article I sort through various images of gates and doors that may come to mind when thinking of "tricky gates" and I suggest what may be a more useful image or way to think of what is meant by a "tricky gate".

Growing up and living in middle-class America, when I think of a gate, a variety of contemporary images come to mind. A gate can be:
  • a section of galvanized fence or wooden picket fence which opens into my backyard.
  • a motorized arm or bar at the entrance to a car park structure or parking lot.
  • an entrance turn-style at a sports stadium, amusement park, or zoo.
  • a section of a livestock corral that can be opened or closed.
  • a section of a dam on a river that can be raised or lowered to control the level of the river.
  • etc., etc., etc...
And so for me, when I hear about gates in qigong, these images come to mind. But because I can't understand what would be "tricky" about any of these gates, I wonder if my experience with these gates is distracting me from a more functional imagery of what is meant by a tricky gate.

Similarly, when I think of a door, a variety of contemporary American images come to mind. A door can be:
  • a steel, fireproof factory locking apparatus
  • a plate glass locking apparatus at a retail business entrance
  • a hollow core, decorative unlockable apparatus dividing rooms in my house
  • a solid core, decorative lockable apparatus at the entrance to my apartment or house.
  • etc., etc., etc...
And so for me, when I hear about doors in qigong, these images come to mind. When I think about the Mingmen point, is this more like an inside door that is easy to kick open or more like a steel reinforced, securely locked exterior factory door that requires special keys or key codes to open?

Maybe the ancient Chinese who applied their daily life experience when naming these acupuncture points had a completely different experience and understanding of gates and doors than I do. Granted, what I propose below may all be conjecture but for me, I think I get closer to a more realistic understanding than applying contemporary American imagery to these terms.

I'm also looking for a different interpretation than that which I think is prevalent amongst American acupuncturists and popular qigong practices today. For example, the article, The Role of Taoist Spirituality in Chinese Medicine, Part One: The Gate of All Wonders (Acupuncture Today, February, 2006, Vol. 07, Issue 02) proposes the following understanding for gates and doors:
"When you consider that gates and doors are passageways connecting one thing to another, it's obvious this concept is not concerned with establishing a geographic middle, but rather with pointing toward the potential for mystical transformations."
For me, the problem with applying a mystical interpretation to gates and doors is that doing so invites me to disassociate from my bodily kinesthetics. In my Wujifa internal gongfu practice, one of the goals is to integrate and connect mind and body. And so having an interpretation of gates and doors that offers a practical, functional, kinesthetic imagery that I can relate and apply to my corporeal practice is of prime importance.

During my summer 2013 sight-seeing trip to China. I climbed the Great Wall at JuYongGuan, I walked atop a half mile section of the old Nanjing City Wall, and I bicycled the entire 14km (8.6 mile) of the Xi'an City Wall. On this bicycle ride I stopped at and read the few historical markers that were written in both Chinese and English. With the Great Wall and Nanjing behind me, I discovered another perspective on gates and doors.

The passageway through the Great Wall or through any of these city walls is the point through which the life of the city flows and at the same time it is the point that is most vulnerable to hostile infiltration. Rather than three meters or more of an impenetrable granite block wall, there are only several inches of wood to protect this opening. As such, this vulnerable area is compensated by fortifications of heavily armed military guards.

Attacking this vulnerable yet heavily armored gate head-on became a futile effort. It was too tricky to get through the armors guarding the gate. And so what wound up happening was that those attacking the city shifted their attack from the protected gate to the unprotected wall far away from the gate. In response to this change in enemy strategy, guard towers were built along the wall to protect the space between the gates.

My "a-ha" moment is that it is probably more accurate to think of an acupuncture "gate" in terms of the historical mileau in which the name arose. It is probably more accurate to think of a "gate" as a fortified opening which existed in ancient Chinese city walls rather than thinking of the gate I use to get into my backyard.

When I shift my imagery in this way, then when I think of a "tricky gate", I think of an area on my body that exists to allow a natural ebb and flow of energy but which is also heavily fortified, armored, locked-down, chronically tense to protect the inherent or perceived vulnerability of that area. Vulnerable to what? Maybe vulnerable to change? Vulnerable to being open? What happens when the normally armored gate is breached, and its armors dissolved, and the gate opened?

In terms of a functional internal gongfu application of this understanding, maybe the trick of the "tricky gate" is figuring out how to overcome the fear of approaching the gate, and how to overcome the fear associated with dissolving the armor guarding this gate. Once the gate is breached, then the game changes. This was as true for ancient Xi'an, Nanjing, and China as it is for me in my practice today.

The insight I applied to the so-called "tricky gates" may or may not be applicable to all the other acupoints that include the character for gate or door. Nonetheless, applying the above insight may provide a more functional imagery regarding why some "gates" or "doors" are trickier to feel and open than others.

The bottom line. I'm not trained in acupuncture and I have no knowledge of the etymology of acupuncture names.  I am confused by the translations used for acupuncture point names. Only the hù () character is translated as door in Deadman's A Manual of Acupuncture. (See table at end of this article.) The remainder are translated as gate.

Acupoint name includes # of occurrences Common dictionary translation
門 or 门 (mén) 23 opening, door, gate, doorway, gateway
關 or 关 (guan) 5 mountain pass; to close; to shut; to turn off
闕 or 阙 (què) 2 Deficiency
戶 or 户 (hù) 3 household; door; family

Table derived from: A Manual of Acupuncture by Peter Deadman, Mazin Al-Khafaji with Kevin Baker. Journal of Chinese Medicine Publications. 2007 East Sussex England.

Chinese Pin Yin Name English Translation English Location
髀關 bì guān Thigh Gate Stomach (ST) 31
沖門 chōng mén Rushing Gate Spleen (SP) 12
耳門 ěr mén Ear Gate Triple Burner (SJ) 21
風門 fēng mén Wind Gate Bladder (BL) 12
膈關 gé guān Diaphragm Gate Bladder (BL) 46
關門 guān mén Pass Gate Stomach (ST) 22
關元 guān yuán Gate of Origin (see note 2 & 3) Conception Vessel (REN) 4
滑肉門 huá ròu mén Slippery Flesh Gate Stomach (ST) 24
患門 huàn mén Suffering Gate Extra Back Waist (M-BW) 6
肓門 huāng mén Vitals Gate Bladder (BL) 51
魂門 hún mén Eternal Soul Gate Bladder (BL) 47
箕門 jī mén Winnowing Gate Spleen (SP) 11
金門 jīn mén Gold Gate Bladder (BL) 63
京門 jīng mén Capital Gate Gall Bladder (GB) 25
巨闕 jù què Great Gateway Conception Vessel (REN) 14
梁門 liáng mén Beam Gate Stomach (ST) 21
命門 mìng mén Gate of Life (see note 5) Governing Vessel (DU) 4
腦戶 nǎo hù Brain Door Governing Vessel (DU) 17
魄戶 pò hù Soul Door Bladder (BL) 42
氣戶 qí hù Qi Door Stomach (ST) 13
期門 qí mén Qi Door / Cycle Gate Liver (LV) 14
神門 shén mén Spirit Gate Heart (HE) 7
石門 shí mén Stone Gate (see note 1) Conception Vessel (REN) 5
神闕 shén què Spirit Gateway (see note 4) Conception Vessel (REN) 8
郄門 xī mén Xi Cleft Gate Pericardium (PC) 4
膝陽關 xī yáng guān Knee Yang Gate Gall Bladder (GB) 33
啞門 yǎ mén Mute Gate Governing Vessel (DU) 15
腰陽關 yāo yáng guān Lumbar Yang Gate Governing Vessel (DU) 3
液門 yè mén Fluid Gate Triple Burner (SJ) 2
殷門 yīn mén Gate of Abundance Bladder (BL) 37
幽門 yōu mén Hidden Gate Kidney (KID) 21
雲門 yún mén Cloud Gate Lung (LU) 2
章門 zhāng mén Completion Gate Liver (LV) 13


1. In colloquial Chinese a woman who is infertile is known as a “stone woman’, whilst the name Shimen means “Stone Gate’ or “Stone Door’. An alternative name for this point is Jueyun (Infertility). These names refer to the unique quality classically attributed to this point of inducing infertility. (pg 504)

2. As well as Guanyuan (Gate of Origin) several of the numerous different names given to this point reflect its deeply tonifying properties, for example Mingmen (Gate of Life), Huangzhiyuan (Origina of Huang), Xuehai (Sea of Blood), Qihai (Sea of Qi), Dahai (Great Sea) and of course Dantian (Cinnabar Field).  (pg 501)

3. Qihai (Ren-6) Sea of Qi, like Guanyuan REN-4, is also knwn by the name of ‘Dantian’ (Cinnabar Field). This reflects its location in the vital centre of the body where the deepest energies are stored and generated, and which plays a pivotal role in the treatment of disease and in Chinese martial arts and qigong practices. (pg 505)

4. Shen is translated as spirit, whilst Que literally refers to the watchtower above the gates which protect a city. This point is also known as Qishe (Abode of Qi) or Qihe (Joining of Qi) These various names reflect the importance of the umbilicus…” (pg 508)

5. Finally, according to qigong theory, there are three important gates or passes (sanguan) in the practice of qi circulation through the Governing vessel. These gates, through which it is more difficult to circulate the qi are the Coccyx Pass (Weiluguan) in the region of Changqiang DU-1, the Lumbar Pass (Jiajiguan) in the region of Mingmen DU-4, and the Occipital Pass (Yuzhenwan) in the region of Yuzhen BL-9. (pg 538)

Doors are another matter and I won't address them here. But if you're interested, here are a few references:

Chinese traditional culture and “door culture” traditional residence in Northern
by He Xiaoyan
Inner Mongolia University Of Technology, China
Applied Mechanics and Materials Vols. 209-211 (2012) pp 45-48

Wooden Door Culture of Ancient Chinese Architecture from the 2012 International Wooden Door Culture Forum, Beijing, China

China Gate Culture (2011)

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