Introduction to the "STEMS AND BRANCHES" theory

By Yuval Blum, L.Ac, Dip. –

TCM Chinese medicine, along with acupuncture and herbs have developed over thousands of years. Overtime, Chinese medicine has really evolved, but the roots, sources and philosophy have remained the same. With the beginning of the Chinese revolution (“Xinhai Revolution”) and the establishment of the “Republic of China” at the beginning of the 20th century, the philosophy of Chinese medicine began to change. During this time, the hierarchy of Chinese authorities and the structure of society changed, the Emperor lost his chair, monks were murdered, and the things that represented the traditional Chinese culture were destroyed. This was all done in an effort to bring the ways of the Western World to China. One of the things that was greatly affected by all of these changes was Chinese medicine and it’s philosophy. Western medicine made its first appearance in China and attempted to make the practice of Chinese medicine illegal. With the rise of Mao Tse Tung and the Communist party in the middle of the 1960’s, Chinese medicine was successfully pushed out of the new “People’s Republic of China.” Those who practiced Chinese medicine were forced to flee China. This led to a severe shortage in medical doctors and medical care (one medical doctor/100,000 people) and the citizens of China were in great need of medical assistance. The urgent need for medical care opened the doors for the reinstatement of Chinese medicine into China, leading Mao Tse Tung to declare acupuncture and Chinese medicine a “national treasure”. Chinese medicine Masters were asked to return to China to rebuild the practice of Chinese medicine. New practitioners were trained in a very short period leading to the deterioration of Chinese medicine’s depth and philosophy. A group of symptoms were combined to form syndromes and a few needle points were chosen to treat each syndrome. This new form of Chinese medicine was labelled “Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)”, a form of traditional medicine without the knowledge, theory and philosophy that was collected and used for thousands of years and made it what it is.

One of the main theories that was lost is called, “WU YUN LIU QI” – “5 Movements 6 Energies” more commonly known as “Celestial Stems Terrestrial Branches” or “The Stems and Branches” and is based on Chapters 66-71 of the SU WEN – “The Inner Cannon of the Yellow Emperor”.

According to the “Stems and Branches” theory, man is a reflection of the universe. Its premise is that a microcosm of the macrocosms, meaning that the same rules that work in nature, control and affect it, are represented in the man and therefore affect him. The movement in our body is exactly similar to the big cosmic movement.

One of the things that affect the universe as well as the man is time. The theory of Stems and Branches tries to explain time as a quality of QI/energy. This quality is divided by year, month, day and hour.


Within the Stems and Branches theory, the stems are divided into 10 heavenly stems and the branches are separated into 12 earthly branches.

The 10 stems are created by the shape and form of the planets. In other words, the 10 stems represent the energy that is created in heaven by the shape and form of the stars and planets. This energy reflects on earth and is affected by it. Today’s  cosmologists recognise that the mass of a planet has the ability to bend the “fabric” of space and time, which impacts its relationship with other objects in space. For example, the moon, while in the orbit of the earth has an impact on the tides of our planet. Other affects can be as simple as day and night, the four seasons, and so on. In the same way, the shape and form of the stars and planets that create the 10 stems affect the man.

The shape and form of the planet at the moment of birth create a kind of energy that reflects on earth and therefore affects it and the man. At the moment of birth we are affected by so many things, for example, the first touch, the first breath, the first smell, the first noise, and all the other firsts we experience when we enter the world. Another thing that we are affected by is the movement and gravity created by the planets surrounding earth and the kind of QI they create.  That energy, together with our genes and our place of birth will create the man’s constitution, his character, mental and physical state, his strengths and his weaknesses.

The most significant effect of the stems will be the year of birth, but the month, day and hour are important too. The stems relate to the solar cycle, and therefore it is relative to the year and the day.


The 12 branches relate to the moon, the month and the hour. The number 12 represents every phenomenon in nature (12 months, 4 seasons each season is divided by 3: beginning, middle/peak, and end = 4 x 3, 24 hours in a day = 12 x 2, 60 minutes in an hour = 12 x 5, etc.). In accordance with the branches, in our body there are 12 main organs and 12 main meridians (12 channels of bodily energy).

Each part of the 12 branches represents a different state of yang energy in comparison to yin energy, and is called the earthly branch.

These 12 branches are the “answer” of earth to heaven. They correspond to the stems and create a complete and unique energy for that specific time.

Each branch is represented by an organ, time of day and element. The transition from branch to branch is similar to the flow of the YING QI; the flow of energy from one meridian to the next. We can see that flow through the Chinese clock.                                                                                                          See Table 1

In this order, each organ belongs to a different element, this is called the organ’s “deep energy”. The understanding of the “deep energy” can help us to understand different functions and actions of the organs and gives us a better and complete understanding of the organs and their purpose. For example, the kidneys belong to the water element, in our physical body we can see that role as the kidneys are in charge of the fluids economy. The kidney’s “deep energy” is Metal, which can help us to understand the filtering action of the kidneys.

The stem and branch of the year, month, day and hour are known as the “four pillars”. The “four pillars” created at the moment of birth create an astrologic energetic map, a kind of “heavenly weather” that helps as understand ones physical, emotional and mental aspects, strengths, weaknesses, tendencies and constitution. This information can help and direct the practitioner in his work in order to tonify, balance and harmonize the patient and to decide which energies he will channel to best treat diseases and sicknesses. In addition, the “four pillars” are helpful when practitioners are devising a plan for preventing future illness and maintaining a healthy balance for the body.

“DAO DE JIND”, “The Book of Dao”, chapter 25:

“Man follows the earth.
Earth follows the heaven.
The heaven follows the Dao.
The Dao follows only itself.”