"Meridian" is the most common translation of the Chinese ching-lo (jingluo), but it is a very imperfect translation. Ching means to pass through, and lo means a net or to connect. "Meridian" was originally used by French researchers to describe all meridians, and is used in this article in that sense. The term "channel" is used increasingly for all meridians, while some prefer to maintain the original distinction between ching and lo and use the terms channels and collaterals respectively. For them, meridian theory would be referred to as the theory of channels and collaterals. There is another sub-classification of meridians called vessels. Although it is a valid distinction, it is not important to the immediate discussion.
Meridians are classified into 6 groups according to their location and function. The best known of the meridians are the 12 regular meridians, also called the major trunks. They connect with the organ they are named for by way of collateral meridians (see bellow) and run along the surface of the body either on the chest or back and along either both of the arms or both of the legs. These are the primary conduits for the passage of chi through the body, which flows through this network in a regular, 24-hour pattern. The 12 regular meridians therefore control or take part in every facet of the daily metabolic and physiological functioning of the body.
There are three meridian groupings directly associated with the regular meridians, each with 12 meridians. 1) Each of the divergent meridians arises from one of the 12 regular meridians, passes through the thorax or abdomen to join with the named organ, and then surface at the neck or head. 2) The muscle network meridians distribute chi from the 12 regular meridians among muscles, tendons, and joints, ensuring normal body motion and flexibility. This circulation of chi is referred to as superficial because there is no direct connection with an internal organ. 3) The cutaneous network meridians run parallel to the regular meridians in the cutaneous skin layer and are therefore considered even more superficial. We believe that they are a part of the function of the sensory nervous system.
The 8 extra meridians (also referred to as vessels) are the paths by which the 12 regular meridians connect, share chi, and support each other. None of the individual extra meridians are associated with a specific organ or regular meridian, though all of them connect with a number of other meridians. Their paths are considered superficial but deep. It is through the extra meridians that imbalances in chi are regulated through storage and drainage. The most important of the extra meridians are the govorner meridian, which runs along the middle of the back, and the conception meridian, which runs along the middle of the chest and stomach.
The system of 15 collateral meridians is responsible for the thorough and complete circulation of chi. One collateral meridian arises from each of the 12 regular meridians, the governor and conception meridians, and from the spleen (which does not have a regular meridian). Each of the collateral meridians branch out, forming minute or "grandson" collateral meridians, creating both horizontal and vertical connections within the complete meridian system.
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