Introduction to Chinese Medical Palmistry

Introduction to Chinese Medical Palmistry

© Gary Liscum, Zong Xiao-fan 
(Excerpted from Chinese Medical Palmistry: Your Health In Your Hand
Published by Blue Poppy Press, Inc.)


This is an introductory guide to the practical application of Chinese medical palmistry. Visual examination by the unaided eye is one of the four basic methods of diagnosis in Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM. The Su Wen (Simple Questions), one of the oldest and most authoritative classics of Chinese medicine, says that, “If something happens on the interior of the body, it must be reflected on the exterior of the body.” Although visual examination within Chinese medicine usually focuses on examining the face, inspecting any areas of the body which are diseased, and especially examining the tongue, in China in recent years there has been renewed interest in examining the hands, palms, and fingernails.One of the characteristics of Traditional Chinese Medicine is a belief that the part contains the whole. Although Chinese medicine is very old, in the West, this idea is considered very modern and is called holism, as in holisitic health. This is also where we get the word hologram. In holography, one can shine a laser through a part of a holographic image and reproduce the entire image.

Similarly, Chinese doctors for millenia have believed that there are maps of the entire body on various parts of the body. These maps can be used to diagnose the corresponding body parts and, in some cases, such as with hand and ear acupuncture, to even treat those corresponding parts. Technically, these maps are called homunculi or little men. For instance, Chinese doctors believe there are homunculi on the ear, face, eyes, nose, hands, and feet. Some modern Chinese doctors have even found homunculi which can be used to both diagnose and treat the entire body on the metacarpal bone attached to the index finger and on the femur of the upper leg. This belief that there are maps of the entire body on various parts of the body can be called a type of bio-holography. Thus the idea that one might be able to diagnose patients in part by palmistry is not such a far-fetched one in TCM. In fact, shou zhen or hand diagnosis is one of the age-old accepted sub-divisions of visual diagnosis within TCM and is included in such modern TCM diagnostic manuals as Zhong Guo Yi Xue Zhen Fa Da Quan (A Great Collection of Chinese Medical Diagnostic Methods) published in 1991.

A Brief History of Chinese Medical Palmistry
Traditional Chinese palmistry is deeply rooted in yin yang theory, five phase theory, and the eight trigrams of the Yi Jing (Classic of Change). These are different but related systems of universal correspondence whereby all natural phenomena can be arranged in groups, each member of a goup sharing certain inherent qualities or characteristics. Joseph Needham, the greatest sinologist of this century, refers to this as correlative thinking. Because Traditional Chinese Medicine is also rooted in these same theories, it was natural that the ancient Chinese saw correspondences between marks and lines in the palm and medical conditions. As Guo Lin-zong, one of the earliest Chinese writers on palmistry who lived in the late Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), says, “Humans are parallel to the universe – the universe is man and man is the universe.” Thus palmistry has been related to medicine in China from ancient times.

It is said that lines in the palm of the Emperor Shun (2317-2208 BCE) formed the character “to praise.” However, as far as the written record is concerned, palmistry in China traces its earliest origins to the Zhou Dynasty (1122-770 BCE) when it was then both popular and widespread. The earliest important Chinese discussion of palmistry is found in the Gu Ge Pian (Writings on the Skeleton), also known as Gu Xiang (Appearances on Bones), written by the scholar Wang Chong in the late part of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). According to Wang:

It is a common belief that fate is difficult to foresee. Far from it, it can easily be known. But by what means? By the means of the body and its bones. An inquiry into these manifestations leads to a knowledge of fate, just as from a look at a measure, one can learn its capacity. By manifestations, I understand the boney configurations.

At this same time, the Huang Di Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic), the cornerstone of the Chinese medical application of the theory of systematic correspondence to health and medicine, was well established and Zhang Zhong-jing was writing his Shang Han Lun/Jin Gui Yao Lue (Treatise on Damage by Cold/Essential Formulas from the Golden Chamber), the first systematic Chinese discussion of polypharmacy herbal medicine. In fact, the Nei Jing contains plentiful references to various medical indications seen in the hands.

Most premodern books on palmistry were not just about palmistry. Rather, sections on palmistry tended to be found as chapters in books on bodily prognostication in general. These books contained sections on face reading or physiognomy (ren xiang) as well as sections on reading one’s feet, neck, chest, abdomen, navel, lower and upper backs, weight, stance, and body type. The various signs used as indications in these books were referred to as xiang. The word xiang in Chinese means appearance. When pronounced in a different tone, the word xiang means mutual, two things resonating together because they share the same li or principles which then guide and shape their qi. Premodern books typically refer to palmistry as shou xiang, hand appearances.

Some early Chinese works on physiogonomy and palmistry are the Yue Bo Dong Zhong Ji (The Moon Wave Cave Record) by Zhang Zhong-yuan written during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-265 CE); the Xiang Jing Shi Si Juan (Fourteen Volumes on Ways of Appearance) by Lai He written in the Sui Dynasty (581-618 ce); the Xiang Fa Ru Men (Entering the Gate of the Method of Appearances) by Lu Tong-pin of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 ce); the Shen Xiang Chuan Pian (Complete Writings on Divine Appearances) by Chen Xi, a.k.a. Chen Tuan, in the Song Dynasty (960-1280 ce); the Tai Qing Shen Jian (The Divine Mirror of the Tai Qing) by Wang Bo also during the Song; and the Ma Yi Xiang Fa (Ma Yi’s Appearances Method) which is also attributed to Chen Bo.

In the Chinese medical literature, information on hand diagnosis (shou zhen) appears in the famous Sui Dynasty work by Chao Yuan-fang, the Zhu Bing Yuan Hou Zong Lun (General Treatise on the Origin & Symptoms of Various Diseases). In the Tang Dynasty, Wang Chao’s Shui Jing Tu Jue (Water Mirror Diagrams & Rhymes) describes the method of diagnosing children by observing the veins on the palmar surface of the index finger. This method is now known as hu kou luo mai zhen fa, examining the veins at the tiger’s mouth method. In the Song Dynasty, the He Luo Li Shu (Yellow River Principles & Numerology) related the former and latter heaven eight trigrams of the Yi Jing (Classic of Change) to locations on the palm of the hand.

According to Terence Dukes in his Chinese Hand Analysis, Chinese palmistry was heavily influenced by Ayurvedic palmistry and hand diagnosis brought to China by Buddhist missionary monks. This influence was greatest in the Sui, Tang, Song, and Yuan Dynasties. For instance, in Duke’s list of notable names in Chinese physiognomy, palmistry, and related arts, he lists the Indian Buddhist monks Da Mo (Bodhidharma), Ati Gupta, and Punya Dasa, active in China around 5-600 ce. The system of palmistry these Indian monks brought to China was very similar to that exported from the Middle East to Europe. In China, this system was preserved and propagated by the monks of the Chen Yan sect of Tantric Buddhism. Further, this system was organized on the Buddhist use of the five phases. Thus it is known as the wu xing pai or Five Phase School of Chinese palmistry. Today one can still find famous monk practitioners of this art in monsteries in the People’s Republic of China. In addition, this art was exported to Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands, and Japan where it was passed down within the Tantric sect which came to be know as Shingon.

Adherents of this five phase system of palmistry believed and still do that appearances in the hand can reveal the san hou or three periods. In other words, one can examine a person’s past (xian zhen), the present (zai zhen), and their future (lai zhen). One can also read the hands for information about the four imports or si tong. This means that the appearances of the hands can reveal the mind (xin) or personality, the body (shen), the emotions and thoughts (yi), and the qi which unifies all these three. Thus it is clear that practitioners of this five phase system of Chinese palmistry did diagnose the physical predispositions and ailments of their subjects.

Numerous other important Chinese books on palmistry were written in succeeding dynasties. For instance, Chen Dan-ye published his well-known book on palmistry, the Xiang Li Heng Zhen (Mutual Appearances & Their Principles for Measuring the Truth), in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 ce), and Gao Wei-qing compiled the Shen Xiang Hui Pian (Collected Writings on Divine Mutual Appearances) in 1843. In terms of the medical literature, Lin Zhi-han’s Si Zhen Jue Wei (Secrets of Success in the Four Examinations in Minute Detail) published in 1723 and Zhou Xue-hai’s Xing Se Wai Zhen Jian Mo (Easy Study Form & Color External Examination) published in 1894 both contained abundant information on hand diagnosis.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, palmistry began to draw the attention of Chinese practitioners of various of the emerging modern sciences. Anatomists were the first to become interested in palmistry but since have been followed by anthropologists, biologists, and geneticists. These scientists have observed, analyzed, and studied the lines on the palm and have made a number of important contributions to this body of knoweldge. Within the last 20-30 years in particular, the medical field has begun to show widespread interest in this system of correspondences.

By exploring palmistry from the viewpoint of modern medicine and genetics, further understanding has been gained in the relationship between the lines on the hand and disease. In addition, by utilizing scientific technology, new developments have occurred in the study of palmistry. In China today, biologist, psychologists, and sociologists as well as the above-mentioned anthropologists, geneticists, and physicians are all engaged in substantiating the age-old wisdom on human health and disease contained in Chinese palmistry.

Thus this book is a combination of age-old Chinese lore and modern scientific findings. Some of the indications given in this book are based on yin yang theory, the five phases, or the eight trigrams. Other indications are based on modern clinical observation. This makes modern Chinese medical palmistry a unique blend of ancient and modern knowledge.

Who and How to Use Chinese Medical Palmistry
The indications represented in this book can be used by lay people to help determine their individual organic strengths and weaknesses or, in other words, their constitutional predisposition. Knowing how one may tend to become ill, readers of this book can then alter their diet and lifestyle or seek preventive treatment so as to prevent tendencies from becoming realities. Ever since the Warring States Period and the writing of the Huang Di Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic), prevention has been the highest form of medicine within TCM, and Chinese medical palmistry is well suited to become one of the diagnostic cornerstones of the preventive medicine of the future.

Professional health care practitioners, whether mds, dcs, nds, or acupuncturists and TCM practitioners will also find these indications a useful adjunctive diagnositic tool. The hand is readily available and can be examined painlessly, relatively quickly, and without expensive diagnostic machinery. In particular, acupuncturists and TCM practitioners can easily incorporate Chinese medical palm diagnosis into their Chinese pulse diagnosis. While listening to the pulse, the palm is lying face up in front of one. Thus one can take a look at the palm while their fingers are on their patient’s pulse either before or after they have concentrated their mind on the pulse itself. This means that they do not even have to say that they are doing Chinese medical palm diagnosis if they choose not to.

Like any diagnostic art based on human observation, Chinese medical palmistry takes some practice to master. One should not expect to simply read this book and know all about their own and other’s health. After reading this book through from cover to over, one should start looking at as many hands as possible with this book at their side. Over a period of a few weeks, one should have become skilled at quickly assessing their patient’s shape of hand, shape of fingers, major lines in the palm, fingerprints, and nails.

However, Chinese medical palmistry, similar to Chinese pulse reading or Chinese physiognomy, requires both judgement and intuition. One must first analyze the various elements of the hand, such as its lines and shapes, individually. But then one must add these various elements together before concluding, and certainly before stating, that any one sign means this or that. In addition, one’s reading of the palm should be tempered by the patient’s medical history and information gathered from other diagnostic sources.

In other words, the reader is cautioned not to rely on the information contained in this book alone when making decisions about their own or others’ health. Chinese medical palmistry is not a substitute for any other necessay and appropriate professional medical examination or diagnosis. However, as a part of an overall health assessment, Chinese medical palmistry may turn up some very interesting and useful information. This is especially so in the realm of prevention where assessing one’s constitutional predispositions is so important.

Many of the indications given in this book are based on modern Western diasease categories. However, especially in the section on Chinese fingernail diagnosis, this book also discusses indications in terms of TCM theory. Readers of this book who are unfamiliar with TCM theory are recommended to read Ted Kaptchuk’s Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine. This is the best basic introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine available in English. In it, the author makes intelligble such Chinese concepts as liver qi stagnation and spleen yang vacuity to Western lay readers.

This article is an excerpt from the book Chinese Medical Palmistry: Your Health In Your Hand, by Gary Liscum and Zong Xiao-fan, ISBN 0-936185-64-3, $15.95 US, published by Blue Poppy Press, Inc. You can order this book through your local bookstore or by calling Blue Poppy Press directly at 1-800-487-9296.

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