三焦 Sān Jiāo / Triple Burner / Triple Heater

This is one of the 12 organ systems in Chinese medicine. You can access the podcast we recorded about this the Triple burner here. The information below is intended to enhance and expand your experience of that podcast.

The Triple Burner channel

The Triple Burner channel overview – Peter Deadman

The Triple Burner channel starts by the ulnar nailbed of the ring finger, extends up through the dorsal forearm to the back of the elbow, then proceeds up through the arm into the shoulder, neck, loops around the ear and ends at the lateral edge of the eyebrow.

The name 三焦 Sān Jiāo / Triple Burner

三 means “three” or “triple.” Looks a bit like a roman numeral three on its side with the top and bottom lines taken off. Three is a very important number in ancient Chinese numerology.

焦 is a picture of a bird over a fire, so represents cooking, thus “burner” or “heater.” Relates back to fire, may also be pointing in the direction of the Triple Burner's use in helping nourish the body. Ultimately these two characters together can be used to discuss a particular system of diagnostic and treatment information based on the “three heaters” of the body.

The “three heaters” or “three burners” in this context are :

  1. Upper burner / Upper jiao – From around the diaphragm up, encompassing the lungs, heart, pericardium and other tissues and structures in this region.
  2. Middle burner / Middle jiao – From the around the diaphragm down to just below the bellybutton, encompassing liver, gallbladder, spleen, pancreas, stomach and at least some of the intestines, and other tissues and structures in this region.
  3. Lower burner / Lower jiao – From below the bellybutton to the pubic bone, encompassing kidney (though obviously location would be more middle burner), bladder, reproductive organs, and other tissues and structures in this region.

Triple burner differentiation is a theoretical system that discusses health and disease as involving the action and interaction of these three burners. It is one way of looking at the whole Triple Burner organ system, though most classical practitioners see the Triple burner as much more than just these three regions of the torso.

Phase element – Ministerial Fire

Fire is divided into two types in Chinese medicine, Imperial and Ministerial. Imperial fire is stable, consistent and unmoving like a hearth fire, the Heart and Small Intestine are included in this phase element. Ministerial fire is more inconsistent, can be more powerful and uncontrolled, and moves around the body. The Pericardium and Triple Burner are included in this phase element.

Six conformations – Shàoyáng

The six conformations is a system of diagnosis that divides the twelve organ systems into six synergistic pairs. There are a variety of ways to parse the information contained in this system, which is chiefly used when diagnosing and treating infectious conditions such as colds and flus, but has utility beyond that use. The Shaoyang organ systems are the Triple Burner and the Gallbladder, so examining more about the Gallbladder will help us learn more about the Triple Burner. Shaoyang conditions are characterized by having ministerial fire like qualities, and tenacious staying power, as the Shaoyang layers are neither inside nor outside, so are difficult to treat.

Huángdì Nèijīng – Chapter 8 – The Waterways

As discussed in the podcast, one of the most important books in Chinese medicine is the Huángdì Nèijīng or Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic. In Chapter 8 of that text, all of the organ systems are described using language that relates to the operation of a country or state. This is a common way of symbolically discussing physiology and pathology in ancient Chinese texts.

In this chapter, it is said of the Triple Burner:

“San jiao is responsible for the opening up of passages and irrigation. The waterways stem from it.”

Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée translation

So, despite all the fire symbolism of the Triple Burner, it is also deeply associated with the movement of water through the body, and the passages that the water moves through. This relates San jiao to a type of irrigation system, the basis for many practitioners' view of the Triple Burner as similar to the lymphatic system.

Organ clock – 9 to 11pm

Heiner Fruehauf's version of the organ clock / holomap

This is bedtime! Even in the summer, it usually gets dark during this timeframe, and most of us naturally start to feel sleepy sometime in the middle of this period. Further, most people will feel a “second wind” around 11pm, so getting in bed during Triple Burner time is preferred. Things are dark, quiet and less active.

Organ clock – November 7 to December 7

This time of year in the Northern hemisphere is characterized by full descent into the cold, dark & often stormy weather. It's generally post-harvest, or the tail end of harvest, and deciduous trees lose their last leaves. This is a time for coziness, for family togetherness, and for stillness. It's a time to go to bed earlier, to do less out in the world when possible, and to focus on the interior.

Organ clock – Hexagram 2

Hexagram 2 – Kun

The Yijing / IChing is one of the most ancient Chinese texts. It contains 64 hexagrams and their interpretation and was used anciently, and is still used today, for divination purposes. Each hexagram is composed of 6 lines, either broken (yin lines) or solid (yang lines) or a combination of the two, meaning each has a unique type of yin/yang balance.

There are 12 special hexagrams called “tidal hexagrams” that are arrayed around the organ clock depicting the relative balance and relationship of yin & yang throughout the cycle of 12 months. The Triple Burner is composed of all Yin lines, and its name, Kūn 坤 is generally translated as “earth” but can also mean receptive, fecund, latent, dark, cold – all yin qualities. In this way, it resonates deeply with the time based aspects of the organ clock already discussed on this page.

Triple Burner in Clinic

Like most organ systems, and the channels they are connected to, the TB channel and organ can be used in a variety of ways in the clinic. In fact it is reductive, and inappropriate, to say that one organ system/channel “treats such and such condition,” as though that is the sum total of its impact. That said, of course there are general principles we can mention that will help you to understand this organ system more deeply.

  1. Issues of fluid metabolism including edema and other types of swelling, too much fluid in the intestines (diarrhea, gurgling), heart palpitations (water overcoming fire) and watery/fluid filled blisters or other skin conditions.
  2. Problems of the eye, cheek, upper mandible and ear, especially when those have fluid or heat at their root.
  3. Pain and dysfunction along the channel, especially wrist, elbow and shoulder.
  4. Ministerial fire issues not already described, including alternating chills and fever or unusual fevers associated with certain types of pathogenic invasion, and certain types of hot flashes
  5. Some types of insomnia, anxiety or agitation