Why Three Is My Favorite Number
"The Dao creates one, one creates two, two creates three, and from three come the 10,000 things.” - Tao Te Ching
In order to really appreciate the complexity and unity of Chinese medicine, it is important to understand the conceptual framework in which it developed. This framework is strewn with a great deal of numbers.
If you’ve spent any time studying Chinese theory (or chatting up your acupuncturist), you may have heard reference to the Six Qi, the Eight Patterns, the Twelve Meridians, the Five Phases, and so on. Everything in Chinese medicine is very intentional; these numbers aren’t just random but instead have deep symbolic meaning. Perhaps the most significant number in Chinese theory is THREE - understanding the concept of Three is what allows an acupuncturist to diagnose, understand complex relationships, and develop effective treatment plans.
In Chinese theory, numbers are not randomly assigned but instead represent complex relationships and stages of development:
ONE - is called “Yi” in Chinese and its character is a single horizontal line. It is considered a picture of heaven and symbolizes the unity and the unknowable. It is the ONE that differentiates into Two.
TWO - is called “Er” in Chinese and its character are two horizontal lines. It is considered a picture of heaven (the One) and earth (the TWO). TWO symbolizes Yin and Yang, which are interdependent parts and an ever-fluid and changing process. It is TWO that gives rise to Three.
THREE - is called “San” in Chinese and its character are three horizontal lines - it is a drawing of heaven and earth plus something in between. This is the by-product of a functional contact between Yin and Yang. Something is always born out of such an interaction - this is why Daoist theory states that it is the THREE that gives rise to the 10,000 things. That is, the Three, this vital and motive force, is what generates all the other things.
When we think about the number Three, it should not be thought of as just adding one more (i.e. I had 2 apples, I bought 1 more, and now I have 3). Three is not quantity, but a process. Three is something that comes out of the interplay between the One (Heaven) and Two (Earth). A famous Chinese saying claims that “man is between heaven and earth” - in this sense, we are the three. Our growth, development, change - our life processes - are represented by the Three.
Three is the result of a union, the mixing of the two. All things can be divided into three. Three is the number of what really exists, since there is never purely Yin or purely Yang, there must always be the three. The blended parts of Yin and Yang always exist.
Understanding this concept of Three is one of the foundational ideas of acupuncture and Chinese medical philosophy. Acupuncturists trained in Classical Chinese theory understand numbers in this way and apply them to their diagnosis in order to generate treatments that take the concept of numbers seriously.
For example, using three needles sequentially along a channel (called a ‘dui yao’) enhances the strength of that treatment and is much more powerful than using a single needle. Herbal formulas are dosed similarly; most Chinese herbs are dosed in quantities of three thereby allowing a certain directional imprint that creates an effective treatment.
In Chinese theory, numbers are not just counting tools. They have deep symbolic value and, when incorporated into acupuncture and herbalism, offer a method for amping up the power of treatments. It is for this reason that Three is my favorite number - by harnessing the deep philosophical significance of this number, I can treat my patients in a better way, one that is grounded in Classical Chinese theory.