Daily Rhythm – The Chinese Clock

The physicians of ancient China strongly emphasized the importance of ‘regular life rhythm’ and ‘living in accordance with the universe’ for maintaining health and longevity.

“Regular life rhythm is the first and most important key to health and longevity in Chinese Medicine”

Chinese Medicine is based on the assumption that we are a small part of a much larger natural order. It is believed that observation of the universe and nature can give us insight into understanding ourselves.

Taiji ancientWhen observing the workings of the universe, by watching the movement of the sun, moon, tides, seasons and stars, the first insight is ‘change’, described by the Daoists as the ‘only constant in the universe’. They then noted that this sequence of change occurs in cycles that are rhythmic and regular, for example, the day follows the night, the full moon follows the new moon, and the summer follows the winter in very regular cycles and times.

This regular movement of the universe – based on ancient spherical astronomy – was the basis for Daoist philosophy. All natural systems, in particular the life processes of plants and animals, live in accordance with those rhythms. This is the basis of Yin-Yang philosophy, the complementary opposites where everything is moving in cycles and when the Yang peaks the seed of Yin is born and so on.

‘Natural laws rest on this principle of movement along the line of least resistance. These laws are not forces external to things but represent the harmony of movement immanent in them. That is why the celestial bodies do not deviate from their orbits and why all events in nature occur with fixed regularity.’

Yi Jing – Book of Changes (11th Century BCE)

Based on long-term observation, in combination with the belief that we are a small part of a much larger natural order, the Daoists assumed natural laws must be the same for humans. Regular rhythms in sync with the heavenly rhythms maximize bodily functions, and in doing so maximize health and longevity. The idea is that the universe has a rhythm like a pendulum and when we swing in rhythm with this pendulum, the universe can run through us.

“The idea is that the universe has a rhythm like a pendulum and when we swing in rhythm with this pendulum, the universe can run through us”

Let’s take a moment to ponder the idea of rhythms and cycles, smaller cycles within larger cycles and all life events and phenomena unfolding through a kind of cyclical spontaneous cooperation. From this perspective of life being a series of cycles, our human life span represents our largest cycle and the one we ultimately desire to influence.

Cycles of Life

This goal of living a ‘full-potential’ life cycle is less about physical longevity, but more in the idea of revealing our destiny and living out our design, gaining greater order and the realization that we are all unique and have a natural, and meaningful contribution to make. Note, that in Daoist philosophy, it seems less about the end and more about the inner desire and design to live in sync with the universe.

“The best way to do this and influence the larger cycle is to start now with the smaller cycles”

In the observation of a tree in the forest or a planet in its orbit, there is no ambition or desire, just balance within itself and balance with its environment and its destiny is revealed. The key here is balance within yourself and your environment, which can never be separated. Living this balance will give you the best chance of your ‘destiny unfolding before your eyes’, referred to by the ancients as wúwéi 无为, non-action, and considered to be the highest and most profound learning in Chinese medicine and philosophy.

We can start living wúwéi right now, by living in accordance with the daily cycle. In Chinese medicine, Qi cycles through nature and humans in a regular daily rhythm. Every 24-hour cycle sees the ebb and flow of influence from each of the 12 periods, which we can relate to the zodiac animals as well as the 12 organs of Chinese medicine. Interestingly, time cycles divided into 12 parts are common in the ancient world and are clearly used in Chinese culture – I believe this was originally based on astronomical observation of the 12 full moons that we see in the annual cycle as well as the fact that there are many advantages in dividing a circle by 12, instead of 10. Regardless, the words and philosophy behind it are simply signposts to reality. The ancient Chinese people, who had balance, harmony and health central to their world-view, observed, tested, retested, and then applied their theories to daily life over millennia. This process led the ancients to suggest that acting in harmony with the 12-period Chinese Clock is the most valuable guide to maximize health.

It is also important to note that these times are a modern adaption and it is actually about the position of the sun and that shifts with the day and the seasons. For example, in winter we should go to sleep earlier and wake up later.

“One should go to bed late and get up early in spring and summer, and go to bed early and get up late in autumn and winter.”

[The Yellow Emperors Classic of Medicine – approx. 300BCE]

After 3000+ years of observation from the longest continuing civilization on earth, life rhythm is considered the most important key in Chinese Medicine preventative health. In fact, I believe all successful cultures shared similar knowledge and actively cultivated these rhythms. The major benefit of the Chinese medicine approach is that they made it the foundation of their health science. I feel it is even more important now, in the age of unprecedented choice and responsibility, than it was in the past. The power of humans to develop oral and written language, and then to collect that information in books (such as classical texts and imperial archives), allows us to observe results over centuries and apply those towards greater depths of understanding. This is key to human success and differentiates us from the rest of the animal world.

Understanding that we are part of nature is the essence of Daoism. Aligning ourselves with those forces that created us is the first and most important step. The Chinese Clock is an ancient code to guide us back to feeling connected to the regular rhythms of life and the universe.

Use this condensed wisdom as your guide in how to best achieve health and balance starting right now!

This is the short version of the Chinese Clock:

5am-7am • Get Up • Let Go Of The Old • Work On Yourself

7am-9am • Eat A Healthy, Grounding Breakfast

9am-11am • Do Your Most Important, Least Enjoyable Work Of The Day

11am-1pm • Connect With Your Own Purpose • Inspire Others

1pm-3pm • Slow Down • Rest & Digest

3pm-5pm • Back Straight • Finish Your Workday Strong

5pm-7pm • Switch Off • Reflect On The day • Share A Laugh

7pm-9pm • Socialize • Seek Pleasure

9pm-11pm • Ride The Wave • Go To Sleep

Frequently Asked Questions

What if I am a shift worker?
What if I do my best work at night?
What if I have had a late night, what should I do the next day?
What if I have a young baby that is constantly disrupting sleep rhythms?
Is this rhythm also important for children?
What if I can’t sleep before 11pm?
Why is the morning so important? Isn’t this simply that we were farmers and didn’t have electricity?

‘Knowing without doing, is not really knowing!’

For further details on the 2-hour periods as well as real-life implementation strategies and support see Alex’s clinic consultations and/or online courses


Alex Tan L.AC is a licensed Acupuncturist.  After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China.  A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex’s bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives.  He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. For more about Alex click here

Alex runs a clinic in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona. Alex welcomes comments and questions to his articles. To schedule an appointment in person or telco-appointment click here