Automated tongue image segmentation, in Chinese medicine, is difficult due to two special factors: 1) there are many pathological details on the surface of the tongue, which have a large influence on edge extraction; 2) the shapes of the tongue bodies captured from various persons (with different diseases) are quite different, so they are impossible to describe properly using a predefined deformable template. To address these problems, in this paper, we propose an original technique that is based on a combination of a bi-elliptical deformable template (BEDT) and an active contour model, namely the bi-elliptical deformable contour (BEDC). The BEDT captures gross shape features by using the steepest decent method on its energy function in the parameter space. The BEDC is derived from the BEDT by substituting template forces for classical internal forces, and can deform to fit local details. Our algorithm features fully automatic interpretation of tongue images and a consistent combination of global and local controls via the template force. We apply the BEDC to a large set of clinical tongue images and present experimental results.