Qi – Definition, Traditional Chinese Medicine

What is Qi?

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the way of conceiving life, health and disease, of making diagnoses and developing treatments is based on an a priori: the speculative idea that everything that surrounds us and constitutes us is essentially the result of the same fundamental component: Qi (pronounced tchi). Thus, all matter comes from a condensation of Qi, even if the Qi itself remains invisible. We can say that Qi corresponds to everything that is perceptible but intangible1.

The term is often translated by Energy or Breath, a reassuring translation for the Western mind, but which involves a certain prejudice. In the West, the term energy refers to measurable phenomena such as electrical, electromagnetic, nuclear, heat or mechanical energy. To get closer to the oriental meaning, we must turn to the Greek root energeia (force in action) which includes vitality, physical or moral strength, as well as the vigor or power of an organism. We can also think of the pneuma of the Greek philosophers: the breath of life.

Another way to translate the term Qi is Vital Energy. However, the qualifier vital must here be taken in a broad sense; in Chinese thought, everything – living beings as well as the inanimate world – is inhabited by the same vital energy (which could, at the limit, be associated with the movement of elementary wave-particles). “The universe perpetually self-perpetuates in constant evolution (…) from a unique material, the primordial Breath or YuanQi, which is neither matter nor spirit ”2.

If the action of Qi is located in several places of the body, we will qualify this Qi as an attribute linked to its function, its circulation or its origin. For example, the YuanQi, which is translated as Original Energy, is a general Energy which supports all the activities of the organism. Original means both that it comes from MingMen, the zone of emergence of vitality located between the Kidneys, and that it is at the origin of all vitality in the organism, since conception. Another example, the YingQi is the nourishing energy, that which circulates in the Meridians, as well as in the form of Blood, in the vessels. However, the term YingQi is also used to refer to the nourishing exchanges, the dynamism made possible by the circulation and absorption of nutrients in all the structures of the body.

To simplify, we can say that disease is a state of imbalance where the sum of the correct Energies is taken out by what turns out to be perverse Energies. An acute illness is a state of struggle or mobilization of the correct Energies to push back the perverse Energies. A chronic condition usually expresses a medium or long term failure of the correct Energies which no longer manage to regain the initial balance or integrity of the functions and structures of the organism. Any treatment can be summed up as toning up the correct Energies and driving out the perverse Energies, if they are present.

So, when science tries to understand the therapeutic action of acupuncture, for example, it wants to observe its isolated and specific effects: on local vasomotricity, the peripheral nervous system, the spinal cord, central brain activity, endorphins, muscle relaxation, etc. Several studies demonstrate some of the particular effects generated by acupuncture, but they are never able to comprehensively embrace the actions caused by the mobilization of vital energy. They also cannot take into account what the Chinese refer to by the expression Xing Qi Shen Dong: “to circulate the Qi and to move the mind”, the two actions jointly essential to initiate the healing process. So there remains a big gap between traditional Eastern conceptions, which are both simple and holistic, and much more precise and complex scientific theories. (See Foundations.)

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