Qi – Definition, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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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.

The Chinese character which designates Qi expresses its double attribute well: it represents steam escaping from a heating cereal.

Below, the bundle of cereals suggests both the material basis which is part of the manifestations of Qi as well as the nurturing aspect necessary for the manifestation of vitality.

The upper part, also serving in a simplified form to designate Qi, represents vapors or aroma, and expresses the intangible part and the upward movement of transformation.

The concept of Qi is inherently dynamic. Impossible even to imagine him motionless, as in a photo… he would no longer exist. It is perpetual change and rhythmic transformation. It condenses, dissolves, concentrates, expands; the manifestations through which it reveals itself change characteristics, one form is integrated into another or separated from it, it rises or falls, Qi is constantly changing.

Applied to the medical field, the concept of Qi represents both:

The thousand faces of the same reality

The term Qi is rarely used alone in Chinese medicine, because its meanings include too wide a semantic field. Like most Chinese words, its meaning is often specified by context, and it is usually associated with a particular structure or material basis as in the following examples:

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 Ming Men, 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.

It is all these Qi, when they circulate near the surface of the body, which can be mobilized through acupuncture; they are brought together, dispersed or directed to establish a better balance between the different parts and the different functions of the organism.

You will find a description of the main IQs, their functions and their pathologies in the Substances sheet.

Correct Energies and Perverse Energies

The individual and his environment are perceived as amalgams, “densifications” of Qi, which would have passed from an immaterial state to a material state. Qi have dynamisms that are sometimes complementary, sometimes opposed, very often cyclical and predictable. All these dynamisms, whether internal or external, influence us and create complex interactions with our own organic systems. They can be grouped into two main categories:

  • The correct Energies, ZhengQi. They tend to maintain our organism in its specificity, its cohesion, its harmony and its effectiveness in acting. They act both physically and psychologically.
  • Perverse Energies, XieQi. On the contrary, they tend to attack us, destroy us, intoxicate us, distance us from our physical and psychic integrity.

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.

You will find additional information on Qi in the Physiology and Substances sections.

Science and Qi

One of the difficulties Chinese medicine encounters in its efforts to gain recognition by the Western medical community is the rejection of the theories on which it relies to understand the disease and intervene.

The eastern concept of Qi is not accepted by modern science, no doubt because it designates a unique and multifaceted Energy, while science observes and studies distinct energies and functions which, if they can influence each other, nonetheless remain considered as separate entities.

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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