Qi – Definition, Traditional Chinese Medicine


What is Qi?

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the way of conceiving life, health and illness, 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 chi). Thus, all matter comes from a condensation of Qi, even if Qi itself remains invisible. We can say that Qi corresponds to all 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, calorific or mechanical energy. To get closer to the Eastern meaning, we must turn to the Greek root energeia (force in action) which includes vitality, physical or moral force, 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 of translating 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 one could, at the limit, associate with the movement of elementary wave-particles). “The universe is perpetually self-creating in constant evolution (…) from a single material, the primordial Breath or YuanQi, who is neither matter nor spirit”2.

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

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, which also serves as a simplified form to designate the Qi, represents the vapors or the aroma, and expresses the intangible part and the upward movement of the transformation.

The concept of Qi is inherently dynamic. Impossible even to imagine it motionless, like on a photo… it 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 separates from it, it rises or falls, the Qi is in constant mutation.

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 have too broad a semantic field. Like most Chinese words, its meaning is often specified by the context, and it is usually associated with a particular structure or material base as in the following examples:

If the action of the Qi is located in several places of the body, this Qi will be qualified 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 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 designate the nourishing exchanges, the dynamism made possible by the circulation and absorption of nutrients in all the structures of the body.

It is all this Qi, when it circulates near the surface of the body, which can be mobilized thanks to 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 Qi, 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. The 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 efficiency to act. They act both physically and mentally.
  • Perverse Energies, XieQi. On the contrary, they tend to attack us, destroy us, intoxicate us, take us away from our physical and psychological integrity.

Simplifying, we can say that the disease is a state of imbalance where the sum of the correct Energies is faulted by what turns out to be perverse Energies. An acute illness is a state of struggle or mobilization of the correct Energies to repel the perverse Energies. A chronic state usually expresses a medium or long term failure of the correct Energies which no longer manage to find the balance or the initial integrity of the functions and structures of the organism. Any treatment can be summarized in tonifying 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 that Chinese medicine encounters in its efforts to be recognized by the Western medical community is the rejection of the theories on which it bases itself to understand disease and intervene.

The Eastern concept of Qi is not accepted by modern science, presumably because it denotes a single and multiform Energy, while science observes and studies distinct energies and functions which, if they can influence each other , are nevertheless considered as separate entities.

Thus, 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 cerebral activity, the release endorphins, muscle relaxation, etc. Several studies demonstrate some of the particular effects engendered by acupuncture, but they are never able to embrace globally the actions caused by the mobilization of vital energy. Nor can they take into account what the Chinese designate by the expression Xing Qi Shen Dong: “to circulate the Qi and to move the spirit”, the two actions jointly essential to start the healing process. There remains, therefore, a significant 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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