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Chapter 1. First Concept: Qi, the Energy of Life

The single greatest foundational concept to examine is that of Qi, since it has no exact counterpart in Western medicine nor in the Western worldview. The most ubiquitous single English word translation of Qi is “energy.” This is a useful introductory interpretation, and with a more complete understanding of the concept, it becomes a convenient convention with which to refer to Qi. However, it needs significant amplification for a full, authentic understanding, enabling one to know and utilize Qi and to eventually directly access it for the betterment of health.

In his seminal book The Web That Has No Weaver, Ted Kaptchuk states, “The idea of Qi is fundamental to Chinese medical thinking, yet no one English word or phrase can adequately capture its meaning. … We can perhaps think of Qi as matter on the verge of becoming energy, or energy at the point of materializing.” 1

In the broadest universal sense, not limited to medical practice or thinking, Qi is simultaneously both the material foundation (substance) of everything in existence and the motive force (energy) driving all activity, animate and inanimate alike. This might be a difficult idea to grasp, but it is very similar to the way physics describes the properties of light. Light is a discrete particle, a photon (substance), and a wave (energy). While most people may think of light as belonging entirely in the realm of the inanimate energy, medical scientists working in the field of biophysics know that our DNA emits biophotons, packets of light energy that inform and direct every aspect of our physical being from a genetic level. In this way, within our body light may be viewed as the bridge between energy and matter and between the inanimate and animate, as it is incorporated into our core biology with no intervention from any external technological source.

Any reference to Qi in this book is primarily focused on how it exists and manifests within the body. It is important to have an understanding of Qi as it exists in the greater environment too. We perpetually interface with environmental Qi, so it exerts a strong influence on health, whether or not we are aware of it. That gives us a more complete idea of how it impacts our wellness, both in the health-supporting ways taught in this book and in the ways in which environmental Qi can support or adversely affect our health and give rise to various illnesses. For human beings to experience true health at every level—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—it’s crucial to harmonize our life with our environment. Environmental energies are always a factor in determining health from the perspective of Chinese medicine. That concept is examined in more detail in Chapter 7.

The simplest translation of Qi as it relates to the physical body is usually “life force” or “vital life energy.” These phrases contain all the meaning we need—an accurate general interpretation when using the word “Qi” as it manifests in the living body. The single Chinese character for Qi can also mean “air,” “breath,” or “breathing.” While “air” and “breath” are not the same as the totality of Qi that is life energy, those interpretations support the connection between Qi and life (see Appendix 2Note 1.1). In a very real way, Qi is life, and we could not live without it in the same way we could not live without air or breath. Qi is what warms and animates us, protects against illness, provides the functionality of all our organs and physiological systems, and sparks our awareness and intellect. Where there is abundant Qi, there is health. The infirmities of old age are all due to the decline in Qi, and when Qi runs out, death ensues.

The common Chinese medicine principle Bu tong ze tong, tong ze bu tong translates to “no free flow, pain; free flow, no pain.” This simply means that any kind of pain is an indication of an obstruction in the normal flow of Qi, and with the free flow of Qi, there is no pain. This phrase is often also taken to mean that where there is a free flow of Qi, there is no disease of almost any sort, since Qi obstruction is at the root of many diseases, and that the presence of abundant, normal Qi is required for good health and all healing. If Qi is obstructed in any one part, or many parts, of the body, there is a corresponding deficiency of Qi in other parts of the body. This is exactly analogous to damming a river. Where the dam is built, the river water is effectively obstructed. Beyond the dam, there is little or no water.

Qualities and Functions within the Body

The Chinese character for the word Qi (Figure 1.1) depicts a bowl of rice, with steam issuing up from the rice. This pictogram contains a wealth of information. In Chinese medicine and in other facets of Chinese scientific, philosophical, and spiritual thought, it’s understood that Qi is both the motive force and the material foundation, the most elemental substance in the universe, as previously introduced.

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Figure 1.1 (Qi)

The rice in the character is a solid substance. As a staple food, it is nutritious and represents the material foundation of life and, by extension, the material foundation of everything in existence. In our body, Qi exists on a continuum from coarse and dense to light and fine, and the rice in the character represents the coarser manifestations of Qi. The rising steam is much less substantial and represents the energetic qualities of Qi. It is warm, in motion, and contains a functional energy enabling it to do work. Steam has been used to warm rooms, keeping people comfortable and safe from environmental adversity. It’s been used to cleanse and detoxify the body, in sweat lodges and steam rooms, to promote better health. It has powered engines to help mankind accomplish varied tasks. It provides one of the simplest and healthiest ways to cook foods, maintaining the nutritional value of the food while transforming it and making it easier to digest. The steam can be viewed as the deeper, finer essential quality of the rice, not normally perceptible in its raw, uncooked state. Similarly, the Qi within us is not normally perceptible to an untrained eye.

There are many different types of Qi catalogued in Chinese literature that are relevant to the life and the health of a human being. Despite these apparent differences, it should be understood that they are all just different manifestations of what is essentially one Qi.

The Classic of Difficulties (a historically and foundationally important Chinese medical text) states, “Qi is the root of a human being.” 2 This idea is further expanded in Simple Questions (the first of two texts contained within the ancient foundational Chinese medical canon, the Huangdi Neijing): “The union of the Qi of Heaven and Earth is called a human being.” 3 From this we can see that Qi is an energy that manifests on both physical (Earth) and spiritual (Heaven) levels. A human being is a very complex organism, existing on many levels simultaneously—even secularly, we can consider just the physical, emotional, and mental levels—so it should also be understood that the Qi within a body also exists in various states simultaneously, that it is always changing and in motion. It may be very active, light, and fine in some areas, and very dense and substantive in other areas. Its functions can be both very general and very specific at the same time, and it can change its form based upon its physical location and the immediate functional needs within the body. As Qi condenses to coarser substance, it can transform into physical structure or cause physical structures to alter, gather, or aggregate. This can be either healthful, as in the case of tissue repair and regeneration, or pathological, as in the case of tumor formation, cysts, or nodularities.

Biological Energies Used in Western Medicine

A part of what Qi is can be thought of as the totality of all energies known to Western medical science. Some of these include the bioelectrical energy generated by the sinoatrial node that causes our heartbeat, as measured by electrocardiograms (ECG or EKG); the electrical energy of the brain, as measured by electroencephalograms (EEG); thermal energies, as measured by thermometers and thermal imaging and as indicated by daily caloric requirements/expenditures, which are calculated by basal metabolic rate (BMR); and the electrical impulses that are transmitted through nerves that relay sensory information and cause muscles to contract. Sonically, we know about speech and audible body sounds that are often considered embarrassing, but sound is not thought of as an energy generated by the body in the way that the various bioelectrical energies above are. Yet some body sounds are useful diagnostically (in checking lung, heart, and intestinal sounds), and sound is used as a therapeutic energy. Physical therapists use ultrasound to facilitate tissue regeneration (see Appendix 2Note 1.2). Sonograms are used for medical imaging. In other imaging technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a magnetic field is used to excite magnetically sensitive parts of our body, typically the positively charged proton in the nucleus of hydrogen atoms that are part of every water molecule that make up most of our body. The MRI-generated magnetic field is made to oscillate, or vibrate, at specific resonant frequencies that cause the excited proton to emit radio frequency signals that are then interpreted by the MRI receiver coil.

Just from these few examples we can see that Western medical science utilizes the energies of electricity, magnetism, radio frequency emission, sound, and heat, all of which have biological correspondences. We have already seen how light, in the form of biophotons, has a place in Western medical understanding. Qi encompasses all of those and more subtle energies yet to be understood and applied conventionally.

Qi is itself a holistic energy, as it is the unified totality of all of the above energies, and more, into a single, discrete entity. Qi manifests in many different ways, but it is one thing.

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1. Ted Kaptchuk, The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine (Chicago: Congdon and Weed, 1983), 35.

2. Giovanni Maciocia, The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists (London: Churchill Livingstone, 1989), 37.

3. Ibid.