An Introduction to the Concept of Qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine

It would undoubtedly take more than a brief article to clarify the concept of Qi, a term that covers varied phenomena which are considered very different from each other in the West. In an attempt to define this term in a way that is comprehensible to Western cultures, Qi is often translated as “air”, “vital energy”, “electromagnetic force” or with other terms. Furthermore, the word Qi is also used to describe various phenomena in the body and in nature. Considering how fundamental it is in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is important to attempt to give it a more precise definition, at least in the context of TCM.

According to the millenarian philosophical concepts at the root of TCM, everything that exists is made of Qi. In its more “condensed” forms, Qi becomes matter; the more concentrated it is, the more solid the matter. For example, a rock is a very “condensed” form of Qi, while dirt is a less concentrated form. Liquids are an even less “condensed” form and gases less concentrated still. Energetic phenomena (such as electromagnetic energy) are very rarefied forms of Qi, while “Shen” (“spirit”) and thought are even more rarefied forms.

From this point of view, the concept of Qi as the basic building block of everything, reminds us of the concept in quantum physics that views energy as being at the root of everything. However, when speaking of Qi in the context of TCM, it is treated as the moving force behind the functions of the organs (“Kidney Qi”, Liver Qi, etc.) and at the same time is considered the source that nourishes and sustains all the bodily tissues. Furthermore, when referring to Qi in the environment of TCM, it is often treated almost as a though it was a bodily fluid.

In order to understand this apparent contradiction, it is probably best to start from the the word itself in the Chinese language. In traditional Chinese characters, the word “Qi” (?) is formed using the character “mi” (rice) (?) inside a stylized pot with two lines rising above that represent the steam produced during cooking. The concept of air or gas is inherent in steam/vapor just as steam can represent the energy liberated during the cooking of rice. Furthermore, the use of the character “mi”, which symbolizes the basic foodstuff in the Chinese diet, reminds us of something nutritious.

The free and unobstructed flow of Qi in the human body is at the root of health. According to TCM, the natural state of humans is a healthy one. If there is a proper circulation of Qi in the body, this state of health continues, but if the flow is obstructed, conditions are created that can lead to the onset of more or less serious pathologies. Just as an example, a bruise is considered a blockage of Blood and Qi in TCM, while a cold is caused by an invasion of external pathogens that have managed to circumvent the layer of Defensive Qi (Wei Qi) that protects the body (the comparison of Wei Qi to the immune system is evident).

Among the general public, there appears to be a misconception that Qi circulates only in the acupuncture meridians, whereas in effect, it circulates everywhere in the body and throughout the tissues. There is saying in TCM that recites: “Qi is the mother of Blood and Blood governs Qi”. Since everything is composed of Qi, it is easy to understand why Qi would be called the mother of Blood. In turn, Blood transports Qi with it wherever it circulates, helping the Qi arrive everywhere in the body.

In a future article, we will write about how the body produces the Qi needed to live and how lifestyles and habits can influence this process.