What is Qi(气)?

In traditional Chinese culture, qi(气), also called chi, is an active principle forming part of any living thing. Qi(气) is frequently translated as “energy flow”, and is often compared to Western notions of energeia orélan vital (vitalism), as well as the yogic notion of prana and pranayama. The literal translation of “qi” is air, breath, or gas.

Central to Chinese Medicine and practice is qi (chi). Qi(气) is life-force, which animates the forms of the world. It is the vibratory nature of phenomena that is happening continuously at molecular, atomic and sub-atomic levels. In Japan it is called “ki,” and in India, called “prana” or “shakti.”

In China, the understanding of qi is inherent in the very language. For instance: The literal translation of the Chinese character meaning “health” is “original qi.” The literal translation of the character for “vitality” is “high quality qi.” The literal translation of the character meaning “friendly” is “peaceful qi.”

Types of Qi

Many Different Kinds of Qi are defined by Chinese Medicine and Qigong(气功) Practitioners. Within the human body there is the qi that we’re born with, called Yuan qi, or ancestral qi. The qi that we absorb during our lives from food, water, air and qigong practice is called Hou tain qi or post-natal qi. The qi that flows at the surface of the body, as a protective sheathe, is called Wei qi or protective qi. Each internal organ also has its own qi/life-force, e.g. Spleen-qi, Lung-qi, Kidney-qi.

According to Chinese Medicine, the two most fundamental forms of qi are Yin-qi and Yang-qi, the primordial feminine and masculine energies. Many qigong(气功) practices utilize Heaven qi and Earth qi, as well as the qi that emanates specifically from trees, flowers, lakes and mountains.

Yuan qi: arises at the unio of sperm and egg
Hou tain qi: nourished by what we eat and drink and how we move
Wei qi: guards us against invading pathogens
Particular qi: defined uniquely to different organs and systems (liver qi, heart qi, etc.).

Balanced and Free-flowing Qi Results in Health

The fundamental insight of qigong(气功) and Chinese Medicine including herbal medicine and acupuncture is that balanced and free-flowing qi(气) results in health; while stagnant or imbalanced qi leads to disease. In the same way that an acupuncturist diagnoses energetic imbalances, and works to re-establish free-flowing qi in the human body. The goal is to establish a more open flow of energy in the particular, internal or external environment.

Mysterious Qi for Westerners

Some westerners are searching for a tangible, practical definition of qi(气), and try to express it in scientific terms. This is difficult because most of westerners do not know Chinese culture and hence can not understand exactly what Qi(气) is. The main reason is that the concept itself is the product of a characteristically Eastern way of looking at the world, which sees systems rather than components and attempts to cohere rather than dissect the matter and forces in the known world.

Western science takes things apart. While the Chinese approach sees an integration of everything. Both approaches are complementary, and indeed necessary for deep understanding of things and indeed modern biologists in China are certainly proceeding along the familiar, Western path of inquiry. The concept of qi yields its secrets reluctantly to most of western, reductionist style.

It is accepted widely for westerners that qi(气) is non-material, and therefore, falls under the “energy” category. If we think of it as “life force” we can see that it is likely an aggregate of ideas Westerners would tend to separate. Qi(气) requires circulation, both of lymphatic fluid and blood, and also include heat, bio-electricity (the electric potential across cell membranes), sound and even photonic energy (light). In fact a qi-investigating scientist at the University of California measured an increase in the stream of photons issuing from an acupuncture point in a tai chi qigong(太极气功) practitioner’s palm after he practiced tai chi(太极) as compared with before that exercise.

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