The Concept of Qi
No concept is more elusive in Chinese medicine than the concept of Qi. Most scholars feel that the meaning of this term is so vague and indefinite that it should not be translated at all. In practice, however, many acupuncturists refer to Qi as “energy,” and to acupuncture in general as “energetic” healing. We should bear in mind, however, that Qi is not the “energy” as it is defined by the modern physicist, with its precise laws and quantitative delineation. But it is possible to view Qi as “energy” in the manner in which we use the word “energy” in everyday speech. For example, when I say “my energy is low,” I am describing a qualitative state very similar to the Chinese pattern known as “deficient Qi.” Likewise, when we describe someone as “energetic,” we are attempting to characterize them as being active and vigorous, and these two qualities are important characteristics which Qi provides to the body.
There are at least a dozen major types of Qi in Chinese medicine, and at least two dozen minor ones. Most of these Qi types are named with a binomial term, the character Qi being attached at the end. Examples include “spleen-Qi,” “blood-Qi,” “spirit-Qi,” etc. Unfortunately, the issue is muddled by the fact that in many of these double terms, the character Qi is being used as a kind of suffix, and does little to qualify the practical meaning of the term to which it is attached. For example, the term “spirit” can easily be substituted for the term “spirit-Qi” in virtually any statement.
Indeed, it is not always clear why the character Qi is used in some of these binomials at all. In the words of Manfried Porkert, “When Chinese thinkers are unable or unwilling to fix the quality of an energetic phenomenon, the character Qi inevitably flows from their brushes.” But while poetic explanations may suit the scholars, clinical practitioners require greater terminological clarity. With their “energetic” approach to understanding Oriental medical theory, Western teachers will usually maintain that by attaching the word Qi to a bodily substance or organ, emphasis is being placed on its activity and function. Thus, blood-Qi means “the activity of blood”, and spirit-Qi means “the activity of spirit”.
So then, what is Qi? Perhaps some insight might be gained by analyzing the character氣. It depicts Qi 气, vapor or fumes rising from fermenting or boiling mi 米rice. The radical Qi气 bears some study; its form depicts the curling vapors rising from the ground to form clouds above 气. A more ancient form , shows the sun 日and fire 火 causing the vapors to rise.
The presence of sun and fire in the ancient pictograms certainly supports the theory that Qi is a form of energy. As such we can categorize Qi in general as a yang phenomenon (see Chapter 3). But more specifically, the above characters paint a picture of dematerialization, of movement from a comparatively tangible to a comparatively intangible state. Indeed, it is the emphasis on functional activity rather than tangible form which is the hallmark of Chinese medicine.
This activating, immaterial emphasis is evident in the modern uses of the term Qi, where it can mean “breath,” “air,” “gas,” “odor,” or “weather.” It can also mean “spirit,” or “morale,” and in certain combinations the term Qi can be used to describe psychological or moral qualities: Qipo, “boldness” or “daring”; Qichongchong, (literally, “Qi pouring”) “furious”; Qi’ang’ang, “full of mettle”. All this suggests that Qi is a kind of motivational force existing within visible forms; it gives life and meaning to forms and engenders their activity, yet it remains itself formless, invisible, and intangible.
Fortunately, the term Qi is usually used in Chinese medicine in relatively well-defined technical contexts; it usually refers to specific functions of the body and specific disease processes. But we should never lose touch with the fact that we are practitioners of a form of healing that sees the immaterial quintessence of living organisms as equally important to their anatomical form. By de-emphasizing the physical form, Chinese medical practitioners are able to avoid the mechanistic model that has shaped Western medical practice for centuries. It is this mechanistic model, with its preoccupation with form, structure, and quantification, which is responsible for the chemical and surgical interventions to which Chinese medicine is now being offered as the rational alternative.