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  • William E. Leigh III

The Mystery of Qi

When most western people think of Qi, or the energy of the body, they are thinking that it is one thing. Also, it is generally agreed upon that this one thing is mysterious and unfathomable to our western minds. Most importantly, we believe that because it is mysterious and unfathomable that it has significant importance. Furthermore, we believe that the only way we can continue to value its importance is if this one thing is not truly understood. We somehow have all joined a secret cabal that believes in a great mystery. And together we have developed a paradigm of understanding where we do not even allow ourselves to question this mystery. Simply because if we understand the mystery, it is no longer a mystery and therefore has no value.

I truly doubt that the physicians that developed Chinese medicine believed in a great mystery. Medicine is a practice or craft. In the west we begin to learn medicine by studying anatomy and physiology because this study is accessible and clearly understandable. I think the founders of Chinese medicine were trying to describe the anatomy and physiology of our living body as clearly as they could using the language of their time.

The foundations of Chinese medicine were written on Classical Chinese characters onto bamboo scrolls about 3000 years ago. About 2000 years ago, these Classical Chinese Characters were updated to Modern Chinese characters and written in paper books. Within approximately the last one hundred years, these Chinese medicine books were translated into present western medical terminology.

The Chinese language does not follow the same system of logic as our western language. Western language uses adjectives, adverbs and other grammatical methods inside of a flow of logic to clearly define a topic or action. Chinese language uses more metaphor and figurative language and common words can mean different things when used in a different context. It is easy to understand that there would be many difficulties when translating a system of medicine that was developed over 3000 years ago from an ancient culture speaking a language with a completely different form of logic into our modern, science based, highly detailed, system of medicine.

I do not speak Chinese. I am an acupuncturist that has spent a significant amount of time working to unravel this mystery of qi. I believe that the concept of qi has been inadequately translated and is grossly misunderstood. And I propose a simple adjustment to the terminology. Instead of referring to qi as “energy” I propose that we refer to qi as “living activity”. Then, where necessary, we fill in the missing adjectives, adverbs and grammatical changes that would give a clearer understanding.

For example:

Acupuncturists begin their study of Traditional Chinese Medicine with a couple of simple concepts. First, “The three treasures of the body are blood, essence, and qi.” We all know what blood is. Therefore we students begin with a pretty strong understanding that we are talking about actual substances. Then essence is loosely described as the fluids in the body that are not blood. OK, this is also quite understandable. Saliva, sweat, and other fluids that are not directly connected to digestion, elimination or urination. And as students we are following our instructor and this generally makes sense. Then we are told that qi is the “energy” in the body. As students we are thinking “Cool! Energy medicine! Awesome! This is why I am here.” Then, fifteen minutes later, we move on to other more important things. “Energy” is never clearly defined. And we all just believed a concept that we do not fully understand and joined the cabal of TCM mysticism. But lets now shift the words from qi or energy to life activity. What we get is, “The three treasures of the body are blood, essence and life activity.” Then we can define this concept to mean any and all activity that separates the living from the non living. Of course, this still leaves a bit of mystery, but at least it is a mystery that is based in western philosophical thought.

The second simple concept that we learn early in our education that “Qi moves the blood and blood nourishes qi.” This is similar to a zen koan where you kind of have to wrap your mind around the holistic and interactive nature of life to truly understand. The idea is that the pumping of the heart is energy that moves blood through our arteries and this blood supplies the nutrients necessary to ensure the heart stays pumping. Lets shift the wording just slightly and we get, “Living activity moves the blood and blood promotes living activity.” Although this may still be a conundrum to some, it is so simple that fifth graders studying anatomy and physiology can understand the concept. One has to think, that the basic principles of a system of medicine should not be a mystery, but obvious and accessible principles that everyone can understand.

Further questions:

So shifting our working definition of qi from “energy” to “living activity” is a simple enough idea. But we all believe acupuncture is “energy” medicine. Is it possible to describe acupuncture as “living activity” medicine?

TCM has many types of qi. Does the concept of “living activity” work for all of them?

Can we further define what you mean by “living activity?”

At this moment I do not have the time to discuss all of these questions. But it is necessary to answer all of them to fully demonstrate that defining qi as “energy” is grossly misleading and using the term “living activity” is much more accurate. Look forward to the next “The Mystery of Qi” post!

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