05 July 2010

What is Qi?

Qi is the basis of Chinese medicine.

We often translate it as 'energy.' This sort of works --but is inaccurate.
In physics, energy decreases over distance. The research on long-distance qi transmission, such as that of Dr. Pan, Xin documents that Qi can even increase over space. There are other differences as well.

Chinese dictionary definitions of Qi refer to gas, morale, anger and spirit. Some of these seem confusing and even humorous.

Looking at the symbolic representations that are the basis of Chinese language are much more helpful. The Chinese ideogram of Qi often has the lower part with exploding rice:

Simplification of this character in the 1950s (an ongoing part of Chinese writing from the beginning) deleted the rice. Traditionalists here may complain, but my Chinese teacher, Prof. Charles Wu of Reed College, said that an even earlier version was written without the exploding rice--only with the curling cloud symbol above. His thought was that it reminded us that energy comes from the Void-like nature of the Universe, not just food.

We sometimes correlate it to the Vedic Indian term 'Prana,' used in yoga.
This is probably closer to Qi than 'energy,' but still a foreign concept to most English-speakers.

Naturopathy has the concept of Vis. It is used at our college as a kind of rough equivalent to Qi. I'd like to find out more about it, and the history of its development. For most patients, it will be an equally mysterious term, with the latin Vis Medicatrix Naturae.

Bring back the dead languages, I say!
(In honor of my Latin teacher in 7th grade, Seymour Richard ("Dick") Peyser, who had a haircut to match his name.)

''Vital energy" is natural medicine concept discussed in English. However conventional medicine feels they moved past this concept. They don't wish to look at it again. It is a kind of roadkill on the superhighway of modern medicine. We outgrew that a long time ago.


As a kind of experiment (part of ongoing guerilla research), I asked my qigong students during a year-long class in an acupuncture program what their definition of Qi was.

The results were that when asked after 3 months of practicing together, the answers written were from either their textbook or most forceful teacher. For me as a practitioner, they sounded garbled, uninspiring and broken-down. For example, one of our greatest translator-scholars (who doesn't practice medicine) came up with the definitive definition of Qi as "finest matter influences."

But after six months, including a term of sitting meditation, something incredible happened. Each student had their own definition of Qi, one from their personal experience. The words were put into a paper, usually a few paragraphs with their experience. Each came down to a single word. In a class of 70 students in three sections, each had a unique definition. And they all worked. Personal definitions of Qi included:
  • Truth
  • Light
  • Love
  • Consciousness
  • Awareness
My question is: What is your personal definition of Qi this month, in word or a paragraph?
Please post your response.