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  • Writer's pictureJessica Sylvanson

What is Qi?

You've probably heard the mysterious word "qi" used when talking about Chinese medicine and related modalities including acupuncture, qi gong, tai qi, etc. The character used for "qi" in Chinese written language looks like a pot of rice with steam coming off of it and implies a movement that is invisible. The term was first translated by Europeans as "energy" or "vital energy". However, "energy" is a Western meta-physical concept and it is my belief, as someone who has studied translating Chinese to English and someone who has studied Chinese medicine, that this particular translation has caused a lot of confusion and mis-understanding.

Classical Chinese medicine texts are treasures of medical knowledge and are based on anatomy, physiology, and pathology as studied through dissection, vivisection, and empirical observation of human beings, animals, and our biosphere. The ancient Chinese were very astute and as they observed phenomena, they realized there were many physiological processes that were happening that the naked eye could not observe. Without the technology available to view microscopic physiological processes, they named these processes "qi". This is the way a dear teacher has explained the word "qi" to me and it makes sense in every way as a student of classical Chinese medicine.

"Pathological qi" represents the various pathological bacteria and viruses which plague us and "Righteous qi" the various physiological processes that support our health that are happening on a cellular level. Although they could not see these things, they understood that they were there and found many effective routes by which to treat them to bring about health and healing of humans and animals.

The "energy" translation of "qi" has continued to promote the myth that classical Chinese medicine is not based on anatomy, physiology, and pathology, and instead, is based on some mysterious force. Although classical Chinese medicine very much acknowledges that all things are connected and effect each other, it is also based on very tangible observable realities of physics, anatomy, physiology, and pathology.

Please continue to check in on future posts explaining how acupuncture works. I will continue to explore the genius and forethought of the Chinese medical classics.


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