I am nearing the end of my first year in traditional Chinese medical school. To say that I have learned a lot is almost an unforgivable understatement. Someone asked me yesterday if I feel more confident in my understanding of how the human body works since I’m about to take Anatomy & Physiology III and Surface Anatomy is behind me. No. I feel less confident. Granted, I now know where the parts are, and, sure, I know what a foramen is; but, it is now quite clear to me that I know far too little compared to what there is to know. I now completely understand why there are medical specialties. There is too much to know and master.
So, to cope with my feelings of inadequacy, I amuse myself at school by laughing every time I hear the word ‘trochanter’ because it either sounds like part of a horse or a verb.
“I hurt myself trochantering.” OR “The trochanter on that horse is magnificent.” OR “He’s got a far greater trochanter that you’ll ever have!”
My jokes aside, I am also somewhat ashamed to be a Westerner from time to time the more I learn about the Chinese medical paradigm. There is so much misinformation in the West about what it is. People believe that it is superstition, folk medicine, or some ancient tradition that the Chinese people refuse to give up and replace with modern medicine. Then they use words like ‘Qi’ and cite something they heard in the news about villagers killing endangered animals for their penises to prove their point.
I can’t eradicate ethnocentrism and ignorance in one blog post, but I can explain one thing: Qi. What is Qi (pronounced chee)?
The first thing to clear up is that the use of the word Qi in Taoism is not the Qi of TCM. These are two very different concepts. One is a philosophical and almost religious concept while the other is a bodily and/or physical concept. To help illustrate this, I’ll use a Western concept that many readers will understand.
The second verse of the first book of Genesis says, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God (or breath) was hovering over the waters.”. The Hebrew word for ‘spirit’ is ‘ruach’ which also means ‘breath’. Qi means ‘breath’, too. The ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’ of God is referred to many times in the Bible. When you go to the doctor, however, and you are asked to take deep breaths so that the physician can listen to your ‘breath’, do you believe that the doctor is listening to your spirit? No. I don’t know one person who confuses their spirit, God’s spirit or breath as it were, with the physical act of breathing or the exhalation of CO2 and inhalation of O2. We are able to completely separate the two concepts and nary confuse them.
This is precisely the same when one speaks of Qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). We are not confusing the Qi of Taoist thought or philosophy which compares quite closely with the Biblical statement made in Acts 17:28 “We live and move and have our being in Him.” To the Taoist, we live and move and have our being in Qi–the original breath or source. This is not, however, the Qi we discuss in medical school or Chinese medical practice.
So, what is this medical Qi then? There are many, many types of Qi.
This is just a list of the Qi that functions in the body. This is not a list of pathogenic Qi–that which disrupts homeostasis and causes pathogenic changes and disease processes in the body.
There is no superstition involved. There are no demons as some people have suggested. No, Qi is not the name of a god, and I’m not worshiping it. TCM is a different approach. A different medical model. And, it is highly effective and healing, but it’s different from what we as Westerners know.
Hopefully, this quick primer on Qi has shed some light on what it is and maybe piqued your curiosity.
By the way, emotions are viewed as internal pathogens in TCM when they disrupt homeostasis, and their activity and effect on the body and well-being are taken quite seriously.
Well, I’m going to study now. Pathology class in two hours…