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.
- Pre-Heaven Qi or Congenital Qi: this is what forms the basis of your constitution.
- Acquired Qi: this is the Qi that is formed from your lungs and digestive system. You can improve this Qi throughout your life largely by what you eat. You can also hurt your Acquired Qi and body by your dietary habits.
- Gu Qi (Water and Grain Qi): Food and Water Qi–the Qi or energy that you acquire by your dietary habits. This Qi is refined and sent to the lungs also from the spleen and stomach.
- Da Qi (Air Qi): Air taken in by the lungs to form Zong Qi
- Yuan Qi (Source Qi): this Qi serves the material and functional basis for life activities in the body. It is stored in the kidneys.
- Qing Qi (Clear Qi): Refined Qi sent to the lungs from digestive system
- Zong Qi (Gathering Qi): Formed by union of Gu Qi and Qing Qi. Governs breath of lungs and pulsation of heart and circulates movement of Ying Qi and Wei Qi
- Wei Qi (Defensive/Protective Qi): Formed by Qing Qi and flows both inside and outside of the channels between the skin and fascia. It protects body, regulates temperature, governs opening and closing of pores, moistens skin, muscles, and hair, and is distributed superficially during the day and deep during the night.
- Ying Qi (Nutritive Qi): Formed by Qing Qi) Formed by Qing Qi and contributes to formation of blood. It is retained within walls of the channels and flows throughout the complete channel system nourishing the tissues of the body.
- Zhen Qi (True Qi): A combination of Yuan Qi, Zong Qi, Ying Qi, and Wei Qi . This is a a collective name for the functional bases of life activities.
- Jing Qi (Essential Qi): Blood, Qi, Fluids or Essence specifically acquired essence, internal organ (zang-fu) essence, and congenital essence.
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…