The word Qi 气 (pronounced “chee”) has been one of the most controversial and misunderstood word for someone who may not have full understanding on TCM. As we journey through the series of articles, I believe you will be able to gain a deeper perspective of it and will be able to appreciate it and articulate it to others whom you think will benefit from TCM.
Through the observation of the element in the natural environment around us, the applications theory and philosophical understanding of TCM evolved through generations and perfected into a systematic approach in diagnostic which all TCM practitioners adopted nowadays. The concept of Qi similarly has been an integral component of these oriental philosophies and forms part of the evolution intricate to the cultural fabric of the Chinese civilisation.
Philosophical aspect of Qi
The original calligraphic symbol of Qi found in the Oracle (甲骨文) was , which mean free flowing substance occurs in the natural environment, the force which fills the universe, and the energy behind the continuous movement of elements. It evolved into which represent the different direction of flow of the element and subsequently into the traditional Chinese word form of Qi氣, which make up of 气 (a simpler symbol of Qi) and 米 (rice, representing food substance) suggesting that the transformation and production of Qi by food substances. The word further simplify to what we know today as Qi气.
From the philosophical aspect, there exists a trinity Qi relationship between the 3 pillars of the universe: Heaven (天Tian), Earth (地Di) and Human (人Ren). Its only when this trinity relationship is in balance from the holistic theory that lifeform on earth will be in abundant and in equilibrium. Heaven Qi is the most important, consisting of forces such as sunshine, moonlight, gravity and energy from the stars and planets. Earth Qi is regulated by Heaven Qi and according to Chinese theory it is made up of lines and patterns of energy, the earth’s magnetic field and underground heat provides abundant supply for all things on Earth to survive. Each individual person has their own internal Qi which always seeks balance. As such, besides TCM, the word Qi has permeated into all parts of Chinese culture and language where we used it to explain the vitality of the energy as well as the functionality of elements. Such as
- 生气 (angry – a burst of energy),
- 天气 (weather – the nature of the environment),
- 勇气 (courage – the ability to fight or defend),
- 气质 (temperament – a person’s natural behaviour),
- 气候 (climate – the prevailing weather conditions),
- 小气 (stingy – the inability to give),
- 大气层(The atmosphere), etc.
In context of TCM, Qi besides being used to help to explain the energetic substance or “life force” circulating through the human body and animating it, actuating its motions, it also use to explain the functionality and vitality of the different organ visceral systems. It is also being seen as the root of life. From the first comprehensive TCM medical book written in 475BC, Huangdi’s Inner Classic of Medicine（黄帝内经）, it stated that “The gathering of qi produces life while the dispersion of qi puts an end to life.” The application of Qi concept in the book, Detailed the human physiological function and pathological changes and provided guidance in the diagnosis and prevention methodology of TCM.
Sources and Types of Qi
According to TCM, there are two major sources of Qi within the human body. The Congenital Qi (Prenatal or Innate Essence Qi) exists right after the formation of individual life. This kind of qi is inherited from our parents, which is the foundation of the development of new life. After birth, the human body absorbing nutrients from external world to nourish the Congenital Qi. This is known as Acquired Qi (Post-natal Qi), which is the Qi that we generate within our lifetime from the air that we inhale, the food that we eat. Thus if one’s was not blessed with a good Congenital Qi, one’s can always nourish back to a healthy body through Acquired Qi.
To help in the diagnostic and determination of the states of heath of an individual, TCM further classified Qi into the following types.
- The Primordial Qi (Yuan Qi元气), also known as genuine qi (Zhen Qi) is the most important of the four kinds of Qi. It is the primary motive force of life activities. When someone is serious injured, we use the Chinese idiom “元气大伤” to explain his state of condition.
- The Pectoral Qi (Zong Qi宗气), which is a combination of the fresh air inhaled and the food nutrients we ate. The Pectoral Qi travels through the respiratory tract to promote respiration and influences the conditions the voice, speech or breathe. Thus when someone is unable to project his voice, we use the Chinese idiom “宗气不足” to explain his state of condition.
- The Nutritive Qi (Ying Qi营气), which is the qi that circulates together with the blood in the vessels in the body. The Nutritive Qi is responsible for the blood production and the nutrition of the whole body. When we see someone who is undernourished, we use the statement “营养不良” to describe him.
- The Defensive Qi (Wei Qi卫气), which provides a perimeter defence at the body surface guarding against exogenous pathogens, controlling the opening and closing of the pores, adjusting the excretion of sweat, and maintaining a relatively constant body temperature. A person whom perspire easily are deem to be weak in the Defensive Qi, or “卫气虚”
The Qi, like the natural element in the universe, the free flowing air around us, is constantly active and circulating in a living human body; the “life force” that allow all human activities to take place. Such movement of Qi in the body is known as “Qi dynamic 气机”, which refers to the Ascending, Descending, Expelling and Absorbing action of Qi related to the functionality of the organ visceral systems. A TCM practitioner will observe the syndrome of the Qi disorder presented by the patient to determine the nature of the illness.
Disorders of Qi
The disorders of Qi occur when an individual is experiencing either a deficiency of Qi or a disturbance to the regular flow of Qi dynamic. A deficiency of Qi in the body is typically caused by an inadequate production of Qi, such as malnutrition or when there is an excessive utilization Qi due to lack of rest, which leads to deficiency syndromes & hypo-function of visceral systems.
A disturbance of Qi such as Stagnation of Qi, occur when the movement of Qi is blocked or does not flow normally. Typical syndromes of Pain and Swelling in an organ are examples of stagnant Qi. A Reversal flow of Qi, occur when the Qi flows not according to the QI dynamic of the visceral systems. A manifestation of this condition would be vomiting which occur when the stomach Qi which supposed to help in the food digestion, reverse it qi flow.
A balanced Qi Dynamic in the human body help maintains normal physiological activities. When the equilibrium of the Qi is disturbed, such as when there is a blockage in the Qi flow, it will results in a steep increase in the levels of Qi and such pent-up Qi will lead to illnesses.
Regulation of Qi
As per Huangdi’s Inner Classic of Medicine（黄帝内经）, “The gathering of qi produces life while the dispersion of qi puts an end to life.” TCM adopted different approaches to the regulation of Qi within our body. Qigong practice is one of the common approaches to regulating the Qi in our body and allowing the body to be in harmony with the universe. Qigong is an ancient art form for strengthening the body’s vital energy. It works to improve illness recovery time, the energy levels, and immune function, restoring the balance in our body using a variety of methods. I will be touching on the practice of Qigong in subsequent article.
Besides Qigong, Herbs medicine and Herbal diet, are used in TCM both to invigorate and energize deficient Qi and to move Qi around the body to avoid stagnation. I will be introducing herbal diet dishes that are able to help in the regulation of Qi through the Captain’s table in the later part of the year. I look forward to seeing you when you dig in to the sumptuous and healthy dishes prepared by our Master Chef Chong.
May the “Qi” be with you, while we usher in the year of the Dynamic and Energetic year of the fiery Rooster!
This article written by Dr Clement Ng first appeared in Raffles Marina’s Magazine – Nautique Mar-Apr 2016.
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