Myth: Qi is energy
Fact: There is absolutely no historical basis for the translation of the word Qi as energy!
This one tends to ruffle a lot of feathers, so let me be clear. I’m not making a statement as to whether or not there is energy in the body. I’m merely stating that the word Qi, as used in the Chinese Medical classics, does not and never has meant energy.
So what happened? Why does everyone in the West seem to believe that Chinese Medicine is based on invisible energy circulating through invisible pathways that we somehow magically stick needles into?
First you have to understand that these Chinese Medical Classics are literally 4,000 years old! The language in which they were written was basically pictograms. Nobody, except those with a PhD in ancient Chinese, can read these classics as written. Even Chinese people must study translations.
The problem is that most people who get PhD’s in Ancient Chinese don’t know much about medicine, and most people who know about medicine don’t read Ancient Chinese. This creates a serious problem in the translation of an ancient medical text.
It so happens that a French gentleman, George Soulie de Morant, who didn’t know much about medicine attempted to translate the most important Chinese Medical Text ever, the Huang Di Nei Jing. And in this attempt, he made the two most influential mistranslations ever. He translated the word Qi as energy and the word Mai (blood vessel) as meridian.
As a result of this mistranslation, most Westerners, including almost everyone studying in Chinese Medical school in the West, is taught that Chinese Medicine is about energy flowing in meridians.
So if Qi isn’t energy and the term meridian doesn’t exist anywhere in the classics, then what is Chinese Medicine?
If you saw the character for Qi painted on a big sign in China today, do you know what that would mean?
It indicates that there is a station for putting air into your car tires!
Why? Because Qi just means air—every Chinese person know this! Nobody gets confused and pulls their car over hoping to get some energy injected into their meridians!
In the context of the medical classics, we know they meant to be a bit more specific. So what do the classics say about Qi? The direct translation of “qi” is “vital air.” The Huang Di Nei Jing says that Qi is invisible and all around us (air) and that it is breathed in by the Lungs and the vital parts of the air are extracted by the Lungs and sent to the Heart to be pumped all over the body inside the blood vessels (mai)!
In case you don’t remember your anatomy and physiology, they’re talking about Oxygen! The Chinese were incredibly concerned with the flow of Oxygen (Qi), Blood (Xue), Nutrients (ying) and Immune cells (Wei) inside the Blood Vessels (mai) and Lymph system (jing ye) as well as with the functioning of each of the major organs (zang fu).
What this amazing revelation means is that rather than being concerned with some kind of psychic energy, Chinese Medicine is actually a PHYSICAL medicine which is primarily concerned with blood flow!
I’ve likely offended many devotees of Chinese Medicine who strongly believe in the energy and meridian concept. In reality, most Acupuncturists have only studied textbooks and never studied any of the what the classics actually say. And the amazing thing is that this difference in belief does not necessarily change the application of Acupuncture treatment. The difference is that with the circulation/blood vessel/anatomically based explanation, we suddenly realize that Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture are actually NOT in conflict with Western ideas or anatomy and physiology. The Chinese actually explained vital concepts thousands of years ago that were just “discovered” in the West a couple of hundred years ago. As soon as we let go of the mystical idea, we are free to see all of the commonalities that Chinese Medicine has with the modern Western approach.
The Huang Di Nei Jing describes such (at the time) unknown wonders such as the closed blood circulation system, hormones, the immune function of the intestines (just being corroborated in very recent research), the digestive function of the pancreas, referred pain patterns from organs (such as gallbladder pain referring to the scapula and heart pain referring down the arm). I could go on and on!
The best source for more information on this topic is a book called The Dao of Chinese Medicine. This book, with its seemingly mystical title, lays it all out in incredibly well-researched black and white. It was published by Oxford University Press, which is not some little alternative press looking to overthrow the dominant paradigm! It is a solid, valid piece of work at finally de-mystifying the medicine that continues to help millions around the globe.
Read Part I of this series
Read Part III of this series