Updated: Aug 3, 2019
The quick and simple answer is that qi is vital energy. However, the reality is that there is always some more explaining to do when it comes to the concept of qi.
The modern Chinese character for qi 氣 (pronounced 'chee'), when simplified, means both ‘uncooked rice’ and ‘steam/vapor’. The steam produced in the process of cooking transforms the rice into food that can be eaten to sustain life. The rice is qi, the steam is Qi, the process of transformation is qi, the vessel that holds the rice as it is being cooked is a form of qi and the fire that cooks the rice is also qi. Hence, the nature of qi is to be in a perpetual state of motion and transformation between the material and the immaterial.
Qi has been an integral part of the discussion in various Chinese philosophical traditions. Here, qi is seen as mystical in nature; it is the oneness underlying form, transformation and function. The character for qi found in some of the earliest Chinese writings depicted a mist rising to form clouds, however, as its meaning evolved, it also reflected the concepts of give and take, breathing in and out, as well as nourishment and vitality. In the earliest traditions of Qigong, ‘eating qi’ was a metaphor for breathing deeply to attain enlightenment and prolong life. Taoists believe that when we breathe we are 'concentrating qi;' hence, life results from the gathering of qi and death comes when it is dispersed. These philosophical concepts of qi have influenced how it is viewed in Chinese Medical Theory, where the human body is seen as a microcosm of the universal oneness.
In Chinese Medicine, qi is the basic vital substance of life and the transformations of qi are seen as being integral to initiating and sustaining life. The body is able to take in qi from the air and qi from food, combine it with other forms of qi in the body and transform it into other forms of qi to sustain life. The acupuncture meridians (jing luo) are the pathways through which the qi flows in the body, and this qi can be accessed and influenced at any of the 360+ acupuncture points along these meridians. In the body, the smooth movement qi in right direction creates harmony, but when the qi is obstructed or in counter-flow, there is disharmony that can lead to pain and disease. The smooth flow of qi can be disrupted by exposure to pathogens and extreme temperatures, injury, trauma, emotions, chronic illness, as well as lifestyle and dietary choices. Your practitioner of Chinese Medicine will use acupuncture, massage, cupping, guasha as well nutritional and lifestyle recommendations to restore the harmonious flow of qi.
“Tong ze bu tong, bu tong ze tong.”
“If there is free flow, there is no pain. If there is pain, there is no free flow.”
Vallée, E. R. (2006). A study of qi. Exeter, England: Monkey Press.
Yu Huan, Z. & Rose, K. (2001) . A Brief History of Qi. Brookline, MA: Paradigm Publications