‘Qi’, the Life’s Force

When Qi is mentioned, while older people would think of ‘Qi Gong’, the turtle-speed set of exercise that many elderlies practice in public parks every morning, most people from my generation would think of the anime Dragon Ball.

The main character of Dragon Ball, Goku, has a fighting technique called the ‘Kamehameha Wave’. In Chinese, it is translated as the ‘Qi Gong Wave of the Turtle’. The association of Qi with turtle was coincidental, but it also hints at the fact that Qi, a kind of life’s energy, life’s force is not something that one can obtain in an instant. It is only through years of hard practice on both psychological and physical fronts that Qi could be accumulated, used and restored.

In ancient times, when someone dies, he or she would be described to have lost his or her ‘Qi count’ (Count goes to zero). Most Chinese are so used to hearing it in Kung Fu movies these days that they probably do not realize the similarity between how Qi is explained in the Chinese language as the energy level of characters in video games.

qi, ying yangThere are many references of Qi in Chinese culture, but the two most important explanations of Qi came from Taoism (spiritual interpretation) and Chinese medicine (physical, environmental interpretation).

In Taoism, Qi is described as something that exists in all things on earth, and what is more interesting is that Qi is also described as something that is between all things on earth. This shows that Taoism philosophers such as Zuangzi, already had an inkling of the idea of ‘air’ and molecules and these molecules having lives of their own, even though they could not describe it in the same kinds of words. Taoism philosophers also describe the state of the world before Qi exists as Wuji, nothingness and Taiji, somethingness, after Qi exists. Taiji is often represented by the black and white Ying-Yang circle that we all know.

And if hasn’t occurred to you yet, the Taoist philosophers were in fact describing the origin of the world. And in the world-famous symbol of Taiji, the two smaller, inner dots are in fact one of the earliest drawings of planets in orbits, gliding around a certain unseen central object that could have been the sun in equal distance.

While their understanding of the world did not lead them to pursue the matters further, they gave the Chinese a way to describe the inexplicable life force, the soul. The something that is nothing. The spirit of the world and the spirit in all living being that need to be nurtured in order to attain maximal health. And nurturing of Qi could be interpreted as what we call maintaining ‘mental health’ in modern days.

There is another explanation of Qi in Chinese medicine. According to the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Cannon, Qi is something that is in our blood, but could be easily affected by external stimuli such as weather. There are five kinds of Qi :

Qi

Internal Organ

Season

Wind

Liver

Spring

Chill

Kidney

Winter

Hot

Heart

Summer

Wet

Lungs

Long Summer

Dry

Spleen

Autumn

During the season or between the change of seasons, the environment around us is different and Chinese doctors would often explain a person’s illness based on combinations of the above Qi’s.

Chinese medical knowledge also links these stimuli to issues with our internal organs. And any subsequent therapy provided, be it medicine or dietary regime, and would target the organ in discussion.

Combining the two school of thoughts on Qi, the result is the following: our bodily Qi can be affected by the Qi of the environment, as well as our spiritual Qi, our emotions. Hence health and emotions, bodily health and mental health are ever more closely connected according to Chinese medicine than Western medicine. The connections are not only known in abstract ways, but they are clearly written down in medical books and taught in schools doctors.

Qi

Internal Organ

Emotions

Wind

Liver

Anger

Chill

Kidney

Fear

Hot

Heart

Happiness

Wet

Lungs

Weariness

Dry

Spleen

Melancholy

 

Again, the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Cannon has a rule of five on it, called the ‘Five emotions hurt the five inner organs’.

  • Extreme anger hurts the liver.
  • Extreme fear hurts the kidney.
  • Extreme happiness hurts the heart.
  • Extreme weariness hurts the lung.
  • Extreme melancholy hurts the spleen.

The solution to problems in the bodies then are certain foods that are known to be good for these internal organs. Common remedies to improve kidney health are black sesame, dry scallops and chestnuts. Common remedies to improve the liver include lots of grains and lots of fishes.

Modern Chinese doctors and scholars try to reconcile these rules that almost every Chinese are taught from young age with modern medical knowledge of the human bodies. The more obvious ones are easy to explain, such as the high iron content in grains and fatty acids in fishes as nutrients to the body which could help replenish what we need in general. But not everything could be easily explained. Yet many of the therapies against illnesses continued to be effective, after being shaped and reshaped by thousands of years of trial and error, experiments and observations.

One rule, however, that is tried and true gospel in Chinese medicine, is that keeping calm is always good for your health. Thinking back to the story of the Chinese PhD student, he is in fact better to himself than we realize by keeping his cool.

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