‘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.

The Tao to Life Nurturing, ‘Yang Sheng’

There is a general miscochinese dao of nurturing life , healthy lifenception that Chinese people hate going to see the doctors. It is true only when the doctors practice Western Medicine. Visiting traditional Chinese doctors is very common, and do not conjure up the same kind of fear of being potentially diagnosed and transferred immediately to the cold metal slab in a surgery room. Men, women and children visit traditional Chinese doctor at even what some Western physicians would consider as trivial matters that could be solved with a dose of some very common all-purpose over-the-counter drugs such as irregular sleeping patterns, loss of appetite, common flu, excessive pain during menstruation and constipation. The doctor should and would never turn you away or transfer you to someone else because something is too trivial or their office too busy. There is not only an ethical element in it that every patient is important, but it also shows that the role of a Chinese doctor in a patient’s life is very different from that of a Western doctor. Most families see only one Chinese doctor most of their lives, although visiting new doctor that specializes in certain ailment based
on word-of-mouth is also rather common. Chinese doctor is almost a personal life coach. And only in some European countries are doctors viewed the same way because in those countries it is required of patients to have a fixed, family physicians. Most parts of the world have a rather business-like provider-client relationship with their doctors, especially when insurances are involved .

Chinese doctors practice in a way that you can think of as ‘slow fix’, because the symptoms we experience in our bodies are the result of not one singular event at one time point, but the result of days, weeks, months or years of ‘abusing our system’ by not giving it proper attention. Chinese medicine sees the body as a body of many balances. And if one of such balances is tipped, illness occurs.

Rather to consider that Chinese doctors practice ‘medicine’, it would be more appropriate to say that Chinese doctors practice the ‘Tao of nurturing life’, because ‘medicine’ is only one way to improve and maintain one’s health, and the kind with literally a bitter after-taste that I am sure most people, not just Chinese, has a dislike for.

There are many ways how one can ‘nurture life’, which means to give the best to your body and bring it to the optimal state. Typically, long age is a sign of life well-nurtured among Chinese people. Here are the more common ways than taking medicines:

  • Food Nurturing – To be elaborated below.
  • Qi Nurturing – The practice of nurturing one’s soul with art, religion and literature, to learn to control our emotions, because extreme fluctuation in emotions, the Chinese believes, can hurt our bodies. This will be discussed in the next chapter.
  • Shape Nurturing – The practice of sports and not just any sports, but fighting sports, Wuxu, as an art.
  • Method Nurturing – The practice of acupuncture, massage, cupping.
  • Time Period Nurturing – The practice of living according to the schedule of healthy rhythm.

Food nurturing is extremely common way of dealing with sickness. You could think of this as grandmother’s recipe of your culture, except these grandmother recipes that were passed down from generation to generation, through the mouth of one doctor to his disciples are the condensed results of many years of very methodologically researched knowledge compiled by medical experts in books. Early documents of Chinese therapeutic activities known came from 11-14th century BC. The most famous book that is still referred to nowadays is called the ‘Huang Di Nai Jing’, The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Cannon. It was the first book known to propose the importance of ‘prevention’ to illness in history, to treat it before it occurs.

And because of this, most Chinese people, with or without consulting a physicians, know the basics of Chinese food nurturing technique’s four set of five key principles in eating:

  • 五谷宜为养,失豆则不良, ‘Five grains nurture life, loss of beans ruins it.’ — The five grains are rice, red or green beans, wheat, soy beans and yellow millet. Grains provided lots of carbohydrates and
  • 五果当为助,力求少而数, ‘Five fruits as help, few in quantity but numerous in variety.’ — The five fruits here are peach, plum, apricot, chestnut and red date.
  • 五畜适为宜,过则害非浅 , ‘Manage the amount of meat, excessive of which could hurt.’ — The five kinds of meat here include beef, pork, chicken, lamb and fish (replacing dog meat which is no longer legal to consume).
  • 五菜常为充,新鲜绿黄红 , ‘Five vegetable to replenish regularly. Fresh green, yellow and red ones preferred.’ — The five kinds of vegetables are mallow, bean sprout, scallion, onion and leek, but since none of them fit the description of yellow and red in the second sentence, it has been generally understood that the author meant for reader to embrace all kinds of vegetables, and not just the five mentioned.

Apart from these four set of five principles, there are also many of such recipes floating around. Eating right is a very important part of a Chinese’s person’s life and almost everyone would know the more common ones such as walnut could improve brain activity, Pu-er tea can help digestion, beef is bad for wound-healing, red-bean soup is anti-inflammatory, water-melon can lower blood pressure, eating cow penis to improve sexual vitality…. the list goes on. And so you must not be offended when Chinese people decline to eat a certain kind of food you have offered them, because they might be simply following some Chinese food nurturing principles which are at times completely aligned with modern scientific understanding of biochemistry, and at times completely bizarre and baseless.