What is Qi?

Decoding the Mysterious Language of TCM - Part II

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on a view of health and the human body that is radically different from what we are used to in western medicine and comprises a unique language to describe health, disease and healing. This blog series (Decoding the Mysterious Language of TCM) is dedicated to introducing various concepts of Chinese Medicine and offer a little glimpse of a fascinating paradigm.

The Concept of Qi

The idea of Qi is very difficult to bring across in the west and generally is translated as ‘energy’. However, it is so much more than that and really takes on different forms or manifestations in different situations. We can look towards modern particle physics and its understanding that matter and energy are on the same continuum as a way to understand Qi. To quote Giovanni Maciocia in The Foundations of Chinese Medicine, “Qi is the basis of all phenomena in the universe and provides continuity between coarse, material forms and tenuous, rarefied, non-material energies. (, p. 42) … The various states of aggregation of Qi account for its manifestations at a physical and emotional-mental-spiritual level simultaneously. [For example], the Blood in the Liver represents a dense, material form of Qi whilst the emotional energy of anger is also a form of Qi, albeit of a more subtle, non-material type.” (p. 44)

In Chinese Medicine, the concept of Qi contains three important aspects:

  • Function of Organs: Qi is the functional activity of each organ. It makes up all the activities that a healthy organ must perform to support the body as a whole. One example might be the electrical impulse that keeps our heart beating. Without that consistent input, the heart cannot perform its vital function. All of our organs requires some sort of power or Qi to keep carrying out the task it was assigned.
  • Nourishment for Body: Qi also refers to the refined ‘product’ of each organ which nourishes and supports the body. A clear example of this is the function of the digestive system to break down the food we eat and convert it into a form that is usable by each cell of our body. 
  • Coordination: No organ operates in isolation, and the smooth flow of Qi is responsible for the coordinated activity of all of them together. Again the digestive system serves as a good example, because it takes the coordinated effort of many organs including the stomach, small and large intestine, the liver, pancreas etc. 

When Qi does not support our organs sufficiently, when it doesn’t flow easily throughout our body, when it fails to fully coordinating between all of our organs, that is when illness sets in. Traditional Chinese Medicine uses acupuncture, herbs, food and exercise to restore the free flow of Qi so that the each organ can function optimally and health can be restored and maintained.