What is Qi?

Well, if you were to ask the majority of people (including acupuncturists) for a one-word definition of Qi the answer would be energy. However, if you were to look up the definition of Qi in any reputable Chinese medical dictionary you might be surprised to find that energy is not even a choice! There would be about ten or twelve possible definitions depending on the context of the word. The most common translation for Qi is air or vital air, which we can then guess to mean oxygen.

So why does everyone think Qi means energy?

The most ancient text describing Chinese medicine and acupuncture is called the Huang Di Nei Jing. It was written about 2,000 years ago on 18 scrolls. Fully translated, those 18 scrolls would fill about 800 pages. However, this text has never been fully translated into English. Now keep in mind how difficult it would be to translate from ancient Chinese into modern English. Qi was never translated as energy until 1939 when a French diplomat named Soulie de Morant partially translated the Nei Jing into French. He had lived for some time in India as well, so one can only guess that he assumed Qi in Chinese medicine was the same as Prana, which does mean energy, in Ayurvedic medicine.

Due to this continual mistranslation, acupuncture has been improperly assumed to be an energy medicine where a patient’s improvement is thought to be due to the patient’s ‘energy’ becoming more balanced.

However, if one looks more closely into the ancient Nei Jing text, one can see that the Chinese writers were actually very much concerned with physical medicine and actually performed many dissections of cadavers in order to better understand how the body works. They write about the average weight of individual organs which would be impossible without dissecting the human body. There is never mention of famous sages who discovered that mystical energy flows throughout the body in energy channels called meridians. In fact, the meridians are another mistranslation by Soulie de Morant and create another misunderstanding of Chinese medicine which I will try to correct in next month’s blog post.

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