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The Roots of Qi

Donald Mainfort

Skeptical Briefs Volume 10.1, March 2000

According to ancient Chinese medicine dating back at least 3,000 years, illnesses were viewed as an imbalance of qi, or vital energy, in the body. Qi was believed to exist everywhere in the universe-a life force such as that referred to in pre-scientific Western medicine as élan vital. Vitalism is the belief in an invisible, intangible, unique form of energy that is supposedly responsible for all of the activities of a living organism. The vital force in Chinese traditional medicine is called qi, the concept upon which acupuncture is based. The word qi means air in English. In traditional Chinese medicine, qi travels throughout the body by way of fourteen channels called meridians. Insertion of needles into points along these channels is supposed to adjust the positive (yang), or negative (yin) aspects of the qi, so as to maintain a balance, or harmony. Herbs, massage, eating different types of food, and other methods are also alleged to have an effect on this balance. Qigong is said to allow practitioners to direct the alleged effects of qi just by using their minds. Qigong “doctors” claim to channel their own qi into a patient’s qi network, thereby correcting blockages and reestablishing harmony (much as in acupuncture), but without the needles. The term gong

refers here to method, or skill. It is the same gong that is used in gongfu (kung fu) and the now-popular falungong. Hammagong is a martial arts method that involves squatting and hopping about like a toad (hamma)! The appearance of the words qi and gong combined together first in 1955, when a therapist at the Hebei Department of Health and Sanitation named Liu Guizhen established a rest clinic for central government officials in Beijing, many of whom were too tired and weak for physical exercise. Liu published an influential qigong treatise in 1957: Qigong Practices.

Although the term qigong is a relatively new invention, the idea of qi as the basis for the Chinese concept of health comes from ancient times-long before the advent of modern science. The earliest known record of the term qi occurs in the book Liji, prior to the Spring and Autumn period, between three and four thousand years ago. At that time there was no modern physiology or biochemistry, nor was there understanding about nutrition or the healing mechanisms of the body. The existence of cells, blood circulation, neurology and hormones were also unknown. Because dissection of the human body was culturally discouraged, very little anatomical information was available. The only opportunity for anatomy lessons came after battles (or executions, where beheading was the preferred method).

Professor Yuan Zhong of Beijing Union Medical University, a member of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, is a specialist in Chinese medical history focusing on medical philosophy. He explains that after the fall of the ax, blood quickly leaves the body and ancient observers assumed that this liquid came from the body cavity, not from the curious, seemingly empty tubes that they later were able to see after the blood had drained away. We now know that these other vessels are the carotid arteries and jugular veins, which transport blood. Ancient observers guessed that because these tubes appeared empty and deflated, that some form of air or special gas must inflate them, hence the name qi (air). They believed that our bodies were inflated and nourished by this special air and that the arteries and veins were simply part of the respiratory system. According to the ancient medical text Ling Shu Jing Shui, this is where the idea of qi began. Pulse diagnosis appeared in China during the early Warring States period (about 2,500 years ago). At that time, doctors believed that what they were feeling were pulses of air (qi), not blood. Later, when closer observations revealed residual blood inside veins (trapped there by the bicuspid valves), the theory of qi was modified to state that veins carried blood and arteries carried air. As early as the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the famous anatomist Wang Qingren held to the mistaken belief that arteries carried air, not blood. Prior to the time of Wang Qingren, dissection was never done. To his credit, Wang lobbied strongly for less stringent regulations against dissection, saying that healing without knowledge of internal organs was “like a blind man walking in the dark.”

As in most major religions, the “breath of life” concept and air hold a special significance. When a person stops breathing, they die. If respiration is difficult, there is an obvious health problem. According to ancient medical beliefs (not only in China), the breath was said to be the soul of the individual, born with-yet separate from-the body and that it would leave the body prior to death. In late 1973, a collection of medical treatises on silk banners and bamboo slips were excavated from the Ma Wang Dui site near Changsha, Hunan. The Han and Chin Dynasty (300 b.c.-3 a.d.) treatises (the earliest surviving medical works in China) from tomb number three frequently mention qi as both a method of explaining and treating disease. One special variety of qi

mentioned frequently is that of ”jing qi of heaven,” which grew out of the ancient worship of sexual reproduction. It was believed that conception occurred as a result of contact with heavenly gas, or jing qi vital energy and that in order to increase one’s health and maintain optimum energy, frequent exposure to this special condition was necessary. This led to the Art of Coitus where the male’s semen was credited with magical life-giving properties, a concrete manifestation of the qi of heaven. Journey to the West, one of the four most significant pieces of Chinese literature, begins with a stone near the shore of the ocean being exposed to the vital qi of heaven when suddenly Sun Wukong, the Monkey King sprang valiantly from the rock.

Various Traditional Chinese Medicine ingredients: snakes, sea horses, bracket fungi (called “mystical plant” in China) and deer antler.

Various Traditional Chinese Medicine ingredients: snakes, sea horses, bracket fungi (called “mystical plant” in China) and deer antler.

In addition to the concept of jing qi, the Ma Wang Dui tombs tell us that qi has other qualities and that it can be produced by fire. A cold person is said to be lacking in qi and vice-versa. We are also told in one of the texts, titled Ten Questions, that qi has the ability to move. This idea is consistent with the current popular view of qi. Four important functions of qi were also mentioned: the development of strength, resistance to disease and evil spirits, and the maintenance of good health and longevity. The idea that qi can be obtained from the environment led to the practice, still seen today, of consuming the sex organs of various animals, such as foxes and birds. The kidneys of mice, the pollen from flowers, and alcohol were also thought to contain highly potent forms of qi. Any sort of pungent plant or root was said to contain qi. One has merely to pass within fifty yards of a traditional Chinese hospital to recognize the characteristic reek of the medicines produced there. Some substances may have been selected because they happen to look similar to other things. Ginseng, for example is said to resemble a fetus. The consumption of placental after-birth is still a common practice in the Chinese countryside. The idea was that the active medical ingredient in all of these substances was qi. Ancient tribal dances that were practiced in an effort to rid the body of evil spirits by filling it with qi led to the Dao Ying Su, a method of movement designed to cultivate qi and to celebrate the act of coitus and the reproductive organs. These are the early Chinese traditional medical beliefs from which modern versions developed, as evidenced by the surviving texts.

Professor Yuan points to a parallel and interrelated development of the qi of traditional medicine, described above, and of qi used as an interpretation of, or an attempt to reconcile with, the more recent philosophy of Daoism. The Daoist philosopher Laozi is said to have been born around 604 b.c. After his death, a movement developed which deified Laozi and created a new religion. A cast of new Daoist gods appeared and astrology, divination, alchemy, breath control and levitation were practiced by a variety of cults. The most notable group, the Celestial Masters (still active today) was established in 142 a.d., when their leader, Zhang Daoling, reported that he had received "revelations” from Laozi’s spirit. The fusing of these ideas with those of the older medical interpretation of qi resulted in the Huang Di Nei Jing (emperor’s internal scripture), the universally recognized foundation of modern traditional Chinese medicine.

Both ancient qigong wizards and modern masters draw from primitive traditions of nature worship. Historically, the Chinese people have been closely tied to the land, with agriculture being the major source of sustenance. Life in China has been greatly influenced by the harsh and unpredictable forces of nature, which inspire fear and despair. Ancient wizards offered some hope of intervention into the affairs of the gods of nature. There were many methods used to convince people of this, but the primary concern was to create a sense of mystery and awe. A second was to employ tricks and methods of deception to gain people’s confidence. Modern wizards claim that they have inherited their methods from the ancients, but that they have surpassed them. All of these allegedly new innovations are actually just variations of previous methods. So-called ”qigong information tea” (or water), is really just another form of the ancient longevity pill. The modern "scientific” information on qigong is transmitted socially, not academically. Very few of the wizards are ever medical authorities. They are frequently unlicensed, unprofessional, and they all claim to possess unlimited power that can cure any and all diseases. Although claiming to be scientific, they shun genuine scientific scrutiny. Their theories contain confusing and mystical concepts and they commonly cite “lack of faith” on the part of their patients as a way of excusing their failures. Belief in the supernatural creates great confusion that causes theology to become mistaken for science.


Donald Mainfort

Donald Mainfort, who has lectured, taught English, and traveled extensively in China, now writes from Minneapolis.