The Chinese Qi Explained

A Chinese colorful dragon on the edge of a roof against the sky.

The concept of a life force that permeates everything in the universe many times is considered a mythical fantasy from an archaic and obsolete culture by Western intellectuals.

Looking from the perspective of the very culture from where the qi phenomena has emerged, it is possible to say that the element to which qi makes reference not only exists but is actually much closer to the common perception than what is normally thought.

The Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese cultures all hold the conception of an energy that is associated with life. In the Indian tantric tradition, this energy is named prana, the Tibetans call it rLung, and the Chinese qi.

In the West, a lot of effort has been invested in identifying and measuring this vital energy through various means. Nevertheless, most of the scientific research done in an attempt to unveil the physiology beneath the qi network ends up with nothing substantial to showcase. Nevertheless, practices such as acupuncture continue to be useful in treating physiological pathologies of various kinds.

Table of Contents

First Documented References of Qi

Although the exact place and time when qi started to be observed as a phenomenon are uncertain, Chinese classic canonical texts serve as references. In the different classic texts, various elaborations and observations of qi interactions from different perspectives can be found.

The primary reference for the meaning of qi is the I Ching, The Book of Changes. The trigrams contained in the I Ching represent both psychological and cosmic forces. These forces are tied to the internal organs of the body, which are the basis for the spiritual experience of non-duality (Tao).

Although the I Ching is most popularly known as a divination work, it is in reality the oldest existing text of what came to be called Internal Alchemy. It is not a religious book. The readings of common life situations explained in the I Ching reveal a mature understanding of the human psyche. At the same time, it offers clear guidance on what conduct must be cultivated in each situation based on secular ethical values.

Cultural Context and Parallels

In the times when the I Ching was written, which is said to have been around the 10th century BC, there existed other cultures in which animistic beliefs were held. Among those, the kingdom of Zhang Zhung, which later became part of Tibet, was the closest to China both geographically and culturally.

In the kingdom of Zhang Zhung, which encompassed part of present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tibet, a primitive Bön religion was practiced by the indigenous people in the Neolithic period. This first form of Bön was based on the worship of the elements, blood sacrifices, propitiation of demons and gods through spells, and so on; not unlike Chinese religions of the same period.

The Bön religion had a major shift with the apparition of a fully Enlighted being called Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche. Similarly to Siddharta Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha, Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche was born a king, renounced his royal heritage to practice austerities, and attained spiritual awakening. After becoming enlightened, Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche started to reform and spread the Bön doctrine, eliminating blood-shedding and demonic propitiation ceremonies.

Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche introduced the Yungdrung Bön (Ever-lasting Bön). His teachings on the nature of the mind are the earliest form of the most essential teachings related to Tibetan Buddhism, called Dzogchen. Taoist Chinese texts and the yogic practices that emerged in China share similarities with these particular teachings, which are purely non-dogmatic instructions.

There are other common traces between the culture of the Zhang Zhung kingdom and China. The swastika symbol for example, is the main symbol of Bön, and is also found adorning Chinese artifacts from similar periods. Interestingly, the swastika symbol is present in ancient cultures from around the world, from Sumer, to the Indus Valley, to the Mayan culture, to the Aztecs, and even in Europe at as early as the Bronze Age.

Internal Alchemy, Yoga and Tantrism

There is definitely a connection between all the wisdom traditions that have originated in Asia. The different approaches found in each culture display myriad possibilities for working with the human potential.

The basis of qi is the human body. In the same way that in the tantric tradition the body is the basis of prana, and in Tibetan medicine it is the basis of rLung. Although qi is not described solely as wind, like in the Indian and Tibetan traditions, it is referred to as breath, and has the same connotation of current and flow. Taoist Internal Alchemy often fuses Buddhist and tantric practices, but with a Chinese style.

Qi is the Chinese version of the Tibetan rLung and the Indian prana. Using the Indian Buddhist terminology adopted in Tibet, it is possible to affirm that from the point of view of the observed object they are the same, but from the point of view of the mind apprehending it they’re different.

Different Types of Qi

In Chinese medicine, the most utilized definition of qi comes from the literal meaning of the character 炁, translated as “breath, steam, air, gas, weather”. Qi is an amoral, intangible, and ineffable force that underlies all physiological and psychological processes in the body, including our emotional states.

According to Chinese philosophy, Tao is the absolute reality that is beyond dualism, and the physical world is the temporary manifestation of the Tao in space. Qi is an amalgam of natural phenomena that are neither solely physical nor a mental concept, since qi governs subtle emotional states as well as physiological functions. There are many different types of qi.

The classic analogy utilized to illustrate the meaning of qi is the steam that raises from freshly cooked rice. Qi refers to the ascending movement of the steam, to the steam itself, as well as to the heat and humidity contained in it. The natural qi that flows freely in the environment can be channeled through Feng Shui. The qi that flows inside the body can be harmonized through the practice of acupuncture and other Chinese medicine techniques.

Qi flows in the body through a channel and network vessel system, known as jingluo. In total, there are twelve primary channels where the qi of the inner organs of Chinese medicine (zangfu) flow. In addition to those, there are eight so-called extraordinary vessels where qi flows and is stored. The extraordinary vessels are most often involved in Internal Alchemy practices.

Functions and Dynamics of Qi

In Chinese medicine, the body is formed from three immaterial potentialities, the Three Treasures; jing, qi, and shen. Jing is the quintessence of physical vitality that is stored in the Kidneys. Shen is the sum of all psychological functions that is tied to the zangfu (inner organs). Qi is what moves jing and nourishes shen.

Qi is subdivided into yin qi and yang qi. There exist different types of qi moving throughout the body. Each quality of qi exerts a specific function in the organism. The main functions of qi are:

    • Impulsion.

    • Heating and thermoregulation.

    • Defending (immunity).

    • Transformation (metabolism).

    • Containment.

The basic dynamic movements of qi in the body (qi ji) are entrance/exit and ascent/descent. The proper movement of each specific qi constitute the basic mechanism that underlie physiological homeostasis in Chinese medicine.

Types of Qi


    • Innate qi (xian tian). Innate qi is the portion of jing that comes from one’s progenitors. It is often described as the Essence of the body, which is predetermined by the information received from both parents upon conception.

    • Acquired qi (hou tian). The qi from the transformation of the water, food and air that we absorb are all part of the acquired qi. This qi feeds the needs of our entire organism, besides nourishing back the jing when it is consumed.

    • Yuan qi. This qi is the combination of the innate and acquired qi. Yuan qi comes from the Kidneys and circulates through the hand shaoyang channel.

    • Gu qi. The qi that comes from the exterior through the food and water.

    • Zong qi. Also known as thoracic qi. This qi is resultant from the reunion of the qi from the food and water with the qi from the air.

    • Zhen qi. Translated as “true qi“. It is the state of the organic qi when the zong qi and the yuan qi are combined. Although its definition is useful in Chinese medicine, zong qi can only exist through the action of the yuan qi. Zhen qi is divided in to ying qi and wei qi.

    • Ying qi. This is a yin qi that is found in the nutritive basis of the blood. It is the only qi that circulates inside the blood vessels, and also circulates in the jingluo. Ying qi is directly connected to the nutrition of the zang organs, as well as to the hydration of the fu organs.

    • Wei qi. Also called defensive qi, it circulates underneath the skin, which is a functional zone connected to the Lung in TCM. Wei qi is more viscous than the ying qi, which makes it impossible for the wei qi to penetrate the blood vessels. It controls the opening and closing of the pores on the skin, as well as sweating and thermoregulation. Wei qi hydrates the skin, the muscles and fascia. Another important function of the wei qi is that it forms a barrier that protects the body from invasions coming from the exterior.

    • Zheng qi. This term refers to the optimum state of the body in its totality. When all the different types of qi are well nourished and flowing in the appropriate dynamics, and the zangfu are healthy and nourished, the zheng qi is said to be strong.

    • Xie qi. This is a general term used to refer to any illness that affect the organism.

    • Zhong qi. Resumes the state of the digestive system, represented in Chinese medicine by the Spleen and Stomach.

    • Mingmen Fire. The mingmen Fire a.k.a. Gate of Existence, is much more elaborated in Taoist Internal Alchemy than in Chinese medicine. It is one of the Cinnabar Fields of Taoism. The location of the mingmen Fire can vary according to the text source, but it is agreed that the mingmen fire is located somewhere near the Kidneys. It provides Heat to the entire body, and transforms jing into yuan qi.

Feeling Qi

Qi is connected to the subjective experiences of Taoist Internal Alchemy masters. Taoism itself if often practiced alongside Buddhist esoteric practices in China, and the depth of influence of the latter in Taoist practices although hard to determine, is doubtlessly profound. What is clear is that there are a lot of similarities between both traditions, and a long history of religious communion in China.

Internal Alchemy practitioners, and tantric practitioners for that matter, spend their lives cultivating their practices of mind training through sitting postures, visualizations sustained for long periods, breathing and physical exercises, and so forth. According to their experiences, there is a force that operates in all natural phenomena that can be used to attain inexpressible experiences of non-duality, as also for healing purposes.

In China, the knowledge gathered by many philosophical and yogic schools has been accumulated over thousands of years, forming the discipline known as traditional Chinese medicine. The protocols used in TCM are based on knowledge tied to Taoism and other Asian esoteric traditions. The existence of qi, although possibly intuited by some, can only be experienced on first-hand by fully qualified practitioners of Internal Alchemy or similar practices.

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