Qi (pronounced 'chee')... I really don't like this word! Not its spelling per se, but the elusiveness of its meaning. In acupuncture school, we were tested over and over again to know the 'correct' definition of this phantom word. Scholars will say: “Qi is the vital energy or life force in the body.” I don't know about you, but that sounds like a bunch of bologna! You'll read in much of the literature defining acupuncture as the "balancing of Qi, or vital life force energy, in the body." Okay, here's the deal. Qi kind of has me on this life mission to translate what the heck it really is. I cannot settle for some magical, mythical 'thingy' that no one can explain. And to be honest, if a person were to say to their Western medical doctor, “I went to my acupuncturist so they could balance my vital life force energy," the doctor would probably stare blankly as if that person had five heads.
I would like to present correlations with science, plus my own theories, and attempt to define Qi in a logical manner. (A large part of my doctoral thesis went over this very problem of translating Qi.) Lets begin with a history lesson. A Frenchman named Georges Soulie De Morant, is solely responsible for our understanding of Qi being defined as 'vital energy.' De Morant was living in China from 1901 to 1917 and decided, while he was working as a bank clerk, that he would translate the oldest 'bible' of Chinese Medicine, the Huang Di Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperor's Internal Classic). The Huang Di Nei Jing was written about 2,000 years ago, and the Chinese language at that time was quite different from today's Chinese. In fact, only a few people had attempted to translate the book at that time. De Morant translated the symbol for Qi as 'energy.' This was actually a huge mistake by De Morant because it lessened Chinese medicine from being the legitimate medical practice as it had been for the past 6,000 years (approximately) to an intangible energy medicine. Most scholars today argue that it is actually closer in translation to 'air,' 'vapor,' or even 'water.' In actuality, for the past 2,000 years, the Chinese had observed nature and natural phenomena and had also performed detailed dissections on humans in attempts to understand this 'life force.' They were the first to discover that blood had a circulating pathway through the system. They understood things about the body that Western science was yet to figure out.
Current debate and new theory's state that Qi is really a carrier of information. Some say Qi is water, but what has been proposed in my Doctoral dissertation (thesis) is that Qi is the specific transfer of ions. Now without diving too deep, because this is a big topic, I will just tell you the basics of the theory. In Chinese medicine, we state that Qi is what moves 'things' in the body. Qi transmits signals, it stops signals (like pain), and an excess of Qi can cause pain or swelling. We say sometimes you can see and feel Qi, while other times it’s invisible. How does this translate to biochemistry? It actually translates very well! To function, our bodies have to send signals from section to section, from the stimulus or injury to the brain and from cell to cell. There is something like a coding system that our cells use to produce signals to cause some sort of action. It’s kind of like Morse code, where a series of short or long taps symbolize a letter, a word, and so on. Our cells do much of the same thing with positive and negative ions. For example, a build-up of positive ions can signal a cell to release neurotransmitters in nerve cells, or a transfer of ions across a cell membrane can signal a cell to intake essential nutrients. The theory is that Qi is really defined as the ebb and flow of ions that enable our cells to perform their vital functions. I believe the Chinese were way ahead of their time and they knew the function of Qi, but didn’t have the technology to appropriately demonstrate their definition of Qi.
So, if Qi can be movement of charged ions that are sending signals, how does sticking an acupuncture needle into the body manipulate Qi? Well, consider an acupuncture needle to be like a traffic light. The needle can interrupt the signal (think of a red light) or it can wave on and encourage an overproduction of ions to move quicker (a green light). With acupuncture, we can actually signal to your cells to make more cells, stimulate certain hormones or even turn off pain signals entirely. So what about De Morant’s theory that Qii's energy and current scholars’ theories that Qii's air, vapor or water? Simply stated, air, vapor and water contain a mixture of charged ions. To vaporize water, it requires energy. Additionally, some cellular processes release energy to perform vital functions in the body. Maybe De Morant and subsequent scholars were just a step away from being onto something! Perhaps now I’m more comfortable with Qi.
Dr. Christina Fick