Chinese Medicine,  Daoism,  Neigong

Understanding Qi


Qi is the fundamental stuff of existence according to classical Chinese thought. It is the living, flowing, transforming substratum of existence encompassing everything from matter to energy to consciousness and more. It needs to be understood within the context of classical Chinese thought and should not be cut-and-pasted out from its native philosophical system into other systems of thought lest it simply become some sort of misunderstood “magical energy.” 

The Three Treasures (Jing, Qi, and Shen) are important concepts for understanding the body in relation to Chinese internal arts practices. While they are all ultimately just Qi (and the whole of the human body-mind is ultimately also just Qi), in the context of the Three Treasures, “Qi” also has a more specific meaning: it holds the middle-tier position energetically between Shen–the more ethereal, consciousness-related of the three, and Jing on the other end, which is the most dense, substantial, and “physical” of the three. 

Qi is a fundamental concept to the classical Chinese worldview and obviously central to neigong/qigong practices. The meaning of “Qi” 氣 greatly depends on context, and so it’s important to keep that in mind. Below we will merely touch on some important points related to this vast topic to provide an overview and hopefully clear up some common points of confusion. 

Qi in the Big Picture

The first thing to know about Qi in Chinese metaphysics is that, at base, literally everything is made of Qi. Qi is the very fabric of space-time. By simply designating that everything is made up of a single type of “stuff,” the ancient Chinese avoided all of the philosophical problems associated with having to reconcile different categories of fundamental substances. In Western thought, it basically wasn’t until Einstein that we came to see physical substance (mass) and energy as different forms of the same thing. The Chinese already had their way of accommodating this early on with their idea of a Qi that started out as pure and ethereal and, through the natural flow of existence, could condense into matter, forming the objects of the world (and then disperse yet again). Even as far back as the Zhuangzi we have:

人之生, 气之聚也。聚则为生, 散则为死。… 故万物一也。… 故曰: ’通天下一气耳 

“Life of the human being is but the concentration of Qi. Qi concentrates, thus life occurs; Qi dissipates,death occurs. … Thus Wanwu (the myriad things) are part of the One, Qi. Hence goes the saying: ‘Permeating All-under-heaven is Qi.” 1

Contemporary author and poet David Hinton puts it well (Chinese transliterations converted to pinyin for consistency):

“Qi 氣 is often described as the universal life-force breathing through things. But this presumes a dualism that separates reality into matter and a breath-force (spirit) that infuses it with life. That dualism may be useful as an approach to understanding; but more fully understood, Qi is both breath-force and matter simultaneously. Hence, it is nothing other than Dao or Absence* , emphasizing its nature as a single tissue dynamic and generative through and through, the matter and energy of the Cosmos seen together as a single breath-force surging through its perpetual transformations.” 2

* “absence” here signifying wu 無, the primordial, inchoate state of existence, non-being

Having decided that everything was simply made up of Qi, the Chinese could set aside the issue of “fundamental essences” and simply focus on the patterns that this substratum of living, ever-transforming Qi exhibited. They did this by observing nature as well as themselves and came up with various systems for mapping the transformations of Qi, including Yin and Yang, the trigrams and hexagrams of the Yijing (Book of Changes), the Five Phases, etc. So it is often said that the Chinese focused more on process and function as opposed to substance and structure. 

Qi as energy

It is common to translate Qi as “energy.” Other common variations are “life energy,” “vital force,” “life force,” etc which are perhaps a bit better because they add that important element of “life” into the equation. The translation to “energy” is enough to get you by in a pinch, especially if we are including all of the more colloquial conceptions of “energy” and not merely the strict, physics definition. So, for this reason, many in the internal arts scene do just this, which I think is understandable. It certainly avoids the need for lengthy philosophical explanation.

With Qi being so foundational to Chinese thought and energy being so foundational to Western thought, it isn’t surprising that the two could be loosely comparable. The technical issues are of course that the terms “Qi” and “energy” are anachronistic, in other words, they are concepts from two very distant eras and systems of thought, so taking either out of its context is bound to be problematic in many ways (as touched on above). Qi really includes much more than merely “energy,” which is why some have tried “matter-energy” as a translation, or perhaps better, “psycho-physical stuff.” In other contexts, Qi might be translated as “function.” So strictly speaking, “energy” doesn’t quite capture all of its meanings.  

Qi and Consciousness 

One very important place that definitions of Qi as “energy” or “matter-energy” don’t go is the first-person: phenomenal experience. Consciousness. This is one place where mainstream Western thought has had a lot of struggle. In Western philosophy there is even an unsolvable “Hard Problem of Consciousness.” This is arguably one very good reason why Qi does not have to merely be seen as some quaint, out-of-date, and redundant concept that we should just do away with. It represents the foundation of a system of knowledge that did not try to take consciousness (and therefore, in some sense, life itself) out of the equation in its conception of existence. 

With everything ultimately unified as One Qi, the Chinese system of thought avoids many problems and is very philosophically parsimonious (although you could argue that by avoiding problems of reconciliation you merely open the door to problems of dissociation). It lends itself to a system of thought that is intuitive, aesthetic, and relatable as well, as opposed to the heavy abstraction and technicalities of modern science, despite their obvious usefulness and power. The living, conscious quality of Qi allowed for much of the correspondences so useful in Chinese medicine that, for example, connect the cyclical patterns in nature to the human emotions to the organ systems of the body–something that may seem odd from the Western perspective. 

When deeply examined and appreciated, the idea that consciousness permeates existence in some way (or is even the very foundation of existence in some sense) has absolutely huge implications and deeply affects what we should understand as real/unreal and possible/not possible. Yet that the worldview holding Qi as the fundamental stuff of the universe points to these implications is, perhaps not surprisingly, often glossed over. 

Qi in the Human Body

As stated above, Qi can take on different meanings depending on context, and the context of the human body is certainly an example of this. The broader definition of Qi still holds true as every part of the human body-mind is ultimately composed of Qi, but this idea often takes the back seat to a more specific usage of Qi in the human body, in which it is one of the so-called Three Treasures (San Bao 三寶): Jing (精), Qi (氣), and Shen (神). All three treasures are ultimately just Qi and exist on a spectrum with the most dense and substantial being Jing to the more ethereal Shen. In the context of the Three Treasure, Qi also represents the middle tier on this spectrum, and often represents something like energetic functionality or bioelectricity in the human body. A common metaphor that is used to relate the Three Treasures is that of a candle. Jing is likened to the wax of the candle–the stuff that is solid and the source of fuel; Qi is likened to the flame of the candle–a dynamic, energetic phenomena; Shen is likened to the light that the candle flame gives off–lacking in substance and closely related to consciousness.

 The Chinese character for Qi 氣 (in traditional script) gives us further insight. If we break apart the two separate components below we have “rice” (米) and above it the component for “steam” or “breath” (气), evoking the image of warm steam rising off a freshly prepared bowl of rice. Qi is not the steam nor the rice, but a word describing the relationship between two things resembling the relationship between the rice and the steam. 

The notion that Chinese thought focuses more on process and function than on substance and structure can be seen in what is emphasized with regard to the body: physical organ anatomy is less emphasized than functional complexes represented as “organ systems.” The flows of Qi through the meridian/channel systems of the body are of prime importance for health. The energetic flow is seen as primary as opposed to the physical structure. Dr. Edward Neil, Chinese medicine practitioner and researcher of Chinese medicine’s primary source text the Huangdi Neijing, explains this beautifully using the example of cymatics in which vibrational frequencies are visualized through sand on vibrating plates (pictured below):

“The forms of Nature that we see, including our body, form to facilitate or ease, or make most useful, the energy patterns that are flowing through them, that’s really how Nature forms its patterns. So here we have an example of a Chladni Plate where there’s a vibration and the sand is moving out of the way of the resonance–so that the resonance can move more freely. The sand is the form that we see, and the space between the sand is the place where the resonance is happening. That’s how we come up with the idea of what a channel is. For example, in the anatomy of Neijing medicine… that the body will form around resonance patterns and it will make patterns in the connective tissue, in tissue planes, blood vessels will run in those patterns, and that’s basically how we have our body.” 3 

A Common Misconception

It’s important to keep in mind that this view of existence as a grand system of living, transforming Qi is a complete system and way of looking at the world in its own right. Many don’t take the time to explore it deeply. 

So what tends to happen is that folks are brought up with the the sort of standard modern/Western view that everything is made up of some sort of inert substance called matter and there is energy that flows around… and OK, physics tells us that the two are equivalent, but then there is also mind and consciousness which must be somehow generated by the physical matter of our brain… This view is not only seldom examined, but reveals itself as highly problematic when it finally is. Nonetheless, this is the rough worldview most hold when all-of-a-sudden the idea of “Qi” is dropped in their lap. 

So naturally, Qi then becomes some foreign concept that was cut-and-pasted from a totally parallel system of understanding into their own “normal” way of thinking, and now it merely becomes some sort of magical energy that flows through the objects in our “universe made of matter” and isn’t well understood (the dualistic view alluded to in the quote above by David Hinton). This of course leads the more skeptical-minded folks to demand that it must not exist at all because we haven’t ever found evidence of this magical energy in a laboratory. 

Of course, the above line of thinking is fatally flawed from the very get-go: you can’t cut-and-paste the concept of Qi out of one, already complete and internally-consistent, system of thinking and just plop it down into another. Of course that will result in it becoming some sort of nonsense. It is the fundamental stuff according to that other system. So therefore, by definition, it is the particles, the mass, the electromagnetism, and all that other stuff in that other system (and importantly also all of the stuff that has yet to be discovered), it’s just that those modern ideas hadn’t ever been invented as concepts in the Chinese system. It didn’t really need them. So you can’t cut-and-paste, you have to respect context and switch between systems, acknowledge that both systems exist in their own right and are parallel. And yes, as explained above, there is still usefulness in the concept of Qi because there is usefulness in the many practical applications based on that system of knowledge (Chinese medicine being a prime example). Again, Qi also never separated consciousness out from the substratum of reality, which on its own keeps it a very relevant idea even in our modern world.  


1. Lee, Keekok. The Philosophical Foundations of Classical Chinese Medicine: Philosophy, Methodology, Science. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2017. Print.

2. Hinton, David. China Root. Boulder: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2020. Print.

3. From a lecture excerpt by Dr. Edward Neal https://neijingstudies.com/