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Qi – our life force, according to practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts – ...
2020-08-31 09:00:00
healthy living

Like Steam from Boiling Rice
The Mystery of Qi

Like Steam from Boiling Rice

Qi (气) is like air: we can’t see it, but we wouldn’t be able to live without it. The life force, vitality, inner fire, life-giving breath – none of these terms render tangible its significance and versatility. In Chinese philosophy, it is viewed as a force representing the essence of life.

Read in 4 minutes

I understood that it exists thanks to acupuncture, which relives pain by balancing the flow of qi in the body. I sprained my shoulder while carrying a scooter up the long stairs of the Beijing metro. A young doctor working at the local hospital asked me to lie down on a couch separated by a thin curtain from the rest of the room. She inserted a few needles into my body and stimulated them with low-voltage for a better effect. It didn’t hurt, since she managed to accurately locate the acupuncture points instead of searching for them endlessly. I was prepared for 10 sessions. After 30 minutes, she said we were done. The same evening the pain in my shoulder suddenly went away.

I first met Dr Liu at a small party for teachers from the school where I worked and doctors from the Luhe Hospital in our neighbourhood. The idea, common in China, was to strengthen the relationship between neighbours, because we never know who is going to need whom and when. Officially, there are two types of medicine practised in Chinese hospitals: the conventional type and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). When we first met privately, she gave me a mini-lecture about yin-yang. I didn’t understand much back then, but I remembered that if yang prevails (the male aspect, movement), a person comes to meetings too early, and when yin dominates (the female aspect, stagnation), they are always late. Only a balance between the two guarantees punctuality.

We would always eat something during our meetings. She would practice her English and I would ask her about TCM. She told me that qi is an “essence”. Its flow regulates metabolism and diverse biological processes: birth, growth, puberty, ageing, and even death. When qi ceases to be, our life ends.

The qi of the human body, as she explained, is the essence of energy inherited from our parents. Its reservoir are the kidneys. It is generated by food and inhaled oxygen through the cooperation of the most important organs (i.e. the spleen, stomach, lungs, kidneys) and the support of others, and then spread all over the body. This is how Liu summarizes its role: a good supply of healthy qi prevents “evil” from entering the body. In other words, qi of good quality and mobility helps us maintain stamina, protects us from diseases, and blocks pathogens like viruses or bacteria.

The concept of qi comes from philosophy. As JeeLoo Liu writes in An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy: “Many commentators have pointed out the etymological root of the word ‘qi.’ Originally, it referred to the steam or vapor coming from boiling rice… Qi pervades the universe; in other words, the universe is simply the totality of qi in perpetual motion and constant alteration.”

The five most important functions of qi are: raising – a vital force necessary for proper development; warming – to regulate body temperature; protecting – our energetic immune system; holding – to keep body fluids in balance; transforming – responsible for metabolism.

Once, Dr Liu took me on a tour of Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. From the outside, the campus looked like any other school, but in the library hall there was a museum that showcased giant crystals and the horns of prehistoric buffalo. There were also jars with white ginseng roots looking like extraterrestrial beings, seahorses paired up in glass cases, deep wares for pounding and mixing multi-ingredient potions, and old sketches depicting patients during appointments.

While we were later wandering around the campus, Liu explained to me the connections between different organs and emotions. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the liver is responsible for anger, the lungs for prolonged sadness and depression, the heart for joy (which if excessive, can be also bad for us). For a Chinese person living according to TCM, the most important thing is balance.

To better understand the nature of qi, one needs to learn about its two principles: yin and yang. They are like Adam and Eve, Cleopatra and Marcus Aurelius, Heloise and Abelard, Napoleon and Josephine, Bonnie and Clyde, Johnny Cash and June Carter. The movement between them might be compared to opening and closing a door: the one turns into the other and neither exists in isolation. Yin and yang correspond to such concepts as female / male, movement / stagnation, or night / day. Qi is like an electric current which flows because of the minus (yin) and the plus (yang) side of the voltage that we all contain.

Yin is a female principle, characterized by passivity, downward movement, humidity and darkness. It represents the physical universe; matter. Yang, on the other hand, is a male principle, which stands for upward movement, inspiration, activity, heat and aggression. Their imbalance causes various physical and psychological symptoms, affecting our health, relationships and finances. The ‘supreme ultimate’ (Taiji 太极), a black and white diagram that most of us know, is a symbol of such interdependence of duality in constant flow.

Qi circulates not only at the doctor’s office, but also among Chinese people. We can feel it when passing by the elderly who are practicing qigong. We can hear about it at the breakfast table, when it is being remarked that millet gruel boosts stomach qi, raw garlic is an essential snack, or that jasmine tea is drunk only in the spring and summer as it helps to awaken qi after winter-time. Also, hair should be cut only at a particular moon phase. In winter, the Chinese use hot water bottles to warm their back whenever possible and wear special hand warmers. Cold has the most harmful effect on the body, since it consumes energy stored in kidneys and shortens life. If we come to believe that qi exists, all those seemingly bizarre behaviours start to make sense.


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Mąkowska

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