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Qi is Not a Thing in TCM!

meditation with Qi

The word "Qi" (氣) is everywhere in discussions of wellness, spirituality, and traditional Chinese medicine. But what if the way we commonly think about Qi is fundamentally wrong? What if Qi is not a thing? We often hear Qi described as a mystical energy, a vital life force flowing through our bodies… but that's not quite accurate. Qi is not a thing!

Qi: Not a Noun, but a Verb

The confusion arises when we think of Qi as a noun, as something you can possess or store. In reality, Qi is more like a verb. It's a way to describe the optimal function of a system. Think of it this way: when talking about a body with "strong Qi", we're describing how well its systems work:

  • Wei Qi: Describes the protective functions of the immune system and the body's ability to resist external pathogens. It doesn't refer to a quantifiable substance but to the strength and integrity of this system.

  • Yuan Qi: Represents the deep vitality inherited from our parents and maintained through the proper functioning of our organs. We can't isolate "Yuan Qi" - it's reflected in energy levels, resilience, and overall health.

  • Zang Fu Qi: Each organ (Zang Fu) has its specific Qi. For instance, Heart Qi relates to the Heart's ability to circulate blood and house the spirit (Shen). This Qi is not tangible, but its optimal function is critical for both physiological and psycho-emotional health.

These are descriptors of how systems in the body function, not signs of some magically undetectable substance flowing within. Also note that when the word Qi is used by itself it is vague to the point of being meaningless. We must connect it to the system it is describing (eg., Wei Qi, Yuan Qi, etc.) Simply saying a patient has deficient Qi tells us almost nothing until the type of Qi is defined. 

Qi is Not a Thing... It's Like "Digestion"

Consider the word "digestion." When I say, "The patient has poor digestion," I don't mean there's a lack of a substance called "digestion." It's a descriptor – perhaps the Spleen and Stomach aren't transforming food properly, the transportation and absorption of nutrients are compromised, or Dampness is obstructing the smooth flow of Qi. From a TCM perspective, we don't aim to infuse the patient with more "digestion," but rather address the underlying disharmonies hindering this process.

Similarly, when we say someone has "weak Qi," we're not implying a deficiency of some quantifiable entity. Instead, it's a shorthand for identifying imbalances or blockages within specific systems in the body. A TCM practitioner's goal isn't to directly supplement Qi, but rather to assess the root of the disharmony (whether it's Qi deficiency, Qi stagnation, Blood stasis, etc.) and employ acupuncture, gua sha, herbal formulas, or other modalities to restore the body's natural processes and thus its optimal functioning—or, its Qi. Chapter one of The Ling Shu states,”All acupuncture is to tonify what is deficient and reduce what is in excess” it does not mention injecting the body with Qi.

The Clock: Yin, Yang, and Qi

Yin Yang Clock Gone Wrong

A perfect example of this concept is a well-designed clock. The gears, hands, and battery are Yin – the physical structure. The ability for the hands to move, the actual energy from the battery is Yang. A clock with good Qi seamlessly fulfills its purpose due to a harmonious design. Let's consider this through the lens of TCM:

  • Clock with Excess Qi: A clock that runs fast might be described as having excess Yang Qi. This reflects a system where function is overactive and possibly out of sync with its intended rhythm.

  • Clock with Deficient Qi: A clock that runs slow could be seen as a deficiency of Yang Qi, potentially with underlying Yin aspects like Cold or Dampness hindering its function.

  • Broken Clock: A clock that doesn't tell time at all has lost its fundamental function. Here, we might see a severe blockage or stagnation of Qi, or a significant mismatch between its form (Yin) and ability to function (Yang). When Yin and Yang separate a thing ceases to be. We might say a clock that does not tell time is no longer a clock. It is now a decorative wall hanging.

Furthermore, a thing is often defined by its function. If we take a broken clock down from the wall and eat off of it, it becomes a plate. While the plate may be poorly designed because its original form (Yin) was intended for a different purpose, its new function redefines its role and relationship within the larger context. Yin and Yang are not mutually exclusive; function and form must be in harmony for optimal Qi.

Qi, Blood, and TCM

Qi isn't a tangible substance, but rather a concept describing optimal function. This is evident in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), where Qi is closely linked to Blood (Xuè). If we chang the way we talk about Qi (Yang) and Blood (Yin) things make a little more sense. 

Hnad-made gua sha tool
  • Qi as Force (Qi is the Commander of Blood): Instead of stating Qi propels Blood, it may be more accurate to say that a system with strong Qi experiences healthy blood circulation, preventing stagnation. This rephrasing may seem like semantics but the paradigm shift it evokes is profound.

  • Qi as Containment (Qi Holds Blood): Rather than thinking a substance called Qi is directly keeping Blood in vessels, we should understand that a system with strong Spleen Qi (or in some cases Kidney Qi) maintains Blood within its proper channels. This is a nuanced shift in thinking but an important one.

Qi and Blood represent a yin-yang pair in TCM. Blood (Xuè) nourishes the physical body (Yin), while Qi represents dynamic functions and processes (Yang). All the blood tests in the world will never find a substance called Qi being carried by the blood. And that's OK.

Conclusion: The Power of Qi in TCM

While the concept of Qi might initially be elusive, its value in TCM is undeniable. By shifting our understanding from "a thing" to "a descriptor of function", Qi serves as a powerful framework for diagnosis and treatment. It transcends simplistic notions of mystical energies, grounding us in the body's interconnected systems and natural rhythms. When we understand Qi as a descriptor of function – not a substance – a more nuanced and effective approach to treatment emerges.

By recognizing that "Qi" encompasses the harmonious interaction of Yin and Yang, the efficient functioning of our organs (Zang Fu), the strength of our defenses, our vitality, and the smooth flow of blood, we gain invaluable insights into the patterns of health and disease. When we perceive Qi as a tapestry of functions rather than a tangible entity, we become adept at identifying the subtle cues that indicate disharmony. As acupuncturists and herbalists we can leverage these ideas to guide our patients toward optimal health through balance. 

This understanding of Qi as function is not merely a theoretical exercise. It has direct applications in our clinical practice:

  • Precise Diagnosis: We can more easily move from vague descriptions like "weak Qi" to precise TCM concepts (Spleen Qi Deficiency, Liver Qi Stagnation, etc.). This helps us identify the disharmony at the root of the problem, leading to more targeted interventions.

  • Holistic Treatment: Our choice of acupuncture points, herbal prescriptions, and lifestyle recommendations becomes deeply rooted in addressing disharmonies rather than chasing symptoms.

  • Preventative Care: When we understand Qi as function, we can more easily observe subtle imbalances long before they manifest as severe illnesses. This empowers us to support our patients' innate capacity for health and self-regulation.

Viewing Qi as a mystical substance gives us no tangible insight into the patient's condition. Understanding form and function, yin and yang, does. Let's continue to embrace the true power and potential of Qi as we guide our patients toward lasting well-being.

About the Author

Mark Parzynski doing taiji in a formal clothes

Mark Parzynski. DAOM, L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist and educator with a diverse background in the field. He has studied in the United States, Japan, and China and uses a range of unique therapeutic approaches to create personalized treatment plans for his patients. Dr. Parzynski has over a decade of experience as a clinical supervisor and has taught graduate students and clinicians.

In addition to his work in acupuncture, Dr. Parzynski is also a skilled craftsman and silversmith. He began making teishin and gua sha tools as an acupuncture student. His passion as an artisan has continued, and for over a decade, he has been making tools for practitioners worldwide, including some of Japan's most renowned masters.

Dr. Parzynski is also a Chinese internal martial arts practitioner, which he incorporates into his acupuncture practice and daily life. He was a senior student of the late Sifu Gregory Fong and has taught Taiji Quan, Yi Quan, and Qi Gong since 2006.

For acupuncture tools and classes provided by Dr. Parzynski, visit 

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