qì (氣)

Qì (氣) is usually left in pīnyīn (拼音), and thus untranslated; qì (氣) is very difficult to translate, because it suggests many meanings and connotations. There is so much potential to know it experientially; I believe one should start there. Another fundamental challenge in translating qì (氣) and MANY terms of classical Chinese medicine is that the meaning of most characters in classical Chinese language does not conform to what we call ‘parts of speech.’ So, it is NOT safe to consider qì (氣) as a noun, which signifies some ‘stuff’ or a thing, as nouns do in modern languages.

Qì (氣) is a fundamental term of classical Chinese worldview, which differs so profoundly from our modern scientific worldview, that modern people have a difficult time understanding it without direct experience and considerable contemplation. In modern times, qì (氣) is translated as “air/gas, smell, breath, tone, atmosphere, attitude; vigor, anger, and vital or material energy.” Of course some of these, such as breath, smell and vigor, are particularly suitable for Chinese medicine. Alas, the familiar concept of ‘vital or material energy’ is misleading, as it reinforces an unconscious bias toward contemporary worldview. Within the realm of medicine, qì (氣) is sometimes likened to steam, which is a ‘non-material’ form of water. Water is fundamental to life, both physically and symbolically. Water is an extremely important image — one of the five phases, which signifies the flow of a fundamentally nourishing (or sustaining) resource, which is associated with the individual’s ‘essence’ (), which is the foundation from which flows our source (yuán (源)) qì (氣).

We know from classical Chinese thought (for instance, Dàodéjīng (道德), chapter 2) that many terms are best defined relative to something else, often in yīn-yáng (陽) juxtaposition. For instance, qì (氣) refers to the ability to act (the feeling of energy), in contrast to xuè (血), which refers to the capacity to experience. It refers to many aspects of an individual’s interaction with the world; so, for instance, wèiqì (衛氣) can be conceptualized well as a mist, but that image doesn’t work so well for yuánqì (氣), which is dense and moves more slowly than wèiqì (衛氣). Qì (氣) is a relationship, or what conveys movement in an interaction.

Using more contemporary language, I find that conceptualizing qì (氣) as a field phenomena, rather than a material force, or indeed any kind of force, helps in many cases. Qì (氣) is an influence, which can either support or impede life; it can be either zhèng (正) or xié (邪), either upright or perverse.

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