Qi (Chi): Various Forms Used In Qigong & Chinese Medicine

Three paintings by Alex Grey, which represents three maps of how qi (chi) flows in and around the human body. Alex Grey

In its broadest sense, qi can be thought of as the vibratory nature of reality: how at the atomic level, all of manifest existence is energy – an intelligent, luminous emptiness appearing as this form and then that, like waves rising from and then dissolving back into the ocean. Our perception of solidity – of forms as fixed and lasting “things” – is just that: a perception, based upon habitual ways of conceiving of ourselves and our world. As we deepen in our Taoist practice, these conceptions and perceptions of solidity are gradually replaced by the perception of the world as being more like a kaleidoscope - with its elemental manifestations in constant flux and change.

Read More: Multiplicity & Modulation In Taoist Practice

What Are The Kinds Of Qi Used In Chinese Medicine?

There are also more specific ways that the word “qi” is used. Practitioners of Chinese Medicine, for instance, have identified various kinds of qi that function within the human body. In this context, qi is one part of the Qi/Blood/Body-Fluids trinity of substances fundamental to the body’s internal functioning. Of the three, Qi is attributed to yang, because it is mobile and has the job of moving and warming things. Blood and Body Fluids, on the other hand, are attributed to yin, because they are less mobile, and have the job of nourishing and moistening things.

Each of the Zang-Fu Organ Systems has a particular Qi – which in this context simply refers to its primary function. Spleen Qi, for instance, is responsible for transformation and transportation (of food and fluids, primarily). Lung Qi governs breathing and voice. Liver Qi is responsible for the free flow of emotional energy. Heart Qi governs the flow of blood through the vessels. Kidney Qi is associated with the primordial energy that we inherited from our parents. Likewise, each of the other Zang-Fu has a specific “qi” that points to its unique function within the body.

How Does Qi Move, & What Are Its General Functions?

The movement of life can be understood as being composed of Qi’s four major actions: ascending, descending, entering and exiting. When Qi is flowing smoothly, and there is balance between its ascending/descending and entering/exiting functions, then we are healthy. Qigong and Inner Alchemy practitioners understand their bodies to be the meeting-place of Heaven and Earth, and actualize this by working with Heaven Qi and Earth Qi - drawing Heaven Qi down from above, and Earth Qi up from below. Also commonly used in qigong practice is the Qi of mountains, lakes, rivers and trees. Even when we’re not consciously doing qigong practices, with every breath we take, we absorb Heaven Qi, and through the food we eat, we absorb Earth Qi.

According to Chinese Medicine, Qi has five major functions in the human body: pushing, warming, defending, controlling, and transforming. Included in its pushing function are activities such as the movement of blood through the vessels and Qi through the meridians. The warming function of Qi is the result of its movement, and includes the warming of the Zang-Fu Organs, the channels, the skin, muscles and tendons. The primary defending action of Qi is prevention from the invasion of external pathogenic factors. The controlling function of Qi is what keeps blood in the vessels, and is in charge also of creating the appropriate amount of secretions such as sweat, urine, gastric juice and sexual fluids. The transforming function of Qi has to do with the body’s larger metabolic processes, for instance the transformation of food into nutrients and wastes.

How Are The Major Forms Of Qi Created Within The Body?

According to Chinese Medicine, the energy used to sustain our bodies is of two major types: (1) Congenital (or Prenatal) Qi, and (2) Acquired (or Postnatal) Qi. Congenital Qi is the Qi we were born with – the energy/intelligence that we inherited from our parents, and that is associated with DNA and RNA codes (our “karma” from previous lives). Congenital Qi includes both Jing/Essence and Yuan Qi (Original Qi), and is stored in the Kidneys. Acquired Qi, on the other hand, is the Qi that we generate within our lifetime from the air that we breathe, the food that we eat, and qigong practice, and is associated primarily with the Lung and Spleen Organ-Systems. If our eating and breathing patterns are intelligent, and our qigong practice strong, we can generate a surplus of Acquired Qi, which can then be used to supplement our Congenital Qi.

Included within the category of Acquired (Postnatal) Qi are: (1) Gu Qi – the essence of the food we eat; (2) Kong Qi – the energy of the air that we breathe; (3) Zong Qi (also called Pectoral Qi or Gathering Qi) – which is the combination of Gu Qi and Kong Qi; and (4) Zheng Qi (also called True Qi) – which includes both Ying Qi (also called Nutritive Qi), which is the Qi that flows through the meridians, and Wei Qi (also called Defensive Qi). The terminology is complex, but basically what is being described is the process by which the food that we eat and the air that we breathe are metabolized internally, to produce the Qi that flows through the meridians, and the Qi that flows outside of the meridians as protection.

It works something like this: The food that we eat is processed by the Spleen/Stomach Organ-System to produce Gu Qi. The air that we breathe is processed by the Lung Organ-System to produce Kong Qi. The essence of the food (Gu Qi) is sent up to the chest where it mixes with the essence of the air (Kong Qi) to produce Zong Qi. In terms of western physiology, this is the rough equivalent to the oxygenation of the blood that happens in the lungs. Supported by Yuan Qi (Congenital Qi, stored in the Kidneys), Zong Qi is then transformed into Zheng Qi (True Qi), which in its yin aspect becomes Ying Qi (what flows through the meridians) and in its yang aspect becomes Wei Qi (which protects us from external pathogens).


Suggested Reading: A Brief History of Qi by Ken Rose is a fascinating exploration of various meanings of the word/concept "qi."