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  • Writer's picturePhilip Niño Tan-Gatue

Explaining Qi to MDs

Note: This is a re-publishing of the following article: also by the author.

It is but natural for many people to consider their personal philosophies and worldviews as the standard against which others must measure their versions.  I recall an incident from my first year in college.  For me, it was my first time to have classmates who did not know any Chinese, and for them, it was their first exposure to someone (there were two of us, actually), who used a language using a non latin alphabet.  (Filipino, while a malay language, currently uses a latin alphabet).

I wrote some characters on a blackboard.  My newfound friend asked, “so is there like, one character per english letter?” (the answer was no)

I hope you get the idea – for someone exposed ONLY to latin alphabets, it is assumed that the latin alphabet is the standard from which others are based.

Let’s get this straight, the east is the east and the west is the west.  There is no “gold standard”.

So, this is the mindset people have to overcome.  When inquiring about Qi, therefore, the western mind is looking for a cultural and linguistic equivalent based on the western paradigm.  It’s like an Englishman looking for a Japanese letter representing the sound made by the letters “L” and “R”.  There isn’t any.  There’s a combination of both into one sound but that’s it.

Failing to find a single one-to-one correspondence for the meaning of the word “Qi”, the westerner ends up disappointed and skeptical.

The failure lies in those who are unaware of how to explain Qi, particularly to MDs.

Here is something I wrote in an email about this topic:

“I would start off by saying that most MD’s do not want to hear anything that sounds vaguely “supernatural”.  Of course, to folks like us, Qi isn’t supernatural, it is in fact the basis of everything – hence nature – but that’s not what it SOUNDS like to them.

So I always start by asking members of the audience to explain what they think Qi is, while gently correcting.  I then also show that Qi has a wide variety of meanings depending the context.  I use “sheng qi” (get angry), to explain that in this sense, qi is physiology as the blood rises to the head when one gets angry as sheng qi literally means bring forth qi.  ”Tian Qi” or weather, to imply that Qi has a “communication” and “status” aspect (status as in state of being) as tian means heaven and so tian qi can mean the state of the heavens or the nature of the heavens at a given time.  Qi has a breath or air aspect as when we say hot air balloon or qi qiu (qi ball).

Once that fundamental is established, I then narrow it down to medical terms.  Qi therefore has something to do with physiology, a state of being, a breathing or dynamic aspect.  Hence, when we say “qi flows” it means natural function is present.  If qi is blocked, then function is impaired.”

When asked to elaborate, I answered:

“(Instead of sounding New Agey by going through the philosophy of Qi is, we can simplify it by just saying)… that “Qi” has many meanings in english, just like the greeks had about seven or so different words for one english word love.  One meaning of Qi with most relevance to the body is physiology.  Acupuncture has been proven to release NO (nitrous or nitric oxide, I forget) which is a vasodilator, making blood vessels larger and facilitating better blood flow – that’s why acupoints with needles turn slight red.  Hence, when we say Qi is unblocked, in biomedicine we can say the physiology is facilitated or made more efficient.  Nothing supernatural, nothing gimmicky, just proper translation of terms.”

Again, this is not a comprehensive explanation of exactly what Qi is, but it is my personal method of explaining it to MDs in such a way as to make the concept more relevant to them.

Originally published on on January 26, 2011.

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