Sensible advice for aches, pains & injuries

Do You Believe in Qi?

How to embrace a central concept of Eastern mysticism without being a flake

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by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about

I get asked this a lot. People want to know if I think all “this stuff” is real — all this stuff about vital energy, life forces and auras, or what the Chinese call qi.1 Qi (pronounced “chee”) is allegedly an “energy” or “force” that flows through channels or meridians in the body, according to Chinese philosophy and folk medicine.

I don’t have much use for qi as a literal concept.2 But this is a significant difference, somewhat like the difference between a Biblical literalist and a progressive academic theologian. I believe the idea of qi is useful, interesting, and aesthetically pleasing … but not a description of actual stuff.

In the course of the history of our species, we have often cooked up ideas that elegantly but non-literally described a collection of natural phenomena. I believe the Chinese were superb observers of human health, and came up with all kinds of rather beautiful ways of describing what they could not possibly understand. Qi was an attempt to make sense of it — a label for the collective je ne sais quoi of human health and vitality.

Could it turn out to be a real thing after all, though? A force or an energy that might someday be measured by scientific instruments? I grew up longing for The Force to be real, and for many years qi seemed like a good candidate.

When I practice qi gong or t’ai qi, I do not trouble myself with whether or not the qi is “real.” Qi gong is an art. I practice it in a beautiful way. Like Japanese cuisine, it works best when it looks good. To do a thing in a beautiful way, to move gracefully, is to experience qi. Is beauty a real thing? Yes. But there will never be a Beauty-o-Meter®.

I am quite content to think of qi as a complex and beautiful metaphor. The Chinese may even never have intended qi to be more than a metaphor, albeit a potent one: “just” poetic imagery that expresses the essence of the miracle of life and the vivid sensations that make it up. To live is a miracle; to live well, to be full of life and to live in balance and harmony, is a beautiful miracle — a miracle full of qi. Perhaps the idea of qi is a condensed, Taoist way of saying “I am more than the sum of my parts.”

The Chinese have always been very good at saying a lot with a single sound or a simple image.

On the other hand, I supposed qi could turn out to be a measurable force of nature or a description of physiological circumstances, and a potentially useful medical idea. Humans and matter itself are phenomena of force and energy, and we exploit the forces of physics quite a bit in our physiology.3 We are not actually solid, you know — instead, our molecules are weird concatenations of energy. This is just physics.

Emphasis on the just.

However, this exactly the point at which many writers would hijack science to make qi seem more respectable, and it makes scientists cringe — in fact, quantum physics probably really doesn’t have anything to do with qi, or indeed anything to do with life on our scale. I only brought physics up as a general reminder that we still have some things to learn about how chemistry becomes biology, and how biology becomes a person, and maybe, someday, we’ll find out there is something like an energy-type qi going on in our bodies. I doubt it, but I’m not completely closing my mind to the possibility — I’m a qi-as-stuff agnostic.

Meanwhile, I am quite happy with qi-as-poetry. And if that is all it ever turns out to be, how can I be disappointed?

About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.

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  1. You see the words ji and chi in taijiquan and t’ai chi (which are the modern Pinyin and more traditional Wade-Giles transliterations of the Chinese). These two words are not the same words as ch’i and qi! Almost everyone gets this mixed up (including me, for many years). Ji/chi is a philosophical concept, a really deep thought, hard to define and translate, but “pole” or “ultimate” will do. It is qi or ch’i that refers to breath or life energy, like the western concept of vis vitalis (vital force) or the Greek pneuma (breath, spirit, soul). BACK TO TEXT
  2. Rosa L, Rosa E, Sarner L, Barrett S. A close look at therapeutic touch. JAMA. 1998 Apr 1;279(13):1005–10. PubMed #9533499. PainSci #56856.

    This paper is an entertaining chapter in the history of the science of alternative medicine: a child’s science fair project published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showing that “twenty-one experienced therapeutic touch practitioners were unable to detect the investigator's ‘energy field.’ Their failure to substantiate TT's most fundamental claim is unrefuted evidence that the claims of TT are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified.”

    Therapeutic touch practitioners could not demonstrate any ability to detect a person by feeling their aura, let alone manipulating it therapeutically. The test made them look ridiculous.

  3. See The Body Electric. BACK TO TEXT