Qi (pronounced “chee,” also spelled chi or ki) is an ancient concept, found most famously in Taoism and in traditional Chinese medicine. Usually translated as vital energy or life force, it’s that ineffable “stuff” that animates living things and suffuses the world with vitality. (It’s similar to the Hindu concept of prana.)

Is this stuff real?

Heavy question! The answer depends largely on your epistemological stance—what kinds of things you think should get the privilege of being called knowledge. First, let’s look at the traditional view. In traditional Chinese culture, qi is said to be the primordial force contained in the basic building blocks of life. It’s said to be contained or embodied in everything, in fact:

It’s in our DNA — if you come from “good stock,” you’ve got great qi.

It’s in our food — the more processed the food you eat, the less nutritious it is, and this is said to stagnate the flow of qi. (In other words, to throw your health out of balance!)

It’s in the environmentfeng shui, a practice developed to bring balance to spaces, is designed to optimize the flow of qi.

According to Chinese medicine, qi travels through our body along channels called meridians. This is a foundational concept for healing practices like acupuncture.

So, you can think of qi as a very old word for energy — but not the kind we’re used to talking about in the modern world. In the West, we tend to invalidate things that don’t fit into a scientific framework, so we generally like our “energies” to be clear-cut and measurable, which means we should be able to find them somewhere on the electromagnetic spectrum.

But qi is one of several kinds of so-called “subtle” energy that, since they are not seen as physical or measurable, are an affront to the scientific worldview. If we can’t detect it and repeat our findings in an experimental setting, for all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist.

Historically, we didn’t have such a materialistic worldview, which allowed for the idea of causal forces that aren’t made of matter. In fact, in the Chinese conception, matter itself was viewed as a form of qi that has accreted to the point that it goes from being subtle to dense. The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Internal Medicine (circa 250BC) states:

[quote]”When Qi is disperse it forms Heaven. When Qi is condensed – it forms the Earth.”[/quote]

So, qi is meaningless in the context of current medical science knowledge. That doesn’t mean it needs to be dismissed—the metaphysically-minded have found it to be a greatly valuable way of looking at things. Whether you want to think of qi as a “real” thing or just a useful metaphor is, frankly, unimportant. To be overly literal is to miss the point.

Qi, in its broad sense, provides us with a great concept for modelling the world around us. Traditional Chinese medicine was based on a simple and timeless principle — whether it’s your body, your office, or the entire earth, any system that’s in harmony and balance is, by definition, healthy and sustainable. Every single culture before ours has had a notion of “lifeforce” that helped them visualize and negotiate this need for balance. Let’s not be too hasty to throw out a useful concept simply because it can’t be motivated by science in causal terms.

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