No – Qi does not exist

Do you believe in qi? That is a question that is sometimes asked and a question that clearly reflects how little we understand about the concept of qi. As if qi is a vague concept related to religion or supernatural powers. Something that doesn’t necessarily have to be untrue. After all, it is a broad concept, with many meanings and often applied in a vague context. But does this mean that qi does not exist?

cover of the book The skeptics guide to the universeRecently, I came across an article titled “No – Qi Does Not Exist” written by Mr. Steven Novella. My apologies, Dr. Novella. That title certainly lends more weight to the words of this man. However, that is a false assumption. Mr. Novella is likely a doctor and an expert in his own field. After all, he is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. However, knowledge of the Chinese language and culture is probably not among his expertise. It’s a pity that a man with a doctorate status didn’t bother to do his homework before dismissing an entire culture and medical tradition as quackery. As a co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society (similar to the Association against Quackery and its Belgian counterpart Skepsis), he promotes critical thinking and a higher standard of education. One would expect him to come from an informed standpoint. He could start by reading our own article on Qi. If he had done so, he would have noticed that portraying qi as fairy tale language is a gross oversimplification.

Personally, I enjoy reading the arguments of these often fervent fighters against alternative practices, as they are sometimes called. It is indeed a fact that our capitalist society has created space for various dubious courses, movements, and treatment methods. I fully support their idea of maintaining critical thinking. However, in my opinion, these groups would come across much more seriously if they also addressed the misconduct within conventional medicine because that field is not free from “quackery” either. Now, their image seems to be limited more to that of a witch hunt. Besides the fact that they often disregard or simply ignore scientific work, they seem to have tunnel vision when it comes to certain topics. Nevertheless, they occasionally make valid points and highlight weaknesses in their own reasoning. However, their own article seemed to lack substantial evidence.

Let’s start with the most obvious counterargument. Qi as a function and suffix or postfix. Here, we talk about yangqi, yinqi, fireqi, liverqi, and so on. By the way, if one argues that qi does not exist, would they also argue that yin and yang do not exist? Yin and Yang are theoretical concepts that play different roles depending on the context. They serve as a means of categorization or a way to represent change, as seen in the Yijing (Book of Changes). In that sense, it is equally absurd to dismiss qi as non-existent. In addition to the linguistic aspect, qi is a theoretical construct to represent a certain idea. One of those ideas is that of function. Liverqi, for example, pertains to the function that the liver fulfills within the overall network of correlations as known in Chinese medicine. You cannot say that liverqi does not exist when it refers to the liver’s function. Otherwise, you would be claiming that the liver has no function.

drie juwelen sanbao zittende qigongAnother example of this is the characteristic of yangqi being warming and expansive. When one has experience with Daoist meditation techniques, where Yang arises from stillness (Yin) to fill the Dantian, it is a structure that is naturally considered nonsense to a neurological scientist. Of course, if we were to dissect someone and rummage around their intestines in search of a Dantian, we would find nothing. Yet, anyone familiar with these meditation techniques can attest that at a certain point, warmth arises in the lower abdomen, a feeling of expansion. Often accompanied by a neurotic, restless sensation, as that is also the nature of yangqi. It is movement. We must bring that movement to rest through relaxation and attention, allowing yangqi to accumulate in the Dantian. The arising of restlessness is referred to as “the sprouting of yang” in the terminology of the field. All of this may seem absurd and nonsense from a neurological standpoint. However, it does not make it any less real, as every practitioner of these arts can confirm.

Lastly, let’s consider the example of what is called Sha Qi. This refers to the negative influence that something exerts. For instance, having a smoking roommate, a complaining neighbor, or living next to a polluting factory are all forms of Sha Qi. Anything that has a negative impact on something else can be described as Sha Qi. This concept is often used in Feng Shui, where measures are taken to neutralize the influences of Sha Qi in the environment. In this context, Sha Qi can be created by pointed objects in the house or directed towards the house, a lamppost right in front of your door, or a completely open garden at the back of the house. This Sha Qi then has a negative impact on your development and health. Once again, it may be considered nonsense by a neurological professor, but according to most Feng Shui masters, it is a regrettable reality for those who have to experience its consequences.

Qi can be seen as synonymous with function. Similar to the argument of “the black hole,” we can explain it as something we cannot directly perceive but can observe its effects (warmth, expansion, movement, restlessness). Or it can refer to the influence something exerts on its surroundings. In all three cases, there is little room for debate about whether qi exists or not, as it is merely a means of explaining a certain concept. So why is there still such a strong opinion that qi is nonsense and does not exist?

Part of the problem may lie within ourselves. Due to the quality of yangqi, its warm, moving, and lively aspect, qi is often translated as “life force” or “vital energy.” While professionals in the field may understand the connection, we must not ignore the vagueness of the concept. The term “energy” has been criticized by multiple authors as an incorrect translation, just as it applies to the terms “meridians” or “five elements.” However, these terms are widely used within the field and have become so ingrained that they are difficult to eliminate. Consequently, we find ourselves being associated with quackery.

When we talk or write about qi as energy or life force, we often (not always) evoke a sense of vagueness. Especially for a layperson, but perhaps also because we ourselves do not fully understand what we are talking about. When we make statements like “wave your arms and gather the energy around you,” it is understandable that this may sound like reenacting a scene from Dragon Ball Z, summoning a “Kamehameha.” Or when we say that everything is qi, we might unintentionally trigger a connection with “the Force” from Star Wars. Given that the term qi is often used in a vague context, it is not surprising that we have people like Dr. Novella unintentionally ridiculing an entire culture by suggesting that a fundamental concept like qi is the invention of a fantasist.

For those who don’t know what a Kamehamehaaaaaaaaaaaa is

With these kinds of articles, we often go in two directions. Either we disregard them, pay no attention, and act as if the words of this person hold no value. Or we go on the offensive and try to prove ourselves right. Although I try to avoid getting into a back-and-forth argument, in this case, I felt it necessary to provide a counterpoint. Particularly because the statement “Qi does not exist” shows little respect not only for a medical tradition but for an entire culture. However, it is important not to engage in conflict but rather to initiate a dialogue. Firstly, with the above-mentioned points, I want to demonstrate that dismissing qi as a fabrication is a completely illogical reasoning when juxtaposed with a more substantiated understanding of the concept. Secondly, we can listen and understand the arguments presented by this individual and consider from which perspective this statement is made. In doing so, we should question ourselves as to what exactly led this person to develop such a viewpoint.

If we answer the last question, we must admit that the alternative circuit does indeed contribute to its formation. Through New Age influences, ignorance, and vagueness in language usage, we contribute to confusion. Although qi can be rightfully described as life energy from certain perspectives, in the literature, we often encounter this description without the nuance of the variety of meanings and forms of qi. In many cases, qi has nothing to do with life energy. A color can have qi, a painting can have qi, not because of the life they carry within them, as they do not, but because of their role in information transmission, the influence they have on their environment, or the person experiencing them. As we saw in the example of Sha Qi, qi also refers to the influence something exerts on something else. We all understand that the Sha Qi emanating from the lamppost in front of my door has nothing to do with life energy. Qi is a multidimensional concept, and translating it as energy or life force does a drastic injustice to the variety of possibilities when we talk about qi. In that sense, we do ourselves and our field a favor when we use the terms qi, energy, or life force, by carefully considering what we mean. What exactly do I mean? Concrete and clear. Am I using this terminology because I have a specific intention, or am I using it because I don’t really know how to describe it? However, because it is so common for people to refer to qi as life energy, skeptics may rightfully conclude, “But qi doesn’t exist at all.”

descartes beroemde uitspraak cogito ergo sumWe contribute to this ourselves by trying desperately to demonstrate that qi does exist, that there are truly lines running through the body through which qi flows. Time and time again, we attempt to translate it into Western terminology, physiological structures, and processes, completely abandoning the uniqueness of Chinese cosmology. Those who deeply study their field, not just intellectually but also empirically through their own experience, have nothing to prove. For me, this is one of the biggest pitfalls we have nourished within our own field, the process of intellectualization. Chinese medicine is an empirical science that, in addition to its logically rational character of underlying theories, requires a significant level of personal experience to achieve a complete understanding. It is no coincidence that qigong and tai chi are compulsory subjects in university programs in China. How can one comprehend what they learn in theory if they cannot experience it in practice? This is the argument behind their policy. Furthermore, that personal experience yields something very valuable in the context of this article. It helps reduce the tendency to rely on vague language. You can describe more precisely what you mean because your understanding of the concept is based on more than just intellectual study. After all, that study is supported by your own experience, which might question the sanctity of scientific research.