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Qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine

What is qi?

          Qi (pronounced "Chi") is a universal energy that cannot be created nor destroyed (Hafner, 2016). Every substance and matter on Earth is made up of Qi. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Qi is fundamentally known as the “vital energy” or “life force” that flows within our bodies (Shen Nong, 2005). This vital substance corresponds to the meridians, acupoints, and physiological functions of the internal organs (Shen Nong, 2005). Ancient Chinese believed that Qi brought harmony and balance to human life. Without this vital energy, illnesses, diseases, and other symptoms may arise.

What is the resource of qi?

  • pre-heaven essence

Pre-Heaven Essence, also known as Prenatal Essence, describes Jing (essence) an individual receives from his or her parents (Me & Qi, 2021). The embryo or fetus does not possess its essence as it develops. Therefore, it is dependent on the parents’ essence. The Prenatal Essence and nourishment from the mother’s Kidney function help the fetus during pregnancy (Eisen, 2016). This essence determines the longevity, strength, and vitality of an individual’s life. It can be conserved through moderation and balance in daily living activities, such as exercise, diet, work, rest, and sexual activity; deficiency, excess, or overall imbalance in these activities results in wasting the Prenatal Essence (Eisen, 2016). 

  • Post-heaven essence

Post-Heaven Essence, also known as Postnatal Essence, describes Jing (essence) the individual receives after he or she is born. For instance, the essence can be acquired through the foods and drinks one consumes or the air one breathes. The essence from the foods and drinks is obtained by Spleen and Stomach, whereas the essence from the air is obtained by the Lung (Eisen, 2016). Postnatal Essence can be renewed through eating healthy nutritious food, drinking enough water, getting good sleep, and exercise along with other daily activities.

HOW IS qi generated?

  • lung - clean air in nature

Qi is generated by inhaling clean air and exhaling impurities in the lungs (Sacred Lotus, 2021). The Qi then descends into the Kidney and Bladder giving it vital energy.

  • spleen/stomach - post-heaven essence: food and water

Spleen and Stomach are responsible for turning digested food into nutrients. The Spleen helps the essence of grain and water ascend to the Heart and Lung. Afterward, the Heart and Lung begin generating the Qi and transfer the nutrients into the bloodstream (Eu Yan Sang, 2020). On the other hand, the Stomach sends down the digested food and impurities of Qi.

  • Kidney - Pre-Heaven Essence

Kidney Jing, also called Kidney Essence, comes from both Pre-Heaven and Post-Heaven Essence. This means that it can be hereditary like Pre-Heaven Essence and can be replenished like Post-Heaven Essence (Eisen, 2016). Qi stored in the Kidney is created to help with human development, growth, reproduction, and aging.

what are the functions of qi?

  • Inspiring and activating 

The “inspire and activate” function of Qi is responsible for enhancing the growth, development, and physiological functions of the body (Li & Zhao, 2016). Qi is in charge of ensuring that the human body is growing strong and healthy, which means each body systems, organs, and functions are constantly in check to make sure that they are all running smoothly and efficiently. A decrease in the “inspire and activate” function will cause interference in growth and development. For instance, some physiological functions and body systems may weaken causing a slow or interrupted development as human ages.

  • Warming up

Qi acts as a heat source that constantly warms up the body to help it maintain its normal body temperature and proper physiological functions. The warming action of Qi helps the body reach homeostasis and maintain balance within. The heat energy from Qi is developed through constant movement and motion, which means that it connects to the circulation of blood and body fluids inside the body (Li & Zhao, 2016). Deficiency of Qi can cause the body to be unstable, cold, fatigue, and sluggish. It can result in having cold feet and hands and lower body temperature.

  • defending

In TCM, Qi creates a barrier against the negative environmental factors that contribute to illnesses. These negative external factors are referred to as the “evils”, which can either be classified as dampness, heat, dryness, wind, cold, and fire (Shen Nong, 2016). Qi defends evils from entering the body by acting as an immune system (Shen Nong, 2016). The defending function is one of the most important roles of Qi. It guards and fights off infections in various ways, such as controlling the opening and closing of the pores and shielding the skin (Li & Zhao, 2016). Protecting the body from the outside factors will prevent one from getting sick and help maintain overall health.

  • consolidating and governing

Consolidating and governing action is a function where Qi controls the flow of body fluids and holds the organs in place (Li & Zhao, 2016). Qi controls the secretion and excretion of different body fluids, such as saliva, sweat, and urine (Li & Zhao, 2016). Qi makes sure there are not too many or too few body fluids by controlling the discharge and distribution (Li & Zhao, 2016). Overall, it helps maintain moderation throughout the body. When there is a decrease in this function, one may experience irregular discharge, loss of bladder control, hemorrhage, and other conditions (Li & Zhao, 2016).

  • nourishing

Like nutritive Qi, it provides the internal organs with the necessary nutrients for the body to function correctly and stay active. Qi circulates throughout the whole body to provide the energy it needs. Without the nourishing function of Qi, the body may start to become weak due to a lack of energy and nutrients. Individuals may struggle to normally perform daily living activities when there is a lack of nourishment.

  • gasifying

The gasify function, also known as the transformation function, allows Qi to vaporize or transform substances into vital energy or essence (Shen Nong, 2016). For instance, the consumed food or drinks can be turned into nutritional essence and various types of Qi (Shen Nong, 2016). The Qi and essence will then travel in different directions within the body to provide it with vital energy.

what is the movement of qi?

          In TCM, Qi is an important concept that helps people understand ways to maintain a healthy life. Improper and discontinued functions of Qi may cause the life and energy in an individual to shorten or come to an end. Qi moves in four different directions, including ascend, descend, in, and out. These movements allow the Qi to energize the individual and bring vitality to life. Each movement of Qi has its important aspects. For instance, the ascend movement helps Spleen Qi to lift the pureness from the digested food in the stomach and transform it into a nutritional essence (Shen Nong, 2016). Stomach Qi can push down the digested food to eliminate its impurities (Shen Nong, 2016). In addition, some other organs can perform all four movements. For instance, Lung Qi can move in and out and ascend and descend in certain cases. It moves in and out when an individual breathes. On the other hand, it moves up and down when liquified waste is going to the Kidney (Shen Nong, 2016). In TCM, moderation and balance are key to having a healthy and stable life, which means it is crucial to maintain equilibrium in all these movements. Without harmony and balance, health issues and other problems may arise.

What is the category of Qi and its function?

  • Primordial Qi/Vitality

Primordial Qi, also known as Inborn Qi, is a hereditary essence that helps the body develop, grow, and function properly (Leong et. al, 2015). The inherited essence from the parents is stored in the Kidney after birth. First, it moves through the two kidneys called the “vital gate” and then passes through all the meridians and body systems (Shen Nong, 2015); the primordial Qi circulates throughout the body to activate and give it energy.

  • pectoral qi

According to Shen Nong (2016), Pectoral Qi is the combination of air breathed in through the lungs and essence from the food that digested through the Spleen and Stomach. Pectoral Qi is found in the chest area. Considering the word “Pectoral,” this type of Qi supports the individual’s breathing and vocals. In addition, it consists of Grain Qi or food essence that is from the Spleen and Stomach (Leong et. al, 2015). 

  • nutritive & protective qi

Nutritive and Protective Qi is derived from Normal Qi, which is the combination of Primordial Qi and Primordial Qi (Shen Nong, 2016). Nutritive Qi nourishes the body by providing the nutrients it needs. These nutrients are from the food essence that was obtained from the Spleen and Stomach. Protective Qi acts as a defense system and helps the body maintain its good quality health by protecting against evils (infections and viruses) or negative external factors. Like Nutritive Qi, Protective Qi also comes from the food essence that was obtained from the Spleen and Stomach (Shen Nong, 2016). In addition, it also provides nourishment for the integumentary and muscular systems through regulating sweat glands (Shen Nong, 2016).

          Some ways to increase and restore your Qi are through some common TCM therapies, which include acupuncture, herbal remedies like Huang Qi (astragalus), and tai chi exercises. Integrating these TCM modalities into your daily activities will help strengthen your physical health and performance. The acupuncture technique uses needles on certain acupoints to help fix the body’s imbalance of Qi. Taking the astragalus herb is known to improve the immune system and reduce stresses from the body. As for tai chi, performing graceful, slow movements boosts the flow of Qi throughout the body. Overall health benefits you can obtain from these therapies are less stress, better blood and fluid circulation, less pain, and more energy. 

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Eisen, M. (2016). Qi in traditional Chinese medicine.


Eu Yan Sang. (2020). TCM: understanding the role of the spleen.

Hafner, C. (2016). What is qi? (and other concepts). Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing.


Leong, P. K., Wong, H. S., Chen, J., & Ko, K. M. (2015, February 11). Yang/qi invigoration: an herbal therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome with yang deficiency? evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine.


Li, X. T., & Zhao, J. (2016). The functions of qi.


Me & Qi. (2021). Jing (essence) in Chinese medicine.


Sacred Lotus. (2021). Functions and movements of qi (life force). Chinese Medicine - Sacred Lotus.


Shen Nong. (2016). Qi (vital energy) from a tcm perspective.

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