The 8 Types of Qi

The 8 Types of Qi

The Ephemeral Qi; the Substantial Qi

Qi is not an abstraction. It is not esoteric nor strictly the material of mystics. While in the US and other Western countries we imbue qi with a deep sense of other-worldliness, steeped in new age mythology, qi is actually just a simple, almost colloquial way to describe energy. In traditional Chinese, for instance, the word weather is written as 天氣 (tiān qi). To be angry is to have rising qi (dú qì). Qi is quite simply—and completely complicated—energy. Qi is ephemeral, yet it is substantial. Industrial waste gas is simply fèi qi (廢氣), while the courage of one's convictions is lǐ zhí qi zhuàng (理直氣壯).

But what does this mean for us? In thinking about our own Qi, which I will refer to in its capitalized form, we need to consider Qi in four ways:

  1. The quality of our Qi;
  2. The movement of our Qi;
  3. The source and types of our Qi;
  4. How we spend our Qi.

The Quality and the Movement of Our Qi

The quality of our Qi and its movement can be the basis of sickness and health. In Chinese medicine, one of the five branches of practice includes internal practices such as Qi Gong or Tai Chi. These movement and meditation-based practices refine (improve the quality of) our Qi and help clear the meridians of the body so that Qi can flow freely and unobstructed. It is said that through Qi Gong we are able to achieve the "six no worries":

  1. No worry food;
  2. No worry toilet;
  3. No worry sleep;
  4. No worry energy;
  5. No worry sexuality;
  6. No worry emotions.

The "no worries" are achieved because of quality, refined Qi that flows freely and fully through our bodies. While this may seem too abstract, we have all had days or moments where we have felt the no worries coursing through our veins, when everything seems perfect, content, and blissful. So why not try to understand how to nurture and harness that state within ourselves on a more permanent basis? That is what Qi Gong seeks to do.

The Sources and Types of Our Qi

In Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM) and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the concept of Qi (氣) encompasses more than just a generic notion of energy. It refers to the  vital substances and dynamic forces that sustain all life and health. These vital substances represent a shift from the everyday use of the word "qi" (lowercase), which describes various forms of energy and air, to the more profound use of "Qi" (capitalized), symbolizing the fundamental life force within us and in all living things.

Understanding the sources and types of Qi in our bodies is crucial for comprehending how our vitality and health are maintained and influenced. Here are the main types of Qi and their sources:

The 8 Types of Qi

Yuán Qì (原气) – Original Qi

Yuán Qì (原气) – Original Qi

Yuán Qì, often referred to as Original Qi, is a fundamental concept in Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM) and Tradtional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Understanding Yuan Qi helps to grasp the intricate workings of Jing (Essence) and its transformation into Qi within the body.

There are two types of Yuan Qi in the body: prenatal and postnatal. Prenatal Yuan Qi is inherited from our biological parents (50% maternal and 50% paternal). Prenatal Qi cannot be replenished throughout our lives, but its quality can be refined and preserved. Conversely, it can be prematurely depleted through stress, illness, and the excessive use of stimulants like coffee. Postnatal Yuan Qi, on the other hand, is like a spending account that can be replenished and expended. It serves as our source of energy and motivation throughout the day.

While Jing is our essence, Yuan Qi represents the transformation of our Jing into Qi—the application of our Jing in our lives. Yuan Qi is the source of Yin and Yang within us, and the quality of our prenatal Yuan Qi depends on the quality of our biological parents’ Yuan Qi, merging the study of epigenetics with Chinese medicine.

The root of Yuan Qi is in our Kidneys, and it is distributed throughout the meridians and the body via the San Jiao, known in English as the Triple Burner.

Main Sources of Yuán Qì:

  1. Prenatal Yuan Qi: Inherited from our biological parents (50% maternal and 50% paternal).
  2. Postnatal Yuan Qi: Derived from the transformation of food (Gu Qi) and air (Zong Qi) after birth.

Main Functions of Yuán Qì:

  1. The deep source and reserve of vitality: Yuan Qi serves as a fundamental reservoir of life force and vitality.
  2. The motivation and force behind the activity of our internal organs: It drives the functional activity of the internal organs.
  3. The dynamic force that drives the functional activity of the internal organs and is the foundation of vitality: Yuan Qi ensures that all organs function properly and efficiently.
  4. The root of the ever-desired Kidney Qi: Yuan Qi resides between the two kidneys at a point known as Ming Men—the Gate of Vitality. Yuan Qi emerges and is housed at the twelve source points.
  5. The catalyst of Qi transformation: Yuan Qi facilitates the conversion of one type of Qi into another (for instance, changing Zong Qi into Zhen Qi).
  6. Manufacturing Blood: Yuan Qi aids in the transformation of Gu Qi into Blood.

By understanding Yuán Qì, we can better appreciate the importance of nurturing and protecting our foundational energy, making informed choices about lifestyle, nutrition, and stress management to maintain and enhance our vitality.

Gǔ Qì (谷气) – Food Qi

Gǔ Qì (谷气) – Food Qi

Gu Qi, or Food Qi, is the vital energy derived from the food we consume. It allows us to obtain Qi from the foods we eat, integrating the incredible Qi contained within the earth (Earth Qi) into our bodies. Through Gu Qi, we literally become one with the Earth's Qi by transforming it into a form usable by our bodies.

As food is transformed within us—digested, absorbed, and circulated to our cells—Gu Qi represents the first stage of this transformation. In Chinese medicine, the process of food digestion begins with the "rotting and ripening" in the body. This term refers to how the muscles and enzymes in the body work together to prepare food for absorption in the small intestine. The Stomach (as a Chinese organ) performs the rotting and ripening, then sends the partially transformed food to the Spleen, where it is converted into Gu Qi.

Gu Qi is then transported from the Spleen and Stomach (both housed within the Middle Burner) to the Lungs and Heart (housed in the Upper Burner). Here, Gu Qi combines with air to form Zong Qi, with the assistance of the transformational power of Yuan Qi—without Yuan Qi, this transformation cannot occur. Some of the Gu Qi also passes through the Lungs to the Heart, where it is transformed into Blood.

Main Sources of Gǔ Qì:

  1. Food and Drink: The primary sources of Gu Qi are the foods and beverages we consume, which are transformed by the digestive processes in the Stomach and Spleen.

Main Functions of Gǔ Qì:

  1. Foundation of Qi Production: Derived from the food we eat, Gu Qi is the basis for all the Qi in the body.
  2. Nutrient and Energy Provider: It supplies the fundamental nutrients and energy needed for the body's daily activities.
  3. Transformation in the Middle Burner: Transformed in the Stomach and Spleen, Gu Qi is sent to the Lungs and Heart for further refinement and conversion into other forms of Qi.
  4. Production of Zong Qi: Gu Qi is crucial for the production of Zong Qi when combined with air Qi in the Lungs.
  5. Blood Production: A portion of Gu Qi passes through the Lungs to the Heart, where it is transformed into Blood, contributing to the nourishment and vitality of the body.

By understanding Gǔ Qì, we can see the direct impact of our dietary choices on our overall energy and health, emphasizing the importance of consuming nutrient-rich foods to support our body's energy production and vitality.

Zōng Qì (宗气) – Gathering Qi

Zōng Qì (宗气) – Gathering Qi

Zong Qi, or Gathering Qi, is an essential form of Qi that is derived from the combination of Gu Qi (Food Qi) and air Qi. As discussed earlier, Gu Qi combines with air in the Lungs to produce Zong Qi. This vital energy plays a crucial role in nourishing the Heart and Lungs, which are fundamental to the body's involuntary processes such as heartbeat and respiration.

Zong Qi not only assists the Lungs in controlling respiration but also aids the Heart in overseeing the Blood and Blood Vessels. There is a reciprocal relationship between Zong Qi and Yuan Qi: Zong Qi flows downward to the Kidneys, while Yuan Qi flows upward to support respiration and the formation of Zong Qi from Gu Qi.

When Zong Qi is deficient, blood circulation is impaired, leading to cold and weak extremities. Due to its governance over the Lungs, a symptom of poor Zong Qi is a weak voice. Additionally, Zong Qi is sensitive to our emotional state. Practices such as meditation, Qi Gong, and regular exercise can significantly enhance emotional well-being and, consequently, the quality of Zong Qi.

Main Sources of Zōng Qì:

  1. Gu Qi (Food Qi): Derived from the food we eat, transformed by the Stomach and Spleen.
  2. Air Qi: Obtained from respiration, combined with Gu Qi in the Lungs.
  3. Yuan Qi: Assists in the transformation and refinement of Zong Qi in the Lungs.

Main Functions of Zōng Qì:

  1. Nourishment of the Heart and Lungs: Supports the primary functions of these vital organs.
  2. Regulation of Heartbeat and Breathing: Controls the rhythm and strength of involuntary heartbeat and respiration.
  3. Assistance in Respiration: Helps the Lungs in controlling Qi and breathing processes.
  4. Support of Blood and Blood Vessels: Aids the Heart in managing blood circulation.
  5. Energy Distribution: Distributes energy throughout the body, contributing to overall vitality.
  6. Influence of Emotional States: Reflects and is affected by emotional health, highlighting the connection between mind and body.

By understanding Zōng Qì, we gain insight into the critical role of breath and nutrition in our overall health, highlighting practices like deep breathing, proper diet, and stress management to enhance the quality of our Gathering Qi.

Zhēn Qì (真气) – True Qi

Zhēn Qì (真气) – True Qi

Zhen Qi, or True Qi, is the ultimate refined form of Qi in the body. It is also known as Normal Qi due to its fundamental role in sustaining life and health. As Yuan Qi assists in the transformation of Gu Qi into Zong Qi, it also plays a crucial role in converting Zong Qi into Zhen Qi. This transformation marks the final stage of Qi refinement. Zhen Qi circulates throughout the body, nourishing and energizing the organs via the meridians and vessels.

Zhen Qi is further divided into two essential subcategories: Ying Qi and Wei Qi. Ying Qi, or Nutritive Qi, provides nourishment to the internal organs, while Wei Qi, or Protective Qi, defends the body against external pathogens.

Main Sources of Zhēn Qì:

  1. Zong Qi: Transformed and refined with the assistance of Yuan Qi.
  2. Yuan Qi: Activates and aids in the refinement of Zong Qi into Zhen Qi.

Main Functions of Zhēn Qì:

  1. Circulation and Nourishment: Zhen Qi circulates through the meridians and vessels, providing essential nourishment to all organs.
  2. Manifestation as Ying Qi and Wei Qi:
    • Ying Qi (Nutritive Qi): Nourishes the internal organs and circulates alongside Blood in the meridians, channels, and vessels.
    • Wei Qi (Protective Qi): Protects the body from external pathogens, regulates body temperature, and provides an emotional shield.
  3. Overall Vitality and Health: Zhen Qi regulates the body's overall vitality, ensuring that all organs receive the necessary energy to function optimally.
  4. Support of Organ Function: Ensures that the dynamic functions of the organs are sustained, promoting overall health and well-being.

By understanding Zhēn Qì, we recognize the importance of maintaining balanced and refined energy within our bodies, emphasizing practices that support the continuous transformation and flow of Qi for optimal health and vitality.

Yíng Qì (营气) – Nutritive Qi

Yíng Qì (营气) – Nutritive Qi

Ying Qi, or Nutritive Qi, is responsible for nourishing the internal organs and the entire body. It plays a vital role in sustaining health and vitality by circulating alongside Blood within the meridians, channels, and vessels of the body. Ying Qi is intimately connected with Blood and works synergistically to ensure the proper nourishment of tissues and organs.

When acupuncture, acupressure, or Tui Na (therapeutic Chinese massage) is performed, it is the Ying Qi that is being influenced and activated. The twelve channels, also known as the twelve rivers, house Ying Qi. It spends two hours in each channel, completing a full circulation through all twelve channels every twenty-four hours. This cyclic movement ensures that specific organs are nourished during their respective two-hour periods when Ying Qi is circulating within their channel.

Main Sources of Yíng Qì:

  1. Transformation of Zhen Qi: Ying Qi is derived from the transformation and refinement of Zhen Qi within the body.
  2. Gu Qi: The initial stage of nourishment comes from Gu Qi, which is then transformed into Zhen Qi and further refined into Ying Qi.

Main Functions of Yíng Qì:

  1. Nourishment: Ying Qi nourishes the internal organs and the entire body, ensuring that all tissues receive the necessary nutrients for optimal function.
  2. Circulation with Blood: Ying Qi circulates alongside Blood within the meridians, channels, and vessels, playing a crucial role in maintaining the health of these pathways.
  3. Activation in Therapies: Ying Qi is essential for the efficacy of acupuncture, acupressure, and Tui Na, as these practices directly influence and activate Ying Qi to promote healing and balance.
  4. Organ Nourishment: During its cyclic circulation through the twelve channels, Ying Qi spends two hours in each channel, providing specific nourishment to the connected organs and maintaining their health and vitality.

By understanding the critical role of Ying Qi, we can better appreciate the importance of practices that support its flow and balance, ensuring the nourishment and well-being of the entire body.

Wèi Qì (卫气) – Protective Qi

Wèi Qì (卫气) – Protective Qi

Wei Qi, or Protective Qi, functions as the body's first line of defense, akin to the immune system in allopathic medicine. It forms a protective barrier that shields the body from external pathogens. While Ying Qi is more Yin and circulates internally, Wei Qi is more Yang, moving swiftly and dynamically to provide immediate protection. It is characterized by its fast movement and slippery nature, enabling it to respond quickly to threats.

Wei Qi primarily resides on the surface of the body, in the skin and muscles, and even extends just beyond the physical body. It travels through both the superficial layers and the twelve channels, ensuring comprehensive protection. The Lungs play a crucial role in controlling Wei Qi.

Main Sources of Wèi Qì:

  1. Transformation of Zhen Qi: Wei Qi originates from the transformation and refinement of Zhen Qi within the body.
  2. Lung Qi Influence: The Lungs significantly influence the production and movement of Wei Qi.

Main Functions of Wèi Qì:

  1. Immune Defense: Wei Qi acts as the body's immune system in Chinese medicine, protecting against pathogens from exogenous influences such as Wind, Cold, Heat, and Dampness.
  2. Surface Circulation: It circulates on the body's surface, within the skin and muscles, and even extends just beyond the physical body, creating a protective shield.
  3. Nourishment and Moisture: Wei Qi nourishes and moistens the skin and muscles, keeping them young and supple.
  4. Pore Regulation: It assists in the opening and closing of pores, helping to regulate body temperature and sweat production.
  5. Emotional Protection: Unlike the allopathic immune system, Wei Qi also provides emotional protection, shielding us from the pathogenic negative energy of others. This is a vital, often underappreciated function of Wei Qi.

Understanding the role of Wei Qi helps us appreciate its importance in maintaining both physical and emotional health, highlighting the need to support and strengthen this vital protective force.

Zhōng Qì (中气) – Central Qi

Zhōng Qì (中气) – Central Qi

Zhong Qi, also known as Central Qi, plays a crucial role in the digestive processes and the overall maintenance of internal organ function. Zhong Qi is produced by the transformation of Gu Qi in the Stomach and Spleen, with significant support from Yuan Qi. It is essentially the Qi of the Middle Jiao, or the central region of the body, and is often referred to as Stomach and Spleen Qi.

When the Spleen Qi is deficient, it can lead to conditions such as prolapse of internal organs, which is described as a deficiency of Center Qi. Understanding and supporting Zhong Qi is essential for maintaining a healthy digestive system and ensuring the stability of internal organs.

Main Sources of Zhōng Qì:

  1. Transformation of Gu Qi: Zhong Qi is derived from the transformation of Gu Qi (Food Qi) in the Stomach and Spleen.
  2. Support from Yuan Qi: Yuan Qi assists in the production and refinement of Zhong Qi.

Main Functions of Zhōng Qì:

  1. Central Qi: Zhong Qi is known as Central Qi, essential for the proper functioning of the Middle Jiao (the central region of the body).
  2. Digestive Support: It supports the effective transformation and transportation of nutrients within the digestive system, ensuring that the body receives necessary nourishment.
  3. Organ Stability: Zhong Qi helps maintain the position of internal organs, preventing prolapse and ensuring their proper function.
  4. Stomach and Spleen Qi: Zhong Qi is another term for Stomach and Spleen Qi, highlighting its vital role in digestive health and nutrient absorption.

By understanding the importance of Zhong Qi and its functions, we can better appreciate the need to support digestive health and overall vitality through proper diet, lifestyle, and potentially through the use of appropriate herbal therapies.

Zhèng Qì (正气) – Upright Qi

Zhèng Qì (正气) – Upright Qi

Zhèng Qì, or Upright Qi, serves as the body's overall defensive Qi, encompassing various forms of Qi that protect against external threats and pathogens. It is similar to Wèi Qì (Protective Qi) but broader in scope, reflecting the collective strength and balance of all Qi within the body. Zhèng Qì is often referenced when discussing the body's ability to protect against specific pathogens, indicating the robustness of the body's immune response.

Main Sources of Zhèng Qì:

  1. Collective Strength of Qi: Zhèng Qì is derived from the overall balance and strength of various types of Qi within the body, particularly Wèi Qì (Protective Qi) and Yuán Qì (Original Qi).
  2. Support from Yuan Qi and Wei Qi: These primary sources of Qi contribute to the body's overall resistance and defensive capabilities.

Main Functions of Zhèng Qì:

  1. Defensive Qi: Zhèng Qì acts as the body's overarching defensive mechanism, protecting against external pathogens and threats.
  2. Disease Resistance: It plays a crucial role in maintaining the body's resistance to diseases and external harmful influences.
  3. Immune Response: Zhèng Qì reflects the overall strength and balance of the body's immune system, indicating its capacity to fend off specific pathogens.
  4. Comparative Health Indicator: In practice, Zhèng Qì is often referenced when assessing the body's ability to combat specific health challenges, comparing the strength of Zhèng Qì against the severity of the pathogen.

By understanding the concept and functions of Zhèng Qì, we gain insight into the body's comprehensive defense system, highlighting the importance of maintaining balanced and robust Qi through healthy living, proper nutrition, and supportive practices like Qi Gong and herbal therapies.

Final Thoughts from the Herbalist

How We Manage, Spend, and Preserve our Qi

Finally, we must all ask ourselves the difficult question: How do I want to spend my Qi? How do I want to spend my attention, focus, energy, care, compassion, health, longevity, vitality? Alongside internal practices like Qi Gong, understanding and acting upon this question is the difficult work of Qi.

Coffee is a perfect example of this. Coffee borrows from our Prenatal Yuan Qi, and once we borrow from our Prenatal Yuan Qi, we can never get that bit of it back. It is gone forever. Coffee will always have this function in the body, each and every time. But does that mean you never, ever want to drink coffee again? That’s a personal question only you can answer. Sometimes you may want to. Sometimes the benefit will outweigh the cost. That is how we must think about our Qi; we must decide, quite consciously, what we want to spend it on and where we would rather conserve it. As my Qi Gong teacher Robert Peng always states in closing, "In good Qi."

This article was originally published on February 2nd, 2015, with the title 'What is Qi?' and updated and republished on May 9th, 2024.

May 09, 2024 Ryan Wade

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