I’ve always been uncomfortable with the concept of Chi, at least in so far as it is presented in many books on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Martial Arts – i.e. as a form of “subtle energy” moving about a pathway of invisible meridians. I am more easily accepting of it as an amalgam of effects produced by normal physiological processes – improved blood and lymph circulation, oxygenation, also a psychological component that works to induce a relaxation response. This is fine, it is within the realms of my experience.
But the sensations induced by practice – tingling, numbness, fullness – also suggest a bioelectrical component, that the nervous system is becoming activated when we practise, and in ways no other physical exercise can duplicate. This is where the going gets tough. The more one reads about it, the more confused one becomes, especially when seeking a coherent explanation in those books that deal with the so called “meridian theory”. Here, the texts, be they written by Chinese or Western “practitioners” talk of the flow, the storage and even the projection of chi. But they vary so widely in their explanations, to the extent that the principles each book appears to be describing are more the author’s personal interpretation of a myth to which the reader is invited to subscribe entirely on trust.
This is not a reliable basis on which to deepen one’s understanding, nor less for explaining it to someone else, or one risks merely perpetuating the myth while most likely also adding something of one’s own equally groundless twists to it.
My actual experience of Tai Chi and other mind-body techniques like Qigong, is that these methods do have a positive effect, both mentally and physically. I’ve used them to successfully tackle back injury and tinnitus. They are also deeply relaxing, so I do not suggest a decade of practise is now exposed as a monumental delusion – only that attempting to pursue a deeper understanding of them through meridian theory is perhaps not a good idea.
More recently my investigations have led me to the writings of western medical professionals and to a persuasive argument that suggests the “meridian system” is a myth, and a surprising one at that, being actually a Western, rather than a Chinese invention, a product of the “new age” rather than deepest antiquity.
Western medicine is often accused by the more holistically inclined (myself included) of being a bastion of wooden minded materialism at the beck and call of Big Pharma, but among its more open minded practitioners there is also an increasing willingness to look at the results of TCM techniques, like acupuncture, and to ask intelligent questions, no longer in order to merely debunk it as has been the case in the past, but, where it works, to document its efficacy, and to attempt an explanation of it in less mystical terms.
On the physical level, the health benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong are derived from improved circulation of the blood and lymph, also increased levels of blood oxygenation induced by means of deep, abdominal breathing that is an integral part of practise. But anyone who has read up on the subject is also inevitably beguiled by this dense mystical heritage of “meridian theory” and the idea of an all pervading “subtle energy” somehow superimposed upon the physical body. Consequently, I have always felt that to deepen my knowledge and my experience, I would have to understand it from this esoteric, traditional perspective. It’s ironic then that my efforts to pay homage to it in this way have had the opposite effect, only grinding my progress to a halt.
But what if the notion of chi as a subtle energy were an invention, not born of ancient Chinese superstition, but of fairly modern western adepts reacting against the materialism of their own times, and simply mistranslating the original texts? It sounds flimsy, but the evidence presented by Donald Kendall in his book “The Dao of Traditional Chinese Medicine” is very persuasive, that indeed since the dawn of the twentieth century we have been perpetuating a myth born out of a popular need for the magical and the unknown – a need that continues to this day, and to which I am also prone.
Nearly all “energy work” titles quote among their primary sources the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook, a Chinese medical treatise compiled around the first century BCE. But what’s puzzling is that if we do indeed refer back to this book, we find no mention of the meridian system as it’s depicted today, nor any reference to chi as a form of energy. This is surprising because I have always surmised that it did. However, as Kendall points out, it reads more like a conventional medical textbook with sections on anatomy and pathology.
What the Yellow Emperor’s Handbook says is that the lungs extract “something” from air that is vital to life – what we’d now call oxygen – which is then carried around the body by the blood. This does not read like a witches cookbook of pre rational beliefs, but rather an early and highly competent description of how the body works. If this book is the true basis of TCM then something significant was lost in the translation, to say nothing of the fact that something was added that was highly misleading.
The Yellow Emperor’s handbook was translated by several westerners, most notably Georges Soulie De Morant, whose 1939 version is still in print, still influential, but also controversial in that the mystery of chi arises first here with a critical mistranslation of the word as “energy” when a better translation would be simply “air”. The Yellow Emperor’s handbook also details points on the body which we would recognise now as acupuncture points and elucidates upon the theory that needling or stimulating these points produces therapeutic effects. De Morant made copies of the diagrams, then added his own interlinking lines and, so the argument goes, invented the meridian system. Acupuncture points do exist. We now understand them to be areas particularly dense in fine blood vessels and nerves. Stimulating them does produce effects in the body – reducing inflammation, pain, and restoring the body’s balance, but the medium of transmission here would appear to be more accurately the nervous system, not De Morant’s meridians.
The Yellow Emperor’s handbook does not describe chi moving along meridians, but rather some essence of air moving along blood vessels. So, what we think of as a uniquely Chinese system of medicine involving a mysterious energy called Chi, is in fact a western invention, and a fairly recent one at that. What the ancient Chinese actually developed in the first millennium BCE was an understanding of the body’s functioning that the west did not catch up with until the seventeenth century. But if any of this is true, and I’m persuaded that it is, what’s equally remarkable is how so many Chinese scholars since then have themselves adopted and helped perpetuate the essentially meaningless “western” myth of the meridian system.
Contemporary western medicine is looking more into the therapeutic effects of acupuncture, with many medical professionals performing acupuncture themselves. It is available as a treatment for certain conditions on the NHS and for which there is good evidence to support its reported efficacy. But further acceptance of the technique, and progress with an explanation for how it works has been slow in coming, held up in part I think by the obfuscating myth of the so-called meridian system. Only by dispensing with it can progress be made in truly integrating Traditional Chinese Medicine into the west, and also, perhaps ironically, of deepening one’s own practice of Tai Chi and Qigong.
Be aware then that to get hung up on the nature of chi is to risk becoming lost in the labyrinth of a bewildering myth, and if a man would make progress it is always better to keep both feet on the ground than to flap one’s arms uselessly as if they were wings that would take flight in thin air.
Kendall, Donald, The Dao of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Kendall, Donald, Energy – meridian misconceptions of Chinese medicine (article)
Kresser, Chris, Acupuncture (blog)