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Qi: The Vital Energy in Traditional Chinese Medicine

January-March 2024

Inclusive Qi: Accessible Health

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) stands as a testament to the interconnectedness of the body, mind, and spirit, with its core principle being the elusive yet omnipresent concept of “Qi”. Qi is harmoniously balanced, there is good health. Energy is free to move and transform- that can mean many different things. If Qi becomes disrupted, halted, under/over active, or otherwise compromised out of stasis, it can impair the flow of energy. This can result in various physical, emotional, and mental health issues. What if disrupted Qi can also lead to social, financial, political, cultural, and/or environmental issues? In a study conducted by Chen, 2017 (1) and published in the Journal of Integrative Medicine, the researchers explore the holistic perspective of Qi in TCM. They emphasize that Qi is not a mysterious or exclusive entity but an integral part of the natural world, influencing the balance and harmony of life. This inclusive understanding of Qi is the basis for an approach to healthcare that transcends boundaries and promotes wellness for all, conceptually. Qi is not “exclusive” … but we don’t live in a conceptual world, and access to healthcare in the USA is exclusive. This essay explores the nature of Qi in the context of creating and maintaining health from a “people prioritized” point of view. Through my unique perspective, I aim to convey the transformative potential of understanding and harnessing Qi in a socio-cultural context: highlighting the role of cause and effect, individual effort vs big picture focus on community, aspects of how imbalance of wealth can mirror imbalances of qi; play a role in disease.

If Qi is all energy and human energy is considered qi, wouldn’t all forms of labor be considered a form of Qi? By this line of reasoning, Qi is the foundational source of the economy, fuels the economy, and is the economy. Money is a physical byproduct of qi. Capitalism in America has seized and privatized Qi, having morphed the non-exclusive essence of our human existence and the limited physical resources of our earth into the driving force and source of enormous profits for a small percentage of the world. Recognizing that much of the way present-day humans structure their goals, hopes, identity, and dreams revolves around money. This is a factor that can’t be ignored when considering the landscape of healthcare and the basic resources that are required to achieve it. Our health system is for-profit. Concurrently, cutting state social services and mental health programs exacerbates inequalities, limiting access to vital resources. The capitalist paradigm, by placing monetary gain above collective health, underscores the need for a more inclusive approach that prioritizes affordable healthcare and comprehensive social services to promote overall well-being. State-sanctioned violence, manifested through policies that undermine the well-being of citizens, acts as a significant impediment to the harmonious flow of Qi within a society. When our governments fail to prioritize the best interests and fundamental needs of their citizens, such as adequate social support structures, higher wages, universal healthcare, and restrictions on inflation to lower the cost of goods, they create an environment that fosters illness, pain, and premature death. The disruption of Qi occurs when individuals are denied access to essential resources and support systems that contribute to their overall health and vitality. By perpetuating systemic violence through neglect or harmful policies, the state undermines human rights, basic needs, and often dignity in general, resulting in detrimental consequences for the physical, mental, and emotional health of its citizens. In essence, a society that neglects the fundamental needs of its people disrupts the flow of vital energy, contributing to widespread suffering and adverse health outcomes.

Great wealth is a stagnation of qi – it causes social imbalance through creating a class systems that is recognized through access or quality of education and job position, access to housing options, level of healthcare options, food security and quality, means of transportation, exposure to violence, and overall ability to access creature comforts. Pursuit of wealth can lead to promotion of exploiting the working class for less pay than their labor is worth (the basis of almost every business), while preventing positive flow of qi to return to workers in the form of justly deserved pay and/or dividends. The greatest percentage of theft that happens in the USA is wage theft!

If Qi is a universal force, then healthcare rooted in TCM principles should be accessible and affordable for everyone. In advocating for this perspective, the understanding of Qi becomes a tool for promoting health equity– it aligns with the idea that the benefits and availability of TCM to a person should not be limited to a privileged few, but accessible to individuals from all walks of life. In this regard, poverty is stagnation of qi. This can create and perpetuate illness, especially for children (2). Chronic stress due to poverty can also affect the health outcomes, quality of life, and longevity in adults as well (3).

Research by Wu et al. (2019) in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health delves into the economic aspects of integrating TCM into mainstream healthcare. The study emphasizes the potential cost-effectiveness of TCM practices, including acupuncture, in managing chronic conditions. (4) Understanding Qi, as a core element of TCM, becomes a gateway to affordable healthcare solutions that prioritize prevention and holistic well-being.

Understanding the concept of Qi brings forth the notion of cause and effect, illustrating that every action, no matter how small, has consequences. In the realm of individual well-being, this concept encourages a proactive and preventive approach to health. Recognizing the impact of daily choices on Qi flow within the body prompts individuals to make lifestyle decisions that support optimal health.

A study by Li et al. 2018 (5), published in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Clinical Research explores the role of Qi in preventive healthcare. The researchers discuss how lifestyle choices related to nutrition, exercise, and stress management influence the flow of Qi, affecting overall well-being. By understanding the cause-and-effect relationship, individuals can take agency over their health and contribute to the creation of a healthier society. However, these choices are still limited by finances and other circumstances such as availability of products and services that promote health. I believe that a more constructive perspective is that addressing community-wide issues in a way that centers the needs of the greatest number of people, would help individuals- not the other way around of promoting individualism (which is also linked to concepts around consumer-based identity which tends to be class-oriented).

Effectively communicating the idea of Qi to the public involves demystifying the concept and presenting it in a way that resonates with diverse audiences. Emphasizing the universality and inclusivity of Qi can bridge cultural gaps and make TCM principles more accessible. Utilizing various channels, from academic studies to online platforms, can enhance public understanding and appreciation for the transformative power of Qi. In addition to scholarly approaches, leveraging personal narratives and real-life examples can resonate with the public. Book samples, such as those found in Ted Kaptchuk’s “The Web That Has No Weaver” (6), can provide insights into the practical applications of Qi in daily life. Sharing stories of individuals who have experienced positive transformations through TCM practices, including acupuncture and Qigong exercises, adds a human dimension to the concept of Qi, making it more tangible and relatable. What does this look like, in practice? Promoting social health could take many forms, but I believe that most are based in community autonomy and organizing (whether that be political or tactical) IE groups of people coming together over shared interests and skill-bases to help create more opportunity for overall community wellness. Such as: creating joy/fun/play, art and creativeness, skill sharing, feeding the hungry, making sure those who need medical attention get it, programs to house and rehabilitate community member struggling with drugs and homelessness, attending to lonely and isolated community members, education on anti-violence and acceptance of gender diverse individuals and racial classes, creating systems to reduce harm to the earth (plastic reduction, water conservation, tree planting), and much more. Wouldn’t that be beautiful? Can’t you just smell the harmony from here?

Communicating the idea of Qi to the public requires demystification and relatability. Drawing parallels with Western economic concepts, utilizing narratives and dreams of utopias that depict perfect social order, and showcasing the practical applications of Qi contribute to a broader understanding. Community organizing can be a powerful embodiment of Qi understanding, creating a space where individuals can collectively contribute to their well-being and foster positive changes in the world. As we acknowledge that every action, no matter how small, contributes to the greater whole, the inclusive essence of Qi becomes a guiding principle for creating a better and more harmonious world for all.


  1. Chen, X., Yang, G., Zhang, Y., & Li, X. (2017). A Comprehensive Understanding of the Qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine from the Perspective of Modern Science. Journal of Integrative Medicine, 15(3), 165–172.
  2. Franke, Hillary A. (2014) “Toxic Stress: Effects, Prevention and Treatment” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4928741/
  3. 3. Raj Chetty, PhD, Michael Stepner, BA, Sarah Abraham, BA,Shelby Lin, MPhil,Benjamin Scuderi, BA, Nicholas Turner, PhD, Augustin Bergeron, MA, and David Cutler, PhD “The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States 2001-2014” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4866586/
  4. Wu, X., Liang, L., & Sun, L. (2019). The Economic Evaluation of Traditional Chinese Medicine as Part of the Health Care System in China: A Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(3), 432.
  5. Li, X., Wang, R., Xing, X., & Li, P. (2018). Discussion on the Relationship between Qi, Blood, Body Fluids and Essence in Preventive Treatment in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Clinical Research, 29(1), 88–90.
  6. Kaptchuk, T. J. (2000). The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine. Contemporary Books.

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