In traditional Chinese culture, qi (or “chi”) is an active principle forming part of any living thing. It is frequently translated as energy flow, and is often compared to Western notions of vitalism as well as the yogic notion of prana. The literal translation is “air” or “breath”. The earliest way of writing qi consisted of three wavy lines, used to represent one’s breath seen on a cold day.
Theories of traditional Chinese medicine assert that the body has natural patterns of qi that circulate in channels called meridians. Symptoms of various illnesses are often believed to be the product of disrupted, blocked, or unbalanced qi movement through the body’s meridians, as well as deficiencies or imbalances of qi in the various organs. Traditional Chinese medicine often seeks to relieve these imbalances by adjusting the circulation of qi in the body using a variety of therapeutic techniques. Some of these techniques include herbal medicines, special diets, physical training regimens, massage to clear blockages, and acupuncture.
It has been hypothesized that the alleged therapeutic effects of acupuncture can be explained by endorphin-release, by relaxation or by simple placebo effects. The NIH Consensus Statement on acupuncture in 1997 noted that concepts such as qi “are difficult to reconcile with contemporary biomedical information but continue to play an important role in the evaluation of patients and the formulation of treatment in acupuncture.”
More recent investigations point to connective tissue mechanotransduction, in other words a domino effect caused by the specific twisting and knotting of the fabric of the body. The connections with electric conductivity were studied in the United States in the late 19th Century, and are currently the subject of more active research.
There are many uses of the term “qi” in acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, but it’s an imprecise concept of which the best, non-poetic translation is probably “stuff”.
The traditional Chinese art of geomancy, the placement and arrangement of space called feng shui, is based on calculating the balance of qi. The retention or dissipation of qi is believed to affect the health, wealth, energy level, luck and many other aspects of the occupants of the space. Color, shape and the physical location of each item in a space affects the flow of qi by slowing it down, redirecting it or accelerating it, which directly affects the energy level of the occupants. Feng shui is said to be a form of qi divination.