Dao and Qi - excerpts
By Livia Kohn, Ph.D.
The most fundamental concept of Daoist environmental ethos is Dao or "Way." It can be understood metaphysically as the underlying source and power of the universe, practically as the way in which the world functions, or analytically as the way in which people can (or cannot) speak about reality.
Qi is the material energy of the universe, the basic stuff of nature. In ancient sources it is associated with the mist, fog, and moving clouds. The character for qi as it appears in the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BCE), consists of two parts: an image of someone eating and grain in a pot. Combined, these parts signal qi, the quality which nourishes, warms, transforms, and rises. Qi, therefore, is contained in the foods we eat and the air we breathe. But more subtly it is also the life force in the human body and as such is the basis of all physical vitality.
By extension, qi also denotes anything perceptible but intangible: atmosphere, smoke, aroma, vapor, a sense of intuition, foreboding, or even ghosts. There is only one qi, just as there is only one Dao. But it, too, appears on different levels of subtlety and in different modes. At the center, there is primordial qi, prenatal qi, or true, perfect qi; at the periphery there is postnatal qi—like the measurable Dao it is in constant motion and divided according to categories such as temperature, density, speed of flow, and impact on human life.
Qi is the basic material of all that exists. It animates life and furnishes functional power of events. Qi is the root of the human body; its quality and movement determine human health. Qi can be discussed in terms of quantity, since having more means stronger metabolic function. This does not mean that health is a byproduct of storing large quantities of qi. Instead, there is a normal or healthy amount of qi in every person and every aspect of nature, and health manifests in their overall balance and harmony, moderation and smoothness of flow. This flow is envisioned as a complex system of waterways both in nature and in the human body. In the later, the "Ocean of Qi" is in the abdomen; rivers of qi flow through the upper torso, arms, and legs; springs of qi sprout at the wrists and ankles; and wells of qi are found in the fingers and toes. In nature and the body, even a small spot in this complex system can influence the whole, so that overall balance and smoothness are the general goal.
Human and natural life is the accumulation of qi; death is its dispersal. After receiving a core potential of primordial qi at birth, people throughout life need to sustain it. They do so by drawing postnatal qi into the body from air and food, and from other people through sexual, emotional, and social interaction. But they also lose qi through breathing bad air, living in polluted conditions, overburdening or diminishing their bodies with food and drink, or getting involved in negative emotions and excessive sexual or social interactions.
Health in the universe is not just the absence of symptoms and ailments. It is the presence of a strong vital energy and of a smooth, harmonious, and active flow of qi in a steady alteration of yin and yang according to the system of the five phases which are symbolized by five material objects:
These five continue to produce each other continuously in a harmonious cycle in the order presented. Qi that flows in this proper manner and in the right amount is known as the state of "proper qi" (zhengqi) or also translated as "upright qi." Found in personal health, this is matched by health in nature, defined as regular weather patterns and the absence of disasters. It is also present as health in society in the peaceful coexistence among families, clans, villages, and states. This harmony on all levels, the cosmic presence of a steady and pleasant flow of qi, is what the Chinese call the state of Great Peace, a state venerated by Confucians and Daoists alike. (See Werner Eichhorn. "T'ai-p'ing and T'ai-p'ing Religion." Mitteilungen des Instituts für Orientforschungm, 5, 1957, pp. 113-140.
Editor's Comments: This entry was taken from Health and Long Life: The Chinese Way. Three Pines Press, 2005. It was used with the author's permission.