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Beyond Ch'i:   Body Energy Frequencies in Traditional Chinese Alchemy

chi symbol

Ch'i Character

When most people think of energy in the Chinese context, they think in terms of "ch'i" (qi) and its use in acupuncture. To understand ch'i, we need to examine the topic of body energy within traditional Chinese context. The historical origins of Chinese medicine, including acupuncture, are in traditional Taoist alchemy. There are several topics here—the first being the different frequencies of energy in and around the body. These are ching (endorcrinal), ch'i (circulatory), and shen (mervous/psychic). Further topics include the ethnoanatomy of the tan dens, the understanding of the "triple warmer" organ/meridian, and the systematic refinement of the energies.

Here in the West many people tend to view life-energy as a single form. However, most of us have had experiences with the various types of energies, even if we didn't have an intellectual understanding of them at the time. Indigenous medical systems from other parts of the world recognize distinctions of frequencies of energy. In the Ayurvedic system of India, the best known distinction is between prana—a from of energy in the air, and kundilini—a more refined nervous system/psychic frequency.

The overall traditional Chinese view of the body begins with bone and muscle. These are not really considered to be energy, although internal cultivation (nei kung, qigong/ch'i gung, and nui gong) can have beneficial effects on the muscle and bone. Ch'i gung/qigong has become a general term for exercises which cultivate the internal energies. (For more on this point, refer to my previous article "What Is Ch'i Gung (qigong)?" in the Jade Dragon archives.) The general older term for ch'i gung is nei kung (in Mandarin) or nui gung (in Cantonese). In both cases nei/nui translates as internal. Kung/gung translates as work/cultivation (used the same way as in gung fu). A classic example of an internal exercise benefiting the muscles is the Shao Lin Muscle Change Classic.

The energetic base of the body is the frequency of the ching. This corresponds to several Westernly-recognized organ systems. These are the endocrinal, digestive, and sexual systems. The view is that these organs are in the sense hollow and that cultivation of the ching results in their filling so they become stronger and denser. The frequency does not circulate throughout the body. This is the basis for the practice of male sexual abstinence. The view is that ejaculation (an emptying) results in the weakening of the organs and the body. While lost ching can be restored through cultivation, many practitioners prefer withholding ejaculation so as not to lose physical substance. Traditionally, the cultivation of the ching is labeled as ching gung.

The next frequency is that of the ch'i. The associated organs are those of the respiratory and circulatory systems. In the classical Chinese world view, the organ of the heart that the West recognizes as the pump for the blood was not part of the circulatory system. The classical view was that the movement of the blood was prompted by the movement of the ch'i. It is this frequency that circulates throughout the body through the meridian system. These meridians are just below the skin. This is why they can be activated by needles inserted through the skin or by moxa (Chinese herbs) burned on the surface. Traditionally in acupuncture, there is no distinction between the "meridian" in the extremity and the "organ" in the torso. The line of energy running though the leg is as much the "liver" as the Westernly-defined mass in the right side of the torso.

In this same context, there are meridian systems not utilized by acupuncture because they are too deep in the body to be reached by needles. Perhaps the most important of these are the "psychic" meridians, also known as the "eight strange flows." These are the rivers of energy which fuel the body as a whole. The meridians of acupuncture each work with a specific organ. These can be seen as tributaries of the rivers.

A note here about the nature of ch'i and its written character is in order. The written character is composed of the character for air over that of rice. Since the 1980s, some people have defined ch'i as the vapor of hulled rice rising. This is not the breakdown of the written character. When looking at a written character in a Chinese dictionary, it is necessary to look at the root or "radical" of a compound "word." In this case ch'i is found under the radical for air, not rice. This points out the component of air is the key (so to speak), not rice. The older alchemical understanding is that the ch'i is a component of air, directly analogous to oxygen. It is a part of air as directly necessary to nourishment as was rice on the physical plane.

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