Vocabulary: a starter pack

One of my three loyal readers messaged me yesterday to ask what I mean when I say “tonification.” Knowing that this particular reader has a master’s degree that involved reading a ton of critical theory (i.e. more or less obscure German and French language philosophy of the mid-20th century), I knew right away this spelled trouble. If someone trained by Berkeley *and then* Chicago can’t parse my terminology, then my terminology is without question jargon – jargon that will likely also be lost on the far broader audience I (eventually) hope to be writing for.

But can I write about the concepts and ideas in East Asian medicine without using jargon? Historically yes, if I were writing in Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, because medical terms were originally common terms that only over time acquired more nuanced technical meanings. Currently, in English, not so much. Even discussions of biomedicine in English quickly become bogged down in the jargon of terms that were quite literally borrowed from another language, Latin. In English this has led us to expect some degree of technical language when conversing with medical professionals. (Can you imagine the lack of this? Thanks to this now classic documentary, I can.)

So in that spirit, rather than dumb everything down for you develop an entirely new medical vernacular on the fly, I’ll resort to a strategy favored by academic writers since time immemorial: present you with some basic definitions of terms so essential that I can’t use anything else to say them. For this post, I’m limiting myself to the most basic of the basics – the stretchy black yoga pants and pumpkin spice lattes of East Asian medical terminology, if you will.


This term qi (qi 氣) is so difficult to define I’m going to lean on a few experts for help here. The historian Nathan Sivin, after roughly five decades of reading and historical research into Chinese medicine and religions, amongst other topics, offers a relatively clear definition in his most recent monograph:

“Qi refers to the matter— which may be intangible, liquid, or solid—of which everything is composed. Aristotle’s matter was passive stuff on which form must be imposed if it is to become anything. Qi is anything but passive. It contains the vitality it needs to maintain its physical form and characteristic activity, and to grow.”

– Sivin, Healthcare in Eleventh-Century China, 19

As an active vitality present everywhere, in every living thing, it naturally follows that Chinese differentiates multiple types of qi. In the body alone, one special qi is derived from food, and another from air; with a small amount of a very rareified (impossible to replenish) store of qi we inherit from our parents and store as a deep constitutional reserve, the qis we derive from air and food coalesece into the qi that makes our body run day to day. Complicated, right?

Now, what if I tell you that another form of qi is blood (xue 血)?

Keanu Reeves going "whoaaaaa"

But, those of you who took CM theory will say, “blood is the mother of qi, and qi is the mother of blood” – how could they be the same?!

The short answer is that qi is yang, and blood is yin, and like yin and yang, although we refer to them as distinct entities, they are always together, always in a dynamic flux. Just as the separation of yin and yang only occurs when the body dies, qi and blood are not separate but dependent entities. As the yin partner, blood is tangible, physical, heavy. Qi is carried in it, as well as carrying it throughout the body.

A metaphor related to two more specialized forms of qi/blood will hopefully make this clearer. When we discuss immunity in Chinese medicine, we might mention defense qi (wei qi 衛氣), which patrols the surface of the body and fights off invasion by cold-causing agents such as wind. This is, however, a yang aspect of immunity, just as soldiers patrolling a border are a yang aspect of the army. Nutritive qi (ying qi 營氣) is the yin aspect of immunity, and like a more literal translation of the Chinese word ying makes clear, it refers to the camps, i.e. the supply lines that supporting the army through bringing in and cooking food, providing rest, etc. Armies don’t work (well, or long) without well-fed and supplied soldiers, immunity doesn’t work (well, or long) without the yin protections of good nutrition and rest, and qi doesn’t power a body without the physical support of blood.

Interdependence, and relativity. So much of the difficulty in conceptualizing Chinese medical concepts for students and patients lies in a tendency toward absolute thinking, rather than relative and relational thinking.

Phew. You’ve made it really far reader, awesome! The rest of this lesson is easy, I promise.

  • Excess/Repletion (shi 實): too much of something
  • Deficiency/Vacuity (xu 虛): not enough of something
  • Tonify (bu 補): This is basically a five-dollar way of saying “supplement,” or add to something. Implicit in this is the idea that something needs to be supplemented – i.e. tonify deficient qi (or blood), maybe even in a specific place.
  • Sedate (xie 泄): A fancy way of saying “reduce” or “get rid of” something, maybe stagnant qi, maybe static blood.
  • Honestly there are more verbs than these two, but these are the basic ones, and more verbs require more concepts. For instance, when there is too much heat in the body, we wouldn’t sedate it, we could clear it. But the basic point should be clear with just this.

CM also refers to a dozen different organs, many of which have (seemingly) recognizable names. Conceptions/functions of these organs, however, often don’t overlap fully (if at all) with their biomedical equivalents. Because this is a whole thing, I’ll leave this for a future post – and channels, the highways connecting the organs to the body’s extremities, surfaces, and crevices, another post yet still.