Presidential Scholars Theses (1990 – 2006)


Open Access Presidential Scholars Thesis

First Advisor

Robert Seager


Qi (Chinese philosophy)


The concept of Qi (pronounced "chee") is a difficult one to understand, let alone study. It strikes most of us as amorphous at best. Traditional Chinese Medicine enthusiasts in the West translate the term as "life-energy". How much more broad could it be! Some try to make the term scientific, referring to Qi as "bio-electrical" or "bio-magnetic", but they succeed only in clouding the issue further. Certainly, it does not help matters that those who would seem to know the most about this concept of Qi, the Qigong masters, are themselves most mysterious. Is it any wonder that many in the Western scientific paradigm discount the Qi concept as fiction, superstition, or quackery? Though more scientific study has been devoted to Traditional Chinese Medicine in the West over the past few decades, this attitude about Traditional Chinese Medicine is still very prevalent, largely because of the system's seeming reliance on the Qi Theory. Furthermore, most studies do not address the issue of Qi itself, but instead try to fit a Western model on a Traditional Chinese Medicine phenomenon. In my opinion, this often leads to studies which are ambiguous or which do not actually study Traditional Chinese Medicine. At any rate, even the best studies rarely get to the heart of Traditional Chinese Medicine- the Qi concept. (Hereafter, Traditional Chinese Medicine will be abbreviated as TCM)

How can we hope to explore a concept as broad and clouded with mystery as Qi? I propose to show that the understanding of Qi is not only possible within the Western scientific paradigm, but is really quite simple. I think the misunderstanding between the two paradigms (TCM and Western science) is more a matter of translation than disagreement. Furthermore, I hold that the Qi concept must be more narrowly defined before its validity can be properly examined, by scientific study or otherwise. I believe this process of definition is best accomplished by having a philosophical dialogue with TCM practitioners, carefully reading ancient Chinese medical texts, and designing studies based on the results of this translation effort.

In my attempt to make my position clear, I will examine three basic questions:

1) What is Qi?

2) Is Qi real?

3) Can Qi be scientifically analyzed?

Let us only hope that my exposition will be slightly less mysterious than its topic.

Date of Award



Department of Biology

Presidential Scholar Designation

A paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the designation Presidential Scholar

Date Original


Object Description

1 PDF file (39 pages)

Date Digital



©2004 - Elizabeth Brooke Barrett





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