‘Qi’ And The Multiple Perspectives Of Breath


from Luke’s Journal 2020 | Breath of Life | Vol.25 No.2

Growing up in Chinese culture, the concept of Qi has been part of my life since a very young age. However, I have never managed to fully grasp this concept. Even when I was learning acupuncture, I struggled with the concept of Qi.

I imagined Qi as a sort of energy flowing along meridians to different internal organs, and acupuncture was the art or science of influencing this flow to promote healing. The real meaning of Qi is a lot more complicated than my rudimentary understanding.

Qi is used in many terms in Chinese.

1. Qi Li 气力 – strength.

2. Qi Shi 气势 – grandeur.

3. Qi Si 气死 – to die from an excess of anger.

4. Sheng Qi 生气 – to be angry.

5. Cai Qi 才气 – talent.

6. Yun Qi 运气 – luck.

7. Duan Qi 断气 – to breathe one’s last.

8. Jing Qi 景气 – prosperous.

9. Shi Qi 士气 – morale.

10. Fu Qi 服气 – to submit.

11. Su Qi 俗气 – poor taste.

12. Xi Qi 喜气 – happy atmosphere.

I can list ten times the number of terms in which Qi is employed. The ones I have listed suffice to show that Qi is involved in every part of life in Chinese culture. This is one of the most useful words to know well for those who want to learn both the Chinese culture and language.

I have summarised below a description of Qi from the book The Web That Has No Weaver 1

The notion of Qi is fundamental to Chinese culture and medical thought. For the Chinese, everything in the universe, inorganic and organic, is composed of and defined by its Qi.

1. Qi is not so much a force added to lifeless matter but the state of being of any phenomena.

2. Qi can be thought of as a kind of matter on the verge of becoming energy, or energy at the point of materialising.

3. Qi is the thread connecting all being.

4. Qi allows any phenomenon to maintain its cohesiveness, grow, and transform into other forms.

5. Qi is more than cause; it is also the process and outcome of all activity in the cosmos.

6. Qi is the cosmic breath that unites disparate forms.

7. Qi has five major functions within a person.

a. It is the source of all movement and accompanies all movement (physical and mental movement, and growth).

b. Protection (shielding the body from external invasions).

c. The source of harmonious transformation (transforming food and air into other states of being).

d. Maintaining stability (physical endurance and structural integrity).

e. The source of warmth (keeping the body warm).

Qi may then be considered a fundamental force for life. Such a concept of Qi was first mentioned about 2,500 years ago in Huang Di Nei Jing (the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon – an ancient Chinese medical text). Amazingly, this concept of Qi has some similarities to the Christian concept of life, in that the biblical account recognises the presence of a fundamental entity that gives true life – God’s breath, His Spirit.

In the Bible, life is related to breath, wind, Spirit.

“God gave everything that has the breath of life in it every green plant for food.” (Genesis 1:30)

“God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)

“Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died.” (Genesis 7:22)

“… unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Survival of the human body is dependent on the supply of air with appropriate ratios of inert gas, oxygen and carbon dioxide. A body that is deprived of such air will decompose and disintegrate. While the Chinese call the physical air “Qi”, they also recognise that Qi is much more than physical air. For example, without an appropriate morale or will (Shi Qi 士气), a body would also deteriorate. A patient who has lost the will to live will usually die sooner than one who wants to live longer. I have seen an elderly couple dying on the same day in a nursing home: the husband’s death was expected as he had a terminal illness; the wife gave up her will to live when she knew that her husband was dying. She somehow managed to die soon after her husband’s death. (‘Somehow’ because there is no explanation for how Qi, being a nonperson, could motivate. However, we do know that, as well as respiration, we need aspiration [to live FOR something] to have life). Qi is therefore understood as something that not only enables energy production and growth, it is also something that somehow gives the body the motivation and purpose to survive.

Similarly, ‘breath of life’ can have two meanings: one in the physical realm, another in the spiritual. Most people consider life only in the physical realm. If our life consists only of physical breath, we will generally fear the time when we take our last breath. However, there are some who understand the spiritual breath of life. These people may appear to be talking of non-sensical things – they are driven to strive for the welfare of others; they do not fear death or suffering; they are not motivated by personal comfort or gain, but something else motivates them to live sacrificially.

“If we live only in the physical breath of life, we shall perish with our bodies.”

The ancient Chinese suspected that Qi was at the centre of life. They tried to explain their concepts as well as they could from observations and deductions. Without revelation from God, the Chinese concept of Qi might be as close as we can get to the mystery of life. Acts 17:28 tells us that, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” The Chinese could easily say, “In Qi we live and move and have our being.” However, since Qi is impersonal, what sort of being would we have in Qi? In the Bible, the “Him” means God, or

“Without revelation from God, the Chinese concept of Qi might be as close as we can get to the mystery of life.”

to be more specific, God the Holy Spirit, the breath of life. Life makes more sense when we live and move and have our being in a Person because we are being persons. We relate, we aspire, we feel, we hope, we hate, we laugh, and we love. None of these could be explained by Qi. Because God is a relational Being (the meaning of Trinity), we are also similar in being.

To the Chinese, if a person lives without any regard to the presence of Qi, that person will have a difficult life as they will miss all the good fortune that come with Qi (that is why Feng Shui is important to the Chinese). Similarly, we Christians may think that a person who lives without regard to the Holy Spirit will have a difficult life. This is not exactly so. In some ways, someone who lives in obedience to the Holy Spirit will have a difficult life because the world does not like such a person. However, to such a person, life is not defined by suffering or comfort – they have tasted the goodness of God and seen God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. They live for Someone far more glorious than themselves. They also wait for the day when their perishable body is replaced by an imperishable one. On that day, the physical breath of life will no longer be relevant and the spiritual Breath of life will last forever. If we live only in the physical breath of life, we shall perish with our bodies. By contrast, life, true and eternal life, is only found through life in the Holy Spirit:

I tell you this, brothers… flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthian 15:50-55)

Dr Bo Wong is an elder of Grace Evangelical Church Newcastle. He works part-time as a GP in Mayfield, Newcastle. He is married to Lay.  They have two children, Joyce and Joel.

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1. Kaptchuk, TJ (2000) The Wen That Has No Weaver. Contemporary Books Inc., Chicago IL United States, pp. 43-49