Chinese Medicine Demystified (Part II): Origins of the “Energy Meridian” Myth


Guest Blog Series from Chris Kresser, LAc
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​As an acupuncture student, I often like to ask people if they know what the word qi(sometimes spelled “chi”) means.

I get all kinds of answers. Some people don’t have any idea. Some guess it’s a kind of tea, like chai tea. Some say it has something to do with martial arts. Others say it means balance or flow. But those who’ve been to an acupuncturist, or at least know someone who has, say that qi means energy.

They say that because that’s what their acupuncturist told them. And their acupuncturist told them that because that’s what the acupuncturist was taught in school. That’s the definition of qi in the textbooks about Chinese medicine that we study in the west.

These textbooks teach that qi is an energy that moves through your body in meridians. A meridian is a metaphysical line “juxtaposed” on the body. It has no actual location inside of the body. In other words, it’s not really there. According to these textbooks this mysterious energy called qi flowing through these nonexistent lines called meridians forms the conceptual basis of Chinese medicine.

This is the definition of Chinese medicine that causes snickers, smirks and shaking heads amongst the scientific crowd – which is to say almost every doctor or medical professional trained in the west. But is this definition even accurate?

Much of what we know about Chinese medicine comes from a book called theHuangdi Neijing (HDNJ), or Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic. There’s some controversy about when it was written, but most scholars agree that it was about 2,000 years ago, sometime between the second and first century BCE. The HDNJ is a massive encyclopedic text of Chinese medicine. You can think of it as their version of the Merck Manual.

The HDNJ had several sections. One was on anatomy. If you recall from the previous post in this series, the Chinese were performing detailed dissections 500 years before the birth of Christ. They listed the average weight, volume and measurements for all of the internal organs. They named the organs and described their functions. (In fact, they knew that the heart is the organ that pumps blood through the body more than 2,000 years ago. This wasn’t discovered in western medicine until the early 16th century.) They knew which vessels flowed away from the heart, which vessels flowed toward the heart, and which vessels supplied which organs.

The HDNJ also had detailed sections on pathology. They described how diseases develop and how to treat those diseases with acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage and dietary and lifestyle changes. In short, the Chinese were practicing truly preventative medicine 2,500 years before the term was even coined.

The HDNJ is a remarkable book. But early western scholars had a problem. The HDNJ is written in a dialect of Chinese that hasn’t been in common use in China for more than a thousand years. You could show it to a modern Chinese person and they wouldn’t be able to read it.

Several westerners took a crack at translating it. One of the first was a Dutch physician named Willem ten Rhijne. Ten Rhijne worked for the Dutch East India Company in Japan from 1683-1685. He reported clinical success by Chinese and Japanese practitioners in treating a wide range of disorders, including pain, internal organ problems, emotional disorders and infectious diseases prevalent at the time. Interestingly enough, Ten Rhijne accurately translated the Chinese character for qi as “air”, not energy, in his reports to the Dutch government.

But the translation we’re most familiar with, and the one that became the source for all of the textbooks used in western schools of Chinese medicine, was done by a man named Georges Soulie de Morant.

De Morant was a French bank clerk who lived in China from 1901 to 1917. He was enamored with Chinese culture and philosophy, and became interested in Chinese medicine during his stay. He decided to translate the HDNJ, in spite of the fact that he had no medical training nor any training in ancient Chinese language.

It was a huge undertaking for a French bank clerk to translate a 2,000 year old medical text written in an extinct Chinese dialect into a modern romance language (French). Under the circumstances, de Morant did well in many respects. But he made some huge mistakes that had serious consequences for how Chinese medicine has been interpreted in the west.

In the next post, we’ll look at those mistakes in more detail. We’ll also replace de Morant’s fictional “energy meridian” model with a new – or rather old – model of Chinese medicine that is both historically accurate and consistent with modern scientific principles of anatomy and physiology.

Continue to the next article.

ReferencesKendall, Donald, The Dao of Chinese Medicine, Oxford University Press, 2002

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