Cultivating Qi

T’ai Chi Chuan, Qi Gong and Daoist meditation
are all excellent methods to cultivate Qi

The emphasis of Traditional Chinese Medicine has always been on prevention of illness. Patients in ancient China would visit their practitioner at the changes of each season to optimise health and well-being rather than waiting until they were out of balance and symptoms had appeared. Happily acupuncture and Tuina both have a valuable role to play in bringing people back to health after symptoms have set in, but prevention has to be better than cure.

The maintenance of good health can be greatly enhanced by consciously working to cultivate our “Qi” or vital energy. T’ai Chi Chuan and Qi Gong are valuable tools to facilitate cultivation. This Chinese term “Qi” is difficult to translate. It is breath, the vital force of life, the wind that comes from the whirling vortex of Dao, that unknowable Origin of being and non-being, nothingness and form. There are many different words for the different types of “Qi” as it manifests at various stages in our being, but it is helpful to focus particularly on what the Chinese refer to as the “three treasures”.

The Three Treasures

The three treasures are “Jing”, “Qi” and “Shen”. One could say that they are, all three, manifestations of “Qi” in its most general sense.

Although one can describe them as discreet aspects of our energetic makeup it is important to understand that there is a constant interaction going on between the three treasures and that they affect each other.


The word Jing means “essence”, “semen” or “ovum”. It reflects an ancient understanding of the substance and function of the transmission and continuation of life through sexual reproduction. Ancient medical theorists considered it to be the substance that was transmitted from parents to their offspring at conception. Thus it can be understood as an ancient expression of the phenomena of genetic transmission that we understand in the modern biological sciences as DNA.

The Jing is the most substantial of the three treasures, being the root of our constitutional strength, inherited from our parents and stored in the kidneys and bone marrow. As we journey through life our Jing will gradually become depleted. Taking care not to dissipate our Jing by over indulging in food, alcohol, drugs, overwork and excessive sex (especially for men) is key to maintaining well-being.


The “Qi” of the three treasures is the “Qi” that flows through our meridian systems and ensures the day to day functioning of all our bodily systems and organs. It is sometimes referred to as the “nutritive Qi”. It is less substantial than Jing and flows more readily through our being. The Chinese say “blood follows qi” which is a key reason why enhancing the flow of Qi through our being with acupuncture brings such benefits – blood contains the nourishment our cells need to function properly so enhancing it’s flow and circulation is very helpful.

At this level we have two sources of “Qi” available to us – the food and drink we consume and the air we breathe.

Taking care to source good quality food appropriate to our individual needs, preparing it well and taking the time to be truly present with our food in calm surroundings as we eat will all help to maximise our nutritive Qi.

Many of us live in cities and are acutely aware of how air quality gets compromised by the fumes we find there. It is important to make the time to breathe some fresh air every day (or at least at the weekend). The “Qi” to be found in the atmosphere is best around large trees (which of course produce oxygen), by the sea, in the mountains and by running water. If we can make it to a park to enjoy some fresher air every day, so much the better.

That absorption of good quality “Qi” into our lungs from the atmosphere will be greatly enhanced if we know how to breathe well.

Many of us do not use the full capacity of our lungs as we breathe thereby compromising the gaseous exchange that needs to take place – releasing carbon dioxide and taking in oxygen and the “Qi” or vitality that accompanies good quality fresh air. Learning how to breathe well from the belly, allowing the air to travel deeply to the very bottom of our lungs is important.


The “Shen” is the least substantial of the three treasures and is translated sometimes as spirit and sometimes as mind.

Claude Larre the sinologist described Shen:

“The shen are that by which a given being is unlike any other; that which makes an individual an individual and more than a person.”

In Classical Acupuncture the term “Jing-Shen” is the one that most closely accords with our use of the word “spirit”. To quote Loewe (1993): “the Jing-Shen lives in the body like the flame blazing in the candle”. Like Shen, Jing-Shen means different things in different contexts. All the modern Chinese terms that are used to translate English words that start with the pre-fix “psycho-“ start with Jing-Shen. For example mental illness is Jing-Shen Bing and psychiatry is Jing-Shen bing xue. It can also mean the “vigour” or “vitality” that a person exhibits when their body and spirit are both healthy. In earlier times jing-shen meant that combination of inherited temperament and human individuality which constitutes the human spirit.

The concept of Jing-Shen conveys man’s dual nature, part animal, part spirit. Animals possess Jing but they do not possess Shen. It is the Shen that gives people their glory, the miracle of human consciousness. Only humans, standing between Heaven and Earth, possess Jing-Shen.

Shen allows us to enquire willfully into our own natures and therefore direct the development of our purpose in life. It provides with our capacity to return to our original nature by focusing our intention inwardly toward the Jing. Inherited Jing represents an internal standard corresponding to true self against which all that comes to us in life may be judged. Hence the Shen provides insight into the quality of our innate nature so that we may recognise throughout all of life that which is congruent with our well-being. The Shen constitutes our capacity for conscious awareness and the Jing constitutes the depth of our innate endowment. The act of willing the interpenetration of Jing and Shen is a physiological metaphor for introspection and self-discovery. Our Shen illuminates our depths and thus draws out potential so that it may become manifest in the world.