Essentials of Qi Dynamics 1: Rising, Descending, Floating, Sinking

In preparation for forthcoming translations from Peng Ziyi’s The Circular Dynamics of Ancient Chinese Medicine, I would first like to ‘get down on paper’ some key aspects of classical Chinese thought that have been relegated to the fringes of modern TCM education. Considering that the ancient world view of the Chinese lies at the very heart of the conceptual framework of TCM, I believe it is worth re-examining some concepts that are familiar to most of us, through the lens of traditional qi dynamics.

In the opening lines of his chapter on TCM theory, Peng writes: “欲学中医须先认识十二经名词的所以然。欲认识名词,须先认识阴阳五行六气的所以然,欲认识阴阳五行六气,须先认识二十四节气地面上所受太阳射到的热降沉升浮中的圆运动。”
-Those who would like to study Chinese medicine must first understand the reasoning for the names of the 12 meridians; in order to understand the names of the 12 meridians, one must first understand the concepts of Yin/Yang, Wu Xing, and Liu Qi; and in order to understand these concepts of Yin/Yang, Wu Xing, and Liu Qi, one must first understand the concept of the 24 jieqi and the circular movement of the sun’s energy as it strikes the earth, the point which corresponds to “center”, and descends, sinks, rises and floats.

Seeing these words on page 1 of the text, I knew this book was going to fundamentally change my understanding of TCM as I recalled my ‘Basic TCM Theory’ instructor’s offhand dismissal of my question regarding the names of the meridians as essentially “insignificant” several years earlier. And here is Peng Ziyi placing this very question in the opening lines of his book, stressing its tantamount importance!

Let us then begin with this question of the 24 jieqi, or “24 qi periods” of the traditional Chinese calendar. This is the earliest meaning of the character qi, simply a period of 15 days. Based upon the subtle characteristics of each season, beginning with Spring, the year is broken down as follows: 立春LiChun (Beginning of Spring), 雨水YuShui, 惊蛰JingZhe, 春分ChunFen (Mid-Spring),清明QingMing,谷雨GuYu,立夏LiXia (Beginning of Summer),小满XiaoMan,芒种MangZhong,夏至XiaZhi (Summer Solstice),小暑XiaoShu,大暑DaShu,立秋LiQiu (Beginning of Autumn),处暑ChuShu,白露BaiLu,秋分QiuFen (Mid-Autumn),寒露HanLu,霜降ShuangJiang,立冬LiDong (Beginning of Winter),小雪XiaoXue,大雪DaXue,冬至DongZhi (Winter Solstice),小寒XiaoHan,大寒DaHan

Each season has its associated direction and dynamic motion. In keeping with the above image of the sun’s energy reaching the earth, we can follow the cycle of energy through the four seasons. The warmth of the summer sun reaches the surface, a point in three dimensional space we will refer to as “center”, and during Autumn is absorbed into the earth in an action known as “descending”. This energy continues to descend into the earth, where it meets with water deep within the ground and is stored as potential energy during Winter through an action known as “sinking/condensing”. As Spring approaches, energy begins to rise toward the surface in an action known as “ascending”. It eventually reaches the earth’s surface and is returned to the Summer sky in a movement known as “floating”. This process is represented in the illustration above.

Each motion is associated with a season as well as a direction. The Winter Solstice lies at true North and represents the transition from sinking to ascending. Ascending continues to grow in strength until its climax at Lichun waning as it approaches Mid-Spring, where it transitions to floating, and so on through the cycle. It is important to remember that this cycle traces the movement of the sun’s heat, or in other words, Yangqi, through its annual progession. Therefore, at Mid-Autumn and Mid-Spring, the amount of heat above and below the surface are relatively equal, while the Summer and Winter Solstices represent the apex of heat both above and below respectively. Peng informs us that this central dividing line on the human body is 2 cun above the belly button, or Xiawanxue(RN10).

The last 2 lines of this section are particularly worth noting. He states: “热性本来升浮,不能降沉,热之降沉,秋气收敛之力降沉之也。热降,为生物有生之始,热不降,为生物致死之因。”
-Heat naturally ascends and floats and cannot descend and sink of its own. Therefore, the descending and sinking motion of heat depends upon the gathering power of Autumn qi. Descending heat is the basis for all life; if heat does not descend, the organism will die.

This line of thought leads directly to a fundamentally different understanding of Yin/Yang and Wuxing theory. The left half of this diagram represents the process of Yang as heat stored dormant beneath the ground begins to move and ascend; the right half, the process of yin, where heat that has reached its apex of motion begins to slow and descend. This also corrects the common misunderstanding of WuXing. Often translated as “five elements”, as we see from this diagram, the character 行 xing refers to the dynamic properties of each element, and so may be better translated as “five motions”.

Though seemingly very abstract, returning this concept of motion to TCM is crucial to eventually understanding the clinical applications of various herbs and acupuncture techniques. This is an analogy that can be directly applied to the understanding of the human system. Each of the five organ systems has its associated action. Illness is thus a manifestation of the breakdown in this dynamic model. Treatment is simply a matter of identifying the breakdown in movement and applying proper therapy to restore it to an even, harmonious state. We must break free from the Western notion of medical materialism and begin to envision TCM as an energetic science that places the human system within this larger natural context.

More on qi dynamics and the theories of Peng Ziyi to follow.

二零零八年九月初八 ・ 寒露

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