Question: "What is the qi in traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy?"
Answer: Qi (chi, ch’i, or ki, pronounced “chee”) literally translated is “air,” but in the religious/philosophical sense it has come to mean “life force” or “energy.” According to some, qi is the animating principle of the universe and goes right down to the sub-atomic level. Qigong (also called inner alchemy) is the practice of manipulating the qi. The concept of the qi has come to us in a more popular form in the Star Wars movies as the Force and is also featured prominently in Kung Fu Panda 3.
The manipulation of the qi is the underlying principle behind traditional martial arts and Chinese medicine. In traditional Chinese medicine, there are various kinds of qi including the ancestral qi, which we are born with, and other qi, which we absorb over time from the environment.
Manipulation of this energy is said to effect cures or alleviate various physical symptoms. For instance, acupuncture is supposed to help the qi flow between various pressure points where the needles are inserted, eliminating imbalances. Feng shui is the practice of orienting a building and its interior features to allow for a more propitious flow of energy within the building to the benefit of those who occupy it, thus eliminating spiritual imbalances.
The philosophy/religion behind the concept of qi is Taosim. The Tao is said to be the universal energy from which all things come. From this energy, the One emerges, but the One is divided into yin and yang. There is a continual flow of energy between the yin and the yang. This transfer of energy brings about the physical/material universe.
How should a Christian view Chinese medicine? With caution.
The religious/philosophical principles behind Chinese medicine are clearly anti-biblical. Eastern philosophy does not recognize a personal God as Creator and does not recognize people as made in God’s image. According to Eastern philosophy and the concept of qi or chi, everything is simply part of the “one energy” of the universe. To the extent that the practitioner is trying to balance the qi, the practice is unbiblical and the Christian should avoid it.
Having said that, just as Chinese martial arts may be an effective means of self-defense, even when separated from manipulation of the qi, it is possible that some practices in Chinese medicine like acupuncture may have medical benefits that are derived from the stimulation of nerves and muscles through the placement of needles. This physical benefit has nothing to do with any supposed qi. Whether or not there is any real benefit to acupuncture and similar practices is debated in the scientific community. Chiropractic medicine originally started as something that was heavily spiritual/metaphysical but has come to be accepted because the physical manipulation of the body yields physical benefits. Traditional Chinese medicine has not yet proved to be as successful. In the end, what procedures we subject ourselves to in search of healing is a matter of spiritual discernment and godly conviction.