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Chinese Medicine Demystified (Part III): The “Energy Meridian” Model Debunked


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Note: This is the third article in an ongoing series. Make sure to read the previous articles before reading this one, and check out the next articles in the series afterwards.

“Why does anyone care whether Chinese anatomy and physiology are explained as energy flowing through meridians, or by the circulation of blood, nutrients, other vital substances, and vital air (qi) through the vascular system? The answer to that lies in the moral obligation of every practitioner to provide each patient with the latest medical understanding available.

The need to continually search for the truth is the most fundamental principle of science and medicine… Research so far shows that the true concepts of Chinese Medicine operate under known physiological principles, involving the complex organization of the neural, vascular, endocrine, and somatic systems, sustained by the circulation of nutrients, vital substances, and oxygen from vital air.”

– Donald E, Kendall, “Dao of Chinese Medicine” (2002)

“It is a fact that more than 95 percent of all literature published in western languages on Chinese medicine reflect western expectations rather than Chinese historical reality.”

– Paul Unschuld, historian of Chinese medicine

Continuing from Part II

De Morant returned to France after his time in China with the intention of teaching Chinese medicine to French physicians. Conveniently, he promoted the idea that Chinese medicine didn’t require an understanding of anatomy and physiology. After all, de Morant was a bank clerk – not a physician – and had no medical training or qualifications to teach medicine at all.

But de Morant did know something about Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine based on the idea of energy called “prana” flowing through invisible lines called “nadis”. De Morant applied these concepts to Chinese medicine, even though they are not found in the Huangdi Neijing (HDNJ) or any other classical Chinese medical text.

The main problem with de Morant’s version of Chinese medicine was his representation of qi as “energy”. Almost all of the misunderstanding about Chinese medicine revolves around this mistranslation – which continues to be used despite historical facts that clearly contradict it.

Paul Unschuld, a respected Chinese studies scholar, notes that “the core Chinese concept of qi bears no resemblance to the Western concept of ‘energy’.” 1 Schnorrenberger, another prominent scholar of Chinese medicine, also notes that qi is “certainly not equivalent to the Western term ‘energy’.” 2

De Morant himself admitted that he translated qi as energy, “for lack of a better word.” 3

Therefore, the commonly accepted idea in the west that Chinese medicine is an energetic, metaphysical medicine was singlehandedly created by a French bank clerk with no training in medicine or ancient Chinese language. It is neither historically accurate nor consistent with modern scientific understanding of the body.

Since the energy meridian model is clearly incorrect, we must look to the classic Chinese medical texts to discover the authentic fundamental concepts of Chinese medicine. In the Huangdi Neijing, the Chinese describe the lungs breathing in what they call “da qi”. If you look up da qi in a Chinese dictionary, you’ll see it defined as “great air”. The Chinese explained that the lungs breathed in air, and the lungs extracted the qi from the da qi.

What do our lungs get from the air that sustains life? Oxygen. If you look up qi in a Chinese dictionary, there are ten definitions but not a single one of them is energy. Qi is defined as vital vapor, air, or the essence of air. It can also refer to the function of something (i.e. the qi of an organ would refer to the function of that organ) and the weather. Qi does not mean energy.

Of course the Chinese hadn’t identified the molecule we know as oxygen 2,000 years ago. They didn’t have the technology for that. But they did understand that we extracted something essential to life from the air we breathed, and they knew that this vital air (qi) was circulated around the body to support physiological processes. Therefore the closest translation of qi in a modern medical context is not energy, but oxygen.

The Chinese also described how this oxygen (qi) gets around the body: through the blood. They knew this from the dissections they had performed. The blood of the ancient Chinese is exactly the same as the blood of the 21st century! They knew blood circulated through blood vessels and the vascular system, which they had painstakingly identified and measured.

The word the Chinese used for vessel in the HDNJ is “mai”. Mai is correctly translated as vessel. “Xue Mai” is correctly translated as blood vessel (xue = blood). Morant took the word mai and incorrectly translated it as the French word “meridian”. He did this in spite of the fact that there was no word for meridian in the ancient Chinese language.

Unschuld points out:

The term ‘meridian’, introduced by Soulie de Morant in his rendering of the concept of jing, is one example among others of what might be called a creative reception of Chinese medicine in Europe and North America in recent years that disassociates itself from historical facts. 4

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The idea that blood, along with mysterious and undefined energy, circulate through invisible “meridians” in the body was yet another creation of Soulie de Morant with absolutely no relationship to what is written about Chinese medicine in the classic texts.

De Morant also photographed ancient diagrams of acupuncture points depicted on the body. He then drew a line between all of the points, creating the concept of a meridian system for the first time. Meridian systems aren’t in the original texts. The original texts have drawings of major arteries going from the trunk into the legs. The points are arranged along these arterial routes.

The word De Morant translated as point is “jie”. Jie is more correctly translated as node, neurovascular node, or critical juncture. The Chinese knew that these nodes represent areas of fine vascular structures (arterioles, capillaries and venules – although they didn’t call them this at the time) and related nerves. Even 2,500 years ago, the superficial nodes were recognized to have afferent and efferent neural properties.

Modern research has demonstrated that neurovascular nodes (acupuncture points) contain a high concentration of sensory fibers, fine blood vessels, fine lymphatic vessels, and mast cells. These nodes are distributed along longitudinal pathways of the body where the collateral blood vessels supply the capillaries and fine vessels. The corneum stratum of the skin in these areas is slightly thinner with a lower electrical resistance. They also contain more sensory nerves, and have more fine vessels with sequestered mast cells than non nodes. 5

Ancient Chinese physicians recognized that neurovascular nodes (acupuncture points) on the surface of the body could reflect disease conditions in the internal organs, and that these same nodes could be stimulated to relieve pain and treat internal organ problems. This was a revolutionary discovery that formed the theoretical basis for acupuncture treatment. It was not until the early 1890s that this phenomenon of organ-referred pain was discovered in the West, by British physician William Head.

When the terms qi (oxygen), mai (vessel) and jie (neurovascular node) are properly translated, it becomes clear that there is no disagreement between ancient Chinese medical theory and contemporary principles of anatomy and physiology. Chinese medicine is not a metaphysical, energy medicine but instead a “flesh and bones” medicine concerned with the proper flow of oxygen and blood through the vascular system.

On his deathbed in 1955, de Morant admitted that what he referred to as meridians were in fact blood vessels. However, he still thought that energy (qi) flowed through the blood vessels.

As it turns out, de Morant wasn’t too far off.

Energy is an abstract concept that means “in work”. It can’t be circulated in the blood. However, the potential for energy, in the form of oxygen and glucose, is transported through the cardiovascular system.

Energy production within each cell is initiated by breaking down each molecule of glucose (from absorbed nutrients) to form two molecules of pyruvate. Pyruvate produced in the cell cytoplasm is taken up by the mitochondria and enters the Krebs cycle.

The Krebs cycle involves a cyclic series of reactions that convert ADP to ATP, the fundamental unit of energy in the body. This requires inhaled oxygen supplied by the red blood cells via capillaries.

This energy production cycle was discovered by Albert Szent-Györgyi and Hans Adolph Krebs well before de Morant died, in 1937. Had de Morant been aware of their work, he would have recognized that energy does not flow through the blood vessels. It is transmitted in its potential form, oxygen and glucose.

In the next post we will discuss a more authentic understanding of how Chinese medicine works, supported both by classical Chinese writings and modern scientific inquiry.

Continue to the next article.

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  1. Unschuld, PU. Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in Ancient Chinese Medical Text. Berkeley. University of California Press. 2003
  2. Schnorrenberger, CC. Morphological foundations of acupuncture: an anatomical nomenclature of acupuncture structures. BMAS Acupuncture in Medicine, 1996. Nov;14(3):89-103
  3. Soulie De Morant, Georges. L’Acuponcture chinoise. Tome I L’ energie(Points, Meridians, Circulation). Mercur de France, 1939 (French)
  4. Unschuld, PU. Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in Ancient Chinese Medical Text. Berkeley. University of California Press. 2003
  5. Kendall, Donald. The Dao of Chinese Medicine. Oxford University Press, 2002.
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Join the conversation

  1. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for an eye opening article. I’ve practiced acupressure for many years and studied and practice chi gung and internal martial arts. One of my best teachers said forget about chi and focus on the sensation. My sense is that chi gung is a mental exercise as well as physical. You mind is focusing on parts of the body which creates movement of blood and nerve energy.
    Have you made any corrections to the locations of the meridians based on what you were writing? or no of anyone who has written about this?
    Thanks, John

  2. Very interesting read. Respectfully I have a question. Why are the methods of contemporary medicine and ancient chinese style medicine so different in this case? It seems that both methods of thinking about qi(as oxygen, and as vital life force i.e. energy) have validity and can be cross referenced in other chinese traditions that use the same word. But if their methods of research were so similar and their understanding so similar to modern physiology, why is it that the methods are so different? Even more so, we have better technology today, so why is there debate about what physiologically happens during an acupuncture treatment if their methods of figuring this stuff out was so similar to ours? Should we be able to not only see what they were seeing, but be working to demonstrate it on a cellular level with success? What is going on here?

    • even further, this would further mystify things like the five elemental theory used in acupuncture, other chinese medicine, and smaller treatment modalities based on TCM, that have become part of medical or other health care practices(like Applied Kinesiology in the chiropractic profession)

      Obviously these are questions not criticisms, you aren’t saying chinese medicine doesn’t work, just that how we look at it is incomplete or inaccurate.

  3. My Say:-
    I know understanding Qi is not the cup of tea for general public. It is easier for the persons with background of physics and mathematics. But those who understand can develop the skill of generating their own protocol also understand the modern scientific view – my book The BIJI meridians

    Qi might have been described in the classical texts in many ways which I do not know (don’t know Chinese) yet in order to explain all that I have read in English I stand to say two things:
    1. That it has very close relationship with physical and metaphysical both and has to do with creating metaphysical as well as physical (or should I say Metaphysical to physical and vice versa)
    2. That Qi is representative mix of more than one wave length of existence – in fact innumerable – and incorporates energy (as explained in modern science) as its leading constituent.

  4. Your article is right on with my own thinking about the “myths” of tcm. I’ve been practicing acupuncture and herbal medicine for over 40 years. I know of its efficacy. It is the greatest system of natural holistic medicine on the planet. However just because it works does not necessarily explains ‘why it works.’ I can’t understand how there can be so many acupuncture schools and now even doctoral programs and to my knowledge the same only bullshit, ‘party line’ platitudes and myths keep getting passed along. No one needs to be a genius physiologist to realize that the named meridians and Chinese organs called spleen, kidneys and so forth have little or no relationship to what we now know these organs are and their functions. The schools and world of tcm is like a closed system of heavily indoctrinated ‘true believers’ who thrive in a world of anti-science. I’d love to read more on this topic from you and I’d really dig the opportunity of someday having a one on one conversation. Failing that thanks for coming out and saying the indeed, “the emperor, including the yellow emperor as we have come to know him, has no clothes.”

    • I have the exactly same thought. I’m an allopathic medicine student with a neuroscience background, but I often get irked by the reductionist way of diagnosing and treating diseases by western medicine (what an irony). TCM is a very mature branch of medicine that’s rich in clinical observations and phenomenon. Last time I was in China, someone gave me a book named “how to use the meridians in your body” written by a 3rd generation TCM practitioner. At first I thought that it was stupid and absurd, however as I read on, I found out that there were many scattered pieces of seemingly absurd statements (or observations) that could be explained perfectly by western anatomy and physiology, such as the relationship between kidney/blood/bone, eye muscles/vision with neck and so much more. At first I was really amazed, however, the problem is that TCM practitioners don’t have the easy-to-understand theoretical basis of western medicine. Like you said, they rely on “what has happened and what is happening”, rather than “why is it happening” because TCM is very intimately related to the unique Chinese worldview, which is not yet possible to test. They have to rely on extensive clinical experience and a stroke of genius to diagnose the root causes of their patients’ diseases. It’s a shame that many TCM practitioners don’t have the sophistication to do just that.

  5. How do you reconcile the work that indicates the human body is an energetic system as well as anatomy? That physiology is governed by electrical impulses? That fascia is contiguous and is a semi-conductor as well as conducting these charges? Kendall is great to a point and certainly the translation of the Lingshu and Suwen is not complete or definitive. To take a stance that says there is no “Qi” and the explanation of Channels/Meridians is completely false is….don’t have the word.

    Do you want to have a real conversation about the question marks that exist in this art?

    Peter C. Doyle, LAc, MSOM