Thursday, 27 January 2011

A lot of do about Qi

Hmmm, it's happened again, I have gone on the tea buying rampage. From Xiaguan to Douji to the now notorious Dingxing cake, it's all on it's way inbound to The Corn Barn (that's where I live).

I thought I would write something about the topic of 'qi' and my opinion on what it is (this is the sort of thing that crosses my mind on a day off sitting at my tea table). In fact, the inspiration for this was all started by a marvelous sensation in my chest which I squarely attribute to Nada's Bulang which I am revisiting today. A lot is said about cha qi, but what on earth is 'qi'?

Although I am a practicing acupuncturist and herbalist one thing I am not is a member of the spiritual hippy brigade! There is a type of person that is attracted to practicing acupuncture in the west and they are usually middle aged females with a new age, spiritual aspect to them (85% of students at my old acupuncture college fit this stereotype). As a result one of the core concepts of Asian medicine, qi, is rather over romanticised. It need not be.

Do you have to 'believe' in qi? No, not if you have a pair of eyes and nerve endings. Qi describes anything with motion, temperature and function. When you lift your arm and scratch your nose, it is qi. Regardless of the actual biomechanical function that enables you to move you will be perfectly correct in stating that it was an act of qi, it moved thus it was a result of some qi.

You can't grasp it as it is formless. You can grasp your moving arm but that is the substance you have just touched, you have not touched the movement itself. Heat plus water creates steam, you can touch the steam, feel the heat but all that is on your skin is the water. You can touch flames but you can't hold them.

Peristalsis, the movements of your gastrointestinal tract is just another thing that can be labeled qi, it makes you poop and it makes you burp. This isn't magic we are talking about, it's just a word that embodies anything that moves be it the rain or your mood.

Anger, it makes you so mad your face goes red! You want to stand up and punch the nearest inanimate object. You could explain the exact process that flushes blood to your face or you could use the Chinese abstract physiological model that anger belongs to the liver, liver belongs to the wood phase, the wood phase surges upwards and this is why your blood goes to the face and you feel so animated. Is it strictly accurate? no but it does the job of understanding the relationship of things.

So, what is cha qi? If you feel it and it has a moving quality to it, a temperature then you are perfectly correct in explaining it as an expression of qi without having to wear hemp trousers and meditate. Of course, if you like hemp trousers and meditation you can do that too.. ;-)

Rant over.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Five in one, 五味子

Again, a little bit off the usual tea topic, I thought I would would sing the praises of a medicinal herb. It's a real favourite of mine, wŭ wèi zĭ or schisandra fruit.

The first place to look if you really want to get to know a herb is in the classics. Chinese medicine has arguably been going more backwards than forwards since the Han dynasty. The majority of herbal formula still used today originate from this time and many modern formulas are based on classical ones (you can instantly tell the ones that don't). Zhang Zhong Jing, the author of the Han classic the Shang Han Lun, took his knowledge straight from the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, and it is in this classic we first examine this herb.

Wu Wei is sour and warm. It mainly boosts the qi, treating cough and counterflow qi ascent, taxation damage, and languor and emaciation. It supplements insufficiency, fortifies yin, and boosts male's essence. It grows in mountains and valleys. 

Although it has a sour energetic, it actually has all the five tastes on the palette, hence the name one presumes. Sour is the representative taste of the wood element the theory classic, the Nei Jing, tells us that sour tonifies the metal element. You can imagine the movement of sour being analogous to breathing in, it is an inward, conserving dynamic. Certainly when you breath in you are boosting your qi via the lung (lung being a metal element organ) and if you don't believe me I suggest you reverse the process by breathing out and go for a sprint.
Zhang Zhong Jing primarily used schisandra as a modification herb, it was added to formula if certain symptoms were present and in the case of schisandra it was used for coughing. Throughout the Shang Han Lun you see it paired with dried ginger and wild chinese ginger which added the effect of drying and warming the lung for wet coughs. 

It supplements insufficiency, fortifies yin, and boosts male's essence.

Broadly speaking, yin is a term for material bodily fluids and essence relates to sexual fluids. But from a Chinese perspective how does this work? Using a five element model we already understand that the sour dynamic tonifies the metal element. Part of that element is the lung and the concept that the lung is the upper source of water in the body and that the metal element is in charge of downward movement. When we tonify metal we are able to manifest water and descend it downwards towards the kidney, resonant with the water element and sexual function. This is a classic example of the five element sheng 生 cycle where metal gives birth to water.

I love this herb, it tackles cough very well and also gives off a nice dark fruit flavour to formula. TCM practitioners also note it's ability to curb sweating, stop diarrhea, spermatorrhea and many more uses. I'm a bit old school so I'm keeping with it's original Han dynasty use.