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the philosophy of qi in an era of air pollution

By: James Miller

A view over the Forbidden City in Beijing
A view over the Forbidden City in Beijing

In a recent column in Nature, Qiang Wang argues that responsibility for transforming China’s environment lies with its citizens. He points to several instances in which local protests have successfully prevented new industrial activity, and argues that this heralds the beginning of a new relationship between Chinese citizens, the state and the environment.

China is witnessing the beginnings of a civil society in which the Chinese people spontaneously defend their right to a healthy environment, independent of organizers, political goals and commercial interests.

The issue here is the scale at which people are engaging with environmental issues. Fighting against the development of a local chemical factory does not necessarily signal the development of an transformative ecological consciousness, but could simply be the result of a NIMBYism that governments across the world have to contend with.

The issue of air quality, however, is different.

Qiang Wang writes:

Chinese citizens who want to drink clean water can buy a water purifier; those worried about poisoned milk can buy imported milk. But when the air is polluted, there is no option but to fight.

The broad scale of China’s air quality problems, and the fact that smog cannot easily be evaded, means that it has the potential to engender a large scale transformation in attitudes towards environmental issues. Far from simply being the concern of local citizens for local issues, the issue of air quality is so widespread and so immediately felt that it demands transformative action.

Traditional Chinese culture views the body not as a discrete object set apart from its environment, but as a dynamic system in which vital fluids are exchanged between the inner body and their environment. Central to this view is the concept of Qi (Ch’i) 气 a complex term sometimes translated as vital breath, spirit, or pneuma. The most fundamental form of Qi is the air we breathe that gives us life.

One important connection between contemporary ecology and traditional Chinese culture, therefore, lies in the way that bodies are engaged with their environments. In both cases we can say that Qi or breath is the basic medium through which this engagement takes place.  Qi is the conduit, the vital fluid, that circulates between the two in a constant dynamic exchange.

From this perspective it is easy to see that healthy environments help to produce healthy bodies. Although they are two distinct systems, bodies and ecosystems are connected at the most fundamental level through Qi, the flow of breath that keeps us alive.

The philosophy of Qi also urges us to think about health not simply in physiological terms but in broader ecological terms. Our health derives from the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. This traditional Chinese view has enormous potential to foster a broad ecological consciousness in China and across the world.


Categories: Opinion


  1. I am not qualified to comment directly. My teacher can move or stop moving people on the other side of a room using what he refers to as Chi. If I understand. He uses internal Chi to cause external results.
    It would seem perhaps a large number of people using the same Chi could cause large results!

  2. I find it fascinating as an outsider to watch Chinese society grapple with this issue, which is one that Western nations have had to deal with as well during their own industrial development phase. In Victorian England, the “pea-soup fogs” in Sherlock Holmes were actually massive smog events in the coal-powered metropolis. The colors of Monet’s famous series of paintings of the Houses of Parliament have been identified by researchers as reflecting specific constituents of air pollution (See, for instance,

    In the United States, there were a number of air-pollution-related public health disasters that led to a groundswell of public opinion before passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and numerous other pivotal environmental laws over the following decade:

    1948 – Donora, PA – 20 dead, 6,000 injured (in a town of only 14,000 people!)
    1953 – NY, NY – 250 dead
    1954 – Los Angeles, CA – dense smog causes 2,000 auto accidents in a single day
    1963 – NY, NY – 200-400 dead
    1966 – NY, NY – 400 dead
    1966 – NY, NY – 165 dead over Thanksgiving weekend

    While the speed of development and scope of the problem in China may dwarf the Western experience (I have insufficient data to compare them quantitatively), the social arc that Chinese society is going through has numerous precedents. Public outrage over government secrecy following the Chernobyl disaster was a contributing factor to the collapse of the USSR, as I am sure the central government in Beijing is aware. They truly “have a tiger by the tail” with this issue. From their perspective, they’re concerned that people will draw the connection not only to Qi but also to whether the rulers have lost the “Mandate of Heaven” as ecological disasters continue to mount.

    I opened by saying “as an outsider,” but when clouds of air pollution from Asia make it across the Pacific to trigger air quality problems along the US and Canadian West Coast, none of us are really outsiders to this situation.

    Your comments on Chinese traditional thought regarding the exchange between our bodies and surrounding environment are reflected not only in modern toxicology with its “body burden” of toxicants we accumulate from the air, the water, and our food but at an even more profound level in findings on the human microbiome, the collection of “internal flora” whose cells outnumber human cells by ten to one. Given that the DNA found within a human being is overwhelmingly not human, and that we are constantly picking up bacteria from our surroundings from the moment of birth (infants born by Caesarian section have different internal bacteria from those born vaginally) and depositing them as well (female roller derby players were found to pick up the opposing team’s flora as a result of a match, for example), it requires serious philosophical reconsideration of the very question of what it means to be a human being. Daoism has interesting insights to bring to this topic increasingly revealed by modern science.

  3. Thanks for your insight, Al. I think there’s a very fascinating convergence of ideas here between the philosophy of Qi and modern environmental health sciences.

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