Qi, wind and the common cold | Confinement basics

“Be careful of the wind” is one of the most commonly heard phrases in the Chinese lexicon, alongside “have you eaten?”. Wind-related illnesses include the common cold, a full-on flu, arthritis, rheumatism, migraine, stomachaches, stroke and so forth. The list is so extensive that you might wonder if “wind” is just a bogeyman for illnesses that have no other identifiable origin. 

But ask anyone who’s caught a flu after being out on a windy day. They’ll tell you that “wind” and its related illnesses are very real. 

Before we get to why the Chinese are obsessed with [avoiding] wind, you’ll need to have a good grasp of some fundamentals. Namely, the mysterious ethereal substance called qi (), the types of qi in the environment, and how wind can be “evil” when it is present in abundance.

What is qi?

Healers in prehistoric times believed that diseases were the result of demonic influence or possession. Lacking in medical knowledge, they sought solace from celestial powers and essentially relied on prayer for cures. With time and a few centuries worth of observation, the demons were replaced by the concept of qi, an energy loosely translated as “life force” or “vital energy”.

Qi is an energy that flows within one’s body and in one’s surroundings. The word itself (氣) has 2 components: “vapour, steam or gas” (气) and “rice or grain” (米), illustrating the symbiotic relationship between one’s energy and food. Today the traditional term for qi has been simplified to just the first component. 

Qi is generally used in 2 ways in Traditional Chinese Medicine: bodily qi and abstract metaphysical qi.

Bodily qi

Bodily qi is a pragmatic concept used to describe the functioning of various organs. For instance, a person with a bodily problem (eg. weak breathing patterns) may be said to have a disorder related to the relevant organ’s qi (eg. deficient in lung qi).

The flow of bodily qi is guided by li (), loosely translated as patterns or systems. The meridian system (jing luo, or 经络), is one such system.

Source: Wikipedia. Click on the image to learn more about the meridian system.

So if you were to be suffering from knee pain, an acupuncturist might diagnose your ailment as qi blockage in the meridian which runs from your middle toe, knee, lower back and all the way to your lower eye. He might then stick needles in your lower back and toe before moxibustion – to cure your knee. 

Metaphysical qi

On a metaphysical level qi is the “energetic foundation of the universe, analogous to the matter-energy theoretical constructs of modern physics.”[1] There are numerous categories of qi, including bodily qi (explained above). 

The practice of Chinese confinement is more concerned with upright qi (Zheng Qi, or 正气), postnatal qi (Hou Tian Zhi Qi or 后天之气), food qi (Gu Qi or 谷气) and qi in the environment.

Environmental Qi: Liu Qi and Liu Yin

Environmental Qi comprises six factors: wind (feng, or 风), cold (han, or 寒), heat (shu, or 暑), damp (shi, or 湿), dryness (zhao, or 燥), and fire (huo, or 火). We’ll refer to them as Liu Qi (literally, the six qi or 六气).

Wind has the worst reputation among all the six factors – quite unfairly so. We’ll get to that in the next section, after understanding more about Liu Qi.  

The composition of Liu Qi changes according to the climate and season. Wind is more present in autumn, the cold during the winter, heat and damp during spring, and dryness and fire during the summer. Ditto for tropical climates like Singapore (high humidity and heat) and polar climates like Antarctica (high cold and dryness). 

To stay healthy and disease-free, one’s bodily qi has to correspond with Liu Qi. This is harder than it sounds, given the complexity of the human body and the climate. 

For example, the human body is generally well-adapted to the summer climate in Beijing. This hypothetical person (let’s call him John) could walk outdoors wearing just a T-shirt and shorts and be perfectly happy. But come winter, when the cold and dryness factors of Liu Qi are more abundant, John had better bundle himself with a down jacket before heading out, or risk contracting pneumonia.

John is also likely to be a happy guy in Singapore on an average cloudy day. But come monsoon season, if he isn’t prepared to deal with the rain and wind (ie. abundant damp and wind), he’s going to be nursing a common cold on most days of the week. 

These changing factors of Liu Qi are the common causes of everyday illnesses. When environmental conditions adversely affect health, Liu Qi is known as the Liu Yin (literally, the six excesses or 六淫). Liu Yin is sometimes known as Liu Xie (the six evils , 六邪) when weather changes become extreme, or when people get more pissed off. 

External responses to liu yin

Witch doctors (or priests, monks, shamans etc) of yore used to deal with Liu Yin by conjuring spirits and gods that controlled the weather. Was there a thunderstorm today? Oh, let’s sacrifice a chicken to the Thunder God. Are the farmers all bedridden with breathing difficulties after being in the rain? Let’s kill a few more.

These days dealing with the changing weather has become general common sense. Wear clothing appropriate to the climate; deploy climate-control technologies indoors (heaters, air-conditioning, humidifiers etc) when the weather becomes unbearable outdoors. 

Internal RESPONSES TO LIU YIN

Another way of dealing with Liu Yin is to ensure that one’s bodily qi is well-equipped to adapt to it. This takes a different type of qi, called Zheng Qi (literally, Upright Qi or 正气). Think of it as the Chinese equivalent to your immune system.[2]  

A person with strong Zheng Qi can withstand, say, an afternoon out in a rainstorm without catching a cold. A person deficient in Zheng Qi, on the other hand, could fall ill after being exposed to some rain while waiting at a bus stop. Old people, postpartum women and babies all have a shortage of Zheng Qi.

"Wind is the cause of a hundred illnesses"

Wind is the cause of a hundred illneses 风为百病之长

Think of wind as a catalyst. Wind alone is not harmful, and is one of the six factors in Liu Qi. We need wind literally, to keep things moving. Wind helps to carry pollen to flowers; waves in the ocean create movement for aquatic beings; you need movement in the air to be able to breathe. 

However, wind also exacerbates the conditions of Liu Yin, making one more prone to falling ill. It is then known as an “evil wind” or pathogenic wind (Xie Qi, or 邪气). 

Let’s get back to John in Singapore. Stuck in the rain, he decides to make a run for the nearest bus stop before heading home for a warm shower. He’s already exposed to an abundance of cold and damp. But if he then faces a sudden gust of wind, his chances of falling ill multiply.

A more formal (and dramatic) way of describing the above is “wind-invasion”. According to the classic text The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di Nei Jing, or 黄帝内经):

When the body is invaded from outside [by wind], its defensive capabilities are weakened, causing a mismatch in the opening and the closing of the pores in the entire body, leading to the invasion of other pathogenic factors causing diseases with symptoms such as a headaches, nasal obstruction, painful and itching throat, facial edema, abnormal aversion to wind, and perspiration.”

The common cold vs. "wind disorders"

The common cold is one typical disorder caused by “wind invasion”. But, as anyone who’s been through endless visits to the neighbourhood GP, pharmaceutical medication sometimes just don’t work.

Chinese physicians have a different approach to the common cold, diagnosing each patient according to the factors of Liu Yin. Here in sunny-rainy-windy Singapore, there are 3 common wind disorders that are usually synonymous with the common cold. 

wind-cold disorder

Caused by: standing under air-conditioning with the fan blowing at full speed

Symptoms: an aversion to wind and chill and accompanied by fever, headaches and generalised aches, a runny nose, and a cough.

WIND-hot DISORDER

Caused by: exercising under the afternoon sun and then standing in front of a fan to cool off

Symptoms: fever, sweating, headaches, red eyes, sore throat, photosensitivity, thirst, a cough with yellow and dense sputum, respiratory problems, constipation, and epistaxis.

WIND-damp DISORDER

Caused by: running in the rain and then standing under the air-conditioning with wet clothes

Symptoms: sore limbs, listlessness, nausea, anorexia, and diarrhoea; can cause more complex diseases like arthritis.[3]

Simple herbal remedies for common wind disorders

Herbal remedies for wind disorders all work to either expel wind and disperse the cold (Qu Feng San Han or 祛風散寒) and to ward off further “wind invasions” by inducing sweat (Fa Han Jie Biao or 發汗解表). 

The best thing about these simple remedies is that they do not interfere with pharmaceutical medication. Drink the soup, eat the meds and settle down for a nice long nap with a blanket. 

Here are 3 of my favourites remedies: 

ginger and brown sugar tea

How to make: brew everything in a pot and drink while hot. Add dried orange peel for extra fragrance (there’s medicinal value too) or scallions if you’re adventurous. Substitute the brown sugar with honey if you like.

garlic,ginger,scallions + protein

How to make: stir fry ginger and garlic until fragrant, throw in a protein (fish works well, or oyster mushrooms for a vegetarian substitute), salt to taste and eat while hot. Remember to gobble up the ginger and scallions too. 

Chicken soup + white pepper

How to make: boil chicken bones with garlic and whole white pepper. Add scallions prior to serving together with noodles for a more filling meal. 

Notes

[1] The Qi Encyclopedia does a great job at explaining the fundamentals of qi and its categories. 

[2] Zheng Qi is both inherited, and then acquired over the course of a lifetime. Some babies, for instance, are born healthy while others are born with congenital disorders. As the babies mature into adolescents and then adults, they continue to acquire or deplete their Zheng Qi through nutritional and lifestyle choices. 

[3] Most confinement superstitions, such as avoiding baths, are designed to help postpartum women prevent illnesses caused by wind-damp disorders.