How A Nobel Prize Nominee Muddled up A Science: The Birth of “Energy-Meridian” Acupuncture


In today's acupuncture world, a Chinese word 气 (qi) is pervasively used to mean "energy" or "vital element" which is defined as flowing in mysterious channels called "meridians". However, few practitioners today who use acupuncture in their practice are aware of the truth: There were no such "energy"-transporting meridians from the very beginning, other than blood and blood vessels based on clinical observations. This post is to briefly dig into the history to identify the facts about the "energy"-transporting "meridians".

"Qi" in Chinese Medicine

The most basic meaning of qi in Chinese is "vapor" or "gas" – one of the three forms of the state of matter. Atmospheric air which covers the earth is the most commonly observed qi. In Chinese medicine classic Huangdi Neijing (Neijing), qi was closely related to the air (mainly oxygen in a vapor form) inhaled into the organ lung.

To understand why qi got related to air in Chinese medicine, first we need to understand what is the foundation of ancient Chinese medicine.

Blood: The Foundation of Ancient Chinese Medicine

The foundation of ancient Chinese medicine is "blood". It is "blood" that enables a physician to do diagnosis (by palpation on arteries) and to do treatment (bleeding primarily the veins by sharp stones or stimulating arteries or veins with needles to alter the pulse).

It is generally believed that during the period from 150 BC to 100 AD, several people with their name unknown systematically summarized the medical ideas available at the time primarily from BQ medicine. Their works resulted in the classic text Huandi Neijing.

The Chinese physicians by Neijing era knew very well what blood (血) and blood vessel (血脉) are: "The vessels are where blood resides" (夫脉者, 血之府也) (SW 17). In Chinese language, blood vessel is "血脉" (where 血 = blood and 脉 = vessel). Very often it is further simplified as just "脉"(vessel).

The Beating of Artery and Breathing

Chinese physicians in and prior to Neijing era sometimes referred blood as 血气 (qi of blood): "Grains enter stomach, blood vessels get open thus qi of blood starts to flow" (谷入于胃,脉道以通,血气乃行) (Linshu 10 of Neijing). This is because they noticed that the blood has a power to push blood to beat when qi (air) being kept breathing in (through lung).

They also noticed the artery blood vessel will stop to beat when there is no air coming in or going out (when breathing stopped). So they knew blood and air (qi) are closely related.

It is amazing that the Chinese physicians millennia ago already correctly identified such an anatomical / physiological truth about the blood flow and the respiration.

Blood and Qi: An Inseparable Entity

At this point, qi is an undetachable attribute of the blood: the power of blood that pushes blood vessels to beat when there is air in and out, and the strength of this power (qi), or presence or absence of this power (qi) can be used to diagnose health conditions and for prognosis of life or death.

The key point here is: in Ancient Chinese physicians' point of view, qi is by no means something that can be separated from blood. In other words, qi is a component of blood.

How Qi Was Kicked Out from Blood

While Ancient Chinese physicians considered qi is in blood, or qi is flowing in blood vessels, today's acupuncture world believe qi is flowing in an imaginary channel which is outside blood vessel. Who, how and why qi was kicked out from blood? And who found those imaginary channels?

The story here will go to a French acupuncture scholar Soulié De Morant (1878-1955) who translated Chinese acupuncture texts and wrote his own acupuncture books during 1930s – 1940s.

Morant was a brilliant scholar. His work triggered a period of remarkable progress in popularization of acupuncture in France and then in other countries in Europe, which formed the basis of his being nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine of 1950.

But unfortunately, Morant's work also misled the world thereafter about what is the true jewel of wisdom of a millennia old healing art: acupuncture practiced in Huandi Neijing era. The misleading was caused by his wrong translation of Chinese words Jing Mai (bigger blood vessel) into "meridian".

With this translation, qi was kicked out from blood and moved into a channel that "nobody really know what it is". The result was that the foundation of ancient acupuncture (blood and blood vessels) collapsed.

Translation of Qi into Energy

Morant also translated the Chinese word "qi" into "energy". His notion of energy flow came from the belief that qi was identical to the Hindu concept of prana and different from nervous flux. He considered prana to mean "vital energy" and supposed that this idea was introduced into China along with Buddhism from the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.

However, contrary to Morant's assumption, the Chinese theory on the cardiovascular circulation of air and blood was established at least 600–700 or more years before the introduction of Buddhism into China.

Transportation of Energy: by Metaphysical Meridians

Morant also understood that inhaling atmospheric air was most essential to maintain life, and that food was critically necessary as well. He had a fundamental knowledge of metabolism and that breathing in air containing oxygen by the lungs was considered most important in developing personal "vital energy".

But his perplexing question was how and when universal energy transformed into vital energy and the answer to that he considered must be left in the realm of metaphysics.

In Morant's initial view, meridians supplied and regulated energy that was indispensable to the organs and the tiniest cells. By deduction he considered that the cells themselves might also be irrigated by the meridians.

From there, Morant became the founding father of "meridian" acupuncture.

The Metaphysical Meridian Muddled up A Science

Morant's meridian acupuncture soon became widely accepted by acupuncture community worldwide, even including Chinese medicine practitioners in China. The blood-based anatomical /physiological ancient Chinese acupuncture completely turned into history.

Everyone get puzzled, perplexed, or amazed with the mysterious, metaphysical, yet omnipotent meridians, although not like the tangible blood or blood vessels, no one is able to see, touch or smell the meridians.

The consequence from "meridian" acupuncture ended up an extremely poor efficacy of acupuncture. More importantly, a wrongly applied theory created a dead end lane which prevented acupuncture science from any further development.

A brilliant scholar also a Nobel prize nominee muddled up a science, unintentionally. Indeed an interesting but sad episode in acupuncture history.


It is worth to note, in his later years, Morant admitted that the blood vessels were actually supplying energy to the tiniest cells, although he still missed the fact that the process of converting this potential energy to his "vital energy" only occurs within the cells and is not circulated in the body.

This is understandable since these details were not well understood by science when Soulié de Morant first conceived his energy-meridian idea. However, cellular metabolism was understood before he wrote his last book on the Physiology of Energy in 1955.

In any case, Morant finally concludes that energy is actually circulated in the blood vessels: "The blood and energy which it distributes are carried throughout the entire body and to the cells through the vascular network."

So, the final conclusion of the founding Father of "meridian" acupuncture is: Energy is transported by blood, but not by meridians. This conclusion conforms to what we know today in terms of biology and physiology.


Donald Kendall, Energy – Meridian Misconceptions of Chinese Medicine 2008

Soulié de Morant, Georges. L'Acuponcture Chinoise. 3 volumes, Paris, 1957. (French) Zmiewski, P (Ed). Georges Soulié de Morant, Chinese Acupuncture (L'acuponcture Chinoise). Lawrence Grinnell, Claudy Jean-mougin, and Maurice Leveque, trans. Brookline, Mass, Paradigm Publications, 1994.

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