The Three Treasures: Jing, Qi, Shen

Frances L. Gander

Just what does it mean — jing-qi-shen? We may hear different meanings for jing, qi, or shen. These differences are often dependent on context. All contain a piece of the meaning. One difficulty in accessing the concepts implied in jing-qi-shen is that it is difficult to separate these words or concepts as we do in English. For example, the character for heart –xin– refers to the whole entity of heart, the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Each of the five elements [wu xing] has spiritual, emotional, and physical realms of being. It’s quick to say jing-qi-shen means body, mind, and spirit. That’s a beginning. I hope that my article will fuel your own personal exploration of these concepts into their fullness. Without ability to read and understand Chinese, we do the best we can to picture these ideas in English.

You may wonder, why does jing come before shen in this trilogy? Usually we think of jing as more physical and material than the shen, so why is jing the first word, why not shen-qi-jing? The reason, is jing comes first: at the time of union of sperm and egg, this new being is pure jing. A bit later, qi and its potential to animate and circulate enter the embryo. Much, much later on, we develop the shen part of our being through practices and virtues. We can think of jing, qi, and shen levels of development in life and in practices (taiji and qigong, meditation, yoga). At first we learn the bare-bones movements, then with time and effort we refine our cultivation, and our practice (and life) moves increasingly into the realm of shen cultivation.


The character for jing carries the meaning of sperm or essences; it has to be translated according to its context. Jing is considered the source of life. It is sperm and vaginal moisture, ephemeral essence, and the organic substance that forms the foundation for growth, reproduction, and development. Jing is responsible for bone growth in children, teeth, hair, normal mental development and sexual maturity. After puberty, jing engenders reproductive function and fertility. Jing moves us through the organic changes that punctuate our lives: birth, childhood, puberty, child-bearing, maturity and elderhood. Jing has to do with time and changes. It can also be thought of as our foundation, as building blocks, like DNA. Deterioration of jing can be accelerated by prolonged illness or overwork, injury, abuse, stress, exhaustion, excessive sex, and poor nutrition. Evidences of jing waning are thinning and graying hair, decreasing moisture throughout the body, loss of sensory and mental acuity, and weakening of the bones, teeth, and connective tissue. The rate of deterioration can be slowed down by proper nutrition, adequate rest, balancing fun with work, qigong practices, techniques such as acupuncture, good dietary practices and herbal formulas for enhancing life force.


Qi in the body’s functioning is like an electric current. Qi animates our being. Our meridians and organs are like the hardware: wires, transformers, power plants through which the electrical current (qi) moves and gets amped, stored, and routed. Every living being has qi, yet each of us is unique in our particular quality of qi. Qigong practices assist qi circulation and flow, storage, and regeneration. Our qi circulation and flow is dependent on how much and what kind of qi we received at birth from our ancestors, diet and nutrition, and overall lifestyle. Practices can transform qi into shen or jing and healing energy. In the old character for qi, there is an image of steam rising from a pot of rice on a fire. If the fire is continuous and appropriate to the proportion of rice to water, energy will show up as steam. If the fire gets too hot, the water dries up and not only the rice burns but eventually the container as well.

When the qi flow is disrupted, we accumulate the residue of incomplete vital process. This is the foundation of many illnesses. In the beginning of this disruption, there is stagnation. If the residue accumulates over time, we eventually lose the capacity to suspend them, and they are expressed as overt disease.


Diagnostically, in Chinese medicine the signs for the quality of the shen are observed in the eyes primarily. When the shen is happy, we radiate and our eyes sparkle and mirror our souls. In serious mental illness, there is almost always shen disturbance. The sign for this disturbance is revealed by how the person looks out into the world, the gaze, how it connects (or doesn’t) with the eyes of others, sometimes a wild look. In fact, one TCM diagnostic term for a type of mental imbalance is ‘phlegm misting the soul.’ The soul becomes turbid and cloudy and is mirrored in the person’s eyes.

Shen is not an automatic given to all who live and breathe like jing and qi are. It is achieved and augmented in the higher levels of meditation, taiji and qigong practice and through a lifestyle that is integral to these practices. Shen has to do with the hun, or Ethereal Soul. Shen is spirit and it is everywhere. It comes to us when we reach a higher level in our practices after much time and perseverance; it goes elsewhere when we neglect our practices, when we abuse ourselves, or live in an unvirtuous fashion. The shen is sparked and nurtured by music and dancing, participation in the arts and creative activities. The character for shen contains the idea of a bird. A bird is free to fly away. It is free to go when conditions aren’t favorable and may choose to remain when they are. We all have the capability through cultivation (or lack of) to attract or repel the shen.

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