2017-06-15 10:53:32

A well-known scientist’s endorsement of qi, the supposed “vital force” present in all living things and a central tenet of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), is likely to undermine public understanding of science in China, according to one expert in the field.

Zhu Qingshi, a well-known academic and chemist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said during a public lecture on June 10 that he had felt the presence of qi in his body with the help of a special type of Buddhist meditation, according to posts from web users who attended the talk. Most medical and scientific disciplines, however, do not recognize qi as a verifiable concept.

“Zhu’s comments on qi will likely have a very bad impact on the public’s understanding of science,” Sun Zhengfan, an astrophysicist and prominent science communication expert, told Sixth Tone. After the lecture, Sun outlined his position in an article posted to a public account on messaging app WeChat called The Intellectual.

Traditional Chinese culture has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, Sun added, with advocates of ancient medicinal techniques stepping up to defend themselves against empirical science for the first time in decades. “We have never given serious thought to what ‘science’ actually means — traditional culture and science have never clashed before,” he added, explaining that science was largely a foreign concept in China until the New Culture Movement of the early 20th century, when Western ideas were embraced following a period of disillusionment with traditional culture.

While people who structure their belief systems around observable phenomena may not put much stock in Zhu’s endorsement of qi, he’ll likely win fans from among China’s community of traditional medicine practitioners — many of whom are little more than superstitious snake oil salesmen, according to Sun.

A survey by the China Association for Science and Technology, a nonprofit NGO of scientists and engineers, found that the “scientific literacy” of the Chinese public lags far behind that of its Western peers. In 2015, for example, only 6.2 percent of Chinese people were found to be scientifically literate after completing questionnaires, compared with over 10 percent in the U.S. and Europe going as far back as the late 1990s.

Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, one of the country’s top schools for TCM, hosted the lecture at which Zhu spoke. The university’s department of Chinese classics, one of the organizers of the event, declined to comment when contacted by Sixth Tone. Calls to Zhu on Wednesday and Thursday went unanswered.

The seminar was attended by more than 400 people, about half of whom came from outside the university community, said 23-year-old Liang Zhuang, an alumnus and event volunteer. He estimated that there were another 100 people outside the lecture hall hoping to get in.

“Some in the audience came just to see Zhu after hearing about it online,” Liang said. “I’ve never seen so many people turn up for a lecture.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Zhu Qingshi speaks to an audience at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui province, Oct. 17, 2014. Li Guanyu/VCG)