What is Qi?
Clarification of terminology.
In this article I use the pinyin romanization for words such as qi, taiji, and taijiquan.
Qi (pronounced “Chee”) [气 , 氣 qì ]
Qi is sometimes spelled “chi” or “ch’i”. In this article I write it as “qi” to attempt to conform to modern academic standards and to help avoid confusion with taijiquan (pronounced “tai jee chuan”), which is often spelled “tai chi chuan”. Qi and chi may sound similar to non-chinese ears, and this has led to some confusion. “Qi” is a different word altogether from the chi in tai chi chuan.
“Qi” is often translated as “energy” or “vital force”. It is sometimes referred to as the substratum of the Universe.
Taijiquan [ 太極拳 ] is a martial art (“quan”) based on the concept of “Taiji” (the interaction of yin and yang.
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PROVING THE EXISTENCE OF QI
There have been many attempts to prove the existence of qi using scientific methods. But many of these attempts have lacked credibility due to certain dogmatic approaches and questionable methodology.
But the main problem with proving the existence of qi has been the lack of a satisfactory definition of qi. Some experimenters search for some form of infra-red or thermal radiation, a biochemical reaction, or electromagnetic effect. These are previously known phenomena, and not appropriate evidence of qi.
Some studies are no more meaningful than an expedition searching for an unknown kind of forest and being satisfied with the discovery of a single tree of a previously known species.
Subjective vs Objective
To those who practise qigong or other internal arts, the existence of qi is a obvious as the existence of air and gravity. They feel it, manipulate it, and experience its benefits every day. Some can even see it. Of course, this is a purely subjective experience, and is not provide objective scientific proof.
But a scientific definition of qi is probably irrelevant to those who work with it every day. Healers, martial artists, and qigong students do not need an objective understanding of the nature of qi. They can feel it, or see it, or are otherwise aware of its effects. To them, the subjective experience is what is important. Teachers of qigong have known this since long before qigong was called qigong. So they have taught to the subjective experience and glossed over the cumbersome objective definitions. There is a wide range of subjective experiences which qualified teachers learn to identify. But it is common for students of the same qigong exercises to have different sensations and experiences. This is considered normal.
The fact that the descriptions of the subjective experience are not uniform can puzzle researchers and provide ammunition for cynics and skeptics. The subjective experience is difficult to measure, and is often out of step with objective reality. Subjective descriptions like “I used my mind to move my qi”, “I projected qi into the point”, or “I disrupted his balance with my qi” make it sound like magic, delusion, or deception.
This is unfortunate, since the speakers are usually being totally honest about their experience.
What is Qi? Understanding the question is more important than searching for the answer.
Like many things, the validity of the answer is dependent on the wise consideration of the question. This is a vital point that must be understood by scientists, philosophers, meditators, religious people and martial artists.
Consider divination. In my training, the appropriate use of divination is not simply to observe bones, dice, yarrow stalks, coins, tea leaves, or ideo-motor effects in order to answer polar questions. The true esoteric practice of divination involves long contemplation on the question. This is meant to result in a new understanding of the self and to clarify the relationship between “divine inspiration” and the deluding aspects of personality. The fact that divination is more often used to deceive than to enlighten is tragic to the point of being humorous.
The very existence of God can be accepted, if not proven, by an adequate definition of the question. If, like Einstein, Spinoza and Sagan, we define God as “the sum total of all the laws that describe the universe,” then the existence of God becomes a workable theory that may never be disproven. It is quite different, however, if we define God as a dualistic and anthropomorphic entity who consciously controls the minutia of mundane existences in response to supplication. Then the theory, while perhaps difficult to disprove, must share space with many plausible alternative explanations for the observed phenomena.
Agonist: How do you define God?
Protagonist: Umm. I guess I would define God as…
Agonist: …Stop right there! It is blasphemy to claim that you can define God. This conversation is over!
The debate over the existence of God, involves a wide spectrum of theories and definitions, and therefore becomes not one debate, but many. It is further complicated by the accusations of blasphemy against those who would attempt to define God.
Unlike the existence of God, however, the definition of qi can be carefully discussed without fear of committing sacrilege against religion or science. But like the discussions about the nature of God, definitions of qi run into problems as soon as we confront the limitations of language itself.
Qi in common language.
Qigong, (aka “Chi Kung”) is greatly misunderstood. The reasons for the the misunderstandings are easy to understand.
One of the main reasons is the problem of language. Non-Chinese readers will have difficulty pronouncing the word, and will probably not know the original context for it.
Even native speakers of Chinese and scholars of Chinese language often have a limited understanding of the meaning of the word in certain contexts. Certain esoteric traditions use “qi” in unique ways.
The popular use of the word “qi” is found throughout the language. Consider these common words:
- Weather – “heaven qi”. [ 天氣 tiānqì ]
- Atmosphere / Air – “empty qi”. [ 空氣 kōngqì]
- Climate – “qi situation” [ 氣候 qìhòu ]
- Strength / effort – “force qi” [ 力氣 lìqi ]
- Temperment – “spleen qi” [ 脾氣 píqi ]
- Meteorology – “qi elephant” [ 氣象 qìxiàng ]
- Courage – “brave qi” [勇氣 yǒngqì ]
- Gas – “qi substance” [ 氣體 qìtǐ ]
- Smell “qi taste” [ 氣味 qìwèi ]
- Electricity “electric qi” [ 電氣 diànqì ]
- Poison / (manifestations of ego and passion ) 毒氣 dúqì
- Righteous “true qi” / Vital Energy
and some less common words:
Genetic Predisposition (zongqi) – “ancestor qi” [ 宗氣 ¹zōngqì ]
Good Omen (ziqi donglai) – “auspicious atmosphere from the east” [ 紫氣東來 zǐqìdōnglái ]
Qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine
It the context of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), qi is usually translated as “vital energy.” This may be why many people acquainted with TCM seem to think of qi as some mysterious force which flows through acupuncture channels in the body. Others define qi as an electro-chemical process. Still others take a more complex view of qi, describing it as a matrix of all the motivating factors in the body. (or the universe).
While some linguists disagree, “qi” is used frequently to refer to different types of energy and matter. This is especially true in TCM.
According to the theory of TCM, there categories of different types of qi.
- Original qi (“Yuan”) Qi [ 原氣 yuánqì ], which is congenital and formed at conception, determines the basic constitution of the individual. It can be conserved, but not replenished. (However, there are some qigong methods which can compensate for depletion of original qi.) Inherited qi is said to be derived from the original jing (essence) which is stored primarily in the kidneys and sexual organs, and which nourishes reproduction and development of the individual. Jing is not really regarded as a type of qi. Rather, it is seen as a fluid substance which produces original qi. It is the jing which must be conditioned and conserved so that it can continue to produce original qi.
- “Aquired qi” converted from the “acquired jing” (essence) from external sources such as food, water, air, etc. It includes “food qi” (guqi) [ 穀氣 gǔqì] and “air qi” (kongqi) [ 空氣 kōngqì ] which together form
- “Gathering qi” or “essential qi” (zongqi) [ 宗氣 zōngqì ] if formed by food qi and air qi.
- “True qi” (zhenqi) [ 真氣 zhēnqì ] is produced by the combination of essential qi and original qi. True qi has two main forms: “nourishing qi” and “defensive qi”
- “Nourishing qi” (yingqi) [ 營氣 yíngqì ] , is the qi which flows through the acupuncture channels, the walls of the blood vessels, and the internal organs.
- “Defensive qi” (weiqi) [ 衛氣 wèiqì ] flows on the outer layers of the body and protects the body from external pathogenic influences such as dampness, wind, heat, cold, and injury. It does so by regulating the moisture and temperature of the skin and muscles.
While it is tempting to simplify the concept of qi to mean some sort of strange force or bioelectric energy, we must be careful to remember that qi really involves all physical, mental, emotional, and chemical process in the body. Qi transforms readily from one type to another. The function of qi includes all physiological functions, and almost all of the functions of qi can be described in terms of modern medicine.
The reason for the usefulness and increasing acceptance of TCM by practitioners of modern medicine is that qi allows for a holistic view of the body. It enables view of the patient as a whole entity rather than a combination of symptoms. Slowly, modern medicine is gaining respect for qi, even as TCM practitioners get better at translating qi into modern terms.
But there remains a problem. Qi is obviously associated with so many things, that it is difficult to talk about it in ways that make sense to the western mind. Is it solid, fluid, gaseous, electrical, chemical, or psychosomatic? To define qi as energy, vital force, or the substratum of the universe, seems inadequate.
Like energy, qi has been defined as “the ability to do work”, or “the power to produce an effect.” While accurate, these definitions don’t seem like definitions at all. They seem to describe what qi does, not what it is.
I propose a new translation and definition for qi. It is a definition which I believe accommodates all the uses of the word and suits discussions of TCM, internal martial arts, philosophy, science and even religion.
Qi is The separation, movement, and interaction of yin and yang. It is the underlying interaction by which yin and yang manifest all phenomena in the Universe.
In this respect qi itself becomes the definition. It is what defines everything in the universe.
Let me explain.
“Taiji” is the philosophical concept which forms the basis for, among other things, taijiquan (tai chi chuan), the famous martial art and exercise. Taiji is an ancient concept which is represented by the “taiji tu” or yin-yang symbol. Taiji describes the dualistic nature of the phenomenal universe as the expression of Yin and Yang.
The principle ideas behind taiji are as follows.
Yin and Yang are any complementary, relative, and interdependent opposites. Neither exists without the other. And each only exist relative to the other. Neither is absolute.
- Hot (yang) and cold (yin)
- High and low
- Yes and no.
- Old and young
- This and that
- “Me” and “not me”
- Past and future
- Present and Past
- Present and future
- Up and down.
Yin and Yang will each also change and become the other.
Heat will flow from one thing to a colder one, a ball will fall and bounce, youth will age, “me” will become “not me”, etc.
Extremely states of yin will contain and create states of yang, as extremes of yang will contain and create yin. A tree will grow from small, weak and supple (but protected from the wind) to strong, hard and tall (but brittle and vulnerable to wind and lightning. Things that are exalted will be humbled, and the humble shall be exalted.
All things change and constantly seek balance. They do so in a way that sometimes creates chaos. Yet, in that chaos one may also find order.
Whenever one can define yin and yang, one will find qi. If I hold a ball in the air, there is qi involved.
Qi is also what changes the states of thing. If I drop the ball and it falls, that is also an example of qi.
Qi is what enables us to perceive one thing as different from another. It is qi which makes one thing higher than another, or hotter than another, or harder than another.
Qi is an essential part of the observation itself. Without qi, there is no distinction between the observer, the observed, and the observation.
What if there is no qi?
It is said that when yin and yang move, they separate. When they are still, they combine.
When they are separate, we call it taiji.
When yin and yang combine, it is called Wuji [ 無極 wújí ]. Wuji is represented by an empty circle. In wuji, there is no differentiation between one thing and another. There is no up or down, no left or right, no past, future or present. There is nothing that is me and nothing that is not me.
So does that mean that there is no qi when yin and yang combine? Well, not really. You see, “no qi” exists only relative to “qi”. Wuji precludes exclusion, therefore we cannot say that qi does not exist in wuji. Duality itself is compared to non-duality. That differentiation itself is a very profound expression of qi. In fact, since wuji contains the potential for all things, it implies an infinite source of qi, one which is beyond measure and contains the potential for every possible reality in every point in space and time. Think of wuji as an infinite source of qi (from the dualistic point of view at least). But it is a source that has no expression. In the phenomenal and dualistic world, qi leads to the expression of all things. Wuji is that from which the expression emerges. Wuji is the primordial state from which the universe was and is created. We might say that wuji is the universe before the big bang. But, since time did not exist before the big bang, we can’t say it was before anything. Instead, we think of wuji as the underlying potential from which every point in space an time emerges.
In wuji, there is qi. But it is undifferentiated, just as yin and yang are.
It is thought that we might be able to engineer a way to draw on the power of wuji as a power source. This is certainly what we try to do when practising advanced tai chi and some types of qigong. The qi in wuji is unlimited, its potential use is, however, since we require a dualistic expression of it.
The beginning of all things is formlessness and emptiness, and the Divine is stillness with the void. The spirit of the Divine moves and in moving separates the light from the darkness, the heaven from the earth, and the land from the sea, the yang from the yin. The yang create and destroy, while the yin holds and nurtures. Through the interaction of yin and yang, all things come into being and cease to be. But to understand the true nature of all things, one must understand formlessness and emptiness.