Qi, also commonly spelled ch'i (in Wade-Giles romanization) or ki (in romanized Japanese), is a fundamental concept of traditional Chinese culture. Qi is believed to be part of everything that exists, as a “life force” or “spiritual energy” that pervades the natural world. It constitutes all things and, simultaneously, is the engine behind all worldly transformations. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the qi-framework and the general process-oriented worldview of the Chinese are entirely interdependent.
This active cosmology has influenced Chinese philosophy, as well as such diverse cultural practices as divination, medicine, and martial arts.
Qi in Ancient Chinese Thought
The idea of qi represents one of the unique and foundational elements of the Chinese worldview. It is most simply translated as “air” or “breath” (for example, a modern Chinese term meaning “weather” is tiānqì, or the “breath of heaven”). This understanding is echoed in its etymology, where the qi ideogram (in its traditional form (氣)) represents “steam (气) rising from rice (米) as it cooks.” However, early in Chinese pre-history, this invisible, energetic force (wind) came to be identified with an energy that motivates all worldly change and transformation.
In this expanded conception, all worldly objects, processes and events are understood to be constituted of an ever-changing matrix of natural energy (the aforementioned qi). This paradigm is tied to the relational and non-essentialistic worldview that characterizes all classical Chinese thought. The "ten-thousand (worldly) things" do not exist as discrete entities (as in dualistic Indo-European thought), but are instead thought of in terms of their relationships to each other. In such a system, it is understandable that a cosmology would develop that would highlight these interactions (rather than their respective "objects"). Further, this system stresses the malleability of the natural world: instead of positing a common essence between, for example, an acorn, a shrub, a tree in full bloom and a leafless tree in winter, it simply acknowledges appearances and stresses the tree's transformation. Within such a frame of reference, it makes far more sense to see the world as an (inter)active process than as a set of discrete units. The qi framework was a philosophical development that made such an understanding possible (Rosemont 1974), (Thompson 1996), (Fitzgerald 1986).
This understanding was further refined during the Western Zhou dynasty (1027-771 B.C.E.) and the subsequent Hundred Schools of Philosophy period (770-222 B.C.E.). Specifically, the primary ontological characteristic of qi was determined to be its bipolar differentiation into Yin and Yang, where the former refers to the dark, moist, cold, and feminine and the latter refers to the bright, dry, hot and masculine. Unlike dualistic systems, these two modes of qi are not opposites, but are instead seen as mutually generative, such that the fruitful interaction between them is seen to be responsible for all transformations in the physical world. Qi is additionally characterized according to one of five phases (or elements): fire, water, earth, metal and metal, which interact with each other either constructively and destructively. In this way, the Chinese addressed the question of orderly change in the cosmos without reference to an external creator or "law-giver" (Fitzgerald 1986), (Kohn 2001), (Thompson 1996).
Some of the earliest extant references to qi in the (pre)classical Chinese corpus can be found in the Book of Changes (Yi Jing), a divinatory system predicated on the assumption that any given situation can be described in terms of the interaction between yin and yang. In it, the state of one's qi is described by one of 64 hexagrams, such that:
- They [the hexagrams] are taken to represent all possible forms of change, situations, possibilities and institutions…. Instead of a universe controlled by spiritual beings whose pleasures can only be discovered through divination, we have a natural operation of forces which can be determined and predicted objectively (Chan 1963, 263).
This text, and its attendant commentaries, went on to be tremendously influential in the development of Daoist and Neo-Confucian conceptions (discussed below).
Qi in Later Religio-Philosophical Thought
Accepting the qi-centered cosmos described above, Daoist thinkers from Laozi and Zhuangzi on have (implicitly or explicitly) formulated their theories in light of this metaphysical position. This implicit acceptance can be seen in the Dao De Jing (32): "The way [Dao] is to the world as the River and the Sea are to rivulets and streams." This metaphor builds upon the qi-related understanding of the world as a process or energetic flow. More explicitly, the text also includes a brief cosmological account that uses all the major elements of the qi framework:
- The Tao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three;
- Three produced All things. All things leave behind them the Obscurity [yin]
- (out of which they have come), and go forward to embrace the
- Brightness [yang] (into which they have emerged), while they are harmonised
- by the Breath of Vacancy [qi] (Dao De Jing LXII, translated by Legge).
Over and above these cosmological cases, the major contribution of the Daoists to this paradigm can be seen in their attempts to unify human action with the movement of the Dao (see, for example, DDJ 52). Livia Kohn explicates this notion as follows:
- The world is one interconnected whole, where every single thing and every being moves and acts in a certain way, emitting qi at a certain frequency that can either harmonize or go against the greater flow of Dao…. The goal of practicing non-action and naturalness, then, is to be as much "in tune" with Dao as possible (Kohn 2001 22-23).
While the philosophical import of these ideas was considerable, it is likely exceeded by the influence of the practical systems (including Daoist alchemy and martial arts) that also depended upon these assumptions.
Though the Confucian school was initially fairly silent on cosmological issues, the challenge posed by the Chinese acceptance of Buddhism (including its well-developed metaphysics) impelled the Neo-Confucians to develop an alternative using traditional Chinese source materials. This process began with the composition of Zhou Dunyi's Taijitu Shuo (Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate), which set "the parameters in which the yinyang theory was to be assimilated metaphysically and systematically into Confucian thought and practice" (Wang, 307. See also: Chan, 460). Zhou's cosmological schema made extensive use of the Yi Jing and its commentaries as a means of explaining the origins and ontological content of the world-both of which stressed the centrality of qi as creative force and constitutive element. This development was furthered by Zhang Zai (1020–1078), who identified "qi with the Great Ultimate itself" (Chang, 495) and was finally systematized by Zhu Xi, whose worldview unified the roles of qi, principle and the Supreme Ultimate. This systematic conception became Confucian orthodoxy for over seven hundred years, harmonizing a qi-based metaphysical system with the conservative Confucian worldview.
Today, the nature of qi remains controversial (even among those who accept it as a valid concept), as it is uncertain how it corresponds to the Western scientific worldview. However, the last hundred years have seen many attempts to unite the two. For example, the philosopher Kang Youwei believed that qi was synonymous with the later-abandoned concept of "luminiferous ether." Likewise, nearly a century later, unsuccessful attempts were made to link the concept of qi to biophotons or inner biological energy flow.
These views of qi as an esoteric force tend to be more prominent in the West, where they have sometimes been associated with New Age spiritualism. Conversely, such views are less prominent in modern communist China, where these esoteric notions of qi are considered to contradict Marxist notions of dialectical materialism (to the extent that such contradictions have, in fact, led to the formally anti-spiritual, atheistic stance of the revolutionary Chinese government).
Qi in Practice
Given the centrality of qi in the classical Chinese worldview, it is perhaps not surprising that many Chinese cultural practices (from divination to martial arts) are rooted in this concept. Of particular note are the unique means of perceiving the human being that have emerged from this unique understanding of the world's underlying, processual nature.
As mentioned above, the theory of qi forwarded in the Book of Changes (Yi Jing) and utilized in the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi had a dramatic effect on the later development of Daoist alchemy. The goal of the alchemical process was the indefinite prolongment of human life or, in other words, to become a "Holy Man" like the one described in the Zhuangzi:
- There is a Holy Man living on faraway Ku-She Mountain, with skin like ice or snow, and gentle and shy like a young girl. He doesn't eat the five grains, but sucks the wind, drinks the dew, climbs up on the clouds and mist, rides a flying dragon, and wanders beyond the four seas. By concentrating his spirit, he can protect creatures from sickness and plague and make the harvest plentiful (ZZ ch. 1, BW 27).
The attainment of immortality was tied to achieving control over one's allotment of qi. In approaching this goal, Daoist alchemy was, from the Tang dynasty onward (618-907 C.E.), differentiated into two schools: neidan (inner alchemy) and waidan (outer alchemy). Inner alchemy concentrated on using internal practices (such as diet (including the grain avoidance method mentioned in the Zhuangzi verse quoted above), meditation, exercise and sexual techniques) to control one's expenditure of qi. Outer alchemy, on the other hand, aimed to chemically augment one's qi through the ingestion of potions and elixirs (often made of cinnabar (mercury sulfide)). Although the methods varied, their ultimate goal was the same: the regulation of qi to prolong the human lifespan (Schipper 1993), (Kohn 1993), (Sivin 1968). Intriguingly, many of these practices and approaches have echoes in the annals of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Traditional Chinese medicine
Developing in tandem with Daoist understandings of the role of qi within the body as microcosm, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is, likewise, heavily predicated upon an understanding of the body as a network of qi. The importance of TCM to Chinese culture is easily demonstrated by the mythic status of Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor), a cultural hero who is credited with the development and formalization of the Chinese medical tradition, whose purported teachings are recorded in the Neijing Suwen ("Basic Questions of Internal Medicine"). Even in this early source, qi plays an important role, as the "Simple Questions of the Yellow Emperor [an alternate title for the Neijing Suwen] is an attempt at systematizing knowledge, especially that based on the cosmological doctrine of energies [qi], and provides a theoretical foundation for medical practice" (Schipper 1993, 101).
Theories of traditional Chinese medicine assert that the body has natural patterns of qi that circulate in channels called "meridians". The symptoms of various illnesses are, within this framework, considered to be the product of either disrupted, blocked, or unbalanced qi flow (through the body's meridians) or of deficiencies and imbalances in the qi of various Zang Fu organs. Traditional Chinese medicine often seeks to relieve these imbalances by adjusting the circulation of qi in the body using a variety of therapeutic techniques. Some of these techniques include herbal medicines, special diets, physical training regimens (qigong, Tai Chi, and martial arts training), massage, and acupuncture, which uses fine metal needles inserted into the skin to reroute or balance qi (Porkert 1973), (Eisenberg, 1986).
The concept of qi, especially the view that it can be controlled (or channeled) through human action, is central to many martial arts. Though different schools emphasize these religio-spiritual elements more than others, many do use explicitly metaphysical terminology, claiming that success depends upon learning to focus one's qi. Often, this energy is seen to emerge from the dantian (a location in the lower abdomen understood to be a nexus of power) and to circulate around the body. Regardless of its point of origination, the goal is the same: a "putting in order of the inner world through the control of the rhythm of breathing and of the circulation of bodily fluids through activation of the energy cycle" (Schipper 1993, 134).
These conceptions of qi are a vital component of the Neijia ("internal arts"), which include Tai Chi Chuan. They are also central to Qigong, a non-martial system of breathing and movement exercises. In the Japanese martial arts, ki is developed in Aikido and given special emphasis in Ki-Aikido.
The concept of qi appears often in Chinese wuxia fiction, where one of the stock characters is the kung fu master who has gained control of qi to the point that he (or she) can effortlessly defeat multiple foes, see into the future, or even alter the forces of nature. This character has entered Western consciousness through martial arts films (and the Western works that have been derived from them).
All Chinese divination techniques are based upon one of two models: an animistic cosmos accessible through spirit mediumship or an orderly (qi-driven) cosmos accessible through various ritual processes (i.e. drawing yarrow stalks). For divination of the second variety, the definitive source is the Yi Jing. It, and other related systems, are predicated upon the assumption that the vicissitudes of the natural world follow an orderly pattern and that these patterns can be used to correctly predict future events. This understanding is seen in one of the many appendices to the Yi Jing, which states:
- Heaven suspends images that manifest good and bad fortune. The sage images himself on them. The [Yellow] River produces its Chart [an ancient divination text] and the Luo River produces its Writing. The sage takes them all as his standard (Csikzentmihalyi 2002, 92).
As such, these patterns (and the texts derived from them) are understood to be "incipient in the natural world" and, as a result, to reflect it for the purpose of divining future events (Ibid). In this way, the text is understood to "represent all possible forms of change, situations, possibilities and institutions" (Chan 1963, 263).
Many later divination systems, like the Chien Tung (or "Oracle of Guanyin") tradition, are based upon the techniques and assumptions first described in the Yi Jing. In all cases, the notion of a world operating through the orderly transformations of qi provides the cosmological framework necessary to account for the process's efficacy (Chan 1963), (Kohn 1993), (Schipper 1993).
In Japanese philosophy, qi is known as ki (気). The online ALC Japanese-English dictionary refers to ki as "active energy/life energy/vital energy." The Japanese language contains over 11,442 known usages of 'ki'. Suffice it to say, the word 'ki' is deeply rooted in the collective linguistic and cultural mind of Japan. Even the standard greeting, "元気ですか？” literally means, "is your ki high?"
Similar concepts in other cultures
The concept of a life-energy inherent in all living beings seems to be a fairly universal archetype, and appears in numerous religious and metaphysical systems. As always, these similarities represent points of correspondence (not identity) and should be thoughtfully evaluated in their own contexts before using them as a basis for any essentialistic conclusions.
Analogies to qi in other societies could be seen to include:
- Polynesian mythology : mana
- Australian Aboriginal mythology : maban
- Egyptian mythology : ka
- Greek mythology : pneuma
- Roman Mythology/Christianity : Spiritus
- Hebrew Mythology : ruah
- Inuit mythology : inua, sila
- Leni Lenape mythology : manetuwak
- Norse mythology : seid
- Druidry : Awen
- Yoruba mythology : oloddumare
Also related are the philosophical concepts of:
- European alchemy and philosophy : aether, (or ether), quintessence
- Hindu philosophy : prana
Related martial arts and exercise practices include
- Yoga - Indian culture
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Chan, Wing-tsit. 1969. A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0691019642
- Chang, Carsun. 1962. Wang Yang-Ming: The Idealist Philosopher of 16th Century China. New York: St. John's University Press. ASIN B000OV4NTE
- Csikzentmihalyi, Mark. 2002. "Traditional Taxonomies and Revealed Texts in the Han" in Daoist Identity: History, Lineage, and Ritual, Edited by Livia Kohn and Harold D. Roth. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0824825047
- Da Liu. 1981. T'ai Chi Ch'uan and I Ching. Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710008481
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- Sivin, Nathan. 1968. Chinese Alchemy: Preliminary Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674121508
- Thompson, Laurence G. 1996. Chinese Religion: An Introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. ISBN 0534255361
- Wang, Robin. 2005. "Zhou Dunyi's Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate Explained (Taijitu shuo): A Construction of the Confucian Metaphysics," Journal of the History of Ideas 66/3 (July 2005): 307-323.
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- Yang, Jwing-Ming. 2006. Qigong Meditation. Qigong master/physicist's modern theory of Qi in the human body. YMCA Press. ISBN 978-1594390678
All links retrieved December 6, 2022.
- Qi Journal newsletter on Qi-related news and current events.
- Qigong Association of America
- Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi Qi information.
- Qi Encyclopedia
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