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Episode 4: What is Qi? (“chi”, “chee”)

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For one thing, “qi” is a word, and words are always a problem.

Moreover, Qi is a Chinese word, and Chinese words are nothing but trouble. I sometimes think that if you don’t speak Chinese, you really have no business using Chinese words. They never mean what you think they mean. My nickname, “Tai chi panda”, sounds way too much like “taiji chest hair.” 

The normal problem is that westerners have a hard time understanding the importance of tones in Chinese. You can tell them it is a bit like putTING the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble. Or the difference between desert and dessert. But it is much bigger than than. That is why beginners who learn Chinese are often taught a tongue twister like 

Māmā qí mǎ. Mǎ màn, māmā mà mǎ  妈妈骑马。马慢, 妈妈骂马. 
Mother rides a horse. The horse is slow, mother scolds the horse.

Qi is pronounced “Chee” and is often written as chi, which leads to some confusion when people learn tai chi and don’t realize that it is a different word entirely.

But the particular problem with the word “qi” is that it has different meanings. And most of these meanings can be applied in the context of a tai chi class. 

Taiji or Tai chi
(same word, two different spellings, same pronunciation)
The Chinese characters are
太极 (simplified version) or
極 (full version)
It is often an abbreviation for
Taijiquan or Tai chi Chuan
(same word, two different spellings, same pronunciation)
太极拳 (simplified) or太極拳 (full)

Qi or Chi
(same word, two different spellings same pronunciation…”chee”)
The Chinese character is
气 (simplified version) or
氣 (full version)

A common meaning of “qi” is breath or respirationTai chi places a great importance on breath.  Your teacher might say, 深吸一口气 Shēn xī yī kǒuqì. “Take a deep breath.” Whereas covid-19 can cause 上气喘促 Shàng qìchuǎn cù (Shortness of breath) also called 气促 Qì cù.

Qi can also mean air or gas , as in Hūxī kōngqì. – “breathe the air.”  呼吸空气

It could also be used to refer to flatulence qìzhàng 气胀 or shǐqì 矢气.

Once, a famous old Chinese tai chi teacher, while commenting on the effectiveness of tai chi at improving digestion and getting out the impurities, once said that the purpose of tai chi was “to belch and fart.” 

This brings us to another meaning of the word qi.
• smell / odor. 气 / 气味 Qìwèi literally means “Gas taste”)

By the way, if you type the sentence, “Exercises like taijiquan can make you belch and fart.” into a certain online Chinese translation program, it returns the sentence “Exercises like tai chi can make you pregnant.” Chinese is a tricky language.

Another meaning of “Qi” is: spirit, vigour, or morale, as in, “Taiji can make you more vigourous.” or “Taiji practice can strengthen morale.” or “The little rascal has spirit.” 

Other meanings of qi are:  

  • tone;  Tā de yǔqì hěn qiángyìng. 他的语气很强硬 He speaks with a tough tone.
  • attitude; 气宇 qìyǔ (deportment, bearing, allure)
  • atmosphere; as in “Taiji should, ideally, be practised in a healthy atmosphere.” 

Qi is used in terms like: 气界 qìjiè (the atmosphere surrounding the earth), Huānlè qìfēn 欢乐气氛 (happy atmosphere), 鬼气 guǐqì (ghostly atmosphere)

Some uses of the qi 气 character in Chinese medicine

1462 Words containing qi

Let me first of all be clear that “qi” does not mean “energy” in any normal scientific sense of the word. Which is good, because then I would have to explain how energy does not have any inherent existence as far as it is defined by modern physics, and how it is entirely dependent on the relationship between different things. It is like the line between yin and yang. Energy defines the differentiation of yin and yang. But it might not necessarily be defined by them, because when yin and yang are undifferentiated, energy might still exist. 

But, while qi does not mean “energy” in the normal sense, it does sort of correspond to “energy” in the metaphysical sense. 

Metaphysical language is used all the time and has been throughout history. It is used by atheists, religious, and scientists alike. We use it whenever we struggle to talk about things that we cannot properly account for. We resort to it whenever we cannot figure out a purely rational, mathematical interpretation of our experience, which is most of the time. 

I would argue that this is an ability to communicate with metaphysical terminology has been a crucial role in the human search for knowledge. It allows us to create placeholder for yet unproven models. 

In the metaphysical sense, qi gets translated as “life force”, or “vital energy”. It is made more confusing by the fact that most of the people who are advocates or critics of the metaphysical definition, do not actually study metaphysics, or only do so in the most superficial way. 

The thing about metaphysical terminology is that it is often used to describe subjective experiences that don’t have any direct correlation to observable phenomena in the real world.   These terms are very useful when you are teaching, because they can help to explain things to people in ways that they can experience and relate to. 

But their use is not scientific, and can easily become outdated anachronisms. 

As science develops, and people become more educated, paradigms shift, the use of these terms, without proper understanding, can be counterproductive. 

Rational people, the very type of people who we want as students, can easily get turned off by terminology that sounds irrational and unscientific. So, you lose some critical thinkers in the very early stages of training. You might say, “The good students will stick with it and trust the teacher until they have the experience for themselves.” But that is only true some of the time. I think that attitude is too Confucian and not very practical. 

The greatest master cannot teach effectively from where they sit. They must go to where the student is, if they want to point the way. 

Remember, metaphysical terminology developed because it was a way of effectively communicating essential concepts to people who had little or no knowledge of how the body or mind actually worked. This same approach will not work as well with some people who have a lot of knowledge about how the body works, but not enough knowledge to appreciate the metaphysical expressions. 

In exercises like neigong, or qigong, or acupuncture, or some types of meditation, we talk about the 8 qi vessels and 12 channels, that are used to supply qi to the body. There is evidence of similar theories dating back as far as the Bronze Age, not only in what is now China, but also throughout all of Asia and Europe. And today, similar theories exist in traditional cultures throughout the world. 

All 12 channels and two of the vessels have acupuncture points all along them, which seem to provide a linear pathway for qi. This can give people the impression that qi flows like a river in those channels. And it seems like that. Physical, emotional, and chemical processes can affect the flow of qi, and thereby affect the mental and physical health of the person. It seems that the points along these channels can be located with a properly calibrated ohmmeter, as they often correspond to points of low electrical resistance which give access to interpreting and manipulating the qi flow. It also seems that a trained therapist can locate these point through touch, or by almost touching, even when the exact point locations vary from person to person.      

But does this prove that qi flows in these channels, or even that it exists, at least in the metaphysical sense that we use the word. 

No. 

Physics has not proven that energy exists. Certainly not in any purely independent sense. Energy might exist in a pure form, somewhere in the universe. But we haven’t been able to show it.  As far as I can see, energy is defined by what it does, or can do, or in its relationship between objects, or processes, or subatomic particles. It does not have any inherent existence in the phenomenal universe. (The universe where things happen.)

Likewise, qi does not have any inherent nature. It is defined by the relationship between things that it affects. 

When we manifest our qi, we experience it as a variety of different “qi Gang” or Qi sensations, like heat, or vibration, or tingling, etc. But these are not qi, they are sensations. Heat is not thermal energy. It is the transfer of thermal energy. 

The most satisfactory definition of qi, and energy, came to me after a frustrating discussion with a teacher of mine. He is a martial artist, an ordained Daoist, a teacher of traditional Chinese medicine, and a teacher of several martial arts, having trained in karate, tai chi, yiquan, baguazhang, Yueng quan and the only person I know who teaches about a rare internal art called “Natural Style” or 徐拳.  I won’t tell you his name, because when he hears this is will probably say, “You got it all wrong. That is not what I meant at all.” So, this way, I can just say I wasn’t talking about him, it was some other teacher.”

He kept correcting each time I tried to define qi. I went from 

“Qi is the stuff that…” 

“NO”

“Qi is the thing that…”

“NO”

“Qi is the ability….”

“NO”

“Qi is…”

“NO”

I don’t remember if he finally explained it to me or if I finally came to it myself. But now, I think of qi as the measurement of differentiation. 

The taiji diagram depicts yin and yang interacting. Yin become yang. Yang becomes yin. Yin and Yang embody aspects of each other. Both are relative to each other. Neither has an inherent existence. 

The line between them represents qi, or energy.

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The Taiji (Tai chi) concept is represented in this diagram.

When they are still, they cease to be differentiated, as in the state known as Wuji (non-differentiation, or singularity, or void, or sometime “potential”). When they move, they are differentiated, as in the state known as Taiji (duality, the condition of the phenomenal Universe). 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wuji-enso-800x800.png
Wuji (non-duality)

Now, I know I did not choose the best words there, even as they were coming out of my mouth, like breathing moistly.

Let me try this. 

If hold this ball in air in front of me, it has potential energy. If I drop it, it becomes kinetic energy. If it bounces, it regains some potential energy.

If I drop the ball and it does nothing, that also indicates energy. 

The sum of the potential and kinetic energy is called mechanical energy.  If we want, we can call that qi, ……because, well, we don’t care. 

The ball itself has ball qi. Ball qi is what differentiates the ball from things that are not a ball, or not this ball. 

A rock has rock qi. A tree has tree qi. A dead thing has dead qi, or ghost qi. 

In physics, we talk about different forms of energy 

  • Chemical energy (the energy in the relation between atoms and molecules.
  • Electrical energy (the energy that holds and electron to the nucleus of an atom)
  • Mechanical energy
  • Thermal energy (the speed that molecules vibrate) heat is not actually energy, it is the experience of the transfer of thermal energy. So, when we talk about feeling our qi, we are actually experiencing the changing energy state. 
  • Electromagnetic energy is the light from electromagnetic waves, or photons
  • Sonic energy is the energy in sound waves. (There is a practice in martial arts whereby an expert can use sound of a particular frequency to affect an opponent. Think of it like a singer hitting the right note to break a champaign glass.) Sound can be very powerful.
  • Nuclear energy is the energy trapped inside an atom. 

In martial arts we talk about  心气 xīnqì . That is the “intention”, “will”, “state of mind”, “open-mindedness (or narrow-mindednes), ambition, etc. In Chinese medicine it can refer to the “strength of heartbeat”

It is said that the only things that are real are those which have no beginning and no end. Since energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it would seem that, perhaps, it is the only thing that really exists. But its true nature cannot be identified so long as it is busy defining all of those things that do seem to have beginnings and endings. 

Perhaps we will not know what qi is until we cease to exist, or cease to cling to our limited definitions of ourselves. What I am is not this thing, and not the things that this thing does. I am not the experience of this thing. I am not the awareness of the experience of this thing. I am the stillness that is undifferentiated. 

 “Undifferentiated from what?”

“From nothing. That is what undifferentiated means.” 

There is a posture at the beginning of every tai chi routine. It is called “wuji”, meaning non-duality. The first movement is called “beginning taiji”, or “differentiation.” The end of the routine, is called, “Return to Wuji.” 

So, step one is “Achieve Enlightenment.” Non-duality is our reference point for all the differentiation that follows. Qi is the differentiation. 

Qi is not supposed to mean energy. But I can see where the confusion comes from.