Qi is a concept unique to the East
Perhaps the first time the masses of the western world got a thorough exposure to this concept was in the movie “Star Wars,” in which it was referred to as “The Force.” It’s an elusive, though not too difficult concept. If you are exposed to it enough via Asian philosophy, literature and martial arts, you’ll develop a rudimentary understanding of “qi.” Yet, very few people know what the Chinese term “qi” implies, its hidden meanings, and its full comprehension. Let’s consider a basic definition first, and then delve into the intricacies.
In traditional Chinese culture, qi 氣 (also spelled: chi or ch’i in Wade Giles transliteration of the Chinese language) is a generic word for “energy.” In Japanese, it is called ki, and in Korean, gi. In standard Chinese, qi is pronounced as “chee!” In referring to living things – such as plants, animals and humans – qi can be thought of as the sum of all physiological activities responsible for the life of the organism. Qi is often translated as “flow of energy,” “life energy,” or “life force.” It is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. Alternatively, a more literal translation of qi is “breath,” or “vapor.”
The concept of “qi” originated in ancient China. Some of the earliest writings on it appear around the 5th century BC. Though there is no direct correspondence to this concept in the West, some similar concepts are found in other cultures. These include the ancient Hindu yogic concept of prana (which translates to “life force” in Sanskrit), as well as the concept of mana in Hawaiian culture. In the West, the closest concept is that of vitalism or psi. But these are all a far cry from the Eastern idea of “qi.” Since it’s been an everyday concept in China for so many centuries, both orthodox and traditional medical doctors of China find the concept of qi easy to understand and accept, while it is customarily ridiculed by Western physicians.
The hidden meaning in the Chinese ideogram
The Chinese writing for qi implies: “steam rising from rice as it cooks.” Rice was considered the main food of China and the proper combination of water (yin) and fire (yang) is required to cook it. This shows a clue about the hidden mysteries of qi, in that qi requires the proper balance of yin and yang to manifest as strongly as possible, and it is a source of nourishment for supporting life and longevity. The Taoist internal alchemists developed complex practices to affect physiology in ways that they believe can magnify or transform qi. Just as the action of water and heat on rice will either cook it properly or not, the internal alchemists, acupuncturists and doctors of Chinese medicine believe that the metaphorical “cooking” of qi greatly affects the internal vigor and longevity of an individual.
Qi is present in everything and everywhere
The Chinese view qi as type of universal energy that pervades the cosmos, and not just limited to living organisms. As such, qi expresses itself differently in inanimate “soul-less” things than it does in living organisms. Qi is also found in the energy of the sun, water, the weather and the environment of the earth as well as outer space. Feng shui masters try to harmonize local environmental qi with human qi for optimal living conditions. The feng shui practice of geomancy initially “diagnoses” the environmental qi, the qi of the feng shui client and the desired effect on the client. Then, changes to a building, its contents and its grounds are carried out to coax along the flow of qi as desired. Thus, feng shui is almost like a type of “environmental acupuncture” designed to affect environmental qi.
The role of qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) asserts that the body has patterns of qi circulating in channels called meridians. Some speculate that the meridians are accessible in the fascia (connective tissue) beneath the skin. Various illnesses, pain and psychological imbalances are believed to be the result of unbalanced qi flow through the body’s meridians or organs. Traditional Chinese medicine attempts to resolve the imbalances by adjusting the circulation of qi using a variety of techniques including: acupuncture/acupressure herbology, physiotherapy, and physical training regimens (qigong, meditation, Daoyin, tai chi chuan (taijiquan), and other martial arts training).
Avoid this mistake: Confusion about the word “chi” in “tai chi”
So many people mistake the word “chi” in the term “tai chi chuan” as being the same “chi” or “qi” as covered in this article. The “chi” in “tai chi chuan” is alternatively spelled “ji” and is an utterly different thing! The word “chi” (“ji”) in tai chi chuan (taijiquan), means “polarity” or “terminus.” This confusion comes about because there are many homonyms in the Chinese language, as well as two popular ways of romanizing Chinese into the Latin alphabet (that’s the alphabet we use for English). I discuss the translation of tai chi chuan (taijiquan) at length in another blog post: Click Here