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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 in “life force” or “spiritual energy”. It is most often translated as “air” or “breath” (for example, a term meaning “weather” is tiānqì, or the “breath of heaven”). It is pronounced something like "chee" in Mandarin Chinese but the tongue position is different. The etymological meaning of the qi ideogram in its traditional form 氣 is “steam (气) rising from rice (米) as it cooks”.
References to qi, and similar philosophical concepts, as a type of metaphysical energy that sustains living beings are found in many belief systems, especially in Asia. Philosophical conceptions of qi date from the earliest recorded times in Chinese thinking. One of the important early figures in Chinese mythology is Huang Di, or the Yellow Emperor. He is often considered a culture hero who collected and formalized much of what subsequently became known as traditional Chinese medicine.
Although the concept of qi has been very important within many Chinese philosophies, their descriptions of qi have been varied and conflicting. One significant difference has been the question of whether qi exists as a force separate from matter, if qi arises from matter, or if matter arises from qi. Some Buddhists and Taoists have tended toward the second belief, with some Buddhists in particular believing that matter is an illusion.
By contrast, the Neo-Confucians criticized the notion that qi exists separate from matter, and viewed qi as arising from the properties of matter. Most of the theories of qi as a metaphor for the fundamental physical properties of the universe that we are familiar with today were systematized and promulgated in the last thousand years or so by the Neo-Confucians. Knowledge of the theories they espoused was eventually required by subsequent Chinese dynasties to pass their civil service examinations.
Qi in traditional Chinese medicine
Theories of traditional Chinese medicine assert that the body has natural patterns of qi that circulate in channels called meridians in English. Symptoms of various illnesses are often believed to be the product of disrupted, blocked, or unbalanced qi movement through the body's meridians, as well as deficencies or imbalances of qi in the 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, martial arts training, massage to clear blockages, and acupuncture, which uses fine metal needles inserted into the skin to reroute or balance qi. Traditional Asian martial arts also discuss qi. For instance, internal martial systems known especially by their focus on using qi for self protection during combat, as well as to ensure proper health. Many other martial arts also include some concept of qi in their philosophies.
Nature of qi
The nature of qi is a matter of controversy among those who accept it as a valid concept, while those who dismiss its very existence ignore it, except for purposes of discussion with its adherents. Disputing the nature of qi is an old controversy in Chinese philosophy. Among some traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, qi is sometimes thought of as a metaphor for biological processes similar to the Western concept of the soul, and they see no need to rewrite biology or physics to account for its effects in this simpler description. Others argue that qi involves some new physics or biology. Attempts to directly connect qi with some scientific phenonomena have been attempted since the mid-nineteenth century. The philosopher Kang Youwei believed that qi was synonymous with the later abandoned concept of luminiferous ether. In the early 21st century, unsuccessful attempts were made to link the concept of qi to biophotons or inner biological energy flow. Claims that control of qi allows one to transcend normal physical and biological processes are widely regarded as pseudoscience by the scientific establishment. Still, some scientists and practitioners appreciate the practical applicability of qi and related concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine; the NIH Consensus Statement on acupuncture noted that such concepts "are difficult to reconcile with contemporary biomedical information but continue to play an important role in the evaluation of patients and the formulation of treatment in acupuncture."
Views of qi as an esoteric force tend to be more prominent in the West, where it has sometimes been associated with New Age spiritualism. These views are less prominent in modern communist China, where traditional Chinese medicine is often practiced and considered effective, but in which esoteric notions of qi are considered to contradict Marxist notions of dialectic materialism; China's current government in fact formally embraces anti-spiritual atheism. Many traditional martial arts schools also eschew a supernatural approach to the issue, identifying "external qi" or "internal qi" as representative of the varying leverage principles used to improve the efficacy of a well-trained, healthier than normal body with a given work load.
Some complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches not only assume its existence but believe that the purported subtle energy running through and surrounding the body can be manipulated so as to cultivate increased physical, psychological and spiritual health. Acupuncture along with other practices of TCM, ayurveda and many other traditional disciplines worldwide provide examples of similar beliefs. Properly funded, conducted and repeated empirical research is necessary to determine if the success rate of these CAM approaches is due to:
- the existence of subtle energy
- various other factors.
Qi in martial arts
Qi is a central concept in many martial arts, particular the Neijia or internal arts, which include Tai Chi Chuan. It is also central to Qigong a non-martial form. In the Japanese arts, Ki is developed in Aikido and given special emphasis in Ki-Aikido. These forms include exercises intended to develop the students Qi or Ki. Often these involve some form of testing such as the unbendable arm, here one student holds his arm out in front of him and another student tries to bend it. If the first student tries to use physical muscles to keep his arm straight he will quickly tire and the arm will be quickly bent. However, if the student relaxes and extends his qi the arm will prove very difficult to bend, indeed the only way to bend the arm is if the partner also relaxes and uses qi. Higher grade students will have a more developed qi, which is evident in the context of the arts.
In the internal arts whether qi exists is normally not questioned; it appears to be a testable phemonema which can be developed. The precise bio-physical cause is not normally examined, it is frequently regarded as a phenomenon inexplicable by words alone, necessitating physical practice to develop understanding. It may be considered a mixture of the following: strong visualising techniques; complete relaxation (which can affect the way muscles function); improved posture; use of breath; subtle effects on the nervous system; and also affecting the mind of the partner. Some schools also add a metaphysical aspect, claiming that qi can come from the Tan t'ien (or one point in Ki-Aikido), a location in the lower abdomen, and circulate around the body. The concept can be extended to include Ching Sheng Li or external energy which comes from heaven and earth.
There are qigong masters who claim to be able to manipulate their students from a distance with qi. Such demonstrations are often frowned on by many practitioners as stunts and not in keeping with the arts. One classic story concerns two opponents who held each others hands before a fight, while doing so each felt the others qi and the one with the weaker qi resigned without a blow being struck.
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 liguistic and cultural mind of Japan. Even the standard greeting, "元気ですか？” literally means, "is your ki high?" Sickness is 病気 (Byoki; lit. sick ki).
Words that in the west would be described more as "feelings" or "intention" also fall under 'ki'.
- 彼は私に気があるらしいのよ - I think he's coming on to me; (lit. he has ki for me)
- 気がくじける - be discouraged / lose heart; (lit. ki has faltered)
- 浮気 - an affair (lit. relationship ki has floated somewhere else)
For more information on various interpretations and usages of ki, please refer to:
Types of qi
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 ancient religions and systems of metaphysics (in addition to having been borrowed by George Lucas's science-fiction films).
Analogies to numina in other societies 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:
Related martial arts and exercise practices include
- Aether (classical element)
- Aether theories
- Eastern philosophy
- Etheric body
- Etheric plane
- Iron Shirt
- Iron Palm
- Odic force
- Tao Yin
- Tui na
- Views on Qi, from several authorities on TCM Three short perspectives on the nature of Qi from scholars Yoshio Manaka (1995), Ted Kaptchuk (1983), and Giovanni Maciocia (1989)
- The Skeptics Dictionary
- The Idea Tree essay regarding Qi.
- Chinastyle Magazine article on Qi.
- Ohio State University Medial Center The Philosophy and Art of Energy Medicine.
- Qi Journal newsletter on Qi-related news and current events.
- "Ask Dr. Wang" description of Qi and body humors.
- Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal articles conerning Qi.
- University of Colorado Qi=mc2, an essay on Qi.
- Pacific University College of Optometry applications of Qi in medicine.
- Qigong Association of America
- Natural Health Web Qi Gong information.
- Chiherbal athlete supplier overview of Qi.
- Eastern Medical Center introduction to Qi.
- Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi Qi information.
- Columbia University introduction to Traditional Chinese Medicine and Qi.
- Journal of Scientific Exploration Certain Physical Manifestation and Effects of External Qi.
- Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis by James L. Oschman, PhD, Churchill Livingston, 2000
- Encounters with Qi: Exploring Chinese Medicine by David Eisenberg, M.D., Penguin, 1987.
- Cross Currents: The Promise of Electromedicine, the Perils of Electropollution by Robert O. Becker, Tarcher, 1991
- The Theoretical Foundations of Chinese Medicine, Manfred Porkert, MIT Press, 1974 ISBN 0262160587
- Chee Soo, The Chinese Art of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Thorsons (1984) ISBN 0-85030-387-7.
- Da Liu, T'ai Chi Ch'uan and I Ching, Routledge & Kegan Paul, (1981) ISBN 0-7100-0848-1.
- Chinese Physical Culture: The Impact on Individuals MSc dissertation, document effect on health of Tai Chi practitioners.de:Qi
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