14 January 2008


Qi (spelled in Mandarin Pinyin romanization), pronounced IPA: [tɕʰi], also ch'i (in Wade-Giles romanization) or ki (in Japanese romanization), is a fundamental concept of traditional Chinese culture. Qi is believed to be part of every living thing that exists, as a kind of "life force" or "spiritual energy". It is frequently translated as "energy flow", or literally as "air" or "breath". (For example, "tiānqì", literally "sky breath", is the ordinary Chinese word for "weather"). In Mandarin Chinese it is pronounced something like "chee" in English, but the tongue position is different.

References to things analogous to the qi taken to be the life-process or “flow” 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 cultural heroes in Chinese mythology is Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor). He is identified in the legends of China as the one who first collected and formalized much of what subsequently became known as traditional Chinese medicine.

The earliest extant book that speaks of qi is the Analects of Confucius (composed from the notes of individual students some time after his death in 479 B.C.) Unlike the legendary accounts mentioned above, the Analects has a clear date in history, and most later books (at least the ones that do not purport to be relics of the legendary earliest rulers) can also be assigned clear dates in history.

Although the concept of qi has been very important within many Chinese philosophies, over the centuries their descriptions of qi have been varied and may seem to be in conflict with each other. Understanding of these disputes is complicated for people who did not grow up using the Chinese concept and its associated concepts. Until China came into contact with Western scientific and philosophical ideas (primarily by way of Catholic missionaries), they knew about things like stones and lightning, but they would not have categorized them in terms of matter and energy. Qi and li (理, li, pattern) are their fundamental categories much as matter and energy have been fundamental categories for people in the West.

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 (interrupted flow) through the body's meridians, as well as deficiencies or imbalances of qi (homeostatic imbalance) in the various Zang Fu organs. Traditional Chinese medicine often seeks to relieve these imbalances by adjusting the circulation of qi (metabolic energy flow) in the body using a variety of therapeutic techniques. Some of these techniques include herbal medicines, special diets, physical training regimens (Qigong, Tai Chi Chuan, and martial arts training), moxibustion, massage to clear blockages, and acupuncture, which uses small diameter metal needles inserted into the skin and underlying tissues to reroute or balance qi.

The traditional Chinese art of placement and arrangement of space called Feng Shui is based on the flow of qi, interactions between the five elements, yin and yang and other factors. The retention or dissipation of qi is believed to affect the health, wealth, energy level, luck and many other aspects of the occupants of the space. Color, shape and the physical location of each item in a space affects the flow of qi by slowing it down, redirecting it or accelerating it, which directly affects the energy level of the occupants.

Qi is a central concept in many Chinese, Korean and Japanese martial arts. While a traditional Neo-Confucian explanation of the principle is given in most martial art schools, many New Age-oriented or neo-ninja schools approach the subject from a more syncretist point of view, especially in the west.

The spiritual concept analogous to Chinese ki appears in the martial arts, such as Japanese aikido (See Ki Society). The Korean system of hapkido, although a different martial art, shares the same characters as pre World War II aikido (合氣道). The character for 'ki' remained the same until 1946 when the character for ki was simplified in Japan. In hangul, the indigenous Korean system, hapkido would be rendered '합기도'.

The concept of aiki as occurring when the character ai (合), representing harmony, together, or joining is combined with the character for ki and is often interpreted representing a combining, blending or coordinating of energy or a principle of non-contention of forces.

Most systems which incorporate the idea of ki believe that a practitioner may harness the energy stored in a special point in the lower stomach referred to as tan t'ien (丹田) in Chinese, tan den (丹田) in Japanese, tan jon (丹田 or 단전) in Korean and dan tian (ตันเถียน) in Thai, and utilize this energy in their martial technique, usually by employing special breathing techniques also found in the Buddhistic meditation practises common to these countries.

Most long term or professional martial arts practitioners report that the practice of building qi via breathing exercises, deep relaxation and meditation practices causes profound physiological changes that enable special martial arts skills. After sufficient practice an ability to feel the qi develops. Sensations such as tingling, warmth and heaviness of the limbs are common. With continued practice the martial artist is able to gradually gain control of these sensations and invoke them at will. In T'ai Chi, for example, one goal is to "sink" or accumulate the qi to the navel area, experienced as a strong sensation of warmth and heaviness, similar to the sensation one feels when an elevator stops. After that, the ability to "circulate" the qi develops, where the martial artist feel warm waves of qi energy moving through the body in harmony with the graceful T'ai Chi movements. Practitioners able to experience these sensations find their sense of touch is enhanced, along with dramatically improved balance and coordination. These skills then enable improved martial arts performance.

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