What is 'Chi'?

Discussion in 'Chinese Martial Arts Articles' started by Dan Bian, Mar 29, 2015.

  1. Dan Bian

    Dan Bian Medway Tai Chi Society

    First, I feel that I should make clear my personal opinion of what Chi is/isn’t – From my POV:

    Chi/Ki/Qi is just energy. It's as simple as that. As humans, we take energy from the food we eat, from the air we breath, the exercise we do, etc. Qigong (energy work) are methods of improving our energy intake. Eating good food, keeping hydrated, allowing time for digestion - this can be considered 'food qigong'. It is intentional work towards improving the intake of food energy. Breath qigong is probably the most 'recognised' method of qigong, as well as the most surrounded in mis-information. Essentially, what breath qigong seeks to do is increase the amount of air taken in with each breath, by working with concentrated deep breathing techniques, sometimes static, and sometimes in conjunction with various movements, such as swinging of the arms. It's a similar concept as going out to the country side to get some fresh air for our health. After I've been cooped up at work all day, I step outside and take a breath of fresh air, and WHOOSH! I get a surge of energy. That is all 'Chi' is. No super powers.

    A lot of people say 'Chi' as if it is a definite term - but really, there are all different Chi's. 'Chi' the word, is the same as 'energy' the word. One word, but with different meanings. So, the Chi we get from eating food, is the energy we get from eating food. Just one word. But it is different from the Chi we get from breathing. But it's all Chi. But it's different Chi. At best, Chi is an umbrella term for different kinds of energy. Certainly nothing special. So, that is my position.

    But of course, there are several other positions, going from one extreme to another. I say ‘extreme’, and I’m not exaggerating. On the one side, there are people who stoutly believe that Chi is ‘real’ – it had an existence of its own. Some of these people go further and believe that Chi can be harnessed by humans and used to perform almost supernatural feats, such as affecting the weather and levitation, and experiencing spiritual states of consciousness. At the other end of the spectrum, there are the people who deny the existence of Chi. This denial comes from different roots, such as Chi was a term used by people in the past to describe biomechanical processes that can today be explained scientifically, or that Chi is some sort of religious belief that has no basis in reality. And in the ‘no-mans-land’ inbetween each extreme, there are those who are open to the possibility, and a various mixture of beliefs that further aid to muddy the water.

    So… What is Chi?

    From a Chinese perspective, Chi is believed to be the life-force that underpins all existence. The Chinese believe that Chi can be absorbed into the body via various breathing techniques and exercises, commonly known as Chi Kung (or Qi Gong in Pinyin).

    One man, who has studied extensively in the East and is a lineage holder in an ancient Taoist system of practice, is Bruce Kumar Frantzis. In his book ‘The Power of Internal Martial Arts’, Mr. Frantzis defines Chi as;

    ‘Energy, subtle life force, internal energy that empowers something to work and function. This concept underlies Chinese, Japanese and Korean culture, in which the world is perceived not purely in terms of physical matter, but also in terms of invisible energy.’

    The idea of Chi being an ‘invisible energy’ is often the cause of scepticism surrounding the discussion of Chi. However, as Mr. Frantzis notes, this comes from the Oriental way of perceiving the world, which is different from the Western view. As I’m sure you can imagine, a lot can get lost in translation. This problem is another cause for the confusion as to what Chi is.

    Next, I would like to look at some of the practices that make use of Chi. There are several different applications of Chi, including Traditional Chinese Medicine, Martial Arts and Spiritual Development.

    In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Chi plays a vital role. The idea is that Chi flows through defined pathways in the body, known as meridians. Chi is stored in the lower Dan Tian, an ‘elixer field’, lying approximated three inches below the naval, in the center of the body. It is believed that illness occurs if Chi stagnates in the meridians, causing a blockage. These blockages prevent fresh Chi from circulating to the vital organs and body-parts, thus resulting in a weakening of the affected area. In order to clear these blockages, a patient may undergo procedures such as acupuncture, acupressure or qigong therapy. Practices such as these aim to ‘dissolve’ the stagnant Chi, and promote the flow of fresh Chi, thus restoring health.

    Within the field of Martial Arts, the concept of Chi is probably the most misunderstood. Some people believe that Chi is able to give them some sort of ‘super-human’ powers, such as being able to affect an opponent without touching them, or to be able to send some sort of ‘Chi Blast’ to defeat an attacker. The ‘truth’ of Chi within the martial arts is much simpler, and much more every-day than this.

    The first point to look at refers back to the applications of Chi with the medical field. Using Chi to keep the body healthy and strong is the first application of Chi within the martial arts. Next, Chi can supposedly be trained and refined to allow a practitioner to ‘feel’ his opponents intention and structure with only the slightest touch, whilst also hiding your own. This is referred to as ‘listening skill’. The offensive side of Chi lies in Jin training. Jin is an expression of the energetic power within the body. This allows the physical body to remain as relaxed as possible in the muscular structure, whilst the Jin manifests the movements, such as expansive, rising power (Peng Jin), straight forward power (Ji Jin) or rending power (Liat Jin). It is often this part of Chi training that leads people to believe that Chi is biomechanics in action. And, whilst biomechanics certainly play a part, they are not the full story. One can move one’s body with perfect structure, but without the supporting Chi/Jin training, the movements will be devoid of martial power.

    As this article comes to an end, I know that it will split opinion. Some people will like it, most will probably hate it. That is the social nature of Chi. Perhaps that is its greatest power? My thanks go to my teachers, who have kindly helped me to reach the first step, and who have reminded me that this is a very tall mountain. Also, my thanks go to Mr. B. K. Frantzis, for allowing me to reference his book. I whole-heartedly recommend anyone with even a passing interest in the subject of Internal Martial Arts take a look at his book, ‘The Power of Internal Martial Arts – Combat Secrets of Ba Gua, Tai Chi and Hsing-I’.

    Thanks for reading.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 3, 2015
  2. holyheadjch

    holyheadjch Valued Member

    So here's the thing - there are many claims in this article (and indeed in any article about Chi), so why haven't they been tested? If Chi exists as energy, it must be measurable - where is the evidence?

    The idea that the body can perform a (powerful) action whilst the muscular structure remains completely relaxed is easily tested - so why hasn't it been?
  3. Simon

    Simon The Bulldog Admin

    I wrote to Loughborough University to see if they wanted to test this.

    I never received a reply.

    It's awesome when you get it right, or cross hands with someone who is really relaxed, is breathing correctly and is structured, but I couldn't explain it further than that.

    For me the answer isn't much more than that; it's just that it's a lifetime's journey to achieve it.
  4. Guitar Nado

    Guitar Nado Valued Member

    Thanks for the article. Interesting reading!
  5. Fish Of Doom

    Fish Of Doom Will : Mind : Motion Moderator Supporter

    i think what dan bian is referring to is that he uses the term chi basically as a synonym of the physics term energy, so it would refer on the actual energy involved (kinetic energy when you move, the chemical energy from physiological processes, etc). which makes sense because you want to maximize kinetic energy along a given vector or vectors, which does't necessarily mean exerting yourself more, but is also achieved by minimizing opposing forces.
  6. holyheadjch

    holyheadjch Valued Member

    Academia doesn't really work like that, especially at the moment.

    My point is, there's no evidence for the existence of Chi beyond it being a convenient way of talking about proper mechanics and force application.
  7. Dan Bian

    Dan Bian Medway Tai Chi Society

    Exactly it.
    I said right at the beginning of the article, I don't regard it as some mystical power.

    In terms of martial arts; yes exactly.

    As I tried to put across in the article, I see "Chi" as an umbrella term that covers a range of terms in use today. Kinetic energy, energy from calories, proper rest. That's all "Chi" is. Nothing special!
  8. Dan Bian

    Dan Bian Medway Tai Chi Society

    Watch a boxer punch - using only minimum tension up until the point of impact.

    I also don't think I said "completely relaxed" in the article - I said "as relaxed as possible" - of course a certain amount of muscular tension is necessary, because that's how the body works. The idea is in releasing the excess tension, so you are only using the minimum effort you need to, to get the job done.
  9. holyheadjch

    holyheadjch Valued Member

    Ok, I think we actually agree.
  10. Ros Montgomery

    Ros Montgomery Valued Member

    Just a small point but as humans, we only take energy from the food we eat. We don't take energy from breathing or doing exercise; in fact, the opposite is true, we expend energy doing exercise. Once we realise that energy is measured in joules (or calories) it becomes fairly obvious - there are no calories in air!
  11. Fish Of Doom

    Fish Of Doom Will : Mind : Motion Moderator Supporter

    oxygen is necessary for cellular metabolism. ventilation (ie mechanical breathing) is what consumes energy, but it brings in fuel anyway
  12. Ros Montgomery

    Ros Montgomery Valued Member

    I don't think it does. The amount of oxygen available to the cell can certainly limit the amount of energy produced but it isn't actually a fuel.
  13. melbgoju

    melbgoju Valued Member

    strictly speaking, oxygen is necessary for aerobic respiration, particularly involving oxidative phosphorylation that occurs post- the citric acid cycle inside the mitochondria. Anaerobic respiration, which can take place pretty much anywhere inside the cytoplasm does not require oxygen.

    The energy provided in cellular respiration is given by breaking chemical bonds within organic molecules. Oxygen is necessary for the complete process, but is not strictly speaking the fuel or the energy provider. In the same way, in a car engine, oxygen is necessary, but is neither the fuel, nor the energy provider. The energy is provided again by the breaking of bonds between atoms in the organic molecule that is petrol.
  14. The Iron Fist

    The Iron Fist Banned Banned

    When you use the term "qi" and try to equate it rhetorically with an actual object or phenomenon, whether that thing be oxygen, air (not JUST oxygen!), electrical currents, food, blood and so on it is a linguistic mistranslation of the pictograph and most of the time the statements built using it are much of the time, original statements (i.e. the thoughts/opinions of specific people). I have seen explanations all over the place, as I am sure many here have as well.

    Qi is not any of those things. It's literally nothing but a word and from a language perspective one of the simplest in China's written history . Equating with a physical thing or natural element like Oxygen or attempting to "explain Qi" is more or less an attempt (most likely innocent one) to take a very simple character, and try to build a complex idea of ANY kind with the one character. This is an error. That's not how the Chinese write their language. Chinese-based languages get meaning across in multiple characters, so relying on ONE SYMBOL :) is a sign that...you should not try to describe it with more than a handful of words at most. Otherwise you move into extrapolation, building your own complex ideas or explanations and assigning it to this one humble little character. You know what I mean right brothers? you add chemistry, physics, body science. Before you know it someone else adds zen or New Age philosophy. Any time you do any of these things the linguistic context is completely lost when you use just the character "qi" to describe it.. Hence if two people have two different complex ideas of "qi", both are probably equally wrong and cannot possibly convey their ideas using one pictograph (they'd need a chain of them to truly convey that meaning in Chinese).

    So to utilize "qi" correctly requires context, so crucial as with many Chinese symbols, simply discussing the one pictograph is rather pointless except at the most basic level (a few words maybe). It is connecting "qi" to any number of other symbols that drastically alters the intended meaning (but, the reader may still get part of the message depending on the complexity). So think of it thus qi is more or less a very simple message or linguistic modifer, with a very diverse array of interpretations depending on the context. Only a handful of those meanings are mystical in nature, the rest being largely practical interpretations, in the form of comparisons or observations about nature. It almost reminds me of the joke about what's the definition of "the". There is no such thing as a "the", but you know what it means. It's such a simple and adaptable linguistic device you can literally use it anywhere and everywhere to point at something, in a rhetorical sense :) UNLESS you change language context, and suddenly you might notice some languages don't have a "the" at all! Sometimes there is just no direct 1:1 translation, so it pays to be simple about it.

    Also please permit, and this is a very common error I see people make, qi has never been specifically even tied to life-force because there is a differentiation between the energy of the stars (heaven, sun qi) the planet (earth's qi), human qi, the qi of the weather, and so forth. In a simple physical sense qi was initially imagined as a fabric of energy that permeated everything, not just people. Humans took in earth and heaven qi, and by whatever process transmuted that earth and heaven qi into their own qi, in order to peform physical tasks. In entirety there is a large conceptual framework, a network of "qi-systems" in Chinese history, that goes well beyond the human body, used to describe any obvious bit of physical activity in nature, whether it was breathing or raining or light from the stars.
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2015
  15. The Iron Fist

    The Iron Fist Banned Banned

    Sorry for the extra commentary folks but something else I forgot to point out with regards to actually supporting what I just wrote with some sort of archaeological fact. People like facts versus supposition, I do too personally, so here we go. Many people, when they discuss qi/chi will likely desire to discuss it from "their POV" which seems to typically be at a philosophical or pseudomedicinal level as anyone who has read Daoist scripture, or the yellow emperor's medical compendium the 黄帝内经 knows, that way of discussing qi has long been part of traditional Chinese medical practice. But this is truly based not on the original pictographs or written uses of "qi", but instead on more modern Confucian ideas and metaphysical questions of life such as "what is qi?", or its numerous combinations with other symbols to create more complex concepts such as 血氣 or blood-breath. In a funny way, the same elaborate systems Chinese philosophers and alchemists created were an attempt to "describe" how qi worked very much like what's being discussed in this thread, attempts to describe what it is using more accessible language, but ultimately getting further and further from the original meaning.

    However here's my most interesting fact: I find what people seldom seem to know is that "qi" symbology is a heck of a lot older than all those Confucian works (by at least 500-1000 years or more based on reasonably accurate materials dating) and relatively none of that writing includes anything typically ascribed to "qi" today. From an anthropological point of view the Chinese first began writing about qi in a very simple way, and did that for about a millennium before the Confucian age where for better or worse philosophers and other erudite thinkers got a hold of it. To give you some example without posting the bone script, early depictions of qi seem to describe not what it is, but that you got it from various things. Two diverse but interesting examples I've found: hunting and eating game, or relaxed breathing while watching the clouds, which the ancient peoples also believed was a form of "qi"! What an insight, that the cloud in the sky, the breath we take, the deer we might eat all somehow form a cohesive energy ecosystem! It may be incredibly simple, but I think it's extraordinarily insightful for such an early civilization and it gives more insight in my opinion into the Bronze Age societies that were clearly more advanced than they're often given credit for.
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2015
  16. TheSledgehammer

    TheSledgehammer New Member

    I personally have come to believe in this one of two ways, though definitely a major factor in my current belief of how all this works is that the electromagnetic field of the body contributes to most of the things people attribute to some kind of energy. It's either that all these different things are made up by the field, or there is an actual energy that works in conjunction with it, and if we had to place a name for that energy, I'd say it's Dark Energy, which in the scientific community is a form of energy that can't be measured and is only known to interact with gravity.

    Personally, I have not felt a lot of changes in my personal 'energy' though during different relaxation and meditation techniques (I am a practitioner of Chen style Tai Chi) I have noticed a lot of things that seem to apply to a field rather than a radiating energy.

    I think this all has to do with our blood flow, if you notice a huge goal in the stretching and relaxing methods taught in the 'softer' martial arts and in meditation are to improve blood flow and reduce conscious thought. Blood flow improving due to a more relaxed body will allow your field to become stronger, while reducing conscious thought will allow you to listen to the messages we are given by our electromagnetic field. Just like any other sense, we are given information through the interaction of our field and others, and what we often call instinct is actually the information presented to us through this interaction of fields.

    If you consider this, it's why people tell you that when taking a multiple choice test, you should always go with your first instinct, it's not some magical process, it's that your brain has already worked out what it thinks is the best response on the page, then we start thinking about it and muck it up and second guess ourselves. When you actually remove all the cluttered thought you'll start realizing how much you actually are being told by your electromagnetic field and by your other subconscious processes.

    Lets take the biggest example I can get people to really relate to, we've all felt like we were being watched before, when we were! That's just something that has happened to many people, and that's built into us. When we were animals out in the wild, we didn't think in words like we do now, our thoughts were more basic then because of what we needed to think about. When something is watching you secretively, you need a way to figure out that's happening or you might get killed! So when our electromagnetic field feels that of another creature with that 'hunting instinct' coming at us, it sends us a message saying 'something is looking at you!' that we all know how to translate. It can't give you words, it gives you feelings. How many other things are there it can translate for us?

    I at first considered that example, and all other things as if there was some sort of energy being projected, but after feeling how magnetic the properties of it were, and how it is always talked about as a shroud almost, and that I've seen my own field pulsing in a rotational direction, I believe it to be all about fields and information.

    Read This Post if you're interested in more of what I'm talking about. I don't know if my message came across clear or jumbled based on how much I tried to fit in a reasonably sized post. But if anyone has any questions or wants to know more I'd love to help.

    Link removed.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 20, 2015
  17. BrendanCassidy

    BrendanCassidy Valued Member

    I guess its kind of like an eclectic form of energy...or exuberance...otherwise we could just call it healthy living and loving..or otherwise Life energy..?
  18. BrendanCassidy

    BrendanCassidy Valued Member

    Is Love and emotion connected to Chi in some way?

    Are the powers of Love and Fear more powerful than Life(Chi)?

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