If there’s one word I could live without, it’s the word Qi (also spelt Chi, Ch’i and Ki). Generally translated as ‘energy’, this seemingly simple but annoyingly ambiguous word has caused myself and my profession nothing but grief. Qi is one of those words that just loves to stir up controversy. Some say it’s hogwash, others say it’s the essence of life itself. Bottom line, nobody has a very good handle on settling this dispute anytime soon. Well no wonder, the basis for Qi originates from stacks of abstract writing interpreting unexplained observations from thousands of years ago. Quite frankly, it’s a little out dated. So I’m here to clear the air, to wipe the blackboard clean, and hopefully set the record straight.
The bottom line… the word Qi does not refer to a specific thing, it’s a blanket term.
Blanket term: A blanket term is a word or phrase that is used to describe multiple groups of related things. The degree of relation may vary. Blanket terms often trade specificity for ease-of-use; in other words, a blanket term by itself gives little detail about the things that it describes or the relationships between them, but is easy to say and remember.
Now before all you Qi lovers out there start bombarding me with hate-mail, let me show you how nicely this all works.
In physical science there are several recognized forms of energy. These include: thermal energy, chemical energy, electrical energy, radiant energy, nuclear energy, magnetic energy, elastic energy, sound energy, luminous energy and mechanical energy.
In the Chinese language, there are also several recognized forms of Qi. In the context of the Chinese medicine alone there’s Yuan Qi (original energy), Ying Qi (nutritious energy), Wei Qi (defensive energy), Ying Qi (meridian energy), Kong Qi (oxygen), Zheng Qi (healthy energy), Xie Qi (evil energy)… and that’s not even half of them. Then there’s emotions, the environment, metaphysics… all areas with specific and unique definitions for Qi.
You see, even in Chinese, just saying Qi doesn’t clarify much because Qi is NOT JUST ONE THING! As a word, Qi encompasses an overwhelmingly vast scope of meanings, each a notably unique quantity in it’s own way!
My solution: When defining Qi, it’s best to translate it in context. This means the definition will change depending on what you’re talking about. The beauty of this solution is that the word Qi becomes something you can actually understand, and something that there should be no need to argue about. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here are some examples:
“Qi is everywhere, it is everything”
This vast universal Qi that people often refer to is called Yuan Qi. Yuan Qi is the primal and original substance that all things are made of, and is actually a very accurate analogy for elemental particles. Elementary particles are the itty-bitty little specs that constitute everything in the universe. Even more interesting is that bosons & fermions, the 2 basic divisions of elementary particle, actually mirror Chinese WuJi and YinYang metaphysical theory to a tee! (cool, who knew all those crazy Daoists were actually the first Quantum Field Theorists!)
“Breath in pure Qi, exhale impure Qi”
As in oxygen and carbon dioxide? Too obvious. In most QiGong and meditation literature, Qi specifically translates as breath. In Chinese medicine there’s also a saying: “Qi and blood move together”, another somewhat obvious reference to oxygen, more specifically oxygenated blood.
“Qi is your living energy”
In Chinese medicine we say that Qi is the energizing force that keeps your body functioning. For example, the Qi of the Heart is it’s pumping action and the Qi of the stomach refers to digestion. Hundreds of years ago the intricacies of physiology may have been a mystery, but these days we understand biology at a cellular level. In particular, we know of the bodies utilization of ATP as an energy source to fuel metabolism. Does this fully explain the profound spiritual nature of life? Well no, but if you didn’t have ATP, you wouldn’t be sitting there reading this blog either.
“The mind leads the Qi”
Qi is commonly used in reference to neurological activity. For example, some Chinese martial arts commonly discuss Yi Qi Li (intent, Qi, power), a 3 step analogy that states: Use your mind to lead Qi and manifest striking power. As a physical training method, this analogy is known as Rate of Force Development (ROFD), a term that refers to the speed at which muscle fibers are recruited in a sudden contraction. The more muscle fibers that contract together in a split second, the faster and more powerful your strike would be… get it?
Another way to interpret this statement is focus or intent. Focus is something you can easily see in the face of a professional athlete in the zone, but Chinese painters and musicians also frequently talk about focusing their Qi when practicing their crafts. My painting teacher told me that I should “feel Qi move from my body through the brush onto the paper”. It’s easy to see why statements like this have some people shaking their heads, but if you were to look at it simply as relaxing your whole body and focusing your mind on the task at hand, it makes a lot more sense.
“Qi will fill your body and make you stronger”
One of my teachers in China forced me to practice ZhanZhuang every day. ZhanZhuang is the practice of standing in static postures for hours (yes it was grueling, but trust me, the physical demands were nothing compared to the sheer boredom of it). My teacher said this would “fill my body with Qi and make me stronger”. Later I learned about piezo-electircity, the electricity created in connective tissues (bones, tendons, fascia etc) when your body is under mechanical stress. This current stimulates some cells to produce more collagen and other cells to increase bone density. If only my teacher had just said that the mild but constant tension created in ZhanZhuang postures would stimulate an electrical charge that would stimulate my cells to increase soft tissue strength and elasticity and increase my bone density! Not to mention, you burn a whole lot of energy holding those postures for so long and that stimulates an increase in your mitochondria count. Mitochondria are the part of a cell that burn energy and can increase your endurance. Have I convinced everyone to stand around all day holding static postures yet?
“Your movements store and emit Qi”
In my TaiJi and martial art training I heard this a lot. Qi can be defined here as mechanical energy, which is composed of potential and kinetic energy. Kinetic energy relates to the continuous movement, while potential energy relates to the power stored in movements like contracting/expanding, opening/closing and twisting/coiling. Trust me, being thrown 10 feet into a tree has nothing to do with projecting magical energy, all you need is really subtle and accurate body mechanics (which helps with the landing part too).
I can think of another 50 examples of Qi being uniquely defined in quantifiable terms, but already in this blog you’ve seen it defined as the building blocks of the universe, as gas, as ATP, as nerve impulses, as your intent and as mechanical energy. Hopefully everyone out there can agree on this as a good starting point and recognize that there’s no need for Qi to remain a mysterious and magical substance that’s existence needs to be argued over… and for those of you who disagree, well don’t Sheng Qi at me.
Oh, that means get angry.