You who know me and have followed this blog would know that I am not a great promotor of the concept of Qi. I’ve never explained it as anything magic or a kind of energy or similar. My main teachers used this word never or at least very rarely sparingly. I don’t think I have ever used this term in any kind of teaching situation except in a few lectures I’ve held in Chinese thought and philosophy. What I write here though might sometimes seem a bit confusing as I still use this term occasionally. I have understood that I have written different things about the concept of Qi in different posts on this blog and thus I see the need to put the most important things together and try to explain better what Qi actually means.
One of my teachers, a Chinese who really knows about Chinese culture and history, thought that maybe it would be better to get rid of the term completely here in the west, and instead try to explain what is done in Tai Chi with a Western way of thinking, with a terminology that is used in Western terminology. I do concur. The term Qi is very much a cultural thing from a language that sometimes work quite different from what we are used to. In China, the character of Qi is something you meet often in the common Chinese language. In modern Chinese, it’s there in the word for angry. If you are angry you say that you have “too much Qi”. And “Weather” consists of the characters of “heaven” and “Qi”. And there are other examples as well. Chinese is a situational, contextual language where a term, concept or character gets its meaning through the context. A single character is often more a symbol, an idea that can be used in many different ways according to circumstance. So when Chinese teachers speak about qi in different contexts, a Chinese students can often understand what is meant, but a Western student might misunderstand. If a Chinese Tai chi teacher would say “don’t use force, use qi”, then most likely, he or she doesn’t mean to use a magic energy. Instead, the teacher would mean something like taking a better posture and relax better. He would mean this because he would be referring to certain requisites that he has already spoken about and taught the class, things together that means “having Qi”. This is hard to explain, but I tried in an earlier post:
“This was said by a person who professionally practice Traditional Chinese Medicine: “Qi is the perfect function of an indent in human body.” So what does this mean? It means that when things function as properly as possible in the body, there is qi. If there is an unbalance in the body, then the qi might be weak or stagnant. “Qi” helps us in different ways to describe different states of the body. We could speak about the “Qi” of breath, or “Qi” of a punch when the body parts needed to breath or punch collaborate in the most optimum manner. For breath, the Qi of breath would the perfect collaboration of all parts of the body needed to breath.”
What is said above is about how this term is used generally in modern language. In Tai Chi though, the term “Qi” becomes a little bit more complicated because the modern use of the term is often confused with older definitions. Tai Chi practice has at least a part of its roots in Daoist practice, as in traditional Neidan. This is the same “nei”, the same character, used for “internal” in “Neijiaquan”, or the Internal School of Boxing. We usually use the same terminology and concepts as in Neidan practice (and also mix it with modern use in medicine and in Qigong). And this leads to a certain confusion as people tend to mix up an old meaning specific to an old school of philosophy with the modern use of this term. Chinese people know how to separate these different meanings of the term, but a person who is born in another culture and is not acquainted to the different language world will certainly have problems when different meanings of the same word collide.
And then there is an even more philosophical use of “Qi”. The philosophical concept of Tai Chi, or Taiji as in Taijiquan, is not a Daoist term, but a name invented by Zhou Dunyi a Philosopher who is considered as one of the forerunners to the Neo Confucian school which was the resurrection of Confucianism in China. Zhou Dunyi used Daoist concepts to explain the universe, but his view on the world, Man and ethics still belonged to the Confucian school of thought. Qi was a part of his metaphysical view and thus it’s hard to speak about the concept of Taiji without mentioning Qi. And there was another philosopher at the same time who has had an even greater impact on the concept of Qi, Zhang Zai, a thinker who believed that the basis for Universe and everything in existence was Qi. For him, Qi was an invisible force that penetrates and surrounds everything.
So the term Qi is not very useful here in the west as a teaching tool as people tend to mix up different meanings of the character, philosophical meanings, medicine and medical Qigong with a more modern use that is a function of the modern language. I still think that the word can have a certain use if you understand the meaning of Qi as a collection of certain prerequisites for internal and external aspects of body use. In Tai Chi we deal with internal awareness and internal sensations. Tai Chi practice can certainly make the body warm. And with a lot of practice you can become quite good at warming up your body fast with small means (which I jokingly wrote about here). I usually just call this heat or steam for lack of better words. It’s not magic and not an energy, it’s just a consequence of doing things right. But this heat or warmth can be a quite good way for you to measure if you really do things right. And thus in a more modern way of using the Chinese language, there is a reason to refer to not only the heat you fell, but the whole internal body state as “qi”. But as no one else than you can feel what is going on inside of you, it’s probably better to not talk about qi at all just to avoid confusion.
You can also hear Mr Yang Hai in the interview below (Chinese w english text) speak about the differences between Qi in philosophy and health arts and for martial arts. No one explain it as clear and concise as him. His explanation starts at approx 6.50 or earlier at 6.00 if you want to hear him explain the 5 different types of Qigong.