Thursday, September 11, 2008

School of Names

In traditional Chinese culture, ''qi'' is an active principle forming part of any living thing.

It is frequently translated as "energy flow", and is often compared to Western notions of ''energeia'' or ''élan vital'' as well as the of ''prana''. The literal translation is "air", "breath", or "gas" .

Term and character

The etymological explanation for the form of the ''qi'' logogram in the traditional form is “steam rising from rice as it cooks”.

The earliest way of writing ''qi'' consisted of three wavy lines, used to represent one's breath seen on a cold day. A later version, 气, is a stylized version of those same three lines. For some reason, early writers of Chinese found it desirable to substitute for 气 a cognate, character that originally meant to feed other people in a social context such as providing food for guests. Appropriately, that character combined the three-line ''qi'' character with the character for the grain we call rice. So 气 plus 米 formed 氣, and that is the traditional character still used today.

In the ''Japanese language'', the Chinese character corresponding to qi is pronounced ki. The Japanese language contains over 11,442 known usages of "ki" as a compound. As a compound, it may represent syllables associated with the mind, the heart, feeling, the atmosphere, and flavor.

We see parallel development in ''Korean language'' usage as Koreans have long used Chinese characters alongside the indigenous Korean system . There are also some cases in which commonalities are due to the long history of their geographical relationship.

The character for "ki" in hangul is "?", which is pronounced as 'gi' with a hard g.

Japanese usages of note also include tenki , genki , byouki and kiai .

Korean compound usages of ki are also comparable including gibun and gihap , but simply means "shout."


References to things analogous to the ''qi'' taken to be the life-process or “flow” of 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 thinking. One of the important early cultural heroes in Chinese mythology is Huang Di . 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'' Unlike the legendary accounts mentioned above, the ''Analects'' has a clear date in history, and most later books can also be assigned clear dates in history.

Manfred Porkert described relations to Western universal concepts:

Within the framework of Chinese thought no notion may attain to such a degree of abstraction from empirical data as to correspond perfectly to one of our modern universal concepts. Nevertheless the term ''qi'' comes as close as possible to constituting a generic designation equivalent to our word "energy". When Chinese thinkers are unwilling or unable to fix the quality of an energetic phenomenon, the character ''qi'' 氣 inevitably flows from their brushes.

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 , they knew about things like stones and lightning, but they would not have categorized them in terms of matter and energy. Qi and li are their fundamental categories much as matter and energy have been fundamental categories for people in the West. Their use of ''qi'' and ''li'' as their primary categories leaves in question how to account for liquids and solids, and, once the Western idea of energy came on the scene, how to relate it to the native idea of "qi". If Chinese and Western concepts are mixed in an attempt to characterize some of the problems that arise with the Chinese conceptual system, then one might ask whether qi exists as a "force" separate from "matter", whether qi arises from "matter", or whether "matter" arises from qi.

Fairly early on, some Chinese thinkers began to believe that there are different fractions of ''qi'' , and that the coarsest and heaviest fractions of ''qi'' form solid things such as rocks, the earth, etc., whereas lighter fractions form liquids, and the most ethereal fractions are the "lifebreath" that animates living beings.

Yuán qì is a notion of "innate" or "pre-natal" qi to distinguish it from acquired qi that a person may develop of their lifetime.

Early philosophical texts

The earliest texts that speak of ''qi'' give some indications of how the concept developed. The philosopher Mo Di used the word ''qi'' to refer to noxious vapors that would in due time arise from a corpse were it not buried at a sufficient depth. He reported that early civilized humans learned how to live in houses to protect their ''qi'' from the moisture that had troubled them when they lived in caves. He also associated maintaining one's ''qi'' with providing oneself adequate nutrition. And, in regard to another kind of ''qi'' he recorded how some people performed a kind of prognostication by observing the ''qi'' in the sky.

In the "Analects of Confucius", , "qi" can mean "breath", and it can be combined with the Chinese word for blood and that concept can be used to account for motivational characteristics. The ''Analects'', 16:7, says:

Meng Ke described a kind of ''qi'' that might be characterized as an individual's vital energies. This ''qi'' was necessary to activity, and it could be controlled by a well-integrated will power. But this ''qi'' could not adequately be characterized by English words like "lifebreath" or "bio-plasma" because when properly nurtured it was capable of extending beyond the human body to reach throughout the universe. This ''qi'' can be augmented by means of careful exercise of one's moral capacities. On the other hand, the ''qi'' of an individual can be degraded by averse external forces that succeed in operating on that individual.

Not only human beings and animals were believed to have "qi". Zhuang Zhou indicated that wind is the "qi" of the earth. Moreover, cosmic Yin and Yang "are the greatest of 'qi'." He describes ''qi'' as "issuing forth" and creating profound effects.

Zhuang Zi gave us one of the most productive of insights into the nature of "qi". He said "Human beings are born the accumulation of 'qi'. When it accumulates there is life. When it dissipates there is death.... There is one 'qi' that connects and pervades everything in the world."

Another passage traces life to intercourse between Heaven and Earth: "The highest Yin is the most restrained. The highest Yang is the most exuberant. The restrained comes forth from Heaven. The exuberant issues forth from Earth. The two intertwine and penetrate forming a harmony, and things are born."

Zhuang Zi was a contemporary of Mencius. Xun Zi followed them after some years. At 9:69/127, Xun Zi says: "Fire and water have qi but do not have life. Grasses and trees have life but do not have perceptivity. Fowl and beasts have perceptivity but do not have yi . Men have qi, life, perceptivity, and yi." This passage gives us some insight into his idea of "qi". Chinese people at such an early time had no concept of radiant energy. But they were aware that one can be heated by a campfire even though the air between camper and fire is quite cold. Clearly, something is emitted by the fire and reaches the camper. They called it "qi". At 18:62/122, he too uses "qi" to refer to the vital forces of the body that decline with advanced age.

Later, the syncretic text assembled under the direction of Liu An, the ''Huai Nan Zi'' has a passage that presages most of what is given greater detail by the Neo-Confucians:

The development of the ideas of ''qi'' and of ''qi zhi zhi xing'' in Neo-Confucianism go beyond the scope of a fundamental account of Chinese ideas about ''qi'', but the fundamentals are contained in the above passage.

Traditional Chinese medicine

Theories of traditional Chinese medicine assert that the body has natural patterns of qi that circulate in channels called in . 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 deficiencies or imbalances of qi in the various . 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 , , physical training regimens , moxibustion, to clear blockages, and acupuncture, which uses small diameter metal needles inserted into the skin and underlying tissues to reroute or balance qi.

It has been hypothesized that the alleged therapeutic effects of acupuncture can be explained by endorphin-release, by relaxation or by simple placebo effects. The NIH Consensus Statement on acupuncture in 1997 noted that concepts such as qi "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."

It is hypothesized that qi could be transmitted through the fascia independent of any neurological activity.

Scientific investigation

Science rejects the concept of "qi". It has been hypothesized that the alleged therapeutic effects of acupuncture can be explained by endorphin-release, by relaxation or by placebo effects. The NIH Consensus Statement on acupuncture in 1997 noted that concepts such as Qi "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."

Feng shui

The traditional Chinese art of geomancy, the placement and arrangement of space called feng shui, is based on calculating the balance of qi, interactions between the , 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. Feng shui is said to be a form of qi divination.

Martial arts

Qi is a didactic concept in many , and Japanese martial arts. Martial qigong is a feature of both and training systems in China and other east Asian cultures.


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