Example4Qi 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


The etymological explanation for the form of the qi logogram in the traditional form 氣 is “steam (气) rising from rice (米) 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, (identical to the present-day simplified character) 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. (See the Oracle bone character, the Seal script character and the modern "school standard" or Kǎi shū characters in the box at the right for three stages of the evolution of this character.)[1]

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. Their use of qi (lifebreath) and li (pattern, regularity, form, order) 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. But those questions occur only in the hybrid conceptual system.

Analysis of the relationship between qi (breath, lifebreath) and li (the patterns, regularities, or the formal aspect of things) has been very difficult for Chinese philosophers. In addition, how to account for what people in the West might casually categorize as "solid stuff" was also a problem. Fairly early on, some Chinese thinkers began to believe that there are different fractions of qi (in the sense that different fractions can be extracted from crude oil in a catalytic cracker), 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.[2]

Early philosophical texts Edit

The earliest texts that speak of qi give some indications of how the concept developed. The philosopher Mo Di (also known as Mo Zi or "Master Mo") 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.[3] 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.[4] He also associated maintaining one's qi with providing oneself adequate nutrition.[5] And, in regard to another kind of qi he recorded how some people performed a kind of prognostication by observing the qi (clouds) in the sky.[6]

In the "Analects of Confucius", (composed from the notes of individual students sometime after his death in 479 B.C.), "qi" can mean "breath",[7] and it can be combined with the Chinese word for blood (making 血氣, xue-qi, blood and breath) and that concept can be used to account for motivational characteristics. The Analects, 16:7, says:


Meng Ke (also known as Meng Zi, Master Meng, or Mencius) 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.[8] 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.[9] This qi can be augmented by means of careful exercise of one's moral capacities.[10] On the other hand, the qi of an individual can be degraded by averse external forces that succeed in operating on that individual.[11]

Not only human beings and animals were believed to have "qi". Zhuang Zhou (also known as Zhuang Zi or Master Zhuang) indicated that wind is the "qi" of the earth.[12] Moreover, cosmic Yin and Yang "are the greatest of 'qi'."[13] He describes qi as "issuing forth" and creating profound effects.[14]

Zhuang Zi gave us one of the most productive of insights into the nature of "qi". He said "Human beings are born [because of] 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."[15]

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 [as a result] things are born."[16]

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 (sense of right and wrong, duty, justice). 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 (氣質之性) 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.[17]

Traditional Chinese medicine Edit

Theories of traditional Chinese medicine assert that the body has natural patterns of qi that circulate in channels called meridians in English.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20]

Feng Shui Edit

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.

Nature Edit

Disputing the nature of qi is an old pursuit in Chinese philosophy. Among some traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, qi is sometimes thought of as a metaphor for biological processes similar to the Western concept of energy flow for homeostatic balance in biological regulations.Template:Fact Others argue that qi involves some new physics or biology.Template:Fact Attempts to directly connect qi with some scientific phenomena have been made since the mid-nineteenth century. The philosopher Kang Youwei believed that qi was synonymous with the later-abandoned concept of luminiferous ether.

Views of qi as an esoteric "force" tend to be more prominent in the West, where it has sometimes been associated with New Age spiritualism. These views are less prominent in modern communist China, where traditional Chinese medicine is often practiced and considered effective, but in which esoteric notions of qi are considered to contradict the secular nature of Marxist dialectic materialism. China's current government in fact formally embraces anti-spiritual atheism.Template:Fact Many traditional martial arts schools also eschew a supernatural approach to the issue, identifying "external qi" or "internal qi" as representative of the varying leverage principles used to improve the efficacy of a well-trained, healthier than normal body with a given work load.Template:Fact

Some complementary and alternative medicine approaches not only assume the existence of qi but believe that the purported subtle energy running through and surrounding the body can be manipulated so as to cultivate increased physical, psychological and spiritual health. Acupuncture, along with other practices of TCM, ayurveda, and many other traditional disciplines worldwide provide examples of similar beliefs.

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