In traditional Chinese culture, [chee] is an active principle forming part of any living thing. Qi is frequently translated as life energy, lifeforce, or energy flow. Qi is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. The literal translation is ‘breath,’ ‘air,’ or ‘gas.’ Concepts similar to qi can be found in many cultures, for example, Prana in Vedantic philosophy, mana in Hawaiian culture, Lüng in Tibetan Buddhism, and Vital energy in Western philosophy.

Some elements of qi can be understood in the term ‘energy’ when used by writers and practitioners of various esoteric forms of spirituality and alternative medicine. Elements of the qi concept can also be found in popular culture, for example ‘The Force’ in ‘Star Wars’ Notions in the west of energeia, élan vital, or vitalism are purported to be similar.

The etymological explanation for the form of the qi logogram in the traditional form composed of ”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, 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 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 rice.

References to concepts 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 from the earliest records of Chinese philosophy (5th century BCE) correspond to Western notions of ‘humours’ and the ancient Hindu yogic concept of ‘prana,’ meaning ‘life force’ in Sanskrit. The earliest description of ‘force’ in the current sense of vital energy is found in the Vedas of ancient India (c. 1500-1000 BCE), and from the writings of the Chinese philosopher Mencius (4th century BCE). Historically, it is the ‘Huangdi Neijing’ translated as, ‘The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine’ (c. 2nd century BCE) that is credited with first establishing the pathways through which qi circulates in the human body.

According to Czech sinologist Manfred Porkert, ‘Within the framework of Chinese thought, no notion may attain 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 inevitably flows from their brushes.’

The ancient Chinese described it as ‘life-force.’ They believed qi permeated everything and linked their surroundings together. They likened it to the flow of energy around and through the body, forming a cohesive and functioning unit. By understanding its rhythm and flow they believed they could guide exercises and treatments to provide stability and longevity. Although the concept of qi has been important within many Chinese philosophies, over the centuries the descriptions of qi have varied and have sometimes been in conflict. Until China came into contact with Western scientific and philosophical ideas, they had not categorized all things in terms of matter and energy. ‘Qi’ and ‘li’ were fundamental categories similar to ‘matter’ and ‘energy.’ Fairly early on, some Chinese thinkers began to believe that there were different fractions of qi and that the coarsest and heaviest fractions of qi formed solids, lighter fractions formed liquids, and the most ethereal fractions were 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 over the course of their lifetime.

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. 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.

Confucious was recorded as having said, ‘The [morally] noble man guards himself against three things. When he is young, his xue-qi has not yet stabilized, so he guards himself against sexual passion. When he reaches his prime, his xue-qi is not easily subdued, so he guards himself against combativeness. When he reaches old age, his xue-qi is already depleted, so he guards himself against acquisitiveness.’ Confucian philosopher 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 willpower. When properly nurtured, this qi was said to be capable of extending beyond the human body to reach throughout the universe. It could also be augmented by means of careful exercise of one’s moral capacities. On the other hand, the qi of an individual could be degraded by adverse external forces that succeed in operating on that individual.

Not only human beings and animals were believed to have qi. Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi indicated that wind is the qi of the Earth. Moreover, cosmic yin and yang ‘are the greatest of qi.’ He described qi as ‘ssuing forth’ and creating profound effects. 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.’ 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.’

Xun Zi, another Confucian scholar wrote, ‘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.’ 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 from a distance away from the fire. They accounted for this phenomenon by claiming ‘qi’ radiated from fire.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) asserts that the body has natural patterns of qi that circulate in channels called meridians. In TCM, symptoms of various illnesses are 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 Zang Fu organs (components of TCM). Traditional Chinese medicine often seeks to relieve these imbalances by adjusting the circulation of qi using a variety of techniques including herbology, food therapy, physical training regimens (qigong, t’ai chi ch’uan, and other martial arts training), moxibustion (mugwort herb), tui na (Chinese manipulative therapy), and acupuncture.

There have been a number of studies of qi, especially in the sense used by traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. These studies have often been problematic, and are hard to compare to each other, as they lack a common nomenclature. Some studies claim to have been able to measure qi, or the effects of manipulating qi, such as through acupuncture, but the proposed existence of qi has been rejected by the scientific community. A National Institutes of Health consensus statement on acupuncture in 1997 noted that concepts such as qi ‘are difficult to reconcile with contemporary biomedical information.’

In 2007 ‘Network,’ a newsletter discussing ‘topics of interest to cancer patients’ and published by the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, published an article covering the concepts by which qi is believed to work and research into possible benefits for cancer patients. A review of clinical trials investigating the use of internal qigong for pain management found no convincing evidence that it was effective. Qìgōng is a practice involving coordinated breathing, movement, and awareness, traditionally viewed as a practice to cultivate and balance qi. With roots in traditional Chinese medicine, philosophy, and martial arts, qigong is now practiced worldwide for exercise, healing, meditation, and training for martial arts. Typically a qigong practice involves rhythmic breathing coordinated with slow stylized movement, a calm mindful state, and visualization of guiding qi.

Qi is a didactic concept in many Chinese, Korean and Japanese martial arts. Martial qigong is a feature of both internal and external training systems in China and other East Asian cultures. The most notable of the qi-focused ‘internal’ force (jin) martial arts are T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Aikido. Demonstrations of qi or ki power are popular in some martial arts and may include the immovable body, the unraisable body, the unbendable arm and other feats of power. All of these feats can alternatively be explained using biomechanics and physics.

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 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. Attributes of each item in a space affect the flow of qi by slowing it down, redirecting it or accelerating it, which is said to influence the energy level of the occupants. One use for a Luopan (Chinese magnetic compass) is to detect the flow of qi. The quality of qi may rise and fall over time, feng shui with a compass might be considered a form of divination that assesses the quality of the local environment.

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