By Ken Rose
Excerpt from: Qi The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health & Fitness Volume 17, No.2, Summer 2007
In Qi gong and Chinese Medicine there is no more fundamental question than, what is qi? Virtually all of the theories and methodologies employed in the course of Chinese medical interventions, from acupuncture to herbal medicine to massage and qigong, focus on manipulating and influencing an individual's qi. In qi gong we practice accumulating qi and refining qi. So what is it? The question is an obvious and important one, but straightforward answers are seldom easy to come by. This brief description is intended to be a start, a finger pointing a direction for the exploring mind to travel. The meaningful answers come to those who actually make the journey. And as with the mythic journey of Ulysses, when we set out on a voyage to discover the meaning of qi, we should pray that our journey be a long one.
Qi has been frequently translated into English as "energy." But this is a poor choice to be nominated as an equivalent for qi. For one thing, the meanings of energy in English are too varied and often vague to serve as a translation for the similarly varied and value meanings of the usages of qi in Chinese. This fact might at first seem to recommend the equivalence of qi and energy, but in practice the juxtaposition of so many vague and varied meanings on both sides of the translational divide results in sheer confusion. When some one says that qi is energy, what does that mean? One vague and poorly defined word is the same as another? But what do they mean? Discussions concerning qi often bog down in just this kind of quagmire, and this is largely owning to the reliance upon energy as an equivalent term for qi.
Rather than dwell on this aspect of the situation with respect to understanding what qi is, we should advance towards as clear a statement as possible of what qi does, in fact mean. If it doesn't mean energy, what does it mean?
In a book entitled A Brief History of Qi, I tried to sum up some 3,000 years of this word's documented history. Its use as a key term in Chinese thinking probably extends many more millennia into China's shadowy periods of pre-history. This brief essay is a beginning of a follow up volume to that one. Here I will present four English words that, taken together, do a fair job of conveying the gist of the ancient Chinese sensibility about the world that is wrapped up in the word qi.
The core meanings of qi can be conveyed by these four English words: connectivity, communication, change, and movement. Note that each of these is an abstract noun, i.e., the name of something that does not exist except as a property of concrete things. This suggests that qi is not primarily a concrete thing but an abstract quality of concrete things. And this is largely accurate as an overall description of qi, as it is often used in Chinese language and literature. Whatever qi is, whatever those who coined and who have used the word have meant to say with it for the past several thousand years, it is accurate to say that there is widespread consensus that it is not an essential material, concrete thing but is rather a property or aspect or consequence of behavior dynamics of material, concrete things.
Qi is therefore essentially a philosophical term, although its origins certainly predate the emergence of any recognizable body of philosophical thought. But it emerges from the same roots as does philosophy in China's past, namely the observation and consideration of natural phenomena. Put in its own philosophical context, qi is a consequence of the ever-changing dance of yin and yang. Qi is another way of saying that the world is constructed of yin and yang. In the most ancient of the ancient Chinese books, the Book of Changes, it is written that one yin and one yang result in the Dao, where Dao is understood as the overarching and all-embracing flux of the natural world.
Ancient Chinese philosophers and proto-philosophers yearned to find a way to express a deep sense of connection that they felt with the world in which they lived. They peered deeply into the processes of nature and of their own minds in examining their natural surroundings, and they formulated eloquent statements concerning subtle aspects of the interface between mankind and the natural world.
They coined the words yin and yang to describe the phenomena associated with the appearance of light and shadow in the world and to suggest the implications and paradoxes with which these phenomena appear to present us. They used this word Dao, which literally means pathway or road, to serve as a kind of catchall term to signify the awareness and recognition that all things share a common origin, which is why paradoxically enough that they diverge in shape and name and position in time and space and thus appear as a multiplicity to our eyes and other senses.
They coined and used these terms yin and yang, qi, and Dao to describe the design and operation of the system in which they understood themselves to be living and breathing components. And particularly in the school of thinking that came to be known as Daoism, they used these words to refine and clarify their understanding of this universal process (Dao) that provided both the field and the individual, specific points of focus in that field that serve as the matrix of life and meaning. In doing so they often pointed out that the overriding importance in observing and studying the phenomena and patterns of nature was to see and experience their interconnectedness.
In other words, yin and yang, qi and Dao all share and ultimately refer to a single meaning. This is not to say that each term does not have its own special meaning and particular usages. Each certainly does. But each essentially means the same thing. The only universal constant is change, and change takes place as a result of and through the most fundamental medium of yin and yang. The force and fact of this pattern is qi. The sum total of the activities of qi is called Dao. The manifest oneness of these is a compelling feature of the whole approach to knowledge that we know as Chinese native philosophy, especially Daoism.
Yet there is another aspect of qi that is even more compelling. The word began its long life as a pictographic representation of steam rising above a field. Its form altered over centuries to reflect the needs and the predilections of scribes and scholars who were busy with the work of creating one of the world's most curious and long lived systems of writing. Little is more challenging or more rewarding for those with a bent for words and language and literature than the study of the Chinese written language and its long history of literary traditions.
From this tradition of scholars and intellectuals there emerged a set of sensibilities that placed a high value on cultivating the capacity to see the relationships between things and phenomena. This millennia-long initiative to study and sort existence in organic categories in order to facilitate understanding the interactive dynamics and potentials of living systems beings with a quest for cosmological comprehension. In other words, qi is a term that emerges from the ancient quest to understand the origins of the universe and it was made manifest over thousands of years in that part of the world and by those people we know now as China and the Chinese.
In the terms of Chines folklore, the world comes from a giant egg that contained two things. One was a giant named Pan Gu, the other was a substance named "original qi." This "substance" is best described as yin and yang in an undifferentiated state of existence.
Shown above in the illustration is an early version of the Taiji diagram, the chart of yin and yang. Imagine how it would appear if the black and the white were merged into a single graphic form and substance. The resuilt would be a drawing of original qi.
One day the giant breaks the egg and the original qi leaks out. The clear, light aspect is thus freed to rise and form heaven, while the heavy, turbid characteristics descend and congeal to form the earth. The giant steps out onto the newly formed earth and where he steps, valleys are shaped beneath his feet. The mountains rise up with his every step. His sweat drips down and fills rivers and seas. Even humans have a point of origin in this old folk tale. We are the maggots that drop from Pan Gu's body as he traverses his new universe.
From these humble folk beginnings thinkers and writers cultivated the concept of qi for countless centuries until the extraordinary period know as The Warring States, China was then a battlefield on which the armies of seven principal kingdoms fought internecine war for nearly five centuries. The great kingdom of the Zou court was in ruins, and philosophers pondered the path towards civil harmony, as the kings in whose employ they inevitably found themselves ensured that peace would never come.