This question has been the elephant in the room here for quite some time. I have not dared to address it in any real sense as talk of Qi tends to muddy the already confused waters. But, it is time to talk about the most controversial topic in Asian martial arts today; the existence of Qi.
This piece is being inspired by my teacher Gabriel Chin. Gabriel was a firm believer in Qi and especially Qi Healing. He regularly practiced Qi Gong and taught it to anyone free of charge. He would often do healing sessions while “giving” Qi as the person sat there. Many people swore by his healing ability. Others who did not know him well, scoffed. And some of us in his circle were cautiously supporters of the concept.
Gabriel, by all accounts, would be said to believe in the “woo” part of Taiji. The magic beams of energy that have mystical powers. And to extent, this was true. He did believe that he was helping people who came to him with Qi. But, he believed it to be an entirely mundane and provable thing. He equated it with electromagnetism and the EM field. And in some scientific explanations, there seem to be some support for this view. However, as convinced as he was, he still wanted it to be shown scientifically. He once set me on the path to finding out the true nature of Qi through western methods.
Here is where I land on this question after almost 20 years of investigation.
What is Qi?
First and foremost, Qi is a word. And as a word, it is subject to various linguistic and cultural influences. What people mean when they use the word “Qi” can very significantly from person to person. Also in context, the idea is changed from sentence to sentence. The literal and most standard of meanings of the word is vapor or gas. Steam, natural gas, and other things relating to gaseous phenomena are usually expressed with the word “Qi”. To say Tianqi 天氣 meaning weather is different than saying Qiwei 氣味 meaning smell or odor yet, the word Qi is present in both. Besides the normal mundane uses of the word in Mandarin today, we have the specific uses from martial art, religion, and medicine. The way most westerners and practitioners of martial art know Qi is as the “vital life energy” that flows through all things. And within this category as well, we have different meanings and ideas about what Qi is and what role it plays in Martial arts and healing.
The word was originally written as three lines, much like the modern 三 morphing into 气. The character as we write it today evolved by the Han Dynasty , adding 米 to the original 气 to create the familiar 氣. This is also where the nemonic of steam rising off rice originates. It is a word that has always carried with it, multiple meanings. Over the centuries, it has obtained at least seven nouns, three verbs, and several bound morphemes (two or more words that combine to create a separate meaning unique to the combination).
Obviously the sense that we are focused on here is the metaphysical sense. This meaning is the one that is dominant now in various circles. The idea has spread to most literate cultures through the world. In general the definition of Qi is “The unifying field or life force that is found in all life and is responsible for us being able to live.” But even within this sense of the word, there is significant differences on how people interpret and define it for themselves. Some see it as an entity in and of its self. A type of energy or substance that is not identified by science. Some see it as an expression of certain phenomena, either mundane or miraculous. Some assign it known physical properties or marry them to certain physical processes. Equating Qi to physics concepts like kinetic and potential energy, electromagnetism, or other scientific and pseudoscientific principles. But generally, most of the conversation tends toward the question of whether Qi exists or not. But this might not be the appropriate dichotomy to rest our concept of Qi upon.
Qi in healing
The term “Qi” and it’s accompanying medical concept date as far back as the Yellow Emperor (2696–2598 BCE) . Qi was seen to be an energy or substance akin to the Greek concept of humours and the Hindu concept of Prana. It was responsible for everything in the body from movement to organ function. This concept has given rise to many practices that we know today. The belief and concept may be much older, having some roots in folk traditions before the Yellow Emperor’s writings. Acupuncture, acupressure, shiatsu, and a host of other medical and healing practices are based on this premise.
The idea of Qi in healing is one of the most controversial. There are several natural processes and structures that align quite nicely with the theory of Qi and tease an explanation. The problem is, these things are not always the same type of process or structure. For example, the acupuncture points identified on charts and diagrams often line up with specific structures in the body. These are used as a way to show that it is real and does have some basis in medical fact. But, these structures are not all of the same type. Some are boney protrusions, some are nodes for nervous pathways, and others are simply common trigger points found in muscles, having little to do with nerves in general. This is a common method in the explanation for practices like acupuncture and pressure point massage.
It is technically cherry picking evidence, but the information is still valuable. It simply must be combined with the negative results to give a clearer picture. From there, one can start to see where the effect of these practices really reside. Some maybe be psycho somatic, relying on the placebo effect to imagine one out of illness. Some others may have actual physical application in the therapeutic realm. But the line between these two is not always very clear. Chronic pain is a huge problem for modern Americans. Pain is almost entirely a brain based phenomenon. Psycho somatic treatments and therapies are often quite effective in the treatment of pain. This is a very real improvement for the person suffering. For this person, Qi may seem very real.
The bridge between the use of Qi for healing and the use of Qi for martial art feats is the practice of Qigong. Qigong is another term that has a sort of imagined antiquity. The actual term Qigong did not start to be used until the early 20th century and the grand category that we use the term today used to indicate the various types of exercise was invented by the Communist government to group the many disparate practices that had been common in history together for current practices and people. Prior to the 20th century, these exercises were known by a large number of names and a wide range of practices. Some were breathing exercises, some movement, other meditation, while most were some combination of all three. Qigong is also sometimes called “Chinese Yoga” for the health and physical benefits achieved through similar practice.
Today, Qigong refers to the conditioning, breathing, and mental practices that are often found in traditional martial arts but that also are schools of thought in and of themselves. They range from physically demanding stretching and movement drills and routines to mental fortitude and discipline practices like standing still for extended periods of time. The claimed effects of these practice also ranges from the fantastic to the mundane. When someone form the west starts looking into Qi, this is often their first encounter with it. These exercises again, are now called collectively, Qigong, but each has been known by their own names and different designations through the years.
Historically, what is now known as Qigong, had been practiced by religious groups that often were monastic in nature. These religious practices were often held in high esteem and kept secret for those within a sect. This contributed to the practices gaining a good deal of mysticism with them. Other practices came from martial artists and performers. These movement exercises and breath work have common hallmarks of Qigong practice. And of course there is influence from street performances. Street performance was a very popular form of entertainment at various times and places in China. Martial artists were often street performers, especially in the late Qing and early modern era, when the practice of Qigong was so named. And some of the more extreme and fantastic skill demonstrations in the martial arts of today come directly from busking .
In the martial arts, Qi is often a core concept in training and in theory of martial arts styles. As with the general word, the meaning of Qi and its use changes through the years depending on what the practitioners are in need of. Qi is used in many ways in the training of martial arts today. And it yields many benefits. Breathing and cardio fitness are among the largest benefits from the practice of Qigong or Qi related methods. But there are conditioning, flexibility, and mental/psychological training within them as well. Talk of how Qi flows through movements are common, how Qi is made into Jin, or how energy creates force are the most common and practical manifestations of Qi in martial arts.
The majority of fighting arts out there fall along a spectrum of how much a role Qi plays in their training method. For most I have encountered it is a casual relationship, often based on practicality for the situation or explanation. Others take it more seriously, but often, those are people who are taking a more medical approach to Qi and so, form their own category apart from true martial Qi. Still other forms of art make Qi and the amazing abilities said to be gained from it, the core of their school’s brand. It is then we get some of the most controversial applications of Qi we have.
The use of Qi in martial art is where the most contentious material is seated. Qigong type exercises and feats have been a part of martial arts performances from at least the Song Dynasty. Street performers would show off their iron body skills and the ability to withstand severe injury from being hit, having objects smashed on them, or being slashed with a sharp blade. This has since been named “Hard Qigong” and it includes many methods from popular culture like novels and stories. These skills are linked to certain practices. A certain routine from some monastery, perhaps, that will imbue the practitioner with the “armor of the golden bell” or another similarly named legendary ability. These have obvious ties to fighting arts as one of the unstated purposes of training athletics is to become more resilient to injury. Whether real or imagined.
Most of these feats are self working tricks that anyone can do. Beds of nails, walking on blades, fire walking, breaking objects with one’s body, all of these are tricks that do not rely on any mystical power. Most work by themselves, like fire walking and laying on a bed of nails. Others are simple tricks that require a little help from coconspirators, like breaking spears against the neck and smashing concrete on a partner with a sledge hammer. None of these tricks are unique to anyone style or method, indeed, they are not even unique to China. These magic tricks are still performed today in front of both the incredulous and the believer. They are tried and true means of self promotion.
But there is another application of Qi in the martial arts that causes consternation. This is the idea of “Kong Jin” or empty force. The ability to affect the opponent without touching them physically. People who claim such abilities will claim to push, throw, and disable full force attacks without physical contact. A wave a hand, a loud breath, or even a slight lean with the body will be enough to send an attacker flying or crumpled on floor. The idea seems plucked straight from fantasy novels and folktales. And for most people the mere idea that such a belief would persist in the modern age is hard enough to swallow, much less the idea that it might be true.
No touch knock outs and empty force are of course, the zenith of powers of Qi in martial arts. Although there is no evidence supporting such an ability, it is still firmly couched in the collective minds of martial artists. And again, the variety of expressions of this Qi ability are too numerous to count. From just pushing people away with little or no movement or touch to sending an opponent or partner jumping and spinning around like they were having an aerial seizure can be found. What explanation can there be for this type of thing other than fraud? Well, there are several process at work with Empty force that make such a thing possible. While out of the scope of this piece it is a topic I will return to in the future.
So, do you believe in Qi?
The question of whether or not I believe in Qi is not really to the point for me. A better way to phrase it is, “What do you think Qi is?”. And to that point I can sum it up as such; Qi is a word that is used to describe a wide range of phenomena and can be applied in many ways. The question if I believe in Qi or not is usually in direct reference to some sort of feat or explanation of a feat attributed to Qi. Those that come from a skeptical bias tend to think of Qi in the fantastical and incredulous way, as a fraudulent activity and junk science concept. Those that come from a supportive bias tend to frame claims with people recovering from illness, being rid of pain, or some other furtive situation.
The specific claims of Qigong and Traditional Chinese medicine can be examined with level heads and objective criteria. Healing and recovery is a complicated process about which we know comparatively little, but enough to know that our mental state does have some effect on our ability to heal. Stress in particular is a damaging state of mind and can cause chorine issues. But the claims of miraculous healing are mostly unsubstantiated. A few studies have done double blind examinations of the effect of Qi healing and recovery. There are no studies that show a correlation of any significance. But the practice of Qigong exercises does carry with it a host of verifiable and medically substantiated benefits. The Mayo Clinic has recommended both Taiji and Qigong as suitable exercise for aging populations due to the low impact nature of them and their focus on moment and mobility. Qi can be used a a visualization and illustration, bit it is is long way from being proven as the component that is doing the work in the cases studied.
The martial art and performative Qigong is easier to respond to. As stated above, most of the feats and tricks performed by Qigong performances are simple and very universal magic tricks, many of them self working. That means you can have untrained and uncooperative audience members expereince them. So, not much to unpack there. As far as no touch knockouts and such, I think it is fairly easier to assume that if such abilities were possible, there would be reliable training for them and they would occupy at least some space in every art. There are, however, too many natural processes and cognitive biases to explain away the most impressive and dumbfounding feats of Qi power without the need for magic or special substances or energies.
The controversy over Qi is one that rages on. For some, it is a key component to Chinese martial art and to be without it means you are not doing the authentic practice. To others it is a useless bit of superstition that is used by the unscrupulous to defraud the unwary. The truth is always more complex and interesting than the myths, in my opinion. And the truth of Qi is that there is no one truth to Qi. If you don’t use it in your martial art practice your practice won’t suffer. If you do use it, it does not replace the need for hard, physical work to master a skill. Does it matter that the only masters believed in Qi and set their systems up around it? I don’t think so.
Qi like anything from the past, is based on observations. These observations will be interpreted using the models available to the people involved. Our explanations of these observations will grow and change to add detail or change misconceptions made from imperfect models. Qi is one such imperfect model. As such, the idea of Qi will be exactly as helpful or harmful as you deem it to be.
As for me, I use Qi in my teaching because it offers a nice analogy and analog to kinesthetic activity. It is easier to get a person to visualize Qi as light or energy flowing through a persons body, then it is to explain the myriad process that happen at the biological and physiological levels. Qi offers a cohesive view of what we are doing when we move, and it can provide needed perspective if taught with care not to mix up the map for the territory or the metaphor for the thing it’s self.
Can Qi do the things that people claim?
That will have to wait for the next installment.