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Is Qi Real?

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“Is Qi Real?”: The (Kind Of) Big Question

Written July 16th, 2014

 “‘In 1985, I went to China representing the US and Yang Zhenduo (杨振铎) was there…What he told me was qi is not a mysterious thing.  It’s something that everyone has, but it’s largely misunderstood by most people.’” — Christopher Pei, Kung Fu Magazine “Wushu Out of the Olympics…Again”

Usually, the various aspects of martial arts are pretty obvious to the common observer.  Regardless of what style they are, all of them involve some manner of physicality, some extraneous, some more subtle.  Training can be focused on performance or demonstration, ring or competitive fighting, even street fighting or self-defense.  However, there is yet another concept of martial arts that has eluded full understanding of many, even by martial arts experts; qi.  Many training methods and interpretations of qi can be said to be controversial due the obscure nature of qi’s definition, which brings us to the question of this write-up, “Is Qi Real?”

Before we begin to answer this question, we need to establish a concrete answer to another question, “What is qi?”  Also spelled as “chi”, qi (气; qì) refers to a specifically Asian idea, pronounced “ki” in Japanese and Korean (기).  In the Chinese language, qi has various meanings, ranging from “air” to “vital energy.”  Qi has a history of often being misinterpreted and marketed as some mystical type of energy.  In popular media, qi has been interpreted as a kind of energy that can be used for seemingly superhuman feats, as seen with spectacular tricks in Shaolin Wushu demonstrations, to fictional energy attacks, as seen in the popular Japanese Dragon Ball franchise.  In The Karate Kid 2010 remake starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan, Jaden’s character compares qi to the Force in the Star Wars universe.  However, serious study from traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts theory defines qi as an actual energy within the body.  With all these combined definitions and confusion, this brings us back to our question, “Is Qi Real?”  Based on my personal, albeit limited experience, I can say, “Yes, it is, but it is not fully understood.”

As mentioned before, qi has a history of being misinterpreted due to its more popular and well-known representations.  Aside from its fictional portrayals, qi is also marketed as an aspect of martial arts training.  Examples include the aforementioned Shaolin demonstrations, ranging from breaking iron to being able to take the physical force of spearheads without a scratch.  Others include very “mystical” practices, which include Chinese and Japanese interpretation of qi; this definition includes practices where the practitioners claim to be able to force away or even “knock out” opponents without even touching them, by using qi.  However, the validity of many of these practices have been openly challenged, especially by other martial arts masters, and also debunked.  Many of the so-called “masters” of this kind of “mysterious” qi practice have also been labeled as frauds.  Thus, it would appear that based on this representation alone, qi seems to be nothing more than a fake marketing gimmick.

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Despite all this, the idea of qi is still prevalent in traditional Chinese philosophy.  Qi, and qi cultivation, is also very prominent in the theory and practice of traditional Chinese medicine, as well as many real Chinese martial arts.  In Chinese martial arts, many styles are classified into categories of “external” (外家; wàijiā, literally “external family”) and “internal” (内家; nèijiā, literally “internal family”), where “external” refers to the training focused on purely physical techniques, and “internal” refers to the training of intent, spirituality, internal health.  Specifically, the focus of qi is especially emphasized in internal martial arts.  Examples of this include traditional Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist) and Xingyiquan (形意拳; xíng​yì​quán, literally “shape-will fist”).  Exceptions to this include variations of the internal styles for competition in modern Wushu Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms), where only the external values of physical technique and performance are emphasized in training.

In the internal styles of Chinese martial arts, there is a common belief that the training of one’s qi, especially in “directing” it with “focused intent” towards certain points of the body, can help strengthen attack and defense.  In this way, Shaolin practitioners of qigong validate the existence and practice of qi, based on the reasoning that qi can be “concentrated” at different parts of body, thus making them seemingly invulnerable to any external harm; examples of this is the “iron shirt” (铁衫; tiěshān) skill.  But how does this kind of “qi training” work?  Again, the theory behind all these skills is based on the training and cultivation of one’s qi.

The specific practice of cultivating qi is known as qigong (气功; qìgōng).  Qigong is a very general term, but the practice of qigong generally focuses on the coordination of breathing with physical movements and postures.  Among all of this, mental “intent” or “focus” is heavily emphasized, especially at specific body parts, depending on the movement or posture being executed.  In traditional Chinese philosophy, which is the basis for the theory and belief of traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts, the physicality of the human body in relation to qi is based on the belief that qi flows through certain meridians (经络; jīngluò), or “energy channels”, located at various points throughout in the body.  A good analogy for the relationship between meridians and qi, is that meridians can be like a “tunnel” or “water hose”, and that qi is the water that flows through these channels.  When qi flows well through the meridians, and strengthened with the practice of qigong, the body is in good health.  However, if there is an abnormality, a “clot” or “knot” in the channel causing qi to flow irregularly, the body is consequently weak or ill.  In Chinese acupuncture, all sorts of ailments and injuries are explainable and caused by these kinds of abnormalities.  Proponents of qigong believe that by practicing qigong, the resultant cultivation of qi will strengthen and promote overall good health in the body.  Indeed, the purported health benefits have proven to be the source of qigong’s marketing appeal for the public.  This is also the basis of health benefits that are marketed, and supported, with the practices of Taijiquan and other internal martial arts.

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My personal experience has led me to the answer in this write-up that, “Yes, qi exists, but it is not fully understood.”  Recently, I have had very limited, albeit enlightening, exposure to qigong, in addition to my short training in traditional Chen Style Taijiquan.  In the Kung Fu Magazine article “Taiji Quan Fundamentals & Qigong” by Violet Li, which features Chen Style Taijiquan Grandmaster Chen Zhenglei, tips to cultivate qi through Taijiquan include, “A practitioner should keep the lips loosely closed, with the tip of the tongue lightly touching the roof of the mouth right behind the upper teeth”, and that, “According to Grandmaster Chen, there are five levels of qi cultivation in Taiji.  The first three levels are easy to understand and obtain.  When level one occurs, a practitioner should feel warmth in the hands and puffiness in the fingers.”  I have found all these observations to be true.  One of my seniors at the Wushu school I attended has attributed the “right way” of doing qigong to “white spots” that appear on red palms after the proper execution of qigong exercises, though I would personally describe this as a “whitish discoloration” on red palms.  However, despite all these affirmations, my knowledge is still infantile compared to so many others that are much more experienced with qigong.  Therefore, my understanding of qi, like that of many others, is extremely limited.

The Kung Fu Magazine article “Wushu Out of the Olympics…Again” features Christopher Pei, head coach of the US Wushu Academy, and also my first modern Wushu Taolu coach, as well as my first Sanshou and Chen Style Taiji coach.  In it, Christopher Pei relates, “‘In 1985, I went to China representing the US and Yang Zhenduo (杨振铎) was there…What he told me was qi is not a mysterious thing.  It’s something that everyone has, but it’s largely misunderstood by most people.’”  His explanation of qi seems to be very straightforward.  “‘The easiest way to explain qi is that your mind has to think of something, then the qi flows and the body flows…It’s very simple – mind moves qi, qi moves body.’”  But while this explanation seems to be clear, the idea of mental “intent” or “focus” being able to affect qi is a concept I still can’t seem to grasp.  Is the mind really capable of moving energy within our body?  My confusion may be because I do not have the same level of skill and knowledge in traditional Taijiquan and qigong that my former head coach has.  Allegedly, the level of skill required to master one’s qi requires a long time of training the “intent”, which I am not afraid to admit I completely lack, and therefore do not fully understand qi as a result.

Based on the scientific, albeit crude tests that are known and presented to the public, qi seems to correlate with heat and blood flow within the body.  Whether or not there is some kind of relationship between qi and these things, or if all these things are in actuality the same thing, remains unknown.  In some interpretations of qi, qi is even equated to bioelectricity within the body, which seems to have some merit, though this perspective would require some more scientific research to support it.  However, while many of the purported qigong-associated health benefits and amazing martial arts feats have been corroborated and proven scientifically, the direct proving of the existence of qi itself seems to escape science.  Historically, Western science has only been able to measure and quantify the effects and results of qi practices, but has not been able to measure and quantify qi itself, which leaves its existence open to debate in the scientific world.  It is also important to note that at the same time, many of the so-called “masters” and methods of “no-touch knockouts” claiming to use qi, have also been debunked at the same time, which only serves to bolster more skepticism of qi as a reality.

Some martial arts practitioners who have trained in Chinese martial arts dismiss the idea and belief of qi, preferring to stick to a more “practical”, scientific basis of evaluating martial arts training.  Although this perspective seems valid, it is important to acknowledge that whether or not qi can be debunked, the idea of qi, and its interpretations form the basis of Chinese culture and philosophy, which in turn is the basis for the study and practice of Chinese martial arts.  If we are to study and take the Chinese martial arts seriously, we must at least recognize and respect the theories and beliefs of qi that are so ingrained in the practice of traditional Chinese martial arts.

Again, when it comes answer the question, “Is qi real?” my answer is still, “Yes, but it is not fully understood.”  And in the end, my explanations and personal experiences are ultimately just a secondhand account to you, the reader.  So, in order to actually discover the answer for yourself, it is best to actually explore and try to experience qi for yourself, and draw your own conclusions.  In order promote better understanding about qi, it is important that we keep an open mind, but at the same time use our critical judgment to differentiate what is legitimate and what is not in relation to qi.  My conclusions may not be the same as everyone else’s, but at the very least, I hope this write-up has helped to bring the consideration of qi into a more serious light.

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