Three views of qi in Tai Chi

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

When it comes to “qi” it seems that every teacher has a slightly different view about what it is. After meeting many martial arts teachers, over the years (and ignoring the clearly delusional amongst them) I’ve paired these various views down to three models that I feel can act as a guide for helping the practitioner sort out what your teacher means when he or she says “qi”, and therefore, what you mean. I don’t think the three are exclusive at all – following one does not negate the others – and all three can be applied at once.

Many people would rather we kept qi out of Tai Chi Chuan teaching altogether, and I respect that view, however the Tai Chi Classics refer to qi quite often, so I think we’re stuck with it. And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Of course, qi relates to things well outside of the realm of martial arts too, so I think that it’s important to say that what follows is from a martial arts perspective. I’m looking at qi with a view to how it relates to the human body in things like Xing Yi and Tai Chi Chuan. If I was thinking about how qi related to, say the universe, or the landscape, I’d be looking in different places. Although, it has to be said that in Chinese thought the microcosm often mirrors the macrocosm.

Biological qi

The first view we’ll call the biological model. This is the view that what the Chinese call qi is simply the energy the body creates in the cells using the ATP cycle. We’re not talking about a controversial “bio energy” here, just the normal way energy is created in the cells of the body.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things and the universal energy carrier in the living cell. The German chemist Karl Lohmann discovered ATP in 1929.

ATP contains three phosphates and when it is converted to Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP) a phosphate is removed and energy is released that cells can use for processes like movement, synthesis and active transport.

While the chemical process of the ATP cycle is hard to explain, the impact on things like Tai Chi and martial arts is quite simple and uncomplicated – qi is nothing mysterious here, and all movement therefore requires qi.
In this model, qi is related to breath because oxygen is required for the ATP cycle, which ties into the Chinese view of qi being related to breath quite nicely. The lungs therefore take over a prominent role in qi production, since oxygen is required for the ATP cycle to work.

Teachers that have this view of qi tend to focus more on the middle dantien in the body, as the the focus of movement, since qi production is higher in the body, towards the lungs, compared to the lower dantien. Stances tend to be higher and not as wide. Mobility is stressed over stability. Arts like Xing Yi and Yi Quan are good examples of these sorts of martial arts.

Qi as strength in a conditioned body

The second view of qi fits in more with Chinese concepts of acupuncture. This view sees the body as containing a number of muscle-tendon channels that run from finger tips to toes. On the soft yin parts on the front of the body we find the yin channels, and on the harder yang parts of the body, the yang channels. These qi channels are the channels along which strength can ‘flow’. By strength we’re not talking about the normal isolated limb movements, but the type of springy whole-body strength exhibited by animals and some marital artists. You can view movement in animals (and humans following this model) as a series of opening and closing movements using these channels. When we contract inwards, for example, we pull along the yin channels and when we open the body outwards we are pulling along the yang channels.

Think of the movements of a Cheetah running – as the legs stretch out the yin part on the front of the body is ‘opened’ and the back ‘closed’. As the legs retract inwards, the front closes and the back expands and opens. The process repeats in a cycle. This movement from yin to yang and back again is the Tai Chi cycle in action.

These channels are not real anatomical structures in the body, but constructed as distinct pathways containing various muscles, tendon, ligaments and fascia groups. (The acupuncture meridians that most people are familiar with are a similar idea, but came later and are obviously based on this idea of muscle-tendon channels in the body.)

In a normal human being these channels are not particularly strong or well developed, and work is required to strengthen them – to give you a “strong qi” – which is what neigong and chigong is for.
Qigong practice is therefore designed to condition these muscle-tendon channels – notice a lot of Qigong practice is to do with stretching along these muscle-tendon channels, using the breathing to assist (e.g. the baduanjin set of exercise). Over time this stretching and breathing can strengthen the channels so that they become a tangible, physical presence in the body. Once they are strong enough to physically manipulate the body with, various martial arts feats can be performed using them, like explosive punching (Fa Jin) or strong twisting and coiling movements.

You most often find this qi model used in arts like Chen Taijiquan, which is known for its twisting and coiling locking and throwing methods (chin na) and its explosive, whole body strikes called Fa Jin. Silk reeling exercises, which are part of Chen style Tai Chi, are excellent for developing this kind of conditioned strength.

Qi as a non-physical body

The final, more esoteric, view of Qi is as a non-physical body. Chinese medicine has the concept of the Sanbao – the three bodies. The physical body – Jing (related to our ability to replicate ourselves by reproduction), the energy or Qi body and Shen the mental or spiritual body. All three bodies are thought to inhabit us at once.

The physical body is the most apparent being the one we use most obviously, but through practices such as Zhang Zhuang Qi Gong, where you stand and hold postures over time, we can gradually become more aware of the more subtle energy body. The Qi body becomes apparent through sensation observed over time. The act of being aware of the qi body, usually in standing Qigong postures, (although seated or lying meditation practice also exists), strengthens your connection to it and your appreciation of it. The same is, presumably, also true of the Shen body, but that is not something I’ve ever experienced myself.

These more esoteric practices tend to be associated with spiritual groups (Taoist internal alchemy traditions), secret societies (exploited in the Boxer Rebellion) and martial arts groups that tend more towards stillness in their practice – like Yang style Taijiquan, or ones that practice seemingly impossible feats of conditioning, like iron palm and iron body practices.

While this view of qi is the one that’s hardest to ‘prove’, it’s also one of the most accessible. Practicing with stillness over a period of time can be done by anybody anywhere and usually produces some tangible results – heat in the hands, etc. But I think this is also the qi model it’s easiest to become deluded with. After all, if your only feedback is judging the things you experience yourself it’s easy to lose your objectivity. This is of course why having a good teacher is important.

2 thoughts on “Three views of qi in Tai Chi

  1. Yes, thanks for posting this.

    Qi is very difficult to translate. Your best statement was “I don’t think the three are exclusive at all – following one does not negate the others – and all three can be applied at once.” In fact, all classical usages of “qi” are related and vary primarily by context.

    The reason is that “qi” in Classical Chinese is not primarily a noun like it is in modern Chinese. Words like “qi” perform a function in Classical Chinese for which we have no equivalent in English. It functions sort of like a pronoun where one knows from the context who “he” or “she” is and who “they” are. For parts of speech like “qi,” they associate characteristics and properties with a grammatical object, the meaning of which can vary by the context. At least, that is an easy way to start thinking of it.

    Unfortunately, many translators feel an obligation to translate “qi” using its modern usage as a noun meaning, gas, air, breath, weather, odor, anger, or vital energy. They would better serve their readers by leaving these Classical Chinese terms untouched rather than translating. The modern terms relate to the classical ones, but the modern usage in a classical context can be misleading.

    “Yin” and “yang” perform a grammatical function similar to “qi.” The character for “yin” is the shady side of a mountain and “yang” is the sunny side. Yang assigns a certain set of properties and yin describes a complementary set of properties to an object. If there is a specific meaning, it is determined by context, but often a group of meanings is conveyed, any one of which may be correct. This concisely conveys deep levels of significance rather than a precise, but shallow, definition, something with which many westernized readers are uncomfortable.

    Qi associates properties related to “the separation of yin and yang” or “what separates yin and yang” with the object or subject. This kind of thinking is foreign to modern, Western thought. We tend to think more in terms of cause and effect. However, this is observation, acceptance, and pattern and property recognition.

    A great exercise is to read a classical text and every time “qi” appears, substitute “separation of yin and yang.” The meaning will be much closer to the author’s intent and the text will become more enlightening.


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