Getting lost in words like Qi and Yi

Photo by Happy Pixels on

I was observing the usual argument/discussion between two people about ancient Chinese words like Yi and Qi that frequently happen in Tai Chi circles, and it was going down a familiar route..

“Don’t lecture me! I read classic Chinese and Yi means ‘idea’ and Qi means ‘movement’.”

“Really? Wang Yongquan wrote ‘To mobilize Qi, you create an empty space, by Soong and a light Yi to empty the area. The differentiation of yin and yang is what makes Qi flow.”

“Seems quiet different then…”

Confused! Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile on

And on and on and on…

Recently I had a conversation with a very experienced Chinese martial artist (it will be released as a podcast soon, don’t worry) about how these things are trained in Asia vs how we do it in the West. 

He made the point that in the West we have to understand something intellectually before we will do it. i.e. we have to know we’re not wasting our time, that we will get something out of this. It has to ‘make sense’. And we usually ask loads of questions before even trying it. In contrast, in Asia, there is a lot less questioning and a lot more doing. You just do it. If you’re doing it wrong you hope your teacher will notice and put you on the right track. But generally you just keep doing it secure in the knowledge that eventually you will get it. It’s all in the feel. If you have the feel right, then you are doing it. End of story.

Nowhere is this distinction between the Eastern and Western approach more clearly represented that on discussion forums about Tai Chi that are full of Westerners. We love to argue about what these ancient concept and words like Qi, Yi and Xin really mean. As if one day we will arrive at the ultimate answer. It seems we can’t get enough of it. 

But here’s the secret: it doesn’t matter how you define these words, what concept or theory you use for their implementation, or how well you read Classical Chinese from the Ming Dynasty. What matters is – can you do it? Can you show it to me?

If I said, “Show me your Yi. Let me feel your Jin” Could you do it?

If you can then it doesn’t matter wether you define Yi as “idea”, “mind” or “intent”. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the famous phrase coined by Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, who gave a paper in 1931 about physics and mathematics in which he wrote that “the map is not the territory” and that “the word is not the thing”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself.

So, all these online arguments about Qi and Yi, are effectively pointless. They are map, not territory. However, I do think that a little intellectual understanding can be useful. Especially if it stops you asking questions long enough to just practice. Also, there’s always this temptation to think that if I can just understand something perfectly, or write it down in the perfect, most simple way, then eventually everyone will go “Yes! That’s it!”

Anyway, as I was practicing this morning a thought popped into my head which I thought felt right, so I thought I’d write down and share it:

“Yi is the direction you’re sending your mind in, and the Jin follows.”

To me, Yi is always about a direction. And it is directed. It’s the opposite of a vague, warm, fuzzy haze. It has a steadfastness and a focus. There. Did that help? Or did it just make you more confused. Answers in the comments section please. If you have your own pithy phrase to summarise a concept as subtle as Yi that works for you, then feel free to add it below.

I’ve written before about Yi in Tai Chi Chuan. So, you can have a read of that too.

2 thoughts on “Getting lost in words like Qi and Yi

  1. This is one of your most sensible posts.

    I tend talk about Qi, because the original and taijiquan usages of the word is being lost. I never talk about Yi, or Peng, Lu, Ji, An, and so on, and rarely Jin, because these really need to be experienced.

    After 13 years of trying to understand these terms, my, at the time, new teacher started with Peng and said, “This is Peng, and this is Peng several times,” showing superficially different actions in push hands that had common characteristics. “Do you understand? You do it.” After a couple of failed attempts, he said, ‘That’s it. That’s Peng. Nothing else is Peng.” and so on with each term.

    After that we never, perhaps rarely, used any of those Chinese terms.

    From my perspective, saying Yi is a direction is perhaps part of understanding. My teacher says, “Stretch.” When he first taught me, he said, “Reach.” We also say. “Rotate.” “Pull the elbow in and reach out with the hand” is another. Each of these requires the mind to interface with the body is specific and exact ways to achieve the desired structure and action.

    Stretch can be directional; it also can be bi-directional, and it is usually across a joint or series of joints. Rotate requires a still point around which everything else moves. The Yi in this action is to hold that center of rotation dead still or that will be no jin created.

    So, yes, it can be directional, but that doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head of the way I think of the term.

    Chen Fake and other members of the Chen family have said, “Learning Taijiquan is learning it according to the rules.” Using English to approximate the terms, each of the “rules” requires a different yi, which creates a specific state of qi, which in turn creates a specific type of structure and action (jin). But, yet again, words fail and these things just really must be experienced.


  2. Very nicely put. Intellectualizing is the curse of North American taiji. Took me 20 years to shake that disease completely and now I’m dumb enough to do some of it correctly in the way that matters… both on my own and with partners.

    P.S. The late, great illustrator Frank Frazetta summarized YI very neatly from an archaic Western perspective in this painting. 😇



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