The importance of Qi
Gold Coast, Australia
Recently I have been ‘surfing’ the martial arts discussion boards and have come across quite a lot of discussion on the concept of Qi. As Taiji and Bagua practitioners, Qi is at the very basis of our art. Everything we do in Taiji and Bagua, whether it is martial or healing related, involves an understanding/experience of Qi. My own progression through the arts of Taiji and Bagua I see most significantly in terms of a deepening understanding of Qi, from my very first Qi Gong experience to push hands, to my evolving understanding of the intricacies of the Taiji and Bagua forms. Indeed, as far as I am concerned, Taiji and Bagua are nothing other than expressions of Qi. Qi is the master concept, the one I always return to, and it is precisely this experience/understanding of Qi that the external arts, in my experience [having previously studied Taekwondo and external Kung-Fu], lack.
Given all of this, one can understand my utter consternation over the flack Qi seemed to be receiving on the Internet discussion boards. Lots of people thought of Qi as a mystical, anti-rational concept, an anachronism of Chinese feudal culture. Other people said that whether an individual chooses to believe in Qi is purely a matter of personal preference, like belief in God. Rejecting these two positions, the first of which is openly dismissive, the second merely agnostic, I wish to provide a rational, which is to say philosophical, justification of the concept. Put simply, I wish to show why Qi is an important idea.
Qi, wind and transformation
So what is Qi? Historically, the concept of Qi can be traced back to the concept of wind that arose during China’s Shang era [eighteenth through twelfth centuries B.C.E]. Just as winds blow on the earth, Qi is the wind, so to speak, that blows through the body. Thus we get the idea of an energy moving through the body. And for the founders of traditional Chinese medicine, external winds very much affected internal winds. Wind was seen as ‘the chief of the hundred diseases.’ For the early Shang Chinese, wind represented change [e.g. the changing of seasons], and traditional Chinese medicine, which evolved over latter eras, seeks to understand states of change – i.e. transformations of Qi or energy – within the body. Thus, the application of the idea of wind to the body through Chinese medicine leads to the much broader idea of Qi as ‘life-force.’ ‘Life-force’ might seem a significant departure from ‘wind’, though it is the concept of change, of transformation, that is the common element. Qi is the energy behind the multifarious transformations that make up the universe. In this, Qi is the very basis of existence; Qi literally is life, or that through which life emerges. Qi is that mysterious ‘some-thing’ that is transformed for there to be an existing universe, though its transformation is in fact part of what it is. For instance, in his text on Chinese medicine, The Web that Has no Weaver (1983), Ted Kaptchuk writes:
We can say that everything in the universe, organic and inorganic, is composed of and defined by its Qi. But Qi is not some primordial, immutable material, nor is it merely vital energy … Chinese thought does not distinguish between matter and energy, but we can perhaps think of Qi as matter on the verge of becoming energy, or energy at the point of materializing (p. 35).
As such, for Chinese medicine:
Qi is the source of all movement in the body and accompanies all movement […] Qi is not the cause of movement. For example, Qi is the source of growth in the body, but also grows with the body (p. 37).
This is of course deeply philosophical. To speak in the language of philosophy, Qi supposes that the event of Being [of the universe] is radically self-originary. As Kaptchuk states above, ‘Qi is not some primordial, immutable material.’ And it is as such that the idea of Qi, we might say, is distinctly Chinese, for the West has always sought to know the ground of existence. For Western theology the ground of existence is God, for Western philosophy it is Being, and for Western science it is matter. Qi, on the other hand, is a groundless ground. Qi is the event of existence [‘everything in the universe is composed of and defined by its Qi’] as a radical self-presupposition, acting as the source of its own ‘self,’ irreducible to any given thing that might precede it. What is the source of Qi? Qi is the source of Qi. Qi changes the body [e.g. aging] and in changing the body changes itself. Put as simply as possible, Qi is circular, whereas Western thought has traditionally preferred the linear.
Qi in Taijiquan and Baguazhang
What has any of this got to do with Taiji and Bagua, you might be asking. Well, in Taiji and Bagua, when performing the forms etc., the body must be in a continuous state of change. There are no static postures. Hence we are told that we should never be double weighted. This applies not just to the distribution of weight between the legs but also to the distribution of weight throughout the whole body. The hands, for instance, should never be double weighted. One hand should be yang relative to the other hand, which will be yin. The very first move from the Taiji slow form is a good test of this, and I must say that I have yet to come across a practitioner outside of the WTBA who does not do this move double weighted. Why is it, I ask myself, that this most basic principle of Taiji, the principle of continuous change, is only vaguely or partially adhered to? What happened?
Ideally, the application of this principle of continuous change to the movements of the form should lead to an extreme holism, so that, as the classics say, no part of the body can move without the whole body moving. As I see it, the principle, ideally, is this: it is always the whole body that must be in a continuous state of change rather than any of its parts alone. So for instance, raising the hands double weighted, we might say that the hands are in a state of continuous change, and leave it at that. However, in terms of the whole, there is no state of change between the hands and no state of change between the hands and the rest of the body. If all the parts of the body are made to be connected, as the Taiji classics say they should, then no part of the body can move without the whole body moving, no part can change without the whole changing. And it is only in moving in this way that the person can come to know Qi. Let me explain my reasoning:
We begin the forms by learning consciously intended movement, of course: i.e. lift the hands, turn to the right, turn to the left, step left etc. However, as we learn to relax, enter a state of ‘sung’ and connect all the parts of the body, each consciously intended movement causes a change in the entire body, which we do not, indeed cannot, consciously intend. We begin by consciously raising our hands; eventually our raising of the hands will cause the energy of the entire body to shift. To borrow psychoanalytic terminology, our conscious action causes an unconscious or subconscious reaction. Eventually I think the conscious and unconscious/subconscious merge so that our movements are both and yet neither. Our movements, we might say, come to presuppose themselves. Hence we get the experience that, whilst we are moving the body, the body seems to be moving itself. In the manner of the circle mentioned earlier, the Qi moves me as I move it. The classics attest to this with statements like ‘find stillness in motion,’ which is to both move and not move, a paradox indeed.
So, to return to our original question: what is Qi? Qi is life as that which precedes consciousness. I did not choose to be alive, I just am. Indeed, in presupposing itself, as above, Qi would necessarily always already precede itself – i.e. what Qi, as active, transforms is nothing other than, or is inseparable from, itself. Unfortunately, there is a strong tradition in the West that associates life with, or more accurately reduces it to, consciousness. As the philosopher Renee Descartes famously puts it, ‘I think therefore I am.’ However, as arts like Taiji and Bagua make apparent, consciousness cannot exhaust life. Life has a will of its own, it is elemental, electrical, experiential. Of course, Taiji and Bagua are premised upon a certain awareness of Qi, a becoming conscious of it, though not in an absolute sense. A practitioner might for instance experience different types of energy, or different types of changes in the body. The Taiji posture known as ‘fishes in eight’ will cause the body’s energy, which is always of the whole, to change in a manner that particularly affects the lungs. However, it is not that the practitioner specifically [i.e. consciously] focuses on their lungs or lung Qi when performing this movement. To focus on the part [the lungs] is wrong. The focus, if that is the right word, should be on the whole. All the person need do is perform the movement correctly [i.e. with all parts connected] and the changes will happen by themselves. Thinking of the Qi, some might say manufacturing a belief in Qi, is wrong. The only goal is a state of absolute sung: letting go, doing the forms over and over again so that the movements come to ‘do themselves’ – i.e. so that the changes happen by themselves. As Erle always says, just do the forms and they will teach you.