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In traditional Chinese culture, qi (more precisely qì, also chi, ch'i or ki) is an active principle forming part of any living thing. Qi is frequently translated as "natural energy", "life force", or "energy flow". Qi is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. The literal translation of "qi" is "breath", "air", or "gas".
Concepts similar to qi can be found in many cultures, for example, prana in the Hindu religion, pneuma in ancient Greece, mana in Hawaiian culture, lüng in Tibetan Buddhism, ruah in Hebrew culture, and vital energy in Western philosophy. Some elements of qi can be understood in the term energy when used by writers and practitioners of various esoteric forms of spirituality and alternative medicine. Elements of the qi concept can also be found in Western popular culture, for example "The Force" in Star Wars. Notions in the West of energeia, élan vital, or "vitalism" are purported to be similar.
The etymological explanation for the form of the qi logogram (or chi) in the traditional form 氣 is "steam (气) rising from rice (米) as it cooks". The earliest way of writing qi consisted of three wavy lines, used to represent one's breath seen on a cold day. A later version, 气, identical to the present-day simplified character, is a stylized version of those same three lines. For some reason, early writers of Chinese found it desirable to substitute for 气 a cognate character that originally meant to feed other people in a social context such as providing food for guests. Appropriately, that character combined the three-line qi character with the character for rice. So 气 plus 米 formed 氣, and that is the Traditional Chinese character still used today (the oracle bone character, the seal script character and the modern "school standard" or Kǎi shū characters in the box at the right show three stages of the evolution of this character).
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References to concepts analogous to the qi taken to be the life-process or flow of energy that sustains living beings are found in many belief systems, especially in Asia. Philosophical conceptions of qi from the earliest records of Chinese philosophy (5th century BCE) correspond to Western notions of humours and the ancient Hindu yogic concept of prana ("life force" in Sanskrit). An early form of the idea comes from the writings of the Chinese philosopher Mencius (4th century BCE). Historically, the Huangdi Neijing/"The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine" (circa 2nd century BCE) is credited with first establishing the pathways through which qi circulates in the human body.
Within the framework of Chinese thought, no notion may attain such a degree of abstraction from empirical data as to correspond perfectly to one of our modern universal concepts. Nevertheless, the term qi comes as close as possible to constituting a generic designation equivalent to our word "energy". When Chinese thinkers are unwilling or unable to fix the quality of an energetic phenomenon, the character qi (氣) inevitably flows from their brushes.
— Manfred Porkert
The ancient Chinese described it as "life force". They believed qi permeated everything and linked their surroundings together. They likened it to the flow of energy around and through the body, forming a cohesive and functioning unit. By understanding its rhythm and flow they believed they could guide exercises and treatments to provide stability and longevity.
Although the concept of qi has been important within many Chinese philosophies, over the centuries the descriptions of qi have varied and have sometimes been in conflict. Until China came into contact with Western scientific and philosophical ideas, they had not categorized all things in terms of matter and energy. Qi and li (理: "pattern") were 'fundamental' categories similar to matter and energy.
Fairly early on, some Chinese thinkers began to believe that there were different fractions of qi and that the coarsest and heaviest fractions of qi formed solids, lighter fractions formed liquids, and the most ethereal fractions were the "lifebreath" that animates living beings.
Yuán qì is a notion of innate or pre-natal qi to distinguish it from acquired qi that a person may develop over the course of their lifetime.
Other spellings include in simplified Chinese: 气; traditional Chinese: 氣; pinyin: qì; Wade–Giles: ch'i; Jyutping: hei, Qi is pronounced // in English and [tɕʰî] in Standard Chinese; Korean: gi; Japanese: ki; Vietnamese: khí, (pronounced [xǐ]) The approximate English pronunciation of qi, similar to "chee" in cheese, should also be distinguished from the pronunciation of the Greek letter chi (χ), which in Modern Greek is a voiceless velar fricative ([x]), as in the German ach.
The earliest texts that speak of qi give some indications of how the concept developed. The philosopher Mo Di used the word qi to refer to noxious vapors that would in due time arise from a corpse were it not buried at a sufficient depth. He reported that early civilized humans learned how to live in houses to protect their qi from the moisture that had troubled them when they lived in caves. He also associated maintaining one's qi with providing oneself adequate nutrition. In regard to another kind of qi, he recorded how some people performed a kind of prognostication by observing the qi (clouds) in the sky.
In the Analects of Confucius, compiled from the notes of his students sometime after his death in 479 B.C., qi could mean "breath", and combining it with the Chinese word for blood (making 血氣, xue-qi, blood and breath), the concept could be used to account for motivational characteristics.
The [morally] noble man guards himself against 3 things. When he is young, his xue-qi has not yet stabilized, so he guards himself against sexual passion. When he reaches his prime, his xue-qi is not easily subdued, so he guards himself against combativeness. When he reaches old age, his xue-qi is already depleted, so he guards himself against acquisitiveness.
— Confucius, Analects, 16:7
Mencius described a kind of qi that might be characterized as an individual's vital energies. This qi was necessary to activity and it could be controlled by a well-integrated willpower. When properly nurtured, this qi was said to be capable of extending beyond the human body to reach throughout the universe. It could also be augmented by means of careful exercise of one's moral capacities. On the other hand, the qi of an individual could be degraded by adverse external forces that succeed in operating on that individual.
Not only human beings and animals were believed to have qi. Zhuangzi indicated that wind is the qi of the Earth. Moreover, cosmic yin and yang "are the greatest of qi." He described qi as "issuing forth" and creating profound effects. He said "Human beings are born [because of] the accumulation of qi. When it accumulates there is life. When it dissipates there is death... There is one qi that connects and pervades everything in the world."
Another passage traces life to intercourse between Heaven and Earth: "The highest Yin is the most restrained. The highest Yang is the most exuberant. The restrained comes forth from Heaven. The exuberant issues forth from Earth. The two intertwine and penetrate forming a harmony, and [as a result] things are born."
"The Guanzi essay Neiye 內業 (Inward training) is the oldest received writing on the subject of the cultivation of vapor [qi] and meditation techniques. The essay was probably composed at the Jixia Academy in Qi in the late fourth century B.C."
Xun Zi, another Confucian scholar of the Jixia Academy, followed in later years. At 9:69/127, Xun Zi says, "Fire and water have qi but do not have life. Grasses and trees have life but do not have perceptivity. Fowl and beasts have perceptivity but do not have yi (sense of right and wrong, duty, justice). Men have qi, life, perceptivity, and yi." Chinese people at such an early time had no concept of radiant energy, but they were aware that one can be heated by a campfire from a distance away from the fire. They accounted for this phenomenon by claiming "qi" radiated from fire. At 18:62/122, he also uses "qi" to refer to the vital forces of the body that decline with advanced age.
Among the animals, the gibbon and the crane were considered experts at inhaling the qi. The Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu (ca. 150 BC) wrote in Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals: "The gibbon resembles a macaque, but he is larger, and his color is black. His forearms being long, he lives eight hundred years, because he is expert in controlling his breathing." ("猿似猴。大而黑。長前臂。所以壽八百。好引氣也。")
Heaven (seen here as the ultimate source of all being) falls (duo 墮, i.e., descends into proto-immanence) as the formless. Fleeting, fluttering, penetrating, amorphous it is, and so it is called the Supreme Luminary. The dao begins in the Void Brightening. The Void Brightening produces the universe (yu-zhou). The universe produces qi. Qi has bounds. The clear, yang [qi] was ethereal and so formed heaven. The heavy, turbid [qi] was congealed and impeded and so formed earth. The conjunction of the clear, yang [qi] was fluid and easy. The conjunction of the heavy, turbid [qi] was strained and difficult. So heaven was formed first and earth was made fast later. The pervading essence (xi-jing) of heaven and earth becomes yin and yang. The concentrated (zhuan) essences of yin and yang become the four seasons. The dispersed (san) essences of the four seasons become the myriad creatures. The hot qi of yang in accumulating produces fire. The essence (jing) of the fire-qi becomes the sun. The cold qi of yin in accumulating produces water. The essence of the water-qi becomes the moon. The essences produced by coitus (yin) of the sun and moon become the stars and celestial markpoints (chen, planets).—Huai-nan-zi, 3:1a/19
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) asserts that the body has natural patterns of qi that circulate in channels called meridians. In TCM, symptoms of various illnesses are believed to be the product of disrupted, blocked, or unbalanced qi movement through the body's meridians, as well as deficiencies or imbalances of qi in the Zang Fu organs. Traditional Chinese medicine often seeks to relieve these imbalances by adjusting the circulation of qi using a variety of techniques including herbology, food therapy, physical training regimens (qigong, t'ai chi ch'uan, and other martial arts training), moxibustion, tui na, and acupuncture.
A qi field (chu-chong) refers to the cultivation of an energy field by a group, typically for healing or other benevolent purposes. A qi field is believed to be produced by visualization and affirmation, and is an important component of Wisdom Healing Qigong (Zhineng Qigong), founded by Grandmaster Ming Pang.
Qi is a purely hypothetical concept.
The traditional Chinese art of geomancy, the placement and arrangement of space called feng shui, is based on calculating the balance of qi, interactions between the five elements, yin and yang, and other factors. The retention or dissipation of qi is believed to affect the health, wealth, energy level, luck and many other aspects of the occupants of the space. Attributes of each item in a space affect the flow of qi by slowing it down, redirecting it or accelerating it, which is said to influence the energy level of the occupants.
One use for a luopan is to detect the flow of qi. The quality of qi may rise and fall over time, feng shui with a compass might be considered a form of divination that assesses the quality of the local environment.
Qìgōng (气功 or 氣功) is a practice involving coordinated breathing, movement, and awareness, traditionally viewed as a practice to cultivate and balance qi. With roots in traditional Chinese medicine, philosophy, and martial arts, qigong is now practiced worldwide for exercise, healing, meditation, and training for martial arts. Typically a qigong practice involves rhythmic breathing coordinated with slow stylized movement, a calm mindful state, and visualization of guiding qi.
Qi is a didactic concept in many Chinese, Korean and Japanese martial arts. Martial qigong is a feature of both internal and external training systems in China and other East Asian cultures. The most notable of the qi-focused "internal" force (jin) martial arts are Baguazhang, Xing Yi Quan, T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Snake Kung Fu, Southern Dragon Kung Fu, Aikido, Aikijujutsu, Kyūdō, Hapkido, jian and katana swordplay, Luohan Quan, Shaolin Kung Fu, Liu He Ba Fa, Buddhist Style, and some forms of Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and Silat.
Demonstrations of qi or ki are popular in some martial arts and may include the immovable body, the unraisable body, the unbendable arm, and other feats of power. Some of these feats can alternatively be explained using biomechanics and physics.
Acupuncture is a part of Traditional Chinese medicine that involves insertion of needles into superficial structures of the body (skin, subcutaneous tissue, muscles) at acupuncture points to balance the flow of qi. Acupuncture is often accompanied by moxibustion, a treatment that involves burning mugwort on or near the skin at an acupuncture point.
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