A Practical Guide to Qi

The concept of "qi" or "ki" is one that is given much credence within martial arts, and especially in those styles claiming to be "the internal arts." The concept therefore needs some careful examination.

There are those within the "internal arts" community that believe that if they stand still for long enough, their bodies will be miraculously transformed by a process of "internal alchemy" which will render them invulnerable. Such notions are dangerous if only because they are patently untrue.

While the endurance standing practices made popular by arts like Xingyi and Yiquan can help you to develop stance strength and solidity, they certainly won't make you superhuman. Furthermore, while the process of developing muscle, tendon and ligament strength could perhaps be attributed to biochemistry, many people might find the adherence to archaic terms such as "internal alchemy" a little grandiose. Before I'm accused of trying to Westernise the arts, I'd like to ask this question. If you are going to translate terms into modern English in order to convey the concepts to modern English speakers, why go half way?

The Big Qi

The term "qi" has been used to describe so many different phenomena that its meaning within martial arts has become vague and hard to grasp. The Chinese character for the word "qi" depicts steam rising from cooked rice, and as well as being used to describe gas or breath, "qi" is used to describe a number of energetic phenomena including weather (tianqi), inherited healthiness (yuanqi), or the energetic content of food (guqi). We need to be clear what "qi" means in the specific contexts in which it is set, so that we can avoid misunderstandings. Only then can we understand these concepts, utilise them in combat and accurately teach them to others.

Simply using the word "qi" doesn't promote understanding of the many aspects of martial movement. Often, arguments collapse into an unthinking war between those who believe in "qi" (in some kind of cosmic or spiritual sense) and those who don't. But that kind of cosmic "life-force qi", whether you believe in it or not, has nothing to do with martial training.

I prefer not to talk in terms of qi within my own classes, but as I am aware that many teachers and books do use the term, here is my practical guide to qi, in an attempt to promote understanding. My intention here is not to give credence to the concept of qi, but rather to show that the term can be considered to be obsolete because the conditions the term is used to describe can be explained more clearly and specifically. Martial training can be confusing enough without alluding to mysterious forces and unnecssarily vague ideas. I have taken a number of common phrases that use the term qi in order to explain precisely what is being referred to. Finally I will offer a generic definition of the term itself.

A Practical Guide to Qi (a.k.a Ch'i, Chi or Ki)

"Sinking your qi" means that you sink and relax down into your stance, lowering your centre of gravity to make yourself stable and "rooted." "Rooted" means that you are very sunk and heavy and this makes you hard to imbalance or "uproot." An "uprooted" person can be easily pushed or pulled off balance, just as a plant that had been uprooted would no longer be able to stand upright.

Conversely, "raising an opponent's qi" means "uprooting" your opponent. You lift them up out of their stance so that their centre of balance becomes higher and this makes them much easier to imbalance or topple.

"Borrowing qi from the earth" means that you should utilise gravity to add power to your strikes. You should be very relaxed when striking downwards, so that gravity can be added to the force of your strike. When you are striking forwards, you can settle (sink) your joints to add weight and solidity to it. When you are striking, kicking or deflecting upwards, you should sink down into your stance to again add weight and momentum to what you are doing and to stabilise yourself in the process. There is a saying that "a big tall tree need big deep roots", so the more you "extend your branches" (limbs) the more you should "deepen your root" (sink down). This all just means relaxing in the direction of gravity i.e. downwards.

If you sink and use the Taiji fighting technique of Peng (rising expansive force) against an oncoming attack, you can uproot your opponent with a see-saw-like leverage effect. You go down and they go up.

Another way that you can "borrow the qi of the earth" is to take advantage of its solidity. You should push against the ground with one of your legs to add pushing power to your movements, on the horizontal plane. Couple this with staying sunk so that all of the braced force is translated into horizontal movement - you should not push yourself upwards away from the ground, as that causes your body to fight gravity rather than working with it.

If you sink and use the technique of An, you can squash or crush your opponent down against the ground (which utilises its unyielding solidity) thereby causing a compressing or crushing effect. If you strike straight down, the effect will be somewhat like a crusher or a hammer pounding down on them from above. If your striking angle is more obliquelydownwards and forwards, the effect can be somewhat like a tiddleywink - the front of their body is compressed against the ground and this projects them backwards. Alternatively you may be able to push your opponent over by pushing the upper half of their body backwards so that their centre of balance falls behind their heels. Applying pressure down will then make them fall over backwards.

"Borrowing qi from the heavens" means that you should push up the top of your head and gaze levelly forwards as if a string was pulling up your head from above. Coupled with sinking into your stance, this enables you to keep an upright spine. This improves your balance and allows you move with equal ease in any direction. The Taiji classics warn against bending or leaning. A person's balance is regulated by mechanisms in the inner ear which work best when the head is upright and gazing levelly forwards.

"Borrowing qi from an opponent" means turning your body around its vertical axis so that as one side of your body turns to divert an oncoming strike, the other advances in such a way that you add the opponent's momentum to the force of your counter-strike. In general Chinese martial practice, this skill is also referred to as "tongbei" which means "through the back" referring to the pulley-like way that your arms work around your spine, one arm retreating while the other advances.

This can be used to actively pull your opponent towards you with one hand, while punching them with the other. This significantly increases the impact.

You can also "capture your opponent's qi" and "lead them into the void" which means using their momentum against them by pulling on their arm as they lurch forwards. You can then easily pull or more accurately guide them into a space just to the side of yourself, so that your two bodies do not collide. You might wish to strike them when they are this point.

When discussing the "three internal harmonies", "qi" is often thought to refer to breath and this is a fairly useful definition as it is something that you can actively control. In context though it is often thought to have a wider or less specific meaning. One interpretation is that it refers to your body and mind working together in a holistic way. Your martial spirit (xin) drives your intention (yi), in order to direct you to take the correct course of action. Informed by this, you can harmonise your breathing and any other relevant factors not included elsewhere with your movements so that all of your body's energy, breath and body chemistry work together (along with any external natural forces) to power your muscles (li).

Harmonising your breath with your movements means just that. If you are exerting yourself, exhale; if you are gathering yourself in preparation for an explosive movement, inhale. If your movement is smooth and long (such as when executing a throw), exhale smooth and long. If you are striking in a sudden explosive manner, exhale in a sudden explosive manner. It is all quite logical really. Don't believe all the so-called "health" stuff about only ever exhaling through your nose either - for martial purposes, if you need to exhale suddenly you should let air escape from your mouth or you'll probably end up firing mucus into your inner ear (not nice and definitely not healthy.)

When everything is in harmony you will operate at maximum efficiency. This does not require any knowledge of acupuncture meridians or "internal energy pathways," you only need to know how to be a skillful martial artist.

So What Is Qi?

From this, how can we actually define qi? Is is gravity? Is it breath? Is it your momentum? Is it your opponent's momentum? Is it physics? Is it body chemistry? Well yes - and no. It is all of those things and more. Why? Because qi can simply be thought to mean manifest force.

Utilising qi is about harmonising natural forces, whether they exist inside or outside yourself.

Take advantage of all the factors that will disadvantage your opponent while benefitting you. Utilise gravity, inertia, momentum, centifugal and centripetal forces rather than struggling against them. The martial artist who uses his body skillfully and harmoniously with the physical forces around him will be an effective one. The whole mystique around using so-called "energy" or being an "internal artist" rather than an "external" one can be summarised by the statement "don't do it badly - do it well!"

Power Struggles - qi or jin?

One can also describe force in more qualitive terms such as "chan si jin" or "reeling silk power." Reeling silk power is an essential movement quality within Taiji, Bagua and Xingyi and it refers to constant rotation of the limbs as they are driven into place by the legs and torso. The whole body can be likened to a gearbox and it is imperative that you never slip a gear during the execution of a technique (though some practitioners will certainly allow themselves to do so during transitional movements, particularly in Baguazhang).

Another commonly used physical force is "undulation" or "whipping power". A sudden profound burst of power is generally referred to as "fa jin" which literally means "released power."

Sometimes people state that the so-called "internal arts" use "qi" or "energy" in place of strength. This is wrong as it contravenes the three internal harmonies. The three internal harmonies place qi third in a chain of command beginning with martial spirit and ending with physical strength. To reiterate: martial spirit drives or "harmonises with" intention, intention harmonises with breath (along with any other applicable forces) and finally this harmonious process tells your body which muscles to employ in order to make the movement as efficient as possible.

Sometimes people prefer to replace the role of xin (emotional mind / heart or fighting spirit) with shen or ethereal spirit. The same people typically like to replace li (muscular strength) with jin (skillful force.) While I can understand what they are trying to explain in this second case (the avoidance of localised brute muscle force), it is nonetheless a corruption of the original idea. While it is true that muscles should never be employed in a clumsy and excessive manner, they have to be used in order to generate any movement at all. So rather than thinking in terms of not using muscles, it is more accurate to say that you need to use them well: precisely the optimum amount at precisely the right time to execute a movement in as effective a way as possible. The replacement of xin with shen represents a shift towards taking a more spiritual than secular / materialist outlook and the replacement of li with jin is not accurate. The synergy of your three internal harmonies with your three external harmonies (hands harmonising with feet, elbows with knees and hips with shoulders) could be said to power all of your techniques, and most accurately, the "jin" of a technique can be thought to refer to the specific type of trained force or martial quality you are using.

Other Ideas

Other phrases in common use claim that "internal arts Masters" use something called "internal energy" or "subtle energies." Such language refers to the aspects of body mechanics that are hard to see. But actual physical movements are certainly occurring - typically within the torso and often in the form of subtle spinal undulations.

A method of movement called "dantian rotation" is a metaphor for the rolling appearance of movements that result from these spinal undulations when they are used in conjunction with the opening and closing of the hip folds. This rolling movement can occur on all three different planes. The imagery is based on an idea that the body is comprised of eighteen "energetic spheres," of which the abdominal area between the hips and waist (corresponding to the lower back and psoas muscles) is generally considered to be the most significant. More practically-minded teachers have referred to the body being like a gearbox, due to the likelihood of "energetic" imagery to be misunderstood. Whichever metaphor you prefer, such concepts should always help you to perform actual physical movements, rather than imaginary ethereal ones. Developing a genuine understanding of subtle movements also enables you to recognise those subtle clues in your opponent's body that can help you to detect their attacks early enough to stop them.

Hopefully this article will have cleared up a few of the more puzzling and seemingly esoteric phrases that are so often used without explanation.

Some final words of advice to students:

  1. If you read or are told something, ask yourself how it will make you a more powerful fighter. If you can't find a convincing answer for how it will, don't do it.
  2. If you don't understand something, ask your teacher what it means. You are not silly for not understanding this stuff - it is really confusing having to learn new words for concepts you didn't even know existed and such ideas are quite often presented in an illogical or imprecise way.
  3. Never settle for explanations you don't understand. If your teacher can't explain or you suspect that they might be fobbing you off because they don't really know themselves, ask them to demonstrate what they mean. Insist on clarity - remember that enigmatic or paradoxical concepts are not much help in a fight. If you are suddenly called upon to defend yourself from a violent attacker, what use are ideas you can't put into practice?

While some see "qi" purely as a metaphor for natural physical and psychological phenomena, others claim that it is something more - something supernatural that can grant supernatural powers to those that cultivate it. With this in mind, I think there are several issues that need to be addressed. My next article "The Trouble With Qi" will explore those issues.

Taijiquan science - the latest from China

While many Western Taiji practitioners might think that our school takes an overly hard line on the need to establish rationality and quality control in Taijiquan, similar initiatives are currently taking place in China. A convention is to take place in August 2007, entitled The "First International Taijiquan Science Seminar."

The leaders of all of the main recognised styles of Taijiquan are supporting the event: Chen Zhenglei, Feng Zhiqiang and Chen Xiaowang from the Chen style; Yang Zhendou representing the Yang style; Ma Hailong from Wu style; Qiao Songmao from Wu Yuxiang style, Sun Yongtian from the Sun style and Li Deyin from the Chinese Wushu Association.

The agenda is clearly set to "extricate Taijiquan from metaphysical mystification" and establish "Taijiquan as a science discipline" by "assimilating all modern science knowledge for our use."

"Taijiquan science" they say, is "the establishing of science theory, which had inherited useful and reasonable elements from the traditional Taijiquan, and further reconstructed and heightened itself to form the modern science discipline."

Event organisers unequivocally condemn the current state of Taijiquan, commenting on how "mysterious power" is used "to frighten the new learners." They also state that "many are confused to the metaphysical explanations titled as "Chinese culture"."

"...mountebanks, quacks and health frauds" they say "are quite engaged making money by the art. One word, Taijiquan, has been immersed in the fog of mystification and metaphysics. The science epoch for Taijiquan developing has come."

Read more of my articles on "Qi"

The trouble with qi

What are "qi sensations?"

"100% Qi-Free? How can that be?!"


Further reading

The following links do not necessarily reflect our views on everything, but we think that other voices need to be heard on this matter.

Sima Nan: Fighting Qigong Pseudoscience in China.

The Roots of Qi.

Acupuncture - Where's The Point?
Telegraph journalist Damian Thompson reports on an important German study, proving what I've suspected for sometime - so-called "meridians" and "qi" have nothing whatsoever to do with why acupuncture seems to work for some people. It makes no difference where the pins are inserted - the patient merely produces endorphins in response to being punctured with pins. I've certainly never had any lasting benefit from acupuncture for my osteoarthritis, despite having had several courses of it with three different qualified acupuncturists.

Breaking Through the Barriers of Darkness: Recognising the Cult of Qigong for What It Is
A Christian perspective from the "China For Jesus" website.

Stop Pseudoscience!
Here is a petition that some concerned parents put together after "Medical Qigong" was taught in a school without parental knowledge. At the bottom of the petition are many links expressing opposition to the qigong craze. If you wish to explore those links, please note that the "International Institute of Medical Qigong" have subsequently transferred details of courses dealing with their most disturbing occult teachings to a sister site on Daoist Mysticism / Magic.

Martial Arts - Are They Harmless?
A Christian perspective on occult elements inherent within many traditional martial arts.

The Truth about Spontaneous Chi Kung (Jinns / Demonic Possession).
A concerned Muslim's perspective. Read also his personal story.

I Do Not Believe in Ki
Shotokan Karate Instructor Rob Redmond explains why he does not believe in ki (the Japanese name for "qi" / "ch'i")

How People Are Fooled by Ideomotor Action
Ray Hyman Ph.D. discusses how people may be fooled into thinking "qi" exists.

rotation DVD
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