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

Nowhere is the concept of "qi" more slavishly and vehemently clung to than in the world of Tai Chi, and in particular, the world of perhaps overly zealous Sinophile Western Tai Chi practitioners. Consequently I have decided to dedicate an entire portion of this website to the matter.

In the past I have had many arguments with people on various forums and blogs over the issue of "qi", when they have taken exception to articles on this site. Indeed, people who had previously said very positive things about our work have actually changed their tune upon discovering our stance on "qi". Frequently their arguments have been erratic, hysterical, and even down-right abusive. Chinese people may be free to accept or reject the concept of "qi" as they see fit (as Yiquan practitioners do), but a Westerner who does the same will always be accused of a lack of understanding, or perhaps even be criticised for perceived ethnocentricity. In the interests of getting to the truth, however, such accusations must be endured. The reality is that a Westerner who rejects a specific cultural idea such as "qi" is not necessarily being ethnocentric any more than a Chinese person who rejects the idea of "elves" is being ethnocentric. Rejection of an idea is not in itself cultural elitism - a person's motive is critical. Now if I rejected the concept of "qi" on the grounds that it was Chinese or if a Chinese person rejected the existence of "elves" because the idea was Scandanvian, then yes, we would be being ethnocentric. As it is I think we might argue that we are just being sensible.

I have very activeley tried to believe that "qi" does exist in the past, but my own experiences, along with the many encounters and dialogues I have had with people who do believe in it have only convinced me that it doesn't.

"But the supreme end of education, we are told, is expert discernment in all things - the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit."

- Charles Grosvenor Osgood, in his preface to James Boswell's "Life of [Samuel] Johnson" (The quote is often attributed to Johnson).

Catch-all Term

I find the idea of the usefulness of such a catch-all term as "qi" quite ridiculous. The fact that "qi" cannot be translated into a single Western term is not a virtue, but a phenomenon ripe for unclear (as well as shoddy, erroneous or even exploitative) teaching.

Sometimes the term "qi" is used in reference to one's breathing. Sometimes it refers to one's centre of gravity (or an opponent's centre of gravity). Sometimes it refers to grounded (or braced) whole-body strength. Sometimes it refers to sequential muscle engagement. Sometimes it refers to an unbroken flow of momentum. The fact is that these are all quite different things.

At other times the word is associated with nebulous, primitive and new age notions about life force and preposterously spurious and unproven healing claims are made for practices said to cultivate it (namely "qigong" and "neigong"). Many so-called "qi" healers will falsely claim to be able to cure even major diseases such as cancer and HIV / AIDS, giving people false hope and often taking large sums of money from them in the process.

Using the word "qi" in all of these utterly different places makes it harder for us to isolate specific problems and rectify them. Put simply, it makes Tai Chi much harder than is necessary to teach or study in a clear, systematic and coherent way (not to mention the confusion and misinformation it spreads about how bodies actually work). These different phenomena are not all the same thing, unless you want to broaden everything out to simply "factors relevant to movement" or even more broadly "factors relating to life". To do so would not be useful so instead, in martial terms, we can talk of breath, centre of gravity, braced strength, sequential muscle engagement and momentum as separate components. Yes, we understand that these components must all work together, but that does not erase their distinct identities. A mechanic must understand the workings of the different parts of an engine to make the engine work as a whole.

Steam Train - Woo Woo!

We can discuss the difference between synchronicity (everything moving in time with everything else) and grounded connectivity (or driven movement) by use of analogy. I often use the analogy of three railway carriages, one being your legs, the next your torso and the next your arms. In Martial Tai Chi™, we don't want the arms to be the engine, pulling the carriages of the body and legs along behind. We don't want to use three engines in a line, each one travelling under its own steam - something analogous with what I call synchronised but not connected movement. We are aiming to have an engine at the back (representing the legs) pushing the carriage of the torso, which in turn pushes the carriage of the arms into place.

Qi or Jin? Don't ask Questions!

All too often, people use the term "qi" in place of another Chinese term "jin" which could be translated as "optimal power" or "skillful use of force." Often teachers rely on the term "qi" for aspects of movement they cannot or do not wish to explain. In any language, this is just bad teaching practice. It is not the case that their methods are inexplicable - rather, by adhering to the vague methodology of "qi", they have deprived themselves of deeper and more detailed physical understanding. Such teachers could work harder to understand how their body is working when executing given movements, including subtle adjustments that might be required when changing direction or when adapting to changing circumstances.

How many words for "Snow"?

Although there is a degree of urban mythology around how many Innuit words there are for snow, they do have multiple terms for various states of compacted snow and ice. They need this level of precision because they build with the stuff and have to be able to communicate with each other in precise concepts when doing so. Different states of ice have different qualities and different uses as a building material. How many people would argue that the Innuit should NOT break down the broader concept of ice into more precise terms? No one. Insisting that they only ever use a catch-all term such as "ice", where greater clarity was possible, would only be detrimental to the task of building with it.

Now, obviously, a qi-believer could counter that the different states of ice are all "ice" at the end of the day and they would, of course, be right. I'm sure they could, by extension, argue that everything ascribed to "qi" is all "qi", inasmuch as "qi" is a traditional term for all those seemingly disconnected phenomena and again they might be right. However, if we were wishing to build with snow and ice, I'm sure we would only benefit from the precision of Innuit terminology. Similarly, Chinese medicine and sports science are now benefitting from Western anatomical concepts and many Chinese people are quite happy to let the concept of "qi" slip away into the past as a remnant of ancient pseudoscience, which is truly all it is.

Crystal Clear

Now, has anyone ever offered an explanation for a (legitimate) qi-ascribed phenomenon that cannot be explained in more precise or clear terms? No.

I therefore rest my case. The concept of "qi" may be traditional to Chinese martial arts, but frankly, we can do better. It is time to ditch the term, because the concept is factually incorrect and because it is so often used to promote superstitious and harmful physical and spiritual beliefs. Nothing can be achieved using the methodology of "qi" that cannot be achieved as well or better without it. This is why the MTA wrote into its constitution that we are and shall ever remain solidly 100% Qi-Free.

Self Cultivation?

I sometimes get criticized by "qigong" practitioners for making the negative comments I do about the "qi" methodology, but I stand by them. The so-called self-cultivation they are interested in invariably boils down to self interest: self massage, supposedly enhanced sexual powers, powers over other peoples' minds; well sadly they do take other people in with their claims, so this last one may at least have a little credence.

I dare say that some state and may even believe that they practice "qigong" and so-called "qi-healing" to help others, but if they critically assessed what they are doing, they'd realise that there is no genuine or lasting benefit in it, beyond a little placebo effect at the beginning of so-called energetic "treatment". Anything that appears to heal after "qigong" or "qi-healing" would have gone away anyway. You don't need to immerse yourself in a fantasy world to benefit from the placebo effect and it is almost certainly better if you don't, because truths and facts have intrinsic value. And far from cultivating any real humility or virtue, as is often claimed, "qigong" all too often only fuels motivations of self-aggrandisement - the desire to be different, special and powerful - the allure of being perceived as mystical.

I know too that many claim that the placebo effect is in itself evidence of "qi" and "qigong", but it isn't. "Qigong" is a theory and one with little evidence to support it. Medical knowledge has almost entirely dispelled or superseded any claims the "qi" methodology may have once had up its sleeves.

So I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but someone here in the West has to be prepared to say what many Chinese people already know: "qi" is an outdated superstition. Involvement in its supposed cultivation does not advance virtue, but ego. There may well be some humble and even quite virtuous "qigong" practitioners out there, but their virtue is certainly in spite of rather than because of their involvement in the "qi" methodology.

Any benefits that appear to come from a "qigong" practitioner developing better breathing habits or getting more exercise can all be explained in simple anatomical terms without any need to reference imaginary energetic worlds. The advantage of terms such as "lungs", "diaphragm" "strength" and "cardio-vascular fitness" is that they are reliably identifiable and measurable and that is because they are real.

Read more of my articles on "Qi"

A practical guide to qi

The trouble with qi

What are "qi sensations?"


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.

taiji concepts DVD
Martial Tai Chi™