Qi is a fundamental concept of everyday Chinese culture, most often defined as "air" or "breath" (for example, the colloquial Mandarin Chinese term for "weather" is tiān qi, or the "breath of heaven") and, by extension, "life force" or "spiritual energy" that is part of everything that exists. References to qi or similar philosophical concepts as a type of metaphysical energy that sustains living beings are used in many belief systems, especially in Asia.
Philosophical conceptions of qi date from the earliest recorded times in Chinese thinking. One of the important early figures in Chinese mythology is Huang Di or the Yellow Emperor. He is often considered a culture hero who collected and formalized much of what subsequently became known as traditional Chinese medicine. Although the concept of qi has been very important within all Chinese philosophies, their descriptions of qi have been varied and conflicting.
The etymological meaning of the qi ideogram in its traditional form qi is "qi steam rising from rice as it cooks" (source: Wenlin dictionary), which could be interpreted as the indicating the link between matter and the energy it develops. Matter and energy are said merely to be different states of the same fundamental substance.
One significant difference has been the question of whether qi exists as a force separate from matter, if qi arises from matter, or if matter arises from qi. Some Buddhists and Taoists have tended toward the second belief, with some Buddhists in particular tending to believe that matter is an illusion.
By contrast, the Neo-Confucians criticized the notion that qi exists separate from matter, and viewed qi as arising from the properties of matter. Most of the theories of qi as a metaphor for the fundamental physical properties of the universe that we are familiar with today were systematized and promulgated in the last thousand years or so by the Neo-Confucians. Knowledge of the theories they espoused was eventually required by subsequent Chinese dynasties to pass their civil service examinations.
Qi in traditional Chinese medicine
Theories of traditional Chinese medicine assert that the body has natural patterns of qi associated with it that circulate in channels called meridians in English. Symptoms of various illnesses are often seen as the product of disrupted or unbalanced qi movement through such channels (including blockages), or imbalances of qi, in the various Zang Fu organs. Traditional Chinese Medicine seeks to relieve these imbalances by adjusting the flow of qi in the body using a variety of therapeutic techniques. Some of these techniques include herbal medicines, special diets, physical training regimens (qigong), massages to clear blockages, and acupuncture, which uses fine metal needles inserted into the skin to reroute or balance qi. Traditional Asian martial arts also discuss qi. For instance, internal systems attempt to cultivate and direct qi during combat as well as to ensure proper health. Many other martial arts include some concept of qi in their philosophies.
The nature of qi is highly controversial, and the old controversy among Chinese philosophy as to the nature of qi still exists. Among some TCM practitioners, qi is merely a metaphor for biological processes similar to the Western concept of the soul, and there is no need to invoke new biology, much less new physics, to account for its effects. Others argue that qi involves some new physics or biology. Attempts to directly connect qi with some scientific phenonomena have been attempted since the mid-nineteenth century. The philosopher Kang Youwei believed that qi was synonymous with the later abandoned concept of lumeniferous ether. In the early 21st century, attempts have been made to link the concept of qi to biophotons or inner biological energy flow. As of yet, science considers these claims of qi as an independent force to be unconvincing. Claims that control of qi allows one to transcend normal physical and biological processes are widely regarded as pseudoscience by the scientific establishment.
There is also controversy between different groups which claim to work with qi for various purposes. Views of qi as an esoteric force tend to be more prominent in the West, where it has sometimes been associated with New Age spritualism. These views are less prominent in China, where traditional Chinese medicine is often practiced and considered effective, but in which esoteric notions of qi are considered to contradict Marxist notions of dialectic materialism. Many traditional martial arts schools also eschew a supernatural approach to the issue, identifying "external qi" or "internal qi" as representative of the varying leverage principles used to improve the efficacy of a well trained, healthier than normal body with a given work load.
Some complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches not only assume its existence but believe that the purported subtle energy running through and surrounding the body can be manipulated so as to cultivate increased physical, psychological and spiritual health. Acupuncture along with other practices of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), ayurveda and many other traditional disciplines worldwide provide examples of similar beliefs. Properly funded, conducted and repeated empirical research is necessary to determine if the success rate of these CAM approaches is due to
the existence of subtle energy,
the placebo effect, and/or
various other factors.
Skeptically minded followers of the scientific method have to assume the possibility that the results claimed by martial arts students and patients of traditional Chinese medicine practitioners can be explained without invoking esoteric or supernatural processes. In answer, most proponents of the effects of the cultivation of qi maintain that since modern scientific technologies have to this point been unable to create life out of organic chemicals in their laboratories, and that as qi is a metaphor for the energy of life itself, it is to be thereby demonstrated that the mechanisms of how the subject of such a metaphor would work so far elude the abilities of the scientific community to describe. Opponents argue that qi is merely a form of vitalism, a theory that was largely abandoned in the early 19th century.
The concept of qi appears often in Chinese fiction, in which a stock character is that of the kung fu master who has gained control of qi, to the point that he can alter the forces of nature. This character has entered Western consciousness through the martial arts film. Many have also remarked on the similarity between the concept of qi and that of the fictional Jedi's Force in the Star Wars movies, and have suggested that George Lucas may have borrowed the concept. There are qigong masters who claim to be able to manipulate their students from a distance with qi.
Qì is the pinyin romanisation of what is sometimes transliterated, using the older Wade-Giles romanisation, as ch'i (and frequently mis-spelled as chi). The Japanese form is ki while the Korean form is gi.