Stephen L. FIELD

A Young Pioneer learns to find the pressure points for acupuncture treatment by practicing on herself. She is attending an acupuncture class at a Shanghai children’s palace. Acupuncture is used as a method of redirecting the flow of qi in a person’s body. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Qi is an important concept in the Chinese philosophy that defines an animated force that can influence the human body.

The concept of qi is as important to understanding Chinese philosophy as the concept of pneuma (air, breath, spirit) is to understanding ancient Greek and Hebrew philosophy. The earliest pictographs of the Chinese character for qi represent rising steam or vapor. However, quite early in Chinese tradition qi gained psycho-physiological significance when the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) described “blood and qi” as the vigor of the stages of a man’s life (Ames and Rosemont 1998, 198). Like the Greek pneuma, qi here is the “energetic fluid which vitalizes the body, in particular as the breath” (Graham 1989, 101).

By the early Warring States period (475–221 BCE) qi was further understood to be an animating force in the atmosphere that could influence the human body. A physician’s prognosis recorded in the Zuo Commentary to the Spring and Autumn Annals cites the six qi of heaven—shade and sunshine, wind and rain, darkness and light—which “produce the six diseases when they are in excess” (Legge 1861, 580). By the end of this period, when philosophical schools began to flourish, qi had become the primordial constituent of all phenomena. The cosmogony (a theory of the origin of the universe) that begins chapter 3 of the Huainanzi is illustrative:

The Dao arose in the nebulous emptiness;

The nebulous emptiness generated space and time;

Space and time generated qi.

There was a shoreline in qi

The pure and bright spread out to form Heaven,

The heavy and turbid congealed to form Earth.
(Major 1993, 62)

Here qi is “the universal fluid, active as Yang and passive as Yin, out of which all things condense and into which they dissolve” (Graham 1989, 101). The original sense of qi was not lost but was now subsumed by the term jing (essence), as in the following passage from the Guanzi: “Where there is essence, life springs forth…. It is the wellspring of qi” (Rickett 1998, 51).

Along with the six qi of heaven, the Zuo Commentary identifies five xing or “movements” as belonging to Earth. These are the “five elements” or phases of qi, developed by Zou Yan (350–270 BCE?), a late Warring States thinker. Zou perfected a theory of transmutation whereby the elements progress through cycles of mutual change. For example, wood produces fire (by combustion), which produces earth (as ash), which produces metal (as ores), which produces water (as condensate), which produces wood (as nourishment). Furthermore, these five categories were paradigmatic, correlating with other sets of fives (tastes, colors, grains, etc.). Mutual interaction among categories was conveyed by qi through the means of “mutual resonance,” a theory that probably also originated with Zou Yan. For example, because “the essence of the qi of water became the moon” (Major 1993, 62), water and moon share the same qi, which explains why the moon has an effect on ocean tides.

The term qi has entered the English lexicon mainly because of the popularity in the West of acupuncture and feng shui (the Chinese art of site orientation based on the belief that the house or tomb can be situated physically to take advantage of the flow of energy within the environment). The “flow” of qi in the human body is influenced by the pierce of the needle. The same flow in the terrain is supposedly influenced by the excavation of the tomb or foundation. The term qi (in its older spelling, ch’i) should not be confused with ji (in its older spelling, chi), which means “pole, utmost point” as in taiji (the Supreme Ultimate, a primarily Daoist philosophical concept) or taijiquan, a form of martial arts.

Further Reading

Ames, R. T., & Rosemont, J., Jr. (Trans.). (1998). The Analects of Confucius: A philosophical translation. New York: Ballantine Books.

Chan, W.-T. (1963). A source book in Chinese philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Graham, A. C. (1989). Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical argument in ancient China. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Legge, J. (Trans.). (1861-1872). The Chinese Classics. Vol. 5, The Ch’un Ts’ew, with the Tso Chuen. Hong Kong and London: Oxford University Press.

Major, J. S. (Trans.). (1993). Heaven and Earth in early Han thought: Chapters three, four, and five of the Huainanzi. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Needham, J. (1956). Science and civilisation in China: Vol. 2. History of scientific thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Rickett, W. A. (Trans.). (1998). Guanzi. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Source: Field, Stephen L.. (2009). Qi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1819–1820. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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