Qi or ch'i is one of the most difficult but imperative of all Chinese concepts to understand. Owing to its autochthonous, and at the same time, ambiguous nature, the early sinologists such as Marcel Granet and Henri Maspero showed an intriguing reluctance in the discussion of qi. In recent decades, the idea of qi has forced its way into the West through the practice of Qi Gong (Ch'i kung) 氣功; in both healing techniques and martial arts. This social phenomenon in turn has arrested the enthusiasm of the contemporary elite academics as well as lay people.

Both Graham and Schwartz prefer to leave qi untranslated but suggest qi as the closest Chinese approximation of the Western concept of “matter.” Qi, Graham writes, is “adapted to cosmology as the universal fluid, active as Yang and passive as Yin, out of which all things condense and into which they dissolve…it is like such words in other cultures as Greek pneuma ‘wind, air, breath’. It is the energetic fluid which vitalizes the body, in particular as the breath, and which circulates outside us as the air.” (Graham, 101)

Regarding the translation of qi into English as “energy,” Schwartz cogently describes, “ch'i comes to embrace properties which we would call psychic, emotional, spiritual, numinous, and even ‘mystic.’ It is precisely at this point that Western definitions of ‘matter’ and the physical which systematically exclude these properties from their definitions do not at all correspond to ch'i.” “To the extent that the word ‘energy’ is used in the West to apply exclusively to a force that relates only entities described in terms of physical mass, it is as misleading as ‘matter’, I think, as an over-all name for ch'i.” (Schwartz, 181)

The graph of qi appeared in the oracle bone inscriptions and bronze inscriptions, or jiagu jinwen 甲骨金文, but we have so far had no evidence if any concept of qi existed in the Shang (1766-1122 B.C.), or early Zhou periods (1122-481B.C.), in the earliest sources. However, the frequent usage of qi can be easily traced back to the Warring State Period (481-221 B.C.). In particular, the inscribed jade artifact “Circulating Qi Inscription, or xinqiming 行氣銘” thought to be from the Warring State Period confirms that the concept of qi, and the practice of “Qi Gong” were already established in the early Warring States Period, if not earlier.

According to Shouwen 說文, the earliest etymological dictionary of graphs, the early character qi 气 depicted “cloud vapor” is consistent with the form of the character of oracle bone and bronze inscriptions. While the other graph 氣, also supported by Shouwen, emphasizes its rice component, then the third graph found in the “Circulating Qi Inscription” has a fire component replacing the rice. Looking at the graphs, the view “represents the nourishing vapors of boiling rice or grain. These vapors represent the nourishing powers of food that maintain life and human energy.” (Schwartz, 180) Then again, the graph emphasizes the fire component, suggests Allan, “a prototypical image of clouds produced by sun on water or else of steam, that is, water vaporized by fire. Nevertheless, the qi that is the primary subject of the inscription is the human breath.” (Allan, 88) This “human breath,” or the fire component added qi graph may be a suggestive link to the fourth qi graph 炁, which indicates the “configured breath” in the Taoist esoteric practice, such as Inner Alchemy, or neidan 內丹 practice exclusively in the Taoist literature and practices.

In spite of its esoteric nature, or rather, its trivial philosophical or literary significance, very few Western scholars have yet treated the text of “Circulating Qi Inscription” (except Allan's quick review), the dating of “Circulating Qi Inscription” has been seriously made by a number of Chinese scholars. According to Li Ling's interpretation of the original text, the “Circulating Qi Inscription” corresponds to the “Rendu Micro-orbit Channeling Qi Gong 任督二脈小周天氣功.” The verse reads:

When one inhales (so that one) swallows (the qi), qi is gathered.
As qi has gathered, it expands.
As qi has expanded, it goes downward.
As qi goes downward, it settles.
As qi is settled, it solidifies.
As qi is solidified, it spouts.
As qi spouts, it grows. As qi grows, it is returned.
As qi returns, it ascends to heaven.
The origin of heaven is in the above, the origin of earth at the below.
One follows (such way), one lives. One is against (such way), one dies.
(Li, 345)

The rubbing of the inscribed jade artifact “Circulating Qi Inscription, or xinqiming
行氣銘” was dated as the first esoteric meditation text from the early Warring States Period (481-221 B.C.).

I agree with Li's implication that “the origin of heaven” is suggestive of niwan 泥丸, or the upper dantian 上丹田, “the origin of earth” is suggestive of the lower dantian 下丹田. Thus, the “Circulating Qi Inscription” becomes the first and completed esoteric text for “qi gong” practice. Such context, nonetheless, reflects in Laozi, Zhuangzi, and the other early philosophers, assumes what Schwartz calls a “highly mystical dimensions,” which viewpoint precisely suggests the disparity between academic studies and esoteric practices.

According to Zhuangzi, “There is but one qi all under the heaven.” (Guo, 733) “When man is born, his qi is gathered. When his qi is gathered, his life thrives. When his qi is dispersed, his life dies out.” (Guo, 733) Graham observes that Zhuangzi “conceives training for the Way as the refining of the energizing fluids, the qi, by controlling one's posture and breathing.” (Graham, 188) Zhuangzi specifies such training: “The True Man's food is plain, but his breathing is unfathomable and tranquil. While the breathing of mass is through their throats, the breathing of the True Man is through his heels.” (Guo, 228)

Apparently, the notion of “breathing through the heels” reveals the Taoist “unfathomable and tranquil” breathing technique. This technique dissolves the break point of inhalation and exhalation. The breathing becomes so tranquil and subtle that the entire body is permeated within the fused breathing, as if one breathes through the “heels instead of throat (nose or mouth).” The great alchemist Ge Hong 葛洪 (283-363) was one of the first Taoist masters who reveled and defined this technique as taixi 胎息, or “fetus breathing”: “There are several ways to circulate qi…but the great essential is the fetus breathing. When attained the fetus breathing, one can breathe other than nose and mouth.” (Wang, 149)

Likewise, the subject is also reflected in Laozi: “In concentrating one's qi and bringing it to the utmost degree of pliancy, can one become an infant?” (Gao, 262) And, “one who receives the fullness of the Way can be compared to an infant (chizi 赤子). Wasps and scorpions do not sting him, nor snakes bite him, nor fierce beasts seize him, nor clawing birds maul him. His bone are supple, sinews are soft, but he grips firmly (wogu) 握固.” (Gao, 89-93) Parallel with these lines, Ge Hong wrote: “When one is well cultivated in circulating qi, water will go up stream when one breathes out slowly; fire is extinguished when one breathes out slowly; fierce tigers and wolves submitted when one breathes out slowly; scorpions and snakes coiled when one breathes out slowly.” (Wang, 150)

In my opinion, the terms of “infant” and “grip firmly” should be treated with special attentions. Rather than emphasize the infancy, the stress should be laid on the “fetus, or fetus breathing.” According to the Inner Alchemic Classics, after ten months of “pregnancy with the fetus breathing,” the infant (chizi 赤子) is born. One then assiduously nourishes and cultivates the infant to grow up and become the True Man. (“The Imperative Doctrines for Human Nature and Longevity,” 783) In other words, after practicing the subtle “fetus breathing,” one's “qi newborn” is formed in the body under the correct intent and conscious controlling breathing and body posture, which is called huohou 火候, or the fire time. One then continues to strengthen the “qi newborn” to reach the adulthood—enlightenment—the True Man.

The qi “infant” diagram from the meditative classic “The Imperative Doctrines for Human Nature and Longevity, or xingming guizhi 性命圭旨.”

On the other hand the term of wogu, deserves a new assessment, has been traditionally commentated in Chinese as ‘grip firmly,’ so has it been translated in every English version of Tao Te Ching. In point of fact, wogu might have meant more than it appeared literarily. Wogu is frequently used in the Taoist Classics and other traditional meditation literature as a “hand-crossed and thumbs-jointed” position for the posture of breathing. Joined with many others, Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 (456-536) consistently stated that one should “close the eyes, and wogu (cross the hands and thumbs-jointed before meditation).” (Records Concerning Tending Life and the Prolonging of Life, 150)

It is sensible to assess Laozi's technical advice here: “Empty the heart, fill the abdomen,” (Gao, 237) “extend farthest towards the void, hold steadiest to the tranquility. The ten thousand things all rise together, and I reflect their return.” (Gao, 298) This technique is clarified in Zhuangzi: “Unify your attention. Rather than listen with the ear, listen with the heart. Rather than listen with the heart, listen with the qi. Listening stops at the ear, the heart stills at following the circumstances. Qi is void, thus it is all encompassing. Only the Way amasses the void, so the void is the fasting of the heart.” (Guo, 147) Both Taoists and Confucians consider the “fasting of the heart” one of actual meditation techniques. By deepening and stilling the breath, one fasts the heart (empties mind/heart) of the thought normally accepted as its function as an organ, and waits the perfectly attenuated fluid (qi) to respond and move in one direction or the other.

Philosophically, Laozi describes qi as the primal energy underlying all matter: “The ten thousand things bearing yin, yet embracing yang, unify a harmony through the fusing of qi,” (Gao, 29) which is echoed by Zhuangzi: “The universe exhales its qi, and it is named wind.” (Guo, 45) The statement attests Bernhard Karlgren's glossy of qi as “vital principle,” which, however, should be considered in the thinking of—unity and continuity of time and space—Chinese cosmological scheme. For instance, the early medical text, Huangdi neijing 黃帝內經 or the Yellow Emperor's Inner Book, traces the origins of human energy to the wind: “The east gives birth to the wind, the wind gives birth to wood (agent), the wood (agent) gives birth to the sour flavor, the sour flavor gives birth the liver, the liver gives birth to the tendon, tendon gives birth to heart.” (Meng, 44)

According to Confucius, qi is the source of emotional behavior: “In youth, one's blood and qi are not yet settled, one guards against lust. Having reached maturity, one's blood and qi is firm, one guards against aggressiveness. Having reached old age, one's blood and qi are in decline, one guards against avarice.” (The Analects, SZ, 2522) Similarly, Mencius writes: “Hold fast to your will and do not violate your qi.” Thus, Mencius speaks: “I cultivate my flooding qi.” (Mencius, SZ, 2685)

Mark E. Lewis observes, “Winds (qi) that pass through rich furnishings and comfortable lives carry cool refreshment, while winds that pass through filth and scenes of desperation make men ill. These ideas were later systematically developed into Chinese theory of environmental influence known as ‘wind and water’ (feng shui) 風水.” (Lewis, 218) Likewise, the early textual sources linked “wind” with “music”. Human music is a form of controlled or artificial wind, and wind a form of natural music, each could directly influence the other. According Zhuangzi, “the universe exhales its breath (qi) and it is named wind…then the pipes of the earth are those massed aperture, and the pipes of men are bamboos placed together.” (Guo, 49)

The concept of qi then is the primal energy underlying all matter, molded as cloud vapor and breath. It gives life to living beings. Qi gives us vitality, and the vital energy of the heart/mind, which controls our thoughts and emotions, and moral sensibilities and our body and physical activities.


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