Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chinese Martial Arts Without The Qi

As I was reading the book "A Brief History of Qi", I realized a broader and deeper "a-ha" understanding of Qi. I realized that:
  • There is no single, one-size-fits-all English translation for Qi.
  • Trying to figure out and understand or feel Qi is a waste of time.
  • I don't need to "get" qi to excel in Chinese martial arts.
Let me explain.

First, I both liked and didn't like "A Brief History of Qi". What I liked was it was an attempt to explain Qi in broader terms of its linguistic, historical and cultural nativity. (Many other books I've read merely offer a simple, ungrounded translation.) What I didn't like was its complete lack of adherence to academic standards: no footnotes, no citations. There is a one page bibliography.

Second, I found the book seemed to "go deeper" in the chapters on literature, philosophy, and art but "got shallow" in the chapters on qi-gong and martial arts. This may be due to my having read a lot about qi-gong and martial arts and not so much about literature and art. So, with this in mind...

Qi is an element of the Chinese worldview. References to Qi appear in philosophy, literature, calligraphy, art, medicine, exercise and martial arts as well as in daily life and colloquial sayings. There are many contexts in which this word is used and so, the word has many nuances of meaning.

Trying to compress a fundamental and widely used element of an entire cultural worldview into a single foreign word or phrase (that also carries its own cultural meanings), results in an abysmal gap in understanding and quaint and erroneous translations. Life force, spiritual energy, energy, air, or breath may be somewhat correct in one context but ridiculously wrong in another.

Here's a for instance...

Consider our English word, "weather" which in Chinese is, tiān qì ( 天氣 or 天气 ) which translates as sky or heaven (tiān;天) and xxx (qì;气)

Chinese think of weather as Sky"Qi". This combination of "sky" and "qi" understands "Qi" at play in the sky. An American understanding of the word "weather" may think in terms of warm and cold fronts or high and low pressure systems. We don't have it in our cultural worldview to think of weather as sky "qi".

And when I asked my Chinese source if Chinese think of tiān qì as the "breath of heaven" (honest to God, this is one translation I saw), she wrinkled up her nose and said, "No. Breath (qì xī ; 氣息 or 气息) has nothing to do with weather."

And the list of Chinese words that include the word "qi" goes on and on and on...

In the New World Encyclopedia entry for "Qi", the section titled, "Similar Concepts in Other Cultures" prefaces the list with the following (italics added for emphasis):
The concept of a life-energy inherent in all living beings seems to be a fairly universal archetype, and appears in numerous religious and metaphysical systems. As always, these similarities represent points of correspondence (not identity) and should be thoughtfully evaluated in their own contexts before using them as a basis for any essentialistic conclusions.

The Chinese include Qi in their worldview and Americans do not and that's OK. It is a huge chasm in worldviews and that's OK. In my opinion at this time, this is one chasm that does not need to be bridged and for us enthusiasts of the Chinese martial arts, we are better off not laboring to figure out our own understanding of Qi.

We do not need to learn the Qi aspect of the Chinese worldview to develop higher level skills. I say this from experience of wasting years in this pursuit.

We do however need to look at the body functionally. What are the Chinese martial art masters physically doing? How do you understand and explain that physical function in your own worldview? How do you replicate that physical skill in your own body?

For an example of a system that has a functional understanding of the internal strength skill set and uses plain American English to explain how to develop this skill set, I encourage you to visit the site and read through the articles at the Wujifa Liangong Blog.

So the next time someone asks, "What is qi?", tell 'em, "Qi is qi."

Happy practicing everyone!

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