Tuesday 10 December 2013

Is "Qi" relevant to today's Taiji boxer?

"Qi" - calligraphy by Zhu Tiancai
I recently followed the comments of a long time Taijiquan player on the internet. He was decrying the dilution of the traditional art and came to the conclusion that this was the fault of the current generation of silk-suited believers in "Qi". Was he right? Is Qi no more than an interesting historical concept of little relevance to today's Taiji boxer? Or is it a central concept that must be understood if we are to understand the art of Taijiquan as it has been passed down?

Chen Xiaoxing stated that it is impossible to reach a high level of Taijiquan without having a deep understanding of Chinese culture. "Students can reach a low level by copying the movements, but they could never hope to realise the depth and subtlety of Taijiquan without this understanding".

One of the most pervasive ideas within Chinese culture is the ever presence of Qi. At the same time, many western practitioners are extremely sceptical of its existence, dismissing it as an antiquated idea - knowingly pointing to the lack of "scientific" evidence? After all, they argue, it can't be seen, measured, touched etc...

To the Chinese the idea that there is no such thing as Qi is just as ridiculous.   To them Qi is an ever-present feature of life. Within the Great Dictionary of Chinese Characters, a vast compendium of Chinese characters spanning 8 volumes, no fewer than 23 different categories of Qi are listed. Categories such as: mood, morale, weather, energy, structure, vapour, momentum, destiny, spirit, meteorological phenomenon, atmosphere, strength, destiny, breath, smells... Within each category again, there are numerous different types of Qi.

To people who say that you cannot see or measure Qi, I would suggest they are looking in the wrong place. It has always been said that while Qi itself cannot be seen, it's effects can be felt. Doesn't it feel different to be fully energised than to be depressed? The Chinese use the expression Shen Qi to describe a state of heightened energy, self-confidence and pride (in the positive sense). Look at someone who has just won an Olympic gold medal or scored the winning goal in the dying seconds of an important football game. Compare the feelings they have with those of someone lacking drive and self-belief.

Another way in which Qi is understood within Chinese culture is in terms of momentum. In literature, art or martial arts mastery is achieved when a movement is completed in one swoop with no hesitation. When I started training Taijiquan one of the main differences I became aware of between the good practitioners and the majority of western practitioners was a kind of inhibited way of doing Taijiquan. As if they were constantly afraid of making a mistake.
In literature, arts or martial arts, mastery is achieved when movement is achieved with no hesitation.  
                                                                                                                                             Image: Janet Grimes

After twenty years of training they still stop every movement put their hands on their coccyx to physically check that they are in the right position. Don't get me wrong - Taijiquan requires constant rigorous attention to detail. But it also requires that a practitioner should exhibit spontaneity, fluidity and naturalness. At some point you have to start FEELING whether the position is correct. In an earlier blog post I wrote of Chen Xiaowang's response to the question of differences between Western and Chinese students. In his opinion one of the major differences was that Western students paid more attention to the external position and Chinese students paid more attention to the feeling of the movement.

Students often spend so much time agonising about Qi and trying to understand it in terms of their own culture which inevitably leads to approximations and misinterpretations.


  1. Mr. Gaffney I love to read yours posts please keep on them in 2014!
    Best regards!

  2. Mr. Gaffney,

    I greatly enjoyed reading your Chen Taijiquan book. Your worldwide Tai Chi adventures are also fascinating.

    Qi (Chi) is certainly not a “thing” like a chemical element, a cell, a bicep, or a rose which have worldwide trans-cultural meaningfulness and which can be accurately measured, quantified, and pragmatically explained.

    It is more difficult to measure or quantify “feelings” as every psychologist knows, although attempts to specify degrees of feelings are commonplace. Yes, the Olympic medalist has very high levels of pride, accomplishment, success, etc.

    Qi, however, is used by some to refer to special powers, siddhis, or magical forces. For example, some advocate that if you practice Taijiquan vigorously enough and diligently follow the Master’s instructions you might someday have these extraordinary Qi powers to defeat much stronger opponents in fights. We can, no matter what the culture, clearly sense a person’s strength, agility, speed, youthfulness, bodyweight, flexibility, experience, and martial arts skills; but, their mastery and use of Qi is much more nebulous, vague, and often spurious. I suggest that serious fighters would benefit more by doing calisthenics, aerobic conditioning, practicing techniques and sparring; rather than trying to unclog blocked Qi in meridian channels. You yourself have an extensive background in hard style martial arts which is probably the real foundation of your martial power and skill; as, for example, do Yang Jwing Ming or Bruce Frantzis.

    It is not ridiculous to question vague ideas, and it is useless to agonize about vague and metaphorical ideas. We can enjoy and benefit greatly from Taijiquan practice, and never have been concerned at all about how many ways the Chinese use the word ‘Qi’ in colloquial language, metaphors, or supernatural allusions. Going out with a hot woman on a hot date may feel very good, but reading 11°F (-10°C) on my outdoor thermometer is understood everywhere as not being hot. Baseball metaphors pepper our American speech, but you will never hit a homerun by talking.

    I agree that high levels of Taijiquan expertise require more knowledge and appreciation of Chinese culture. So, we keep on learning; but we don't need to believe in mysterious immeasurable forces without empirical justification.

    Another way of explaining the benefits of Taijiquan, sans Qi, is found in "The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi" by Peter Wayne.

    "Let the Force be with you," or be a real force.

    Mike Garofalo, Cloud Hands Blog


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