I wanted to write at length about Qi. Every time that I started, other concerns or cares would stop me (I do have a family and a life outside of martial arts). Eventually, a series of unrelated notes became something more, and then became edited into what is in front of you now. Here is my essay on Qi.
In traditional Chinese thought, religion, philosophy, and medicine, everything is Qi. Qi is never defined in clear terms, but the best description seems to be that it is a force or energy manifested through matter. Over time, Qi became a catch all term, used to describe everything from breath to lightening. As far as the magical stuff we see commonly referred to as qi in the martial arts world, that idea evolved over time. The connections between martial arts qi and traditional Chinese medicine ideas of qi are long standing. This qi was believed to be an actual substance, an energy produced through a combination of food, air and hormones which resulted in a type of bioelectrical energy. On the surface, none of this seems too strange when we keep it in the perspective of ideas that were formulated by people in a pre-scientific age. In the religion of Taoism, there came at some point the conclusion that properly mastering the qi energy could allow a human to become physically immortal. In our modern times, this should be completely accepted as impossible, but there are still many who think that physical immortality is possible. If you do an internet search on Li Ch’ing Yuen, you will find many fanciful stories on a man who is said to have lived 252 years. One website said, “In case you don’t believe this story, modern-day scholars have verified his age.” Yet, no references are given to the published work of the scholars who have verified his age. One finds many references to unnamed scholars who verified his age, but until work is put forward, scholars named, and documents provided, it is just rumor.
According to Taoism, one can reach the level of physical immortality through proper diet, meditation and breath control. The breathing exercises were done in conjunction with the meditation. The typical teaching is to sit upright, touch the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth and to breathe “in the dan tien” (lower abdomen). Obviously, humans breathe in the lungs and not the abdomen, but in this case they are teaching that your abdomen should be moving when you breathe, and not the upper chest. The teaching goes on to suggest that after a sufficient time, there will develop a ball of qi in the lower abdomen. The next step is to raise the ball of qi up to the brain where it will blast out through the top of your head and make you one with the cosmos, and you will be enlightened and immortal. Yes…this is a gross simplification of the process, but I am not teaching this as a method, I am giving an outline of a belief. Some of the methods used to nourish, develop and strengthen qi were quite strange to the skeptic, but are still practiced to this day by many around the world. Some of the methods were clacking the teeth a prescribed number of times, rolling the tongue around the moth to stimulate the saliva (which was then swallowed), clasping the hands in various positions and then making certain sounds, thumping the skull in prescribed areas, and hanging weights from the genitalia.
One thing that needs to be made clear at this point – nothing listed above is going to make you immortal. Nothing is going to make you physically immortal, nothing. Nothing. Nothing. It is a sad act for anyone to place their faith in the medical ideas from so many centuries ago. The Chinese traditional medicine ideas, practices and teachings were founded on a lot of guesswork in a pre-scientific age. At the time much of the knowledge in Chinese medicine was assembled, dissection of a human body was not allowed, and there was a lot of guessing. They were able to do some wonderful things, but some of their ideas were far off base. Their ideas on the function of the organs and the circulation of the blood were largely incorrect. Yet, many people place a lot of faith and spend a lot of money on acupuncture and the Qi theory which underlies it. The focus on the theory of qi also limited further knowledge in the field of medicine. And here we are – martial artists who take qi as fact, and try to make all of our other ideas fit in with the theory.
There is not, and has never been even one shred of objective evidence that qi exists at all.
There are plenty of stories, essentially fairy tales of the magical powers available to someone who is able to develop and enhance their qi. These stories go back into history in China. Invulnerability, levitation, inhuman power in their strikes, and many other such comic book powers are said to be available to those willing to sacrifice.
Much like any religion, faith is a major part of the qi cult. In the failed Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900, many of the Chinese boxers died as a result of mistaken belief in the protective powers of qi. There was a group of boxers who were doubted by a local magistrate who proved the truth about their qi protection when he executed them by firing squad in public near the city wall (A.H. Smith, China in Convulsion, 1901).
However, such outlandish beliefs are still widely held today. In the martial art of Aikido, there is a veritable cult surrounding the founder Morihei Uyeshiba. His followers claim that he was not only impervious to bullets, but that he had the ability of teleportation, and a yoda-like ability to manipulate physical objects with a mere hand gesture. I had been quite impressed as a teen, when I was still under the influence of such stories. But I recently had an opportunity to watch Uyeshiba on film, and I am not impressed. It is quite easy to see his uki moving to fall properly and prettily before the master had done a thing. Upon mentioning this to an Aikido practitioner friend of mine, he offered up the excuse that what I was seeing was the energy transferring into the partner before Uyeshiba made any physical movements. Once again, the excuse offered is something that cannot be tested as there is no way to measure qi.
Overall, the ideas of qi attract a small but strange following.
As for my opinion, it should be perfectly clear that I do not believe that this magical substance exists at all. When one gets down to the usage of martial arts techniques, the explanations as being a magical force just fall apart. When a physical technique works, it works as a direct result of proper targeting and body dynamics. No magic. When a master knocks his students out, or down, without touching them it is due to the nature of cult psychology. The stories which surround the ideas are nothing more than people mistaking myth for reality.
Mainstream thought in the Chinese martial arts will quickly disagree with me. Even writers as respected as Robert W. Smith openly claim belief in qi (R.W. Smith, Martial Musings, 1999). People who dismiss claims of qi power are told that if they could feel the demonstrations from the masters they would believe, but herein lies the catch. The masters are completely unwilling to perform on a martial artist who also happens to be skeptical of such powers. They know that when a non-martial artist subjects to feel the “power” that there is a chance that they may claim to feel it because there is such a long standing myth around the martial arts and their purported powers.
Personally, I am amazed at the levels of gullibility shown by otherwise educated, intelligent and rational people when it comes to martial arts mumbo jumbo. The ideas behind qi are based on traditional Chinese medicine. TCM clearly shows a misunderstanding of the function of the internal organs. Qi was taught as travelling through physical channels for a very long time. Yet, there are no such physical channels. Claiming that qi functions as it is claimed to shows a total lack of even basic understanding of how muscles and nerves in the body function.
Qi is said to be an electrical force. Electrical forces can be measured. There has been research going on for decades trying to find this electrical force, and it has not been found.
If qi existed at all, modern science would be able to find it.
It has not been found because it does not exist. Period.
One problem common to all discussion of qi energy is the lack of a definition. The definition seems to change. It is said to be electrical, and when one points out, as many have before me, that electricity can be measured, then it changes definition into “a different kind of electricity”. In the end, qi is nothing more than a vague, subjective concept, which cannot be observed except through parlor tricks.
As bad are the ideas relentlessly promoted that martial arts qi power can overcome superior size and strength. There are constant tales of unbendable arms, joints that cannot be locked, and abilities to sit or stand and remain unmoved in the face of superior forces pressing against the qi powered individual. These, like other demonstrations of qi power are parlor tricks which use very basic physics to deflect the force of the press in the demonstration, but have no magical power as their base.
In the end, I feel that my little article will probably change the mind of no one. Those who do not believe in qi will read this and say, “Well done!” while those who do believe will read and call me a blasphemer. But there is a simple reason for my disbelief. If such powers existed, all it would take to convince the world would be for just one “master” to submit to a controlled scientific experiment wuth the results to be made public. Such tests would not be the usual parlor tricks, but actual controlled experiments of the claims. If you claim qi protects you from strikes, allow yourself to be struck at ransom, by martial artists of military personnel who have no connection to the master at all. If he or she claims the ability to levitate, do it in front of a crowded stadium with cameras rolling from several angles, fly through hoops and tunnels. The master would only need to do this once, and all doubt would be dropped forever. But they will not. When pressed, they will claim that their powers are not for show, except when they feel like doing parlor tricks. These stunts are good for a carnival side show, but should never be believed.
But here we find the real problem. The cult of qi is believed with religious fervor. There are martial artists out there who write endless articles on “qi power – and how you can have it too”, and their sites get thousands of hit per day. I keep talking about writing a book on how to develop deadly qi power, just for the money it would make. In the end, I am probably never going to do that, but it is sad that that is the kind of garbage that sells.