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Sooner or later you always come across the term "Qi" in martial arts. But there is a lot of ignorance and credulity on this topic and one quickly asks oneself: Is there "Qi" at all?

Interestingly, the term "Qi" has had its mysticism since the 70s and 80s and, sorry for the play on words, has not lost its energy. Then as well as now, the term still has a certain appeal, especially for many outside of Southeast Asia.

Regardless of whether I look through a magazine for martial arts from 1982 or whether I speak to a layperson today about Chinese martial arts, the questions remain the same or are only formulated differently. But there is still a lot of ignorance and, above all, credulity, especially when it comes to “Qi”.

A controversial topic

Because there are very different interpretations on this topic, it is not possible to give a simple answer in a few short sentences. But it is clear that this topic is controversial. Is it a sensitive issue in martial arts? Clearly. Do you make enemies with a critical look at the topic? Probably. So should one take a critical look at a highly sensitive topic at all? Exactly for that reason.

In front of me is issue 7 of the magazine "Martial Arts", edited by Helmut Barthel, from 1986. There I read a critical article on "Ch’i-Power" and a "call from the editor: affects Ch’I". In short, experts are asked to prove the existence of a Ch’i force. In the next issue I will find out that, as expected, no one has answered this call.

Martial-Arts-Magazin-von-Helmut-Barthel
7. Ausgabe der Zeitschrift „Martial Arts“, herausgegeben von Helmut Barthel

The term accompanies the Asian martial arts, especially the Chinese, for quite a while. There have been countless attempts to translate the term into other languages, sometimes better sometimes worse. Today we are facing the result: a huge mess that ranges from misinterpretation to gullibility to pseudo-scientific claims.

Before we delve into this topic, we should first ask the question with a healthy distance: "What exactly is Qi?"

What is „Qi“?

"Qi" ( / ) is often also written as "Chi / Ch'i" or "Ki" but still the same thing: it's a theoretical concept or idea, especially of Asian origin. In the Chinese language, "Qi" has different meanings, from "air" to "breath" to "life energy".

OTHER INTERPRETATIONS

The meaning also varies depending on which character "Qi" is combined with. For example, the combination of the characters for sky and air ("Qi") becomes weather. Air and color become complexion/facial color and air and strength become imposing, radiant.

Or the meaning varies depending on the context in which "Qi" is used. Qi is not only found in martial arts, but also in medicine and i. e. in Chinese calligraphy. Calligraphy is simply put, just “a little ink” on paper. Are we talking about the same Qi as in medicine? Of course not. And yet one speaks of famous brushwork with a lot of qi in famous paintings and poems. Qi stands solely for "expressive", similiar in martial arts.

In contrast, "Qi" in the context of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM for short) should be understood differently. Instead of “expressiveness”, in simple words, we mean an “energy flow” that circulates in the body. For this to make sense, however, it is essential to embed this term in the theory of TCM and in Chinese culture; otherwise the use of the word "Qi" is on a similar level to "hocus-pocus".

Kombinationen mit dem Schriftzeichen Qi
Kombinationen mit dem Schriftzeichen „Qi“

POP-CULTURE MATERIAL

In pop culture, "Qi" is often interpreted as a source of superhuman powers, such as Shaolin monks, when they break steel rods with their heads or remain intact from spear stings. Or it is used in the form of "energy attacks" in the Japanese Dragonball franchise or is described as a counterpart to the "force" from Star Wars.

However, in this article we focus on the use of the term "Qi" in the context of Chinese martial arts. Because here alone there is enough need for clarification.

HISTORICAL EXPLANATION ATTEMPTS FOR THE TERM “QI”

The attempts to get closer to the term "Qi" with linguistic or religious-historical considerations are innumerable. Approaches are popular which analyze the character for "Qi" and its variants and break it down into its components, with the aim of understanding what "Qi" may have originally meant and what the "ancient Chinese" probably thought using this term "Qi". These are more or less exciting mind games; it is correct that Chinese characters often consist of several components, which in turn have their own meaning; but it is ignored that ancient Chinese characters often contain components that do not contribute to the meaning, but to the pronunciation (in the phonetics of classical Chinese, of course)! If anything, well-founded statements can only be made by analyzing the origin and development of the characters.

Because the earlier conceptual worlds were definitely very different from our current ones, it is a questionable procedure to interpret our current ideas into a very old term.

So we would be better of if we assume, that for "the ancient ones" "Qi" was not something tangible, but a metaphor.

Qi in chinese martial arts

For many people, the terms qi and Chinese martial arts are closely related. With myths and legends, old documents and pop culture, one would think that the two terms had a common origin. But Qi was most likely introduced to martial arts at a much later date. Because the fighting method existed before the theory was added. Let's go back a little bit.

There is a widespread belief that the origins of Chinese martial arts were actually health-promoting movements. Why I do not share this assumption, I explain in another post. If you look at the history of Chinese martial arts without the myths and legends, it becomes clear what purpose the martial art had primarily: it was used to fight.

In an actual struggle, there is no place for metaphysical concepts, both then and now. And yet, in Chinese martial arts training, people like to say that you should feel or cultivate the "Qi" so that you get seemingly unthinkable powers. So why is Chinese martial arts constantly pursued by this term?

IT IS JUST A METAPHOR

As I have already explained, martial arts were primarily used for fighting. In order to be efficient in it, constant training is required, which can be achieved through drills, strength exercises, conditioning training, etc. But just as important are sensitivity training (sensitivity for power transmission), body awareness and above all the mental attitude.

For the last points, it can make sense to use "Qi" as a metaphor. Good body awareness is essential for martial artists. The traditional martial arts have different exercises to train this. A variant is to keep a certain movement or a stance static for a long time. Because only in a calm state is it possible to develop sensitivity to your own body and to actively feel it.

On the other hand, "Qi" could also be interpreted as a tool. It's supposed to help someone visualize something. In martial arts, the right “intention” is important, for example a strike can only be effective if it is carried out with the right intention. In order to train this intention and in the broader sense the mental attitude, it may help to use the concept of "Qi" and to visualize an "energy flow".

However, I just want to show with the above two examples that "Qi" can be better interpreted as a metaphor than an actually provable, invisible energy. Often, bottomless or even pointless statements about "Qi" are made. This inevitably leads to misinterpretation, and people think of an actual, usable energy with which one can fight. And here the martial art then moves to a risky limit.

Fake martial arts and fantasy-based martial arts

If people believe the fantastic explanations about "Qi" too much, fiction will quickly become a reality. But this reality and truth is limited to the subjective perception of a single person.

"Qi" has always been marketed as a supernatural force. People who have mastered the "Qi" speak of all-healing effects or superhuman powers.

Masters claim that they can use this "energy" to defend themselves in battle. We're talking about the infamous “ No-Touch KOs ” or masters who throw 5-15 students with "Qi" across rooms .

Of course, the critics are not far away in this case. After all, who doesn't want to learn a technique that apparently makes them invincible? But the result is consistently sober. When masters demonstrate these techniques to students, everything works fine, but if you want to feel this energy yourself, nothing happens.

Of course there have always been challenges between the critics and those who have mastered the "Qi". But the highlight was probably the infamous fight between Taichi master Wei Lei and MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong 2016 in China. Wei Lei is "Taichi Master", but the kind that can be compared to a guru or charlatan. Xu Xiaodong is a martial artist, taught Sanda at the famous Shichahai School in Beijing and is a critic of the "Hocus Pocus Masters". There were apparently several quarrels between the two on social media channels, which then ended in a challenge. The fight didn't last 20 seconds and Wei Lei was bleeding on the ground .

This fight has made waves in the martial arts world. Not least because Wei Lei justified his defeat by not using his "Qi". Otherwise his opponent would have been fatally injured within seconds.

This fight has almost started a movement. Xu Xiaodong has since set himself the task of unmasking the "fake masters" and "fake martial arts" and one fight after the other. And of course he is not alone in this mission, his fight with Wei Lei has inspired other people and to challenge other masters.

Xu Xiaodong Wei Lei Fight
Kampf zwischen „Taichi-Meister“ Wei Lei und MMA-Kämpfer Xu Xiaodong

IT DOESN'T JUST CONCERN THE "OTHERS"

I fully support his mission. I just don't like his sometimes arrogant, aggressive method. But he brought a key problem in the martial arts industry into the spotlight. For decades, masters were able to collect money by selling "Qi" as a "secret weapon" or something supernatural to their students.

Now traditional martial arts, especially the Chinese, are facing a massive image problem. The traditional arts are losing respect and their credibility is being questioned. It is a good sign that the gurus and charlatans are exposed in the martial arts industry, but unfortunately the image problem sometimes spills over to those who practice the martial arts honestly, practically and realistically.

Unfortunately, it does not only apply to "fake martial arts" or "fake masters". Many of the martial arts scene, but also amateurs, run the risk of equating these terms with certain martial arts. And so you put all practitioners of a martial art in the same category. This is not just too short-sighted, but could have negative long-term consequences for this culture.

The wrong context

The reason why "Qi" can sometimes be used for really good marketing is the great ignorance and gullibility of the potential target group. "Qi" could be exchanged with "chakra" and you are faced with a similar situation in another industry. It is often forgotten where such terms come from and that one should actually put them in the right context.

I had already mentioned that "Qi" also exists in medicine and calligraphy. But here I mean specifically the historical and cultural context.

"Qi" as a term in martial arts comes from a time and place when people did not have the same understanding of the world as we do today. A variety of historical and cultural factors flow into the term. If you were to bring an airplane to medieval Germany, could people understand the scientific, physical basis of an airplane at all? Or would they stamp it as a devil's tool and burn it?

It is the same with "Qi". Maybe people felt something during training that they couldn't explain physiologically and scientifically. Accordingly, a term had to be found that could be implemented in people's mindsets.

So isn't it time to stop taking "Qi" literally or to take it out of context? Instead, you should use "Qi", as I said, as a visualization aid or just as a metaphor in today's world. But don't sell it as a kind of "holy grail" of martial arts.

Education is important

One should not and must not stamp the term per se as negative or fiction. Rather, you have to put the term in the right context depending on the situation and not immediately take everything at "face value". If we take all the terms of an old art literally, art cannot be translated into our time.

If the term helps someone in martial arts or medicine, it is solely a subjective feeling. But the same results cannot be reproduced in everyone. It is therefore important to train people's eyes and not to believe everything in every flyer or poster that says “Qi”.

The traditional martial arts, especially the Chinese, have already received enough fiction and imagination through myths and legends and exaggerated depictions in films. But martial arts are usually much more honest, simple and practical than most people think. We therefore see it as our task to demythify the martial arts and bring them into our age.

This is not the first time that the term “Qi” has been questioned. Nevertheless, "Qi" obviously has an unbroken fascination.

Let us tackle the subject matter-of-factly. Chinese martial arts give us an extremely valuable reservoir of exercises, thoughts, theories. We are not dependent on myths.

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