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Taijiquan is all about energy

Just not the way most people think

Does energy work have a place in Taijiquan? Or do we need to scrap the idea as well as the term “qi” from our dictionary if we want to practice it seriously, developing fighting skill and gongfu in the process? I would argue that we need to reframe our understanding of the terms qi, inner practice and energy in general. This way we might be able to bridge modern training methods and old cultural ideas and find a more meaningful approach for wholistic practice, both for fighting skill and martial arts.

Taijiquan as a general training system is connected to the idea of energy work for better or worse, usually encapsuled in the Chinese term qi and all its various, ambiguous meanings. As a martial art it often faces ridicule from others, brought on by questionable practitioners (with even more questionable personalities) who dive head-first into mysticism and superstition while ignoring the physical practice of the training system completely.

Some have argued that these older cultural ideas should be expelled from martial arts practice in order to combat superstition and bring Chinese gongfu into the modern age. Then again, many of the more serious practitioners do use the term qi. Plenty of Chinese teachers certainly do, some more than others, albeit often in a rather pragmatic fashion. Please do not misunderstand me: There are many Chinese practitioners who spent a lot of time thinking and talking about mystical and cosmological interpretations of qi and related terms, so it is not a purely Western issue. But in some ways, the confusion seems to get amplified when the corresponding concepts are transported from China to other countries. Some things are lost in translation, while single terms like qi get infused with ideas that may or may not have been present in their Chinese context in the first place. This can be quite problematic, because terms like qi already have many different meanings and certainly doesn’t need any new ones.

What does qi actually mean?

Let’s have a look at the history of the term. The character 气 qi is often translated as energy, but is used more commonly to mean “air”. In modern Chinese you find terms like kongqi, simply meaning air, or xiqi huqi, meaning to breath in and out. It is also used to denote steam, gas, smell or weather in general (as in tianqi). A single character having numerous meanings is common in the Chinese language, because the characters have been used a long time in different contexts.

This is where qi gets interesting. It’s fair to assume that the general meaning of air was attached to it pretty early on, but so were certain cosmological ideas. Much like the Western term ether, qi was used as a term for some kind of cosmological force that permeates everything, giving life to the universe and to animals and humans alike. And, again similar to ether, it was used as stand-in to explain scientific phenomena before the advent of actual science. European intellectuals tried to explain aerodynamics by ascribing certain characteristics to ether, until all of that was debunked by actual aerodynamical research. This pre-scientific explanation of the world was common in many different times and places all over the world.

What does this have to do with martial arts you ask? Well… nothing, really. And this is one key aspect of the whole mess. These cosmological and proto-scientific ideas are often introduced into martial arts, because they share similar terminology. So the logical follow-up question would be: Why were these terms introduced to martial arts training at all?

Medical qi and physical energy

One relevant aspect is the medical use of the term qi. Traditional forms of medicine in China adopted the term quickly and used it, again, in various ways. The idea of yuanqi or original qi as a life force given to us at birth could be considered a bridge between cosmological ideas and medical theories. But qi also describes more specific concepts of energy within the body, like the intake of energy through oxygen (which would be, technically speaking, qi) and nutrition, as well as transporting heat through our blood stream and electrical charges via our nerve pathways. There is another analogy to the proto-scientific use of qi here: The way Chinese doctors used the term qi may not have been anatomically correct – there are no separate, physical pathways for qi to travel anywhere within the body – but it describes certain bodily functions quite well.

Even the translation of qi as energy makes sense, since human bodies run on different forms of energy. In the physical sense, energy inside a human body falls into one of a few possible categories: Heat, electricity, gravity and kinetic energy (these are not the scientifically proper categories of modern physics, but it’s good enough for our purposes here). We take in raw materials (oxygen, liquids and solid food) and transform them into energy sources. We use this energy to produce heat and electricity to fuel our brain, our nervous system and our muscles. Throwing together these different bodily functions by using the term qi for all of them can be confusing. One explanation for this is that back then, people in China (or anywhere else) did not have access to precise, reliable anatomical models of the human body. But there is another reason for the simplicity: The purpose of the system was only partly descriptive like our modern anatomical models are. Another purpose was to enable people to work with and on their subconscious bodily functions. It was a pragmatic approach focused on our subjective sensations of our own bodily functions.

A big part of practicing Qigong or similar exercises is latching on to sensations of warmth and cold, or a tingling within our torso and limbs. Modern medicine would explain these sensations as a form of conscious recognition of our passive nervous system doing its job – spreading warm blood throughout the body and neurons firing away along our nervous pathways. But while both models explain the same phenomena, the pragmatic Chinese model forgoes anatomical details to allow for actual practice: We try to latch onto these sensations to get some measure of control over our bodily functions. Expert practitioners (not just in China but also in India and other places) have demonstrated impressive feats like slowing their own heartbeat down to a minimum or heating up their bodies by sheer power of will. The health benefits of these kinds of practices are numerous and substantial.

The role of energy in martial arts

This was most likely the bridge between martial arts practice and health practices. But there is still a missing link. I am going out on a limb here, but my personal hypothesis is that some of the terminology was already used in martial arts in earlier times, but in an even more pragmatic way. The reasoning for this is quite simple: There is one more type of energy that we haven’t talked much about, a type of energy that is quintessential to all forms (and I truly mean all forms) of martial arts: Mechanical energy.

Martial arts are about the manipulation of physical objects. We try to generate, direct and issue force through our own bodies into the bodies of our opponents. This may take the form of punching and kicking, throwing and holding, sweeping, joint-locking and so on – but on a more abstract level, the physics of all of these movements are the same. We are talking about using force, or mechanical energy, to subdue or defeat our opponent.

Chinese terminology differentiates between energy (qi) and force or strength (jin or li depending on the specific tradition). Traditional gongfu systems often refer to jinlu or force paths that the practitioner develops. The idea describes the training of the path and trajectory of the kinetic energy we are unleashing upon our opponent. So while a distinction between energy and force can make sense – modern physics also make that distinction for a reason – on a pragmatic level, it doesn’t matter all that much. What does matter though is the so-called qigan, the feeling or sensation of energy. This concept describes the subjective sensations a practitioner has when practicing correctly. I am referring to the feeling of “sinking your energy”, the sensation of “fullness” in your arms and legs when you produce proper expansive force (aka pengjin) and other experiences. The idea is similar to the medical practices: We can latch on to these sensations to guide our own practice. We train complex body mechanics up to a point when we can feel the kinetic energy travelling along the correct path – and then we use that feeling to guide our practice. This enables us to focus our mind on other aspects and almost forget about the complex body mechanics we just trained. Instead of 20 different details of a complicated movement, we only have one single body sensation to look out for.

Train the correct qi

The explanation I have given might satisfy both sides of the divide: the more pragmatically minded practitioner will be confirmed in thinking that in the end, it’s all about mechanical energy and force, while those using the traditional terminology will be happily continuing to use qi and other terms in their practice and teaching efforts.

There is one thing we need to look out for though. While the basic idea of qi is similar across the many different traditions and training methods, and while both health practices and martial arts use a similar logic of qigan, the sensation of energy, there is a gap between the two. Cultivating the idea of qi found in health practices is very beneficial of course, but it does not increase your martial skill. Consciously directing your blood flow and detecting your own nerve energies may have positive side effects on your general well-being, and as such may also help with physical strength and fortitude. But they will not build fighting ability in any way.

Actual Chinese martial arts traditions are built on the mastery of kinetic energy. They do this through physical conditioning, through smart and subtle body mechanics, through re-evaluating and resetting your own body structure, and through forms of body work and introspection. But these traditions differ in key aspects from purely health-focused training systems. What I have often seen happening is that people are substituting the content of a solid martial arts tradition – to which they may not have access to – with ideas and notions from health practices (forms of Qigong) they have been exposed to earlier. Some might even have access to legitimate martial arts traditions but cannot separate their former health-focused practice from their current training, partly because both are using the same terminology. For some it may also be a way to avoid the oftentimes exhausting, challenging aspects of martial arts practice and instead follow the more gentle, more easily accessible experiences of Qigong.

In all of these cases, people are latching on to one tradition to comb over the missing (or undesirable) content of another. The result is a practitioner who practices Qigong while believing to train in martial arts. If this is a conscious choice, all is well. If not, it can lead (as a worst case) to a form of self-delusion that has on occasion made both Taijiquan and Chinese martial arts in general a laughingstock of the martial arts community.

I feel that this situation could be easily remedied. With a few simple ground rules we can have our cake and eat it to, so to speak. Consider these three principles:

  • Accept a certain level of ambiguity. Chinese terminology is ambiguous, mostly due to the nature of Chinese language. Just because we use similar terminology does not mean that we mean the exact same thing. Qigong obviously talks a lot about qi, and so do many martial arts system. The concept of “energy” plays a very different role, however.

  • There is no magic in Chinese martial arts – or in any martial arts system. Some training approaches may seem unusual, even counter-intuitive. But there is only so much you can achieve without putting in intense physical work. If you feel that your martial arts training is gentle, soft, easy on body and mind, and generally relaxed most of the time – then you are probably training Qigong, not martial arts.

  • Take the old terminology for what it’s worth. There is no need to throw away every aspect of Chinese martial arts that could, theoretically, be abused to mystify or romanticize their practice. Some of the ambiguity of the terminology is a problem, but some of it is okay and cannot be removed without damaging the underlying method. We should have some tolerance for imprecision, and we should have some patience with some of the more obscure terms, ideas and concepts. If something truly makes no sense, we can still scrap it later on.

Of course, since many Taijiquan practitioners have gone to the extreme of replacing martial arts content with health content – often without reflection and consideration – we might have to do some “overcorrecting”. But generally speaking, there is a middle ground we can aim for: A place where we can accept old terminology and cultural ideas, while at the same time focusing on pragmatic, down-to-earth training. And in the end, this pragmatic training will give us the skills – and interestingly enough also the health benefits – we all strive for.

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1 comentário

Bill Saragosa
Bill Saragosa
13 de jun. de 2022

Thanks for the very informative article. Disambiguation is important.


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