What is ch'i? / What is Qi?
By John Bracy
Written in Chinese as ch’i or qi, in Korean, gi and Japanese as ki, the notion of a subtle energetic force that animates body and mind pervades traditional Eastern culture. The notion of ch’i internal energy (hereafter often written as chi for convenience) forms the basis of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the term nei chi, literally “internal energy,” serves as an umbrella term for a range of subtle bio-energetic forces that are the purview of TCM. Various subdivisions of the chi life force described in TCM include yuan chi (元気) primordial or original chi, wei chi (衛 気) the “defensive chi” that protects the body from external pathogenic influences, ying chi (営気) which governs the tendons, gu chi (谷 気) the chi that extracts nutrients from the food we each, ancestor or inherited chi (宗気) and chen (真) or true chi.
Chi kung or The Chinese term for willful control over chi or "internal energy"
One challenge to arriving at a concise definition of subtle or internal energy is the multifaceted use of the term. Consider that while in one context internal energy refers to an invisible force underlying the mechanisms of acupuncture, however simultaneously as applied to the art of Asian calligraphy, the internal energy describes the unseen force that animates the strokes of a master and thereby is able to convey the expert’s vital energy to canvas or paper. In still a completely separate usage, consider the placement of pagodas on the Chinese landscape. If old and traditionally placed, the exact location of these were determined by geomancers conversant in the art of feng shui ––literally the arts of “wind and water.” In this example, the pagoda acts as a precisely placed acupuncture needles upon the terrain, which thereby influence the local chi of the environment.
If the diverse meanings of the term “internal energy” seem difficult to fathom, we are not the first to have been challenged in this way. Perplexed by the broad range of definitions attributed to the enigmatic and invisible force, Harvard’s Professor of Medicine, David Eisenberg –– who early in his career as one of the first American medical exchange students studying in China–– encountered a range of phenomenon purported to be demonstrations by various masters and their apparently willful control over chi energy.
Dr. Eisenberg’s list of applications attributed to mastery over the chi force includes the healing power of acupuncture, demonstrations of a master bending iron rods with bare hands, demonstrations where “protective” chi prevented a performer from becoming injured while concrete blocks were smashed against his body, yogic self-healing exercises, manipulation of invisible internal energy outside the body, manipulation of subtle energy inside the body, the manifestation of psychic powers like telepathy, energetic massage, apparently light strikes which enabled a performer to break rocks with his hands and at least one example where a performer effortlessly broke rocks by smashing them against his skull. Although in each of these examples the practitioner claimed that their demonstration represented mastery over their internal chi, one must wonder if all these examples of skill really are evidence of a subtle or internal energy force.