What is Chi?


Acupuncture meridians

For most people a Tai Chi class is their first encounter with Chi – a word which is unheard of in the West but is central to the Chinese world view.

The meaning of the word Chi

Chi or Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) is a Chinese word that does not have any direct translation into English, Chinese was not created with translation into English as a criterion so some Chinese words simply do not have English language counterparts. Chinese words are often best understood by looking at word combinations that form a set and getting the meaning by the general usage. Sometimes people talk about “Chi energy”, but Chi is never translated as “energy” in a Chinese-English dictionary. Most of the word combinations involving Chi are associated with air or breathing. My teacher Chee Soo wrote about Sheng Chi 盛气 or vitality energy and it is this idea which relates Chi in the human body to health which is the most important meaning in relation to Tai Chi and Chi Gung.

Where is Chi located in the body?

Different types of Chi are created in the body by the internal organs, the lungs produce clean air chi, and the spleen produces food chi, these are called post natal or post-Heaven types of Chi. Another type of energy is stored in the body before we are born, this pre-Heaven or pre-birth Chi is stored in the form of Jing or essence and is located in the kidneys. Each organ contributes it’s special type of Chi to the mixture which makes the Chi which flows around the body.

Chi is stored in the Dan dien or lower cauldron which is located just below the navel and is distributed throughout the body along lines called jingluo or meridians. The Chi circulates around the organs and throughout the entire body, it has two major functions: the Yin function is nourishing the body, this also includes regenerating the tissues and repairing damaged and ageing cells and body parts; the Yang function is the primary motive force of the body, it provides movement of the muscles and also the distribution of essences around the body and the blood stream, it also warms the organs and maintains the required body temperature for us to live comfortably. Chi also defends the body from attacks by external factors like cold and wind with a layer of protective energy called Wei Chi.

The history of Chinese medicine

The quantity and quality of a person’s Chi is very important for health which is why acupuncturists use needles to control the flow of Chi around the body. Chinese medicine has a history going back for more than five thousand years and texts such as the Yellow Emperor’s classic or Nei Ching originating from the Xia dynasty of 2,600 BC are still used as an important reference manual by Chinese medicine practitioners today. Although many people have heard of acupuncture in actual fact it only comprises about ten percent of Chinese medicine treatments, herbs and preventative methods account for the other ninety percent. For example many millions of people practice Tai Chi and Chi Gung or energy development exercises in the parks every morning before going to work. These exercises originate from the traditional Chinese philosophy of Taoism or roughly translated living in harmony with nature.

Is Chi real?

To the Chinese Chi is not just a concept or a metaphor, but how can it be investigated by Western scientific methods? In 1962 a Korean scientist named Kim Bonghan discovered microscopic structures in the body almost too small to be detectable. The Bonghan channels were found to surround the internal organs and also followed the pathways described in ancient Chinese medical texts and known as the Chi energy meridians or jingluo. These structures were almost invisible because they were microscopic and transparent and for years his work went unrecognised because other scientists were unable to reproduce the dye he used to make them visible. More recently scientists have discovered new types of dyes which can be used to highlight and photograph these structures.

meridian-doll-portraitOne interesting characteristic of these channels is that they can transmit light. The human body generates light known as biophotons although they are at too low a level to be seen under normal circumstances. One theory suggests that the meridian pathways act a bit like a fibre optic super highway sending DNA based information from the organs in a network that connects the entire body. Another avenue of research has found that as well as particles of DNA these channels also contain hyaluronic acid which is found in the aqueous humour in the eyes and is also linked to many important body functions such as wound healing, lubricating the joints and strengthening cartilage and brain development.

However the term ‘Chi’ has been in use by Chinese medicine practitioners and Chi Gung and Tai Chi teachers for many generations before the advent of modern western science, and the reason is that it is a very useful concept which can help people develop their health and vitality. In our Tai Chi classes we have many exercises which help people to understand how to use Chi instead of physical strength, so even without the use of microscopes and special laboratory equipment it is perfectly possible for ordinary people like you and me to develop a useful understanding of Chi, and how it can be developed and used in a variety of situations. By understanding how Chi is made and how it can be cultivated we can improve our health by changing our diet and the way we live. Although increases in our levels of health can be measured by scientists, more importantly we can learn to take responsibility for our own health and well being without relying on doctors, drugs or surgery. The key to understanding this approach to health comes from these opening paragraphs of the Nei Ching: “Do not wait until you are thirsty to start digging a well.”, or as we might say in the West “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

How can we cultivate Chi?

Chi levels in the body can go up or down, we can be full of vitality and at other times we might get run down and sick. We know that the lungs provide clean air chi to the system so deep breathing and learning to expand the breathing capacity is a traditional way of boosting the Chi. A clean natural diet avoiding toxins is another way we can increase Chi. Cultivating Chi is a bit like storing energy in a battery, we can charge it up or run it down, if we learn to charge the battery and avoid depleting the store we can always have a plentiful supply of energy even as we get older. Chi Gung and Tai Chi exercises help us to build a store of energy but also improve the circulation of Chi, think of the sap flowing around a tree in springtime, the tree flourishes and buds turn into shoots and new leaves and growth occurs every year at this time. As we get older the movement of energy around the body can get stuck and some areas become starved of energy and we get ill. Tai Chi exercises help the chi to flow in a continuous circle around the entire body so the whole system is constantly nourished and regenerated.

Excessive physical exercise burns up vital energies, so does taking drugs, drinking alcohol and excessive sexual activity. Certain foods also deplete the store of Chi such as junk foods, artificial additives, anything which is not what we might consider a natural diet. As we become more sensitive we develop an awareness of the effects of what we take into our body and how we spend our energy. Of course we all have to live in the modern world and give time and energy to our families and work so it’s not possible for us to become monks and live in a mountaintop monastery to cultivate energies. Taoism, the ancient Chinese philosophy on which Tai Chi is based gives us a clue as to how we can practically apply philosophy to increase our levels of energy and the key concept here is balance and moderation.