What is Chi?

One of the more controversial , and sometimes ridiculed aspects of Chinese martial arts is the concept of “chi,” (also written as qi) which in traditional Chinese cosmology is the life-force that forms and animates the universe.

Much of the discourse around chi in the martial arts revolves around whether it “exists” or not.  I prefer to examine the ways in which the concept is useful and revealing, versus those in which it is counter-productive and obfuscating.

Martial arts blogger Scott P. Phillips has many interesting ruminations on the nature of chi at Weakness With A Twist.   His main point about chi is that as a concept it is polysemous. It has many different meanings depending on context.”

“Chi” is a construct created by another culture to describe an array of phenomena and concepts that we in the West use other terms to describe, and that we often don’t connect to each other.  This is one of the more useful and illuminating aspects of the concept of chi for me:  creating connections that a Western mind might not ordinarily make.

Here’s one way of looking at chi in its martial arts and meditation application, by analogy with a computer’s operating system:

My computer’s CPU processes information in terms of 0 and 1, on or off.  Every command, every operation I assign to it, including typing this post, gets processed in 0’s and 1’s in my computer’s “mind.”

This binary computer language is useless garbage to my mind.  There is no way I could communicate with my computer in these terms.  I’d be much better off getting a printing press and publishing my blog on light posts around the city than to try to break all my messages down into binary language.

What makes computers useful to us is that very early in their development, programming languages were created to bridge the communication gap between human and machine “minds,” and even as computers have become more sophisticated and powerful, these operator interfaces have become simpler and more intuitive for humans to use.

My CPU has no concept of  document, file, folder, trashcan, or anything else that defines my interactions with it, any more than I understand sequences of millions of o’s and 1’s.

The complex web of my body’s musculature, organs, and tissues speak languages not entirely different, though far more complex, than the binary on/off language of the computer, and though in reality my brain operates on this binary body-language, to my conscious mind it is even more mysterious and unwieldy than the language of the computer.

The operating language for the body is the imagination, and here is where the concept of chi is invaluable.  I can take a tremendously complex series of seemingly unrelated movements, feelings, and perceptions and operate them nimbly and efficiently through the mechanisms of “chi.”


~ by nolashaolin on January 11, 2009.

3 Responses to “What is Chi?”

  1. Imagination is our operating system. Good thinking!

  2. […] What is Chi? […]

  3. “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”
    Martha Graham

    Certain aspects of chi may be purely imaginary. However, imagination can be a very powerful thing.

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