InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Feb 2001
EJMAS Tips Jar

Chi, the "X" Factor

by Brian Kennedy

Copyright © 2001 EJMAS. All rights reserved.

Menciusí answer that the concept of chi (qi) is difficult to describe is as true today as it was in his time of the Warring States Period (403-256 BCE). Chi is a term that is used across the full range of Chinese culture including philosophy, medicine, painting, calligraphy, and the martial arts. The term has a range of meanings from the mundane to the esoteric depending on the context and the userís intention.

In a martial arts context, chi can be used in four ways.

Each of these different ways: For example, if chi is taught as some mystical life force, some "élan vital" that derives from some primordial source, then it has a different meaning (and framework) than if it is taught as the end result of force vectors resulting from correct neuromuscular coordination, skeletal alignment, and timing. Likewise, if the use of word "chi" equates to ignorance, then that also creates its own framework for teaching and practice.

Chi as "life force"

Defining "chi" as some type of life force has its basis in Chinese philosophy and medicine. Here, to use a grammatical composition, chi is described as a "thing"; it is a noun. This chi is perhaps like Henri-Louis Bergsonís élan vital: the vital force or impulse of life.

Here common analogies include blood and electricity, and chi is often likened to a kind of fluid. For example, one hears:

And so forth.

Another analogy is electricity. Described this way, chi can be:

Oftentimes the fluidic and electrical analogies are used together and interchangeably. Thus the overall mental image is of a sort of bioenergy that has characteristics of both some unseen fluid and some unseen force.

Discussions of chi carried using the life force framework tend to start with Chinese philosophy in general and Taoist thought in particular. According to "generic" Taoist cosmology (I say generic because each branch has a slightly different spin on its cosmology), chi is the moving or animating force of the universe. It is present everywhere: the earth has its chi, the heavens have theirs, and man has his. For humans, when chi is present there is life. When the chi has been depleted or unbalanced there is sickness. And when it has been completely exhausted, death occurs. In this model, there are natural laws that govern how human chi functions. These laws derive from the Tao and can be known to man.

Philosophers classify this of chi as a type of vitalism. Vitalism is a doctrine that states that the functions of a living organism are due to a vital principle distinct from physicochemical forces. Another way of defining vitalism is as a doctrine in which the processes of life are not explicable by the laws of physics and chemistry alone.

Chi as "efficient biomechanics"

Defining "chi" as a kind of biomechanical efficiency is somewhat unique to the martial arts: here chi is viewed as a "quality." To use a grammatical composition, it is an adjective; that is, a state of being or a kind of movement.

The most common analogies in the biomechanical framework are structural or engineering based. For example, "solid base," "force vectors," "waist as the axis," "alignment on a plane," and so forth.

When used this way, "chi" refers to the result of a certain alignment within the human body. Proper chi results in efficient movement and the optimal and maximal use of force; improper chi does not. Proper chi is therefore the optimal skeletal alignment and most coordinated use of the muscular system for the purpose of generating the maximum amount of force with the minimal amount of effort. Put more simply, maximum force with minimum effort. Or more simply still: efficient fighting.

In a biomechanical model, proper body alignment focuses on three fundamental elements:

Oftentimes when chi is used to mean biomechanical efficiency, the term "chi" itself is not used. Instead it replaced by more specific martial arts terms such as "jing" or "peng jing," which refer to specific manners of applying force.

On the face on it, this analysis of chi would seem to be more in accordance with western scientific principles. But an examination of 18th and 19th century Tai Chi Classics shows that they discuss and place fundamental emphasis on many of these biomechanical factors. Therefore the explanation is Chinese, not western.

Chi as "donít ask"

When I was a kid, my dad answered a question using the word "because" in the same manner that many martial arts teachers use the term chi. That is, it meant either that:

Martial art teachers often use the word "chi" similarly, as a catchall term for any aspect of the martial arts that the teacher does not understand at all, understands only in a vague sense, or finds difficult to articulate. I would venture to say that "chi as Ďdonít askí" is the most common use of the term.

Such usage can be both legitimate and less than legitimate.

One legitimate use is based on the assumption that learning any art happens in gradual stages and that each stage is laid on a foundation of what the student already knows. Giving students information out of order creates confusion; there is an order to learning. Oftentimes, however, the student will ask questions about some aspect of the art that can not usefully be answered because the student simply does not know enough to place the answer in context. The use of vague terms such as chi provides the instructor with a useful all purpose answer in lieu of constantly having to tell the student, "You donít know enough at this point for me to answer that question."

In a related vein the term "chi" can be used to describe phenomena that do not lend themselves to verbal articulation. Many aspects of physical arts are not easy to talk about; they are subjective feelings. Thus in sports you hear phrases such as "on top of my game," "in the groove," "caught the momentum," or "pushed through the wall." In the arts you will hear such things as "the words flowed out of me," "the band clicked," or "I found my tempo." These types of expressions reflect very real experiences that are common to people involved in that activity. But the experiences are not easy to articulate in concrete terms. Therefore a metaphor such as chi is used. To someone outside the art the metaphor makes little sense, but to someone who has had the same experience the metaphor is clear. As a writer I can understand very clearly the idea of "the words flowed out of me"; however having never played team sports it is hard for me to grasp what it means for a sports team to "catch the momentum."

However, on the less legitimate side, sometimes the term "chi" is used as nothing more than a way to hide the teacherís ignorance. It seems an unfortunate reality that in all times and all places martial arts fraud has been prevalent. Be it modern day California or the Japan of Miyamoto Musashiís time, an unfortunately high percentage of martial arts instructors do not know or understand their art in any depth. Thus the use of terms such as "chi" provides a convenient cover for what in fact is nothing more than ignorance.

Not mutually exclusive

These various uses are not mutually exclusive, and most discussions of chi intermingle them. For example, chi may be used to describe a life force that is the result of biomechanical efficiency, which is to say that if the practitionerís physical posture is correct, then the life energy will be allowed to manifest and flow. Or in the mirror image, chi may be used to describe a state of biomechanical efficiency that is the result of correct use of a life force or energy. Chi as life energy and chi as biomechanical efficiency may be viewed as mutually reinforcing and mutually generating. To put it in colloquial terms, that would be where the life force and correct alignment of the body "boost each other along."

Why the different frameworks?

The fact that such a central concept as chi has multiple uses is a result of a number of factors, not the least of which is the reality that fraud, charlatanism, incompetence and ignorance are prevalent in the martial arts. We can take some cold comfort in realizing that the use of "chi" to cover fraud and ignorance is not a recent phenomenon but rather a traditional part of the martial arts of any nation or time.

But, beyond the use of "chi" as a cover for ignorance, the two fundamentally different views of chi (that is, chi as life force and chi as biomechanics) owe their existence to a set of factors present in Chinese culture. I should state straightaway that these comments are not meant in any pejorative sense. Neither do I mean to belittle any aspect of traditional Chinese culture. However, there are factors in Chinese culture that have lead to the multiple and sometimes confused understandings of chi in the martial arts.

The first of these factors is the fact that most Chinese martial arts theory, including the idea of chi, was developed in pre-scientific times. Scientific methods were not applied to martial arts until the latter part of the 20th century. So, while pre-20th century Chinese martial art practitioners were long on practical experience, they lacked the type of quantifiable information that is the hallmark of modern science. As a result practitioners were largely unable to distinguish the separate factors that go into martial arts skill and performance. Therefore they used terms such as "chi" to describe (in necessarily vague) terms a mix of factors that could not be separated out through experimentation. I should mention that the same situation obtained in western boxing, where the various scientific approaches to human performance are just, at the start of the 21st century, starting to receive wide usage.

Another factor was that China was, for most of its history, a tradition-bound culture. The relationship between student and teacher, in any art including the martial arts, was regulated strictly. Two basic rules were (and to a large extent still are) that teachers do not "explain" to students and students do not question teachers. This was very striking to me my first year teaching law in Taiwan. My fellow law professors simply sat at the front of the class and read lectures. The lectures consisted exclusively of sets of rules with no explanation. The students copied down what was said. Questions were nonexistent. When I attempted to get my students to ask questions regarding points of the law they did not understand, it was impossible. This situation is not unique to teaching academic subjects: it extends to all student-teacher relationships.

What this means as a practical matter is if the martial arts teacher says during the lecture that chi does "x" or chi is "x," the student will never inquire beyond that and the teacher will not explain beyond that. As a result vague and confused ideas are passed on regarding what exactly "chi" is.

A third factor is that the Chinese language and literary forms, at least in the past, did not lend themselves to specific discussions of martial arts. To put it bluntly, classical Chinese is vague and flowery; it is a good language for poets and songwriters, but a poor one for concrete discussions of things such as martial arts. I realize that this is a generalization, and a generalization that might cause some rancor. I also am well aware of the fact that to make sense of martial arts material written in classical Chinese the reader must have a background in martial arts. Nonetheless written material in Chinese, up till quite recently, did not, in and of itself, do much to clarify what chi is in the martial artsí context.

Taken together, these three factors are in large part responsible for the different frameworks and nuances of meaning that "chi" has in the modern martial arts.


I am not in a position to give the definitive answer as to which framework is the "true" one for chi, and the only conclusion I will put forward is that:

So, whenever considering the word, one is reminded of Humpty Dumptyís comment in Through the Looking Glass: "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- thatís all."

For Further Reading

For internal Chinese martial arts, the Nei jia website at is excellent. For the basics of the biomechanical approach to chi, Mike Sigmanís site, is the one-stop choice. For I-chíuan, Timo Heikkiläís site is excellent. Finally, an interesting but perhaps not so well known site is Jarek Szymanskiís

The author also wishes to mention Mike Pattersonís web site, Although it is largely an advertisement for Pattersonís videos, it remains a sentimental favorite. The reason is that Pattersonís school is in San Diego where the author went to university and law school, and he has much personal respect for Sifu Patterson.

About the Author

Brian Kennedy has trained in a variety of Chinese martial arts since 1976. In younger days he practiced Hung Gar and Choy Li Fut; more recently he has trained in Hsing I and Yi quan. By profession he is an attorney who has lived in Taiwan for about seven years, where he teaches and writes about various aspects of U.S. criminal justice.

InYo Feb 2001