Qi Skills and Western Science
“Qi”, the Chinese word that means a number of things, functionally, has “breath” or “air” as a major definition in English. But “qi” also is often translated as a vague “life force” or “life energy” and some odd physical phenomena are attributed to it in the traditional Asian cultures. In western physical sciences we don’t recognize any specific phenomenon of energy or force that could coincide with what qi is supposed to do, so we run into a real problem in understanding what qi might be.
“Qi” in China has pretty much the same meaning as “Prana” does in India and given their geographical proximity and the similarity of attributes of qi and prana, it is reasonable to suppose that long ago there was an exchange of information and belief systems in relation to Qi and Prana.
China and India are the two longest-extant agrarian cultures in the world’s history. Things that happened before we had written records of them can only be deduced from the limited facts we have about the pre-history of these cultures, but a long cultural history has two benefits that pertain to qi and prana skills and information:
1. A long-lasting culture means that knowledge can be passed down through generations.
2 2. Succeeding generations within a long-lasting culture can add innovations to existing knowledge and skills, gradually improving upon them.
Qi and Prana paradigms or theories were used to explain aspects of the physical world, long ago, but ultimately, in more modern times, it turned out that these very early elemental building blocks couldn’t sustain themselves. In light of the development of Scientific Method, Qi and Prana went the same way as the western (Hellenic) Humours Theory and the Five States of Change (Five Elements Theory). That is, they were discredited from being scientifically valid theories.
So, to focus on just one topic, the qi paradigm and theory couldn’t be sustained in terms of predictability and it failed as a basic building block and explanation for understanding the universe, because of that. However, even though the explanation fails, that doesn’t mean that the observed phenomena qi sought to explain didn’t exist.
The big problem we have faced in terms of qi skills is attempting to understand in western terms those observed and observable phenomena that are traditionally described via the old qi paradigm.
Can we explain the observable “qi phenomena” in terms of the western physical sciences? We should be able to, unless we believe also that there are observable phenomena that western science simply can’t explain. Let’s look at a couple of categories of qi-phenomena and attempt to them them in western terms. Please note that I am aware of a few more phenomena that are also part of the bodily qi skills and which are also explainable in terms of physics, but I don’t want to develop a lot of background theory for some of them, thus expanding this thesis of qi and western-science explication too broadly.
Distance Qi Phenomena
The most problematic discussions about qi phenomena are some areas of body skills that seem impossible and perhaps difficult to grasp in terms of physics. Some of the qi demonstrations deal with effects that appear to happen over a distance, without physical contact.
A number of those distance phenomena simply have not withstood close physical scrutiny. In other words, they appear to be more the result of suggestion and psychology or even perhaps staged illusions. However some of the phenomena of “distance qi” or “external qi” seem to have some degree of credibility, at least in terms of conveying some amount of “feeling” across distance.
David Eisenberg wrote a sympathetic but honest book called “Encounters with Qi: Exploring Chinese Medicine” in 1995. In it, during his investigation of qi over a distance, Eisenberg admitted that even with his back turned to a “qigong master”, he felt something. However, feeling something and being controlled by something are two different things. Every credible Chinese martial-artist I’ve ever spoken with says that controlling an opponent over a distance cannot be done and they dismiss a lot of the contrary demonstrations as simply being psychology-related.
For a good (but not overly rigorous) treatment of the distance phenomena and human electromagnetic field-effects, I recommend people read James L. Oschman’s book, “Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis”. I can recommend one or two people who are really good at this type of phenomena, but I’d rather to it privately, as I deem fitting. The main point is that the distance-qi phenomena seem to be related to personal electromagnetic fields and this is a topic that can be described, at least fundamentally, in a western scientific manner.
Body Qi Skills
There are a limited number of body-oriented qi skills:
1 1. Unusually strong skin areas that resist laceration and puncturing.
< 2. Ability to take very strong blows to the body.
3. Unusual ability to take voluntary control of normally autonomic functions like skin temperature, pilo-erection, heart tempo, and so forth.
< 4. Unusual strength ability.
5. Ability to control a person in an unusual manner when in contact.
Descriptions of some of the qi skills have an arbitrary vagueness to them. For instance, demonstrations of “unusually tough skin” can often be challenged as showing simple callousing and conditioning.
I personally witnessed a demonstration from close proximity where a qigong expert placed the pointed end of a cylindrical bamboo chopstick against his throat, between adam’s apple and throat hollow, and then suddenly exploded forward against the chopstick, causing the fibers in the middle of the chopstick to structurally fail. The fibers were all mostly connected, but the center of the chopstick remained only as a fibrously joined mat. The expert’s hand remained behind him while this was done.
When asked by onlookers how he did this fairly remarkable feat, the expert replied, “Some people call it qi, but really it is that the body can be conditioned in ways that most people don’t know”. This expert had majored in Biology during college in Beijing, so he was frankly indicating that while his startling demonstration might be attributed to “qi”, it was actually the result of a physical (hence, describable) method of conditioning.
Most of the demonstrations of “qi” as physical toughening and conditioning that I have seen appear to be describable in a fashion congruent with western physics analyses. If something physical occurs, there must be a physical explanation, all the way down to incremental levels. The mystery, if there is any, almost always resolves to the conditioning methods and the physics of force applications.
The Real Curiosity
Generally speaking, most people in the martial-arts are interested in the so-called qi phenomena which are involved in person-to-person martial interaction. From my perspective, as I’ve learned to replicate more and more physical demonstrations that are traditionally termed “qi”, I’ve found that every physical interaction and response can be described in the terms of western science.
More often than not, if someone can replicate, to whatever varying degree, a physical action normally termed as a qi phenomenon, but they can’t describe it in terms of western physics, then the problem has been that they don’t have an adequate grasp of the phenomenon in some way.
I have seen various people over the years demonstrate a reasonable replication of controlling another person or interacting with another person in a way that fits the qi-paradigm, but they have been unable to explain it in coherent western terms. Now, generally, I’m of the opinion that agrees with the old statement “if you really know a topic, then you should be able to explain it to your grandmother”. However, this is not always true, as I’ve found out.
In a number of instances which I’ve encountered over the years, what someone demonstrates physically is not what they’re imagining and describing to others. In some of the descriptions, there is the added comment that “this cannot be described by western science”. Usually I find that the problem is that people are doing one thing, but to arrive there they imagine something else in order to put their body and actions into their state of readiness.
In every case I’ve ever seen of one person affecting another person with “qi”, “ki” (the Japanese word of the same meaning), or related exotic terms, the physical interaction was something that could be described in terms of physics, regardless of what anyone was imagining that they were doing. In other words, what imagery they were using was not descriptive physically of what was really happening.
I read an interesting interview on time on Aikido Journal in which Koichi Tohei described a demonstration where he resisted the upward forces of two people lifting his arms by “sinking his middle”. At the same time, his teacher, Morihei Ueshiba was describing the demonstration of being an artifact caused by the gods (the “kami”) entering his body. In reality, neither description is adequate to physically, in western terms, describe what happened. “Sinking the middle” hints at what happened, but is itself so incomplete as to be potentially misleading.
As I noted in the earlier blogs on Silk-Reeling and Jin, a lot of the qi phenomena and body training has to do with manipulating the body in a way that is different from the way we normally move and motivate our bodies.
Among the basic skills learned from Qi (in terms of “suit” manipulation of the body involving the dantien: described in the earlier articles) and Jin are ways of training the body so that it can be controlled as one unit, by the middle of the body, and also ways of manipulating force directions within the body. Various methods of tensioning the body tissues are also used, as well as some pressure-related phenomena that are outside the scope of this discussion.
The point of this discussion is not so much the “how to” of training, but that no matter what physical demonstration is performed, there is a method to physically analyze and describe what actually happened, IF you know what the actual factors involved were. Sure, using imagery may help a person arrive at the ability to perform a demonstration of “qi” (maybe not a pure one, but in the general neighborhood), but if the imagery is too far removed from what is actually happening, it can cause confusion.
The worst problem with using confusing imagery and descriptions is that they ultimately hinder further progress. If you don’t understand exactly what you are doing, but instead think of it in terms of incorrect imagery, you can’t extrapolate accurately what can next be done, so progress is impeded.
“What is really going on here, in terms of physics?” is certainly one of the safest and most productive routes of investigation of the so-called “internal strength” (“neijin”). All of the really expert Chinese martial-artists that I have met take a very engineering type of perspective. True, they may use the qi paradigm to describe some of the things that they do, but they know full well that there are explanations, not mysteries.