Tuesday, 21 September 2010

A translation of Chi

It seems to me that one of the biggest obstacles to widespread internal arts adoption in Western cultures is "chi". Chi is the Chinese word for energy, however as this article points out, chi is to the Chinese what snow is to the Eskimo - there are innumerable subtleties that are simply lost in translation.

There are therefore two points - the first is the translation of the subtleties so that correct understanding and teaching can be achieved. As I discussed elsewhere, it is simply an issue of cultural differences. The chi framework can easily be expressed in more Western friendly language without losing any of the benefits - after all, a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet. Indeed this is the whole (slightly evangelical) mission of Joanna Zorya over at Marshal Tai Chi. So for example, there is no real loss to refer to "sinking your chi" as "lowering your centre of gravity", what we are after here is transmission of thought and understanding from teacher to student. Everyone has different personalities, methods of learning and experiences, hence it is only natural that things need to be rephrased, re-expressed and translated. It is self-evident to me that a large number of Westerners are simply put off by what they perceive to be new-age mumbo-jumbo, so there is no problem with translating the mumbo-jumbo into language that will not put off Westerners new to the internal arts.

The second point is the question of whether "chi" actually exists? Clearly this has been asked for millennium, and my current understanding is that it does not. What I believe is that it is a very valuable communications framework (a la point one above) that has been built up. Instead of being an actual physical energy, it is really a method for describing "how your body feels" from the inside. Everyone has a internal body map that corresponds to the properception sensation. This body map can be trained through conscious understanding so that you become more sensitive to particular aspects. In other words a guitarist might correspond particular cords to finger shapes (e.g. this "feels like a harmonic") or a sportsman will become more skilled through paying more attention to particular aspects of their body depending on the sport. Chi is just the language that is used to describe how doing internal arts "feels".

If this sounds like it is missing out on the spiritual aspects, then I do not believe this is the case either, and I would direct you to read about the God machine. Chi is like the religious equivalent of the soul - experiments to find it are fruitless. Hundreds, thousands maybe even millions of devout religious types over the asons have devised every possible experiment they could conceive of, in an attempt to prove the existence of a soul (and in a similar manner chi). The failure of all of these experiments speaks volumes (to anyone who is not blinded by the brainwashing of their "belief"). In many ways it is a shame that in scientific parlance it is impossible to prove a negative, so the experiments will continue...

In summary therefore do not be put off by chi, it does not exist in a physical sense. It is simply a language that is used to discuss bodily sensations in the martial arts. Do not be afraid to translate this language if it is of benefit to you, but as we all know from our travels round the globe - in the end, the way to get the richest and most fulfilling experience of a foreign culture is to learn the language.

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