Friday 19 October 2012

Demystifying chi - a must watch video

Wow, I have just discovered the most wonderful video thanks to my fellow blogger at internal gong fu. This video is called demystifying chi and is essentially reinforcing the point that I have been making (as regular readers will know), that I am not a big fan of "chi" and all it's connotations as energy. Where does this apparent translation come from? This video provides the answers:

Direct video link

But for those of you who don't have time (it's ~1 hr long but I suggest you make the time if you are interested in internal arts or "energy") or just want to get the gist of it, let me quote from internal kung fu on his write up:
"[Dr. Nugent-Head] begins the seminar with a brief history of the word "Qi" and follows this with presenting nine primary definitions for Qi. He then reads through a list of 163 definitions where Qi is the first part of a compound character set and and then reads a list of 235 definitions where Qi is the second part of a compound character set for a total of 407 definitions that use the character Qi. This largely consumes the first 37 minutes of this lecture.

While you might think that listening to a reading of definitions is boring, if you only know Qi as "energy", "life force", "pneuma", "breath of God" or whatever, then you are in for a real surprise and listening to this list is absolutely essential! I found my understanding of Qi shifting and changing as he read through the list.

In my opinion, by us (American's) translating a non-definitive, non-elemental word-concept like Qi into definitive, elemental terms like "energy" or "life force" or whatever, this flawed "translation" process has resulted in some real silliness in the internal martial arts."
Good summary - and now let me add a couple of highlights of my own from the video, that I would draw your attention to:
  • At time index 03:00 (and then discussed at 40:00), he points out that if we want to talk about a word from another language (chi) rather than arguing about it we should go to a dictionary first of all. He then points out that not a single one of the nine English to Chinese translations of chi is energy. Go figure. Why has this come about? Through his language grinder concept and for historical and co-incidental reasons (watch the video).
  • At time index 51:30 - "The concept of chi as energy creates an aura and vaulted status to practitioners; to demystify it would leave them naked to the scrutiny of their own skill level" [and later on] there are a lot of unscrupulous people making money off chi, not like the proverbial snake oil salesmen - they are snake oil salesmen.

Representational not definitive

Frankly a wonderful video in which I found very authoritative, entertaining and based in reality not superstition. As Dr. Nugent-Head says at the end in summary, chi is not a thing (a thing that confounds Western science), it is a "representational not definitive" concept of a pictorial language.

In other words chi is more like an adverb or an adjective rather than a noun or verb. Adverbs & adjectives on there own mean nothing, but they give flavour and emphasise to meaning. So as a little though experiment; imagine that for some reason the word "very" had been translated into Chinese as "strong". A whole lexicon and theory had then grown up around the concept of this "English strength", intermingled with some hypothetical cultural feature. Chinese practitioners would spend years of their life debating this "very" concept, trying to find and explore it. It sounds ridiculous, but neverthless that is exactly what has happen with "chi means energy" in the west.

"What is very?" a Chinese person might ask you, "well it doesn't really mean anything on it's own" you would reply "it depends on the context of the sentence". And low and behold that is the same answer a Chinese person would give to you if you asked them "what does the word chi mean?". Chi is just a way of language, of culture. It is not a thing. It is not energy.


  1. Thanks for the interesting link. However I have a hard time matching one of those nine definitions with what I see in this video:

    1. Thanks for posting, and you are indeed correct they do not match. Your link is a clip from a pseudoscience entertainment program showing classic Shaolin kung fu circus performance acts. It has been carefully edited for maximum sensationalismand and cleverly says very little that is actually concrete. Note for example how they gloss over that the baseball bat hit is at a significantly lower force than the previous one on the dummy that they wax lyrical about. Why don't they talk about that rather than the completely irrelevant dummy? With the spear, they measured the strain rather than the all-important pressure at the tip. It is simple physics that the amount of bend (strain) is not directly proportional to the pressure at the tip. So why talk about strain rather than pressure, also glossing over how a lot of the pressure is obviously spread over the collarbones with the flat of the blade rather than the tip itself? The answer to all of this is because both the circus acts and the TV program are entertainment not science.

      Clearly these are impressive feats, and I am impressed (and entertained). Good for them. It is clear that kung fu and chi kung obviously give you lots of body conditioning benefits (that's why I do it). But does this video in any way provide evidence for "chi energy", or even the lower bar of "things science cannot explain"? No. Back to my original post, does this video beautifully demonstrate the widespread incorrect and corrupted use of the word chi in the English language? Yes.