Is qi energy?

The whole notion of qi as energy is controversial. It stems from Georges Soulie De Morant a foreign diplomat in the early 20th Century who provided some of the first translations of Chinese Medicine classics for the West. It was he who translated 'qi' as energy (having a pre-existing bias from studying Ayurveda where prana is seens as an invisible life force. Thus he believed qi was a synonymous term) and he translated 'mai' as meridian, an invisible pathway carrying invisible life force energy. Therefore, this dominated Western ideas of how acupuncture and other Eastern practices and techniques work.

The 'energy' model can be convincingly critiqued much to the discomfort of those invested in it. Joseph Needham and other scholars of the Chinese language state there is no legitimate reason to translate qi as energy. Rather, broadly speaking, it can more accurately mean the function of something or a concept of a vital essence in air - i.e. oxygen. In Chinese Medicine terms, for example, acupuncture can be explained by existing physiology, of which the ancient Chinese had an impressive understanding. The Chinese Medical model of health is having nutrient rich (ying qi), oxygen rich (qi) blood flowing unimpeded throughout the body. Acupuncture needles facilitate this through interactions with exisiting physiology - nerves and blood vessels. Those invisible meridians (the mai) are explicitly stated in the classics to be measurable and even visible around the ankle (doesn't sound like an invisible energetic pathway, does it?).

A better understanding that does justice to our Chinese predecessors' understanding of the body is a complex longitudinal arrangement of blood vessels and the muscles and organs they serve. Just calling the effects of acupuncture a result of interactions with an invisible force prevents its integration into mainstream medicine and hampers the development and understanding of the practice. Now I suspect similar ideas have filtered into Tai Chi.

In fact, Donald Kendall (author of the Dao of Chinese Medicine, who has clearly explained the above concepts) even states how the distortions of original Chinese theories by westerners have later been mistakenly taken up by the Chinese. As far as I am aware much of tai chi can be explained by a proper understanding of physics and physiology. I am not ruling out the existence of subtle energies etc as it would be foolish to think we understand all aspects of being. But until one comes across a phenomenon that requires looking to esoteric explanations because physiology and physics fall short, then why do so?

There is much to be gained in furthering both Tai Chi and acupuncture practice and application by utilising the vast gains in knowledge modern science has provided and using them to see just how advanced and elegant the systems our ancestors created were. If anyone is qualified to state whether there is evidence for energetic aspects of Tai Chi practice it would be Sifu Waller and if he has found evidence for this I would be very interested in anything he has to say about it.

 (Rob Veater)

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