What is Chi?

What is Chi
This is THE definitive martial arts subject. Bigger than "Can Taebo be used for self defence?", more controversial than "Did Bruce Lee wear boxers or Y-fronts?" this article looks at the subject that gets keyboard warriors (and even some pretty experienced folk) everywhere jumping up and down, beating their fists into walls and challenging each other to fight for the honour of the Shaolin Temple. WHAT IS CHI?

First, I feel that I should make clear my personal opinion of what Chi is/isn’t – From my POV:

Chi/Ki/Qi is just energy. It's as simple as that. As humans, we take energy from the food we eat, from the air we breath, the exercise we do, etc. Qigong (energy work) are methods of improving our energy intake. Eating good food, keeping hydrated, allowing time for digestion - this can be considered 'food qigong'. It is intentional work towards improving the intake of food energy. Breath qigong is probably the most 'recognised' method of qigong, as well as the most surrounded in BS. Essentially, what breath qigong seeks to do is increase the amount of air taken in with each breath, by working with concerntrated deep breathing techniques, sometimes static, and sometimes in conjunction with various movements, such as swinging of the arms. It's a similar concept as going out to the country side to get some fresh air for our health. After I've been cooped up at work all day, I step outside and take a breath of fresh air, and WHOOSH! I get a surge of energy. That is all 'Chi' is. No super powers.

A lot of people say 'Chi' as if it is a definite term - but really, there are all different Chi's. 'Chi' the word, is the same as 'energy' the word. One word, but with different meanings. So, the Chi we get from eating food, is the energy we get from eating food. Just one word. But it is different from the Chi we get from breathing. But it's all Chi. But it's different Chi. At best, Chi is an umbrella term for different kinds of energy. Certainly nothing special. So, that is my position.

But of course, there are several other positions, going from one extreme to another. I say ‘extreme’, and I’m not exaggerating. On the one side, there are people who stoutly believe that Chi is ‘real’ – it had an existence of its own. Some of these people go further and believe that Chi can be harnessed by humans and used to perform almost supernatural feats, such as affecting the weather and levitation, and experiencing spiritual states of consciousness. At the other end of the spectrum, there are the people who deny the existence of Chi. This denial comes from different roots, such as Chi was a term used by people in the past to describe biomechanical processes that can today be explained scientifically, or that Chi is some sort of religious belief that has no basis in reality. And in the ‘no-mans-land’ inbetween each extreme, there are those who are open to the possibility, and a various mixture of beliefs that further aid to muddy the water. 

So… What is Chi?

From a Chinese perspective, Chi is believed to be the life-force that underpins all existence. The Chinese believe that Chi can be absorbed into the body via various breathing techniques and exercises, commonly known as Chi Kung (or Qi Gong in Pinyin).

What is ChiOne man, who has studied extensively in the East and is a lineage holder in an ancient Taoist system of practice, is Bruce Kumar Frantzis. In his book ‘The Power of Internal Martial Arts’, Mr. Frantzis defines Chi as;

‘Energy, subtle life force, internal energy that empowers something to work and function. This concept underlies Chinese, Japanese and Korean culture, in which the world is perceived not purely in terms of physical matter, but also in terms of invisible energy.’

The idea of Chi being an ‘invisible energy’ is often the cause of scepticism surrounding the discussion of Chi. However, as Mr. Frantzis notes, this comes from the Oriental way of perceiving the world, which is different from the Western view. As I’m sure you can imagine, a lot can get lost in translation. This problem is another cause for the confusion as to what Chi is.


Next, I would like to look at some of the practices that make use of Chi. There are several different applications of Chi, including Traditional Chinese Medicine, Martial Arts and Spiritual Development.

Chi PathwaysIn Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Chi plays a vital role. The idea is that Chi flows through defined pathways in the body, known as meridians. Chi is stored in the lower Dan Tian, an ‘elixer field’, lying approximated three inches below the naval, in the center of the body. It is believed that illness occurs if Chi stagnates in the meridians, causing a blockage. These blockages prevent fresh Chi from circulating to the vital organs and body-parts, thus resulting in a weakening of the affected area. In order to clear these blockages, a patient may undergo procedures such as acupuncture, acupressure or qigong therapy. Practices such as these aim to ‘dissolve’ the stagnant Chi, and promote the flow of fresh Chi, thus restoring health.

Within the field of Martial Arts, the concept of Chi is probably the most misunderstood. Some people believe that Chi is able to give them some sort of ‘super-human’ powers, such as being able to affect an opponent without touching them, or to be able to send some sort of ‘Chi Blast’ to defeat an attacker. The ‘truth’ of Chi within the martial arts is much simpler, and much more every-day than this.

The first point to look at refers back to the applications of Chi with the medical field. Using Chi to keep the body healthy and strong is the first application of Chi within the martial arts. Next, Chi can supposedly be trained and refined to allow a practitioner to ‘feel’ his opponents intention and structure with only the slightest touch, whilst also hiding your own. This is referred to as ‘listening skill’. The offensive side of Chi lies in Jin training. Jin is an expression of the energetic power within the body. This allows the physical body to remain as relaxed as possible in the muscular structure, whilst the Jin manifests the movements, such as expansive, rising power (Peng Jin), straight forward power (Ji Jin) or rending power (Liat Jin). It is often this part of Chi training that leads people to believe that Chi is biomechanics in action. And, whilst biomechanics certainly play a part, they are not the full story. One can move one’s body with perfect structure, but without the supporting Chi/Jin training, the movements will be devoid of martial power.


As this article comes to an end, I know that it will split opinion. Some people will like it, most will probably hate it. That is the social nature of Chi. Perhaps that is its greatest power? My thanks go to my teachers, who have kindly helped me to reach the first step, and who have reminded me that this is a very tall mountain. Also, my thanks go to Mr. B. K. Frantzis, for allowing me to reference his book. I whole-heartedly recommend anyone with even a passing interest in the subject of Internal Martial Arts take a look at his book, ‘The Power of Internal Martial Arts – Combat Secrets of Ba Gua, Tai Chi and Hsing-I’. Thanks for reading.

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ashley's picture

Amazing article James, thank you for this really useful post. This really helps clear up some questions I had regarding Chi.
Medway Tai Chi Society's picture

Thanks Ashley. It's a complex subject, and hard to do it justice. This is very much a beginners perspective on the subject, and glosses over a lot of the important details that would be too complex to try and explain in text.
Chaleira's picture

Thanks for this informitave article on chi. There will always be some sort of mystery fog around things like this because people don't understand it. Articles like this are a great help to clear up some of that fog
zenman40's picture

dragonball z used to come to mind thinking of chi. years ago i used to get magazines on gigong. i went from a believer to a skeptic to just recently a believer again. having had acupuncture done it opened my minds eye again. i actually cured the burning sensation in my legs ive had for a year using energy manipulation. very strange. so ive went from a dragonball z practioner to a extreme skeptic. now i take the middle ground. to me energy is awareness. but thats my take. so i am now a skeptical believer. i question everything. but at the same token have seen way too much to be a hard core extreme skeptic. this was a very good read. thank you very much. your a very intelligent person. what is your take on chi being energy/emptiness/awareness. to me its all the same. call it rupa if you will but names will never justify it. thank you again sir.
Medway Tai Chi Society's picture

Like I say in the article, I think Chi is an umbrella term for lots of different forms of energy. Energy from food, energy from sleep, energy from certain exercises, and so on.
zenman40's picture

understood. thank you for the reply.
Tim-Bo's picture

energy comes from the sun, food, ect....greta point, energy, can be manipulated
clouddragon's picture

yes a decent article on Chi, unlike many others I have read.
decker dude's picture

Once again a very informative piece James. As you say, it IS a complex subject this 'chi', but you have this 'way' about you that lends the subject matter to be less complex than what is percieved ordinarily. I believe you are able to do this by researching your subject matter and then breaking it down into little 'chunks' or 'basics', so that we 'lay persons' are able to understand more about the subject. I sure do wish that i lived in your area and that you were my teacher in the art of Tai-Chi!
Karate Kitty's picture

Thank you for giving clarity on this subject matter. I have always wondered about chi and never realy understood what all the fuss was about. Supernatural powers, no, umbrella term for different kinds of energy, YES! Thank you for all your informative and educational pieces.
sepa's picture

interesting! good information.
Immortal's picture

i used to read a lot about this and i deeply believe in chi.especialy after feeling it on my own from video of youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ll8v9AhIOoU it explains many unexplaining thinks like leviatants in india that i saw in documentary many times.btw chi can be control with our minds sometimes u wish something and it happen but u just dont know how to control that.when i have time i will keep search on net and hope i find out how to use it And about dbz if u know alot about martial arts u will see that 99% of the anime is real and all tehniqs exist,there are even some war formaion used in ancient china,u can look on net more. ah and if u know anything about chi/ki/prana pls msg me
Medway Tai Chi Society's picture

That video is absolute hogwash. 99% of anime is real? No - maybe 1% has basis is some form of reality, but 99% is fiction. The secret to developing kungfu, is practice, practice and more practice.
cris donovan's picture

my personal attitude has ebbed and flowed on this subject over the years. The sceptical part of me says, "BS!" The logical part of me says, "i do not know all that i do not know." I can be in doubt, but then i see/feel/experience things i can not explain. I can understand the concept, but then i think "give me physical proof." What i do agree with is that it is at least one of THE definative martial arts subjects...and my jury is still deliberating.
itatae mizumaki's picture

this article explains what chi is and it barely tells what it can do and what martial based on chi and chi only
Medway Tai Chi Society's picture

You are free to write your own article on the subject...