And now, dear readers, we come to a topic of discussion which- while uncontentious in scientific circles- is still a hot potato amongst people at large. I refer to the question of “Chi”, the chinese word meaning “vital energy” (the Japanese word is “Ki”), though in early Chinese writings it translated directly as “breath”. (Note the similarity to “Spiritus”, a latin word technically meaning “breath”, but which is in Catholic services commonly used to refer to “spirit” or “ghost”.)
For me, the genesis and nature of this concept is fairly obvious and immediately apparent: In ancient times, the mechanisms by which life processes are generated was unclear. Ancient peoples only had vague folk-sciences to explain why breathing air keeps one alive, why eating food keeps one alive, and why diseases occur. The concept of “the soul” was created in order to try to explain each person’s individual character, memories and apparent continuity of personality.
Only very recently have we as a species been able to introspect with the technical efficiency necessary to prove that oxygen enters the bloodstream via complex gas exchanges within the minute tubes and cavities in the lungs. Only recently have we understood what sugars, starches, fats and proteins are extracted from foodstuffs within the bowel, and how water likewise is absorbed into the body’s systems. Only recently have we observed the externally invisible physical damage to the body’s systems that causes such omnipresent maladies as dementia, cancer and old age itself.
Is it any wonder that through most of human history, such wierd and wonderful ideas as the “elan vital”, “aether”, “the soul” and “Chi” have been created as an attempt to explain the inexplicable? To offer some kind of rationale for the complexity of- and apparently magical qualities of- life?
But were concepts like Chi genuinely useful along the way? Well Chi is a complex thing. This concept is remarkable even among the folk-sciences listed above. Specifically, it’s remarkable that this concept classified both breathing, eating and the biological endowment we receive from our parents, as sources of the same thing, energy. We know now that this is at a very basic level, a correct view. Oxygen is used as an energy source by our cells. The nutrients we receive from our food are likewise- effectively- burned as fuel. Though the Chinese could not have been aware of the specifics in ancient times, the child in the womb is indeed sustained by its mother’s own “energy”, in the form of nutrients, etc. So perhaps the concept of Chi gave the ancient Chinese a necessary place-holder. A building block that could be a stepping-stone to understanding, even if it wasn’t in itself correct.
However, like other folk-science concepts attempting to explain the forces causing the state we refer to as “life”, Chi was a catch-all, a kind of algebraic “x-factor”. Problems with your health? Something’s affecting your Chi. Can’t have children? Chi problem. Hair falling out? You’re losing too much Chi through self-abuse… And finally, and most relevantly for this blog:
“That guy won a fight. His Chi must have been stronger.”
Well that doesn’t wash, my friends. We understand why people win fights now, and frankly, true fighters never lacked that understanding. Training, technique, mental attitude, nutrition, natural advantages… and blind luck… are sufficient. No ghostly energy is necessary as an explanation. As a concept, Chi simply doesn’t have to be in our toolbox, and never did.
It’s worth pointing out that I don’t believe in any of the other folk-science concepts mentioned above either. I know the weight of the soul; it is the weight of a brain.
My view is that now we have more understanding, we should discard the majority of these ancient folk-sciences. We should remember them as part of the agonisingly slow progress of our species towards our current understanding, but we should never allow them to influence the way we really think about the world.
If we do allow such outmoded ideas any headspace at all, these could be the sad results:
Kiai Master vs MMA
Extreme Deadly Shout
Watanabe Aikido Demo