Without Writing

The art of writing without writing… about fighting.

Chi… Can Surprise

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

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2 responses to “Chi… Can Surprise

  1. Sifu Franzocich 2011, February 2 at 5:22 pm

    Dear Sir
    I read your piece concerning chi with interest and with a certain amount of amusement.
    The martial arts, healing arts and otherly ‘arts’ are, it is true, awash with claims by certain individuals of micraculous powers and gifts made possible by their chi.
    The tone of your article seems to address this issue and more specifically seems to address the claims made by fighters and martial artists.
    However before I tackle the misgivings you have reported on those issues first I will address the issue of chi.
    Chi is at once mysterious and everyday. It is the underpinnings of what we know as spirit or life force. Anybody who has witnessed the difference between a person whilst still alive and after they have died knows the absence of life force is what sets them apart. Chi is also interchanged with breath in certain schools of thought.
    It is that indefinable quality we sense with our minds and hearts when someone approaches us yet we have not noticed them with our regular 5 senses.
    It is only termed ‘other-worldly’ because at present the majority of people have not had the relevant training to enable them to be sensitive to it.

    Chi can also be interchanged with the term energy.
    The prevalent scientific view at present with regards to humans is that we can exist due to the energy we get from the breakdown of food. However believing in the modern scientific view above does not mean that both views cannot co-exist.
    The concept of chi has been around for as long as records were kept. If it were just that-a concept-then I agree we could dispense with this way of viewing the world entirely and dismiss it as fantasy or just concept.
    However the fact that chi can be harnessed and worked with and cultivated means that rather than just concept it is as real as anything purported as real by the modern materialist/scientific view.
    Afterall how do we know that food is actually broken down into nutrients and absorbed by the body. Do we experience such minute workings or do we take it on face value because that is what we have been taught at school and by scientific community.
    The internet is steeped in claims by ‘masters’ and students of masters that their master has amazing chi.
    In fact the internet contains many videos offering ‘evidence’ showing students bouncing off the master with the slightest touch. Of course I am sceptical also-students want to believe the master is invincible and so go along with this idea of the master having amazing chi. This gives a distorted view of well practiced men and women who do have powerful chi. These bonafide practitioners would not be seen to be showing off any attributes they may have developed along the way on the journey of self exploration. In much the same way a mature adult would not get involved in a real fight in response to a challenge from a small child.
    Modern science has given us many many precious insights into the way the world works but its greatest gift has been its impartial, rigorous method of investigating phenomena.
    Let us not fall back into blind views and closed mindedness when posting articles just because it is outside the scope of our own experience.

    • withoutwriting 2011, February 3 at 11:13 am

      I can’t find anything to really argue with in this comment, saying as it does that:

      – One should keep an open mind
      – The concept of chi could theoretically co-exist with modern scientific concepts (depending on how one defines “chi”

      The answer to both is a resounding yes! But the latter does depend on how one defines “chi”… If one is defining chi as a mystical force that one can use to fling an opponent into the air (as say… Sid Sofos or the elderly Ki master “Ryukerin” does), then I would say it does not exist. Which, as you say, was the thrust of the article.

      I wouldn’t dream of challenging more esoteric practitioners of the mendicant lifestyle, monks and whatnot, on their concept of energy work. Firstly because they’re absolutely entitled to their spiritual beliefs, and secondly because even if they WERE wrong, they are doing no harm to anyone by pursuing their own spiritual lifestyle.

      But when a Sid Sofos or a similar individual claims supernatural powers in the field of combat, the question becomes not only an issue of hard fact, but also an issue of the safety and intellectual health of his students… fighting and self-defence are not spiritual issues, though the training can lead to some spiritual benefits, if done in the right way. Fighting and self-defence are technical issues, and serious issues with serious consequences too. And in technical fields, clarity and practicality are paramount.

      Thus- to me- the concept of chi has no place in any dojo, gym or kwoon. It may have a place in other settings, but not in the martial arts training hall!

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