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The Idiot’s Guide to Qi

What is Qi (Chi)?

Abstract concepts often have a way of getting  “lost in translation”. There’s something about the subtle nuances of language that gets lost along way when translated from one language to another, more so because of differences between Eastern and Western conventions when it comes to semantics. So what is Qi? Is it a mysterious force used to channel your inner strength into fireballs and lasers? Is it a form of energy that can be manipulated to bring good fortune? Spiritual strength that medicine men use to treat various illnesses?

To answer that correctly, one would have delve into the Chinese language to gain proper perspective…


In standard Mandarin Chinese, “Qi”, using the annoyingly counter-intuitive Pinyin system used to romanize Chinese words, is pronounced “chi” or better yet “tsi“, not kwee” or “ki“. Say this with a downward inflection using an accent similar to how you’d pronounce the last word of an imperative sentence.


As the illustration depicts, the word’s appearance and usage evolved over time. From its first evolution as a character derived from fusion of the pictogram of “fire” and “vapors”, it’s modern-day strokes are derived from the fusion of “vapors” and “rice” aka. steam.

c/o The Straits Times

Looking at its history, the word “Qi” was literally “steam” in its earliest incarnation, a mixture of fire and vapors as indicated in its pictogram. As time went on, it evolved into its modern-day form as a pictogram derived from “vapors” and “rice” which still referred to “steam”. Before the days of electricity, steam was the earliest source of power for machines in those days. So what better word for energy than “Qi”?


With some words having more than one, often unrelated meanings, Eastern languages are often more dependent on context clues. This, IMO, is why Western minds have a hard time grasping words that are Eastern in origin. A Chinese word may have myriad meanings. One picks up the appropriate usage of the word from how it is used in the sentence and other context clues of the conversation. For example, “Qi” by itself can either mean any of the following:

Dictionary definitions:

[source: Taken from Google’s online Chinese language dictionary]


  1. gas
  2. air
  3. breath
  4. weather
  5. energy
  6. odor / smell
  7. symptom / state
  8. anger

Depending on how it is used in the sentence, it’s often easy enough to pick out what someone means. When one is talking about a person’s emotional state of mind, it’s hard to mistakenly interpret the use of “Qi” in the sentence to mean that someone is feeling “vapory” at the moment. Applying a bit of common sense, you’d figure out that he means to say that someone is “angry”.

It’s not exactly the most precise of linguistic modes, but like any other language that developed organically over the centuries, it has its own share of quirks. When added to other Chinese characters to form new compound words, the meaning of “Qi” likewise expands from its original meaning. Take for example the compound words that can be formed from the root word “Qi”:

The Western Viewpoint

c/o Street Fighter, Capcom

The common notion westerns have about “Qi” is a mysterious internal energy residing in our bodies, more often than not, channeled by anime characters to shoot fireballs and laser beams out of their fists. Thus the bad rap the term “Qi” gets when applied to other areas like martial arts conditioning and the practice of acupuncture. Skeptics are quick to pooh-pooh the notion of “Qi”, claiming that this strange form of energy called “Qi” cannot be detected by modern-day scientific measuring devices.

So here we have a classic case of “lost in translation” where the western mindset has a tendency to take a word’s literal meaning, often times out of context. The subtle nuances of the word’s original flavor often doesn’t carry over well when trying to translate something to a non-native speaker.

So to explain further, let’s take a closer look at the common misconceptions most westerners have whenever the word Qi is used in the modern world…

In Martial Arts…

c/o The Karate Kid (2010) , Columbia Pictures

You often hear the word Qi being used in martial arts movies when the old sensei urges his brash young prodigy to “focus his Qi”. But what exactly does he mean by that?

If your martial arts sensei instructs you to focus your “Qi”, he may be referring to proper breathing techniques (Definition #1: BREATH), muscle control or how to throw a punch correctly (Definition #2: ENERGY ), or not to let your emotions get the better of you during a match (Definition #3: ANGER). Now you just have to figure out which one he meant 🙂

In Feng Shui…

In the field of interior design, Feng Shui has evolved (or should I say devolved) into an over-commercialized parody of its original, more sensible design philosophy.

Case in point, a popular Feng Shui chain opened a stand-alone store near our place. Practically speaking, it was the worst place to open a retail shop – no foot traffic, wrong target market, little exposure… not even the hundreds of “lucky trinkets” being sold in that store could forestall the inevitable… it closed shop after a few months. So take my word for it, I am not, nor will I ever be suggesting that Feng Shui can ever be used to manipulate luck.

Mr. Wilson Flores of the Philippine Star wrote a smart and sensible article this week on on the real secret of Chinese success :  The True Secret of Chinese Success is Neither Feng shui nor Zodiac. I would strongly invite everyone, whether Chinese, Filipino, or any other ethnicity to go and read it.

Originally a set of practical guidelines to ensure proper lighting, air flow, and to avoid any untoward accidents in the house due to cluttered and haphazard positioning of objects, Feng Shui was the earliest form a what we would today call a “building code”.

Feng Shui – literally “Wind‘ + “Water” was named thus because of its primary usage to design a building with good air circulation and plumbing. The “Qi” of the house originally referred to the basic airflow within the house (Definition #1: Air) , ensuring that every room is kept well ventilated, allowing as much natural air and lighting into every nook and cranny. Before the days of electrical lighting, modern indoor plumbing, and air-conditioning, designing a good floor plan was paramount to having a livable house. Houses in those pre-Communist days in China were labyrinthian in design with rooms adjoining other rooms in maze-like connections to accommodate huge extended families. Wealthy families had wives and concubines each brooding a dozen children each.

Good design guidelines were needed to ensure that all the rooms in the house were optimized in terms of placement and spacing. Proper airflow design was needed to insure that bedrooms and parlors were kept breezy and comfortable, hot air from the kitchen and most especially vapors from the garbage dump and latrines (Definition #2: Smell or Odor) had to be directed elsewhere. So when a Feng Shui practitioner in the olden days says he needs to deflect the “bad Qi”, he might literally be thinking of a way to keep bad odors away from the living area.

But years of variations, gullible clients, and self-declared Feng Shui masters out to make a quick buck have added more and more crap into the “rules” that it has lost much of its practicality. Nowadays, a lot of media-savvy , self-proclaimed Feng Shui gurus have thrown in so much superstitious nonsense into the pot ranging from astrology to luck attraction that the name of Feng Shui has forever been thrown in skeptic’s hell for all time.

In Science…

As seen in a sidewalk billboard urging citizens to conserve resources, like Natural Gas (qi)

In chemistry, gases  in general are all called Qi; which is after all, on of the standard dictionary-definition of Qi. For countries that have piped in natural gas used for heating buildings, that’s also Qi.

Since we don’t use Natural Gas in the Philippines, the closest equivalent we have is LPG used for cooking. That’s also Qi, or more specifically 石油氣 (Petroleum + Gas).

In meteorology, weather (天氣 sky + energy state) and climate (氣候 energy state + time) also takes their name from Qi because weather patterns describe atmospheric energy states over different periods of time.

In Anatomy…

In the field of medicine, Chinese doctors may use the word “Qi” to refer to the body’s natural electrical impulses traveling through the nervous system. And this is where the source of confusion lies. “Qi” is the generic Chinese word for “energy”. It doesn’t refer to any specific form of energy but Westerners have thought it to mean some new form of “secret energy” previously undiscovered and cannot be detected by instrumentation. Acupuncture and acupressure practitioners during ancient times didn’t have the benefit of modern day tools like ECG or MRI to peek inside the body but through trial and error (and a lot of poking and prodding) did map out a rudimentary blueprint corresponding roughly to how sensations travel across the body (aka. the human nervous system).  Like Plato’s early model of the solar system, it was flawed;  but given the level of technology they had back then, it was still a good effort.

So there you have it folks, I hope everyone enjoyed a bit of cultural trivia. It doesn’t hurt to brush up on a little foreign language skills here and there to broaden your horizons and get a more holistic view of how people from different cultures use language in different ways to convey ideas and concepts that more often that not, have several layers of meaning not obvious to non-native speakers. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book “What the Dog Saw”, sometimes you have to put yourself in another person’s shoes to get a better perspective.

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