The Spiritual Features of the Experience of qi in Chinese Martial Arts
Dao originated in the nebulous void, the nebulous void produced space-time. Space-time produced the original qi. A boundary [divided] the original qi. That which was pure and bright spread out to form heaven; that which was heavy and turbid congealed to form earth. […] The conjoined essences of heaven and earth produced yin and yang. The suppressive essences of yin and yang cause the four seasons. The scattered essences of the four seasons created the myriad things.
Qi is a word for any gaseous substance-steam, clouds, smoke, the air, or breath. In fact, it is the modern Chinese word for “weather”. Qi has two basic characteristics. The first is to come in gradations of subtlety, like ice gradually turning into steam. The second is to be dynamic, not static, constantly moving and changing, like water flowing down or steam rising up. Qi is material, provided that matter is understood dynamically as interchangeable with energy and never at rest. It has a spatial extension and is in constant transformation independent of awareness. As the original material of all things, it penetrates everywhere and makes all things flow. What we call a “thing” is a more or less momentary stability, nothing substantial or “for itself”. Qi is energetic, vibratory, and incapable of being still.
2. A phenomenological Description of the Experience of qi in Chinese Martial Arts
2.1. Research Method
2.2. Qualitative Research Results
2.2.1. Second-Person Perspective
2.2.2. First-Person Perspective
2.2.3. Main Features
- The feeling of qi is related to bodily sensations that, however, vary from person to person. The qi is not felt as such but rather serves as an interpretative grid for certain bodily sensations (for example warm hands are interpreted as being the effect of the circulation of qi).
- One can search to control her qi but also to liberate it in order to be controlled by it. In that case qi does not serve only as an interpretative grid of bodily sensations but can also provoke bodily sensations, such as the feeling that our hands move by themselves.
- Qi is often understood in a metaphorical way as something that flows. Interestingly, one interlocutor compares qi to electric power. This shows the metaphorical plasticity of this concept that can be understood by analogy with notions specific to modern science, although it is a very ancient concept of Chinese thought5.
- Qi is a plastic feeling that can lend itself to interpretations of religious inspiration or specific to other cultural contexts (for example in the case of the perception of the flow of qi in the meridians) than those of the practitioner. It is true that the notion of qi is closely linked to Chinese medicine, and therefore also to the notion of meridian. However, the interlocutors who shared this feeling do not come from a Chinese cultural context. Hence it is a feeling that is related to a new understanding and perception of one’s body related to knowledge of Chinese medicine.
- The feeling of qi is mostly linked to the feeling of a connection with our surrounding world and has thus an underlying cosmological dimension. The feeling of qi implies a link between bodily perceptions and a particular perception of one’s environment. This feeling can be experienced as the perception of a connection with the environment through the qi that is felt as an energy that flows through our body and our environment. This connection can also acquire a deeper cosmological meaning through which the practitioner feels themselves as being at the center of a unity or as a passage between heaven and earth.
- a feeling linked to bodily sensations, but which cannot be reduced to these sensations.
- a hermeneutic and creative feeling at the same time.
- a metaphorical feeling.
- a plastic feeling.
- a bodily-cosmological feeling.
2.3. Phenomenological Interpretation of Qualitative Results
- the experience of one’s own body
- the experience of the world through one’s own body
3. Is the Experience of qi Religious?
4. The Spiritual Features of the Experience of qi
[All types of spirituality] foster self-transcendence and transformation via a movement away from what they see as “inauthentic” towards the authentic. Broadly speaking, the inauthentic implies some sense of limitation or lack of freedom.
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In Japanese qi is pronounced as ki and in Korean it is pronounced as gi. For an example of the importance of this concept for Japanese thought see for instance the work of the Japanese Neo-Confucian scholar Kaibara Ekken (1630–1714) The Philosophy of Qi: The Record of Great Doubts (Kaibara 2007). Concerning the importance of this concept for Korean thought see (Choi and Kim 2018).
I warmly thank Alexandre Donnars, Alexandre Thorlet, Alex Van de Meulebroecke, Anna Stoimenova, Dennis Woo, Dominique Saatenang, Erik Ceunen, Kai Han Lo, Olivier, Philippe Alberty, Sebastian Baron, Stavros, Stephan Englebert, Thierry, Wim, Xavier and Yussef for having participated in this interview.
It is true that most of these sensations correspond to the parts of the body which are mostly used in martial arts (the hands, the arms, the lower abdomen, the spine, the feet).
In traditional Chinese medicine meridians designate paths trough which qi circulates in human body. Each path is associated to a specific qi energy: yin and yang. Moreover each path is associated to a human body organ. Although there is no scientific evidence for the existence of these paths from the perspective of Western medicine, each of these paths has a specific localization in human body according to Chinese medicine, which traditional Chinese physicians, such as acupuncturists, can immediately pinpoint. Thus, in the framework of Chinese medicine meridians have a concrete existence.
The possibility of reinterpreting qi from a modern perspective is showed in (Wang et al. 2020, p. 189). However, according to the authors, this is not a mere possibility, but a necessity, since “the introduction of modern scientific discourse enriched the traditional discourse but also signaled the end of the traditional discourse on qi.”
Neither Husserl himself nor Sara Heinämaa use the notions of “receptive” and “active” in this context. These notions are part of my interpretation of this experiential structure. Sara Heinämaa interprets this double-sensation structure as a sensing-sensed duality, a “dynamic intertwinment of sensings and sensed qualities, internality and externality, subjectivity and objectivity” (Heinämaa 2021). In other words, she interprets this structure as the capacity of the living body to be both subject and object of sensations. This is certainly correct, but I would like to stress another aspect of this structure, namely its receptive and active dimension. In his unfinished manuscript The Visible and the Invisible Merleau-Ponty takes up Husserl’s analysis of the two touching hands. However he brings to it a nuance: “My left hand is always on the verge of touching my right hand touching the things, but I never reach coincidence; the coincidence eclipses at the moment of realization, and one of two things always occurs; either my right hand really passes over to the rank of touched, but then its hold on the world is interrupted; or it retains its hold on the world, but then I do not really touch it-my right hand touching, I palpate with my left hand only the outer covering” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, pp. 147–8). Thus, according to Merleau-Ponty there is never a coincidence but only an asymptotic trend towards the simultaneity of the two touching hands.
Merleau-Ponty defines flesh in this way: “The flesh is not matter, is not mind, is not substance. To designate it, we should need the old term “element”, in the sense it was used to speak of water, air, earth, and fire, that is, in the sense of a general thing, midway between the spatio-temporal individual and the idea, a sort of incarnate principle that brings a style of being wherever there is a fragment of being” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, p. 139).
Interestingly, this idea of this kinship between my flesh and the flesh of things allows Merleau-Ponty to conceive the possibility of the two touching hands: I can touch with one of my hands my other hand because precisely my hands are not only sentient organs but also tangible things, just as other things of the world (Merleau-Ponty 1968, p. 133).
The notion of sacred is synonymous or at least intimately bound with the notion of holy. The latter is used for example in order to translate Rudolf Otto’s work The Idea of the Holy (1917). Otto uses in German the notion of “heilig”. German language does not have two distinct words corresponding to the English words “sacred” and “holy”. We can find this distinction also in French: “sacré’ and “saint”.
For more recent studies on mystical experience and the debate if this kind of experience is dependent in its particularities on a specific sociocultural, historical and religious context (this position is called a contextualist interpretation of mysticism) or not (this position is called an essentialist interpretation of mysticism) see for example (Katz 2000).
The theologian and historian Jean-François Colosimo goes even further by stating that the concept of religion as it is used in its modern sense, i.e., first of all in the sense of a system of belief and not in its original latin sense (religio) which means the practice of divine rites, is a Western invention (Colosimo 2018).
Moreover, the Wudang Mountains are not only home to Taoist religious buildings but have in themselves a religious, sacred meaning since they are considered as one of the four sacred mountains of Taoism. That is why they are a destination for Taoist pilgrimages.
Nonetheless, Smart does not seem to draw a strict conceptual distinction between a religious and a spiritual attitude since he puts the following question a few lines before mentioning “people with deep spiritual concerns who do not ally themselves to any formal religious movement”: “cannot a person be religious without belonging to any of the religions?” (Smart 1998, p. 12).
The concept of ziran is for instance present in the grounding work of Taoism Dao De Jing (also referred as Lao Zi), for example in chapter 25: “Man takes earth as his model; Earth takes heaven as its model; Heaven takes the Tao as its model; The Tao takes what is natural (ziran) as its model” (Lao Zi 1995, p. 133). It is also present in another classical work of Taoism, namely the Zhuangzi, for instance in this passage: “This was what is called the state of Perfect Unity. At this time, there was no action on the part of anyone, but a constant manifestation of spontaneity (ziran)” (Zhuangzi 2021). As we see the translator translates the concept of ziran as “spontaneity”.
I take up Philip Sheldrake’s notion of secular spirituality (Sheldrake 2012, p. 17).
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Cibotaru, V. The Spiritual Features of the Experience of qi in Chinese Martial Arts. Religions 2021, 12, 836. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12100836
Cibotaru V. The Spiritual Features of the Experience of qi in Chinese Martial Arts. Religions. 2021; 12(10):836. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12100836Chicago/Turabian Style
Cibotaru, Veronica. 2021. "The Spiritual Features of the Experience of qi in Chinese Martial Arts" Religions 12, no. 10: 836. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12100836