mardi 1 mai 2012

About Qi (first part)

Qi is a very important concept in the chinese culture which is always difficult for a westerner to understand. The character Qi / 氣 (气 in simplified characters) has often been translated using the word "energy" since it's introduction to the west. Many sinologists prefer to use the expression "life breath", which is a bit better to give us an idea about this concept but still doesn't help us understand it.

If we analyze the ethymology of this character, things become even more complicated and shows us how rich and complex the Chinese language can be :

According to Madam Catherine Despeux (in "Traité d'alchimie et de physiologie taoïste" / Treatise on taoïst alchemy and physiology, les deux océans, Paris, 1979) :

According to the Shuowen (Juowen jiezi, one of the first dictionaries from the 1st century, giving a detailed explanation of each character), this term is pointing to the rise of steam. We can notice four different characters for this notion. The first one is made of the steam element (气) with, below, the fire (  ). We can find it in the Zhou inscriptions on the vital breath circulation, published and studied by Guo moruo. The second () is an ancient character, made of the negation on the upper part and of the fire in its lower part. Since the Song dynasty, this character was used to designate the pre-heaven vital breath, as opposed to the post-heaven vital breath. The third character is only made of the steam element and was more employed in the "Lishu" calligraphy style. Finally, the last character and the most common one, is made of the steam element on top of the rice element, it is the vital breath in its nourishing fonction.

Qi from the ancient Zhou dynasty

It is very rare to hear about the first character that Madam Despeux is describing and which seems to be the oldest representation of this notion. The Zhou inscription that she is talking about here is made of many inscriptions on turtle shells and lamb's shoulder blades from the western Zhou dynasty (11th - 7th century BC) that Guo moruo had deeply studied. This character looks like the one used nowadays (氣) but, under the steam element, on the rice place, comes the fire.  

This "Qi" is, then, very close to the second one that Madam Despeux is talking about. Especially when we take a close look to a very common mistake made in its interpretation : Here, it is said that this character is made of the fire element on its lower part (灬) and of the negation (无) but the element on the uper part (旡), according to Leon Wieger, is the opposite of the element (欠) which represents the act of yawning or noisy exhalation. This Qi is often used to describe the pre-heaven vital breath (xiantianqi) and it is probably the reason why this confusion came out : the Qi "without fire" makes sense when we know that the fire represents the conscious spirit which doesn't exist before our birth. Actually, this character represents the fact of breathing in ( 旡) put into action by the conscious spirit (灬, the fire) : It is the first inspiration, the newborn's first breathing in, which starts every human being's life. 
To these different characters representing the Qi that Madam Despeux is talking about, we can add one more, the caracter 既 (prononced Ji). This one is composed of two elements : a seed (the life potential) on the right and, one more time, the breathing in on the left. 

Ji character

According to those different characters, it seems that the Qi notion comes together with the chinese traditional cosmology, born under the Zhou and brought to the present through the Taoïsm. A very important point to better understand the sens of this "vital breath" lies in the relationship that it has with water and fire elements (body and mind, yin and yang). Qi is representing an "harmonious link" between those two major elements. This link is expressed in the Taoïst alchemy by the association "Jing - Qi - Shen" (essence - vital breath - spirit) and represented with the water - wind - fire elements.  

Thanks to Gary Mc Cabe for his help in the translation