Ch'i (pronounced "chee") is a basic concept in most Asian
arts, martial (kung fu) and otherwise. It is also known as prana (India)
and ki (Japan), words which generally translate into "breath."
At the most simple level, ch'i is described as the life force, or
"electricity" of living things. It is analogous to the energy
that makes something alive, rather than inanimate, and death is described
as a body devoid of ch'i. It's cultivation is taken almost on faith, via
such arts as Dragon kung fu, ch'i kung, and t'ai chi ch'uan. Thus, though
difficult to define, measure, or explain, ch'i lies at the root of martial
and meditative arts practices.
However one sees ch'i, it is almost always perceived as a subtle force,
produced by mental discipline and manifest in so-called internal arts.
Consequently, many martial artists believe in a distinction between
internal and external (or soft/hard) styles. By simple definition, if an
art is being performed by a living entity, it must contain an internal
component; likewise for external. If a ch'i-based art is to be seen as
different from an external art, it is because the emphasis is on subtle
techniques that use pressure points, deceptive approach, and a disciplined
gentleness in delivery. Practitioners of "internal" styles do
not "retire" as they pass their athletic prime; they are better
at age 80 than at age 30.
So, despite numerous opinions, volumes of books, and legions of
demonstrators of ch'i, the life-force is still an unknown quantity by
scientific standards. We may acknowledge its existence, but do not yet
have repeatable, empirical, unequivocal data to agree upon (neither do we
have such data for planets in other solar systems, though, as with ch'i,
there are strong theoretical bases for believing in such things).
One problem with studying ch'i is that it supposedly follows distinct
routes through a living body, as do nerve impulses and blood flow.
However, unlike nerves and blood vessels, ch'i channels do not reveal
themselves through physical pathways that can be seen and examined
following dissection of tissue. This lack of formal pathways kept such
techniques as acupuncture from being accepted by western physicians until
the mid 1970s, at which point profound successful treatments overcame lack
of understandable paradigm. Acupuncture, dim mak, tuite, and other arts
capitalize on manipulation of ch'i pathways primarily through enhancing or
impeding ch'i flow through critical junctures. Acupuncture needles are
often made of highly electroconductive metals, and many treatments include
the conduction of electric voltage into the needles.
Most practitioners see ch'i as electricity of life, a wave-form power
generated by living tissue that is routinely functioning in all life.
Cultivation of ch'i is akin to body-building; we all have muscles, but
training can increase versatility, strength, and control of those muscles.
Such training involves considerable (often tedious) physical, mental, and
dietetic training over many years. Similarly, ch'i is universally present
(like muscle). Similarly, it takes a combined practice to promote
discipline, mental and physical training, and diet. It also may take years
to develop a significant increase in ch'i control abilities.
The oldest codified form of ch'i practice is probably yoga. The goal of
yoga is to promote and improve health, though other manifestations, some
probably purely mythical, have also been associated with this art.
Sometime later, though the specifics are highly disputed among schools and
styles, t'ai chi ch'uan was developed in China. The most
widely-disseminated story has t'ai chi ch'uan being taught to soldiers to
improve their combat skills, increase their strength, and increase their
useful service lives. Subsequently, the art has always been taught with an
eye towards longevity and the retention of youthful characteristics, such
as flexibility. Though a highly effective combative art, t'ai chi ch'uan
(="grand ultimate fist") has been given a New-Age face lift, by
dropping the "Ch'uan" in an effort to disown its martial roots.
Many of the more competent practitioners today can, however, demonstrate
the incredible efficiency and, if necessary, deadliness of the art in
In the early stages of training, ch'i is developed through exercises in
empathy. Without trying to sound trite, ch'i requires a practitioner to
feel his own emotions as they ebb and flow. This fluid dynamic is
followed, and eventually led, through moving meditations such as done in
kung fu or ch'i kung. Students may be asked to perform meditations,
material manipulations, or partner exercises (e.g., sticky hands), as
basic methods to promote this empathy. Beyond that, each style has its own
program for ch'i development. Aikido uses throwing techniques, Snake uses
pin-point finger-tip strikes, and t'ai ch'i ch'uan uses subtle body
positioning. At this stage of ch'i understanding, it would be impossible
to state than any particular school or method has cornered the market on
TRUTH, or THE single, best method of ch'i cultivation. As in all other
endeavors, the practitioner is still more important that a particular
approach or style.
You will find style specific basic technique here along with 2-person drills and forms.
This video is essentially what we had on our CD-ROMs and is now available for free! For basic gung fu technique,
check out our Training Section.
©1997-2008, Shaolin Gung Fu Institute
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