The Chinese name of their own country is Zhōngguó (中國), meaning “The Middle Kingdom.” Many scholars mistakenly believe that the ancient Chinese arrogantly considered themselves to be the only civilized nation surrounded by savages. But that is not the origins of this name. China considers itself to be the “Middle Kingdom,” because the kingdom of man is trapped between the heavens and the earth.
Most times when we discuss Qì (氣), we are talking about Human Qì, or Rén Qì (人氣). But it is important to realize that this is not the only type of Qì out there. In fact, under the broadest definition of Qì, everything in the universe is made of this energy, and the Qì of the universe can be divided into three types. The first, known as Heavenly Qì, or Tiān Qì (天氣), makes up the stars, weather, air, sun, moon, and even the gods (as, at that time, the Chinese believed the gods lived among or actually were the stars). The second type of Qì is called Earthly Qì, or Dì Qì (地氣), which makes up the Qì of the land, oceans, buildings, rocks, trees, plants, rivers, lakes, streams, and even the plants and animals. Of these two types of Qì, Heavenly Qì is the most powerful and influential. For example, rain (influenced by Heavenly Qì) affects the flow of rivers or lack of it can cause a drought (affecting Earthly Qì).
The study of how both Heavenly (sometimes called “Celestial”) and Earthly Qì affects a person is called geomancy, or Fēng Shuǐ (風水). Fēng (風) means wind (Celestial Qì) while Shuǐ (水) means water (Earthly Qì). Fēng Shuǐ uses aspects of Chinese astrology in the study of Heavenly Qì, and aspects of the study of how the shape of the Earth affects Qì flow to allow humans to live harmoniously within their own universe. Today Fēng Shuǐ is used mostly for interior decorating, but in ancient times great stock was placed into consulting a Fēng Shuǐ master to determine where to build a house, how to decorate it, where to put the doors, where to do business, and more. Even burial sites were carefully chosen based on a Fēng Shuǐ reading. It was the general belief that by taking care in choosing burial sites, it prevented ghosts from becoming restless and coming back to haunt a person, or even coming back to re-animate their corpse!
It’s important to know that if an author is speaking of Heavenly or Earthly Qì, he or she will say so. If they simply use the word “Qì” by itself, then they are most likely using a more narrow definition of Qì. They are referring to Human Qì. This is the energy that keeps people alive. It flows through meridians and channels like blood flows through vessels, and it provides every part of the body and organs with nourishing energy as well as functional power. Most of the time when someone uses the word “Qì” they are discussing Rén Qì. The concept of Human Qì is central to Tàijíquán, Qìgōng, and Chinese medicine. Qì is often translated as “vital breath,” or as, “vital energy,” but it is important before we explore Qìgōng and Tàijí any further that we understand the “glue” that binds these ancient Chinese exercises with a relatively modern Chinese martial art as well as Chinese medicine and acupuncture.
To fully understand what Qì is, we need to examine the character itself and how it is written. Qì (氣) is actually made up of two different Chinese characters. Within the character for Qì there is the character Qì (气)—which is a different word, but pronounced the same—meaning “air” or “gas.” And there is also the word mǐ (米) meaning “rice.”
This combination of characters is a clear indication that Qì is a direct reference to the energy created in our body from the food we eat and the air we breathe. This means that man derives his Qì from Heavenly Qì (air) and Earthly Qì (food). Once again, Heavenly Qì is seen as more important of the two, with influence over Earthly Qì. In the case of Human Qì, we breathe far more often than we eat, and we die of lack of oxygen far earlier than we would through lack of food or water.
Within Chinese medicine, there is an ancient saying, “The true Qì is that which is received from heaven. This plus grain Qì are what fill the body.” It has been also said that, “Man gets his Qì from heaven and earth.” Both of these sayings, as well as the two characters hidden within the character for Qì, indicate that Qì is the energy made from the food we eat (Earthly, or Grain Qì), and the air we breathe (Heaven).
It is a wonder how preoccupied the American people are with eating. We worry about the kinds of foods we eat, the temperature of the food we eat, how much water we drink, whether we should or should not drink water with our meal. We even worry about how quickly we eat or how much we chew our food.
We know we like it when we get out of the city and breathe “good clean country air,” but we rarely worry about the how we breathe. Air is as much a source of Qì as food is—even more so since we eat three to five meals a day but the average person takes more than more than 20,000 breaths in a day. Once again, Heavenly Qì is more powerful than Earthly Qì.
This is why breath becomes so very important in our Tàijíquán practice. We should worry about how we breathe, how fast, whether the inhale is longer than the exhale, and whether we hold our breaths our not. We should use either Buddhist (diaphragm or belly) breathing, or Daoist (reverse or reverse paroxysmal) breathing, and we should realize that the Chinese concept of cosmology makes breathing as important to health in China as diet is here in the United States.