Saturday, May 14, 2011

What is ki?

One of the perennial questions in the martial arts is "What is chi/qi/ki?"  Does it really exist, what does it do, how does it work?

There have been a few posts on this topic on forums I frequent, and I'm posting here an expanded response I made on one of them.

I identify different ways of defining ki/chi/qi.

  • Ki that is a visualisation aid or metaphor for what the body is doing ("sink your ki into the ground", feel your energy shoot along your arm and out your little finger") I have no problems with as they can, depending on the person, aid in getting the correct technique or feeling better than, say, explaining something in anatomical terms.   Personally, I sometimes visualise a flowing, glowing line in my mind's eye when putting on certain locks and holds; it helps me get the correct bits in the correct place with the correct rhythm, but it's a way of mentally processing what I should be doing, rather than a causative factor.
  • Ki as a direct analogue of "energy".  There's a good entry on this at This would be the viewpoint I take as my primary one and my martial arts practice is aimed at becoming more efficient and effective in my application of energy/force through my training
  • Ki as part of a paradigm for explaining how things work (such as providing a life force or explaining why certain maladies exist in the body).  This sort of ki I put in the same basket as the humours, phlogiston, the aether or miasma. (Subsequent discoveries and paradigms with more evidence/explanatory power have superceded them, and shown them to be incorrect in their explanations of why things have happened) 
This is the one that annoys me especially when people use the language of the current paradigm to explain how ki actually does exist.  "Bioelectricity" is a particular annoyance, as is the idea that it is an energy which cannot be measured . 

I have seen these phrases and explanations in many places and from many authors, most recently by Kris Wilder in "The Way of Sanchin Kata" and by Jwing Ming Yang in "Essence of Shaolin White Crane.  But bioelectricity is just electricity that is produced by living things.  We all make it, it's easy to measure (an 8 buck multimeter from Dick Smith and some water to wet your hands with, and you too can see your electricity levels - it's the basis of the lie detector) and it has a known "circuit" in the body. We call it the nervous system. 

We also know that some organisms can use and detect this bioelectricity - sharks can sense electric fields of their prey, as can platypus; torpedo rays and electric eels can use it to stun their prey at a distance.  And all of them have specialised organs and other anatomical features to do this (and mostly live in the water - a torpedo ray can try and shock you on land all it wants; unless you're touching it you won't get shocked). 

Humans have none of these things, and the claims made for any type of ki that is based on biolelectricity or on remote transference of "life force" have no actual evidence-based testing to distinguish them from normal biomechanical or psychological causes. (or even a working definition of "life force" that can stand up to objective scrutiny:  see  - 
warning: gore alert)

  • Ki as a way of saying "I don't know" but sounding as though you actually do.  People in authority don't like to admit they are ignorant or wrong, particularly those (as is often the case in the martial arts) whose authority stems from their perceived greater knowledge-base.  I have a distinct dislike of this one as well, not only for its innate dishonesty but also because when someone says "It's because of ki", the listeners then add extra meaning to the phrase that cannot have been there originally, as "I don't know" only means that - not that it can't be explained, not that it is contrary to what we do know, not that it is magical or spiritual - it only means we are unable to explain it at this point in time.  Something similar has happened to the term "UFO", which means we don't know what the flying thing was that we saw.  Nowadays, with added meaning, people who hear "UFO" think "alien".

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