Many report experiencing the elusive force called ch'i (qi) on a personal level in profound ways. Indeed, anyone off the street can be given some fairly straightforward exercises that give rise to sensations that many will define as the flow of ch'i. Moreover, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which has demonstrated efficacy, is based largely on ch'i following some general rules of behavior identified through empirical study over thousands of years. This extensive body of empirical and anecdotal evidence engenders passionate advocacy by some who search for an esoteric approach to mastery of T'ai Chi Ch'uan. On the other hand, skepticism logically follows the failure of the scientific method to adequately describe and measure the nature of ch'i.

Confucian tenets on the sacredness of the body hindered the evolution of surgical practices in TCM, thereby limiting the development of anatomical studies essential to a biomechanical perspective of movement. Without the perspective of functional anatomy, or the analytical tools of physics, the descriptions of the underlying principle of T'ai Chi Ch'uan had to draw on another paradigm. Accordingly the paradigms of traditional Chinese medicine and Taoist philosophy tend to dominate the original thinking about the mechanism's by which T'ai Chi Ch'uan operates through the body.

The fact that today's players often use dialogue with mystical connotations does not necessarily mean that the effectiveness of T'ai Chi Ch'uan is based on magical powers instead of solid scientific principles. Somewhere in antiquity men with a real genius for movement and martial arts evolved the insights upon which the modern forms of T'ai Chi Ch'uan are based. Supernormal accomplishment is not supernatural, that's why it is called kung fu, literally, "skill achieved through persistent effort."

Discussions of ch'i are complicated by the fact that it is not a well-defined term. Ch'i is a word with many and varied colloquial usages, as well as being a key term in theories of many scientific, philosophical and spiritual disciplines. Any metabolic or psychospiritual transformation of energy may be characterized as ch'i. The term ch'i is used colloquially to represent manifestations of the invisible energy behind observable effects.

The actual existence or nonexistence of ch'i as a measurable force with an objective reality is, in my opinion, by no means critical to its role and importance in T'ai Chi Ch'uan. To clarify this ambivalence towards the existence of ch'i, it is necessary to first make a distinction between a normative theory and a positive theory. By viewing ch'i in the context of a positive theory, we can avoid endless controversy over scientifically proving its existence.

A normative theory is prescriptive, i.e., it asserts that the world should behave in a certain way because the theory is true. Thus, a normative theory assumes the existence of ch'i, which causes the phenomena we observe to behave in a certain way. It asserts causality.

A positive theory is descriptive, i.e., the world behaves as if the theory were true - regardless of the actual mechanisms causing the observed behavior. Said differently, a positive theory of ch'i doesn't require that ch'i actually exists, only that the phenomena we are observing act as if ch'i exists. The actual causal mechanism for the phenomena could be something totally different, without diminishing the value of the theory.

The principles for the proper development and circulation of ch'i in T'ai Chi Ch'uan are also consistent with the relevant laws of physics as applied to the biomechanics of T'ai Chi Ch'uan postures/movement. Effective T'ai Chi Ch'uan does not actually have to rely on an esoteric analogue to cold fusion. Whether or not it is possible, it isn't necessary to draw more power from mystical sources than is already intrinsic in the biomechanics of well-executed body alignment and movement. While the search for objective identification and measurement of ch'i is a potentially illuminating exercise, it's success is by no means essential to the continued importance of ch'i in a positive theory on the underpinnings of T'ai Chi Ch'uan.

Whether one corrects a faulty posture in T'ai Chi Ch'uan by relieving blockages to the flow of ch'i or by bringing the body into alignment with the appropriate principles of physics/body mechanics, the results should be the same. An esoteric and a scientific paradigm of T'ai Chi Ch'uan will be complementary if one focuses on outcomes.

Many of the ideas in T'ai Chi Ch'uan can only be comprehended fully when they are felt/manifested in one's own body. Never-the-less, some ideas seem easier to talk about in terms of ch'i (and the rest of the panoply of terms from Taoist internal alchemy), while other ideas communicate well in terms of physics/biomechanics. A familiarity with both schools of thought is helpful and there is no particular reason to insist on only one paradigm in developing a conceptual framework for understanding T'ai Chi Ch'uan. If we think in terms of a positive theory of ch'i, the esoteric and the scientific paradigms are two sides of the same coin.


Let us take for granted the existence of ch'i, at least as a paradigm for certain aspects of the body-mind connection that are essential to the effective practice of T'ai Chi Ch'uan. The question then arises as to the best method for cultivating the ch'i. There are countless methods of ch'i kung that could be followed. My principle teacher in Cheng Man-ch'ing Style, Ben Lo, has always taken the position that the correct practice of T'ai Chi Ch'uan is itself a form of ch'i kung. Consequently, there is no need for supplementary systems. Holding postures, which could be thought of as a standing meditation ch'i kung series, is the only supplementary exercise that Ben recommends. Tony Ho, the Wu Style teacher I began studying with in December, 1993 (at Ben's recommendation) takes a totally different perspective and strongly recommends a number of ch'i kung techniques as supplementary exercises to help know your own body.

Zen meditation, yoga, ch'i kung and the internal martial arts all share elements for the cultivation of ch'i. Certain practices obviously resonate more clearly for some individuals than for others. If a T'ai Chi enthusiast enjoys some of the other practices, he might as well have fun. Possibly the alternate perspective will aid in understanding his T'ai Chi Ch'uan practice better. If you just relax and adhere to the principles of T'ai Chi Ch'uan, however, the ch'i is cultivated naturally and without risk. Casual observation does not support the idea that the practice of other arts makes ones T'ai Chi Ch'uan superior in some way. Some people who spend a lot of time supplementing their T'ai Chi Ch'uan training still have quite mediocre abilities.

The beginner should be aware of some potential risks with ch'i kung. There are practices that reportedly lead to severe emotional/psychological imbalances if not taught and monitored properly. It is thought particularly dangerous for people to focus the ch'i into the upper tan-t'ien, or third eye, because of the risks associated with the elevated blood pressure that results. The possibility of physical injury from improper body mechanics is also possible. Some will also fall prey to a New Age hubris, superficially learning a great number of esoteric practices and failing to recognize the potentially greater value from investing the same amount of time in developing a deep understanding of one system.

There are extensive systems of Taoist alchemy, as well as ideas from traditional Chinese medicine, which try to add insight into the nature and usage of ch'i. They can be studied, but as a practical matter there is a lot of contradictory information out there. The Classics do offer some guidance, although much of it is cryptic and open to misinterpretation.

Lee N. Scheele
Costa Mesa, CA

Copyright © 1996 Lee N. Scheele