What Is Chi?

A while back, my wife took my son to the movies to see Kung Fu Panda 3. He loved it, and he had to tell me all about it when he got home. The explanation of the plot was fairly incoherent – five-year-olds aren’t known for their ability to clearly articulate lengthy plots – but it had something to do with a demon turning people into dumplings to harvest their chi? Maybe? What I remember is he was excited about watching anthromorphic animal martial arts, and my wife assuring me that I’d probably have liked the movie.

Anyway, as he’s telling me about the movie and about people getting turned into dumplings to have their chi harvested, he stops and thinks for a second. “What’s chi?” he asks.

Beats me. I mean, for various reasons involving my reading and viewing habits, I have a very loose idea what it is. But, honestly, I don’t know for sure.


Properly, chi should be written in English as qi or ch’i, although it may not matter too much. Transliterating from the different Chinese languages to English is difficult at best. It’s written in Chinese as:


For etymology and definitions, I’m turning to Wikipedia. First, the etymology:

The logograph 氣 is read with two Chinese pronunciations, the usual  氣 “air; vital energy” and the rare archaic  氣 “to present food” (later disambiguated with 餼).

Pronunciations of 氣 in modern varieties of Chinese include: Standard Chinese , Wu Chinese qi, Southern Min khì, Eastern Min , Standard Cantonese hei, and Hakka Chinese hi.

Then, the definition:

Qi is a polysemous word; the unabridged Chinese-Chinese character dictionary Hanyu Da Zidian lists one meaning “present food or provisions” for the pronunciation and 23 meanings for the qì pronunciation. The modern ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, which enters  餼 “grain; animal feed; make a present of food” but not classical  氣, has a  氣 entry giving seven translation equivalents for the noun, two for bound morphemes, and three for the verb.

n. ① air; gas ② smell ③ spirit; vigor; morale ④ vital/material energy (in Ch[inese] metaphysics) ⑤ tone; atmosphere; attitude ⑥ anger ⑦ breath; respiration b.f. ① weather 天氣 tiānqì ② [linguistics] aspiration 送氣 sòngqì v. ① anger ② get angry ③ bully; insult.

So what is chi? Or ch’i, or qi, or however you’re going to spell it?

Just to keep myself from going crazy, I’m going to go with “chi” for the rest of this article. And from the dictionary definitions presented above, it means air and smell and spirit and vigor and vital energy.Or it can mean anger, or breathing, or the weather, or being a bully.

Clearly, you should never trust someone who claims that a word in one language has a literal translation in another language.

Seriously, though, what’s chi?

I’m going to hit Wikipedia again:

The ancient Chinese described it as “life force”. They believed qi permeated everything and linked their surroundings together. They likened it to the flow of energy around and through the body, forming a cohesive and functioning unit. By understanding its rhythm and flow they believed they could guide exercises and treatments to provide stability and longevity.

Although the concept of qi has been important within many Chinese philosophies, over the centuries the descriptions of qi have varied and have sometimes been in conflict. Until China came into contact with Western scientific and philosophical ideas, they had not categorized all things in terms of matter and energy. Qi and li (理: “pattern”) were ‘fundamental’ categories similar to matter and energy.

Fairly early on, some Chinese thinkers began to believe that there were different fractions of qi and that the coarsest and heaviest fractions of qi formed solids, lighter fractions formed liquids, and the most ethereal fractions were the “lifebreath” that animates living beings.

Yuán qì is a notion of innate or pre-natal qi to distinguish it from acquired qi that a person may develop over the course of their lifetime.

So if I’m understanding that right, chi is the “substance” (for lack of a better word) that makes up both matter and spirit, probably along the blueprint dictated by li. Which is kind of a neat thought, although it begs the question of “how does li dictate that form?” Perhaps it is the Platonic realm of Forms?

Is chi real?

And suddenly we’ve got an unanswerable question.  We have no real evidence for the existence of chi, but there is no way to prove a negative.  We cannot definitively say that it does not exist.  All I can say for certain is that nothing that really matches up with chi has ever been detected in double-blinded experiments. Does that mean it isn’t real? Well, no. It just means that, if it is real, it’s really, really difficult to prove.

Unless you observe pandas, of course.