October 15, 2009

We use the term “Qi” or “Chi” all the time in Feng Shui but it is a term difficult to define. I am reading “The Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy” by Zhang Dai-Nian (1909-2004) at the moment and the translator, Edmund Ryden does a very good job in summarizing the essential meaning of Qi even though it might have changed over time in Chinese history:

Perhaps the best translation of the Chinese word qi is provided by Einstein’s equation, e=mc2. According to this equation matter and energy are convertible. In places the material element may be to the fore, in others, what we term energy. Qi embraces both. The philosophical use of the term derives from its popular use but is nonetheless distinct. In popular parlance qi is applied to the air we breathe, steam, smoke, and all gaseous substances. The philosophical use of the term underlines the movement of qi. Qi is both what really exists and what has the ability to become. To stress one at the expense of the other would be to misunderstand qi. Qi is the life principle but is also the stuff of inanimate objects. As a philosophical category, qi originally referred to the existence of whatever is of a nature to change. This meaning is then expanded to encompass all phenomena, both physical and spiritual. It is energy that has the capacity to become material object while remaining what it is. It thus combines “potentiality” with “matter”. To understand it solely as “potentiality” would be wrong, just as it cannot be translated simply as “matter”.

So Qi is both matter and energy; it is the seen and the unseen, the form and the formless, the manifested and the un-manifested, the tangible and the intangible, etc. From what we can see, we can contemplate what we cannot see, from we can cannot see, we can also contemplate its potential manifestations.

But unlike Einstein’s’ equation, there is no one fixed and measurable constant we can rely on, instead we make up correlations to investigate the relationship between the two Yin and Yang aspects of the same Qi and the answers are often, depending on the circumstance, more than just one predictable result, which Science demands and is not possible with correlative thinking.

The Chinese made the assumption that everything has Qi and everything that has Qi has Yin and Yang as well. If there is one predictable outcome then there is also many un-predictable counterparts running side by side, so if  Science can give us a predictable answer, then Non-Science like Art, its complementary opposite, will always give us more than one  “non-answer” answer to the same question, because to the Chinese, even a constant is constantly changing and evolving (“the only constant is change”) and Qi is often used to express this idea, hence some scholar would also equate Qi with the Dao, which is the Way and not the Destination.

Personally, I like this idea of defining “Qi” as “potentiality combines with matter”, which is another way of expressing the Yin/Yang duality, and in the book, “The Tao of Architecture”, Amos Ih Tiao Chang ended his essay with these words,

“The life quality of architecture, like the life-quality of humanity itself, exist not only in the realm of the material but also in the realm of intangibility, the realm that each man must find and conquer for himself”.

In other words, it is finding the Qi in ar-qi-tektur (or the Chi in ar-chi-tecture) and it is this process that transforms a building into architecture!

張岱年 Zhang Dai-Nian

張岱年 Zhang Dai-Nian


2 Responses to “ar.chi.tecture”

  1. Terence Chan Says:

    Hi Howard,

    The statement about “e=mc2” reminded me of Professor Ho Peng Yoke’s remark that “To the early Chinese naturalists, this term [qi] seemed to bear some resemblance to what we now call ‘matter-energy’…” (Li, Qi and Shu, Hong Kong University Press, 1985, ISBN 962-209-119-9, pp.3). So there appears to be a converging school of thought out there on this subject.

    But I do not quite buy the idea that “But unlike Einstein’s’ equation, there is no one fixed and measurable constant we can rely on…”. Perhaps it is not appreciated that such equations assume closed systems i.e. there is no leakage and external input. In the case of the study of Qi, we are almost always examining a fraction of the whole. For example, in Feng Shui we examine just the immediate site and its surroundings not the continental geography, and in traditional Chinese medicine, the body but not the whole environment in which the body exists. Almost by definition, we can never discover the elusive “fixed and measurable constant”. However, I don’t think we need to for our day-to-day purposes.


  2. howardchoy Says:

    Hi Terry,

    Sorry for the late reply, we have been in China for the last two weeks.

    IMO, both in Feng Shui and in TCM, the Chinese do try to examine the parts relating to the whole, even though the whole can never be the fully whole as you mentioned, hence for example, there is the Siling 四靈 model for the immediate environment and the Wujue 五訣 essential characters for the landscape to consider in Feng Shui and in TCM there is the seasonal and the bio-rhythm considerations as well as the bodily observations in the traditional diagnostics.

    I do agree with you, in the end we have to make a choice as to which “constant” we should settle for in a given day-to-day situation and this constant is relative to each unique spatial and temporal configuration.

    I think the Chinese worked on the idea that if there is an open system then they need a closed system to make it an open one, but it can never be so open that there is no room for the closed and the reverse is also true for them, hence the little black and white dots in the yin yang diagram 太極圖.

    Thanks for dropping by and make your valuable comments.

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