Eric Martell, an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Milikin Univeristy explained Schrodinger’s thought experiment in quantum mechanic in this way, ” If you try to make predictions and you assume you know the status of the cat, you’re (probably) going to be wrong. If, on the other hand, you assume it’s in a combination of all the possible states that it can be, you’ll be correct.” (“The Physics Behind Schrodinger’s Cat Paradox”, by Melody Kramer, National Geographic.)

When I read this, I was surprised how similar this is to the definition of Qi as expressed In Zhang Dainian’s “Key Concepts in Chinese Philiosophy”, translated and edited by Edmiund Ryden (p45), “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 misundertsand Qi”.

To me this means until we can observe the outcome of an invisible Formless Qi 炁, like the Qi of our destiny(Ming Qi 命氣), the potential outcomne is all encomposing and it would be futile for us to try to make any accurate predictions. We have to “wait for our destiny”, as mentioned by the Confucian scholars, but meanwhile we can always try our best, so the potential outcome is a genuine one and not one predicted on paper by our Bazi or our Feng Shui or whatever a Chinese predictive method is used.

We often make the mistakes thinking that the correlations used in making predictions are causations, whereas the ancient Chinese is trying to use the formless Qi of the Trigrams, the Stems and the Branches and so forth, through correlations, metaphors and associations to get us to look at the potentials of a situation with Chinese correlative thinking to “read” the invisible Formless Qi 炁 through the apperance of the visible Form Qi 氣.

But we need to be mindful that they are potentials and tendencies only, we don’t know for sure and we should not pretend that we can know the future with certainty, we can only make an intelligent guess of what would likely to come, to help us to bring out into the consicous our longings and fears, so we can make an appropriate decision to do the right thing, at the right time and in the right place to be efficacious.

Like the modernday scientists, the ancient Chinese philosophers used the concept of Qi in its form and formless state, to try to come to terms with the quantum mechanic of living, not with scientific experiements, but with philosophical concepts (Ti 體) expressed in technical applications (Yong 用), using correlations with numbers and symbols.

We should keep Schroginger’s cat in mind, everytime we do a Feng Shui consultation or a Bazi reading, and not to pretend that we can tell the future but to use different modes of thinking to make an intelligent guess of the future to help us to handle the present.



Physics or Metaphysics?

October 16, 2009

Traditional Chinese culture has a different way of thinking and naming things. Trying to put Chinese studies into a western pigeonhole is always fraught with problems. Below is a question by Alexey and my reply that illustrated the difficulty.

Dear Howard.

Recently with some colleagues we had a discussion on the term “Chinese Metaphysics”.

The base of the discussion was the formula

Here, 形而上 (形而上學) corresponds with dao, shen 神 and metaphysics. While 形而下 corresponds to qi 器. In Chinese sciences we study more qi than shen, so we are more to 形而下 rather than 形而上, so “metaphysics” seems to be an improper term.

What do you think on that?

Best regards,

Hi Alexey,

Aristotle made the distinction between physics and metaphysics and we tried to find the Chinese equivalent in the Chinese sciences, which is never an easy task, because even in a binary relationship of this kind, between the Way (Dao 道) and the Vessel (Qi 器) (with the Way being prior in time and without substance and the Vessel being subsequent in time and has substance), it has a common base in the Form (Xing 形) and cannot be separated as two distinct entities.

Zhang Dai-Nian noted that Wang-Zhi did not accept that the metaphysical and physical are related as above and below form as quoted in the Great Commentary, but he affirmed that form is the basis of what is above form and the metaphysical is not prior to form but an expression of form.

Zhang also noted that Dai Zhen accepted that there is a distinction between what is above and what is below form. That the Qi of Yin and Yang that has not yet become things is the formless, and that is above form and not below it.

So the discussions that you are having with some of your colleagues are also reflected in the history of Chinese philosophy and the discussions that went on between the scholars over time.

My take is that since in the Chinese sciences, we study the form and what is above and what is below all at the same time with varying degrees of mix (not always more qi than shen), so if we have to use the Aristotelian terms, then they are both physics AND metaphysics; I agree with you in the sense that to say it is only “metaphysics” would negate the physical observation of forms in the practice of the Chinese sciences. For example: in the practice of Xiang Shu 相術 (the art of observation) where Feng Shui is one of the methods, it requires us to see the “qi/vessel”in and below the form as well as to contemplate the “shen/spirit”outside and above the form.


The way we relate to the Chinese arts is the same in the way we relate to the Chinese sciences mentioned earlier, Bada Shanren’s paintings below show when a painting has both vessel and spirit in the form, then it becomes a work of art and not just an ordinary painting any more. His work transcends space and time because it is not only physically beautiful but metaphysically enlightening and that is what a traditional gentleman/scholar would tried to achieve – to be practical and transcendental at the same time.




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

Qi and Yin and Yang

April 29, 2009

Qi and Yin and Yang

(Extract taken from Gyda Anders’ paper presented at the 4th International Conference on Scientific Feng Shui and the Built Environment, entitled “Feng Shui Criteria for Planning and Design”)

The principle of Yin and Yang forms the basis for Feng Shui. “ Once Yin, once Yang is called the Dao, the Dao of Kan Yu can not be separated from Yin and Yang”. Yin and Yang generate each other. In within Yin there is Yang, in within Yang there is Yin. If Yin reaches source for all being “ The so called dragon is enabled by the mutual transformation, the mutual transformation is enabled by Yin and Yang.” (Wang Yude 王玉德 (1995). “Zhonghua Kanyu Shu” 中华堪舆术. 文津出版社. Taiwan, p78ff)

All being derives from and is defined by the interplay of Yin and Yang. The balance of Yin and Yang define the quality of Qi. To investigate the Qi structure of a place, the qualities and tendencies of a given situation, its Yin Yang balance has to be recognized. To distinguish Yin and Yang 分陰陽 is the premise for the understanding and development of a place and by that for any building activity. Referring to Chinese Classic like the ”Zhou Yi”, the” Dao De Jing” or the Song Dynasty work “地理發微“(Gross And Subtle Principles Of Earth resp. Feng Shui by Cai Yuanding 蔡元定 1135 – 1198, picture showed below) Prof. Wang Yude and author Zhong Yiming 鐘義明 point out the most prominent aspects of Yin and Yang (辯陰陽) to be distinguished

1. Investigate hard and soft 推刚柔

2. Distinguish between substantial and unsubstantial 辯有無

3. Understand movement and stationary 明動靜

4. Distinguish between mountain and water 辯山水

5. Observe gathering and dispersing 觀聚散

6. Distinguish between form and configuration 辯形勢

7. Examine front and back 審向背

8. Distinguish strong and weak 變強弱

9. Differentiate the going along and going against 分順逆

10. Be aware of alive and dead 識生死

11. Inquire the subtle and prominent 察微著

12. Distinguish between stems and branches 辯秓幹

13. Study carefully the parts and the whole 究分合

14. Analyze appearance and essence 別浮沉

15. Determine shallow and deep 定淺深

16. Adjust abundance and reduction 正饒減

17. Particularize the accelerating and avoiding 詳趨避

18. Know about the diminishing and completing 知裁成

19. Regard female and male 觀雌雄

20. Ascertain the origin of mutual resonance 原感應

A system of variance gets established, serving as a frame or structure for the differences. The two complementary antipodes are opposed to each other. They constitute the extreme wherein everything develops. A meticulous inventory of the diversity is raised. With endless patience the being of the situation gets investigated, to find out the essence (本性) to draw its secret.

With this typology, a downright system of coherence is captured. This system is based on the oppositional- complementary relations of yin and yang. Each item or aspect is designed in reference and answer to another. Relevance evolves from their (inter)relation. The objective/aim is to make the specific potential perceptible and operant through grouping and configuration by developing and diversifying the interplay of Yin and Yang.


Since the core competency of a Feng Shui practitioner is to read and analyze Qi and to work with Qi, we need to know the different meanings of Qi used by the Chinese in different context. There are at least four ways of looking at the meaning of Qi (courtesy: Gyda Anders):

1) “Qi” seen as a “concrete thing” – a definite object in contrast to the Dao, which has neither spatial restriction nor physical form, that which is manifested. For example, the weather (Tian Qi) or our breath (Qi) are forms of manifested qi.

2) “Qi” seen as a “subtle, incipient, actuating force” which is not yet visible – that which is hidden. For example, the term “Xing Qi” in Feng Shui where ‘Xing’ is refer to the physical form of an object and “Qi” is its formless quality hidden behind the form.

3) “Qi” seen as a “material force” that has both matter and energy, as opposed to the concept of “Li” or Principle. For example, in TCM, Qi denotes the psycho-physiological power associated with blood and breath – Vital Qi that keeps us alive.

4) “Qi” seen as a “concept of synergy” – a “field” of different things that are not related but finally connected together. So when we say this house has “Sheng Qi” it means a certain set of conditons is being satisfied to make the place come alive.

The Chinese often add an extra character to the character Qi to give it a more precise meaning. For example, the ones I mentioned: “Sheng Qi”, “Vital Qi”, “Xing Qi” and “Tian Qi”. One has to be careful in what context or situation the word Qi is used, for example, the term “sheng qi” mentioned ealier, it could mean being angry when you are having an argument with your girlfriend or it could mean a field of life enhancing qi when you are doing a Feng Shui consultation.

%d bloggers like this: