This was written in response to a series of articles in the Skeptics magazine here in Oz. I didn’t submit it in the end, but I should have. I finished it too late for anyone to probably remember the original articles. Basically, the arguments seemed to me to focus on the elements that were obviously fictitious, such as the Western Aura idea of Chi (completely at odds with the more usual Chinese idea of Chi, although they have their own versions of woo-woo) and the connecting lines between pressure points – called meridians, and leaving out or not even trying to bother explaining or think about the elements that have observable results. It is mostly a problem with the way of thinking rather than science or for that matter, Chinese Philosophy or TCM. I taught at a TCM university in China for many years, and got to see where they were coming from. It wasn’t anything like the same place that Westerners think they are coming from at all. The woo-woo is almost non-existent in the vast majority of cases.
The original article started here:
I’ll think I’ll throw a pigeon amongst the cats.
I see that people are saying that Chi and Chi Gong are not real because there is no evidence that the meridians joining the pressure points have any kind of match to reality.
Given the logic exhibited, since some people see constellations and ascribe astrology to them, then therefore anything involving stars must be absurd. Tell that to Hawking.
I see that this magazine objects to something it calls and incorrectly spells “Qigong”, and considers it some kind of health quackery. This is very interesting. I understood that getting up early in the morning to exercise in the fresh air was generally recognized as a good thing, and not at all quackery. This, as I see it, is the difficulty – phrasing the question correctly.
No doubt most if not all encounters Skeptics™ have with “qigong” revolve around such weird expressions as spirit breath and internal strength, then followed up by explanations of spirit coiling around mystic channels in the body that then express themselves in a burst of paranormal energy.
Nope, wrong, uh-uh, that’s not what is happening, that’s just how some ignorant people explain it. As a comparison ask any non-scientist why things fall down, and you will get equally weird explanations. However, in a series of experiments conducted over the last 14 billion years or so, things seem to have been falling towards each other in all kind of double-blind tests, both with and without qualified observers, or in fact explanations at all for most of that time. Gravity seems to work, whether held together by tiny little bits of invisible mystic cotton, or maybe it bends space for some poorly understood (at least by me) reason, or perhaps everything just sucks. The ancients had all kinds of spurious beliefs about it. It still worked for holding things on the ground, though.
Influenza, a very real disease, got its name from the star positions. Because it occurred at certain times of the year, the people of the time thought it was due to the influence of the stars. Luckily, if you don’t believe in astrology, you can’t catch this disease. Sorry, nope.
Inspiration means to breathe in. The ancients thought it was the breath of God that gave us the ideas. Wrong explanation, but the condition exists. Luckily God uses mouthwash, I guess.
Humour. This refers to the ancient belief that moods were the result of imbalances in mystical liquids that flowed through the body from the various organs. No, it’s not a joke. They really did. We still use the term, but not the belief. I know many people find it hard to believe, but once upon a time, people really believed there was such a thing as jokes. But we had to stop believing in jokes when we found the explanation was wrong.
The given reasoning may well be off the mark, but the phenomenon itself is still true. But let’s just leave the crappy analogies for a minute and work on something else.
My preferred explanation of Chi Gong is somewhat different. Chi Gong and Chi are simply catch-all terms for certain things the ancient Chinese didn’t understand. The West has things like that too. E.g. like that which existed with senile dementia, that old people’s disease of the past. Now we know better, we know that in fact there are different diseases that seemingly have similar gross effects to the unskilled, each having different scientifically proven causes, effects etc. Now that we know this – and each now has a different name and are now diagnosed differently to work out which specific disease it is, and each has a different treatment. Arthritis, ADD or whatever the current politically correct acronym, cancer, and so on are due to many different things, and each was once considered one thing, even in our scientific age. Just because the explanation is wrong, doesn’t mean that they do not exist. If I claimed any single cause for any of these diseases, or any cure, they would work (assuming they worked at all) only for the single form of the disease, since the other similar ones had different origins from seemingly similar others. That meant the medicines/explanations etc. didn’t work consistently, and statistically were insignificant. But that doesn’t mean that neither arthritis nor Alzheimer’s etc. don’t exist and that there are no treatments. We just didn’t know what we were doing – we might be doing something right for each specific case, but failing for the class as a whole because it wasn’t really a class. We didn’t understand it. We still don’t, in many cases, but we are learning.
And if we categorize things we don’t understand as rubbish, we inhibit our learning.
Let us consider Chi and Chi Gong, then, in a more logical fashion.
The health aspect is pretty much what I mentioned earlier – going slowly through the entire range of motions of which your body is capable, doing it every day. This is a great low impact way of strengthening damaged, old, or underused parts of your body – especially the joints. Breathing the fresh air and getting up early are also widely recognized ways of getting you motivated and feeling good about yourself (Nothing mystic here). I realize that perhaps these statements should be supported with evidence, but if your doctor said to get some low impact exercise, get a hobby to keep your interest up, and start getting a little fresh air, you wouldn’t question that either. And Tai Chi or Siu Lim Tao from VTK would fit the bill, as would a wide variety of ‘internal’ kung fu, for the same reasons.
It is well established that moving through a range of motions increases mobility in stiffened joints. Just because someone who hasn’t got a clue about medicine turns around and says this is because you are increasing circulation of your mystic breath around your meridians, doesn’t stop it being real (but neither does it being real make their explanation the truth either).
Look at it their way, a human way.
People seek explanations for inexplicable phenomena (hence gods and priests, scientists, computer consultants, and marriage guidance counselors). If you exercise hard, you breathe hard, in fact your whole body shudders. Beta-endorphins give you a nice glow. Without modern medicine, your average-to-bright martial artist tried to think why this might be. Perhaps he compared these feelings with the strength observed when you breathe out (like when lifting weights, or being hit) and said to himself, “Eureka – it’s all in the breath!” (No, I’m not advocating that Ancient Chinese is actually descended from Ancient Greek, OK? It’s just a coincidence.) The fact that the former is due to a response from the exercise, and the latter is due to tension utilizing what amounts to a hydro-static skeleton to gather or spread force is moot. (Um, maybe I ought to explain this a bit. Breathing out so we can lift heavy objects is a physiological response, tensing the diaphragm and other muscles, thus breathing out. Whether or not it actually does anything or just feels like it is not relevant, and is contentious scientifically. Regardless of right or wrong, this is actually what we do, and it is what we feel when we do it.)
Slightly differently, breathing out when you are being hit in the stomach tenses muscles so that the mostly incompressible water in your body spreads the force around quite a bit, so you get injured less. This is actually true – have someone punch you both ways. Close your eyes if you like so you can’t tell which is which. Do it a thousand times with a thousand people. Note the results. That is what martial artists have done for hundreds if not thousands of years. Their explanation may be dodgy, but their observations are fairly immediate and practical. Trying to survive violence does that to people.
There is an obscure (to Westerners) concept of puckering up the anus to prevent chi flowing out. (Their explanation) This puckering, done “correctly” thrusts the pelvis up and forward, which increases the stability of your stance by locking the lower half of your body together. Tensing the abdomen by breathing out locks the rest of the body with it. Now the whole body operates as a single unit. You don’t fall over anywhere nearly as easily when you do get hit, and are able to recruit a far larger number of muscles to any task you choose, such as defence and attack. (And then, by the exponent’s logic, you are demonstrably stronger and thus chi works.) This co-ordination isn’t too hard to learn for most things, but it does take a lot of training to use in something as drastic as a fight. By a strange coincidence this anus puckering also tenses the muscles on the inner thigh that protect the groin from rising strikes.
It isn’t mystic, though – it’s just a high level of skill.
Given the “Breath” assumption, our smart but ignorant exponent then goes on to explain other observed phenomenon the same way – for example pressure points. These do in fact seem to be on meridians (see explanation below). He would then attempt to join the ideas up, and give a consistent hypothesis, human nature – “these must be on the lines of force that the mystic breath follows.” Oops, wrongo. No mystic channels observed. Obviously everything is crap.
No, sorry, just his explanation is crap.
Anatomically, pressure points have very different explanations, and the apparent meridians are a result of the overall anatomy of humans, and not an underlying mystical structure. They just joined the dots, like those other pre-enlightenment “scientists” the Astrologers. Obviously, since the constellations in the sky aren’t real, neither are the stars that make them or the big bang theory that put them there. Hmm.
The origins of the pressure points can be considered to fall under three broad classes – where muscles, ligaments and tendons are vulnerable, especially where they cross exposed over bone, or where nerves are close to the surface, and finally where large veins and arteries are vulnerable due to the absence of bone protecting them. Basically, wherever particularly hard bits don’t adequately protect particularly soft bits. Nothing new there either. The magic lines joining them are the false part. It’s an illusion by the fact that we evolved radially at first. If you think of our spine as the axis, bones, veins and nerves basically radiate out from it. Since they radiate out from a central source, naturally where they are exposed can be linked into seeming patterns. It built-in by evolution. It’s a correlation.
A bit more contentious is the concept of “joint strength”. “Science” has apparently only recently discovered it. (The first thing I saw on it was from the Institute of Sport, about 1998 or so. Can’t find the article, but it was only a summary anyway, and not referring to original data. The article said something along the lines that joints take up to five years of training to cope with whatever strain you are putting on it, which is why footballers and basketball players have their knees explode at random intervals. It was due to the fact that deposition of ligament material is extremely slow, so that the stress of competition happens before the body can build up to cope.)
This joint strength is fairly important to the understanding of “Chi”. The first books ever written on this date way, way back in China, written supposedly by Da Mo, who founded Shaolin martial arts, and called the ‘book of ligament and tendon change’. You can buy supposed translations etc. online such as from Amazon. It is still used with comments like ‘promotes immortality’, which I find suspicious. But the joint strength is important to understand.
My favourite analogy is this:
A little old farmer is loading a ton of hay into the back of a ute (Oz for Utility Vehicle, imagine a small truck if it helps).
Imagine a bodybuilder doing the same thing. Who do you think will stop first?
Why is that?
Well, the farmer has done it before. He knows how to do it. He has done it before, thousands of times. Absolute confidence and knowledge of the best way to do it. That takes care of the mind part.
Since he has done it so often, his body is conditioned to do it, muscles, ligaments, tendons, etc., so that he is a machine that is designed to do the task.
He has refined the movement so that there is minimal error. He can do it a thousand times, a hundred thousand times. Has done so.
He knows when to breathe, when to move, when to stop. After all the hard work he would be breathing moderately heavily, but regularly and healthily. All subconsciously.
All the characteristics of “chi” and he hasn’t even heard of Chinese philosophy in his life.
Poor old Arnie wannabe would pass out in the first ten minutes because his useless muscles have never done this task, and he doesn’t know how to do it and he would struggle. In fact, the musculature he has would make it worse; they are what Chinese would call “external” strength. And he would be breathing heavily and irregularly, and later his muscles would hurt – there would be ‘bad chi’ built up.
The farmer has “internal” strength.
Actually, the day an old farmer is too old and fail to achieve this, his confidence is shattered, and often they die shortly after.
Sure, the claims by some people are over the top, just as they are in any area of human endeavour. Some of these claimants are complete fakes, some are street magicians of an old school, some are misguided, some are completely insane (e.g. the no touch knockout people and so on) but there is a very small few can do some pretty amazing things that are real.
So, think of it as a problem in both inadequate terminology and inadequate learning, but don’t just disbelieve something totally since part of some person’s explanation was faulty. Ask for a demonstration, and work on that. The failures will take care of themselves. The successes are opportunities to understand and learn.
 (It was the Australian Skeptics magazine, which I used to subscribe to. It’s very good, and I only stopped subscribing because it never got delivered when I lived in China. I am a member of the Skeptics (with a k, it’s US based) movement, and generally am very supportive of them. In this case, though, while working at a TCM university, I found what I perceived as a flaw in their way of looking at this topic.)
 Spelling “Qi” with a q is due to the use of mainland Chinese pinyin, where the letter q stands for the sound ch. It’s an artefact of language translation, and is due to the fact that Mandarin, the language used to create Putonghua, Modern Chinese, doesn’t have certain sounds in it, and has sounds in it that English doesn’t. The original speakers who wrote on this didn’t speak Mandarin at all, so using Mandarin language for words from a different Chinese language into English to me sounds a bit out there. I prefer to use the standard version from Cantonese, a closer language to the original speakers, and simply write it as it sounds.