Friday, April 06, 2007

Daoism 101; The Early History of Qi

"Qi" has become China's most robust export. No new age guru can cut his teeth without coming up with some explanation of what it is ("unity" seems to be flavor of the week for qi catchphrases) Because it's become an English word, its usage is immune to my curmudgeonly sinology. And heck, new age types seem happy, so far be it from me to interrupt their reverie.

However, my topic is the thought-world of the first three centuries BCE, and "unity," or "energy," or any of a number of current explanations won't help us understand early China. Pat Robertson is undeniably a Christian, but you don't necessarily look to him for insight into the Counsel of Nicea.

So too with Daoism. It is easier to understand if you begin at the beginning, and that can mean trying to forget a lot of what you already know. To distinguish the past from the present, I will put qi in italics when I'm talking about early China, and leave it in normal though when I'm talking about it's present-day valence.


"Stuff" may seem an awfully pedestrian way of talking about nature, but philosophers throughout Chinese history have considered qi to be the basic stuff of the universe. You might think that it is similar to atoms, but the language used to describe qi uses a metaphor of liquid rather than particles. Daoists, Confucians, and virtually everybody who took an interest in the cosmos described qi "freezing" into dense, solid substances, or "flowing" like waves throughout the world. Another modern craze, modern craze ,"Feng Shui," originally purported to study the flow of qi (whereas Fifth Avenue interior decorators are mostly concerned that dirt will not sully the armoire, Chinese practices concentrated on choosing appropriate gravesites. Either way, it's all about stuff).

Another way to think of qi is as a combination of matter and energy. The problem with this description is that qi was supposed to moral qualities. Very refined qi could lead to happiness and to proper moral action. Muddied qi caused turpitude.

The idea of "qi" was a glue that held together the idea of a cosmos – that is, of a whole in which all the parts were related. Qi proved an efficient way for thinkers, including Daoist thinkers, to connect universe, state, and body. In the body, qi could account for both physical processes and emotional fluctuations. Qi seemed to determine the rise and fall of states as well as the vicissitudes of weather, constellations, and cosmic forces.

A core belief of most early Chinese philosophy and religion (really the two are indistinguishable), was that the cosmos was constantly regenerating and transforming itself. It did not begin with a creator and evolve, rather it underwent cyclical change. It was the job of doctors, rulers, and astronomers to understand such changes.

Yin and Yang

Most westerners find yin and yang fairly intuitive. Think of sunshine on a mountain. The part of the mountain with the most sun is the yang side, the shady bit is the yin side. Of course, the balance between yin and yang will shift as the sun goes over the mountain, but as one moves through day and night the Chinese though that there was a balance between shade and sun. There were, in short, constants, but change was built into the constant.

The metaphorical extension of these ideas corresponds (mostly) to the English connotations of light and dark. Yang represented strength, action, masculinity. Yin represented yielding, receptivity, femininity. There is one pitfall – yang and yin did not map onto the English "good" and "evil." It's true that ghosts were yin, and thus to be feared, but there were good ghosts and bad ghosts, all equally yin.

Yin and Yang were states of qi. Yang qi was considered to be more refined, lighter (rather like steam) and yin qi was thought to be heavier. Ancient thinkers in general, and Daoists in particular, explained body, state, and cosmos in terms of the fluctuating balance of yin and yang.

The cosmos was in an ever-changing state of equilibrium. Human action – particularly immoral action – could disrupt this equilibrium, causing chaos – sickness, drought, rebellion, dynastic change, and the like.


So what were the regular transformations of yin and yang? Some are obvious. The alternation of night, day, night, day was the most basic (and one reason why an eclipse – an interruption of the normal equilibrium – was an ominous event). The changing seasons were another example. The Chinese felt that human bodies changed states along with the seasons – what was healthy in winter could be dangerous in summer.

There was also another kind of cyclical change, the "Five Phases" of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. The cosmos moved through exactly these phases, so they could be detected in any kind of change. Thinkers drew up elaborate tables of correspondences: each Chinese dynasty, for example, stood for one phrase. If you considered your dynasty to be a fire dynasty, then usurpers would claim to be forming an earth dynasty that would (inevitably) displace you. The bodies complex humors also had such correspondences, as did the known planets (Jupiter – wood, Mars – fire, Saturn – earth, Venus – metal, Mercury – water).

The best known cultural relic of this ancient thought is the Chinese zodiac. This year is the Year of the Golden Pig. You could just as easily say "metal pig," as gold was the prototypical form of metal. The animals corresponded to cosmological symbols, to hours, and to years. Next year will be year of the Earth Rat. Lots of Chinese folks are having babies now, because, well, between a Golden Pig and an Earth Rat, which would you prefer?

Okay, with this basic vocabulary in mind, my next post will be a general overview of Daoist practices, and then I'll turn to people – actual living, breathing Daoists. For now, the important thing to keep in mind is that all aspects of the cosmos were interrelated. Learning about the body could in theory tell you something about being a better ruler, as could watching the movement of the planets. There were thus aspects of this philosophy that fostered observation and experiment, as well as elaborate rituals and a somewhat authoritarian style of rule.


Keifus said...

I keep going back to scientific thought, here. An open question: has science always started out with equivalent moral and natural philosophies?

Daoist philosophy seems a great deal more compatible with modern scientific pursuit than, say, Christianity, which stuck God as a miraculous causative agent (although I still get a kick of reading about Roger Bacon and the like trying to push theology and science together). Daoism, as you describe it, seems it would let early thinkers go after the how without having to call the (divine) why into question so much. I may be wrong.

You're really sparking a lot of curiousity regarding the Chinese and the (nearly contemporaneous) Greek philosophers. I think the latter may have had better handle on methods of inquiry (possibly a good reason that the Renaissance scientists went in for the Hermeticism and so forth), but
am I ever feeling just how spotty my history is just now.

Daoism seems to get to some late-day points in natural philosophy quite easily, however, which is neat. Energy was a challenging animal for thinkers to get their minds around in the nineteenth century. A big step was conceiving of a qi-like ether. (I used to ignorantly tease a colleague of mine when he'd get going on modern cosmology. "Quantum foam, it's the new ether," I'd joke, to no one's real amusement.) The concept of equilibrium is another thing that's mighty important in the understanding of thermodynamics.

august said...


Sorry slow to respond, and I'm afraid I'm not really going to be able to answer your questions Your first one is important, but also difficult to answer without dodging a number of huge semantic traps, and I lack the constitution at the moment (big Easter meal).

Qi and ether -- yeah, I think there might be a parallel. Important caveat -- seeing the world in terms of qi did fascilitate observation and experiment, but not experiments designed to test the notion of qi. It was really never expressed in any kind of falsifiable way, unlike ether (but perhaps like string theory? )(joke.) (We'd get along well in the meat world, I think.)

Equilibrium I think is more likely to be result of semantic fuzziness than actual parallels. Indeed -- there is no notion of a "conservation of qi" -- it's being produced constantly, and it does get out of balance.

Dawn Coyote said...

What I've always found interesting about Daoism is the degree to which it seems based on careful observation of the natural world (what keifus was getting at?). I'm sure that Judeochristian edicts are based on genuine attempts to resolve social ills, but their connection to the real world is much more obscure.

Daoism probably holds up for the same reason Traditional Chinese Medicine does: the five humours and the winds and all that seem nutty to someone who has the most basic knowledge of anatomy, but there's 5000 years of trial and error behind it, so many of the treatments appear to work.

The idea that moral/immoral actions change the world on the level of matter is one the New Age has embraced. Conspiracy theorists seem especially fond of this one.

I see the benefit of observing causal relationships and interconnectedness in one's immediate circumstances. I've always liked the concept of seeing the "seeds" of things. Does that come from Daoism?

I look forward to the next installment.

Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying this series immensely.

Is it common to spell Daoism with a D now? It certainly makes sense.

At a glance, your first two (?) pieces in the series are almost completely "clean" mechanically and would appeal to editors on that basis alone (believe it). You should consider trying to get the series published in print or elsewhere online.

Keifus said...

More or less waht I was getting at, Dawn. Seems more observational, but less adversarial than western philosophical tradition. Progress (for well or ill) needs a little of both, methinks. But 75% of what I know about Daoism, I just read in august's two posts, so grains of salt and all.

I'm unqualified to mock string theory, but I'm so tempted--on a meta level, it looks like they're just adding parameters until they can get stuff to fit...maybe. (In the meat world, I'm about equal parts doofus and wiseass.)

I want to think more about Daoism and thermodynamics though. I still like those parallels, and I'm sure I can force them into line if I try hard enough.