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This article is about the Confucian concept of qi. For other meanings of "Qi," see Qi (disambig).
  • Chinese/Japanese: 氣 or 気 (qì / ki)

Qi (J: ki), often rendered in English as "chi," is the fundamental essence of the universe according to Confucianism, which teaches that everything in the universe is composed of qi, shaped or formed according to fundamental guiding principles, known as li (J: ri).

The word and concept of qi is also often used more popularly, outside of strict Confucian philosophy, to refer to the energy contained within all things, and especially to the energy of human beings' souls or spirits. This meaning of the term is used extensively in many schools of martial arts, and appears as well in numerous everyday words and expressions in Japanese, where it often means "one's mind" or consciousness.[1]

Qi as the Fundamental Essence

The orthodox, traditional, understanding today of the concept of Qi as the universal essence out of which all things are composed derives chiefly from the Neo-Confucian tradition stemming from the writings of Song Dynasty thinker Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Though the most ancient books of Confucianism do discuss qi, it is in the writings of Zhu Xi, based on those of the brothers Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi (1033-1107), that this understanding of the cosmos is more extensively and concretely described.

With all things in all the cosmos made of the same qi, and according to the same principles (li), this means all things in Heaven and Earth are interconnected, and that human beings too are intimately connected into all things, and into the cosmic order. According to Zhu Xi, the cosmos once consisted of nothing but qi swirling around chaotically, without form. It came to coalesce, in accordance with li, and formed everything that comprises Heaven and Earth today. While individual objects can be broken or destroyed, and people or animals killed, their fundamental essence still remains - it just changes into a new form. In this way, the cosmos can be seen as indestructible and endless; though it may someday return to pure chaos, the qi that comprises it, and the li which guides it, are eternal, and will form up into order again.

Qi is seen as possessing two aspects, yin and yang, which accounts for all the light and dark, warm and cold, aspects of all things. In accordance with the cosmic principle li, qi coalesces into five elements or types of materials (質, C: zhi, J: shitsu), and it is out of these five elements that all things are composed. Qi moves and changes, coalesces and disperses, on its own, in accordance with li, but without a belief in any deity or other conscious entity who consciously directs the flow of the cosmos. In this respect, everything in life, from human consciousness to the flow of air and water, to the changing of weather and the seasons, is seen as a function of flowing and changing movements of qi.

A person's qi is derived from a combination of their "original qi" (C: yuanqi, J: genki), that which came together to form their being as they were conceived and grown in the womb, and the qi they ingest in life, in food, drink, breathed air, and otherwise. This qi can be said to become inbalanced, and much of traditional Chinese medicine (J: kanpô) is based on regulating or re-balancing one's qi.


  • Bonnie Smith et al. Crossroads and Cultures. Bedford/St. Martins (2012), 431.
  • Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization, Second Edition, New York: The Free Press (1993), 172-177.
  • "The Synthesis of Sung Neo-Confucianism in Chu Hsi", in William Theodore de Bary et al, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition, Columbia University Press (1960), 534-557.
  • Watanabe Hiroshi, A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600-1901, International House of Japan (2012), 105-106.
  1. Ki appears in a number of common phrases related to notions of noticing, realizing, paying attention, and worrying or having something on one's mind, as well as phrases like "to lose consciousness" (ki o ushinau, 気を失う, lit. "to lose [one's] qi").