Qi-Energy in Chinese Calligraphy
This paper discusses qi as energy, its invisible deployment in various forms of martial arts, and its more visible manifestation in calligraphy.
Transformation is a universal constant whose interactive nature had been apprehended probably by the Neolithic period when divination was developed as vehicle for communication between man and cosmic forces. The ancient Chinese devised an “Oracle Bone” style script where questions were engraved as ideographs, cascading in vertical columns. From the beginning, Chinese script was right-hand based, moving in response to earthly gravity with strokes leading one to the next in configuration and it was in a steady downward movement that the “writing” of ideas flowed down in columns, differing in basic momentum from writing that moved laterally across the writing surface. The motion of drawing the hand from the column top “downward” and closer to the body, repeated anew with each column, replicates in a way basic movements in qi-deployment calisthenics daoyin 導引that in turn echo the dynamics experienced in breathing in and out as the breath expands downward and expires upward along the torso. It may have been such apprehension of external and internal movements in energy, together with transformations observed in natural phenomena that had so physically informed Chinese writing, it would seem, since its genesis.
By significant coincidence, the brush used during the Neolithic to paint on pottery, and later to inscribe divination texts prior to engraving, was constructed with a pointed tip, essentially like the brush used to this day. Here longer hairs envelop a shorter core so the outer hairs gather to form a pliant and pointed tip, releasing visual possibilities unfeasible with a hard stylus. With the pliant and pointed tip, stroke- formation gained infinite varieties, capable of changing widths, becoming angular or rounded, long or short during any movement, and being pointed or blunt at the stroke’s end. Brush movement resembles in ways the varieties in human breathing and, on a more subtle plane, echoes various processes in the inner deployment of qi-energy, most notably in singing where, like Chinese brushwork, the voice can be rounded or sharp, full or raspy, mellifluous with many curves or majestic in long slow phrases. It can be ℃ in percussive strokes, or legato in continuous unbroken lines. In short all the musical indicators can be seen in Chinese calligraphy. And in singing, as in calligraphy, it is not mere air that is deployed, but qi-energy generated in the diaphragm.
To this day many confuse this energy-qi with mere breathing. But the distinction between the two forms of qi, one external and heaven-made or qi as cloud or air that once inside the human body involves expiration huqi呼氣、and inspiration xiqi 吸氣 , takes place mainly in the lungs and windpipes.
There were gradual shifts in the configuration of the ideograph for qi, reflecting changing apprehension of its nature and function. The earliest ideograph for qi was simply three horizontal strokes referring to clouds.
By the first millennium BCE during the Western Zhou period (1066-771 BCE ), the bottom stroke bent downward at the end, forming what eventually came to be taken as an enclosure. In the Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE), the fire element appeared inside this enclosure, possibly referring to the heat that can be generated when deploying qi as energy. And by the early Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 24CE), a new character for qi appeared that changed the ideograph for cloud above into ji 旡 meaning intestinal gas but more probably used as it may then have been, a homophone for qi, and reconfiguring the fire (huo 火) beneath into its more streamlined particle form of four dots; Thus we have qi now as a combination of ji and huo “gas + fire ” 炁 – that has continued to be used more specifically when referring to qi as man-produced energy. On the other hand, the ideograph for natural, heaven-made qi, i.e. the pulmonary and meteorological natural air continued in its simplest form气, and the most modern form, filled with the rice (mi米) element 氣, has come to mean both air and man-made qi to this day.
Of all the ancient cultures cognizant of the uses of bodily energy in consonance with the universe, those of India and China have remained essentially unbroken over the millennia and have managed to retain from deep antiquity elements of the most primal deployment of the internal forces where they have been passed on in uninterrupted transmission of practices and experiences from generation to generation. On the most subtle level this same energy is apprehended in different forms as contemplation, as meditation, as divine revelation, as enlightenment or as consciousness.
By the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE the Chinese systematized their understanding of invisible phenomena including the coursing of energy in the body, identification of certain meridians (jingluo 經絡) along which qi “followed the flow of breath and led the flow of blood,” where breathing, qi-energy, and blood-flow functioned in this order in psycho-physiological callisthenic activities called daoyin 導引 （precursor to the more modern term xingqi行氣、or qigong氣功）. But since all this pervasive qi 炁 has not yet been quantified or published as science, it remains little understood in the West and continues to be avoided as superstition by many otherwise educated Chinese as superstition. However qi is a most familiar concept in Chinese culture and thrives in anecdotes, perhaps I should introduce some here.
When at the Needham Institute in Cambridge I asked Joseph Needham (1900-1995) when he would compile the “First Book” in his monumental series Science and Civilization in China, which should be on qi-energy – source of all life, thus of science or civilization… He laughed, “I will do that as soon as you give me the measurements of this qi. Does it have weight, form, speed or direction? Give me the measurements and I’ll start on your book.”
On a different occasion at National Taiwan University, I asked our taijiquan太極拳 teacher, Master Chen Qukuan陳取寬, why martial art films never showed people doing Taijiquan. He said, “Because using taiji energy there is nothing to see. You kill your opponent with no visible movement.” I did not believe this and suggested he try his lethal force on me, without its full potency so I could survive to describe it. Then, after much hesitation, Master Chen thrust his thumb into my side at the waist twisting it once, and walked away. Feeling nothing, I laughed. But not for long. For after a few minutes my heart began to pound vehemently. The others looked on in alarm, saying my face was turning beet red; I felt perspiration beginning to ooze profusely from all my pores. That was the more obvious part. On the subtler side, I began to feel from the spot where Chen had inserted his thumb, what felt distinctly like a “physical object” the dimension of that thumb, moving slowly but powerfully, twisting inside my body. It was gradually but steadily moving upward from the starting point, pushing aside visceral organs in its path as it wound its way spiraling irresistibly, turn by turn – towards my heart! Ah! I realized, if it had been a bit faster and more intense, that thumb’s qi would have reached and punctured my cardio-ventricles! “There! I feel it, I feel it!” I shouted with glee.
On that same night in a sparring of wooden swords, the tip of Master Chen’s sword accidently lightly grazed the hand of one of the sparring pupils. It instantly caused on burn on the back of his hand, so severe that others sent him immediately if quietly to hospital. The sword tip however had no signs of burn. This is because it had functioned as conduit of Chen’s qi energy, and not its target. Master Chen later said, “Too bad I didn’t know he’d got hurt. With another use of qi I could have neutralized the burn.”
Yes, Joseph Needham! Qi does manifest as mass, weight, direction and velocity! Yes, even heat (fire)! But how to measure these? This problem challenged many faculty of the Psychology Department at Taida in those years (1980-82) when researchers were trying hard to find proper instruments to measure qi. They were working together with an enthusiastic visiting scholar from New York, Professor Li Ching-tse李清澤who came to Taiwan, like myself, to fathom the nature and feel of qi in its different manifestations, in qigong, sword-dance, calligraphy, singing, etc.
We have learned that when wielding the pointed pliant fur-tipped brush or when wielding the sword whist deploying qi, the brush and sword become extensions of the body, serving as external conduits of the wielder’s qi-energy. But precisely how this happens has not been described in modern literature, and our understanding of these phenomena, when untrained, remains unclear.
This is not so, however, in calligraphy. Chinese texts from the late first century of the modern era offer descriptions of dynamic life forces living in the cursive script (at the time inscribed in vertical columns onto bamboo and wooden slips subsequently bound with strings into scrolls). The first surviving text on the vibrancy of Chinese calligraphy praises the abbreviated cursive script with reduced stroke-counts and fine links made without lifting the brushtip between strokes. This is the Caoshushi草書勢 Dynamics of the Cursive Script by Eastern Han scribe Cui Yuan崔瑗（78~143 CE）. A plea for simplification of the official writing required of public servants and scribes, Cao condemns wasting time writing out complex character-configurations of the then formal script (the clerical lishu 隸書), speaking lyrically on the life and beauty generated in cursive configurations. In part he says,
In appearance, bowing down or arching up, (the cursive script) exudes deportment and dynamics. Neither perfectly round nor regulation square, pressing toward the left and lifting at the right, it appears to tilt, like a beast raising a paw or a bird hunched up before taking flight. It is like a startled hare, just about to flee but not yet run. Some black dots resemble strung pearls, the strokes are finished but fine ink traces link them. Lofty ideals, long pent up, produce gloom and despair but once released, create strange and marvelous sights, like the fearful and tremulous shudders when approaching the deep and profound, or gazing from a very high place when facing dangers all ‘round. And the sideways dot sticks close to the body, like a praying mantis hugging a branch. When a stroke is completed and its energy withdrawn, there will remain entwining ink filaments. Some resemble toxic vapours released from mountain peaks traveling along the rifts. Some resemble a serpent crawling into its cave with its head thrust deep inside and its tail still hanging out. Gazing at them from afar, their devastating power resembles tumultuous foaming waves crashing against shore cliffs. Examined from up close, not a stroke can be moved (without destroying the essential structure and beauty). Their miraculous nature is most subtle.
Metaphors in this text all refer to vibrant, bristling life-forms, of immanent motion, of animals in recoiled momentum(shi勢）just prior to the pounce. The tensile strength of the brush stroke is experienced in its fully living three-dimensionality, much like our inner strength as when considering the serpent’s tail hanging from the cliff-hole, coming to a point but full of energy and life and readiness to strike. It is not a “brush stroke” but embodied energy with inner strength and suppleness. In short, brushwork to early scribes was imbued with dynamism and energy no different from that felt within the body coursing along the meridians and elsewhere when deploying qi in calisthenics when qi is generated in myriad forms and directions, to fulfill diverse functions. Even though surviving as the earliest text, Cao Yuan’s short document is mature and graphic in its description of the vibrant and dynamic power of calligraphy and, indeed, all subsequent writings on the Chinese script-forms are in one form or another an echo of this hymn to cursive writing.
In martial art meetings we can see the effects of qi when an attacker’s physical force is returned, and sometimes increased, by the taiji practitioner who transforms it into qi-power. The latter exerts very little movement. All we see is his seemingly immobile stance – for he has “rooted” himself, through his qi, to the ground and thus made himself immovable like a heavy tree. The Taiji practitioner takes the attacker’s powerful punch (produced by bodily, that is muscular, force) by yielding his own torso in the direction of the punch, going with the thrust and reducing its impact on his body. Filled as it is with qi his body is rooted to the earth like a mountain, at the same time, he transfers the attacker’s momentums to the other side of his body which he may then lean into the attacker, or from which he may gently throw out a soft hand onto the attacker, forcing the latter to tumble backward several steps. It is true that we cannot see the qi energy flow the way we can see the muscular punches fly out from shoulder to fist to the opposite’s body, but we can only see the effects of qi deployment, as when the attacker falls back from the immobile taiji master. In calligraphy, we may experience the brush strokes as traces of energy flowing, at different rates and angles in time, and from these brush traces we re-experience the weight of the writer’s wrist, the speed of the draw, his thrusts, pauses, extensions, hesitations and finishes the way we read skid marks on the road and re-visualize the nature and intensity of the car accident.
Calligraphy (and similarly Chinese painting) comprises traces of the brush as it moves along the (wood, silk or paper) surface. It can be viewed like skid marks, traces of movements that clearly indicate their energy (weight, intensity, direction, speed as well as pauses) during the movement of the vehicle. More than the skid marks tell us about the state of mind of the driver whilst driving his car, calligraphy reveals the state of composure and concentration of the artist during the execution of the various strokes in his characters, columns and compositions. It is for this reason that calligraphy is the most intimate, the most naked revelation of an artist’s psycho-physiological or spiritual state. This is the reason the ancient Chinese used to say that a person’s entire true character is revealed in his calligraphy.
We can see how the aging Shen Zhou (1427-1509), for example, even in his sixties, remained completely diffident when wielding the brush in writing his calligraphy, how he enjoyed drawing down the brush in long strokes to the lower left (doing pie撇strokes) or lower right (in the na捺strokes), how unwilling he was to end such strokes and lift up his brush. His genuine works in calligraphy would thus be marred by the unevenness caused by these over-extended sidelong swipes, slowly and lovingly relished. This is rather like some singers who enjoy the ringing energy that charges their whole being when singing a high note, and would linger there releasing their qi in vibrant sound, far longer than the music had indicated. Or when we enter the world of genuine calligraphy by the Yuan master Wu Zhen (1280-1354), we sink into the rich, deep stillness that draws the unctuous dark ink downward through the silk or paper as if down onto the earth. Here the brush energy is directed inward, downward in weighty, fully charged strokes that at the same time recoil from the surface, yielding to the expanding space that envelopes the whole. The pace is much slower, the wrist far more weighted, and the focus converges within, the energy is centered inward, neilian內斂.
These characteristics pertain to the individual artists, but some of them I believe reflect the general movement of their respective times, informed by the gradual but continual transformation that art historians call period style. The transformations manifesting in the structure of the tools, the paper, ink, brush and artworks, revealing the emergent spirit of each phase in cultural evolution, all respond in synch to this constant, this eternal Transformation. In this light we may re-view a famous calligraphy scroll ascribed to the Tang dynasty monk Huai Su 懷素 (725~785) , ostensibly his autobiography. But here the brushwork is glib and superficial, gliding without friction over the paper surface in speedy circular right-hand turns in an energy deployment entirely at odds with ink traces found on Tang, Song or even Yuan calligraphy and painting. For these are in comparison notably more heavy and ponderous, even as we find them on excavated pottery. Here may be an indication of a gradual transformation in calligraphy of qi wielding as reflected in the brush traces, and by studying the interrelationship we may in time uncover the methodology for dating calligraphy works.
Tracing the evolution and transformation of qi deployment as manifested in various cultural art forms through the ages like taijiquan, qigong, sword dancing, calligraphy, qin–playing or singing, has not yet become subject of wider popular research, but should prove immensely rewarding toward our deeper understanding of art as part of the cosmos in transformation.
The text survives in the biography of 4th century official Wei Heng衛恒（220~291）, which can be found in juan 44 of the History of Tsin or Jinshu《晉書》in the Official Histories. The original text reads: : 書契之興，始自頡皇；寫彼鳥跡，以定文章。爰暨末葉，典籍彌繁。時之多僻，政之多權。官事荒蕪，其墨翰；惟多佐隸，舊字是刪。草書之法，蓋又簡略；應時諭指，用於卒迫。兼功並用，愛日省力；純儉之變，豈必古式。觀其法象，俯仰有儀；方不中矩，圓不副規。抑左揚右，望之若欹。獸跂鳥跱，志在飛移；狡兔暴駭，將奔未馳。或點，狀似連珠，絕而不離。畜怒怫鬱，放逸生奇。或淩邃惴栗，若據高臨危。旁點邪附，似螳螂而抱枝。絕筆收勢，餘綖糾結。若山峰施毒，看隙緣巇；騰蛇赴穴，頭沒尾垂。是故遠而望之，漼焉若注岸奔涯；就而察之，一畫不可移。幾微要妙，臨衛恒事從宜。略舉大較，仿佛若斯。