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      article: 'Qi' in Critical Terms for Religious Studies  |  author: Michael Stanley-Baker  |  date: 2023-03-23 13:24:30




    An abridgement of Michael Stanley-Baker's, 'Qi' in Critical Terms for Religious Studies:
    An International Conference, 2019

    By Michael Stanley-Baker,compiled by the editors of Qi Encyclopedia.


    The original complete text, images, footnotes, and bibliography may be found at https://www.academia.edu/39695488/20191


    Preamble: The flood-like discourses on qi

    Qi () is referred to as a fundamental universal substance in Chinese cosmology and physiology, and has played a critical role in the domains of philosophy, self- cultivation, and ritual practice as well as natural sciences such as medicine, alchemy, astronomy and astrology. It is related to the breath, to vital energy, to primordial cosmic substance, to food, to the stars, and more. Its implications are so wide that it appears in compound terms in practices as diverse as military strategy, literary writing, calligraphy, painting, music and the art of conversation.... Qi has been the subject of fundamental philosophical exposition in the pre-modern and modern era, and the focus of multiple monographs and edited volumes in Chinese and Japanese in the modern period. ....

    (Editor's note: Throughout this abridgment, an ellipsis (....) will indicate that words, and images, footnotes, and bibliography have been removed from what appeared in the original text, which may be seen here: https://www.academia.edu/39695488/2019.

    Qi participates in both the inner workings of subjective consciousness and selfhood while at the same time forming the foundational substance of the material universe, as well as its manifest forms. Whether enumerated and calculated through numerology (shushu 數術) for divination, whether observed in the heavens as auspicious cloud shapes (yun qi 雲氣), as weather typologies that also invaded the body as pathogens (liuqi 六氣), as martial spirit in individuals or armies, or as colour on the body's surface or as pain, whether tasted as the cooling or heating quality of materia medica, or pulsed in the channels (mai 脈), felt as proprioceptive textures of inner sensation that flow through the body (xingqi 行氣), or mentally apprehended through reasoned debate about the emergence of the universe, meditative insight into the foundational substance of one's own being or through divine revelation as 10-foot high flaming characters in the cavernous emptiness of absolute being, qi was and is "materialized" through extremely different practices, and comes to mean many different "things." By "things" here I mean material substances or objects, by "materialised" I mean the technical practices, processes of engagement, and intellectual frameworks as by which the material world comes into the attention and working culture of human actors.

    Homology and Origin Stories: Fire and Paleography.

    A paleographic approach to the story of qi would begin by uncovering the earliest examples of character form, quotations, and formal definition in dictionaries. Surviving graphs demonstrate that early forms of the character included three horizontal lines representing vapors, semantic components for grain 米, [and] fire 火 灬 .... and food 食, and sound-loans like 既 and 旡 (See Appendix I). The early character for misty vapors became used in sound-loans for words meaning variously to beg, to provision guests and horses with grain, and the meaning normally associated with embodied vitality arose around 400 BCE, around which time fire or grain became included in the graph, causing gradual shifts in orthography for the other meanings.

    It's unclear whether orthographic variants indicates deliberate conceptual differences, i.e. whether a firey graph for qi 炁 or indicates a different conception of qi, but the graphs are a useful starting point for highlighting important arguments relating fire and qi over time. One is by Wang Chong 王充 (27-97 BCE) in the Lunheng 論衡, who argues that the efficacy of southern wu incantations is because as southerners they possess more fiery qi, not because they are possessed of spiritual power. While he does not discuss orthography, this position about firey qi forms an important part of his sceptical materialist argument. The notion of Southern qi-magic 氣禁 is widely testified to in Mawangdui manuscripts, the Baopuzi 抱朴子 and elsewhere. According to Zhu Yueli 朱越利, Ge Hong statistically favoured 炁 over 氣 when writing about breath magic.

    Zhu Yueli's larger argument claims that the two graphs 炁 and 氣 were used in some texts in the Daoist Canon to represent different types of qi. While the meanings were not consistent over time and genre, his main point is that the choice of orthography was used to distinguish between two types of qi. Zhu finds 14 different instances of where texts statistically privilege one or another form when describing different kinds of qi, each of which deserve discussion. One thing that stands out however, is that the distinctions are not equivalent—Ge Hong's use of 炁 in the Baopuzi, favors 炁 for incantational powers and 氣 for forces in the body or the natural world. Later neidan 內丹 authors deliberately used 炁 for Perfected qi 真炁 (also primordial qi 元炁), a substance associated with primordial cosmogenesis, in order to distinguish it from post-heaven qi 後天氣, the more common qi that animates the material, manifest world and the movements of the stars, seasons and five agents.


    [Water] flows, whether in channels, through the limbs, or as heavenly deities dissolved into vapour that are inhaled into the body. The appearance in the Han Dynasty of channels mapped onto the body was coeval with the intensification of imperial trade and communication networks by waterways. is one of the fundamental cosmic substances generated during early stages in the formation of the universe, as in the Guodian text 太一生水. It is the substance within which the pure and turbid are components of the universe gradually settle, producing graded layers of existence ranging from turbid 濁 to clear 清, in the manner that mud settles to the bottom of a glass of water. Writers traded on this metaphor of clear and turbid qi in discourses as diverse as moral cultivation (e.g. Zhu Xi), medical pathology and transcendence. What we learn from the excursus beginning in paleography is that to identify qias simply a water-like substance would be an oversimplification. Paleography affords an inspiration and starting point for such considerations.


    Living in The Sea of Qi....

    Qi as substance is shared between people, and yet it also becomes part of them, becomes internalised to them. It coheres people.... Much of this interpenetration, this flow of qi between people, between things, is what ritual is designed to manage – to create the right qi to flow to the right people, and to prevent bad qi flowing to the wrong place.


    Conclusion: Two ways of thinking about stickiness....

    Qi plays a fundamental role in the Chinese intellectual repertoire of ways to think about, deal with, and experience human existence in the material (and immaterial) world.... Even while they may disagree about the qualities and importance of different kinds of qi, it is widely agreed that it, whatever it is, qi is a fundamental component of the universe. This is a feature of the consubstantiality [i.e., being of the same substance or essence, ] of the varieties of qi.


    Appendix I: Early palaeography of Qi. Cloudy Vapours

    Early forms of the character that portray wisps of cloudy vapour develop from three horizontal lines in oracle bones to later versions with stylization, and, in bronze inscriptions. By the time Xu Shen 許慎 (30-124 CE) compiled the Shuowen jiezi 說文解 字, he argued that this form referred to cloud qi, that is, clouds, mist and fog....

    Grain, Fire and Food.

    The well-known form used in the received tradition uses a grain radical [氣] below the vapors... Originally it meant "to provision with food," and had extended meanings of sacrifice.... Most philologists argue that this graph 氣 was then borrowed to write down a different word, the subject of this paper [i.e., Qi] – that substance with a range of meanings encompassing breath, vitality, air and the universal substrate underlying manifest reality.


    When the character 炁 appears in received texts, it is frequently interchangeable with 氣, and refers to embodied vitality. This is the form which, Zhu Yueli argues, appears mostly in Daoist texts, and in some cases is deliberately used to distinguish one kind of qi from another.

    .... This last character, 炁, referred to the concept of embodied vitality and vapor, and was in paralleled by another variant, These latter two forms use fire as part of their semantic component, and may reflect firey conceptions of qi as we shall see below.

    In Xingqi ming

    .... The Xingqi ming 行氣銘 (ca 380 BCE), is short, thirty-six character inscription carved on the twelve sides of a jade knob, and is the earliest extant document recording qi cultivation in the body. The knob was ornamental, probably affixed to the end of a staff, and testifies to a role beyond simple communication, signifying that the text and material object possessed high symbolic value. The text advocates the deep circulation of qi within the body, holding it there and collecting it until once more rises, and then cycling it downward once again. It is clearly cognate to the self-cultivation literature—both the purely physical, health-oriented exercise, as well as more philosophically oriented spiritual cultivation that was discussed in multiple contemporary texts, such as the Zhuangzi 莊子 and Guanzi 管 子. [Editor's note: More about the Xingqi ming, at http://qi--encyclopedia.com/?article=Qi:%20The%20Thumbnail%20Sketch]

    In sum, this form with vapours and grain 氣 that is now uniformly used went through a number of transitions between at least the fourth and second century BCE.... 氣 originally meant to provision or sacrifice ... but its usage changed to represent vapour and embodied vitality .... [The] character, 炁, referred to the concept of embodied vitality and vapor, and was in paralleled by another [ancient] variant, [for Qi] . These latter two forms use fire as part of their semantic component, and may reflect firey conceptions of qi....


    1. This usage is approved and licensed through Creative Commons. See https://researchdata.ntu.edu.sg/dataset.xhtml?persistentId=doi:10.21979/N9/ZBZE4V

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