What is ‘chi’?

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You may have heard the term ‘chi’ but are not sure what it means. In this article we explain what chi is and also what is the ‘daan tin’, regarded as the centre for chi in the body.


The simplest explanation as to what is meant by chi is that it is a form of energy. Chi can be regarded as the fundamental component of the universe which also manifests itself here, on the Earth. In this context it is known as ‘universal chi’.

Chi is probably better and more commonly described as a ‘vital energy’, an energy that is contained in all things. Such things as the wind, mist and of course human beings are all said to contain chi. Indeed, there is often a stated correlation between the notion of breath and that of chi, although chi is more than merely air. Chi flows through the body in much the same way that blood does except that chi flows along paths called meridians and not through veins.

Chi is regarded as a basic component of the human body and through special breathing techniques and other exercises it is believed that you can cultivate and control your chi.

There are also special points along the meridians where it is possible to interfere with the flow of chi. These are the points that are used by acupuncturists where the chi can be conditioned, calmed or dispersed (illnesses of all kinds are seen as disturbances in the flow of chi and by correcting this flow the patient’s health can be improved). It is forbidden to use needles on some points that are known as ‘vital points’. The vital points are frequently exploited by martial artists and it is said that striking these points can lead to a unconsciousness, paralysis or even death.

Chi is believed to settle in a special point called the ‘dan-tien’ (daan1 tin4 in Romanised Cantonese) meaning the ‘cinnabar field’ or ‘elixir field’, a spot about 8cm below the naval. This point happens to correspond to the centre of gravity of the human body. One of the aims of the respiratory and meditative exercises such as ‘chi gung’ is to strengthen the chi in the dan-tien. By concentrating chi into the dan-tien the martial artist’s stance becomes well rooted and balanced and the mind becomes clear.

Such internal forms of training are often considered the territory of the soft internal arts but this is not really the case. All martial arts, soft or hard, internal or external, contain components of the other. So even hard arts, like Lau Gar, which are typically associated with breathing techniques centered on the solar plexus also feature techniques that develop the flow of chi and aim to concentrate it in the dan-tien. Incidentally, the use of breathing techniques that make use of the upper chest and solar plexus are said to be useful in generating explosive power although they may lead to rapid fatigue and even a shortening of life.

To be accurate there are actually 3 dan-tien. The upper dan-tien is located between the eyes and is the body’s centre of mental and spiritual dimensions. The middle dan-tien is at the level of the heart and is where the emotions are located. The lower dan-tien is that described above and is considered to be the centre of power in the body.

So there you have it. Chi is a form of vital energy that flows through the body along channels called meridians. Martial arts practice spends some time focusing on this aspect of the body and incorporates exercise devoted to the cultivation of chi.

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