“Use The Force”: Exploring The Secret of Ki Power

By Jesse | 38 Comments

Let me ask you something:

Do you have a hard time understanding water vapor? (You know, that gas thingy you see when you start to boil water?)

And do you have problems seeing how wind mills work? (You know, those big rotating things on fields, that convert wind to electricity?)

Do you have trouble understanding why an energy drink works? (How the carbohydrates are absorbed by your body?)

Lastly, do you think it’s difficult to understand why something can start to burn when it becomes too hot? Or why living solely on chocolate bars makes you fat?

Do you?

No?

Then why do you have such a difficulty understanding the “super mystical” Japanese word ki?

Huh?

(Yeah, you know what I mean. That magical word your Japanese sensei uses when he, to no avail, tries to explain the finer points of some technique to you: “Use ki force, more ki powaaah” he says, and you go, “Hai sensei!”, thinking “Yeah… that force.”)

Because in my book, ki equals…

Energy.

"He said what?!"

Nothing more, nothing less.

Yet, again, we Westerners – as always – seem to have a tendency to make every Karate related Japanese word more difficult (kime, anyone?). We come up with a trillion different explanations and definitions to certain terms in order to understand their uses better (or make ourselves look smarter?), but end up digging our own hole of understanding even deeper down into the pits of idiocy (where the archbishop Don Ignoramus III reigns, for your info).

We think that ki (also chi or qi) is some fluffy, magical term used exclusively by bearded Oriental martial arts grand masters on top of snowy mountains, shooting ki balls at anyone who dares oppose them, when in fact it is nothing more than an old traditional Japanese/Chinese term for energy.

E-N-E-R-G-Y

And it’s not even “rare”.

It’s used, like, all the time.

In fact, I command you to right now go and pick up a Japanese text book for beginners. The first sentence you will learn, right after “Hajimemashite, watashi wa Sumisu desu” (Nice to meet you, my name is Smith), is “Genki desu ka?” (How are you?)

See that?

There’s a “ki” in there.

“Genki desu ka” literally means “Is your energy centered/rooted?“, but is commonly translated as “How are you?”, and it is one of the very first sentences you will ever learn in Japanese. And there’s about a thousand more sentences you’ll learn that contain the word ki, in one way or another.

There’s absolutely nothing mystical or spiritual about it at all.

No martial arts fairies sprinkling pixie dust over your fists of fury.

No “touch of death” or KO’ing people from distance with your “ki power”.

And definitely no stopping full contact kicks with your incredible “ki shouts” (video suddenly removed for strange reasons..).

Sorry, I just got a terrible laugh attack from that last link… aah… my stomach hurts. Gotta pooh pooh… be right back…

(For Funakoshi’s sake, focus now Jesse-san, you have an article to write. People are waiting!).

….

All right, I’m back.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that ki is nothing special. It is, however, a widely misunderstood and misused term (for good or bad), meaning people can do all kinds of hocus pocus and get away with it simply by saying, “Well, I just used my ki force, that’s why!”

And nobody can argue.

Because they don’t have anything to say against it. Right?

In fact, I am not supposed to tell you this, but I am a ki master myself.

Yes. That’s right. A real life ki master is writing these words in front of you. As a matter of fact, just this morning I indulged myself in 8 ounces of pure-ki-power-imbued orange juice (to be exact, the package said 136 kcal). And later, after training, I stuffed down a super-ki-force-imbued chocolate bar, containing a whopping 245 kcal of pure ki energy awesomeness. How about that?

In other words, you don’t want to mess with me.

What’s that? You’re still not convinced? Still thinking that “There’s just got to be something more to this! My sensei shot me with a ki ball and I swear I could feel it!” ?

Well, here’s an idea. Let’s look at the actual old kanji (Chinese character) used to write ki. Perhaps that can give us some help in determining what it really means?

Here it is:

This kanji consists of two parts.

The upper/right side part, which means “steam”, and the lower left side part which means “rice”. The kanji is pronounced “ki” in Japanese, “chi” in Chinese (“qi” is an alternative Chinese spelling). In other words, ki means the “steam coming from [cooking] rice”. That was the original idea behind ki.

(Looking at the kanji, it actually almost looks like steam on the top, don’t you think!?)

And what on earth could the “steam coming from rice” be then?

Heat, maybe?

Thermal energy, perhaps?

Yup.

Energy.

Yet again, we have confirmed that there is nothing mystical, cryptical or magical about ki. Though, I guess there once WAS some mystery to it (when people didn’t know about the different laws and classifications of energy), but today we know pretty much about energy. Except black holes. Those are scary. That’s like negative energy, or something, right? Like, when spacetime is deformed, like in other dimensions, kind of? (just… just don’t go there, Jesse. Leave it to the pros).

Okay.

So what’s the problem then? Why do we still have such a hard time explaining ki? Why, when you ask a Japanese Karate master what ki is, will he become red in the face, start to stutttttter uncontrollably, sweat massive amounts and hastily excuse himself? Huh?

Well, if I ask you the exact same question in English, perhaps you will see the difficulty?

“What is energy?”

You answer that.

(Can you feel the sweat coming? The pooh pooh pressing?)

It’s hard, isn’t it?

So, my suggestion is, until you can successfully come up with your own elevator pitch defining the fundamentals of energy (in another language of course, to some “stOOpid foreigner” who travels around half the world to learn this from you), don’t blame the Japanese or Okinawans for “trying to hold back secret martial arts information” from us.

Because they’re not.

It’s just… not that easy, okay?

(But don’t tell anyone. People are obviously making boatloads of money out of this.)

And that’s my take on “ki”. Case closed. You are dismissed.

I’m going to Okinawa.

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

38 Comments

  1. Jim

    November 4, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    I guess the biggest problem for most people is that, its too simple a definition. I mean to some people if it aint spooky then there isn’t a point. When you break ki down into something, well so ordinary, you rob people of some of the mystique they associate with oriental martial arts. And no matter what you do in life, be it martial arts or even religion, there is always some fool willing to part good money to maintain the aura of mystique to which they associate their (martial arts, religion….)

    sigh

    Thanks as always for the insight Jesse.

  2. Dave

    November 4, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    Ooh ooh ooh!!! I so want to be Dillman’s uke!!! Can I please, please, please?

  3. Christopher Lee

    November 5, 2010 at 5:48 am

    I hate to say this, but have you seen the live demonstration by Shaolin Martial Monks? They use Ki (or chi) withstand direct impacts from blunt or sharp weapons?

    Growing up in the Far East, I have seen and hear my share of the type of super/near-super human stories of Ki practitioners. Unfortunately, the aspects of internal arts has not been taught as widely as the external arts. At the same time, it is premature (to say the least) to simply dismiss an art just because you have not seen it or understand it.

    If you have the chance to read Sensei Patrick McCarthy’s translation of the ancient text “Bubishi”, you will gain much appreciation into the art(s) where Karate came from.

    • Jesse

      November 5, 2010 at 12:48 pm

      Well, I don’t see how Shaolin monks “concentrating their energy” into their abdomen to withstand blows contradicts anything I wrote?

      Personally, to me this is mostly the work of placebo. If the mind can be focused by concepts (whether illogical or logical) to perform unusual feats of performance, then it is vital that we uncover the underlying physiological principles which make the placebo effect (or faith factor) so powerful. The Shaolin monks demonstrations are good proof of this.

      However, it didn’t really seem to help them in the Boxer Rebellion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxer_Rebellion) in the end of the 1800′s, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese Kung Fu masters and Shaolin Monks were shot to death because they believed their “ki” would protect their bodies from Western guns and rifles.

      And what has the bubishi (the first documented link between Fujian White Crane Chuan Fa and the indigenous Okinawan martial arts) got to do with this?

      • Christopher Lee

        November 6, 2010 at 10:12 am

        No, Chi can’t make you bullet-proof, or at least that was never in any story or accounts that anyone could verify. My point wasn’t to argue about the “effectiveness” of Chi as a replacement for bullet-proof vest -- it was as an example of “Chi does exist”.

        Not going to get into a religious war with people who doesn’t appreciate the internal arts. That sort of the argument is almost as bad as those about the existence of a higher being (or beings).

        There are martial arts that incorporate internal arts as part of their training, including even some style of the Karate family (Goju Ryu comes to mind).

        The Bubishi text documents not only the history of Whitecrane Kung Fu (and how it links to Goju Ryu), but also has very extensive section on ancient understanding of “Chi” as applies vital point and pressure point attacks. To say “Chi” doesn’t exist is pretty denying the existing of the internal arts that has been the core of Shaolin derivatives of martial arts, which some would argue heavily influence the development of fighting arts in Japan and Okinawa.

        BTW, on a personal note, I find your reference to the boxer rebellion tasteless. It was a mis-directed movement of national patriotism in the context of foreign oppression. The movement was futile, but nonetheless a honourable expression of their patriotism. Those folks died for their country and their honour. The least any martial arts (or self-claimed martial arts) can do is to acknowledge their honourable deaths instead of making fun of it.

        Anyhow, last posting on this thread. I think I’m gonna take break from this blog for a while. Peace…

        • Fraser

          November 6, 2010 at 11:01 am

          Shame as this leads this blog to become even more narrow minded as anyone with a different opinion is made fun of until they stop commenting. So much for open discussian but then it is a personnel blog so I suppose it is fair enough.

        • Jesse

          November 6, 2010 at 12:30 pm

          Christopher: I don’t see why you’re so upset. Nobody (at least not me) has said that ki doesn’t exist.

          It very much does.

          To belittle theories known and formalized by Chinese and Indian sages for thousands of years is not in my interest.

          Lastly, for your continued journey:

          “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

          - Aristotle

          • Sayo

            November 8, 2010 at 5:22 pm

            I think your incredible funny approach to avoke proper logical or even scientific study of martial arts concepts is not for everyone. In supporting your article, my two pence.

            The general idea in this discussion is, I believe, how can you grasp and master a concept without understanding it’s structure and how can you explain a concept you don’t understand. When copying what the eye sees without understanding the structure, it results in some pretty disturbing stuff. Which eventually lead to the devaluation of karate and martial arts in general. I believe this is our common goal to prevent this from happening.

            So we have energy and we have ki. A lot of Western people think energy is energy and ki is ki. People from the east side, think energy is energy and ki is energy. In the eyes of some, KI has become this mistical new concept which gives you great powers and cannot be explain by laws of nature (not scientific or logical explainable). But others see it as energy, accepting the truth about this energy, understanding it’s structure and realize some cool, but explainable stuff with it.

            Though men died bravely and patriotic it doesn’t mean that they truly understood the concept they thought they mastered. Maybe they died in vain, brave and believing in the things they did, but maybe not so smart. Even brave men can be wrong. For this is the state of the humanbeing.

    • Dojorat

      November 6, 2010 at 3:19 am

      The point I was trying to make is that Chi is a concept that has been is very much misunderstood and misinterpreted as something that it really is not. I have been learning about martial arts and training since childhood and I have seen my share of feats.

      Yes shaolin monks use chi but so did people like Houdini(Look him up) and he had nothing to do with martial arts. Saying chi does not exist is not entirely correct and I disagree. A better way to put it would be ` chi as an occult or mystical force does not exist`.

      Training, practise and concentration can make people seem superhuman. the mind is a powerful thing but it is not magic or anything other than natural.

      • Fraser

        November 6, 2010 at 7:45 am

        Perhaps Chi is a model that allows one to switch on a placebo effect. Since there seems to be an effect which can be measured and there seems to be aggreement the mind is powerful. Press certain points the pain goes. The side effects of medical painkillers are seem to be equally unpredictable Neausea, mood swings, dizzyness, fits, death seem to be commonly listed. People will swallow these until they rattle without a second thought. Perhaps this is a way to use the placebo effect without upsetting the medical profession sensibilities about tricking their patients. The pain goes even if I am not sure how it works.

  4. Dojorat

    November 5, 2010 at 9:08 am

    Some people crave the mystical and cannot be convinced by simple explanations like the one in the article. The ancient and unfamiliar cultures of the Far East and their exotic quality makes people foreign to those cultures look for and expect mysteries where there are none. That is why the most common technical karate terms can appear mysterious.

  5. Ace

    November 5, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Ki is real!
    See here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GmXEYGqfIU

    Watch to the end. I accept no responsibility for monitors covered in tea, coffee or any other beverage.

  6. Devastat

    November 6, 2010 at 2:50 am

    I have always found this case to be very interesting:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MC6DC8X5wA

  7. Leo

    November 6, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    To reduce Ki only on physical energy is conceiving the concept too narrow, I think. It sure is a part of it, but not the whole thing. Also, the discussion if Ki exists or not seems a bit pointless to me, as Ki is a model of thinking and comprehending, which contains a lot more than the European imagination of energy.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the connection to breath. In most situations I was told about Ki, it was either connected to correct(=healthy) breathing, like in Qi Gong practices, or the expansion of body and limbs. By the last, I mean following:
    Strech your arm, so it is completely straight and horizontal. Now lower your ellbow, without drawing your hand any nearer to you. Do you feel a tension going over your shoulder, through your arm and ellbow, ending somewhere in your fingertips? -> “Ki floats”

    Ki is a wide concept, that is connected a whole branch of Asian philosophy and even finds its counterparts in Europe (and presumably in the whole rest of the world).
    For example Ötzi, the Neolithic glacier-mummy found in Oetz valley, between Italy and Austria: the majority of his tattoos is located on or less than 5mm away from classical points of acupuncture, which effects fit his medical issues (joint damages by cold, for example) surprisingly well.

    However, I find imagining Ki as a miraculous power of magic infantile, though it might connect to practices of autosuggestion, which may again be part of Asian philosophies. I can’t say for sure.

    Think of Ki as a metaphor for a complex of phenomena and practices, not as a jedi-force of telekinetics:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkTDDeuytM8

    • sunrei

      November 7, 2010 at 12:37 am

      energy is not physical doh :) check the wiki (jesse was so kind to put that link up so why don’t you read it? )
      i think you mean “mere energy” …
      but then again energy is not something so simple as it looks :)

  8. Leo

    November 7, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    What is “mere energy”? I’m not familiar with that term.

    • sunrei

      November 8, 2010 at 1:31 pm

      its not a term(btw the same goes for physical energy) translate.google…
      wrong word maybe, simple, known or whatever word but not physical…

      • Leo

        November 9, 2010 at 12:28 am

        What is your point? Do you want to discuss my English language skills?

      • Chris | Martial Development

        November 11, 2010 at 1:41 am

        The point, I think, is that we shouldn’t be in a rush to “demystify” what is already a tremendously complex field by conventional accepted understanding, just to appease that crowd who believes the world ought to be simple.

  9. Chris | Martial Development

    November 9, 2010 at 1:15 am

    This article is a great place for people to start. The right place to start an investigation is at the beginning, not the middle or the end.

    Dillman is somewhere in the middle, and by that I do not necessarily mean to imply “more advanced”.

  10. Oliver

    November 10, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Please take a look at this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAcl0HuBj6c&feature=related
    You can watch from 1:10 if you don’t have so much time, this is what “chi/ki” really is (as described in the article -- energy) and what might seem strange or mysterious is when people forces it to different parts of the body to accomplish certain (“magical”) feats. But it’s no mystery. It just requires good control of your body and technique.

    Boxers use their ki every time they go for a knockout (kinetic linking of energy)!

  11. Alberto

    December 7, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    And what is “placebo” at last?
    The tool the brain uses to focus the energy that common ppl just can’t.
    And as my Sensei taught me, a way to keep healthy: “yamai wa ki kara kuru”·

  12. Igor

    December 15, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Sure there is placebo, like all those Chinese esotheric people who use chi to eat glass and what not, and here in Bosnia we have people doing that when they get really stupidly drunk. And they are ok. You have people in the Philipines and other places doing it with help from the gods. But there is also people who I know who have been healed with healers using bioenergy, how they call it. We might call it chi, dunno. Many of them do it for free (which is a good sign). There is some force I believe, but also a lot of it is in the mind…

  13. jersey

    January 24, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Hi! Youre so cool! I dont suppose Ive read anything like this before. So nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on this subject. realy thank you for starting this up. this website is something that is needed on the web, someone with a little originality. useful job for bringing something new to the internet!

  14. autorijlessen

    February 9, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    Congratulations! Enjoyed checking out your post considering of its terrific concepts and extraordinary thoughts.

  15. Contessa Haefele

    February 10, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Precisely what I was searching for, regards for putting up.

  16. Karen

    February 13, 2011 at 6:04 pm

    Hi,
    I would suggest that anyone interested in reading a more detailed explanation of ‘Ki’ should read ‘Ki and the way of the martial Arts’ by Kenji Tokitsu. One of the points that Tokitsu makes is that it is very hard to explain Ki to a Westerner as it is an intrensic part of life to someone who is Japanese.

  17. InWard247

    April 22, 2011 at 2:51 am

    Nice Post!

    Defining Ki, is not as much as of a concern as is how to ‘develop’ and morally ‘utilizing’ it! It is only after experiencing it you begin to understand the concept and at that point you realize that you know very, very little.

    • Karen

      April 22, 2011 at 3:23 am

      That is very true of my experiences as well.

  18. warrioress

    August 11, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Hmm, *scratches chin with a thoughtful look at the monitor* It’s an idea! I think what makes ki mysterious and complicated is the fact that it’s more often than not asociated with CONTROLLING energy, which is far from simple.

  19. Connor

    October 17, 2011 at 9:14 am

    GAH. I’m so glad you wrote an article on this. The other day I was actually practicing my Mae-Geri on our back patio while it was raining (I live in Oregon, and I love training in the rain). It was after dark, and after an hour or two of stretching and kicking, I held my left leg up to the patio light and I could see steam coming off of my foot. It was a really cool experience and it really helped me understand just what you’re talking about. Kiais generate it, motion generates it. Had I imbued my feet with magical Asian magics? No. All I did was train for a while so that the blood in my feet got so warm, the water started to lightly steam off of them.
    I think it’s cool that kinetic energy starts with “Ki.”
    -Connor H.

  20. Frank Fink

    February 22, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    This from the most recent Kissaki-Kai Newsletter:

    Let’s look for once at the historical evidence. The concepts of Chi Qi and Ki do not mean ‘Energy’ and never did. The idea of invisible energy circulation was introduced by a French Bank clerk, George Soulie de Morant, born in Paris in 1879, who spent years in China and was much impressed by Traditional Chinese Medicine. He never had any medical qualifications, by the way.
    On his return to France he began to publish books on Acupuncture and here begins the problem, De Morant himself admitted that he translated ‘qi’ as ‘energy’, “for lack of a better word.” The notion of a meridian system outside of the vasculature was also a creation of George Soulie de Morant.
    He also created the term ‘Meridian’ which is a mis-translation The same holds true for his translation of the term ‘Qi’ into ‘Energy’. Qi literally means ‘Vital Air’ and refers to the circulation of nutrients (including oxygen) within the body.
    “Chinese medicine is most commonly explained based on the concepts of ‘Energy’ circulating within a system of ‘Meridians’. This ‘Energy-Meridian Theory’, introduced by Georges Soulié de Morant in the late 1920s, was the biggest translation error carried out in modern history befalling acupuncture and Chinese medicine.” (http://andreasschwerte.com/understanding-acupuncture-part-1)
    Paul Unschuld, a respected Chinese studies scholar, notes that “the core Chinese concept of qi bears no resemblance to the Western concept of ‘energy’.” (Unschuld, PU. Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in Ancient Chinese Medical Text. Berkeley. University of California Press. 2003)
    So -- any martial arts instructor lecturing on disrupting energy flow, and sending KI through meridians, is not, I repeat, not speaking with the authority of thousands of years of TCM!

  21. irina

    January 25, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    HI, I want to make a logo for my friend, he is a musician and I want to combine a part of his last name to encode what he loves in live, his passion. one of the sounds that I like to express is “chi” . I know that this sound represent air like “si chi” “to chi”… inhale and exhale in chineese… please let me know which character to use for “chi’ thanks

  22. nminay

    January 26, 2013 at 3:24 am

    I think ki is always there….you have to direct it only where you would like it to be effective….as for the monks killed while using ki— I would think this way: the ki of the bullet travelling ~600 feet/sec (?) is enormous than the monk’s slow moving ki I suppose….thanks!
    NM

  23. Fabian

    March 12, 2013 at 3:55 am

    Man the discussion is brilliant! And as we can see in the later discussion, people like to hold on to the mystical explanation of waht ki is.

    In my own experience, my late sensei is explaining everything physical. Maybe because he studied sports science, so he knows the mechanisms and the right words to explain them. But sometimes I dont understand him.
    Anothertime I was invited to learn some Shinson Hapkido and the sensei explained everything with colorfull analogies and a mystical variation of the Ki concept and thoug I’m totally on your side Jesse, perhaps for I study Psychology which explaines all kinds of “mind-body linguistic linkage” stuff, that well ki resembles physical (and maybe partial psychologycal drive an so on) energy, in the sense of F= mass x 2 + speed^2 for one example.

    Okay I lost it. The point is that I understood the (non explanatory) mystical ki concept way better than the “Real” explanation. Funny huh? =D

  24. Jack M

    April 2, 2013 at 12:46 am

    To me the mysitcal “ki/qi” I hear about is just a word. I understand what it means in some contexts, in Aikido for example “you are blending your energy with the attackers” I see it as body mechanics. A kiai is sometimes explained as blasting your Ki at a target, I see it as a scary-ass scream. Hell, internal arts are cool and they work, I just see how they work in a scientific way.

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