Qi in the Arts of China


From KJ 51

Recent archaeological discoveries have led to a reevaluation of the antiquity of civilization and culture in China. What has long been referred to as over five thousand years of continuous cultural development is now considered as a span of at least ten thousand years. Throughout these hundred centuries, Chinese artists and craftspeople have been making art that embodies and celebrates their ideas and experiences.

During the course of our research for A Brief History of Qi, we followed the common thread that runs through the artwork of virtually every age of China’s long past. This thread continues to wend its way into the fabric of artistic and cultural life in China today. Indeed, many of the artists, art historians, and critics with whom we have spoken, and whose work we have seen and read over the past several years, mention this single conceptual thread as the most important element in Chinese art. This thread is qi.

Chinese art emphasizes the expression of motion and strength. This vital dynamism arises from the ancient dialectical unity: substantial and insubstantial; movement and stillness; firmness and softness; gathering and dispersal. This dialectical construction is easily recognized in terms of Chinese philosophy as yin and yang. In Chinese painting it manifests in wholeness; the entirety of the composition tends “to configure the whole world on one foot of the scroll. It manifests as a momentum containing heaven and earth and the whole universe.”1

The tension that holds together this wholeness of composition develops from the most fundamental graphic elements: black and white. This blackness and whiteness, substantiality and insubstantiality, become the internal qi of intelligence, the germ of style and character. Hence the whiteness and blackness, insubstantiality and substantiality, contain the dao of breathing in and out, the yin and yang of the universe, the qi of the highest aspiration surrounding every flowing river. The dao of yin and yang and the qi of high aspiration combine in a visual effect that creates a magical power. Anyone nourished and benefited by such traditions of Chinese culture is guided into an integrated understanding of the universe and life.2 The aesthetic engine, this “magical power,” relies upon qi for its fuel and its motive force.

Nature in Chinese philosophy is understood to be the constant motion that manifests the changes of life. The root of these changes is qi. The concept of qi is used to explain the generation, development, and transformation of all matter. It holds the premiere position in traditional Chinese thought. Not only is qi the principal source of energy and matter, it also establishes the basis of spirit and the human soul. Importantly, it provides the connective medium through which the ancient philosophers believed human beings could harmonize their growth and development with the forces of nature.

This quest for harmony with nature gained its preeminent expression in the philosophy of the dao. Yet all this philosophizing can scarcely compete with the experience of a work of art. After all, the idea that one picture is worth a thousand words is intimately Chinese. Thus, throughout the ages, Chinese artists have sought to manifest the dao of nature in their lives and in their work. They applied their intellect to comprehend the changes of the natural world and to transform their perception of the dao into the emotional power needed to fuel the expression of their art. This emotional vitality, in fact, is their own, individual qi.

They strove to cultivate and refine this qi so that their work could be created directly from it. This aesthetic yearning for unity and harmony is expressed in the phrase, They strove to cultivate and refine this qi so that their work could be created directly from it. This aesthetic yearning for unity and harmony is expressed in the phrase, yi qi he cheng, which literally means, “one breath of qi and it is done.” It is used of literary compositions to imply a particular fluidity of the movement of ideas from start to finish — the momentum of qi. This concept is not limited to a single discipline or mode of expression. It runs throughout all of Chinese art. In fact, this phrase is commonly used to describe the accomplishment of anything done in one fell swoop, without interruption or pause.

The following passage is from the Confucian classic known as the Book of Rites (Li Ji) from the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE). In the volume entitled Records of Music (Yue Ji), we read:

Poetry is the expression of the will or aspiration. Song is the recitation of sounds. Dance emotes and mobilizes form. These three originate in the heart, aroused by music. Thus deep feelings enlighten writing. It is the flourishing of qi that thus transforms the spirit. Its accumulation and harmonization in the center will draw out the excellence of the spirit. Thus must music be created without the slightest falsity.

Honesty and righteousness have long been fundamental requirements of Chinese art. They arise from an understanding of the forces involved in the process of artistic creation and reflect the profound roots of morality in Chinese culture. This morality is not based in the Western dichotomy of right versus wrong or good versus evil. It develops from inspection of nature and an understanding of how life should be lived to harmonize human action with the forces of the natural world.

In the Liang period of the Southern Dynasty (502–557 CE) Zhong Rong expanded upon this ancient theme in a book entitled Classes of Poetry (Shi Pin Xu).

Poetry is an act of will. It comes from the heart. A poem embodies words. The feelings arise from the center and give shape and substance to the words. Language is not enough. To rely on language is to sigh and lament. Sighing and lamenting cannot result in reciting and singing. Even to recite and sing is not enough. Thus we must dance it. This is all to say that the creation of art is guided by the spirit.

Zhong Rong’s work was one of the earliest bodies of literary criticism in China. It focused on the “Five Character” form of poetry in vogue from the Han Dynasty until Zhong’s era. His work had an enormous influence on successive generations of writers and readers in China. Through such influence, the movements of qi came to be guided by the spirit, informed by a sense of profound moral obligation to achieve balance and natural harmony. These movements drove traditional art in China steadily forward through the ages. The vast and complex tapestry of the traditional arts in China is indeed woven from this one, single thread.

Bai Ju Yi, one of the greatest literary figures of the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), wrote:

There is a pure qi of intelligence existing between heaven and earth.
Every form of life receives it, but humans receive the most.

He explained that it was the role, and indeed the responsibility of writers to refine and congeal this qi so that it could be guided by the will, released and disseminated as literature. Thus, throughout Chinese history many of the great artists, writers, and musicians were also practitioners of qi gong, a form of exercise to accumulate, cultivate, and refine the qi.

The reason is simple. Qi has long been understood as the motive force of life itself. Powerful and unseen, it drives all natural phenomena. Traditional arts in China are dominated by themes drawn from the natural environment. Thus artists in China trained themselves not just in techniques that would allow them to replicate the forms and images of the natural world but in methods of acquiring a deep understanding of the essence of such phenomena and of the forces that bring them to life. They practiced to increase their own spirit and personal qi and to enable themselves to connect more thoroughly with nature. They thus became conduits of this motive force, so that the lifeblood of their art might become indistinguishable from the vast qi of nature. Such cultivation was the bedrock on which the foundations of Chinese art were established.

Liu Xi Zai of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911 CE) made this clear. In his book Conception of Art (Yi Gài), there is a discourse titled “Treatise on the Conception of Calligraphy (Shu Gài):”

The best is to cultivate the shén [spirit].
Next is to cultivate the qi.
Last of all is to cultivate the form.

Again and again this is made clear by Chinese artists and writers throughout history. Su Che, a scholar of the Song Dynasty, wrote:

Literature is shaped by qi. Yet the ability to write does not derive from slavish devotion. Only by relying on qi can [the writer] achieve perseverance.

He cited two methods of “relying on qi.” One was to follow the advice of Meng Zi and preserve one’s righteous qi — to cultivate an upright spirit. The other was to heed the words of the great historian and author of the Book of History (Shu Jû), Si Ma Qian:

To become aware of the outer world, to connect with nature, you must travel. See the marvels and natural phenomena. If you can accomplish this, the qi will fill up the center of your being. It will overflow into your face. It will arouse your speech, inspire and manifest in your writing without your even noticing.

The appearance of qi in literary compositions, particularly poetry, was considered of primary importance. The fundamental imagistic character of Chinese poetry developed from this consideration, as expressed in the words of Liu Xi Zai:

The spirit of the mountain cannot express itself, thus it emerges through writing the mists and clouds in the twilight. The spirit of the Spring cannot be expressed in words, but it is revealed in grass and trees. Therefore, if the poem contains no appearance of qi [i.e., no image] then the spirit will have no dwelling place.

The appearance of qi is the basis of poetic imagery, but only through the cultivation of qi can these images naturally emerge. The point is driven home by the comments of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911 CE) poet, Zheng Zhen:

It is good to read and study many books. But especially precious is the cultivation of the righteous qi. Only when the qi is upright does my self truly exist. Only then can the erudition gained from study attain its full and mutual benefit.3

The conception of Chinese art is not rooted in reproducing images of the objective world. Rather, Chinese artists sought to cast themselves, their individual understanding of the world, their feelings, and their spirit into their compositions. The training of the artist thus relied first and foremost upon the development of an understanding of qi and of techniques for accumulating qi so that it could be released and expressed through the work of art. This is not to suggest that the training in specific technical skills was of secondary importance, rather that the acquisition of technical expertise has always been understood to be utterly inseparable from the acquisition of qi. This understanding served not only as the basis of artistic discipline and training but of standards of aesthetic judgment.

Xie Zhen of the Ming Dynasty expressed the gist of this aesthetic standard in A Discussion of the Poetry of the Four Seas (Si Ming Si Huà): “If poetry lacks shén qi, it is like a drawing of the sun and moon without light. ”

In one of the oldest extant discussions of painting, entitled Records of the Painting of Yun Tai Mountain (Huà Yún Tái Shan Jû), Gu Kai Zhi, one of the greatest painters of the Jin Dynasty (317–420 CE), wrote:

When painting the Heavenly Master, you must neglect his figure and concentrate on drawing out the qi of his spirit. … There runs the stream from bottom up; the perspective of objective things turns everything upside down. Pure qi brings down the mountains! This is the method of painting the mountain. 4

Qi has always figured prominently in the methodology of Chinese art. The Southern Qi period (479–502 CE) witnessed the introduction of the Six Methods as the “key to painting. ”

The first to present a systematic summary of traditional Chinese painting at this time was Xie He in a work entitled Records of the Character of Ancient Painting (Gu Pin Huà Lu). The foremost of the six methods he recorded was “feeling the charm of qi.” This theory of “the charm of qi” became a cornerstone in the foundations of traditional Chinese painting. Writing in the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) in Records of Famous Paintings from throughout the Dynasties (Lû Dài Ming Huà Ji), Zhang Yan Yuan noted:

Ancient painting can transform action directly from form yet still uphold the bones of qi.5 Seek the painting out of the form. This is difficult to explain to lay people. Contemporary painting, though possessed of form, lacks the charm of qi. Therefore, utilize the charm of qi to accomplish the composition of painting, and the form will be implicit.

What is the “charm of qi?” In the Qing Dynasty, Zhang Geng explained it
in a book called A Discussion of Painting from Lu Mountain (Lú Shan Huà Lun).

There is the charm of qi, transmitted via the ink, some via the brush, some through action without intention. The highest level is that transmitted through actions with no intention. The next is action with intention. The next is that which is transmitted through the brush. The lowest is that sent through the ink.

What does it mean to send it through the ink? It means the painting is accomplished by spreading the ink like a halo around the sketched-out drawing. What is it that is called transmitted via the brush? It means the use of the dry brush to rub out the light ink strokes with thorough strength so that light itself flows out.

What is meant by action with intention? It means the artist can liberate the method of using the brush and the movement of ink so that they correspond to whatever the intention is: sparse or dense; varied amounts; thick or light; dry or moist. All can exist in perfect arrangement.

What is meant by action without intention? It means the artist fixes his attention and concentration, and then the vision flows out through the movements of the wrist. The original intention is one thing, but suddenly it appears completely different! It comes out just like that, sent out with no intention. You can say, “It is enough.” But in fact it is not enough. How can you call it enough, when there is no way to add it up? It is originality beyond the feelings of the brush and the weight of the ink. It comes from the thriving pivot of heaven. Yet it can only be sensed by one who is tranquil. Even the slightest delay will confuse the mind, and it disappears in the ink.

The charm of qi is a rarefied and cultivated harmonic of this fundamental resonance. In the hands of a master of traditional Chinese painting, a single stroke of the brush, imbued with the charm of qi, transports the spirit of those who view its traces. People viewing Chinese paintings created many centuries ago experience this charm of qi, whether they are Chinese or strangers in lands far removed from the yellow earth of China. This is a manifestation of the harmony of the internal and external worlds, the world of objects and the world of the spirit. The charm of qi is the shuttle that weaves back and forth to bring about this harmony. In the Tang Dynasty, Zhang Yan Yuan stated this clearly: “Seek the painting in the charm of qi; then the resemblances of form are woven within.”

The relative importance of qi and its charm was explicitly described in the Five Dynasties period (907–960CE) by Jing Hao who wrote of the six keys to skill in a work entitled Records of the Methods of the Brush (Bi Fâ Ji):

First is Qi.
Second is Charm.
Third is Mind.
Fourth is View.
Fifth is Line.
Sixth is Ink.

Later in the Song Dynasty the great authority of Chinese artistic criticism, Guo Ruo Xu, elaborated on the significance and relative importance of these six keys or methods of traditional painting in his Records of the Knowledge of Painting (Tú Huà Jiàn Wén Ji):

The discussion of the six methods of painting will never change for ten thousand years. From the “bone method” 6 (gu fa) of using the brush on down, five of these methods can be learned through study. Only the charm of qi comes from innate intelligence. It is the feeling of elegance that endows painting. Since the moral character of a painter must be high, the charm of qi must be of a high level. Attaining a high level of the charm of qi, motion emerges [in the painting]. This is the so-called spirit of the spirit that enables [one] to connect with the essence.

In his Discussion of Famous Paintings from throughout the Dynasties (Li Dài Ming Huà Ji), Zhang Yan Yuan emphasized this point again and again:

The mind comes before the brush. The mind remains even after the painting is complete. This completeness is the qi of the spirit.

According to contemporary scholar Meng Gu, in his Transmission of Spirit and Understanding (Shén Yu Wu Dé Chuán Dòng), “The profound purpose in Chinese painting is tranquility. ”

The highest praise for the poetry of the ancients is “there is a painting in the poem.” The highest praise given to paintings was “there is poetry in the painting.” In spite of the difference in artistic form between poetry and painting, they both seek the same artistic conception: profound quiet; harmony with the orderly changes of nature. Thus the vivid charm of qi is the artist’s positive agreement with and embellishment of the tranquility of both society and nature. This social tranquility and society’s praise of the beauty of the tranquil found unity in painting. The living qi of the spirit resounds in profoundly quiet painting. This is the basic reason why the charm of qi occupies the position of primary importance in the theory of Chinese painting, which emphasizes the expression of subjective intentions.

Not only does the qi function to connect the mind and spirit of the artist with the painting, it weaves the painter, the painting, and the viewer into a single unified experience. In fact, it stitches all of Chinese art into an elaborate, ongoing tapestry of continual creation, cultivation, and refinement of aesthetic imagination and imagery.


Traditional Chinese arts are so tightly woven together as to be inseparable. Indeed, many of the great poets of ancient China were also painters. Virtually all painters and poets were accomplished calligraphers. In his discussion of the artistic life of his country and his people, Lin Yu Tang explained:

The position of Chinese calligraphy in the history of the world’s art is thus truly unique. Owing to the use in writing of the brush, which is more subtle and more responsive than the pen, calligraphy has been elevated to the true level of an art on a par with Chinese painting. The Chinese are fully aware of this when they regard painting and calligraphy as sister arts, shu-huà, “calligraphy and painting,” forming almost an individual concept and always being mentioned in the same breath.

He proceeds with a precise and vivid description of the relationship between these “sister arts” and the fundamental importance of the art of writing in Chinese painting:

It seems to me that calligraphy, as representing the purest principles of rhythm and composition, stands in relation to painting as pure mathematics stands in relation to engineering or astronomy. In appreciating Chinese calligraphy, the meaning is entirely forgotten, and the lines and forms are appreciated in and from themselves. In this cultivation and appreciation of the pure witchery of line and beauty in composition, therefore, the Chinese have an absolute freedom and entire devotion to pure form as such, as apart form content. A painting has to convey an object, but a well-written character conveys only its own beauty of line and structure.

Owing to the inseparability of calligraphy and painting, it is only natural to find an equally intimate relationship between painting and poetry. The art of calligraphy developed naturally from the demands of the Chinese written character, and whereas calligraphy as an artistic form itself is indeed, as Lin Yu Tang observed, “pure form, apart from content,” poetry in China, as in all other languages, has always been the art of enticing the deepest meanings out of words.

These deep meanings have always been inextricably bound with the philosophical ideals of the beauty and harmony of the natural world, that is, with the constant transformations of qi. The nature of “the Chinese written character as a medium for poetry” was brilliantly illuminated at the beginning of the 20th century by Ernest Fenollosa in an essay by that name. In it, Fenollosa remarks:

Chinese notation is something much more than arbitrary symbols. It is based upon a vivid shorthand picture of the operations of nature…

These embody true poetry as far as they go. Such actions are seen, but Chinese would be a poor language, and Chinese poetry but a narrow art, could they not go on to represent what is also unseen.

The best poetry deals not only with natural images but with lofty thoughts, spiritual suggestions and obscure relations. The greater part of natural truth is hidden in processes too minute for vision and in harmonies too large, in vibrations, cohesions and in affinities. The Chinese compass these also, and with great power and beauty.

You will ask, how could the Chinese have built up a great intellectual fabric from mere picture writing? To the ordinary Western mind, which believes that thought is concerned with logical categories and which rather condemns the faculty of direct imagination, this feat seems quite impossible. Yet the Chinese language with its peculiar materials has
passed over from the seen to the unseen by exactly the same process which all ancient races employed. This process is metaphor, the use of material images to suggest immaterial relations.

In this Chinese shows its advantage. Its etymology is constantly visible. It retains the creative impulse and process, visible and at work. After thousands of years the lines of metaphoric advance are still shown, and in many cases actually retained in the meaning. Thus a word, instead of growing gradually poorer and poorer as with us, becomes richer and still richer from age to age, almost consciously luminous. Its uses in national philosophy and history, in biography and in poetry, throw about it a nimbus of meanings. These center about the graphic symbol. The memory can hold them and use them. The very soil of Chinese life seems entangled in the roots of its speech. The manifold illustrations which crowd its annals of personal experience, the lines of tendency which converge upon a tragic climax, moral character as the very core of the principle — all these are flashed at once on the mind as reinforcing values with accumulations of meaning which a phonetic language can hardly hope to attain. Their ideographs are like blood-stained battle-flags to an old campaigner.

With us, the poet is the only one for whom the accumulated treasures of the race-words are real and active. Poetic language is always vibrant with fold on fold of overtones and with natural affinities, but in Chinese the visibility of the metaphor tends to raise this quality to its most intense power.

What we have seen then is an organic interconnectivity throughout the entire field of view encompassed by all forms of art throughout Chinese history. Clearly and vividly, the concept of qi provides the woof that binds this whole field together. What, then, is the position that qi holds in the relationship between the artist, the work of art, and those who view, hear, or otherwise receive it? What do we need to know about the role of qi in art to correctly perceive, understand, and appreciate what traditional Chinese artists do and make in their art? Indeed, of what importance and benefit is an understanding of qi in the appreciation of works of art?

To find answers to such questions we looked into sources that span more than 2000 years of literary and artistic criticism in China. In the Three Kingdoms period (220–265 CE), Prince Cao Pei of the Kingdom of Wei pointed clearly to the role of qi in the literary arts.

The principle of literature is qi. … It lays emphasis on the influence of the character of the writer’s self in determining the style of the literary work. It reveals itself in the level of the writer’s grasp of nature. It is the basic instinct of life itself.

That qi serves as the motive force of painting is illustrated in the following story about the legendary “Saint of Painting,” Wu Dao Zi, in the Records of Famous Painting From Tang Dynasty (Táng Dài Ming Huà Ji):

Wielding the paintbrush, he has the momentum of a whirlwind. Once General Pei Min gave gold and silk to Wu Dao Zi and asked him to paint a picture for him. He did not accept the general’s gift. But he asked Pei Min to perform his sword form for him, so he might observe the qi of the general’s strength to help him wield his paintbrush. After
the performance of the sword, Wu Dao Zi took up the brush with force and vitality and completed the requested painting in a flash, as if an unseen spirit helped him from within.

The General’s riches could not commission a painting, but his qi literally impelled it through his sword, into the artist’s mind, and out of the artist’s brush. It is hard to conceive of a more intimate relationship between artist and audience. Thus we see that as in philosophy and medicine, qi is everywhere in Chinese art. In the Liang period of the Southern Dynasty (502–557 CE), Zhong Rong wrote in his Preface to Classes of Poetry (Shi Pin Xu):

Qi changes nature. The changes of nature touch people. Thus qi arouses feelings and emotions. It manifests in dancing and recitation [of songs and poems].

As long ago as the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE), the importance of qi in the arts was recognized and memorialized. In the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chun Qiu) it is recorded, “The will is fulfilled by qi. The choice of words is decided by the will.”

Two thousand years later, Dong Fang Su, a writer in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911 CE), testified to the continuing survival of qi as the basis of artistic judgments:

In observing humans as well as all forms of animal and plant life, it can be seen that these all exist because of the arousal of qi. Once the qi is gone, only the unbearable stench of rottenness remains. One cannot tolerate being close to it. It is the same with poetry and literature.

Another Qing writer, Shen Zhong Qian, made the point even more directly:

All things are created through the receipt of the qi of heaven and earth. Thus each has its own spirit. Any attempt to draw a thing with brush and ink ought not only follow its shape but its spirit.

In experiencing works of traditional Chinese art, we can not overlook the comprehensive importance of qi. Not only does the presence of qi in the art-work itself allow the viewer or reader to connect intimately with it, it can serve a curative function as well. This point is illustrated in a story from the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), told by Mei Cheng of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE–25 CE) in a work entitled The Seven Issues (Qi Fa). The story goes:

There was a young man, Prince Chu. He had been sick for a long time. His health was exhausted, for he had to remain in bed constantly. The illness had invaded so deeply that even herbal medicine and acupuncture could not help. One night however, Prince Chu received a guest from the state of Wu who told him stories of nature. He recounted these
stories vividly, especially the ones about the hunt and about watching the waves at the oceanside. Suddenly, listening to his guest, Prince Chu felt the yáng qi become aroused. First it manifested between his eyebrows. At last it found its way continuously upward and outward until it filled up the entire house! As the night wore on, the guest from Wu
continued his wonderful descriptions of the world in words, the mysteries and marvels, until his listener sat up in his bed. Without Prince Chu noticing it, his illness had disappeared.

Today the practice of healing arts is growing in popularity. By “healing arts” here we do not mean only the art of medicine.. There is a growing movement in the mutual world of art and qi gong that utilizes the presence of qi in all manner of artistic expression to heal patients suffering from a wide variety of diseases. Thus there are artist-healers who express their healing qi through their songs; others endow their paintings with their healing qi and hang them on the walls of their “patients’” rooms. There is growing recognition in the medical community that a patient’s capacity to express his or her internal or mental imagery can exert a strong influence in that individual’s healing process. To those steeped in the traditions of qi and the traditional arts of China, such phenomena are easily understood as manifestations of the mysterious and wonderful power of qi.

In the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, the Emperor’s physician, Qi Bo, points out that the shaman or wu treat their patients through “mobilizing the jing (essence)and transforming it into qi.” In such curious manifestations and phenomena the embracive characteristic of qi expresses itself unmistakably as the great connective force of nature, the force that unifies all humankind, all the arts, all of creation..

1 Meng Gu, Transmission of Spirit and Understanding, Beijing: International Cultural Publishing Co.,1989,p.76.

2 Ibid.

3 Quoted from The Journal of Eastern Qi Gong, Vol X, No. X.

4 From Li Qing, The Point of View of Man in Chinese Culture, Xue Lin Publishing House, Shanghai, 1996.

5 The phrase “bones of qi” is a literal translation of the Chinese expression gu qi. This is an idiomatic, technical term in the nomenclature of traditional Chinese fine arts. It has several meanings that derive from the figurative juxtaposition of these two words. One common meaning of this phrase is “spirit.” In painting, however, it refers to the formal aspect of a composition, i.e., to the spirit that holds a composition together, in place.

6 The “bone method” (gu fâ) is an aspect of how to use the brush to construct the composition of a painting.

“Qi in the Arts of China” is a slightly abridged version of a chapter from A Brief History of Qi (Paradigm Publications, 2001), by Zhang Yu Huan and Ken Rose, reprinted by kind permission. The authors, a Chengdu-born herbalist and her traditional Chinese medical doctor husband, also researched and wrote Who Can Ride the Dragon (reviewed in KJ 43).

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