Worlds Within Worlds – Part Five: Qi and Fantasy
Most people associate magic with strange symbols, chanting, and waving a wand around. Dusty books are usually in the picture, along with ritual circles or sacrifices. The mages themselves are usually old men with grey beards—frail but knowledgeable. I’ve already written about them.
Compare that kind of magic and mage to qigong and (arguably) its most famous practitioners, the Shaolin monks: Instead of being dead weight, the body is the source and medium for the magical power, called qi (or ch’i). Instead of dusty books, practitioners learn to cultivate their power from the movements of their teachers, and instead of challenging other mages with enchantments or magical boasting contests, martial arts practitioners who use qigong fight opponents in hand-to-hand combat.
As a student of kung fu, this could be a controversial column. The founder of my martial arts school, Alex Richter, has made it clear in his book The Little Idea that the history of kung fu is full of myths and fabrications, and has expressed skepticism toward the real-life supernatural benefits of qigong. I have the same skepticism.
Whether or not qi is a real phenomenon, I think it’s helpful for fantasy writers and readers to know a bit more about esoteric systems from around the world, because the world is a big place. If fantasy begins and ends with medieval Europe, we’re missing out on a lot of wonderful and strange things, both in terms of worldbuilding and reading material.
So let’s get started.
Daoism and Qigong
Qigong has been adapted by several different traditions, but its earliest roots lie with Daoism. Similar to alchemy, Daoism seems to have an obsession with living forever: one of the earliest texts dealing with qigong, the Huangdi Neijing (or Nei Ching) seems preoccupied with how people of the past (the “true” people) were able to live extraordinarily long lives. But like alchemy, there’s a focus on perfecting oneself, both physically and in terms of conduct. Perfection, longevity, and the body are strongly linked in Daoism, and qigong reflects that.
According to The Laboratory for Mind-Body Signaling and Energy Research (of UC Irvine):
Qi, the Chinese character for air, is a Chinese/Oriental term for an abstract form of energy that is considered vital to the mind and the body. Proper flow of internal Qi is deemed to be necessary for good health, while blockage of it is associated with disease and dysfunction … Qigong refers to the training that leads to development and control of Qi and its direction to different parts of the body.
Qi is imagined as flowing along certain paths in the body, called meridians. Qi techniques are usually divided into internal and external forms, with ‘external’ referring to uses where qi is projected out from the body, usually into an opponent (at least in kung fu).
The source of qi within the body is called dan tien, and is located in the lower abdomen. Through breathing and movements, a person can control their qi and focus it in certain parts of the body, like the hands or feet.
Qigong and Martial Arts
Qi is woven into many kung fu schools, explicitly or not. It’s often expressed through breathing techniques, whether it’s karate’s kiai or wing chun’s chi kung. On a practical level, breathing can mean the difference between being tense and rigid or relaxed and flexible, but some martial arts schools claim their breathing techniques are also meant to cultivate and harness qi in order to give their students a supernatural advantage. One of these advantages is supposedly dim mak.
According to some practitioners, striking your opponent in certain locations on the body (which align with key points along the body’s qi meridians) can cause pain, paralysis, unconsciousness, or even death. This goes back to the Daoist idea that the flow of qi determines the health of the body (an idea that also informs acupuncture).
In his article in Black Belt Magazine, William Cheung explains how the principles of Daoism are related to the famous taijitu symbol (the yin and yang) and the five Chinese elements (earth, water, wood, metal, and fire), which are in turn connected to various internal organs, as well as the seasons. Cheung goes on to explain how one can use these principles to execute the “death touch,” which has the power to kill an opponent purely through the principles of qigong.
Some of the most famous practitioners of martial arts-related qigong are the Shaolin monks. According to legend, the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, came to the Shaolin monastery in China and created the monks’ unique form of martial arts by adapting the Five Animals Play (or Five Animals Frolic), a form of qigong that imitates the movements of five long-lived animals (the bear, ape, crane, deer, and tiger). By imitating their stances and movements, it was believed that one could understand the secret of their longevity.
The concepts of qigong are central to some of the more extreme practices of the Shaolin monks, including their ability to break bricks with their hands, press bamboo spear tips to their throats without being impaled, and throw needles through panes of glass. Tongzigong, also supposedly created by Bodhidharma, is another specific qigong practice that is essential to the Shaolin training regimen. Its focus is on incredible flexibility and elasticity in the joints, and serves as the centerpiece of many of the famous traveling demonstrations made by the monks.
Qigong and Chinese kung fu have become so closely linked that martial arts practitioners are sometimes portrayed as being able to fly, jump buildings, or move supernaturally fast (not to mention kill people with a touch). The wuxia genre, epitomized in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is the best example of this.
Qigong in Fantasy
If you thought stories of chivalrous knights-errant were limited to King Arthur, you thought wrong. According to Heroic Cinema, wuxia can be described as a Chinese form of sword and sorcery, but based around a protagonist who meets the definition of a xia:
The most frequently used definitions for xia, are knight and knight-errant. Like the knight, skill in combat was the stock and trade of xia … In addition, unlike the European knight who was exclusively a member of the aristocracy, xia could come from both humble or aristocratic backgrounds. The xia were often wanderers seeking adventure, but greed and self-interest was not always their motivation … what set xia apart from other men with fighting skills had to do with their ideology and code of conduct.
Another key element of the wuxia genre is the use of qigong to pull off supernatural feats, including flight and levitation. In fact, the Hong Kong kung fu films of the 1960s and 1970s were partially a reaction to the more fantastical elements of wuxia. These films took a new angle on Chinese martial arts: epic sword duels and mythical settings were traded for street fights and urban environments where crime and injustice was much more modern and mundane. Legends, mysticism, and secret techniques, however, stuck around.
It was the Hong Kong take on kung fu adventures that undoubtedly influenced Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir’s The Destroyer series, which follows Remo Williams and his master-teacher Chiun, who teaches Williams sinaju, a fictional martial art that gives the user superhuman abilities. The adventures of Remo Williams inspired D&D contributor Brian Blume to include the Monk as one of the core classes of the game, introducing many Western fantasy fans to the idea of qi as a new kind of fantasy magic system.
The fantasy martial artist typified by the D&D Monk has had a rough time finding its way into mainstream fantasy, even when it comes to the game it was created for. I think this is partly because its magical elements are at such odds with more familiar types of magic (like the wands and ritual circles mentioned at the start of the article), and partly because its unification of martial arts and magic is so distinctive.
Qigong has a lot of similarities to magic systems in fantasy literature that rely on “focusing one’s inner power,” but the concepts and traditions behind it are much richer and more complex. Like kung fu, there are layers and layers of things to learn about it. It goes to show that you can’t just take an entire esoteric system, with its own view of the body and the universe, and graft it onto another one.