The Taoist concept of chi is a special substance with certain properties. As it has traditionally been understood in Taoism, it refers to a vital force, the animating force behind life itself, and has always been associated with both breath and air.
A more contemporary view sees chi as a substance much like light, with properties of both matter and energy. Some, such as chi kung masters, claim to be able to project chi from their bodies into others and to be able to see it.
In fact, the chi may be the healing substance responsible for the phenomenon known as the "laying on of hands." This is a healing tradition known in the West in which one or more people will place their hands on someone who is not well. Sometimes these people recover completely for reasons unknown to modern medicine.
Understanding the Taoist concept of chi requires us to recognize the extent of its influence both inside our bodies and in the world around us. The concept of chi, then, can be discussed in terms of how it appears in the universe and what it does.
In Taoism, both chi and Tao in their original forms are invisible and beyond the realm of normal human senses. Nevertheless, chi is found at the root of all movement, all change, and all things whether or not they are living.
The myth of Pan Ku shows how the One, in the form of an egg, gave birth to the two -- the forces of yin and yang -- and how Pan Ku was the third of the forces created.
Lao Tsu, in Verse 42 of the Tao Te Ching, tells us that the Tao was responsible not only for these initial three creations, but also for everything created subsequently:
Tao produced the One.
The One produced the two.
The two produced the three.
And the three produced the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry the yin and embrace the yang, and through the blending of the material force (ch'i) they achieve harmony.
The verse tells us that the permutations of the yin and the yang and their interactions with the material force known as the chi produced the rest of creation, known figuratively in Chinese myth, folklore, and philosophy as the ten thousand things.
The chi referred to in this verse is found throughout the universe, on the most remote stars, in the tiniest speck of dust, and on the deepest ocean floors, in fact, in each of the ten thousand things.
When this chi is identified in material bodies, it is given distinct names. In the human body alone, Chinese traditional physicians and chi kung practitioners have identified many forms of it, including prenatal chi, primary chi, pectoral chi, nutritional chi, and defensive chi.
In nature, too, there are terms for different types of chi. These help us to distinguish among its many forms. But ultimately, all derive from their common source, known as universal chi.
In this sense, then, chi, a material force, acts as the agent of Tao, an immaterial force. We know that Tao was formless because in Verse 25 Lao Tsu, the acknowledged authority in these matters, tells us:
There was something undifferentiated and yet complete,
Which existed before heaven and earth.
Soundless and formless, it depends on nothing and does not change.
It operates everywhere and is free from danger.
It may be considered the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name; I call it Tao.
Learn about the four types of personal chi that exist in the human body on the next page.