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Taoist Philosophy

Taoism and Chi

The concept of chi is of fundamental importance to Taoist practice. According to Taoist philosophy, chi is found throughout the cosmos, and it is the animating force and sustaining principle behind all living things.

Sometime around 500 a.d., a portrait painter named Hsieh Ho wrote a treatise describing the six essential points of a fine painting. His work is a cornerstone in the art of Chinese brush painting. The six ideas can be summarized in the following way:


The movement of the Chi produces the movement of life.

The brush brings structure into being.

Study an object before drawing its form.

Study its inner qualities before applying color.

Assign the elements of painting to their most suitable places.

When practicing and copying the work of a past master,

be certain to transmit

the inner qualities as

well as the outer form.

In these few lines, we see several ideas: the concept of chi, the ability to observe inner essence, the idea of perfect balance, the idea of the essence of an object, and the notion of observing before acting -- all very prominent in Taoist philosophy.

Firstly, there is the underlying theme of meaning as it is expressed in the essence of a work. A Taoist painter, like other types of Taoist artists, must learn to see the inner nature of the subject. A Taoist martial artist does exactly the same thing with the opponent. Accomplishing this requires an understanding of chi, a special force existing in all things.

Secondly, Hsieh Ho associates the idea of chi, meaning vital force or breath of life, with a worthy painting. A work with chi is "living" in the sense that this primal vitality can actually be seen in the work.

The idea of chi is relied on extensively in all Taoist arts, and it assumes particular importance in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine and in the martial arts.

Cultivating the Chi

While Taoists are not always able to describe the Tao, they did, and still do, have very specific sets of instructions as to how it might be attained. "Cultivating the chi" is one of those practices.

The phrase refers to the practice of strengthening our personal life force. Once it is developed, it then can be applied to any task at hand, such as a brush stroke, a healing touch, or a forceful blow.

Regardless of the application, chi exercises are well known in all disciplines with Taoist and Buddhist origins. True to the tradition, chi exercises do not have an intellectual character, but instead focus on a special type of physical discipline that sometimes involves meditation and mental imagery.

Here Taoism leaves the domain of philosophy and enters the realm of mysticism, because to the untrained person, chi is an invisible and intangible force. Without special training, it cannot in any way be detected. Still, the idea of chi lies close to the heart of Taoist studies.

While we cannot with any great success capture the essence of Tao in a systematic, intellectual manner, we can describe our particular relationship with the Tao. As we have seen, certain forms of communication, particularly speechless forms like brush painting and tai chi chuan, but also literary works such as poetry and parable, are more eloquent than others.

Mastery of Tao is elusive and the secrets of many Taoist disciplines are closely guarded, as shown on the next page.

To learn more about Taoism and tai chi, see: