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. ”