Martial Arts and Magic, Part 4: Qigong and Inner Power
I’m going to start Part 4 here by saying that I hate magic systems that involve concepts like “magical energy,” “inner power”, or “focus.” Unfortunately for curmudgeonly, unpleasable fantasy writers like me, real-life martial arts are all about that shit—in fact, qi (also known as chi and ki) is almost inseparable from Chinese (and some Japanese) martial arts, especially soft and internal styles. But before I get into that, let me lay out why I hate these concepts in fiction.
First, stories that rely on a mage using a limited pool of magical “energy” always pull out the same trick: “Oh no, I’m out of magic! I’ve used up all my body’s reserves, and now I’m useless!” I appreciate the attempt at limiting a mage’s power and trying to create tension by making every spell count, but it ends up feeling like magic points in a video game. Reducing magic to a discrete, measurable energy gives it a very tool-like role, which usually sucks the wonder out of it and makes a mage into something like an Energizer battery.
Meanwhile, the vague concept of “inner power” usually ends up doing the opposite: mage characters that draw on a nebulous well of inner magical strength always seem to have just enough energy to wipe out whatever obstacle is in their way, or (conversely), never enough to keep up with whatever threat they’re currently facing…until the plot needs them to. Because there’s usually no concrete limits given to “inner power,” the author has a blank check to create or dissolve tension whenever it’s convenient for them by cranking or lowering a character’s power.
Lastly, “focus” magic, where a mage has to focus on performing a specific spell by visualizing the effect, is usually the default magic system an author uses when they can’t come up with anything better. It’s the all-purpose duct tape for hacks and novice writers who just want to make magic happen. What’s obnoxious is that the confusing, chaotic din of images and thoughts that pass through one person’s head in a stressful moment is almost impossible to translate into writing, so it inevitably ends up looking like this:
Namira closed her eyes and focused on creating the fireball. A thousand thoughts swarmed through her head, but she calmed them one by one, until the sensation of heat and light was all that was left. Slowly, she felt her palm grow warmer, until an orb of fire was floating around her fingertips.
Watching someone going into meditation before casting every spell is cumbersome to write and boring to read, so the author usually skips it, until characters are effortlessly casting spells just by thinking about them.
There are always exceptions, but all in all, magic systems that rely on inner magical power in one form or another usually perform the same basic function as caulking or Styrofoam peanuts: fill in the gaps in a quick, functional way and don’t draw too much attention. And that’s fucking lame.
Here’s the thing, though: qigong is based around all three of the concepts I just described, but it does them better. It turns out that qi and its associated practice, qigong, is actually a really great source of inspiration for movement-based magic, because it’s essentially a magic system that focuses on the body. I’ve already written a piece about how qi is more myth than fact, so let’s go ahead and treat it like its own magic system.
THE POWER OF BREATH
It all starts with breathing.
When I was a novice student learning the basics of wing chun at City Wing Tsun in New York, it was a pretty safe bet you’d hear the instructors say “relax” and “breathe” about six or seven times a class. This is because when people are preparing to strike or move, they usually get tense and hold their breath, like they’re hunkering down. You don’t even realize you’re doing it until you feel an instructor’s hand on your back.
Practically speaking, controlling your breath allows you to perform better when you’re exerting yourself—you never want to be panting and out of breath when you’re in the middle of doing something strenuous (like a street fight). Martial artists have all kinds of techniques for breathing, and most of them are actually pretty helpful, like reverse abdominal breathing and attention breathing. Since the body is at the center of all movement, thinking about your breathing and using it correctly can help you push it to its limits—just ask runners, or anyone who does a lot of exercise.
Apart from keeping your body working at peak efficiency, there’s another benefit to learning to control your breath: when you focus on your breathing, you shift your mindset and become more aware of your body as a whole. For this reason, breathing is one of the keys to meditation and a major part of Shaolin monk training.
For Shaolin monks, being able to control their breathing is the key to their crazier techniques, like throwing a needle through a pane of glass or surviving a spear to the gut. But it also teaches them to master every part of their bodies, from their feet to their necks. In a fantasy setting, a mage who uses movement as the basis for their magic might be able to imagine their body in greater detail, allowing them to visualize their muscles as roads for magic, or their blood vessels breaking under a blow as tiny dams bursting beneath their skin. The body itself can become a magical landscape for the author (and characters) to explore.
THE POWER OF QI
Magically speaking, breathing is the heart of qigong, the practice of harnessing qi: inhaling brings ki into the body, and exhaling expels it. According to Aaron Hoopes:
“Practitioners of martial arts, especially karate, need to absorb and process the Ki that they are breathing in order to generate the power and force for the techniques they practice. They also need to be able to retain the Ki within the body until the moment it’s needed…”
Some karate practitioners claim that it’s the power of qi, including the kiai (the famous shout you see in kung-fu movies), that allows them to break bricks with their bare hands.
There are a number of different schools focused on cultivating one’s qi, but one example of the process is the following, abridged from the complete procedure used by Flowing Zen:
- Enter a meditative state through relaxation and breathing to prime the body’s qi reserves
- Cause the qi to begin flowing by performing a few basic, symbolic movements, such as Lifting the Sky
- Align the qi by performing a series of symbolic movements in sequence, such as the 18 Luohan Hands of Arhat Fist
- Purify your qi by performing a series of movements called the Five Animals Play
- Direct the qi by using basic movements, such as Pushing Mountains
- Transform the qi by performing meditative actions
This curriculum actually provides a great basis for a movement-based magic system because the way you get better at cultivating and using your inner power is by practicing discrete, symbolic movements, rather than just meditating or learning spells from a book.
What makes qigong especially interesting is that even though the body serves as the practitioner’s reserve of energy, the energy actually comes from outside of the user, from the universe. This means that the user is sort of like a jug that you dip into the ocean—it can hold the energy and collect more of it, but the power doesn’t come from the jug itself. This means that the user has potentially unlimited power—the only limit is their ability to collect, focus, and channel it.
QIGONG VS. “MAGICAL ENERGY,” “INNER POWER,” AND “FOCUS” MAGIC
With all this in mind, let’s recap the advantages of qigong over the more generic magic systems I mentioned at the beginning of this article:
- Unlike systems that rely on “magical energy,” the mage’s reserve of magic can be reduced, but not totally depleted
In theory, you’ll never run out of magic as long as you can breathe, though you may expend all the qi you have stored inside of you for stronger spells. The rhythm of expelling, storing, and acquiring qi through breathing is a nice dimension, and one that keeps magic from functioning like D&D spells, where a character has a hard stop on the amount of magic they can perform in a given period.
Though you can still run into the issue of quantifying magic energy when you design your own system, the fact that all power has to be mitigated through the body (brought in through the lungs, stored in the abdomen, purified by the alignment of the body, and focused through a part of the body) means that the execution of the spell is just as important as storing up the energy to cast it. Being able to quantify magical power (at least generally) also helps deal with the problem of “inner power” magic systems.
- Unlike “inner power” magic systems, the mage’s power doesn’t originate from inside of themselves
Because practitioners of qigong have to take specific actions to draw energy into themselves, magic systems based on it have to show mages taking the time to breathe and focus, rather than just assuring the reader that there’s some black box magic generator in the mages’ gut (the way some ‘inner power’ magic systems do). Quantifying a mage’s power in this way keeps the author honest—unless we see the mage taking the time to store up energy and practicing the movements to master it, the author can’t plausibly say “All right, the character has enough power to overcome this obstacle now that I’ve decided they do.”
- Unlike most “focus” magic, qigong provides a vocabulary for focusing power that’s interesting
Like Prana yoga and Buddhist meditation, qigong turns the act of breathing and thinking into an inner exploration of the body, which becomes similar to the landscape of a familiar country. The flow of magical power through the body can be compared to water through canyons, or light refracted in different lenses, while performing kata or sequences of movements like the 18 Luohan Hands become living re-enactments of the patterns in nature, symbol, and the universe. Instead of basing magic on just visualizing the desired effect, focusing can end up becoming more like a series of vivid, interesting visions that dramatize what’s going on in the scene.
Could lazy fantasy writers still make bad magic systems based on the ideas in qigong? Of course they could. But hopefully reading all this gives you writers and worldbuilders out there something to think about when you’re building your own magic systems. The next part in the series is going to be on footwork, so stay tuned.