Dec 15, 2014 0
The Circulation of Qi – in Media and Culture
Written for the 1st UK-China Media and Cultural Studies
Association Conference, Cardiff University,
6th February 2015
I am not an authority on either UK or Chinese media or cultural studies. However, I do have an interest in aspects of both; particularly in their relations and in the circulation of things between, amongst and beyond them. My main interest in this respect, however, is less in media and more in the mediation and mediatization of aspects of culture and discourse. So it is with one aspect of this that I will engage here today, at the first meeting of this UK-China Media and Cultural Studies Association.
I want to take an example that we might tend to think is about as far away from the media and from mediatization as one could possibly get: namely, qi. Qi is, of course, famously, the life-force or energy that is integral to Taoist and other aspects of Chinese cosmology and mysticism. It is cultivated, circulated and directed in certain practices of traditional Chinese martial arts and traditional Chinese medicine. Indeed, it is often regarded as the very essence of life. Practitioners of taiji, qigong, nei-gong, and so on, cultivate qi within the body through meditative breathing practices, that are inward looking and entirely embodied. Qi cultivation involves the interlinked training of mind and body.
Needless to say, such extremely intimate, embodied internality would seem to be very, very far away from the concerns of most, if not all media studies, and from a great deal of cultural studies too. But this apparent distance is precisely why I have chosen it as an object of consideration in this context. This is because I specifically want to draw attention to the ways that such a sacrosanct quasi-religious mystical and embodied notion – one that arguably goes to the heart of so many discourses of ‘Chineseness’ – is circulated not just in the bodies of adept practitioners of internal alchemy and martial arts, but also – indeed perhaps primarily – in a range of media discourses. This is why my title involves a play on the familiar martial art and qigong expression ‘the circulation of qi’. Here we are concerned with the circulation of qi in media and cultural discourses.
Qi is circulated in the body via meridians. Qi circulates around the globe not only via embodied transmissions, from teacher to student, but also via mediatized myths. Indeed, mediatized myths circulate far further afield than actual living practitioners. Ideas about qi circulate far and wide, East and West, carried by all means of transmitter – from travellers’ tales to translations and publications, as well as in film, television programmes, comic books and computer games. As well as travelling far and wide, the mythology of Chinese qi-magic has an apparently long history. As Gary Krug observes:
The origins of these Western associations of magic with ‘the Orient’ are ancient and obscure. No doubt the mythical construction of the ‘mysterious East’ was fostered considerably through the translations of esoteric texts of Tibetan Buddhism and other sources in the 19th century. The history of the Western mapping of the world vacillates between the doubtful search for Prester John’s Kingdom and the macabre certainty of finding beasts, cannibals, and other horrors.