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linguistics/philosophy

The Etymology of 气 “qì”

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In JeeLoo Liu’s (2006) book titled An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy, from Ancient Philosophy to Chinese Buddhism, we came upon the following passage:

Another important notion in Chinese cosmology is that of qi, in relation to which Dao should also be understood, since Dao is often seen as the rhythm or pattern of the movement of qi. There is no adequate English translation for qi, although it has been rendered variously as “energy”, “vital energy”, “pure energy”, “force”, “material force”, “spirit”, “vapor”, “air”, etc. Many commentators have pointed out the etymological root of the word “qi“. Originally, it referred to the steam or vapor coming from boiling rice (the Chinese character for qi contains the character for rice as a component). It came to represent the nourishing vapor or the moistening mist, both of which encompass the atmosphere, furnishing the bodies of all creatures and becoming the source of life. (p6)

At first sight, the etymological theory that Liu gave here is a little funny, and kind of naive too. Then I read some review on line that pointed out the same problem. The reviewer made two points: (1) the original form of the character does not have the rice component; (2) rice cultivation was not common in ancient China.

Indeed, this reviewer’s remark seems to make more sense. But we need more concrete evidence to favor either theory. So let’s examine the origin of the character first to see whether the original form has the rice component or not.