Circulating the Vital Breath: The Xíng Qì Jade Inscription


The Xíng Qì, or Circulating Qì, is a succint treatise of cultivating the Vital Breath, or Qì. Engraved on a dodecagonal block of jade in what appears to be Seal Script, the inscription dates to a conjectural 400 BC, before the establishment of Daoism as an institutionalized corpus of political and personal influence.

行氣 Circulating the Vital Breath,
深則蓄 (breathing) deeply fosters its accumulation,
蓄則伸 once accumulated it expands,
伸則下 upon expanding it reaches below,
下則定 (being) below it becomes concentrated,
定則固 concentrated it becomes steadfast,
固則萌 steadfast it germinates and sprouts,
萌則長 sprouting it grows,
長則退 once grown it then returns,
退則天 returning it becomes heavenly.

天几舂在上 the liminal heavens are ascended above,
地几舂在下 the liminality of earth is located below.
順則生 compliance with this begets life,*
逆則死 Opposition with this begets death.

*Compliance begetting life implies a knowledge of and adherence to the architectural scaffolding that creates the conditions of life itself, which includes:

1) An orientation to and alignment with a three-tiered cosmology: 人 Rén, humanity, is situated between the celestial and telluric realms, 天 Tiān and 地 Dì.

2) That 陽 Yáng, which is heavenly, descends to meet 陰Yīn, which is earthly (“heaven bestows the image, Earth completes the form”), and

3) That Yīn and Yáng are commanded to one another, and that their coupling produces a pressurized system through which 氣 Qì, or Vital Breath, emerges.

This cosmogony is later narrated numerically by the 道德經 Daòdé Jīng, “One (Daò) begets two (Yīn/Yáng), two begets three (Qì), and three begets the 10,000 things, the material world). Qì, then, is the dynamic expression of heaven (Yáng) and earth (Yīn) merging with one another in the realm of humanity, and respiration is the microcosmic reminder that the macrocosm is breathing through us… In remaining steadfast to the root of Qì via circulating the breath the neophyte strengthens the alignment of the body and clarity of Spirit (神明 Shén Míng). This is the art of nourishing life, 養生 Yáng Shēng. This is the essence of Chinese medicine.

Disease and death, as eluded to in the final stanza, is simply the deviation from the harmony of Yīn and Yáng and the overwhelm of 整齊 Zheng qi (upright or ordered Qi) by 邪氣 Xié QÌ (off-kilter or chaotic Qì).


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