Look, I get it. I know that you’re attached, and you don’t want to let it go.
I was the same way. But you know what? I stopped.
And it’s time for you to stop too.
It’s time to stop spelling it chi kung. Or chi gong. Or chi gung. Or even the semi-correct qi gong.
In the 21st century, there is only one way to spell qigong correctly, and I just used it in this sentence.
I’ll even give you 9 good reasons why you should stop.
But before we get started, you need to understand the difference between transliteration and translation.
Bear with me because this is important.
The Chinese word that we’re talking about in this article is as follows:
Yes, that’s a word. And yes, it’s one word, not two.
In the Chinese language, there is no alphabet. Those things you see up there — those are called logograms.
A logogram is a written character that represents a word or phrase.
Remember the Egyptian hieroglyphs that you learned as a child? Those are logograms too.
Chinese words contain one or more logograms. In this case, the word contains 2.
Translating the Chinese logograms 氣 功 is easy. The first one means “vital-energy”, and the second one means “cultivation”. When we combine them, we’ve got a word that translates to “the art of cultivating vital energy.”
But we’re still missing something, and it’s important.
What we’re missing is a transliteration of those Chinese characters.
To help you understand the importance of transliteration, imagine that the title of this blog post read as follows:
9 Reasons You Should Stop Spelling 氣功 Wrong
Would that make any sense? Would you even know what the article was about?
Of course not, and that’s why we need a transliteration. Otherwise we can’t make sense of the Chinese words.
That’s what this post is about — the transliteration of 氣功. In other words, we’re talking about how the hell we should spell the word 氣功 in our alphabet.
Here are 9 reasons why you should stop using all spellings other than qigong.
1. Qigong is the Official Spelling
The official, modern transliteration of 氣功 is qigong. Case closed. (Source)
No really! That’s the official transliteration for over 1 billion people. And not just any people — but Chinese people!
Why do a billion Chinese people — most of whom don’t even speak or write English — even need transliteration?
Great question! I’ll answer it below in reason #4, but there are some other things you need to understand first, like…
2. Wade-Giles Sucks
In the 19th Century, Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles created a system of transliterating Chinese into our alphabet. The system, completed in 1892, is now called the Wade-Giles system.
Here’s the most important thing you need to know about Wade-Giles: It sucks.
I’m sure that Mr. Wade and Mr. Giles meant well, but what they created is a truly awful system that is unnecessarily complex, defies common sense, and barely gets the job done.
Wade-Giles is an abomination. It should be loaded on to a rocket and sent to the deepest, coldest part of space.
Here’s what Alan Watts, the famous philosopher, had to say about the Wade-Giles system:
No uninitiated English-speaking person could guess how to pronounce it, and I have even thought, in a jocularly malicious state of mind, that Professors Wade and Giles invented it so as to erect a barrier between profane and illiterate people and true scholars.
But despite all of this, Wade-Giles was the most popular transliteration system until the 1970s.
It has since been replaced (hallelujah!) by a newer and better system called Pinyin.
Pinyin is the official system that I hinted at earlier, the system that a billion Chinese people use.
But old habits die hard, and a lot of people still use the Wade-Giles system.
Hell, even I still use Wade-Giles because taijiquan is unrecognizable in the West. See! Even people who practice tai chi don’t recognize it!
But I’ll stop if you do! I promise. Anything to get rid of Wade-Giles!
3. Pinyin is the Future
The Pinyin system of transliteration was developed in the 1950s.
Today, it has overtaken the Wade-Giles system (woohoo!) and is recognized as the official method for writing Chinese logograms in our alphabet.
Did I mention that the Pinyin system is vastly superior to Wade-Giles?
A transliteration system like this needs to spell not just the characters 氣功, but thousands of other Chinese characters.
Pinyin does this in a simple and efficient way. Wade-Giles does not.
That’s why Pinyin has been adopted as the official system — because it’s better.
If you only know a few words in Chinese, then it’s hard to fully grasp why Pinyin is so much better.
Trust me when I say that there is little to no disagreement among modern scholars. This is why Pinyin is taught in virtually every university that teaches Mandarin Chinese in the U.S.
Arguments against Pinyin typically come from people who know neither Pinyin nor Wade-Giles. Usually, these are people who learned a few Wade-Giles words in the 1970s or 1980s, and are stuck in their ways.
Of course, anyone who previously published a book with chi kung or chi gong in the title will probably put up an argument as well. I empathize with their copyright headaches, but arguments like this can be ignored simply because they are biased.
4. Even the Chinese Use Pinyin
As I mentioned earlier, a billion or so Chinese people use Pinyin — and not just people who practice qigong!
We live in the computer age, and the tool of choice for inputing information into a computer is the keyboard.
There are keyboards that use Chinese characters, but as you can imagine, they are clunky.
Remember, there’s no alphabet! When I studied Mandarin Chinese, I learned to read and write about 2000 different characters.
And that’s nothing! Native speakers know about 4000 to 7000 characters, and scholars know far more.
Imagine fitting all of that on a keyboard!
That’s why modern Chinese people use Pinyin instead.
It’s ironic that Chinese people who can’t speak a word of English and don’t need transliteration are using Pinyin, but it also makes perfect sense.
To input Chinese into a computer, they simply type in the Pinyin transliteration of the word. This is easy for them because it’s a phonetic system. So they are really just sounding out the Chinese words in our alphabet.
Once they type the Pinyin word, the computer pulls up a list of possible Chinese logograms.
Then they click on character they want. Et voila!!
Of course, these people can read and write Chinese characters by hand, but this system works faster for many of them, especially on a mobile device.
You won’t see anyone in China typing in “chi kung” or “chi gong”. That’s because they all know Pinyin.
If a billion Chinese people are spelling it as qigong, then you probably should too.
5. There’s No Such Thing As a Traditional Spelling
“But chi gong is the traditional spelling!” he said.
Sadly, this statement came from a qigong instructor. (Not one of my instructors! They know better!)
It’s a ridiculous statement, and I hope you can already see why. If not, you’ll see in a moment.
Westerners have been trying to spell out confusing Chinese sounds for roughly 150 years.
I suppose you could call this a tradition, but that’s not what the instructor above meant. He meant that chi gong was a traditional CHINESE spelling.
I know what he actually meant because I asked him to clarify his original statement. He doubled down on his ignorance by insisting that the spelling chi gong was thousands of years old.
(His statement reminded me of a conversation I once had with a man who was adamant that the Bible was originally written in English.)
In other words, this qigong instructor thought that chi gong was an ancient, Chinese spelling. This is, of course, utter nonsense.
I don’t want to confuse you, but the ancient, Chinese spelling of qigong isn’t even 氣功!
That’s a relatively modern, umbrella term for a variety of ancient Chinese energy-cultivation arts. You can read more about that in my article about the 5 Categories of Qi Cultivation.
6. Google Matters
I believe that qigong is about to explode in popularity. In fact, I believe that it will eventually be bigger than yoga.
Books will be published (including mine). New blogs will pop up. Articles will appear in newspapers and magazines.
And the vast majority of them will use the spelling qigong because publishers always prefer official spellings (see #1).
When someone wants to learn more about that fascinating art that she read about in Time magazine, she’ll type the following into Google:
q – i – g – o – n – g
Right now, billions of people on planet earth have no idea what qigong is, regardless of how you spell it.
As awareness of qigong grows, people will be looking for quality information on the subject. And that usually starts with a Google search.
If you are helping to provide quality information about qigong, then please use the Pinyin spelling so that your information can be easily found.
On the other hand, if you are like the qigong instructor I mentioned above and you are spreading ignorance, then by all means continue using the spelling chi gong!
7. None of the Spellings Are Phonetic Anyway
Some people argue that the spelling “chi kung” is more phonetic.
It’s especially confusing because of that weird “q” in the word qigong.
But it’s easy to explain.
In Mandarin Chinese, which is the official dialect of China, the characters 氣 功 are pronounced as follows:
- “chee” (rhymes with “free” and sounds like the beginning of the word “cheese”)
- “gung” (rhymes with “hung”, mostly)
In this example, I chose my own spelling (i.e. “chee gung”) in order to help you understand the pronunciation.
But I made up this spelling. And I could make up more of them because we can only approximate the Chinese sounds in English. For example, the exact “gung” sound is impossible to describe.
In Mandarin Chinese, there are several “ch” sounds. We need to spell them differently, but there are only so many choices that make sense.
The “q” was chosen to represent an aspirated “ch” sound that doesn’t exist in English. The “ch” spelling is used for a different sound.
When they created Pinyin, they could have just as easily reversed the “q” and “ch” sounds. That would probably have been better for the qigong world.
But remember, they weren’t doing this to clarify things for modern qigong practitioners. Their goal was to create a system that worked for thousands and thousands of Chinese characters, and they accomplished that goal.
8. It’s Too Late for Tai Chi
It will take time for Wade-Giles to die its final death.
For example, look at the spelling of tai chi chuan. That’s a simplified version of a Wade Giles abomination: t‘ai-chi ch‘üan.
The correct, Pinyin spelling is taijiquan. But no one recognizes that. Even people who practice tai chi don’t recognize it.
The spellings tai chi chuan and tai chi have gained traction since the 1970s, and are far more searchable. In fact, the searchability of these spellings is why I reluctantly chose to start using them back in 2010.
For complex historical reasons, qigong is only now growing in popularity in the West.
Let’s not make the same mistake that we made with tai chi…I mean…er…taijiquan! Let’s spell qigong correctly!
9. A Qigong Revolution is Coming
A revolution is coming to American soon.
The revolution will change the way that humans view medicine, self-healing, and prevention.
The revolution will include the existing, cutting-edge field of Western medicine called Mind-Body Medicine. But the revolution will also incorporate ancient self-healing wisdom.
I believe that qigong will be at the vanguard of this revolution.
But there are also other aspects of ancient Chinese culture that will join this revolution.
Tai chi (um…I mean taijiquan) will definitely be part of the revolution.
And so will the Chinese art of acupuncture (spelled zhenjiu in Pinyin).
And Chinese herbal medicine (spelled zhongyao xue in Pinyin)
And Chinese massage therapy (spelled tuina in Pinyin)
And even Feng Shui, the art of creating harmonious surroundings with a good flow of energy.
There is a wealth of ancient Chinese knowledge that the Western world — and perhaps the entire planet — desperately needs.
As this knowledge comes out, we will need words.
We will need to cite and search lots of Chinese words and names, not just those for qigong and taijiquan.
Those words will be standardized using the Pinyin spelling. You can help the revolution by using the correct words now.
If you have any questions about anything that I wrote in this article, please post your comment below. I know it’s a confusing subject, but I’ll do my best to clarify things for you! Mindfully yours, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.