Qigong is a compound term in Chinese made up of two characters. The first is qi (氣), which actually means a wide range of things including breath or internal vitality. The second word, gong (功), is a type of skill or accomplishment, honed over time with effort. In modern usage it refers to an incredibly wide range of practices encompassing meditation, movement based practices, martial arts, and in some circles the acquisition for supposed miraculous practices. As we will see the term Qigong used in this context is a modern construction and to some extent an invented tradition.
Closely related to Qigong are the Nourishing Life practices (Yang Sheng 養生). The ancient Chinese chased after health and longevity with an almost religious zeal. This search was carried out by carefully regulated diets, harmonizing daily activities with the seasons, practicing breathing exercises or sexual cultivation techniques, regulating the mind and emotions, and other similar practices – all of which fall under the category of Yang Sheng. Unlike ‘Qigong’, the term ‘Yang Sheng’ has been in continuous use for several thousand years in China, and today many of the classical Nourishing Life practices have been subsumed under the broader modern heading of Qigong. Some of these include the 24 Seasonal Node Dao Yin Exercises (二十四氣坐功導引法) and the Six Sounds for Nourishing Life practice, also know as the Six Healing Sounds (六字決養生功).
Early Qigong and Nourishing Life Practices
While Qigong is a modern term in common use for less than 100 years, the practices now included under that heading are as old as Chinese civilization itself. It is possible that different dance-like movement arts used for personal cultivation had their earliest origins in very ancient shamanic practices. Pieces of Neolithic pottery dating over 7000 years of age have been discovered showing people in various Qigong-like postures. (Deadman 2014; Liu 2010) Other various references to using breathing and physical exercises for treating disease and achieving longevity are found throughout literature in early Chinese imperial times. For example, in the Daoist classic the Zhuang Zi, there is this description:
Blowing and breathing with open mouth; inhaling and exhaling the breath; expelling the old breath and taking in new; passing their time like the bear, and stretching and twisting like a bird - all this simply shows the desire for longevity. This is what the scholars who manipulate their breath, and the men who nourish the body and wish to live as long as Peng Zu are fond of.
Although this quote is presented in a pejorative manner, it demonstrates that various breathing and movement exercises were in common use in China around the time of writing.
The Nei Jing, the classic text of Chinese medicine that dates to about the beginning of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 ACE), discusses several Nourishing Life practices in detail, and word ‘Yang Sheng’ appears four times in the book. As an example, the Yi Fa Fang Yi Lun (Treatise on Different Therapies Suitable to the Different Directions, Su Wen Chapter 12) describes various therapeutic treatments for the different regions of China. This chapter says that Dao Yin and massage techniques are suitable for people living in the central region of China. Dao Yin (literally ‘Guiding and Pulling’ 導引) is a term that describes what might be described as simple yoga movements that treat or prevent disease; today Dao Yin is considered a subset of Qigong.
Between 1972 and 1974 archeologists at the Ma Wang Dui tomb site in modern Hunan Province discovered a series of untouched manuscripts dating back to the early years of the Han Dynasty. This was an extremely important discovery for Chinese medicine and Nourishing Life history. The Nei Jing was most likely compiled in a similar time period, however the Nei Jing we have today has been heavily edited; the earliest original versions of the Nei Jing we have today were editions from at least 1,000 years after the initial writing. On the contrary, the manuscripts found in Ma Wang Dui had been untouched by human hands from the time the tombs were sealed over 2,000 years ago until the early 1970s when archeologists went inside.
Inside Ma Wang Dui was an incredible array of texts including manuscripts on hemerology, philosophy (including some of the oldest versions of the Dao De Jing and Yi Jing that we have today), and, more importantly to our discussion, health and medicine. The health and medicine manuscripts found contained 14 different texts with over 22,000 extant characters. Included were writings on moxibustion, herbal formulas, incantation and magical healing, sexual hygiene, and childbirth. There are also diagrams of the early versions of the channels now used in modern acupuncture, and diagrams of Dao Yin movements. One manuscript is specifically titled Yang Sheng Fang (養生方) – Formulas for Nourishing Life. This text describes various recipes for sexual vigor. (Harper, 1998)
Over the following centuries various breathing and movement arts were developed, some of which have survived to today. Additionally, schools of internal alchemy developed complex meditation and visualization techniques designed not only to increase health and longevity, but also allow the practitioner to experience mystical realization and transcendent states. All of these contributed to the Nourishing Life schools that have come down to us today. For a more in depth look at the historical development of Nourishing Life practices and Dao Yin as a progenitor of modern Qigong please see Kohn (2008) or Liu (2010).
The modern Qigong movement was born at the dawning of the People’s Republic of China (established 1949). One of the earliest promoters of taking older methods of self-cultivation and reformatting them for modern consumption was an unassuming person by the name of Liu Guizhen (刘贵珍; 1920 – 1983). Liu, a minor public servant, suffered from ongoing health issues including gastric ulcers and insomnia. He eventually regained his health in 1947 after practicing breathing and meditation exercises taught to him by his paternal uncle, Liu Duzhou. When Liu Guizhen returned to work a healthy man, his Communist party supervisors took notice. Liu was then tasked with secularizing and simplifying the methods he had learned so that the average person could learn from them and benefit their health. At that time in history the ratio of doctors to the general population in China was an appalling 1:26,000. Hence, Communist Party administrators were eager to promulgate an inexpensive method for people to care for their own health. This also fit into the idea of self-strengthening that was a goal of both individual Chinese as well as the nation as a whole. (Chen, 2003)
Around this same time these newly created exercises needed a newly created name that did not link them to their religious or cultural past; after all, a new China needed new things devoid of connection to ‘feudalist superstition’. Liu Guizhen and Huang Yueting, director of Research Office of the Heath Department of Southern Hebei, decided on the term Qigong to represent these new practices. While the word Qigong had previously existed in several earlier texts, it had never before been widely used to describe the various techniques of the Nourishing Life practices that would later come under its umbrella.
Throughout the 1950s Qigong became increasingly popular in China, especially among the educated and political elite. Numerous Qigong hospitals or sanitaria were created, including the famous Beidahe Sanitarium headed by Liu Guizhen himself. In 1956 Hu Yaozhen opened the first Qigong hospital in Beijing. At this time Qigong was closely associated with Chinese traditional medicine, and several books for mass consumption were published on the topic.
During the years leading up to and through the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) Qigong enters a time of official governmental persecution and disavowal. Many famous people, including Liu Guizhen, were persecuted; in 1965 Liu was expelled from CCP as the “creator of the poisonous weed of qigong.” (Chen, 2003) After this time however, in the 1980s Qigong enjoyed a tremendous renaissance. Different from before however, this time Qigong becomes a practice of the masses outside of hospital or other medical settings, instead being practiced en masse in places such as public parks.
During this period of renaissance Qigong sometimes took on a decidedly different flavor. While previously Nourishing Life practices were methods of achieving health, or adjunct methods of spiritual practice (e.g., in Daoist movements), now Qigong had started filling the spiritual void left in the wake of Communist suppression of traditional religion. Qigong began to associate breathing and movement exercises with messianism, the development of paranormal abilities in humans, pseudoscientific research, and the overall regeneration of mankind and the Chinese nation – all of this being coined a ‘Qigong Fever’ (Qigong Re 氣功熱). During this same period external Qi healing (wai qi liao fa 外氣療法) is popularized although prior to this time it was rarely seen in classical medical literature. (Palmer, 2007)
As the popularity of Qigong grew, so also did the number of Qigong teachers. Many of these, often times self-proclaimed ‘masters’, relied on personal charisma as the sole criteria for legitimacy. Certainly, some teachers of this period created valuable modes of practice. Yet others trafficked in either quackery or stage magic, demonstrating their ‘skill’ by such feats as levitating cigarettes or setting things on fire with the power of their Qi alone. (Palmer, 2007) What did happen was that it became increasingly difficult to find classical practices and teachers with historic lineages (or even modern teachers with something substantial to teach) in the milieu just described. As this ‘Fever’ started dying down through the 1990s and into the beginning of the 21st century, much of the more fantastic aspects of Qigong, those aspects that amounted to a modern artificially created tradition, dwindled.
Basic Theory of Qigong
Even though there are many different practices now subsumed under the name of Qigong, there are some similarities in terms of basic theory and practice. One of the most important is the idea of the Three Regulations (san tiao 三調); namely, regulating the body, regulating the breath, and regulating the heart-mind.
Regulating the Body 調身
Qigong exercises usually include some sort of physical movement or holding of postures. Vigorous and demanding physical movements characterize some Qigong exercises while others are non-moving seated meditations. Even in meditative practices proper posture is important however – for example the maintenance of an upright seated posture.
Because the surface of the body and the four limbs are traversed by the channels, network vessels and blood vessels, stretching the body in different ways or holding certain postures stimulates these structures. Because of this, physical movement has a direct effect on treating the internal organs and can therefore treat or prevent disease.
Regulating the Breath 調息
In Chinese medicine it is said that the Lung is the commander of the Qi. Furthermore, respiration is one of the methods the body draws in raw material for the production of Qi. Deep, conscious breathing influences the quantity and quality of the Qi being formed at all times. Certain breathing patterns also allow Qi to penetrate into the body and circulate in specific patterns through the channels.
One saying in Chinese medicine says that without relaxation there is pain, and relaxing eliminated pain (bu song ze tong, song ze bu tong 不鬆則痛，鬆則不痛). Pain in Chinese medicine is the result of stagnation in the movement of Qi and blood. Deep and patterned breathing induces states of relaxation helping to open the channels, eliminating blockages in the normal flow of Qi and blood. Thus simple deep breathing can eliminate pain and restore homeostasis.
Regulating the Heart-Mind 調心
Chinese medicine believes that the Qi follows the Yi-intention: yi dao qi (意到氣). It is well known that thought patterns can influence every aspect of our being, including our health. In the first chapter of the Nei Jing Su Wen it says:
“Quiet peacefulness, absolute emptiness, the true qi follows. When essence and spirit are guarded internally, where could a disease come from? Hence, the mind is relaxed and one has few desires. The heart is at peace and one is not in fear.” (Unschuld & Tessenow, 2011, pg. 34)
In Chinese medicine and in colloquial Chinese the word ‘heart’ refers not necessarily to cardiac function but rather the mind and affects. Therefore, what we translate here as ‘Regulating the Heart-Mind’ is literally tiao xin – Regulating the Heart. Mind states and emotions are so closely linked to our wellbeing in Chinese traditional medicine that the Heart is considered the most important organ in the body; it is said to hold the position of sovereign (jun zhu zhi guan 君主之官).
In Qigong and other Nourishing Life practices, “Regulating the Heart” includes counting the breath to induce a stilled mind, focusing attention on various parts of the body, or sometimes visualizing movement of the Qi or breath internally. Meditative or visualization techniques therefore induce relaxation and actively help circulate Qi and blood internally.
Three Regulations Together
The three regulations described above work together. Regulating posture (regulating the body) allows for better and deeper breathing. For example, it is near impossible to practice deep relaxation breaths when sitting in a very hunched over position. Sitting or standing in a relaxed posture also allows the mind to relax. Likewise, deep breathing by itself calms the mind, which then allows the body to relax. A calm mind state naturally induces deeper and slower breathing, which relaxes the physical body so that certain postures can be attained. Thus is it evident that the Three Regulations are just an efficient way to work with the body-breath-mind complex.
For more information on Qigong and Nourishing Life practices please feel free to contact us or join us in person for one of our classes.
Deadman, P (2014) A brief history of qigong. Journal of Chinese Medicine: No.105; pp.5-17.
Chen, N. (2003) Breathing Spaces. New York: Columbia University Press.
Harper, D. (1998) Early Chinese Medical Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kohn, L. (2008) Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Liu, TJ, ed. (2010) Chinese Medical Qigong. London: Singing Dragon.
Palmer, D. (2007) Qigong Fever. New York: Columbia University Press.
Unschuld, P. Tessenow, H. (2011). Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen Volume I. Berkeley: University of California Press.