QI AND QI GONG
Qi gong (pronounced chee-GONG) is an ancient Chinese healing art, philosophy and spiritual belief that combines gentle movements, deep breathing, self-massage, mediation and variety of other practices to exploit qi. Some view qigong is a form of meditation and breathing exercises rooted in traditional Chinese religion. Others view it as a powerful force. Qi means "vital energy" and gong means "cultivate."
Qi gong forms the basis of traditional Chinese medicine, several martial arts, and unexplained powers. Considered a “national treasure,”' qi gong is supported by the government. It is sometimes thought of as a kind of faith healing.
Qi gong has many supernatural associations. Qi gong masters are said to be able to perform healing massages without touching the body, ignite fires with forces generated by their hands and fill entire lecture halls with uplifting positive energy particles. There is a story of ku fu master in the early 1900s who was harassed by a foreigner on a horse and killed the horse by laying his hands on the animal and disrupting its internal organs with qi.
Qi gong has been credited with improving scores on university entrance exams and locating victims under collapsed buildings. Some qigong masters attribute their powers to black holes, gamma rays, and antimatter.
Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Society fengshuisociety.org ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui skepdic.com ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources neigong.net ; Qi Gong Institute qigonginstitute.org ; Qi Gong association of America /www.qi.org ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong skepdic.com ; Folk Beliefs and Superstitions: Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; New York Times on Earthquake superstitions nytimes.com ; Old Book on Superstitions archive.org/ or Old Book PDF Fileus.archive.org/2/items ; Five Elements chinatownconnection ; I Ching Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt Ancient Chinese History and Religion chinatxt ; Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death deathreference.com ; Death and Burials in China chia.chinesemuseum.com.au ; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article nytimes.com ; News in Science abc.net.au ; Symbols Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; What’s Your Sign whats-your-sign.com
Books: 1) James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (Berkeley, 1988); 2) the chapter by Maurice Freedman in “The Study of Chinese Society,” ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford, 1979); 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961); 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4,; 5) Addison, James Thayer. “Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity” (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925); 6) Graham, David Crockett. “Folk Religion in Southwest China” (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961); Hsu, Francis L. K. “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971).
Qi (or chi or ki) is a mystical material force described using terms like “cosmic energy,” “life force,” "vital energy," "the Breath of Heaven," and "the Breath of Nature." Said to be generated by yin and yang, it is regarded as the fundamental life force in the universe, and the force that gives life to living things. Sometimes associated with Confucianism and Taoism, it is harnessed by acupuncturist to cure patients, by monks to achieve oneness with nature and by businessmen to achieve success. It is a force possessed by every individual but some people take the time to master it and cultivate and use its special powers.
There are two kinds of qi: "hard" qi, which is associated with martial arts like kung fu and karate, and "soft" qi, which is associated with meditation, health and concentration. One qi gong instructor told the Korea Times, qi gong "is very systematic and even scientific. Step by step, you can learn how to absorb the ki scattered around, and you not only become healthy but also achieve a wholeness with the universe, the source of the unlimited energy or ki."
Qi gong practitioners are taught to control ki by controlling their breathing, their mind and their body and learn how to harmonize these three things to live long, healthy lives and heighten their mental and spiritual powers. They are also taught to perform exercises that focus qi to different parts of the body. In one series of movements called the Bear, intended to stimulate the kidneys and lower back, practitioners stand upright, hold their palms upwards near their ears and twist their bodies back and forth at the waist. In the old days, some people believed that belching and farting robbed the body of qi and hastening death. For this reason some people today abstain from eating root foods that make them fart and belch.
Some Definitions of Qi
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The basic stuff out of which all things are made is called qi. Everything that ever existed, at all times, is made of qi, including inanimate matter, humans and animals, the sky, ideas and emotions, demons and ghosts, the undifferentiated state of wholeness, and the world when it is teeming with different beings. As an axiomatic concept with a wide range of meaning, the word qi has over the years been translated in numerous ways. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos ]
“Different translators render it into English in three different ways: 1) “psychophysical stuff,” because it involves phenomena one would consider both psychological -- connected to human thoughts and feelings -- and physical; 2) “pneuma,” drawing on one early etymology of the word as vapor, steam, or breath; and 3) “vital energy,” accentuating the potential for life inherent to the more ethereal forms of qi.
“These meanings of qi hold for most schools of thought in early Chinese religion; it is only with the renaissance of Confucian traditions undertaken by Zhu Xi (1130-1200; Song dynasty scholar) and others that qi is interpreted not as a single thing, part-matter and part-energy, pervading everything, but as one of two basic metaphysical building blocks. According to Zhu Xi, all things partake of both qi and li (homophonous to but different from the li meaning “ritual” or “propriety”), the latter understood as the reason a thing is what it is and its underlying “principle” or “reason.”“
Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Anne Walthall, and James B. Palais offer the following formulation of the relationship between qi and li: “The neo-Confucian explanation of the workings of principle (li) and vital energy (qi) can be seen as a response to the sophisticated metaphysics of Buddhism. The principle for something could be moral or physical; for example, the principle for wives is essentially moral in nature, that for trees, physical. For either to exist, however, there must also be the energy and substance that constitute things. The theory of principle and vital energy allowed Song thinkers to validate Mencius’s claim of the goodness of human nature and still explain human wrongdoing: principle underlying human beings is good, but their endowment of vital energy is more or less impure, giving rise to selfish impulses.” [Source: “East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History” by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Anne Walthall, and James B. Palais (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 168]
Jixia Academy and the Origin of Qi
The Jixia Academy may have been the place where ideas about the all-encompassing force of qi were first articulated and recorded. Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Towards the close of the fourth century B.C. the new ruling house of the state of Qi decided to strengthen its prestige by establishing a scholarly enclave at its capital city of Linzi. This scholars district was located near a gate in the city wall known as the Jixia Gate, and was intended to serve as a magnet for intellectual talent that would both redound to the credit of the Qi rulers and perhaps provide them with a promising group of young men from which to recruit government talent. This institution is historically known in English as the “Jixia Academy,” and it became the intellectual center of early third century China. /+/
“Jixia was attractive to learned men of every variety. We do not know precisely how men came to receive appointments there, but it seems likely that all that was needed was that a master and his disciples to find a patron among the patricians of Qi to recommend an appointment to the ruler. If the Qi court deemed such a master worthy of installment among the wise men of Jixia, then he would receive from the ruling house a stipend sufficient for his needs – including his need to house and feed his disciples – and in return he would simply be expected to remain at Jixia, accepting disciples and participating in the ceremonial events of the academy. Once the most famous masters of China were assembled at Jixia, young men came there in numbers to select a master and be trained in some tradition that would provide them with a path to employment, fame, or simply intellectual fulfillment. /+/
“The basic information about Jixia is recorded in Sima Qian’s “Shiji” and other early sources. The texts that are most often identified as examples of naturalistic trends of the fourth and third centuries B.C. are located in two compendia: Guanzi, which is sometimes viewed as an anthology of short philosophical and political writings by Jixia scholars themselves, and the Lüshi chunqiu or Almanac of Lord Lü, the text complied by retainers of the great Qi statesman Lü Buwei. There is a full translation of the Guanzi by Allyn Rickett (Princeton: 1985, 1998; 2 vols.), and the Lüshi chunqiu has been translated in full by John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel as The Annals of Lü Buwei (Stanford: 2000). Although there are a number of extended studies on Jixia in Chinese, there is none in English. However, there does exist an interesting contrarian article by a senior scholar, Nathan Sivin, that argues against the viewing Jixia as of particular importance and of naturalism as a coherent intellectual movement of the Warring States era: “The Myth of the Naturalists” (in Sivin, Medicine, Philosophy, and Religion in Ancient China ). /+/
School of Qi and Their Texts
Dr. Eno wrote: “The name “School of qi” is a scholarly name applied to a group of late Warring States texts which appear scattered in a variety of books and whose authorship is generally not known. It is unlikely that there ever was any “school” as such, that is a master.disciple tradition which passed along a single “qi.learning,” in the way that, say, Confucian masters trained disciples in Confucianism. qi was a concept available to all and employed as a central aspect of self-cultivation theory by thinkers as different as Mencius and Zhuangzi. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]
“Nevertheless, there are texts where the concept of qi serves as springboard for far flung speculation about the nature of man and the cosmos, and in these texts we encounter a style of thinking which might be called proto-scientific, and clearly expresses lengthy reflections upon close observations of the natural world. The term “School of qi” is sometimes used to refer to this style of naturalistic inquiry in a general way, regardless of whether in a particular text the specific concept of qi plays a prominent role. /+/
“Many such texts were associated with more narrowly focused cultic practices. For example, some qi texts explore the way that the purification of qi can be achieved through dietary regimens, and some recently excavated texts that date from the late Warring States or very early Han give detailed discussions of the way in which qi can be cultivated through finely tuned programs of exercise or elaborate sexual routines. These linkages between qi.learning and issues of personal hygiene seem to have been closely tied to cults of immortalism, discussed in the section on religion in a later online reading. /+/
The main School of qi text is the Lüshi chunqiu, or The Almanac of Lord Lü, which is the book associated with Lü Buwei of Qin. Judging by the contents of the...text, Lü was in fact very successful in luring to Qin scholars who clearly carried with them the intellectual traditions of Eastern China, and of the Jixia Academy in particular.
Zhu Xi (1130-1200) and the Study of Qi
Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) was a scholar during China’s Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). His honorific title is Zhu Zi (Master Zhu). He was born in Youxi, Fujian Province. His philosophical doctrine explained the world systematically using the concepts of “qi” (vital force) and “li” (principle), and is thus commonly referred to as “the study of li” in China. After his death, his doctrine was transmitted to Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other neighboring countries. In Japan, the Tokugawa shogunate emphasized Shushi-gaku as its official academic doctrine. Zhu lived spent about a half-century near Mt. Wuyi in Fujian Province. His father, a scholar, died when Zhu was 14. Zhu then moved with his mother to Wufuzhen, then a village near Mt. Wuyi.[Source: Aya Igarashi, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 12, 2014]
Aya Igarashi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Zhu Xi may be a less familiar name than Confucius. But his great achievements in the codification of Confucian philosophy have caused many to see the two ancient Chinese philosophers as being of equal stature, as shown in the saying, “Confucius in the north, Zhu Xi in the south.” Zhu passed keju, an imperial examination for the state bureaucracy, when he was 19. But he served as a public servant for only nine years, mainly in what are now Fujian, Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Hunan provinces. He dedicated most of the remaining years of his life to contemplation, writing books and educating his disciples. In his later years, however, he became embroiled in the political power struggles of the Southern Song dynasty. As a result, the doctrines of Zhu and his followers were regarded as heretical.[Source: Aya Igarashi, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 12, 2014]
Though Zhu died without recovering his honor, things changed dramatically after his death and his doctrines became canonized within mainstream Confucianism. His doctrines, known as the Cheng-Zhu school, was convenient for rulers because it placed importance on social hierarchy and its justification. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Cheng-Zhu school became a subject on the imperial examination for state bureaucratic posts and was used to maintain the feudal order. The Cheng-Zhu school was imported to Japan, where it is known as “Shushi-gaku.” During the Edo period (1603-1867), Shushi-gaku was utilized as a basic tenet of rule by warlords. Thus the doctrine is now regarded as old-fashioned pomp.
Qi Gong Masters at Work
Practitioners of Qi gong, who often don't touch anything directly, harness the power of ki to throw people against walls without lifting a finger, repel assaults by people attacking with all their strength, heal and cure patients, bend metal and lift objects without touching them, produce fires through spontaneous combustion, help people loose weight, and drive nails through boards without a hammer or any other tool.
Qi Gong masters have chopped plastic chopsticks with paper bills and ignited fires with their bare hands. Describing what happened to a man who was touched by a ki master, Andrew Pollack of the New York Times wrote, "Almost instantly, as if propelled by some invisible force, the person reels backward and crashes into a padded wall." Other people who touch the master "then collapse to the ground, screaming and writhing until two...assistants jump on them to calm them down."
In 1986, the Amazing Randi, a former magician who makes a living snuffing out quacks and fakes, made a visit to China. He found that psychic healers who purportedly made women go into convulsion were actually reacting to the patient not visa versa. He also discovered that children, who supposedly put together broken matches inside a sealed box, had actually opened the box and replaced the broken match with an unbroken one. Sima Nan, a self-appointed "cult buster," has made a living of exposing fraudulent claims by qi gong masters.
See Falun Gong
Qi and Business
Qi masters and consultants have been hired by companies like Sony, Sega, Honda and NEC to help their employees relax, focus, relieve stress, remain calm, concentrate better, think positively and improve their golf swing. They teach their clients things like "breathing through the soles of your feet" and sell videos which are said to help viewers cure the sick.Some people learn qi from books and videos. Others learn it at special institutes. Describing the techniques of Yukio Funai, the head of a firm that gives advise to companies about mysticism, Pollack wrote, "Mr. Funai asked a visitor to touch his toes without bending his knees. After the visitor could not do it, Mr. Funai waved his hand in the air and snapped his hand toward the visitor, as if to shoot rays out of his fingers. After receiving this infusion of ki, the visitor was able to touch his toes."Qi gong products are similar to New Age products. They include bracelets for men’s health, videos on how arrange furniture to harness qi gong energy, incense used for relaxing the mind, crystal balls (believed to focus pure energy) and miniature pyramids used to help in meditation. In China, qi gong was nearly wiped out during the Cultural Revolution. Many skilled practitioners failed to pass their secrets on another generation before they died.
Qigong Revival in the 1980s and 1990s
Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books, “Qigong’s heyday was in the 1980s and 1990s, when it spread rapidly across China as a kind of ersatz religion. Back then, the Communist Party still actively discouraged religious life but qigong escaped regulation because its backers had cleverly registered it as a sport. In fact, it offered a typically Chinese path to salvation: physical cultivation leading to enlightenment. Some qigong “grand masters” claimed supernatural abilities, saying they could conduct electricity or read books without opening them. But many offered moral guidelines—“popular fundamentalism,” some scholars called it---that appealed to people who had seen the Communists’ ideals collapse during the Cultural Revolution. [Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, January 13, 2012]
This was the beginning of China’s religious revival and qigong became ubiquitous in Chinese parks and streets. Chinese spoke of a “qigong fever” that had infected the country. But it came to a crashing close in 1999 when the government brutally cracked down on the militant qigong group Falun Gong after it staged protests in downtown Beijing. Most qigong groups disappeared or went underground, and as a result it is all but impossible today to practice qigong in public parks.
Wang Liping, China’s Most Famous Qigong Teacher
Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books, “Wang Liping is probably China’s most famous teacher of qigong. The 62-year-old Wang has had a colorful career, even if one isn’t sure how literally to take his official biography. According to that account, in the 1950s he was chosen by three Daoist masters of the Longmen (Dragon Gate) school to be their successor---the 18th generation in a lineage. He lived at home on the outskirts of the northeastern Chinese city of Fushun but after school would meet his teachers in the forest for intense training; they would sometimes bind him cross-legged so he would stop fidgeting. [Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, January 13, 2012]
When Maoists launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the four of them took to the mountains and lived there for over a decade, practicing esoteric Daoist self-cultivation practices, studying plant life and helping villagers suffering from calamities. While Red Guards roamed the valleys, destroying temples and schools, they traveled the mountains, avoiding most people until stability returned to China with the Maoists’ ouster in the late 1970s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Wang’s classes were hugely popular, some resembling revival-style rallies in auditoriums and gymnasiums across the country. Nowadays, he doesn’t advertise openly and there are no public rallies, but hundreds show up to his once- or twice- a year retreats for the chance to learn from the master. The high point is the autumn Jinhua classes, which took place this year near the caves, in the Temple to the Immortal Huang, a historic deity who achieved immortality in the 4th century by meditating here. Over the past few decades, ethnic Chinese donors have helped rebuild the temple in a grand manner, with a reflecting pool and four courtyards leading to the main hall, a soaring building of 9,000 square feet and 50-foot ceilings.
Wang’s own teachings hew close to the Daoist practices described in such classic books like the lingbao bifa (Complete Methods of the Numinous Treasure) and the taiyi jinhua zongzhi (The Secret of the Golden Flower ) which---translated by the German sinologist Richard Wilhelm in 1929---is one of the few Daoist cultivation books widely known in the West, thanks in part to an introduction written by Wilhelm’s friend, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. (For early 20th-century Europeans, the practices seemed like another route to the subconscious .) Unlike his teachers, Wang feels that these books should be taught using modern methods: he shuns binding children and---in a sharp break from Daoist tradition---openly teaches some of the once-secret methods.
Wang stopped teaching before the crackdown on Falun Gong in 1999 and laid low for much of the past decade, avoided this maelstrom. Now he is making a comeback. Among the qigong masters, he had always been somewhat unusual in emphasizing the religious roots of his teaching’specifically, in China’s only indigenous religion, Daoism...Though he remains cautious, Wang has quietly begun teaching again in public, shunning the word “qigong” in favor of the Daoist term “inner alchemy.”
Taking a Class with Wang Liping, China’s Most Famous Qigong Teacher
Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books, “In November 2011, I came to Jinhua with about 400 others on a ten-day retreat to study with Wang Liping,..The Jinhua caves are located in a wooded, hilly area about 200 miles southwest of Shanghai. The most famous cave, Double Dragon Cave, is entered by a stream that passes under a stone overhang just a few inches above the water. Visitors must lie flat in a shallow boat as it is pulled by wires under the outcrop. Rock whizzes by a couple of inches in front of your face and suddenly you are there, in the earth’s womb, where people have come for millennia to meditate---lifting up their heads, calming their eyes, and visualizing a world beyond the walls that hold us. [Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, January 13, 2012]
Standing in front of the immense statue to Huang, Wang delivered two hour-long lectures each day followed by an hour and a half to two hours of meditation. Every evening, one of his acolytes would hold a class to help out newcomers. A 400-page textbook helped fill in the gaps. As the only non-ethnic Chinese in the group, I was quickly adopted as the class mascot. People congratulated me on understanding the value of traditional Chinese cultivation practices.
As I got to know members of our group, I began to realize how many unusual people were in our midst. One man with incredibly strong thighs and buttocks would walk around the retreat in a squat, as if out of the Ministry of Silly Walks . One person nodded sagely and said: “That man has talent.” Then there was the man who wore pink-striped pajamas the entire time, and the woman who could sit in the lotus position for eight hours. My favorite eccentric was a 76-year-old woman who said she had a vision in 1986 that Wang had revealed himself to be a Daoist master. She contacted Wang and invited him to Jinhua to teach, the first of his many visits here. She also quietly distributed pictures of Wang with something that looked like an overexposed strip above his head. “That is his dragon spirit revealing itself,” she said. “It can’t be photographed.”
At times, Wang seemed less a dragon spirit than a bumbling professor. He would get his microphone cables mixed up and often mumbled odd offhand advice, such as what kind of dumplings to eat in the winter (answer: mutton). But his followers have stuck with him for decades and seemed genuinely excited about the event. I met one student who paid her way from the remote province of Guizhou because she was desperate to know about Daoist physical cultivation---a key to Daoism is bodily practice, not just praying or moral behavior and she wanted to see it first hand. Another man lived as a hermit near the Yangtze and had been planning to attend one of Wang’s retreats for over a decade. He finally left his cave this year and took part.
Today, the importance of classes like Wang’s is underscored by the rapid disappearance of knowledge about the physical cultivation practices he teaches and that once held sway. One of Wang’s long-time students, Shen Zhigang, said that for him, studying with Wang was a way of reconnecting to traditional Chinese values. “We’re studying Teacher Wang but he has predecessors who go back and back and back to Laozi,” he said, referring to the mythic author of Daoism’s key text, the Daodejing. “The thread still hasn’t been cut. It was almost cut. This is why we’re studying this. We have to keep the thread intact and pass it down to the next generations.”
Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books, “Meditating wasn’t quite like I imagined. For one thing it is more painful. The body’s legs are supposed to form a stable platform. The goal is to call up one’s soul, the shenguang. It manifests itself as a light, which is brought into the body and used to purify the five organs---liver, lungs, heart, spleen and kidneys---which correspond to the five elements of Chinese cosmology. But even simply sitting cross-legged, I found my legs going numb after 45 minutes, then aching. Eventually, I was in such pain that I couldn’t concentrate on the meditation and began to fantasize about ways of escaping. [Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, January 13, 2012]
All the while, one is regulating one’s breathing. It is the most basic voluntary movement we make; controlling it is the basis of controlling oneself. Although we breath through our lungs, the goal in Daoist meditation is to breathe with all of one’s body, expanding and contracting every pore. At the retreat, we also learned more active practices, such as brisk walking. For an hour after breakfast each day we marched through the mountain roads, the pace matched to breathing, you walk either three, six, or twelve paces per inhalation and the same number per exhalation.
The best days were when we meditated in the Jinhua caves. My favorite wasn’t the Double Dragon Cave, or Shuanglongdong, which is a major tourist site and couldn’t be closed for our visits. But the Chaozhendong, or “Cave for Worshipping the Perfected Man” was more off the beaten track. The Daoist nun who managed it would turn off the lights when we were inside. Soon, all one could hear were the bats flying around and the drip of water seeping in from outside. Some practitioners cried out and one woman started sobbing. Wang said we shouldn’t be surprised. “We Chinese aren’t very introspective,” he told the class before going to the cave. “You think of things, like your father or your mother. It’s okay.”
After over 30 hours of meditation, I couldn’t get out of my head the liturgy we’d hear during the sessions. It was said in a rhythmic, calm voice, urging us to push beyond the perceived world. In a country that has discovered materialism, it was a reminder that other forces haven’t disappeared. Inhale, pull the room into you Exhale, push out the walls of this room Inhale, contract the room Exhale, expand it Inhale Exhale Now you are entering a half-sleep state of consciousness Clear your mind
Image Sources: Feng shui images, University of Washington, Qi Gong images, Fighting Arts com
Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2020