A Brief Introduction to Qi Gong: The Healing Art of Ancient China

Reviewing China in historical perspective to the rest of the world. A brief Introduction to the concept of Qi and comparison with bioelectromagnetic energy. A quick look at some scientific support for the perks of this art.

China in Perspective

When looking into the history of China, one finds many fascinating insights into, not only Chinese culture, but also into the capabilities and nature of all humankind. In recent revisions, Chinese civilization has been proclaimed to be over 10,000 years old.

To put that in perspective, America was founded less than 250 years ago, the rise of the British empire was less than 500 years ago, Rome was founded less than 3000 years ago. The ancient Greeks who had their time for a period of about 300 years, were not even 3000 years ago. The ancient Mesopotamian’s, famous for math, the wheel, sailboats, maps and writing, were around 6000 years ago.

Considering the magnitude of impact these civilizations have had on the world as we know it, it begs the question, what did China produce during their long stretch of civilization?

When we look at China, we see a nation that bred some of the world’s greatest philosophers, scholars, architects, and engineers. They achieved unimaginable feats, while most of the rest of the world lived in technological darkness. The small, enigmatic human beings that can manifest unfathomable outcomes with a seemingly inhuman ability to labour. There is a long list of almost stupefying innovations from China. The 8,000 warrior statues made of terracotta, the rivers of mercury, the moving of mountains, the medicine, the tea, the 5,500 miles of Great Wall, the ability to endure incomprehensible amounts of suffering. The vast suffering is what some say advanced the development of much of Chinese philosophy and healing arts. Of course, this is conjecture, and suffering is not historically unique to China.

The art of Qi Gong is believed to be about 5,000 years old, so why hasn’t most of the world heard of it until so recently?

China, in the past, seems to have made seclusion from the rest of the world one of its more serious missions. They didn’t begin trading with the outside world until the 1900’s. Before that, they did have a brief period of trade when during the 1400’s hundreds the Ming emperor built the largest fleet of ships that the world has ever seen. The fleet was said to have up to 3,500 ships, to put this in perspective, the U.S navy today only has 430.

After the death of the emperor, the fleet (known as the ‘Treasure Fleet’) was burnt by his successor, in an almost superstitious stance to power.  Along with the fleet, most records of it having ever existed were also destroyed. This kind of tendency toward isolation and secrecy that we can observe from the Chinese, might explain why Qi Gong has yet to become as popular as its Indian counterpart, yoga.

Personally, I see no other reason that this body of knowledge shouldn’t be known to the west to a greater extent.

Benefits of Tai Chi / Qi Gong

It is on par with yoga for its health benefits and could certainly play as big of a role in aiding us into understanding our minds and bodies to a greater extent.

This art is said to lead to increased longevity. Studies have shown that it increases flexibility and agility, boosts cognitive ability in elderly, improves balance and coordination, and increases physical strength and stamina.

A qualitative meta-analysis on the effects revealed that it leads many practitioners to having extraordinary experiences at various levels of bio-psycho-spiritual/energetic functioning. This is congruent with other iconic, though non-scientific literature on the practice.

The metanalysis of randomized controlled trials referenced below, shows evidence supporting the claim that Tai Chi helps in the management of Parkinson’s disease. This is no small feat, considering the lack of options at hand for sufferers of this harrowing neurodegenerative disease.

Results from one of the studies show that patients who received a 6-month training intervention, had 67% less falls than those who did not.

It shows clear and promising signs for helping patients cope with and reduce symptoms. However, the mechanism which might underlie this is not understood, and more research needs to be done in this.

So, What Is Qi Gong Anyway?

Qi (also spelled ‘chi’ or ‘ji’) is often described by eastern exercise practitioners as ‘life force energy’. Whether they are yogi’s who refer to this energy as ‘prana’ or whether they are Reiki practitioners who refer to this energy as ‘Ki’. Qi is said to be present in all living things, such as plants and animals but also said to be in the air around us. It is described as a driving force that influences and nourishes all things, an invisible body of energy that is working in accordance with its laws whether we are aware of it or not.

Dr Yang Jwing Ming, PhD. Physics, and Tai Chi Scholar, suggests in his book ‘The Root of Chinese Qi Gong’, that what has always been known as Qi to the Chinese, is the same as what we now know as bioelectromagnetic energy. This was first detected by Luigi Galvani, an Italian physician and physicist in the 1800’s. This electromagnetic energy is produced in living cells, tissue and organisms, which is so far consistent with the behavioural nature of Qi as described in ancient texts.

‘Qi Gong’ can so be directly translated as ‘energy work’. It is comprised of a series of physical movements and forms, which are integrated with constant mindfulness through the fluidity of slow movements. In this way, it’s not so different from yoga, and in fact operates on many  of the same principles. Many of the breathing techniques can be compared, along with the theory behind the mechanism. While Qi Gong has the famous Yin & Yang, Yoga, similarly, has Ida & Pingala.

Qi Gong involves the cultivation of energy to achieve the perfect Yin Yang balance, although we in the west are all familiar with the iconic Yin Yang Symbol, few of us know what it really about.

If you are interested in learning more or beginning to practice yourself, check out the links below (not sponsored).

References

A History of the Chinese Martial Arts

A short reflection on the early days of eastern practices, some key historical figures, and the interplay between Daosim and Buddhism.

Bodhidharma & Buddhist Qi Gong

In 527 A.D, a well-regarded ‘bodhisattva’, or ‘enlightened being’ named Bodhidharma (known by the Chinese as ‘Da Mo’) was invited by Emperor Liang Wu Di into China to preach Buddhism. Bodhidharma, who was once the prince of a small tribe in southern India, is often depicted for his barbaric appearances. He was said to be a hairy, bearded, dark skinned man, dressed in orange robes, as many Mahayana Buddhists did at the time.

After the emperor (for reasons unknown) decided that he did not like Bodhidharma, the monk was forced to retreat to a temple in Shaolin. Upon arriving, he saw that the priests who resided in that temple were physically very weak. Many had become ill, as they had been fully neglecting their physical bodies, thinking that it was not necessary to cultivate physically to attain enlightenment. This is still considered true for many meditation intensive schools of practice, Vipassana, being one very notable example.

They believed it was altogether, a waste of time to exercise the body and laughed it off. Bodhidharma then put the argument to them, that attaining enlightenment requires time. That by being weak and sickly they are decreasing their longevity, shortening the span of their life and therefore, shortening the time with which they had, to work towards becoming enlightened.

The monks agreed that this was true and Bodhidharma stayed in the Shaolin temple, ardently working on the problem at hand. After nine full years, he emerged with a series of techniques, known as ‘Da Mo’s Muscle/Tendon Changing & Marrow/Brain Washing Classics’.

In this book is a series of physical, breath and meditation exercises, aimed to increase the strength of the physical body and bring one’s mind closer to an enlightened state. These exercises are commonly referred to as a type of ‘Qi Gong’, directly translated as ‘energy work’. Qi Gong is said to be the ancestor or parent of Tai Chi, which is an evolved, martial form of the healing art. Tai Chi is said to be the child of Qi Gong and the sibling of Kung Fu.

It is characterized by its martial arts-type forms, involving highly technical coordination of a liquid-like flow of movement and focuses on mindful presence and relaxation.

Where is Tai Chi From?

In the 12th century, a Taoist monk named Zhang San Feng, who had given away his property to his family and was living life in accordance with the Tao, was strolling leisurely between the summits of the Wu Dang mountains in Hubei province in China. He stopped, captivated by the sight of a bird attacking a snake. After seeing how the snake defended itself, keeping still, observing and then lunging in for a fatal bite upon the bird, he was inspired.

It was from this legend that Tai Chi Chuan is said to have emerged, and that it was Zhang San Feng went on to create a set of 72 Tai Chi Chuan movements.

Prior to the discovery of old documents, which confirmed the existence of Zhang San Feng, many people believed, and in some cases still do, that Tai Chi was created in Chen village, Henan Province. Yang style is possibly the most popular style of Tai Chi which circulates around the west today, it is said to be a later expression of Chen style and can also be traced back to Chen Village.

Internal and External Tai Chi

While styles such as Yang and Chen are said to be ‘external’, what is now Wudang Taoist Tai Chi is characterized by being uniquely ‘internal’. Now, what exactly is meant by ‘external’ and ‘internal’? There is also some room for debating the implications of these labels and where they come from. Some will say that the ‘external’ styles are characterized as being ‘hard’, while the other ‘soft’, some will argue that as Tai Chi as a whole is comprised of both external and internal exercises, that one focuses more heavily on one part than the other. But interestingly there is also another argument which relates not to the practice itself, but to the geographical origin. The styles which originated from Chen Village date back to being influenced by Da Mo. As Da Mo came from India, the manifestations of his influence are labelled as ‘external’ (outside of China). Taoism, being indigenous to the Chinese Wudang mountains, has resulted in their style being named ‘internal”.

Again, it is quite difficult to say with any certainty at this time, and there seems to be much room to open argument on the subject still, as is the nature with ancient histories.

Taoism vs Buddhism

For many people, distinguishing the difference between Taoist philosophy and Buddhism is a very convoluted and tightly tangled endeavour, and with good reason! Most people know at least, that Taoism is Chinese and Buddhism was originally Indian (though the Buddha himself came from Nepal).

”Do not dwell on the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”

-Gautama The Buddha

Actually, Taoism is comprised of a large degree of Buddhist philosophy, over time they absorbed many of the philosophies of Buddhism that were being preached in China, being influenced by the general zeitgeist.

It apparently wasn’t uncommon for Taoist and Buddhist monks to befriend each other and share philosophies. However, while Taoism’s open- minded approach to learning enabled it to move like water and adapt, Buddhism was far more conservative than that, and refrained from making new adaptations based on newly available knowledge.

The Buddhist’s then were absolutely forbidden from eating meat, drinking alcohol, in the cases of monkhood they were forbidden from sexual activity and made to shave their heads. The Taoist’s had a slight touch of rascality to them. They could eat meat, drink wine, grow their hair long and priest’s (in some casts) were even allowed to marry and have children.

”If you are depressed, you are living in the past.

If you are anxious, you are living in the future.

If you are at peace, you are living in the present”

-Lao Tzu

Despite these considerably minor differences, both philosophies aim toward the same goal of enlightenment and cultivating the ‘Tao’. They both focus on taming the emotional body, in order to achieve inner peace, purifying the self and attaining the ultimate goal of enlightenment in order to escape the cycles of ‘Samsara’ (cyclical death and rebirth).

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References

  • Dr Yang Jwing Ming, The Root of Chinese Qi Gong
  • Qigong, The Secret of Youth: Da Mo’s Muscle/Tendon Changing and Marrow/Brain Washing Classics