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Making sense of Qi Gong

During the 1950s in China, the term Qi Gong emerged to describe a therapy involving exercise. Indeed all manner of practices that had links to traditional knowledge were analysed to see if there was a therapeutic benefit in a medical context.

Chinese people experienced the collapse of the health infrastructure and the economy. 

China witnessed the world’s worst-ever famine in 1958-61, with estimates of an absolute magnitude of 63 million. 30 Million from starvation and 33 million postponed births. The health system was in freefall long before the famine, and in desperation, the government turned to the people it persecuted for help. Traditional medicine was rejected during the Maoist Years but saw a resurgence in the 1950s. 

In addition, popular body cultivation techniques — secular practices as well as those from Daoism and Buddhism — were integrated into this new national medicine. The person responsible for their adoption was Liu Guizhen. 

Liu Guizhen 劉貴珍 (1902–83), was a pioneer of qigong therapy.

Several notable Internal Arts practitioners of the 100 who attended the Bei Dai He Qigong symposium in 1959 addressed the severe health crisis in China. Although fearful of persecution, these masters were willing to share what they knew openly to help.

 The names’ qigong‘ and ‘qigong therapy’ became popular after the Tangshan Small Group on Qigong Therapy was given its award in 1955. With the support of the central and local governments, a number of qigong sanitoriums were established from 1956. Among them, Beidaihe Qigong Sanitorium (Beidaihe qigong liaoyangyuan 北戴河氣功療養院) and Shanghai Qigong Sanitorium (Shanghai shi qigong liaoyangsuo 上海氣功療養所) were two of the largest. 

Another pioneer of Qi Gong Therapy was Hu Yao Zhen ( 1897—1973), who opened the first Qi Gong Clinic in Beijing in 1956. He had exceptional skills in Internal Martial Arts, Qi Gong and Meditation. His knowledge of health applications of exercise brought him to the forefront of the birth of what is known as modern-day Qi Gong. He was not the only master to do this, but he was a prime mover in this respect.

Hu Yao Zhen ( 1897—1973)

Traditionally Buddhists and Daoists practised what was referred to as called Jing Gong (stillness cultivation); martial artists practised Wai Gong ( External work ) and or Nei Gong (Inner work)

A typical Buddhist mind-body training system emphasises dynamic tension and release and its Qi Gong methods use a force of will. Standard Buddhist practice in the realm of Qi Gong is breath retention, visualisation and muscular contraction, which activate the external layers of energy. Prevalent to this approach is dynamic tension, where you tense and contract the body. When the pressure is released, the body relaxes, and blood and essential fluids circulate deeply. It is necessary to know that this approach has positive and negative consequences, dependent on the psychological stability of the practitioner and the coach.

The Daoist approach to exercise is circular and flowing, dynamic and mentally driven. Developing overall strength is achieved by approaching movement from a mentally relaxed and unfettered perspective. The Taoist influenced method supports the idea of moving from a more profound dimension within the body. Therefore this approach insists that you do not destroy your own body and mind due to excessive strain and ego striving.

Theoretically, both approaches would meet somewhere in the middle.

One could say that the Buddhist practice works from the outside, and the Taoist approach works from the inside. However, this would be an over-simplistic view of Taoist and Buddhist approaches to energy development.

In my experience, one needs both methods and must; therefore, you should not limit yourself necessarily to one modality or the other. A personalised approach may be necessary depending on the constitution and psychology of the individual. One must have the skill and the awareness to adapt your internal training when the time calls for it by utilising a more Yin approach and, other times, a more Yang approach.

An experienced teacher or mentor is of the utmost benefit if you wish to take your practice to a deeper level. A teacher with experience in helping others and who has a connection to an authentic lineage would be beneficial. There are potential dangers that can arise from incorrect practice, and therefore a teacher with practical experience is essential. In particular, problems can occur when a student creates an unnecessary internal tension that causes blood and Qi stagnation and psycho-emotional difficulties.

Broken lineages and fake lineages abound. For example, if you take the Six Healing Sounds, an old system whose legitimacy is challenging to evaluate. The Six healing sounds cannot claim an unbroken lineage to the system’s creator.

The Six Healing sounds that I learned are from Ma Li Tang’s lineage, a well-known doctor and martial artist from Hunan. He claimed that the original system died out and reinterpreted it based on his experience. The sounds stimulate the internal organs and activate the organ’s Qi.

The six healing sounds taught today are reconstruction that does not arise from an unbroken lineage. Of course, this does not mean that it has no value.

Enquire if the Qi Gong system you are interested in learning has some connection to past teachers going back several generations, not a new system controlled or sanctioned by some government department. The system must adhere to principles of mind, body and energy development.

A Daoist Qi Gong will have aspects of stillness and moving practice, is circular in appearance, smooth in execution and utilises natural breathing at first and be performed without strain.

The classical methods from which present-day Qi Gong has arisen have morphed into a 21st Century Physical/ Energetic Culture that can be profound in many ways and offer a balance to ego-driven and highly neurotic exercise regimes. A Qi Gong system can significantly assist the individual practitioner in nurturing your mental, physical, and emotional health through a well-intentioned and disciplined approach.

The Chinese people have been Culturally and traditionally quite secretive, more so since the rise of Communism. In addition, many teachings and lineages became extinct due to brutal purges and decades of economic turmoil.

The survivors have done so under the mass surveillance of the CCP. What is displayed often sits well with mass house arrest and the unhealthy mask policy. Beware of any sanitised versions of the internal arts. ( This is very, very true in the case of Tai Chi Chuan )

Of course, there are genuine teachings, but finding a good source with connections to pre-1950s or pre 20th Century lineages is increasingly challenging. Modern Qi Gong attempts to medicalise energy work and physical therapy with science that strips all references to spirituality and insight.

In closing, anything that wakes you up to your potential to help yourself and others is good Qi Gong. No one can own your life force, but sadly that seems to be the plan globally in all areas of society. I would say that a solid mind innovated therapy that liberates you totally as a sentient being is of immense value to you and those with who you will come in contact.

Harmonising your energy helps significantly with all aspects of health. Let us not forget where these teachings originated, from the past generations of meditators, healers, and martial artists—experiential beings. Be inspired.

In 1948 Liu Guizhen credited his recovery from illness to exercises he learned from a peasant, not some government-approved sponsor. Remember that when the systems and institutions of control crumble, fail, or become corrupted, the peasant next door or the individual who remembers how to grow food will be in demand, not a politician, soldier or academic.

Chris Ray Chappell 2022