Qigong is an umbrella term for a vast array of Asian health and meditative practices. Like yoga, its history is often shrouded in mystery or concealed. Sometimes this is through ignorance, sometimes to lend the practice an attractive mystique. Unlike yoga, the variety of types of qigong number in the thousands, and if you combine this fact with the historical trait of the Chinese people to communicate in an oblique way, then there is the potential for serious confusion when approaching qigong as a newcomer. Hopefully this short essay will dispel some confusion and shed some light on qigong’s interesting history.

A common generalization that can be helpful is to divide qigong practices into three overlapping areas- medical qigong, spiritual qigong, and martial qigong. This points us towards the traditions that were most often associated with qigong- doctors, healers, monks, priests, shamans, martial artists, bodyguards, soldiers. The traditional types of qigong practiced by these folk are tailored to their lifestyle and application. From this we can see that qigong has the potential for healing and creative purposes but also for destructive purposes; therefore there is wisdom in practicing a type of qigong that suits your disposition.

However, there is another broad generalization that is important to make- most types of qigong can be divided into modern forms or traditional forms. To understand this we must consider the vast changes that occurred in China and the Far East throughout the 20th Century. A complex triggering of events, largely caused by decades of confrontation and colonial oppression from Western countries, led the Emperor and Empire of China to fall in 1911, plunging China into chaos and revolution. Between 1911 and 1950, whilst under the official guise of a new democratic state, China was being maneuvered into a civil war by opposing warlords, political and religious idealogies, power-hungry triads, and meddling foreign powers. This culminated in the victory of Mao Zedong’s communism in the 1950’s and his ensuing dictatorship. But it was in this Warlord era that the term ‘qigong’ first came into popular use, particularly in conjunction with the first qigong hospitals. This was a period of transformation in China, and in many areas there was a call to reinvigorate traditional customs and systems with new ways, or indeed to completely discard them. This might be thought of as qigong’s first step out of the shadows, or rather out of being traditionally hidden and passed down only from parent to child or from master to student.

Tai Chi (sometimes called Taijiquan), was also instrumental in this coming out. Although Tai Chi was traditionally considered a formative martial art, in the 1920’s and 30’s it was adapted by a Master called Yang Cheng Fu, who taught a form that was specifically intended to help common people heal themselves and maintain good health. In many ways this type of Tai Chi can be seen as an advanced form of Qigong, and it was so popular in China that it was taught en-masse throughout the country and in a way was a form of national health insurance! It was one of Yang Cheng Fu’s later students who brought Tai Chi to the West in the 50’s, where it converged with the American counter-culture.

With the take-over of Communism in the 1950’s, many traditional, educated, academic, or wealthy Chinese had to flee their country in fear of being persecuted or killed. This exodus took the art of qigong to many other countries. But within China, there was an interesting development where instead of destroying traditional Chinese medicine and qigong, the Communists saw the advantage of using this age-old and much cheaper form of medicine and healing on a national level. A complete re-evaluation and re-organisation of Chinese medicine took place, so that it could be taught within universities and practiced within the framework of Western medicine in hospitals. For this to happen, the more complex and spiritual notions within Chinese medicine had to be stripped and purged, especially anything related to Buddhism or Daoism, emotions, virtue, or matters of the spirit. This was an incredible disservice to Chinese medicine, but the silver lining is that it survived, evolved and was able to be used throughout the country, even if in a simplified fashion of the ‘barefoot doctors’.

The 1950’s also saw a resurgence and popularization of qigong, but specifically medical qigong, with the openings of further qigong hospitals and new modes of therapy. Qigong is often called the fifth branch of Chinese medicine (the others being acupuncture, herbal therapy, dietetics, and tui-na massage). As such, any Daoist ideas or connotations within qigong had to be re-branded as scientific and in service to the communist cause. It is said the main reason for qigong’s resurgence at this time is due to prominent members of the political elite falling ill and only being able to be healed by certain qigong doctors, which gave the qigong community special support. However, this was to all change through the 1960’s, as the ‘Cultural Revolution’, which killed tens of millions of people, basically shut-down any public qigong practice until the mid 1970’s. This period was a major trauma for the Chinese people; it cannot be understated how shocking and emotionally numbing this period was for the majority people who lived through it. So, when Mao Zedong’s reign and madness was halted, China began a slow recovery, both emotional and economic, through the ‘70s and ‘80s. A very interesting twist of fate occurred then. They called it ‘Qigong Fever’.

In 1970’s China pretty much every aspect of your life was dictated to- where you would work, live, and even who you married had to be sanctioned. Most people were socially restricted to their housing and work ‘units’, with very little freedom to socialize or doing any kind of leisure activity outside of government control. Except qigong. For some reason, and most likely from support from some elite Communist party members, people were allowed to gather in groups outside of their units, in the parks and practice qigong. In a way this set the precedent for the opening up of China from it’s traumatized state, as people went crazy for it- qigong became a nationwide craze, with suddenly millions of people practicing different types of qigong. In the late 80s it reached a fever-pitch, with superstar qigong teachers holding events for tens of thousands of people at sports stadiums. The incredible demand for learning qigong created a vacuum for new teachers, and thousands of new qigong forms were invented, many people suddenly began calling themselves qigong masters. The lure of power and prestige drew in some unscrupulous people into this once traditional art. It was a riot! And eventually it exploded into full-on corruption, megalomania, and apocalyptic millennialism in 1990’s.

At the time, little was known about trauma and it’s effects. PTSD was a term yet to be invented. We now know that emotional trauma has as much to do with the body as with the mind. And to heal trauma, learning to relax into the body and settle the nervous system is key. This is exactly what qigong aims to do- to learn to listen deeply to the body, to ground and root ourselves in space and time, and release what binds us. In many cutting-edge therapies today there is a goal to let the body spontaneously release the nervous tension (sometimes called the allostatic load) that is frozen in the system when a shock occurs. This can happen through subtle trembling or body movements. This is also what occurs in many forms of qigong, it is called Zi Fa Gong, spontaneous release, and many people attest to having experienced dramatic healing and recovery through this process. It seems to me that the incredible surge in the popularity of qigong in the ‘80s was an instinctive reaction to try to heal from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and the Civil War. More people were practicing qigong in Communist China than at any other time in the countries history. As the prime motive for most qigong was health-related, it certainly seems like it had a hugely positive impact on the national psyche. In the same way, if you are suffering from old or new trauma or shock, qigong can provide a key to recovery.

However, the last caveat which must be stressed- use wisdom in approaching this practice. If it has the power to heal it has the power to harm. In the late ‘80s the Chinese psychiatric hospitals had to create a new diagnosis for a stream of people who were brought in by their family’s and friends for becoming delusional- they called it ‘qigong psychosis’, believing they had supernatural powers. It became apparent that they were all practicing the same style of qigong, which was freshly invented by a new ‘qigong master’, and stressed focusing energy towards the head. The same caution can be said for meditation in general- if we have strong mindfulness and concentration, but lack discernment, wisdom, or insight, then we risk becoming unbalanced, addicted to stillness. If you are unsure about what wisdom you have on this matter- read, learn, and keep studying from different sources and you will gain the perspective to put this practice in context and adapt it to your own needs and experience. Better yet, explore different classes and learn directly from a teacher you trust and resonate with.

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