The earliest beginnings of qigong are hidden within the mists of antiquity. The first type of this practice probably emerged naturally in the simple fields of ancient China. Slow-paced farmers, deeply attuned to the rhythms of nature, observed ways in which life was nurtured in plants and animals, and then, by a sort of entrainment, imitated those principles.
The documented history of what we know as qigong goes back approximately 2,500 years, but Chinese archaeologists and historians have found references to qigong-like techniques from at least 5,000 years ago. Through the centuries, Qigong has had continuous evolutionary development and many names. The name “qigong” wasn’t in general use until the twentieth century. The most commonly used early name was dao-yin, which can be interpreted as “leading and guiding the energy.”
The earliest known qigong-like movements were animal dances, perhaps first performed to counteract the effects of a cold and damp climate. Ancient Chinese shamans, often wearing a bearskin with four golden eyes on the head, would dance through a village to drive out pestilence and demons. A parade of villagers, wearing masks of various animals, would follow. These animal-posture dances have been found depicted in rock art throughout China. Also, archaeologists discovered a coffin containing a well-preserved, now-famous silk panel with captions as well as pictures.
About 1122 B.C., The Book of Change (I Ching) first recorded the concept of qi or vital energy. Studying the relationship of three powers—heaven, earth, and man—was an early step in the development of qigong. Around 450 B.C., Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, described breathing techniques in his book Dao De Jing, recommending that the breath be collected and allowed to descend in the body. Interest in breath and life force (qi) was heightened during this period and became one of the roots of Chinese Medicine, along with the concepts of yin and yang and the five elements.
Historical references indicate that qigong-like practices were common in royal and aristocratic households from ancient times. Huang Ti (The Yellow Emperor) is considered the originator of many health and longevity practices linked to qigong. His discourses were recorded in a text called The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, which first appeared in writing about 300 B.C. and is still considered the bible of Chinese medicine.
Beginning about 200 B.C. and extending to about 500 A.D., Buddhism and yoga meditation techniques that had been practiced in India for thousands of years were brought into China and absorbed into the Chinese culture. These techniques, along with Taoist internal alchemy, brought a new era to qi gong, which began to be practiced at a deeper, internal-functioning level. However, these teachings were kept secret for religious purposes and passed down to only a few specially chosen disciples in each generation. For hundreds of years, they were never taught to laymen.
Although there is archeological evidence that dao-yin was sometimes coupled with military drills at an earlier time, it was around 500 A.D. that a Buddhist monk, Bodhidarma, came from India to the Shao Lin Temple in China (where he was called Ta Mo). He is credited with unifying the spiritual and martial branches of qigong, by teaching ailing sedentary monks to strengthen their bodies through movements, while also teaching pugilistic martial artists how to softly empower their fighting through internal and spiritual practices. After his death, qigong-like trainings for martial arts continued to develop as it became evident that much advantage could be gained through these methods. These, too, were kept secret so that enemies couldn’t use them to also gain advantage.
The secrecy around qigong teachings led to thousands of different styles. Each family or village, each religious or martial-arts group, in different areas of that large country, developed their practices separately, for their own particular purposes, and passed them down only selectively within their own lineage. A few examples of distinct styles are Tai Chi, Animal Frolics, Eight Pieces of Brocade, Swimming Dragon, Microcosmic Orbit, and Six Syllable Secret.
For the general population, qigong was within traditional Chinese medicine, where many of the famous physicians were also qigong masters. Qigong was their treatment of choice, and if that practice wasn’t enough to restore balance, the physician prescribed an herbal formula and/or acupuncture. Advanced masters sometimes used “emitted” qi as a strong boost for the patient’s energy field. Over the years, medical qigong became the leading edge, providing steady development and greater systemization of qigong methods.
A huge cultural change occurred after the fall of the Ch’ing Dynasty when Cultural Revolution leaders attempted to modernize the society and reorder it according to Communist principles. Ancient practices like Taoism and Chinese Medicine were questioned and devalued as archaic. Anything that was remotely connected with religion was politically taboo. Qigong practitioners were careful to avoid government scrutiny, because anyone involved in the prohibited pursuits would likely be put in jail. For this reason, the flourishing development of qigong came to a temporary standstill.
Fortunately, revolutionary leaders fairly soon realized that it was wise to continue Chinese medicine, and thus, under that umbrella, qigong was also lifted from the ban. Qigong masters were set free, and often the very authorities who had put them in jail started wanting their services. Some even commanded well known qigong masters to come and heal them of their ailments, in what amounted to something like a “house arrest.”
Western influences and technology were coming into China more and more by this time. As one example, Dr. Qian Xue-sen, a notable figure in Chinese science, had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1930’s and later served as Goddard Professor of Jet Propulsion at the California Institute of Technology. Back in China, he began to advocate using science and technology to research qigong and Chinese medicine.
In 1985, the government approved formation of the China Qigong Science Association. Since then hundreds of controlled scientific studies of qigong have been carried out, all showing positive benefits of the practice. Qigong was being taught openly at this time, and by 1992 it was estimated that seventy to eighty million Chinese were practitioners.
During the1990’s qigong gained world-wide recognition. International conferences were held in Berkeley, California (1990) and in Vancouver, Canada (1995). By 1996, there were more than one thousand published abstracts available in English on some aspect of qigong research. Magazines appeared, such as Qi: The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health and Fitness.
In 1997, it was estimated that there were over one-hundred-thousand qigong practitioners outside of China, with several thousand of those being in the United States and Canada. The practice has grown exponentially since then, making qigong, alongside yoga, one of the most popular forms of healing exercise in the world today.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Qigong is a rich and diverse subject, even when focusing only on its history. Those wanting more detail can benefit from comprehensive coverage in The Way of Qigong; the Art and Science of Chinese Energy Healing, a scholarly volume by Kenneth S. Cohen. Especially informative—in a section called “Life Energy Around the World”—is an examination of the commonality in beliefs and practices of many early civilizations, especially regarding the connection of “breath” with life-force, spirit, and soul.
Mastering Miracles, by Dr. Hong Liu and Paul Perry, is a biographical story set in the time period when China was once again embracing qigong after the Cultural Revolution. In addition to memorable personal tales giving vivid pictures of that era and also relating many cases of amazing results from the use of external (emitted) qi, this book is valuable for its description of numerous scientific studies.
For fuller detail about influential personages and written records relating to qigong during the different dynasties in China, it can be helpful to consult Harnessing the Power of the Universe; A Complete Guide to the Principles and Practice of Chi-Gung, by Daniel Reid. An online search for “Qigong history” brings up several articles that focus on dynastic information, including A Brief History of Qigong, by Yang, Jwing-Ming, and a Wikipedia article.
Lee Holden / LeAnn Meyer