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Qigong/Neigong as a therapy

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People practicing Chi KungQigong (also seen written as Chi Kung) as a therapy is becoming common place in the West; to us it is something new. However it has been mentioned throughout China’s long history, some scholars have dated it back thousands of years. Its roots are firmly embedded in the Taoist philosophies, though it has a Chan Buddhist aspect also.

The term Qigong has come to mean different things to different people, the cause of this confusion may lie in the many different types of Qigong available to learn and its particular application. Qigong can be translated in two ways; Qi can be interpreted as air or energy and Gong translates as work, however the term as it is defined by Frantzis (1998, p332) in his book "The Power of Internal Martial Arts" describes it as "Energy work/power", Reid (1989, p144) defines Qigong as "both breathing exercise and energy control".

Firstly, as Qigong can be considered both air and energy work, it is essential to define the parameters of this treatise; therefore we shall be discussing the forms of Qigong which are Chinese in origin and which have an Internal root. These may be either air or energy based practises but have there roots in the "Nei jia" (which means Internal family) and work on the inside of the body so as to have no obvious signs externally other than a healthy appearance.

We shall examine the history of Qigong over the many dynasties to present day and give examples on some of the documented breakthroughs that were achieved by its more notable historical practitioners. The aim of this essay is not to prove the efficacy of Qigong but to mark its steady development and refinements.

Qigong is the practice of breathing techniques that can be implemented whilst sitting, standing or in moving postures; it is even possible to do some Qigong whilst lying down should it be necessary. Qigong is a very old practice, not only in China but also in India and the surrounding countries. There are various forms of Qigong, some have martial applications, which are the development of energy to be employed in fighting techniques, yet all have health benefits. This is because in order to develop Qi for either purpose the health of the practitioner has to improve and does improve as the energy develops and circulates.

Qigong has its origins lost in the mists of time but written references date back thousands of years. Reid in his book the Tao of Health, Sex and Longevity (1989, p144) claims an early reference to Qigong therapy written on "12 jade tablets dating from the mid — sixth century BC". Reid (1998, p27) claims an even earlier prehistoric Chinese origin in his book Chi - Gung to a "Great Dance (da — wu) discovered to have beneficial effects for those who performed it frequently" he sets the date for the discovery at around 10,000 years ago.

There are also comments in ancient Chinese texts that allude to Qigong and a thorough understanding of it, one such example is the Tao Te Ching which is a poem written approximately 2500 years ago and attributed to Lao Tzu which means old sage/man. In the translation by Ch’u (1989, p44) he translates the ancient script to say "It stands alone and never changes; it pervades everywhere and never becomes exhausted. It may be regarded as the mother of the Universe". Lam (1991, p21) has translated this excerpt to mean "standing alone and unchanging, one can observe every mystery, present at every moment and ceaselessly continuing — this is the gateway to indescribable marvels." This alludes to the standing postures of Qigong and the potential experiences that can be witnessed by practitioners of these exercises.

Taoism has been linked to Qigong for thousands of years and is considered to be the root of Qigong as a health practice, as Reid points out "in Taoist lore the original progenitor of the health and longevity practices, with which Chi-gung has been linked so long, was the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di)." Wang and Moffett (1994, p5) note a reference to Qigong in the Huang Di Nei Ching as it "describes a method of xing-qi" which is a respiratory technique.

During the Han dynasty a famous physician called Hua To developed an exercise called the "play of the five beasts" (Wu chin shi) using it as a "physical therapy to cure disease" Reid (1998, p31). In the same period lived Wei Po Yang who wrote a book on Taoist alchemy called "Tsan Tung Chi" in this text he expounds on the art of breathing deeply and transforming energy. Throughout the Han dynasty a number of Taoist alchemical texts appeared which shows how the ancient Chinese explored the use and effects of breathing exercises on health and many of the recorded prominent people practised these arts and often wrote about them too.

Another such person within the Han era was a military hero called Tsao Tsao, who was a student and patient of Hua To, "who practised Chi gong as part of his own personal health regime" Reid (1998, p31). During the Western Han era emerged a book called "Dao Ying Xing Qi Fa" (Way of encouraging free flow of Qi). This set of drawings are taken from the Dao Ying Xing Qi Fa as reproduced by Lam (1991, p81).

They show a method of Qigong exercises created to increase health and well-being. Qigong now flourished through the Han dynasty and continued to do so in the following dynasties right through to the present day, with only the odd minor set back. Despite Qigong being a predominantly Taoist art it was adapted by the Buddhists to a more external exercise whilst retaining the term Qigong. These are predominantly physical strengthening exercises i.e. to increase muscular power, though they may contain some Internal elements, and correctly termed Wai Qigong meaning external energy work also known as "air Chi kung".

Ta Mo (Bodhidarma) came to China during the southern Liang dynasty and influenced Chinese meditation and health practices notably by long hours of meditation and callisthenics. It is considered by Reid (1998, p34) that Ta Mo combined meditation and martial arts and in his view "completely revolutionising both spiritual and martial cultivation in China", he goes on to state that it was only after Ta Mo that the Chinese then "built their practices on the Internal elixir (nei dan)" (1998, p54).

This last statement by Reid is one that is often heard in reference to Chinese meditative and martial arts but one that in the author's opinion is more myth than reality. The silk roads and other trade routes with China’s bordering countries were open for many years prior to the appearance of Ta Mo therefore culture and ideas would have been exchanged. Furthermore in the BBC series "The Way Of The Warrior" the narrator tells of a monk, and implies a number of monks over many years, that arrived (many years before the birth of Ta Mo) at a town called "Kantupurum" where he settled. It is implied by the narrator that he taught martial arts due to the fact that upon his death a line of pagodas were built to honour him and upon these were carved fighting figures in different poses. Ta Mo came from this town and it is entirely possible that the arts left behind by this monk, or others, were the foundations of Ta Mo’s teachings, thereby returning to the source.

Through the Tang dynasty lived a physician called Chao Yuan Fang who wrote a book entitled "Chu Ping Hou Lun" (Discussion of Causes and symptoms of Disease) Reid (1998, p35) points out that held within are "over 250 ways of enhancing the flow of energy" by using Qigong. As time progressed the various types of Qigong were refined and enhanced; as people became more adept within the practice, understanding grew.

A good example of this is a Qigong exercise called the Ba Duan Jin (Eight pieces of Brocade). These exercises are used to improve health by clearing Meridians and balancing the organs. They are attributed to General Yeuh Fei, who lived during the Sung dynasty. He "developed a set of twelve fundamental exercises to train his army, these he later simplified to eight" Lam (1991, p81). This set of exercises were accepted as useful by Taoists and Buddhists alike and Lam (1991, p81) points out that "visitors to the famous Shaolin Temple in Henan, China will see statues of the monks performing Ba Duan Jin".

Developments have continued through to the present day, which is inline with the Taoist philosophy of change being a natural part of life. The last documented significant change was the development of "Zhan Zhuang" (also known as Da Cheng Quan) by Wang Xiang Zhai which came about in the 1940’s. These Qigong postures have their roots in the Qigong practices of the past. Wang Xuanjie (1990, p297) tells us that "Dachengquan is a set of barehanded exercises for health-keeping and combat", this shows that the history of health and martial arts have constantly been linked from the earliest recordings to the present day discoveries.


To conclude; it is reasonable to say that Qigong has been developing over many thousands of years and through practice, understanding and observations of results it has been cultivated into the many various styles that exist today. In the west there has been no similar development of breathing exercises that improve the quality of health.

It is the author's opinion that the Taoists are responsible for the discovery of the Qigong and are also the ones most responsible for its development over its long history.

Despite the Chan Buddhists using Qigong and developing a similar branch, the true Internal art of Qigong would appear to be firmly rooted in Taoist practices, principles and philosophy. Reid’s statement of Ta Mo’s influence bringing the Internal side and martial side together is one that lacks credibility except in legend. This can be seen by the numerous ancient texts written before Ta Mo’s appearance elaborating upon Qigong uses and experiences, e.g. the Tao Te Ching.

Although no reference is made to the fighting arts in the poem, other references to fighting monks travelling beyond China’s borders well before the time of Ta Mo give a reasonable cause to doubt that Ta Mo was singularly responsible for such a step.

As with Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong requires the patient and/or practitioner to have some involvement, in this case it is an exercise for them to practice. Only through this effort will any person gain the benefits that can be obtained from such a practice. This is a concept which is now almost entirely unknown to the average western patient. This is possibly due to the role that western medicine and science have assumed in controlling public health. However Qigong as a practice, whether it is for health or as a means to an ends in the martial arts, has found a place in western society. Therefore it is possible that, in time, the western medical establishment may ascertain the many benefits of this ancient exercise and utilise it within modern day medicine for the benefit of patients.

The traditions of Qigong pervade Chinese history from some of the earliest written records. Through the ages these traditions have been refined and new methods discovered; furthermore they all have a health aspect to them. It has been shown that there is a strong link between the martial arts and health practices and this may well be because the traditions of Chinese culture is to emphasise ones health. It is also testament to the Chinese cultural attitude to both the elderly and reverence to their wisdom that they have not only maintained this cultural gem for health but managed to keep it throughout its own turbulent history and share it with the rest of the world.

There is a saying, possibly from China, which states that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors; those traditions that never die are the ones that have listened to the wisdom that has gone before them and developed on from that wisdom and not discard it for new ideas that have yet to prove their worth. With the National Health Service finding it harder to deal with the growing numbers of problems that are now using up limited resources; it might be possible that arts like Qigong will prove to be a very useful aid, in the fight for the nations health. It should be noted that prevention is better than cure and is much more cost efficient.

Ch’u. T.K. (1989). Tao Te Ching. (8th ed). Great Britain: Unwin Paperbacks.

Croucher. M. (1983). Kung Fu: the hard way. The Way of the Warrior. [Video]. Bristol: BBC.

Frantzis. B.K. (1998). The Power of Internal Martial Arts. California: North Atlantic Books.

Lam. K.C. (1991). The Way of Energy. United Kingdom: Gaia Books Ltd

Reid. D. (1989). The Tao of Health, Sex and Longevity. (2nd) Glasgow: Pocket Books.

Wang. X. J. (1990). "Anecdotes of Dachengquan founder Wang Xiang Zhai". Martial Arts of China. Volume 1, issue no. 7, 297-299.

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