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Qigong
Chinese: 氣功
Simplified Chinese: 气功
Hanyu Pinyin: qìgōng
Wade-Giles: ch'i4 kung1

 

Qi Gong Overview

Qigong (or ch'i kung) refers to a wide variety of traditional “cultivation” practices that involve methods of accumulating, circulating, and working with Qi or energy within the body. Qigong is sometimes mistakenly said to always involve movement and/or regulated breathing; in fact, use of special methods of focusing on particular energy centers in and around the body are common in the 'higher level' or evolved forms of Qigong. Qigong is practiced for health maintenance purposes, as a therapeutic intervention, as a medical profession, a spiritual path and/or component of Chinese martial arts.

The 'qi' in 'qigong' means breath or gas in Chinese, and, by extension, 'life force', 'energy' or even 'cosmic breath'. 'Gong' means work applied to a discipline or the resultant level of skill, so 'qigong' is thus 'breath work' or 'energy work'. The term was coined in the twentieth-century and its currency, Montreal scholar David Ownby suggests, speaks of a cultural desire to separate 'cultivation' from 'superstition', to secularize and preserve valuable aspects of traditional Chinese practices.

Attitudes toward the scientific basis for qigong vary markedly. Most Western medical practitioners and many practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, as well as the Chinese government, view qigong as a set of breathing and movement exercises, with possible benefits to health through stress reduction and exercise. Others see qigong in more metaphysical terms, claiming that cosmic qi can be drawn into the body and circulated through channels (meridians).

The rise of qigong

Montreal scholar David Ownby understands qigong as a development of post-Mao China, contending that with the end of the Cultural Revolution came an implicit admission in China that Marxist ideology was useless, and that the 'totalitarian state' wherein the party leader was 'god' was all but defunct. A spiritual crisis thus ensued. Because the 'big religions' were desecrated and banned during the Cultural Revolution, to many Chinese they no longer held the attraction they once did. Qigong is said to have evolved within this historical context, as a “spiritual, slightly mystical branch of Chinese medicine.” Ownby gives a similar account of the history of qigong in China. Qigong was promoted in post-Mao China for both practical and ideological reasons, and in this period it took on "unprecedented importance." On a practical level, it was hoped that qigong would improve the general health of the populace and thus curtail government healthcare expenditure. Ideologically, Ownby contends that many within the Communist government were 'quite taken' with the idea of qigong being a specifically 'Chinese science', a part of the PRC's "new nationalism, a frequently chauvinistic claim to cultural greatness and superpower status." Qigong was not considered religious either by the authorities or by qigong practitioners, which immensely helped its growth. Eventually the state-administered China Qigong Scientific Research Association was formed, supposed to register qigong groups and conduct 'scientific' research. By the time the association was established, there were already 2000 qigong organisations and between 60 and 200 million practitioners across China.

Qigong quickly became a social phenomenon of 'considerable importance'; the topic was also explored by novelists and journalists, and qigong newspapers and magazines appeared in abundance to cater for the public's interest in the subject. The original small-group, master-disciple pattern was transformed into a mass experience, with qigong 'masters' organising 'mass rallies' to demonstrate to paying customers a range of qigong specific phenomena such as trance, possession, and a variety of otherworldly states. Qigong was practised widely in public parks and on university campuses. Demographics included both the 'old and suffering' as well as the 'young and curious'. Ownby suggests that the profile of qigong practitioners during this period fit that of the Chinese population in general, “men and women, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, powerful and powerless, urban and rural, Party and non-Party.”

Johnson writes that the early 1990s saw a 'qigong craze', with qigong being a widely accepted part of society. Qigong was able to adapt itself to a scientific discourse, which allowed it to survive the suspicions of the atheist state. It was heralded as a form of physical therapy, to be supervised by doctors. Experiments were conducted which purported to show that qigong could cure chronic health problems. Claims that qigong could have some role in developing latent 'supernatural powers' also emerged, such as the ability to levitate, heal illness, telekinesis through emissions of qi, the ability to 'read via the ear', and a “host of other remarkable talents, many of which would fall under our category of extrasensory perception.”

Johnson opines that the Party was to some degree still distrustful of qigong. Qigong remained a private exercise, as opposed to formal religions which center on temples, churches and mosques. These can be run by government officials and are ensured to remain loyal to the state. Johnson's analysis here coincides with that of Chan. While qigong is focused inwardly, outside the state's control, it is performed publicly in groups: “To a government that is used to controlling all aspects of public life, this is perplexing: qigong practitioners are in public and doing something en masse, so by rights they should be formed in an organisation and this organisation should in some way be run by the government. But what they are doing together is meditating, an inner discipline that the party can't monitor.” Ownby suspects that qigong's ostensible autonomy from the state is in fact partly what contributed to its great popularity. Johnson writes that the 1990s saw an 'uneasy standoff'; the 'Three Nos' policy was adopted: No Promoting, No Criticizing, No Debating.

Ownby comments that the emergence of qigong coincided at a historic moment where technology and means of communication — such as books, tapes, television and Internet — were greatly advanced, allowing such groups to become aware of their size and geographical reach. Ownby suggests that this is a paradoxical situation of a deeply rooted Chinese tradition now adapting to a modern setting.

Uses of Qigong

Today millions of people in China and around the world regularly practice qigong as a health maintenance exercise. Qigong and related disciplines are still associated with the martial arts and meditation routines practiced by Taoist and Buddhist monks, professional martial artists, and their students. Once more closely guarded, in the modern era such practices have become widely available to the general public both in China and around the world.

Medical qigong treatment has been officially recognized as a standard medical technique in Chinese hospitals since 1989. It has been included in the curriculum of major universities in China. After years of debate, the Chinese government decided to officially manage qigong through government regulation in 1996 and has also listed qigong as part of their National Health Plan.

Qigong can help practitioners to learn diaphragmatic breathing, an important component of the relaxation response, which is important in combating stress. In contrast, Daoist qigong employs the inverse breath of inhaling to the back of the thoracic cavity rather than diaphragmatic breathing. Improper use of diaphragmatic breathing can lead to reproductive pathologies for women.

Qigong is also seen as a socially conducive warm up to the day. There is concern over some overly spiritual aspects of qigong. Many practitioners choose the early morning to practice qigong and find it an easy way to stretch and warm up the metabolism whilst connecting with others in their neighbourhood.

Qigong, and its intimate relation the Chinese martial arts and traditional Chinese medicine, are often associated with spirituality. This link is much stronger than with other techniques in traditional Chinese medicine. Qigong was historically practiced in Daoist and Buddhist monasteries as an aid to concentration as well as martial arts training, and the health benefits of martial qigong practice have recently been confirmed in western medical studies. In addition, the traditional teaching methods of most qigong schools (at least in Asia) descend from the strict teacher-disciple relationship conventions inherited in Chinese culture from Confucianism.

In some styles of qigong, it is taught that humanity and nature are inseparable, and any belief otherwise is held to be an artificial discrimination based on a limited, two-dimensional view of human life. According to this philosophy, access to higher energy states and the subsequent health benefits said to be provided by these higher states is possible through the principle of cultivating virtue (de 德, see Dao De Jing, chapters 16, 19, 28, 32, 37, and 57). Cultivating virtue could be described as a process by which one comes to realize that one was never separated from the primal, undifferentiated state of being free of artificial discrimination that is the true nature of the universe. Progress toward this goal can be made with the aid of deep relaxation (meditation), and deep relaxation is facilitated by the practice of qigong.

The debate between what can be called "naturalist" and "supernaturalist" schools of qigong theory has produced a considerable literature. Scholar Xu Jian analysed the intellectual debate, which involved both scientific research on qigong and the prevailing revival of nationalistic traditional beliefs and values. Taking 'discourse' in its contemporary sense as referring to forms of representation that generate specific cultural and historical fields of meaning, we can describe one such discourse as rational and scientific and the other as psychosomatic and metaphysical. Each strives to establish its own order of power and knowledge, its own 'truth' about the 'reality' of qigong, although they differ drastically in their explanation of many of its phenomena.

At the center of the debate is whether and how qigong can bring forth “supernormal abilities” (teyi gongneng 特異功能).

The psychosomatic discourse emphasizes the inexplicable power of qigong and relishes its occult workings, whereas the rational discourse strives to demystify many of its phenomena and to situate it strictly in the knowledge of modern science."

The Chinese government has generally tried to encourage qigong as a science and discourage religious or supernatural elements. However, the category of science in China tends to include things that are generally not considered scientific in the West, including qigong and traditional Chinese medicine.

David Aikman wrote that unlike in America, where many may believe that qigong is a socially neutral, subjective, New Age-style concept incapable of scientific proof, much of China's scientific establishment believes in the existence of Qi. Controlled experiments by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the late 1970s and early 1980s concluded that qi, when emitted by a qigong expert, "actually constitutes measurable infrared electromagnetic waves and causes chemical changes in static water through mental concentration." (The Hindu culture refers to this as Prana, the Japanese culture uses the character ki, and the Hawaiian culture calls it mana.)

Theories about the cultivation of elixir (dan), "placement of the mysterious pass" (xuanguan shewei), among others, are also found in ancient Chinese texts such as The Book of Elixir (Dan Jing), the Daoist Canon (Dao Zang) and Guide to Nature and Longevity (Xingming Guizhi).

Controversies within qi gong

In the 1980s and 1990s, the increasing popularity of qigong and related practices led to the establishment of many groups and methods in China and elsewhere that have been viewed in a critical light by more traditional qigong practitioners as well as by skeptical outside observers. In their view, a large number of people started studying qigong under inadequate supervision, indeed, perhaps the majority of people today who study qigong work from books or video tapes and DVDs without supervision by a teacher. This laxness can lead to several problems, according to those who view themselves as representative of orthodox schools. Most traditional training takes many years of practice under the supervision of someone who has also learned over years, someone who can guide and prevent the student from taking an unbalanced approach to qigong practice. The orthodox practitioners warn that improperly supervised practice can cause unbalanced circulation of inner energies that can eventually lead to unbalanced effects on the various systems of the body, both mental and physical.

Stories of unguided practitioners or inexpertly guided students developing chronic mental and physical health problems as a result of such training are not uncommon. The term "Qi Gong-Induced Psychosis" was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, of the American Psychiatric Association in the late 1990s, and is described as a culturally bound disorder with painful psychosomatic symptoms. Dr. Arthur Kleinman and Dr. Sing Lee from Harvard Medical School, researchers on various psychiatric topics in China, suggest that in international psychiatry this illness would be recognized as “…a specific type of brief reactive psychosis or as the precipitation of an underlying mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Lee and Kleinman both claim to have had experience with patients suffering from the condition. "Many kinds of qigong share certain similarities, such as the attainment of a trance state, patterned bodily posture or movement…, the practice of which could induce mental illnesses in some of its practitioners."

 

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