The History of Qigong
With roots in ancient Chinese culture dating back more than 4,000 years, a wide variety of qigong forms have developed within different segments of Chinese society: intraditional Chinese medicine for preventive and curative functions, in Confucianism to promote longevity and improve moral character, in Daoism and Buddhism as part of meditative practice, and in Chinese martial arts to enhance fighting abilities.
Contemporary qigong blends diverse and sometimes disparate traditions, in particular the Daoist meditative practice of “internal alchemy” (Neidan 內丹术), the ancient meditative practices of “circulating qi” (Xing qi 行氣) and “standing meditation” (Zhan zhuang 站桩), and the slow gymnastic breathing exercise of “guiding and pulling” (Dao yin 導引). Traditionally, knowledge about qigong was passed from adept master to student in elite unbroken lineages, typically with secretive and esoteric traditions of training and oral transmission, and with an emphasis on meditative practice by scholars and gymnastic or dynamic practice by the working masses.
Starting in the late 1940s and the 1950s, the mainland Chinese government tried to integrate disparate qigong approaches into one coherent system, with the intention of establishing a firm scientific basis for qigong practice. In 1949, Liu Guizhen established the name “Qigong” to refer to the system of life preserving practices that he and his associates developed based on Dao yin and other philosophical traditions. This attempt is considered by some sinologists as the start of the modern or scientific interpretation of qigong.
During the Great Leap Forward (1958–1963) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), qigong, along with other traditional Chinese medicine, was under tight control with limited access among the general public, but was encouraged in state-run rehabilitation centers and spread to universities and hospitals. After the Cultural Revolution, qigong, along with t’ai chi, was popularized as daily morning exercise practiced en masse throughout China.
Popularity of qigong grew rapidly during the Deng and Jiang eras after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 through the 1990s, with estimates of between 60 and 200 million practitioners throughout China. Along with popularity and state sanction came controversy and problems: claims of extraordinary abilities bordering on the supernatural, pseudoscienceexplanations to build credibility, a mental condition labeled qigong deviation, formation of cults, and exaggeration of claims by masters for personal benefit.
In 1985, the state-run “National Qigong Science and Research Organization” was established to regulate the nation’s qigong denominations. In 1999, in response to widespread revival of old traditions of spirituality, morality, and mysticism, and perceived challenges to State control, the Chinese government took measures to enforce control of public qigong practice, including shutting down qigong clinics and hospitals, and banning groups such as Zhong Gong and Falun Gong.
Since the 1999 crackdown, qigong research and practice have only been officially supported in the context of health and traditional Chinese medicine. The Chinese Health Qigong Association, established in 2000, strictly regulates public qigong practice, with limitation of public gatherings, requirement of state approved training and certification of instructors, and restriction of practice to state-approved forms.
Through the forces of migration of the Chinese diaspora, tourism in China, and globalization, the practice of qigong spread from the Chinese community to the world. Today, millions of people around the world practice qigong and believe in the benefits of qigong to varying degrees. Similar to its historical origin, those interested in qigong come from diverse backgrounds and practice it for different reasons, including for recreation, exercise, relaxation, preventive medicine, self-healing, alternative medicine, self-cultivation,meditation, spirituality, and martial arts training.