The qi part (or ch'i) of Qigong means air or inner vital energy. Translated into western medical terms it means resistance to disease, adaptability to the external environment and the ability to overcome internal troubles and regain health. In Chinese medicine for thousands of years great importance has been placed upon exercises that strengthen the vital energy.
Traditionally any exercise that dealt with breathing and internal methods was considered to be Qigong. Nowadays we tend to call the more static breathing techniques Qigong and the moving exercises by their specific names.
The content of Qigong is varied but it mainly involves the regulation of the structure (posture), regulation of the mind, regulation of the respiration, self-massage and movement of the body.
The earliest records of Qigong come from the jin wen (writings on bronzes) from the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1100 -221 BC). During the Warring States period (770 - 221 BC) Qigong developed as never before and many great thinkers emerged. In the Book of Changes or I jing, semen, internal energy and the mind were considered to be the treasures of the body. An exercise akin to Qigong called daoyin was popular at this time. An inscription on a relic found in the Warring States period read, 'Take a deep breath and sink it to tantien (a point about 3' below the navel). Hold it there for a while and then exhale it as sprouting grass until it reaches the top of your head. This causes the Yang energy to rise and the Yin energy to drop. Those whose Yang and Yin energy goes its own way will live, otherwise you will die'. This saying was part of the daoyin exercise and holds true for all Qigong nowadays including T'ai chi, pa-kua, Taoist yoga and all of the internal arts.
Found at the No. 3 Tomb excavations at Mawangdui in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, were many medical treatises and books on daoyin dating to the Western Han dynasty (206 BC — AD 24). Among these relics were pieces of silk onto which had been painted figures of men and women, young and old performing daoyin exercises. 44 pieces of silk were found. Some figures imitated the movements of the bear, ape, tiger, deer and bird which are now called 'Wuquinxi' or the five animal forms. All of these physical movements were combined with breathing techniques. Next to one of the figures were the words, 'Look skyward and exhale'.
The earliest and most famous book on medicine comes from the Warring States period and is called Huang Di Neijing (The Yellow Emperor's Manual of internal Medicine). From this book we read, 'One must breathe the essence of life, regulate one's respiration to preserve one's spirit and keep the muscles relaxed This sums up the art of T'ai chi ch'uan in a nutshell. In another part of the book we are told how to perform this exercise. 'Stand facing the South in the early morning and inhale seven times without thinking about anything'. This also depicts our Qigong perfectly.
In the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420 — 589) an Indian monk came to China to set up the Zen practices in the now famous Shaolin Monastery. He was said to be called Ta-Mo or Bodhidhama. He evolved a set of exercises combining his Qigong and Chinese wushu. This later became the basis for all of our martial arts.
Qigong was widely spread from the Han Dynasty (206 BC — AD 220) to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 — 907). It was used widely in medical treatments; one famous doctor called Caho Yuanfang of the Sui Dynasty (AD 581 — 618) said that when someone had mastered Qigong, they were able to release through their palms a sort of vital energy, which could heal others.
By the Song Dynasty (AD 960 — 1279), some Confucian students who had failed their Imperial examinations turned to the medical profession. However they placed too much emphasis on the Classical theoretical studies and neglected their practical studies. (This still happens today; many acupuncturists have excellent theory but no ch'i). As a result of this neglect, Qigong declined and was only practised among the folk doctors. Fortunately research was carried on in the religious circles and Qigong was integrated with wushu. However, the same thing happens today; Qigong is too hard for many wushu (martial arts) practitioners to understand, so they neglect their Qigong, or are never even aware of it.
From the Wong to the Quing dynasties (AD 960 — 1911), Qigong was used in connection with mysticism and many people shrugged it off as superstition. But since the turn of this century there has been a resurgence of interest and Qigong has been researched in the light of modern science. Many of the exercises which did result from superstition have been tested and discarded, but others have been retained e.g. the Eight Golden Treasures, also known by many other names.
In China today Qigong clinics have been set up to study and teach Qigong and to treat disease. Modern instruments have been used to detect infrared electromagnetic waves, and magnetic information coming from the palms of Qigong masters who are using this internal energy to treat such diseases as high blood pressure, neurosis, functional disease, paralysis, cerebral concussion and tumours of the thyroid gland. It is sometimes used as an anaesthetic, although I'd want to be very sure it worked before it was used on me!
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