Understanding Qi

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A wounded and dyingyoung martial artist returning from a bloody battle finds his way to his elderly master. The masterconcentrates his qi into the student and heals him. The master, having used up the last of his qi, having given it all to the student, dies within the hour.

Fables like this are common in martial arts lore. They illustrate the link between healing qi and the martial arts. However, it can be difficult to attain a clear understanding of the terms qi and qi gong because of their wide variety of uses and contexts. Consider the three photographs shown on the next page of qigong masters promoting their skills circa 1900; a man bending a spear pressed against his throat, another having bricks smashed on his chest, and a third man, swallowing a sword. Popular performances of qi gong have changed little since that time. Most martial art tournaments today include some demonstration of qi powers replete with a variety of "internal-power demonstrations." Audiences thoroughly enjoy shows that include spear-bending, brick and rock breaking, and the like. This is entertainment and, depending on how one defines the subject, not necessarily representative of internal power mastery.

What makes the matter more confusing is that these skills are lumped together with Taoist longevity exercises, traditional medical healing, Buddhist and Taoist meditation, sexual qi techniques, and more. A partial list of purported benefits of qi gong include longevity benefits, lower blood pressure, cures for cancer, the ability to lighten one's weight so as not to leave a footprint on rice paper, the ability to break bricks and tiles with slight or no physical force, the ability to toss an opponent without physical force, acquiring

Master Liu performing a Ba Gua Qi Cong exercise.
Chi Gong Spear Break Incident

Qi gong master demonstrating bending a spear by pressing against it with his throat. 1900 Beijing (Peking).

A qi gong master having bricks smashed on his chest as he is suspended between two benches. Beijing 1900.

Qi gong master demonstrating bending a spear by pressing against it with his throat. 1900 Beijing (Peking).

A qi gong master having bricks smashed on his chest as he is suspended between two benches. Beijing 1900.

A qi gong master demonstrates swallowing a sword. Beijing 1900.

the "death touch," the ability to be unaffected by extremes of temperature, the ability to project a healing force toward others without physical contact, and protection from the effects of swords or bullets.

Present-day China is witnessing an upsurge of interest in qi gong. According to one account reported in the Los Angeles Times it is estimated that sixty million people now practice the art form compared to a few hundred thousand a decade ago. In the report, qi gong is defined as "a blend of Chinese medicine, Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, magicians' tricks and traditional exercises that is quickly expanding to fill a deep spiritual void in Chinese life."61 The problem is the same in China as everywhere qi gong is demonstrated. How can one make sense of such mixed claims where serious practitioners of traditional medicine use the identical term as the "kung fu" show artists, magicians, and practitioners of yogic meditation? The skills demonstrated by these various professions, although often sharing common themes, are not the same. A brief discussion of the variant models of qi and qi gong is useful.

Chinese Sword Swallower

A qi gong master demonstrates swallowing a sword. Beijing 1900.

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