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Back to Introductory Qigong Articles

History of Qi (Chi) Cultivation

Roger Jahnke O.M.D

In the 1600's the social, scientific and philosophical history of western culture experienced a radical shift. The work of Newton and Galileo literally revised our world. For hundreds of years the humans were locked in the stagnation of the dark ages, with little advance since fire, the wheel and the sword. Then, in less than the life span of an oak tree, tremendous and sudden evolution occured with the rapid development of engineering, the automobile and antibiotics.

Western culture is at the edge of another profound and dramatic transformation. For the last 400 years we have understood that the world was a dynamic interelationship of substances, particles and bodies. Now, through the most refined scientific inquiry, it has become clear that there is no substance. What we thought was substance has been revealed as a dynamic interelationship of energies. Physics is now redefining time and space and generating a whole new sciences of resonance and energy fields. There is even emerging agreement on a theory that suggests that there are more than three dimensions of space and one of time. Again as in the 1600's everything is dramatically changing.

Oriental philosophies and the ancient personal transformation traditions of the pre-colonial, original cultures have always held that the world we experience through our senses is but a fragment of what "is". In addition, an individual's energy field is proposed to be more central to who they are than their physical body. As western science digs itself out from under it's "seeing is believing" position what occurs is a profound validation of ideas and traditions that were called "mysterious", "savage", "unscientific", and "primitive" as little as a decade ago. As we now use science to explain the "why" and the "how" of the mysterious, unusual arts and disciplines are revealed as practical and meaningful.

The medicine of the Asian cultures, which once seemed so strange, useless and unsophisticated by the scientific standards of the 20th century European world view is now licensed as primary medical care in a number of states and is a solid component in an emerging "new medicine". Oriental medicine is completely consistent with the supposed "new" idea in rational science that a person is more of a resonating field than a substance. The Chinese, however, never demanded the scientific proof that is now pouring forth, they just followed what they knew, from generations of experience, to be effective and real. Acupuncture has helped to needle science into the exploration and confirmation of important new information on the bio-electrical aspect of the human. It has played a significant role in the exciting and rapidly developing frontier of neurotransmitter bio-chemistry and is a central aspect of a revolutionary new treatment for addictions.

Acupuncture, however, is really just a modality, a tool used by doctors of oriental medicine to help the patient. Like surgery, though much less invasive or like medication though less likely to cause side-effects, acupuncture has startling implications for the future of medicine. The aspect of oriental medicine that has the potential to truly rock the western world is Qigong. Healing patients without touching them and with no medication, causing anesthesia by just pointing a finger and generating an acupuncture like response without needles are well documented effects of Qigong. Many observers have seen Qigong masters light florescent tubes with their hands, break massive stones and thick steel bars with their hands and feet and start fires by projecting the Qi.(5,6,7,11,16,22) The implications for the transformational impact of Qigong on western science are profound.

Qigong has captured the imagination and the scientific attention of the world. In China there is a multitude of Qigong research institutes. The need for research in the rigorous scientific method of the West, with control groups and ample statistical methodologies has shifted Qigong research out of the traditional empirical model of the Asian sciences. A flurry of research was presented at the historic First World Conference for the Academic Exchange of Medical Qigong which was attended by representatives from 17 countries. In the United States Qigong associations and institutes are proliferating rapidly.

In the San Francisco area the American Foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine is working with Professor William Tiller of Stanford University on a collaborative research project exploring bioluminescence, expression of photons from the Qigong practitioner. The Qigong Institute of the East West Academy of the Healing Arts has a research team and a monthly scientific forum. In Southern California Qigong Universal is actively supporting the spread of Qigong teachings and the World Research Foundation is collecting Qigong information on its world wide scientific database and in its library. There is even a Qigong Association in Alabama, Chinese National Chi Kung Association, which has an extensive written and video training course and has begun to publish a magazine in collaboration with China Sports Magazine of China that has a major percentage of its content devoted to Qigong.

What is Qigong?
Qigong is one of the great mysteries of the Asia. It is the most profound of the aspects of Asian medicine. It is the root of self-care, in the Chinese health care system. It is the essence of the how "physician heal thy self" operates in China. Qigong is the grand overriding structure of the martial arts and is the central practice of the "internal arts". It is the current link to the ancient source of Asian shamanism and magic. And yet, with all of these qualities of the unusual and the esoteric, Qigong has a very practical role in the maintenance of health and the healing of disease.

Cultivating the Human Bio-Electric Field
The Chinese character that gives us the word Qi means the human vitality or essential functional energy of life. It also means breath. Bio-electrical breath, resonating bio-electrical field and human bio-magnetic field are other translation attempts that give a rich and graphic image for the Qi. It is the Qi or life force that maintains the healthy and harmonious function of the human body's self regulating systems. It is the Qi that the doctor of oriental medicine manipulates with acupuncture. It is the Qi that binds the planets into a solar system, holds the electrons in their orbital shells around the nucleus of the atom and drives the sprout upward, against 14.7 pounds per square inch of gravity, to reach for the sun.

The character that gives us the word Gong means "to cultivate" or "engage in". In every Asian community there is a wonderful place called the cultural hall or institute of culture. Sometimes it is called the school of physical culture. This idea of culture derives from the act of cultivation, which requires time, discipline and intention. Gong means to practice, train, enhance and refine but it also implies enjoyment, devotion and commitment. If some one loves to cook, garden or meditate and if they are devoted to practice and refinement, then, one's engagement in these practices is Gong. Because one of the all time favorite pastimes in China is gong fu, which in many historical periods has meant fighting or boxing, the idea of gong is often associated with the martial arts. . In fact, however, gong is applicable to any practice, discipline or self development art in which a person is deeply involved.

Qigong, simply stated, is the cultivation of Qi or vital life energy. Stated in a more modern and scientific language, Qigong is the practice of activating, refining and circulating the human bio-electical field. Because the bioelectrical field maintains and supports the function of the organs and tissues, Qigong can have a profound effect on health. Beyond this Qigong expands into a discipline of mental and spiritual development. There are many systems and traditions of Qigong ranging from simple calesthentic type movements with breath coordination to complex auto regulatory type exercises where brain wave frequency, heart rate and other organ functions are altered intentionally by the practitioner. In extremely advanced levels of practice the Qigong practitioner can transmit Qi or energy across distances and through substances. There are cases where the practitioner can manipulate the limbs of a subject from a distance and diagnose physiological disturbances without conversation or palpation.(5,6,7,22)

History and Tradition: The Roots of Chinese Light Alchemy
There is a growing literature on the history, tradition, science and practice of Qigong. (1-24) Its origin is shrouded in the mystery of ancient China. There are stories of special techniques of breath practice that lead to immortality, healing powers, and special abilities. During the ancient Shang dynasty (1766-1154 BC) there is evidence of a system to stimulate, what are now called acupuncture reflexes, that help to resolve disturbances of the Qi.

During the Chou dynasty and the Warring States periods (1100-221 BC) records appeared on bambo and on bronze that refer to breath practice. A number of Lao Tze's greatly revered verses suggest breath practice and the benefits of merging with the forces and elements of nature. A famous prescription of the period is frequently referred to and because of the wide variation of possible meanings for early Chinese ideograms it has many various translations.

The following translation is from Helmut Wilhelm, the son of Richard Wilhelm who translated the "I-Ching" and "Secret of the Golden Flower", "With breathing proceed as follows: The breath should be held and it will be gathered. If it is gathered, it becomes magic. If it becomes magic, it descends. If it descends, it quiets down. If it quiets down, it solidifies. If it is solidified, then it germinates. If it germinates, it grows. If it grows, it is attracted upward. If it is attracted upward, it reaches toward the heaven. In heaven, it ascends upward still. At the lower end, it descends still. Those who follow this will live, those who act contrary will die."(22)

The great Taoist poet/philosopher Chuang Tzu stated, in 300 BC, "the ancients breathed down to their heels". This suggests that the breath, in the form of the Qi, is projected and circulated throughout the body. In 1973 an archeological excavation of a Han dynasty (220 BC-220 AD) tomb in Hunan Province revealed a series of over 40 figures painted onto a silk scroll doing various Qigong movements.(22) It is reported that while many of the inscriptions have become unreadable one is clear which says "look skyward and exhale".(22)In this same period one of the first great acupuncture and herbal medicine practitioners, Bien Chieuh, taught breath practice to enhance the circulation of the Qi.(15)

It is a strong tradition in oriental medicine to teach a person to maintain health and many famous physicians developed systems of exercise. In the third century AD, Hua To, whose place in the history of oriental medicine is so illustrious that a series of important acupuncture points bear his name, developed a series of Qigong exercises called the "five animal forms". In the sixth century, Da Mo, a monk in the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, also known as Bodhidarma, came from India and found the monks of Shaolin Temple weakly and undisciplined. He introduced a combination of movement forms with Buddhist meditation that invigorated the monks and increased their power. This was the beginning of the tradition of the superior martial artists of the Shaolin Temple.

Many lineages of Qigong have developed over the centuries. The martial Gong enhances the the strength, endurance and spirit of the warrior. The medical Gong can be used to heal diseases. Confucian Qigong is focused on self cultivation, ethical development and refinement of personal tempermant. The Taoist Gong is aimed at alchemical transmutation, merging with nature, longevity and immortality. The Buddhist Gong seeks refinement of mind, transcending the world of illusion and salvation of all living things.

In the "New China" following the revolution in the 1940's Qigong briefly disappeared. One elder practitioner reported through a 1986 LA times article that "At that time it (Qigong) was witchcraft, so I chanted Maoist slogans like everyone else." The article continues "since then Qigong has qualified for official patronage and a national society has been formed to classify and describe the Qi".

In the 1970'sand 80's numerous institutes for the study of Qigong have sprung up in China. Many hospitals now have Qigong doctors on staff and Qigong classes as regular allied treatment with acupuncture, herbs and western medical modalities. There is a genuine renaissance of Qigong occuring in China. The western world, with its tremendous breakthrough of quantum physics, has taken up a sincere fascination with the bio-energetics of Qigong.(7,11)

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