It wasn’t called qigong though. The nearest equivalent over much of history would probably have been yangsheng, meaning “nourishing life”, which took in daoyin (moving forms), massage, breathing, diet, meditation and sexual practice. That term is in the Zhuangzi so we know it’s old. Qigong as a term is really not. It is actually a 20th century thing, and we owe it all to Communism.
In 1947, when party clerk Liu Guizhen cured himself of ulcers and other longtime sickliness by learning an ‘inner cultivation exercise’ (neiyanggong), the timing was just right for him to catch a rare wave of party support for such a reactionary technique. Liu was actually a friend of Chairman Mao Zedong, for better or, as proved, for worse. Acting on orders, he duly learned the entire method from a master in his native Wei county village and began abstracting out the principles. This was the moment of bud-off, and it was party-directed. Soon Liu was running a sanatorium teaching three qigong forms for general health.
It snowballed, and by the end of the 1950s there were 70 such qigong clinics and sanatoria around China, still teaching a curriculum set by the party. But this proliferation came in the Great Leap Forward period, not China’s happiest moment, and as the famines bit and Mao became marginalised in his own party by moderates like Deng Xiaoping, his answer came in the form of the Cultural Revolution. In this nightmare of cultish revitalisation, all tradition became anathema and qigong a ‘rotten relic of feudalism’. From 1966 Liu himself became a ‘class enemy’– expelled, demoted and sent for “re-education”. (He was lucky not to be killed or even eaten by mobs; that happened.) Sanatoria were hurriedly shut.Publicly taught Qigong was now out of bounds… for all save one person who started teaching it independently anyway. Her name was Guo Lin. An artist, she had no fewer than seven unsuccessful operations for her cervical cancer before developing qigong forms based on systems she’d learned from her Taoist grandfather. She designed them specifically to cure cancer, starting with her own. And they worked.
As early as 1970 Guo Lin was teaching in the Beijing parks. Success with cancer and heart disease in students was immediate. Word naturally spread. By 1971 she was a fixture in Dongdan Park and qigong had actually come into existence. Key modern twists like independence from pure religious and traditional settings, and masters who teach anyone publicly for money, all began with her.As David Palmer says, in by far the best history of all this, “Guo Lin can thus be said to have triggered the qigong wave of the 1980s”, the fever period he lovingly chronicles, with masters in every park competing for students, and the kinds of scientific testing described last post going on with some degree of official sanction. Qigong is the mix of millennia-old traditions with modern democratising, commoditising and scientising impulses imported from the West. To this meeting we owe bud-off and the worldwide movement, but without Guo Lin, who knows?
The authorities disliked her ‘fooling people with superstitious activities’ at first of course. She was harassed and interrogated, her students imprisoned, her materials confiscated. But she kept right on going, moving to different parks, her groups’ numbers growing. Features we know from modern qigong organisations (trained teaching assistants and books based on the method) began to appear. It was unstoppable, whereas the disastrous Cultural Revolution officially ended with Mao’s life in 1976. As Taoist temples everywhere finally breathed easier and relaxed their nervous watch for the Red Army, official sanction for qigong was also given, not least because party cadres were being healed by it. Under the Deng reforms the ready-primed fever period was simply allowed to explode.By 1980 there were a dozen masters per park, and eventually over a million people learned Guo Lin’s qigong. Worldwide proliferation continues. The medical qigongs alone have revolutionised lives in all kinds of affliction (target adaptability). It’s nice to happen across videos of people completely free of Parkinson’s disease for instance, with no medication. I’ve even seen people saying qigong is the best cure for a broken heart, which makes perfect sense to me. Emotions are profoundly affected by blocked ch’i, and depression can be reversed by building vitality.
For those wanting to try it
Guo’s walking qigong is easy to learn, and recommended to anyone including complete beginners. Suffering from a major illness is optional. :) Benefits are manifold. I really enjoy this qigong myself.A great way in is to get the book in English, Chinese Qigong Therapy (1988) by former Guo Lin student Zhang Mingwu. It has everything you need including some nice explanations of the physiology and energetics. You get two sets of walking qigongs, one quite brisk at 45-60 steps/minutes, the other superslow at 2-4. Also a great head self-massage, and a neat qigong using a taiji ruler. Very cheap to buy right now — under 5 dollars or pounds on Amazon.
These videos will give you an idea of what some of the moves are like:
… although the exact versions in the book are different. If you want a full video of some the forms it looks like Forest Rock have got them:
… under “Breathing and Stances”, “Opening and Closing Forms”, “Daoyin Walking Qigong”, “Toe Raising and Qi Transforming” and “Dao Yin Head Massage”, but they do charge a small fee for each. (I don’t see the ruler form there.)
However you learn, enjoy.
Commentary — This Happens All The Time
The moment qigong became a reality was closely followed by the moment it headed West. At that time, the West was where the money was. Mantak Chia was in the states by 1980 and his landmark book on the orbit appeared in 1983. One more important bud-off moment for Western spirituality — the pattern of exotic spiritual masters teaching special powers and methods to groups of students is long-established, indeed there’s a semi-hidden history to it which conventional religion tends to ignore. The yogic guru phenomenon was the previous generation’s version of course, but whirl yourself back to the Alexandria of 2,000 years ago and the portrait painted by Garth Fowden of Hermetic teachers with their circles of students is the same deal. The source there was mostly the Egyptian Thoth cult systems, recontextualised and ‘philosophised’ according to the latest Greek thought, just as qigong has been ‘scientised’ today.
I like the independence of such movements. Sometimes an ancient writer is good enough to give us records of otherwise invisible spiritual characters that make one grin… Plutarch writes (section XXI) of a hard-to-find sage living near the Persian Gulf, for example, who meets with people only once a year and hangs out with nymphs and demigods the rest of the time. Handsome, multilingual, ever free of disease, his mouth naturally perfumed (a kundalini sign, see Path Notes, p. 24) we know little more of this prophet-philosopher who didn’t teach on any wide scale, didn’t follow a particular religion, and didn’t try to build himself a school — not even his name. How many more like him were there, or are there?
The qigong hagiography, too, will be a familiar sight to habitués. Far from Glenn’s charming willingness to blab his foolish mistakes with porn, drambuie, and marriage, which make him seem far more trustworthy to me, these cover their subjects in oozing blankets of conventionalised spiritual praise to build the legend and sell seminar tickets. Many will know the one on Wang Liping, Opening the Dragon Gate (1998), thanks to the English translation it somehow got from Thomas Cleary no less. Not so many will be aware the plot can be found in more or less identical form in Eunapius’ 4th century CE story of Sosipatra, a female philosopher from what is now Turkey.
It’s a tale guaranteed to engage the salivary glands of truth-seekers. Ancient spiritual lineage holders visit a house where lives a model child of great decorum. They impress everyone with their traditional spiritual skills, then offer to take the child away for training. In Eunapius the visitors are Chaldeans rather than Dragon Gate Taoists (Chaldea, like Egypt, was a trove of spiritual wonders to Greeks as Tibet now is to many Westerners) but the result in either case is the same: the child returns saturated with supernatural gifts, and gets written up as an example of lineage powers. I hope no-one thought this stuff was original to our time.
What is different from older times is qigong’s public and fee-based teaching structure — no unmixed blessing, but a setup that has fostered the important virtue of ironic distance. People who complain about the obvious bullshit should be happy the bullshit is so obvious. It’ll always be there so let’s have it where we can see it.
I tend to keep a “some of their pronouncements are not to be cast in stone” box for luminaries such as Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, Steiner, Jung, Freud, Rajneesh, Einstein, Brunton, Plato, Aristotle, heads of martial art families, any organized religion that requires tithe or clergy…
— Glenn, Martial Arts Madness p, 49
So do I. ^_^For a big training organisation the alternative to this wily caution is a full believe-it religion, and sure enough the qigong movement did produce one in Falun Gong. A ‘charismatic master’ is required for this too. “Having charisma”, defined these days as the ability to wear sunglasses, in fact denotes the demonstration of Catholic ‘charisms’, equivalent to yogic siddhi — supernatural attainments. Glenn was a charismatic by that standard, but never added in the narcissism required to make a cult.
And so, as the man said, it goes. Despite her success and fame, Guo Lin never developed her own (what we call) cult. When she eventually died, it wasn’t cancer. :)