Quigong – A Personal Understanding

a review by Richard Watson Many newcomers to Taijiquan, Qigong and Daoyin are overwhelmed by the subject matter and many questions arise as to the relationship between the three titles. Historical records suggest that Qigong has a background that can be traced to antiquity. As a prophylactic system of self cultivation, Daoyin systems probably grew originally from a village or family source, hence we hear there are indeed many thousands of methods and schools of health maintenance and disease prevention.

The study of Qigong is made difficult as it has enjoyed varying degrees of popularity in recent years. During the earlier part of the 20th century the occupation of Chinese territory by colonial expansion saw the Chinese intelligentsia adopting all things Western as a way forward to industrial and political influence. At this point in history the cultural development and philosophy took a backward step. After the establishment of China’s first republic (Sun Yat-Sen) in 1912, and the ending of the old empire the disintegration of China, far from coming to a halt merely gathered momentum. The forming of the Kuomitang (the people’s party) by Sun Yat-Sen, signified his disenchantment with all things Western and the turning of his back on his erstwhile supporters from the middle classes.

At the time of Sun Yat-Sen’s death, China’s cultural heritage was slowly disappearing, as the disintegration of China’s mandarin-based society took place. By the 1920s Chinese thought was feeling the religious urge we all experience in times of chaos and stress. A need to re-examine the past arose – could a new interpretation of past metaphysical systems, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism reawaken China’s religious instincts. That the culture of the past still had a magnetic appeal for many Chinese looking for stability in their society is signified by the fact that the constitution of the “Republic of China” proclaimed in 1917 that “Confucius was to be held in reverence.”

During the cultural turmoil of the 1920’s all the famous lines of Western philosophy were examined for solutions although coloured with suspicion and feelings of love hate for everything spawned by the occident. The disenchantment with the West and its loss of prestige was to some extent pronounced by the upheavals of World War One.

The vacuum provided by the lack of direction was to be filled by events of World War One and the October Revolution. The concepts of Western democracy were put aside as was its political imperialism and its scientific power structure. T h e communism of Lenin was to be the spark to an explosion of xenophobia and nationalism. An alliance eventually developed with the communists and the ruling Koumintang took place until growing anxiety and anti- communist feelings culminated with the coup of March 1926. Chiang Kai-Shek asserted his full control of the Koumintang and removed the communists from all positions of influence. This was to be the prelude to bring to an end the persuasion of all Marxist, Lenin doctrine, within the Koumintang. The seemingly downcast communists were far from downcast or finished. Following the long march and Mao’s climb to supremacy there followed the formation o f the so-called Soviet China. By the late 1920s the Koumintang and Chinese Soviets with different agendas, the Koumintang controlling the field armies, the communists, the behind the line guerrilla warfare. On the outbreak of the Sino- Japanese war 1937-1945, these formidable forces joined in harness and were to bring victory to China.

The war had reduced the powers of the Koumintang within itself, whereas the communists working in northern China gained greater control over several hundred million Chinese. The European war had reduced the West’s influence on Chinese affairs. Japan’s unconditional surrender and loss of military might, power and influence created a tremendous vacuum. A vacuum that could not be filled by the previous colonial powers of Europe. While Japan lost their own war they nevertheless won it for colonised Asia. By the end of World War Two the communist i nf l uenc e had grown; undoubtedly the Russian help had been most effective.

At this stage the Russians had no idea of their real strength. As the strategic advantage moved to the communists the writing was on the wall for the nationalist armies of the Koumintang led by Chiang Kai-Shek. From the end of 1946 the gradual decimation of China’s social fabric proceeded at an alarming pace wherever the communists continued in power.

The history of the communist rule in China since 1949 is well recorded. As soon as they gained government the party’s activity shifted from the countryside to the cities. The country folk whose discontent was a major force in bringing the communists to power were to be relegated to the second division.

The purpose of this excursion into the 20th century turmoil in China is the realisation of the difficulties experienced by the developers of modern Qigong. At almost every throw of the political dice there would be vibrations affecting the growth of a scientific approach to investigating and finding acceptance of Qigong methods.

It’s a strange contradiction that it is the communists who have sown the seeds of logical and scientific examination of Qigong and related subjects. It would appear also, that they are determined to uncover sharp practice, expose charlatans, eliminate myth and mystery surrounding what they consider a part of traditional Chinese medicine.

In the West and Britain in particular, Qigong methods may have a special place. ‘From the cradle to the grave’ philosophy of the welfare state has diminished into oblivion with the impossible financial burdens imposed by the costs of sophisticated medical technique. The comforting role of the GP is constantly reviewed under the microscope The medical profession as a whole is one of the most stressed sections of modern society.

While our health service excels in chronic illness their contribution to health maintenance is questionable. At this time there is a vacuum into which the self help for body maintenance must be taken ever more seriously. Qigong (work on energetic) is one such method.

If you ask the average Chinese non-Qigong practitioner, what the meaning of the word Qi is (should they be able to speak English), they are likely to answer that it’s air. That is the air we breathe and this could be all you would get.

I think this a little like saying in answer to ‘what is water’ that it’s a transparent colourless liquid that we drink – perhaps a broader view would be that it is the substance of ice, steam, snow, cloud, lakes, rivers, seas, tears, saliva, rain, sweat, urine and makes up eighty per cent of the body’s fluid. We know that a main constituent of air is oxygen and whilst my average Chinese would say that it’s the air you breathe, perhaps his ‘ideogram’ conception is much wider and deeper, a cultural conscious acceptance of our chemical dependence on oxygen. Our own dictionary definition is: ‘a gas, atomic number 8, symbol O, without taste, colour or smell, forming part of air and water, supporting life and combustion.’

Air = supporting life, combustion, = fuel for the ignition of the metabolism. (Chambers Dictionary: sum total of chemical changes of living matter) = Qi. Qigong = Energetics? Energetics is the science of the general laws of energy. Gong. Gong represents work, experience, going through. So Qigong is the work of understanding and applying the laws of energy quotient. A practical examination rather than an interlectual enquiry.

Qigong: the practice of uniting mental faculties, essence of life and Qi (vital energy) by regulating the breathing and concentrating the mind. Combining physical training with health promotion.

Daoyin: Synonym, Qigong Daoist concept which advocates voluntary circulation of body energy (Qi) through exercise. Oldest form of health care known in China, employing physical and breathing exercise.

There is a large popular following of these methods throughout China. Overcoming many setbacks throughout this century it is now firmly established in Chinese hospitals for medical purposes and by doctors advocating internal and external exercise in the treatment of disease. Qigong is a method of self cultivation also for the healthy. The practitioner is self-motivated to train body and mind, holistic training to bring balance, self reliance, self adjustment, invigorating and strengthening the constitution, keeping at bay premature ageing and enhancing longevity.


Of course the maintenance of good health and recovery from sickness depend on a variety of factors. While Qigong is an effective method of health care, we must also consider a balance between work and relaxation and take care with our diet. Since 1949 and the foundation of the People’s Republic the government has promoted Qigong as part of its medical and health care programs. This self help philosophy would not go amiss with our own over-taxed health authorities.

There are among the many thousands of Qigong methods those that foster myth, superstition and mystery. This is not uncommon in China where there is renewed interest and growth in Qigong arts. Charlatans will arise to make false promises and deal in the pursuance of the unattainable and the magical, we students need to use our discretion. That to which we aspire is obtained with disciplined daily training. A pragmatic and scientific approach is the key.

The Methods of Qigong
Generally Qigong has arisen from many sources, besides those that arise as folk medicine, as in the Chen Style of Taijiquan. We have family traditions from peasant stock, some of which are guarded with secrecy.

However, more reliable traditions come from Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian schools of thought and they in turn promote Soft Qigong, Hard Qigong, Health Promoting Qigong, Medical Qigong, and Martial Qigong, of which Taijiquan is a first class example.

Each form delivers the requirements of its student, whether it be mental equilibrium, good health, well being, recuperation, martial strength and prowess. The techniques of training employ stationary postures as in Zhan Zhuang or standing, sitting, supine positions. More common are moving Qigong methods or dynamic Qigong such as the eight pieces of brocade or the five animal frolics. All Qigong employs techniques of respiration and visualisation to circulate the Qi. Many of society’s ills are associated with stress and tension and our inadequacy to deal with them. I believe the key to Qigong success of all valued systems is the emphasis on relaxation. Relaxation and quietness combined with deep breathing promotes a natural combustion of the metabolism easing the nervous system and most importantly stimulating the immune system. Perhaps this is the most important factor easily overlooked and ignored by commentators on this enlightened form of exercise.

Richard Watson, with his son, Simon runs the Longfei Taijiquan Association.

You can read more about ‘What is qigong’ by visiting that section of our website