A Brief History of Qigong
By Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming
It is known that the Chinese art of Qigong has a history
that goes back over 5,000 years, though only a few historical documents
exist today. Qigong can be roughly divided into four periods. We know
little about the first period, which started when the "Yi Jing"
(Book of Changes) was introduced, sometime before 1122 B.C., and to have
extended until the Han dynasty when Buddhism and its meditation methods
were imported from India. This infusion brought Qigong practice and meditation
into the second period, the religious Qigong era, which lasted until the
Liang dynasty, when it was discovered that Qigong could be used for martial
purposes. This was the beginning of the third period, that of martial
Qigong. Many different martial Qigong styles were created based on the
theories and principles of Buddhist and Daoist Qigong. This period lasted
until the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911; from that point Chinese
Qigong training was mixed with Qigong practices from India, Japan, and
many other countries.
Before the Han Dynasty
The Book of Changes was probably the first Chinese book related to Qi.
It introduced the concept of the three natural energies or powers (San
Cai): Tian (Heaven), Di (Earth), and Ren (Man). Studying the relationship
of these three natural powers was the first step in the development of
In 1766-1154 B.C. (the Shang dynasty), the Chinese capital was located
in today's An Yang in Henan province. An archeological dig there at a
late Shang dynasty burial ground called Yin Xu discovered more than 160,000
pieces of turtle shell and animal bone which were covered with written
characters. This writing, called "Jia Gu Wen" (Oracle-Bone Scripture),
was the earliest evidence of the Chinese use of the written word. Most
of the information recorded was of a religious nature. There was no mention
of acupuncture or other medical knowledge, even though it was recorded
in the Nei Jing that during the reign of the Yellow emperor (2690-2590
B.C.) Bian Shi (stone probes) were already being used to adjust people's
During the Zhou dynasty (1122-934 B.C.), Lao Zi mentioned certain breathing
techniques in his classic "Dao De Jing" (Tao Te Ching) (Classic
on the Virtue of the Dao). He stressed that the way to obtain health was
to "concentrate on Qi and achieve softness". Later, "Shi
Ji" (Historical Record) in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States
Periods (770-221 B.C.) also described more complete methods of breath
About 300 B.C. the Daoist philosopher Zhuang Zi described the relationship
between health and the breath in his book "Nan Hua Jing." It
states: "The men of old breathed clear down to their heels..."
This was not merely a figure of speech, and confirms that a breathing
method for Qi circulation was being used by some Daoists at that time.
During the Qin and Han dynasties (221 B.C.-220 A.D.) there are several
medical references to Qigong in the literature, such as the "Nan
Jing" (Classic on Disorders) by the famous physician Bian Que, which
describes using the breathing to increase Qi circulation. "Jin Kui
Yao Lue" (Prescriptions from the Golden Chamber) by Zhang Zhong-Jing
discusses the use of breathing and acupuncture to maintain good Qi flow.
"Zhou Yi Can Tong Qi" (A Comparative Study of the Zhou (dynasty)
Book of Changes) by Wei Bo-Yang explains the relationship of human beings
to nature's forces and Qi. Up to this time, almost all of the Qigong publications
were written by scholars such as Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, or physicians such
as Bian Que and Wei Bo-Yang.
From the Han Dynasty to the Beginning of the Liang Dynasty
(206 B.C.-502 A.D.)
Because many Han emperors were intelligent and wise, the Han dynasty
was a glorious and peaceful period. It was during the Eastern Han dynasty
that Buddhism was imported to China from India. The Han emperor became
a sincere Buddhist; Buddhism soon spread and became very popular. Many
Buddhist meditation and Qigong practices, which had been practiced in
India for thousands of years, were absorbed into the Chinese culture.
The Buddhist temples taught many Qigong practices, especially the still
meditation of Chan (Zen), which marked a new era of Chinese Qigong. Much
of the deeper Qigong theory and practices that had been developed in India
were brought to China. These training practices were kept within the temple,
not taught to laypersons, and only during this century has it slowly become
available to the general populace.
Not long after Buddhism had been imported into China, a Daoist by the
name of Zhang Dao-Ling combined the traditional Daoist principles with
Buddhism and created a religion called Dao Jiao. Many of the meditation
methods were a combination of the principles and training methods of both
sources. Since Tibet had developed its own branch of Buddhism with its
own training system and methods of attaining Buddhahood, Tibetan Buddhists
were also invited to China to preach. In time, their practices were also
It was in this period that the traditional Chinese Qigong practitioners
finally had a chance to compare their arts with the religious Qigong practices
imported mainly from India. While the scholarly and medical Qigong had
been concerned with maintaining and improving health, the newly imported
religious Qigong was concerned with far more. Contemporary documents and
Qigong styles show clearly that the religious practitioners trained their
Qi to a much deeper level, working with many internal functions of the
body, and strove to obtain control of their bodies, minds, and spirits
with the goal of escaping from the cycle of reincarnation and attaining
While the Qigong practices and meditations were being passed down secretly
within the monasteries, traditional scholars and physicians continued
their Qigong research. During the Jin dynasty in the 3rd century A.D.,
a famous physician named Hua Tuo used acupuncture for anesthesia in surgery.
The Daoist Jun Qian used the movements of animals to create the Wu Qin
Xi (Five Animal Sports), which taught people how to increase their Qi
circulation through specific movements. Also, in this period a physician
named Ge Hong mentioned in his book Bao Pu Zi using the mind to lead and
increase Qi. Sometime in the period of 420 to 581 A.D. Tao Hong-Jing compiled
the "Yang Shen Yan Ming Lu" (Records of Nourishing the Body
and Extending Life), which showed many Qigong techniques.
From the Liang Dynasty to the End of the Qing Dynasty
During the Liang dynasty (502-557 A.D.) the emperor invited a Buddhist
monk named Da Mo (Bodhidharma), who was once an Indian prince, to preach
Buddhism in China. Da Mo was the 28th 'patriarch' to carry on the lineage
after the original Buddha, Siddhartha gautama, who lived in India during
the 5th century B.C. However, the emperor decided he did not like Da Mo's
Buddhist theory, which was based on 'internal cultivation' rather than
simply doing good deeds and such to attain enlightenment, so Da Mo eventually
withdrew to the Shaolin Temple. When Da Mo arrived, he saw that the priests
were weak and sickly from focusing only on their minds and not their bodies,
so he shut himself away to ponder the problem. He emerged after nine years
of seclusion and wrote two classics: "Yi Jin Jing" (or Yi Gin
Ching) (Muscle/Tendon Changing Classic) and "Xi Sui Jing" (or
Shii Soei Ching) (Marrow/Brain Washing Classic). The Muscle/Tendon Changing
Classic taught the priests how to gain health and change their physical
bodies from weak to strong. The Marrow/Brain Washing Classic taught the
priests how to use Qi to clean the bone marrow and strengthen the blood
and immune system, as well as how to energize the brain and attain enlightenment.
Because the Marrow/Brain Washing Classic was harder to understand and
practice, the training methods were passed down secretly to only a very
few disciples in each generation.
After the priests practiced the Muscle/Tendon Changing exercises, they
found that not only did they improve their health, but they also greatly
increased their strength. The monks were often attacked by bandits, and
so they had developed some self defense techniques. When this Qigong training
was integrated into their martial arts forms, it increased the effectiveness
of their techniques. In addition to this martial Qigong training, the
Shaolin priests also created five animal styles of Gongfu (kung fu) which
imitated the way different animals fight. The animals imitated were the
tiger, leopard, dragon, snake, and crane.
Outside of the monastery, the development of Qigong continued during
the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907 A.D.). Chao Yuan-Fang compiled the
"Zhu Bing Yuan Hou Lun" (Thesis on the Origins and Symptoms
of Various Diseases), which is a veritable encyclopedia of Qigong methods
listing 260 different ways of increasing the Qi flow. The "Qian Jin
Fang" (Thousand Gold Prescriptions) by Sun Si-Mao described the method
of leading Qi, and also described the use of the Six Sounds. The Buddhists
and Daoists had already been using the Six Sounds to regulate Qi in the
internal organs for some time. Sun Si-Mao also introduced a massage system
called Lao Zi's 49 Massage Techniques. "Wai Tai Mi Yao" (The
Extra Important Secret) by Wang Tao discussed the use of breathing and
herbal therapies for disorders of Qi circulation.
During the Song, Jin, and Yuan dynasties (960-1368 A.D.), "Yang
Shen Jue" (Life Nourishing Secrets) by Zhang An-Dao discussed several
Qigong practices. "Ru Men Shi Shi" (The Confucian Point of View)
by Zhang Zi-He describes the use of Qigong to cure external injuries such
as cuts and sprains. "Lan Shi Mi Cang" (Secret Library of the
Orchid Room) by Li Guo describes using Qigong and herbal remedies for
internal disorders. "Ge Zhi Yu Lun" (A Further Thesis of Complete
Study) by Zhu Dan-Xi provided a theoretical explanation for the use of
Qigong in curing disease.
During the Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), a Daoist named Chang San-Feng
is believed to have created Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan), which means 'grand
ultimate fist'. Tai;ji followed a different approach in its use of Qigong
than did Shaolin. While Shaolin Gongfu emphasizes Wai Dan (External Elixir)
Qigong exercises, Taiji, and the other internal arts that followed, emphasize
Nei Dan (Internal Elixir) Qigong training.
In 1026 A.D. the famous brass man of acupuncture was designed and built
by Dr. Wang Wei-Yi. Before that time, the many publications which discussed
acupuncture theory, principles, and treatment techniques disagreed with
each other, and left many points unclear. When Dr. Wang built his brass
man, he also wrote a book called "Tong Ren Yu Xue Zhen Jiu Tu"
(Illustration of the Brass Man Acupuncture and Moxibustion). He explained
the relationship of the 12 organs and the 12 Qi channels, clarified many
of the points of confusion, and, for the first time, systematically organized
acupuncture theory and principles.
In 1034 A.D. Dr. Wang used acupuncture to cure the emperor Ren Zong.
With the support of the emperor, acupuncture flourished. In order to encourage
acupuncture medical research, the emperor built a temple to Bian Que,
who wrote the Nan Jing, and worshiped him as the ancestor of acupuncture.
Acupuncture technology developed so much that even the Jin race in the
distant North requested the brass man and other acupuncture technology
as a condition for peace. Between 1102 to 1106 A.D. Dr. Wang dissected
the bodies of prisoners and added more information to the Nan Jing. His
work contributed greatly to the advancement of Qigong and Chinese medicine
by giving a clear and systematic idea of the circulation of Qi in the
Later, in the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.), Marshal Yue Fei
was credited with creating several internal Qigong exercises and martial
arts. It is said that he created the Eight Pieces of Brocade to improve
the health of his soldiers. He is also known as the creator of the internal
martial style Xing Yi. Eagle style martial artists also claim that Yue
Fei was the creator of their style.
From then until the end of the Qing dynasty (1911 A.D.), many other Qigong
styles were founded. The well-known ones include Hu Bu Gong (Tiger Step
Gong), Shi Er Zhuang (Twelve Postures) and Jiao Hua Gong (Beggar Gong).
Also in this period, many documents related to Qigong were published,
such as "Bao Shen Mi Yao" (The Secret Important Document of
Body Protection) by Cao Yuan-Bai, which described moving and stationary
Qigong practices; and "Yang Shen Fu Yu" (Brief Introduction
to Nourishing the Body) by Chen Ji Ru, about the three treasures: Jing
(essence), Qi (internal energy), and Shen (spirit). Also, "Yi Fan
Ji Jie" (The Total Introduction to Medical Prescriptions) by Wang
Fan-An reviewed and summarized the previously published materials; and
"Nei Gong Tu Shuo" (Illustrated Explanation of Nei Gong) by
Wang Zu-Yuan presented the Twelve Pieces of Brocade and explained the
idea of combining both moving and stationary Qigong.
In the late Ming dynasty (around 1640 A.D.), a martial Qigong style,
Huo Long Gong (Fire Dragon Gong), was created by the Taiyang martial stylists.
The well-known internal martial art style Ba Gua Zhang (or Ba Kua Chang)(Eight
Trigrams Palm) is believed to have been created by Dong Hai-Chuan late
in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.). This style is now gaining in popularity
throughout the world. During the Qing dynasty, Tibetan meditation and
martial techniques became widespread in China for the first time. This
was due to the encouragement and interest of the Manchurian Emperors in
the royal palace, as well as others of high rank in society.
From the End of Qing Dynasty to the Present
Before 1911 A.D., Chinese society was very conservative and old-fashioned.
Even though China had been expanding its contact with the outside world
for the previous hundred years, the outside world had little influence
beyond the coastal regions. With the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in
1911 and the founding of the Chinese Republic, the nation began changing
as never before. Since this time Qigong practice has entered a new era.
Because of the ease of communication in the modern world, Western culture
now has great influence on the Orient. Many Chinese have opened their
minds and changed their traditional ideas, especially in Taiwan and Hong
Kong. Various Qigong styles are now being taught openly, and many formerly
secret documents are being published. Modern methods of communication
have opened up Qigong to a much wider audience than ever before, and people
now have the opportunity to study and understand many different styles.
In addition, people are now able to compare Chinese Qigong to similar
arts from other countries such as India, Japan, Korea, and the Middle
I believe that in the near future Qigong will be considered the most
exciting and challenging field of research. It is an ancient science just
waiting to be investigated with the help of the new technologies now being
developed at an almost explosive rate. Anything we can do to accelerate
this research will greatly help humanity to understand and improve itself.
Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming is the founder of the nonprofit YMAA CA Retreat
Center, an organization working to preserve the traditional Chinese Arts
at their highest level. See http://www.ymaa-retreatcenter.org
for more information.
About The Author:
Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming started his Gongfu (Kung Fu) training at the age
of fifteen under the Shaolin White Crane (Bai He) Master Cheng, Gin Gsao.
In thirteen years of study (1961-1974) under Master Cheng, Dr. Yang became
an expert in the White Crane style of Chinese martial arts, which includes
both the use of bare hands and of various weapons such as saber, staff,
spear, trident, two short rods, and many others. With the same master
he also studied White Crane Chin Na, Tui Na and Dian Xue massages, and
At the age of sixteen, Dr. Yang began the study of Taijiquan (Yang Style)
under Master Gao, Tao. After learning from Master Gao, Dr. Yang continued
his study and research of Taijiquan with several masters and senior practitioners
such as Master Li, Mao-Ching and Mr. Wilson Chen in Taipei. Master Li
learned his Taijiquan from the well-known Master Han, Ching-Tang, and
Mr. Chen learned his Taijiquan from Master Chang, Xiang-San. Dr. Yang
has mastered the Taiji barehand sequence, pushing hands, the two-man fighting
sequence, Taiji sword, Taiji saber, and Taiji Qigong.
At 18, he entered Tamkang College in Taipei Xian to study Physics and
also began the study of traditional Shaolin Long Fist (Changquan) with
Master Li, Mao-Ching at the Tamkang College Guoshu Club (1964-1968). He
eventually became an assistant instructor under Master Li. In 1971 he
completed his M.S. degree in Physics at the National Taiwan University
and then served in the Chinese Air Force from 1971 to 1972. In the service,
Dr. Yang taught Physics at the Junior Academy of the Chinese Air Force
while also teaching Wushu. After being honorably discharged in 1972, he
returned to Tamkang College to teach Physics and resumed study under Master
Li, Mao-Ching. From Master Li, Dr. Yang learned Northern style Gongfu,
which includes both barehand techniques, especially kicking, and numerous
In 1974, Dr. Yang came to the United States to study Mechanical Engineering
at Purdue University. At the request of a few students, Dr. Yang began
to teach, which resulted in the foundation of the Purdue University Chinese
Kung Fu Research Club in the spring of 1975. While at Purdue, Dr. Yang
also taught college-credited courses in Taijiquan. In May, 1978 he was
awarded a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering by Purdue.
Yang's Martial Arts Association was established in Boston, MA in 1982.
Currently, YMAA is an international organization, including 56 schools
in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Chile, France, Holland, Hungary, Iran,
Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, the United Kingdom,
and the United States. In 1984, Dr. Yang retired from his engineering
career, to focus his energy on teaching and researching the Chinese arts,
and introducing them to the West through many books, videos and DVDs.
Visit http://www.ymaa.com for current information.
Dr. Yang has nearly 40 years of instructional experience: seven years
in Taiwan, five years at Purdue University, two years in Houston, TX,
and 25 years in Boston, MA. On November 29, 2005, Dr. Yang conferred the
title of Taiji Master to one of his senior students, which by definition
bestows the honorable title of Grandmaster upon Dr. Yang.
Dr. Yang is also the founder of the YMAA Retreat Center in Humbolt County,
CA, where he will spend ten years training a select group of students,
starting in August 2008. http://www.ymaa-retreatcenter.org