The ancient history of qigong is identified with the segment within Chinese society where the training is cultivated. Over time, the concept and practice of different types of qigong acquired similar philosophical bases. Within the last three decades, those exercises were explained from a scientific basis. The common thread throughout history is the increasing popularity of this system of mindful practice, which has spread throughout China and now across the world.
According to the Traditional Chinese Medicine community, the origin of qigong is commonly attributed to the legendary Yellow Emperor and the classic Book of Internal Medicine. Verifiable archeological evidence suggests the first forms of qigong can be linked to shamanic meditative practice and gymnastic exercises. Archaeological evidence such as the Mawangdui Silk Texts (168 BC) shows a series of Tao Yin exercises that bears physical resemblance to some of the health exercises being practiced today. Shamanic rituals and ideas eventually evolved and formalized into Taoist beliefs and eventually incorporated into the field of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
In the Taoist tradition, the writings of Laozi (~ 400 BC) and Zhuangzi (~300 BC) both describe meditative cultivation and physical exercises to extend one's lifespan and as means of accessing higher realms of existence. The Taoist inner alchemical cultivation around the Song Dynasty continues those Taoist traditions.
Buddhism originated from India and has its source from the Hindu culture, has an extensive system of meditation and physical cultivation similar to Yoga to help the practitioner achieve enlightenment.
When Buddhism was transmitted to China, some of those practices were assimilated and eventually modified by the indigenous culture. The resulting transformation was the start of the Chinese Buddhist qigong tradition. Chinese Buddhist practice reaches a climax with the emergence of Chán Buddhism in the 7th century AD. Meditative practice was emphasized and a series of qigong exercises known as the Yijin Jing ("Muscle/Tendon Change Classic") was attributed to Bodhidharma. The Chinese martial arts communities eventually identify this Yijing Jing as one of the secret training methods in Shaolin martial arts.
Chinese scholars acknowledged Confucius (551-479 BCE) and Mencius (385-302 BCE) as the founders of the Scholar qigong tradition. In their writings, they alluded to the concepts of qi training as methods of moral training.
Chinese martial arts influenced by all the different elements within Chinese society adapted and modified qigong theory with the goal of improving their fighting abilities. Many Chinese martial arts paid homage to Taoism or Buddhism by claiming them as their original source. For example, Tai chi chuan is often described as being Taoist in origin. Shaolin martial arts is named after the famous Buddhist Shaolin temple.
The exchange of ideas between those different segments within Chinese society created rich, complex and sometimes contradictory theory and methods of training. The difficulty in determining the correct training method, the traditional “Master-student” method of transmission and the belief that qigong represents a special and valuable knowledge limited the research and development of qigong to small but elite elements within Chinese society. Specialized texts were available but were secretive and cryptic and therefore limited to a selective few. For the general population, qigong practice was a component of Traditional Chinese medicine. This medical system was developed based on experience, along with religious, demononological and magical practices.
The nature and values of Chinese society changed radically with the arrival and dissemination of Western ideas, technology and culture starting from the 16th century. In the declining period of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), the entire Chinese philosophy and culture was re-examined. Chinese medicine, as part of the Chinese tradition, was re-evaluated in response to the effectiveness of Western medicine. The conflict between the Eastern and Western approaches reached a crisis point at the beginning of the Republican period. Larger segments within Chinese society begin to openly challenge traditional Chinese philosophies such as Confucianism and Taoism and advocated the wholesale adoption of Western principles. In response, many nationalists counter by pointing out the limitation of Western society and the success of Chinese ideas such as TCM and qigong. The result was a great deal of publications and writings promoting Chinese cultural practice such as qigong and introduce those ideas to the general population. These conflicting worldviews will shape the development of qigong.
During the turmoil of the fall of the Qing Dynasty and through to the Republican Period (1912–1949), Chinese society was fighting for its own survival and there was very little thought on the development of qigong.
Concerted efforts to re-establish Chinese culture under a new ideology begin after the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1945. The new ruling government under the leadership of Mao Zedong rejected all ties to traditional Chinese philosophies such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Instead, the Chinese government promoted a socialist view. Through a series of government directed programs that lasted for nearly three decades (1949–1976), the entire fabric of Chinese society was torn apart and reorganized. It is in this environment that the current attitude to qigong in the Mainland was born.
Mao Zedong himself recognized the conflicting aims between the rejection of feudalistic ideas of the past and the benefits derived from those ideas. Traditional Chinese medicine was a clear example of this conflict. His solution can be summarized by his famous phrase “Chinese medicine is a great treasure house! We must make efforts to uncover it and raise its standards!” which legitimized the practice of Traditional Chinese medicine and created an impetus to develop a scientific base for traditional Chinese medicine. The subject of qigong underwent a similar process of transformation. The historical elements of qigong were stripped to create more scientific bases for the practice.
In the early 1950s, Liu Guizhen (1920–1983), a doctor by training, used his family’s method of body cultivation to successfully cure himself of various ailments. He then promoted his method to his patients and eventually published a book, Qi Gong liaofa shiyan to promote his successes. His efforts to re-define qigong without a religious or philosophical context proved to be acceptable to the ruling government. The popularity and success of Liu’s book and the government’s strong support for Traditional Chinese medicine resulted in the formation of Qigong department within Universities and hospitals that practiced Traditional Chinese medicine. As a result, the first institutional support for qigong was established across China but this practice remained under tight control and had limited access to the general public.
In the late 1970s, with the fall of the Gang of Four and the start Era of Reconstruction, there was a new openness in Chinese society. The practice of qigong has spread from a institutional setting to a popular movement based on charismatic promoters. Guo Lin, a Beijing artist who claimed to have cured herself of uterine cancer in the 1960s, was one of the first qigong masters to teach qigong openly to the general public outside an institutional setting. Scientists, free from the repression of the Cultural Revolution was able to seek new challenges. Among some of the new subjects they studied was the effect of qigong in order to provide a scientific base for this practice. In 1979, Gu Hansen of the Shanghai Institute of Atomic Research first reported on the external measurement of qi. This research proved to be critical in promoting the notion of a science bases for qigong. Other reports of external evidence of qi quickly followed. Other forms of measurements, personal testimonies on the effectiveness of qigong treatment and demonstration of the uses of qigong found in the martial arts were used to illustrate the practical realities of the qigong.
In the early 1980s, the enthusiasm for this new external qi paradigm eventually leads to the use of qi as an explanation for paranormal abilities such as Extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinetic. The increasingly exaggerated claims of qigong practice prompted some elements within the Chinese government to warn of the dangers of this paranormal craze and the prevalence of pseudo scientific beliefs. Leading public figures Qian Xuesen, eminent scientist and founder of Chinese Rocketry and Zhang Zhenhuan a former general, rushed to defend qigong practice. They champion the view of qigong as being a new science of the mind. A compromise on the support of qigong activities was eventually reached by various factions within the Chinese government. Qigong activity was to be regulated with the establishment of the China Qigong Scientific Research Association was formed under the leadership of Zhang Zhenhuan and overt criticism of the paranormal research was to be muted.
By the middle of the 1980s, there were already 2000 qigong organizations and between 60 and 200 million practitioners across China. This represented almost one fifth of the Chinese population. This growth was fueled by the tacit support of small elements within the Chinese government, the reduced criticism of qigong practice, the pent-up demand within Chinese society for alternative belief systems and the improved methods of communication resulted in mass adaptation of qigong practice. By the end of the 1980s, the qigong practices could be found within all segments of Chinese society.
By the end of the 1990s, the explosive growth in the number of qigong practitioners had led to the revival of the old traditions that accompanied qigong development. Qigong organizations such as the Falun Gong re-introduced moral and religious elements associated with their training methods. Such practices eventually led to a direct conflict with the central authorities. By 1999, there was a systematic crackdown on qigong organizations that were perceived to be challenging the State’s control over Chinese society. Since the crackdown, qigong research and practice are officially supported only in the context of health functions and as a field of study within traditional Chinese medicine.
Migration, travel and exploration were the first reasons for the spread of qigong practice beyond the Chinese community. Occidental societies first encounter qigong concepts through exposure to traditional Chinese medicine, Chinese philosophy or the Chinese martial arts.
It was not until the opening of China with the visit of President Nixon in 1972 and the subsequent exchanges between China and the West that Western society became aware of the promise of qigong practice. The ideas of qigong was quickly embraced by alternative health care practitioners The idea of qi as a form of living energy also found a receptive audience within the New Age movement. When the Chinese qigong community started to report cases of paranormal activity, Western researchers in the field were also excited by those findings. Chinese findings were reviewed and some qigong practitioners were invited to the West to demonstrate those results.
The American public’s first exposure the qigong was in the PBS series Healing and the Mind with Bill Moyers in 1993. In the documentary, Moyers provided an in-depth look at healing alternatives to Western medicine and introduced the audience to the success of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture and qigong. As a result, qigong practice spread to the general public.
Today, millions of people around the world practice qigong and believe in the potential benefits of qigong in varying degrees. Similar to its historical origin, those interested in qigong come from diverse backgrounds and practice it for different reasons.

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