Dr. Jiang preparing to perform qigong therapy on a Western patient.

“Qigong” is a very new word for a very old idea.

The practices that we now group under the modern term qigong have been historically known by names such as daoyin (導引) “guiding and pulling”, xingqi (行氣) “moving qi”, yunqi (運氣) “transporting/circulating qi” , zuowang (坐忘) “sitting & forgetting” , tiaoxi (調息) “regulating the breath”, xinzhai (心齋) “heart/mind fasting”, and perhaps my favorite tuna (吐納) which is short for tugunaxin (吐故納新) which literally means “out with the old in with the new”.

“Qigong” as an umbrella term for these many disparate practices really did not come into common use in mainland China until the so-called “qigong craze” of the 1980’s.  But what exactly is “qi”?  And what is “gong”?  Both characters which compose the word are fairly untranslatable to a single English term, and as such each deserves a discussion in its own right.

The Chinese character “qi” (氣) is composed of two components, namely the component for “rice” (米) and the component for “steam” or “breath” (气).  The combination of the two into a single character is said to evoke the image of waves of warm steam or vapor emanating off of a freshly prepared bowl of rice.  Qi then is not the vapor itself, nor the rice, but is a word which describes a relationship between two things resembling the relationship between the rice and the vapor. 

The character by itself carries a flexible abstract meaning rather than a comparatively rigid conceptual meaning, a distinction prevalent throughout ancient Chinese language and thought.  And it is only in the contexts in which the character for qi is used in combination with another character to form a “word” that the word can then represent some particular concept, substance or thing.

Most modern Chinese words are composed of two characters, such as the following, all of which make use of the same identical character for qi: tianqi (天氣) “weather”, kongqi (空氣) “air”, qihou (氣候) “climate ”, shengqi (生氣) “to become angry”, yunqi (運氣) “luck”, ciqi (磁氣) “magnetism”, meiqi (煤氣) “natural gas”, etc. A quick perusal of this short list should serve to illustrate the degree to which a Chinese character can carry very different meanings depending on the context in which it is used.

As you can see the commonly used translations of qi as “energy” or even the somewhat more accurate translation as “function” really don’t do the word justice.

What about “gong “(功)?  Again the character is a combination of two components, in this case a component gong (工) which depicts a carpenter’s rule and means “labor” or “work”, and a li (力 ) which is a very simplified representation of a man with his arm extended, and typically means either “strength”, “force”, and is also a component in the character for “man” (男).  The combination of the two in a single character has come to mean both “skill”, “success” or even “merit”, but specifically that which is attained after long effort.  It is the same character that was transliterated as “kung” in “kungfu”.

When we take the next step and combine the two characters to form the word “qigong” (氣功) what we are really getting is a word which describes both a practice designed to gain special control over the functions of the body & mind, and also a word which can be used simultaneously to describe the results of that practice.  In other words one can both “practice qigong” and “have qigong”.

The practice of qigong has been associated with three primary groups in China’s history, namely martial artists, religious ascetics, and practitioners of classical Chinese medicine.  In the context of classical Chinese medical practice, qigong is applied therapeutically in two primary ways:  (1)  specific qigong exercises are prescribed to the patient for individual practice as a therapy, and (2) specific manipulations of the patient’s qi are applied directly by the doctor using the skills developed through his own qigong practice.

By far the most widespread and commonly practiced of these two treatment modalities is the first.  In the 1980’s in mainland China entire hospitals were devoted to treating otherwise untreatable terminal patients by prescribing individualized qigong practice routines.  The second is considerably rarer, particularly in this modern day and age, as the skills necessary to apply it successfully are far more difficult to achieve.  However it is this directly applied medical qigong therapy for which Dr. Jiang Feng is justifiably world-renowned.

Dr. Jiang’s qi is most often “injected” into the patient through the doctor’s palms or fingers for either diagnostic or therapeutic purposes, but this is something much more than a mere “laying on of hands”.  The sensations caused by the qi entering the body are shockingly palpable and undeniable, causing entire muscle groups to involuntarily contract, and is usually described by the patient as something similar to a strong electrical current.  One is reminded of the sensation of grasping an electrified fence or sticking one’s finger in a wall socket.

It is hard for many modern people raised on a steady diet of scientific reductionism to believe these things without personally experiencing them, but feeling the qi surge unmistakably through your own body has a way of opening one’s mind.

For literally thousands of years classical Chinese medical theory has posited the analogy that this qi “flows” throughout the body as if within a web of invisible channels called “meridians” (經脈/ 經絡) and that “blockage” (障礙) in this flow represents a primary cause of illness. Please keep in mind that while these blockages do have a physical component, typically manifesting in Western medical terms as “haemostatic blood” (淤血), the blockage here referred to is primarily functional in nature. Dr. Jiang makes use of this qi not only to diagnose the state of his patient’s meridians, but also to therapeutically direct the flow of qi within them.

Any given “field” or “current” of qi has both yin (陰) “negative/female/passive/cold/etc.” qualities and yang (陽) “positive/male/active/hot/etc.” qualities, and depending on the specific pattern of disharmony being treated Dr. Jiang can modulate the injected qi such that the sensations experienced by the patient will differ from that of a strong electrical current, to a burning heat, to a pleasant cool feeling. Please understand that the terms I have been using here do not refer explicitly to the modern physics terms denoting “electromagnetic field” or “electric currents” but these are the closest terms we have in English to describe the corresponding classical concepts.

The attitude of the political establishment in mainland China towards qigong has vacillated wildly in recent decades.  Following the Cultural Revolution an explosion of research in the field occurred in China, with an eye towards developing qigong into a new “science of human potential”, a kind of secular replacement for the religions which had recently been so viciously repressed.

The powers that be underestimated the public appetite for such a thing, and so-called “qigong cults” popped up all over China with so-called “masters” claiming all sorts of spiritual powers, some growing at fantastic rates and claiming millions of adherents within the span of just a few years.  In response to the perceived threat to its internal security the Chinese government cracked down hard in the 1990’s, basically outlawing outright anything associated with the practice of qigong, legitimate or illegitimate.  Most of the “big names” in qigong fled the country.  Even hospitals which had been opened up solely for the purposes of researching qigong as a therapeutic methodology were shuttered.

Only very recently has the pendulum of political opinion begun to swing back in the opposite direction, with some acceptance of medical qigong as a legitimate therapeutic modality slowly returning in medical circles.  However even now the word “qigong” is not totally safe to utter outside of certain acceptable contexts in mainland China, and the “real deal” is incredibly hard to find.  Dr. Jiang’s Apricot Forest Chinese Medicine Hospital is the only institution of its kind in mainland China offering genuine qigong therapy at this level openly to patients from all over the world.