37. Qigong

The most radical empowerment of individuals with regard to health in China today is the practice of qigong 气功 or “energy work,” a system of slow body movements in coordination with deep breathing and mental guiding of qi that releases tension, effects healing, and contributes to overall well-being. It began in 1947, when a CCP cadre named Liu Guizhen 刘贵真fell terminally ill and recovered with the help of traditional Daoist exercises. The Party, seeing the potential for widespread healthcare, adopted them in its own way, making sure that qigong would be free from ancient cosmological concepts and superstitions while becoming more compatible with Western science.

They duly made it the main vehicle of health maintenance for Party cadres, predominantly practiced in a medical setting and limited to healing purposes. During the Cultural Revolution it was banned, and practitioners went underground. In the 1970s, they returned and took the practice away from the Party. Creating their own modern forms, increasingly specialized to impact specific organs or conditions, they ran classes in parks that proved highly effective in the healing of diseases, even advanced forms of cancer, and made qigong into the widespread, popular practice known best in the West.

Responding to this increase, the government in the 1980s set up various national and regional organizations, sort of the Daoist Association for qigong. At the same time, the main focus of the practice among the populace shifted away from healing to the acquisition of extraordinary powers like clairvoyance, telepathy, psychokinesis, distance healing, and so on. The craze for these powers slowed down in the 1990s, when several highly popular masters were arrested for fraud and many feats were unveiled as quackery.

While the state issued more stringent regulations, demanding that qigong leaders be certified doctors or therapists, millions of followers found themselves at a loss of who to trust. This vacuum was filled by new groups that made ethics a fundamental part of the practice and added more religious features, such as chanting, ritual, and meditation. To all intents and purposes new religions, they claimed to lead their followers to transcendent salvation.

The most prominent among these, with millions of followers, was Falun gong 法轮功 (www.falundafa.org), a messianic cult founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi 李洪志. A self-proclaimed bodhisattva, he set out to rid the planet of demons and ready it for the new world to come. To this end, he controlled people’s lives and minds, prohibiting the reading of anything except his books and any healing besides his five key practices. He was also opposed to mixed marriages, women’s autonomy, and various other modern features. His group was outlawed and has been actively persecuted since 1999, some people, as Liao Yiwu documents, still hiding from the authorities, living without proper registration and in constant fear.

The fall-out from the persecution was that all modern forms of qigong—unlike ancient healing exercises—are now technically prohibited in China and should not be practiced in public. Exercise in parks today tends to focus on taijiquan, which is officially sanctioned as a sport with Olympic aspirations, Western-style aerobics, ballroom dancing, as well as various new forms of movement to music. Also, yoga is making great headway in China, seen entirely as a physical workout and to the exclusion of all spirituality or religious context.

At the same time, Daoist temples, adapting to the physical fitness market, sponsor exercise practice closely matching qigong patterns for lay followers and encourage it among its residents. Some of them have also developed specific styles so that, in addition to Wudang martial arts, there are now systems related to various holy places, such as the Mount Emei Sage Style in 24 movements that opens the meridians and enhances internal healing.

An example that shows just how much Daoists have adopted bodily well-being as part of their doctrine appears in the short pamphlet Daojiao yangsheng quanxiao geyan 道教养生全孝格言 (Pertinent Words on Daoist Long Life and Filial Piety), a publication of the Daoist temple on top of Mount Qingcheng. Entirely focused on health, it encourages physical movement along the lines of qigong without ever mentioning the term.

Practice self-massage.

Study fist or sword,

Kick a ball,

Or go for a walk,

Maybe bathe in sunlight—

But never cease your efforts.

Its only more religious note is an encouragement to “accumulate merit” by doing good deeds and behaving ethically, which too will aid health and long life by keeping conscience clean and the mind pure.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-PeMnWzeNc


Read: Palmer, David. 2007. Qigong Fever: Body, Science and Utopia in China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kohn, Livia. 2008. Chinese Healing Exercises: The Tradition of Daoyin. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Liao, Yiwu. 2009. The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up. New York: Anchor, 230-41.

36. Temple Clinics

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

Corruption and uncaring physicians tend to occur mainly in hospitals focusing on Western biomedicine. Traditional Chinese doctors, who use various indigenous methods such as herbs, massages, cupping, acupuncture, and dietary modification, by the nature of their field have to look at the whole patient, including his social situation, lifestyle, and mental attitude. Despite serious Communist efforts to modernize and streamline these methods into a biomedically acceptable system with streamlined treatment protocols, formally known as TCM, doctors still see symptoms as indications of systemic imbalance and prescribe exercises and lifestyle changes as much as interventions by herbs or needles.

Daoists, never entirely taken in by TCM while always seeing patients within the larger framework of society and cosmos, follow a system called Classical Chinese Medicine that adheres strictly to the ancient teachings as codified in the Huangdi neijing 黄帝内经 (Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor) and is entirely geared toward individual uniqueness and personal cultivation. Seeing the body as a major portal to spiritual cultivation, Daoists have long had an intimate connection to medicine. Many leading Daoists were also physicians, and vice versa—the most prominent being Sun Simiao 孙思邈 (581-682), Tang dynasty Daoist, alchemist, physician, pharmacologist, and more, now widely venerated as the King of Medicines (Yaowang 药王).

Today, many temples house clinics and monks often train in various medical techniques. Thus, for example, Huang Zongsheng 黄宗胜, abbot of the Changchun guan 长春观 (Temple of Eternal Spring) in Wuhan, early on specialized in herbal formulas, notably for swollen eyes and female troubles. He not only prices his medicines low, so people can afford them, but also offers them in free trials, not charging anything at all until patients experienced some relief. In addition, he and other Daoist doctors often hold free clinics for the poor, working the first half of the day for free, then seeing paying patients in the afternoon. Part of their service to society and world, this is possible because the temple takes care of their room and board, and they had few personal needs and no dependents to support.

Generally today, temple clinics use the full gamut of Chinese medical techniques to treat, and strive to create a something they call “Daoism in life” (shenghuo daojiao 生活道教). This vision encourages temple Daoists to offer social in addition to medical services, such as psychological counseling for people confused by the modern world, thereby raise the religion’s presence in society.

Another form Daoist health care takes is qi-healing, using vital energy to stimulate physical health, either activated by the patient through qigong exercises or infused by a practitioner via laying-on of hands. While qigong as an unsupervised, private community practice has been outlawed since the Falun gong protests in 1999, its medical use in properly accredited and government-supported clinics has been on the rise.

An example is the Eight Trigrams Red Cross Medical Exchange Center in the western outskirts of Beijing. Founded by Master Wan Sujian (b. 1953), originally trained as a Western-style physician and working for the People’s Liberation Army, it offers training in qigong exercises, vigorous (almost acrobatic) gongfu routines, external qi-healing, traditional music, tea ceremony, and Daoist ritual.

Qigong exercises in this context serve to tonify the three elixir fields, purify the meridians, strengthen the essence, and harmonize yin and yang energies. External qi-healing, here commonly undertaken by a group of six to eight practitioners, involves both hands-on massage techniques and external qi transmission without direct touch. These and other forms of energy-enhancing treatments closely engage the patient in the healing process, gradually shifting both diagnostic awareness and control over treatment protocols to the patient.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcSAD-Cqs5o

Read: Liu, Xun. 2008. “Profile of a Quanzhen Doctor: Abbot Huang Zongsheng at Wuhan’s Monastery of Eternal Spring.” Journal of Daoist Studies 1:145-60.

Rinaldini, Michael. 2008. “How I Became a Daoist Priest.” Journal of Daoist Studies 1:181-87.

Favraud, Georges. 2016. “Immortals’ Medicine: Daoist Healers and Social Change.” Journal of Daoist Studies 9:101-20.

35. Health Care

Energy-enhancing eating and a healthy lifestyle as taught in Daoist resorts are becoming ever more important, given the problematic state of China’s health care system. While everyone received free care under Mao, economic development reduced state involvement to the point that, by 2003, only about 30 percent of the population had basic health care.

This number has greatly improved over the years, so that today most Chinese are covered, mainly due to the new rural cooperative medical care initiative. A voluntary system, funded by individual contributions and government subsidies for the poor, it reaches wide swathes of the population, although it continues to be plagued by inadequate funding, staff shortages, and insufficient equipment.

One issue is that while inpatient costs are covered, most outpatient visits are not, which leaves many people still unable to pay for hospital visits. Also, location matters, again referring back to the ubiquitous household registration system. Rural medical care covers 70-80 percent of a visit to the local clinic, but only about 60 at the county hospital, and even less for more specialist services, often located in bigger cities.

In addition, waiting times are long, often lasting hours. One can pay specially to get a prebooked time slot or hire someone to stand in line in one’s stead, but both cost money. Also, physicians are notoriously underpaid and overworked, commonly making less than $800 a month, even in larger cities. One brain surgeon in Tianjin, as Shaun Reid points out, made so little he had to take bribes to pay for basic living expenses.

Given this situation, they often require a “red envelope” filled with private cash to do a proper job. They also tend to overprescribe medicines for percentages from the pharmaceutical industry and recommend unnecessary surgeries to get kickbacks. Typically, they have little time or consideration for patients who they see in rooms filled with dozens of people, affording essentially no privacy or opportunity for calm and quiet conversation.

As a result, lower-income consumers feel helpless and angry at the medical system. Poor people,” Shaun Reid quotes an informant, “in China cannot afford to get sick. We have no insurance and do not trust doctors” (2014, 57). Protests are on the rise. In 2012, for example, the Chinese Hospital Association found that on average each hospital in China had 27.3 violent incidents, up from an average of 20.6 in 2008, bur rising to a total of over 20,000 in the country in 2013. Some of these protests even turn violent. For example, a patient in Harbin stabbed four hospital workers, killing one, because he did not get immediate treatment.

Responding to these protests, the government has cracked down on corruption, notably abuses of medical funds but also on physicians and administrators taking bribes. In addition, it has started a new campaign, Healthy China 2020. By this date, all citizens should have access to high-quality health care while living healthier lives overall. Focusing on urban areas most impacted by Westernization, the state encourages people to eat a more traditional diet and get more exercise—although with pollution on the rise the latter is a double-edged sword.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3qV7-cD3vQ

Read: Burns, Lawton Robert, and Gordon G. Liu, eds. 2017. China’s Health Care System and Reform. Cambridge University Press.

34. Nutrition

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot.

Daoist dietetics are also making an impact beyond mountain resorts, nutrition and food safety becoming an ever more important issue in today’s China.

Westernization and advanced technology, while increasing food production and encouraging a more lavish lifestyle, also brought the tendency to alter and denature foodstuffs. The most blatant examples include the polishing of rice and bleaching of wheat flour, which began in China in the late 19th century. Similarly, modern bio-engineering often reduces the nutritional value of basic staples and encourages the consumption of empty calories, leading to new and increased health problems, such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.

Not immune to these development, the Chinese have altered their eating habits, consuming fewer fruits and vegetables and more items containing fat, flour, and sugar: soft drinks, candy, cookies, hamburgers, and the like. This situation is exacerbated by issues of food safety, compromised not only due to pollution, pesticides, and antibiotics, but often caused intentionally by unscrupulous manipulators. A prime example is the 2008 melamine scandal, when tainted baby food harmed and even killed infants. Overall, people today are highly concerned about where their food is coming from, and more and more consumers insist on organic production.

Traditional Daoist dietetics, with their high respect for nature and profound awareness of the impact different foods have on the energy system of the body, can make an important contribution to healthy living. Not only do Daoists rely dominantly on vegetables—monastics eating vegetarian—but they also emphasize purity in preparation and utensils, avoid overly stimulating and heating foods, such as onions, garlic, and ginger, and match food choice and intake to seasonal change. Rather than according to content such as carbohydrates and protein, they classify foods by their energetic impact. Thus, yang foods are stimulating, warming, and qi-enhancing; they include apricots, barley, cherries, pineapple, plums, celery, and coconut. Yin foods are calming, cooling and qi-settling; examples are bananas, tofu, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, mushrooms, pumpkins, tomatoes, and watermelon. Neutral foods are neither yin nor yang but generally qi-maintaining; here we have apples, cabbage, carrots, papaya, grain, beans, and eggs.

These properties, moreover, are associated with the four seasons, with people’s ages, and with particular mental states. Thus, foods eaten in spring should be stimulating and neutral; in summer, they should have a calming and cooling effect. By the same token, young people tend to be warmer, more energetic, and more yang in quality, needing calming and cooling foods, while older folks have increased yin and tend to like meats, stews, and warming dishes. A lack of confidence, moreover, can be alleviated by consuming more yang food, while tendencies toward aggression will benefit from a mellowing yin-rich diet.

Organic, vegetarian restaurants that take these aspects into consideration are multiplying and becoming widely popular today, often run by Buddhists but increasingly also by Daoists. In addition, some Daoists also run restaurants specializing in medicated dishes (yaoshan 藥膳) that bolster and tonify qi as part of nutritional therapy or personal self-care. These dishes, geared to individual conditions, balance yin and yang, strengthen the constitution, prevent and treat diseases, and lengthen life. Many restaurants cater particularly to middle-aged men, helping them to supplement qi, prevent the depletion of sexual essence, and generally improve the functioning of their organs. Dishes include regular foodstuffs, supplemented by qi-enhancing herbs, such as ginseng, astralagus, schisandra, chrysanthemum, fennel, hawthorn, and Asian cornelian cherry, all part and parcel of the Daoist apothecary.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpWa3Xvalcw


Read: Anderson, Eugene N., and Marja L. Anderson. 1977. “Modern China: South.” In Food in Chinese Culture, edited by K. C. Chang, 317-82. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kohn, Livia. 2010. Daoist Dietetics: Food for Immortality. Dunedin, Fla.: Three Pines Press.


33. Resorts

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

Besides invoking Daoist ideas of honoring nature and protecting the environment, on which more later, monastics have begun to style their mountain and country temples as pollution sanctuaries and are increasingly reinventing themselves as environmentalists.

Mountains are by nature away from cities and industrial zones, plus they tend to rise up into the skies, often reaching above toxic vapors. When I first climbed Huashan in 1991, I was surprised to see real sunlight once I got to a certain level, something entirely absent in the plains and cities below. In addition, the notion of “sacred mountain” encourages a strong sense of protection, not only for humans but also for animals and trees, encouraging biodiversity ad seeing all as part of an integrated universal and cosmic system that should not be tinkered with.

To enhance the purity of their centers, as Yang Shihua, abbot of Maoshan, the center of Highest Clarity Daoism, notes, Daoists erect their structures in an environmentally friendly manner, building around existing trees and rock formations. They use renewal solar energy rather than coal-produced electricity, keep motorized traffic to a minimum, conserve and recycle all materials as much as possible, and in general create a wholesome and healthy environment while encouraging a greater ecological awareness.

In addition, and with full support of the Chinese Daoist Association, they also offer resort-type spa services, often invoking the Daoist ideal of longevity. An example I visited a few years ago is the Daoist Long Life Center in the Blue Iris Garden (Qingzhi yuan 青芷园) condo complex in Beijing. Run by Wang Chengya 王称雅, a Beijing University graduate and White Cloud ordinand, the Center at the time occupied several floors of the community building. Arranged according to fengshui principles, its rooms are extremely well furnished and tastefully decorated with Daoist art.

Clients are first taken to two intake rooms to have themselves evaluated for physical ailments and astrological predispositions. They then receive a treatment plan, which includes dietary suggestions, herbal concoctions, special teas as well as herbal baths, massages, facials, qigong, and healing exercises. The Center employs an extensive staff and has a high rate of success, treating senior party cadres, the prime minister, and increasing numbers of foreigners.

Its model has been replicated widely among Daoist centers and especially mountains, where healthy living is a growing focus—entirely in line with the traditional Daoist view that all spiritual development begins with a healthy body, where qi flows smoothly and harmoniously. Also in line with historical precedent is the notion of temples as resorts—documented as far back as the Tang dynasty 1200 years ago and well described for the early 20th century, city dwellers would relocate to the mountains in the summer to escape the heat and humidity, then use the opportunity to improve their health and learn various longevity techniques—from diet through herbs, teas, exercise, and breathing to deep levels of meditation.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpzhGmxmtic


Read: https://www.chinadialogue.net/culture/9669-Taoist-monks-find-new-role-as-environmentalists/en

Miller, James. 2017. China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future. New York: Columbia University Press.

Girardot, Norman, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan, eds. 2001. Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Center for the Study of World Religions.