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.
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.
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.