Rational Activities vs. Magic Power or Superstition

The Neo-Confucian and Taoist scholar Kunio Miura concluded in his research, which happens to be one of a handful of serious studies in the West on the contemporary Chinese Qi Gong practices: “The modern age of science and technology has brought changes in the understanding, description, and evaluation of the practices. Transcendence or immortality is out of the question. Spirit and spirits don't play any significant role any more. Trance states are discouraged, since traditional ways of understanding and controlling them have been lost. Scientific man shies away from the supernatural.” (Miura, 357)

The dynamic Qi Gong practice without spiritual or cosmological elements becomes a collective activity and a public entertainment.

Based on the contemporary textual sources and his personal public observations of the practices, Miura defines the meditative Qi Gong to be the practices of scholars, and gymnastic or dynamic Qi Gong to be the practices of the working masses. Moreover, what puzzles Miura is that he cannot define whether the Qi Gong practices is science or religion. This characteristic of the traditional Western approach, namely the notion of the separation of dualism can be reconciled with what Maurice Freedman called the “rather tired intellectual world of the Great and Little traditions” 20 years ago. (Freedman, 37) In this formula, Confucianism (now Buddhism and Taoism) were “Great,” or learned culture, folk religions and practices were “Little,” or popular culture. From this standpoint, the traditional sinologists treated Chinese popular cultural practices in a dismissive spirit as gross forms of superstition resulting in a rather shapeless tradition. (Chan, 141) In effect, however, the “Great” and “Little” traditions are not oppositional but necessarily related, engaged, and overlapping in the same discourse and practice. The cultural practices, such as Qi Gong reveal a full range of Chinese cultural properties. Its substance always reflected the rich culture shared, not splintered, by all Chinese.

The separated, or elite approach in the understanding, description, and evaluation of the Qi Gong practices indeed reflect how the recent Chinese who were influenced by Marxist socialistic ideology, and the Western observers thought that the traditional Chinese cultural studies and practices have become. Mao Zedong 毛澤東 was inspired by Marxism (a Western thought) at age 25. He criticized sitting meditation for being too spiritual and not active enough, because “Human beings are active animals and they love to be active. Human beings are also rational animals and thus they need a reason for their activities.” (Mao, 39) It articulates a fundamental battle: the battle has been between spiritualism and rationalism, between idealism and materialism in China since 1911.

After the fall of Qing dynasty (1644-1911), there has been a hope for China to create a new synthesis of government that would transform China into a modern nation-state. This hope largely depends on the ideology of moving China away from its “feudal” past, and releasing China from its “economic backwards” into a new and advanced level of development without the ills of the capitalist system. Under such a social and political background, the meditative and gymnastic practices along with other traditional cultural practices are inevitably considered as superstitions and anti-science. In terms of Qi Gong, the battle was resolved by a shift to more moments in practice, stripping the traditional cosmological and spiritual agents, and the closed-door lineage-transmission to ways of physical treatment that involves more activities between physician and patient, and of general public entertaining activities.

In the 1950s, Liu Guizhen succeeded in curing his stomach ulcer by practicing his family long transmitted Qi Gong technique, which was in fact more of a meditative practice, and decided to publicize the method to the masses. He directed several medical clinics and treated a large number of patients with a success rate of over 80%. He was rewarded by the State Ministry of Health, and received formally by Chairman Mao in 1956, which echoes the traditional honor of having an audience with the emperor still deeply rooted in the mind of common people. In 1957, his breakthrough best seller “Experiences in Healing with Qi Gong,” which of course disassociated with the traditional cosmological and spiritual agents, was published. Unfortunately, he died rather early, at age 64, and there was hardly any evidence to prove that other practitioners performed his method as effectively. The dispute then is: can Qi Gong be a scientific or rational method divested from the complex notion of spiritual attainment or the ideas of magic power, and the lineage transmission?

The Qi Gong body postures with Mao's outfit illustrated in Liu's book.

Lineage Transmission

There are no English words equivalent in meaning to the Chinese words shicheng 師承, which are commonly translated as “lineage transmission.” In the Chinese context, this expression refers to a set of assorted ideas: genealogy or the family history overlapped with lineage or the consanguineous tie; the parallels of fictive family kinship and kouzhuan xinshou 口傳心受, or the orally and esoterically body-to-body and mind-to-mind transmitted technique-bounded practices.

In the terms of Qi Gong practices, the lineage transmission indicates the non-broken genealogical line and the continuously oral-mind-transmitted esoteric techniques. It is indisputable that some of the earliest Chinese sages/philosophers conceiving the Way (ultimate truth) can be realized by practicing meditation, in Graham's words: “training for the Way as the refining of the energizing fluids, the qi, by controlling one's posture and breathing.” (Graham, 188) However, the techniques are described only briefly in Laozi, Zhuangzi, Mencius, and scattered in other early works. Although we are confronted with a great paucity of scholarship on the subject, and we have no sources or accounts on how meditation was put into practice as a means of realizing the Way, the writings of the great Taoist Ge Hong (283-363) demonstrated the fact that the usual sources for the notorious silence of the subject are a result of possibility of everything regarding to the actual practice only being orally and esoterically transmitted.

A diagram depicts the essential elements and the secret oral transmission collected in the Taoist Canon.

Ge Hong stated in his great philosophical summa Baopu zi: “In the hot summer, my grandfather always dived in the deep river, and stayed under the water until the end of the day, he then came out of the water, because he could halt his qi, and use the fetus breathing…such a technique was only orally transmitted by the True Man, and was never written on paper in words…” “People who are closed to themselves and thus trapped in depression have many sickness and short lives; people who express their emotions extremely also shorten their lives. Only those who harmonize themselves (through the meditative and gymnastic practices) can live long and healthily. However, without koujue 口訣, or the esoteric oral-transmission, no single one out of the ten thousand practitioners will not hurt or kill oneself (by improper practice) in the practices.” (Wang, 150)

Furthermore, he wrote: “Although the treatises on (the meditation and longevity techniques to attain) the Way were created in the School of Yellow Emperor 黃帝 and Laozi 老子, the original writings were rare. In the later centuries, those who were meddlesome and officious had fabricated enormous texts (on the techniques to attain the Way), so that volumes of books have been piled up like hills. Nevertheless, people of antiquity were serene and plain in writing; their treatises were without details, accuracy, and the origins of citations so that the writings were very difficult to comprehend…even the writings of sages such as Wenzi 文子, Zhuangzi, Guanling 關令, Yinxi 尹喜 were only literary. Although they emulated the Yellow Emperor and Laozi, their emulations were mystifying and deceitful. They only deduced the principles, never elucidated the practical instructions.” (Wang, 151)

Such statements still confirm the position of modern practitioners who are in a constant quandary about practice. For instance, one of the most widely cited healing technique texts—stated in the Yellow Emperor's Inner Book—to heal the degenerative kidney illness or chronic low back pains: “Sitting down and facing the south at the hours between 3am-5am, one stills the mind, empties all thoughts, and concentrates on the breathing, and then halts and holds the breathing. One repeats it for seven times, each time swallows the breath deeply as if swallowing the hard substance. After seven times, one's mouth will be full of saliva.” (Meng, 702)

It is impossible to see much rationale or practical instructions by simply reading the text. The unwritten texts in the practice traditionally are left to the understanding of the lineage-transmitted adept/master. Even at the level of studies and understanding, one ought to seek help from a traditional lineage-transmitted adept/master. The approach always begins with the idea that humankind is part of nature, whatever happens to the body or the mind, one should set about from the idea of harmonization between the macrocosms or the nature and the microcosms or the body. Thus, one may conclude the followings to support the text from the traditional cosmological perspective:

According to the Chinese cosmology and the Five Agents Theory, the cardinal direction south is associated with the “fire agent,” and the heart in the human body, while the cardinal north is associated with the “water agent,” and the kidneys. In relation to the theory of the ten heavenly stems, and the Chinese calendar calculation, during the hours between 3am to 5am, the “wood agent” becomes most active in time and space. According to He Tu, or the River Chart, seven as one of the primal numbers belongs to the south and stands for the “fire agent.” The conclusion thus is: the heart is nourished by the primal “fire qi” facing south, and the primal number seven; the heart is also produced by the primal “wood qi” at the given time zone.

One may conclude the following from the traditional medicine perspective as well:

The essential cause for weakening of kidneys (which contributes the symptoms such as chronic lower back pain, and the lack of energy and over all vitality) is the imbalanced or stagnant qi circulation between the heart and the kidneys. In the healthy human body, the “fire agent” of the heart circulates downward, while the “water agent” of the kidneys circulates upward. When the kidneys weaken, the kidney qi, or the “water agent” becomes stagnant and “cold.” Likewise, while the heart weakens, the heart qi, or the stagnant “fire agent” becomes “hot.” In order to heal the kidney problems, the heart qi or the “fire agent” and the kidney qi or the ”water agent” need to be harmonized across. By circulating, halting, and swallowing qi seven times as a set of repetitions to restore the down-flow of heart qi, and the up-flow of kidney qi, so that the hot energy from the heart will warm up the “cold water” of the kidneys. Likewise, the cold energy from the kidneys will reduce the “hot fire” of the heart.

According to Chinese medicine, between the hours of 3am to 5am, the lung channel becomes most active in human body. Since the lungs belong to the “metal agent,” according to the Five Agent Theory, “metal produces water.” While the lung channel is active, the “metal agent” of the lungs produce the primal “water agent,” and thus, the lungs nourish the kidneys. Simultaneously, the heart is nourished by the primal qi of south and the number of seven. If one performs the technique correctly, the saliva will be accumulated, which is a sign of strengthening the kidneys.

However, it becomes very crucial at the level of practice. According to the text, there are practically no descriptions on the body posture, breathing methods, and concentration techniques, which play the essential part in practice.

As a result of the above statements, two aspects regarding the lineage-transmitted adept/master should be strongly addressed: First, the adept/master usually has undertaken long and various trainings, he/she is capable to advise students with the specific detailed techniques to support the process of body, breath, and mind according to each student's condition. Secondly, these technical supports are often impossible to reproduce in writings, or captured by camera, they must be provided by the master orally and personally. In other words, the adept/master has to rely on his/her experiences, and/or more importantly, his/her cultivations in qi to direct and help his/her students on body-to-body, mind-to-mind base, i.e. the adept/master has got the Qi, and the student/practitioner has not.

Hence, the issue of Qi, or the “magic power” rises. This magic power, or the Qi, is believed as matter, or concrete substance, which contributes certain difficulty in the Western understanding. Schwartz describes that it “comes to embrace properties which we would call psychic, emotional, spiritual, numinous, and even ‘mystic.’ It is precisely at this point that Western definitions of ‘matter’ and the physical which systematically exclude these properties from their definitions do not at all correspond to qi.” (Schwartz, 181)

Lineage transmission is based on the Confucian family kinship, its multifaceted rituals of ancestor worship, and the ancient method of oral transmission of knowledge. In all cultural practices, the formation of a fictive family kinship parallels with the consanguineous tie. Within the lineages the proper titles among the members follow the Chinese family structural designations, except the word shi 師 (teaching/master) is added at the beginning of the addresses: shizu 祖 (grandfather/master's master, male/female), shifu 父 (father/master, male/female), shixiong 兄 (older brother/ fellow disciple), shidi 弟 (younger brother/ fellow disciple), shijie 姐 (older sister/ fellow disciple), shimei 妹 (younger sister/ fellow disciple), shibo 伯 (uncle/master's older fellow disciple, male/female), shishu 叔 (uncle/ master's younger fellow disciple, male/female etc.). In this fashion, the family structure, blood tie, and/or fictive kinship together keep the practice esoterically.

The Confucian family structure and kinship determined the development
and transmission of Chinese knowledge and cultural practice.

To a large extent, the development and transmission of knowledge and cultural practices relied upon the formation of family structure and unity in China. Consequently, the idea of lineages played the fundamental role in the transmission of Chinese cultural history and knowledge on the whole. In practice, the idea of lineage transmission seems to have been loosely articulated as a symbolic apparatus, modern scholars argue, it may even generate a sense of cultural chauvinism. From such Western standpoint, “lineage assertions are as wrong as they are strong.” (McRae, xix) Although the idea of lineage transmission has been reinterpreted, adapted, and subverted by the local traditions and by the elite traditions, but its fundamental intuition is never questioned. This intuition in all conceptual and operational aspects affords an understanding: the continuation of the lines of lineage transmission is the continuation of the Chinese cultural heritages and traditional knowledge and practices.

References:

Chan, Wing-tsit. 1978. Religious Trends in Modern China. New York: Octagon Books.

Freedman, Maurice.1974. “On the Sociological Studies of Chinese Religion.” In Arthur P. Wolf, Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Graham, A. C. 2003. Disputers of the Tao, Philosophical argument in Ancient China. Chicago: Open Court.

Mao, Zedong 毛澤東. 1972. A Collected Essays by Mao Zedong, Maozedong ji 毛澤東集. Beijing: People's Press.

McRae, R. McRae. 2003. Seeing Through Zen, Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Meng, Jingchun 孟景春. 1996. Explication on the Yellow Emperor's Inner Book, the Original Questions, Huangdi neijing suwen yishi
黃帝內經素問譯釋. Shanghai: Shanghai Science and Technology Press.

Miura, Kunio. 1989. “The Revival of Qi” in Livia Kohn ed. Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques. Ann Arbor: Center For Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan.

Schwartz, Benjamin I. 1985. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tao Bingfu 陶秉福. 1987. An Outstanding Collection of Qi Gong Treatment, Qigong liaofa jijin 氣功療法集錦. Beijing: People's Health Press.

Wang, Ming 王明. 1996. Clarification on the Inner Chapters of Baopu zi, Baopuzi neipian jiaoshi 保朴子內篇校釋 Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.

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