Qi Gong as a physical health practice, presented by the contemporary Chinese and Westerners, is a complex accretion of the ancient Chinese meditative practice xing qi 行氣 or “circulating qi,” and gymnastic exercise daoyin 導引 or “guiding and pulling;” I Ching and occult arts; facets of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism; martial arts, and the chemical and magical tricks, which had a long history in Taoist practices; and foreign ideas such as the Hindu yoga theory and modern scientific concepts such as “field,” “energy,” “gene,” “molecular structure,” and so on. (Li, 341)

Although the characters qi gong 氣功 can be traced back in the Taoist literatures the early Tang dynasty (618-907), the current term of Qi Gong has no conceptual or semantic relationships to qi gong in the historical literatures. In fact, the term of Qi Gong that applies to the meditative practice and gymnastic exercise was first claimed by Liu Guizhen 劉貴珍 (1920-1982) in his book “Experiences in Healing with Qi Gong” in 1957.

The tradition of the meditative practices and gymnastic exercises goes back a long way in Chinese history. The first source, and the earliest evidence of the meditative practice and gymnastic exercise is the discovery of the Neolithic vessel in the early 1980s in Northwest China. The pottery is identified as a Shamanic vessel. The image on the nearly 7000 year old pottery, archaeologists suggest, represents the hermaphroditic unity of wu xi 巫覡, or the priest-shaman. This phenomenon is explained by Mircea Eliade: “These priest-shamans are regarded as the intermediaries between the two cosmological planes—earth and sky—and also from the fact that they combine in their own person the feminine elements (earth) and the masculine element (sky).” (Eliade, 352)

The nearly 7000 year old Neolithic vessel was unearthed in the early 1980s in Northwest China.

Since the image of the body posture on the pottery is identical to the posture of the essential meditative practice or gymnastic exercise, the Chinese Qi Gong historian Li Zhiyong 李志庸 contends that the priest-shamans were the earliest masters of the Chinese meditative practice and gymnastic exercise. The Harvard anthropology professor K. C. Chang not only agrees with Li, but also suggests that the meditative practice and gymnastic exercise might have been the essential method for the priest-shamans to arrive at the state of trance/ecstasy. (Chang, 145) In addition, the French sinologist Catherine Despeux also traces the meditative practice and gymnastic exercise back to the ancient shamanic techniques of ecstasy. She sums up the studies of the Marcel Granet and Maxime Kaltenmark, which trace the shamanic origins of the legendary immortals Pengzu 彭祖, Chisongzi 赤松子, the masters of the wind and the rain, and the animal-bird dances. Despeux concludes: “the gymnastic exercises are a later development of original shamanic techniques.” (Despeux, 239)

The image of the body posture on the pottery is identical to the posture of the essential Qi Gong practice. The Qi Gong historians contend that the priest-shamans were the earliest Qi Gong masters.

The second earliest sources were the testimonies in both of the early Chinese philosophical writings and the archaeological findings dated between the second and fifth century B.C. There are two categories of discoveries regarding the meditative practice and gymnastic exercises. The textual evidence “Circulating Qi Inscription” may represent the first category of meditative practice. This rather esoteric text, nonetheless, is reflected in Laozi and Zhuangzi. The second category of gymnastic exercise is clearly testified in the writings of Zhuangzi: “To blow out and breathe in slowly, to inhale and exhale, to puff out the old breaths and draw in the new, practicing bear-hanging and bird-stretching, longevity is the only concern. Guiding and pulling, cultivating and nourishing the body favored by those who wish to live as long as Peng Zu.” (Guo, 535)

The recent archaeological findings strongly support Zhuangzi's above gymnastic exercise statement. The first is a set of specific gymnastic practices that was unearthed 1973 in the Han dynasty tomb dated to 168 B.C.: The Daoyin tu 導引圖, or the “Gymnastic Chart” is a colored manuscript that shows forty-four moments in a series of sketches accompanied by commentaries on their therapeutic features. According to Li Ling's 李零 studies, there are two categories of the sketches identifiable: the first group is the “Animal Plays,” which divides into eight types of animal-bird plays, including bear-hanging and bird-stretching described by Zhuangzi. The second group is the cure for illness and disease that includes eighteen ways to treat deafness, hernia, anxiety, knee pains, neck problems, abdominal bloating, sciatica, fever, and pneumonia. (Li, 356)

A part of the silk-book on Qi Gong practices was unearthed in 1973 in the Han dynasty tomb dated to 168 B.C.

The other archaeological testimony was the Han Bamboo Strip book Yinshu dated to 186 B.C. unearthed in 1984. According to the studies of Peng Hao 彭浩 and Li Ling, Yinshu 引書 or the “Gymnastic Book” is a detailed manuscript that includes five sections of health and longevity related treatise. The first section is the guiding principles for health and longevity in daily life through the four seasons. There is a set of rules and techniques for maintaining health daily in each season. The second section is a set of forty gymnastic movements and techniques to attain longevity. The third section is a set of forty-four gymnastic movements and techniques to cure illnesses. The fourth section is a set of twenty-four gymnastic movements that are therapeutic and illness-preventive techniques. The fifth section is a set of three gymnastic movements that emphasizes the breathing methods corresponding to the four seasons in order to attain health and longevity. (Li, 359)

In the context of Zhuangzi, however, these physical exercises or gymnastics are considered as inferior to the more meditative practices, such as xinzhai 心齋 or “fasting of the heart” and zuowang 坐忘 or “sitting and forgetting” that are associated with the esoteric text “Circulating Qi Inscription” emphasizing the inner concentration and breathing practices. Zhuangzi specifies: “Zhenren 真人, or the True Man's food is plain, but his breathing is unfathomable and tranquil. While the breathing of mass is through their throats, the breathing of the True Man is through his heels.” (Guo, 228) Zhuangzi conceives such training for the Way by refining and energizing qi in controlling one's posture and breathing. The technique is clarified as: “Unify your attention. Rather than listen with the ear, listen with the heart. Rather than listen with the heart, listen with the qi. Listening stops at the ear, the heart stills at following the circumstances. Qi is void, thus it is all encompassing. Only the Way amasses the void, so the void is the fasting of the heart.” (Guo, 173) This training also is reflected in Laozi: “Empty the heart, fill the abdomen,” (Gao, 237) “extend farthest towards the void, hold steadiest to the tranquility. The ten thousand things all rise together, and I reflect their return.” (Gao, 298)

In the following centuries, from the Han dynasty to the Tang dynasty downward, the various practices flourished and were widely developed, but their original foundations remained largely untouched. However, there has been clear evidence for an ongoing separation between the meditative practices and gymnastic exercises. While the meditative practices have been transmitted in the circle of the elite and literati, especially the esoteric circle of prerogative or religious specialists, the gymnastic exercises, for instance, wuqingxi 五禽戲, or “the Five Animal Plays” —divested of elements of the talismanic and exorcism—have become accessible to everyone.


Chang, K.C. 1999. Collected Treatises on Chinese Archaeology, Zhongguo kaoguxue lunwenji 中國考古學論集. Beijing: Shenghuo Dushu Xinzhi Press.

Despeux, Catherine. 1989. “Gymnastics: The Ancient Tradition” in Livia Kohn ed. Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques. Ann Arbor: Center For Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan.

Eliade, Mircea. 1972. Shamanism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Gao, Ming 高明. 1996. Commentaries on the Silk Scroll Book of Laozi, Boshu Laozi Xiaozhu 帛書老子校註. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.

Guo, Qingpan 郭慶藩. 1997. An Elucidation on Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi Jishi 莊子集釋. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.

Li Ling 李零. 2001. A Study on Chinese Occult Arts, Zhongguo fangshu kao 中國方術考. Beijing: Eastern Press.

Peng, Hao 彭浩. 1990. “A Primary Study on the Han Bamboo Strip Gymnastic Book from the Han Bamboo Strips of Zhangjiashan 張家山漢簡引書初探,” in Wenwu 文物: 10. Beijing.

All material copyright
© YeYoung Culture Studies