Learn about Dao — Daoism and Origin of Qigong

Daoism and the Origins of Qigong, Part 1

by Livia Kohn, Ph.D.

Qigong or “Qi Exercises” describes a group of practices highly popular in China and increasingly well known in the West. They involve slow, gentle body movements, breathing exercises, self-massages, and the mental circulation of qi, with the aim to open the body’s inner channels, provide a free flow of energy, help in healing, and in general create a sense of greater well-being and openness of spirit.

Qigong as a modern system of healing goes back to the 1940s. In 1947, the communist party cadre Liu Guizhen (1920-1983), suffering from a virulent gastric ulcer, was sent home to recover or die. He went home but refused to die—he was only 27 years old at the time! Instead, he took lessons in gymnastics and breathing from the Daoist Liu Duzhou. After 102 days of faithful practices, he was completely cured. He returned to his job and described his healing success to the party, which appointed him as a medical research leader in Hebei province with the task to study the effects of breathing on healing. In 1948, he created the term Qigong to indicate the methods which focused largely on breathing at the time. He then began to teach party officials and repeated his success with various ailments (Chen 2003).

As this modern beginning of the practice documents, contemporary Qigong tends to focus on medical goals and the improvement of life quality with the help of methods transmitted by Daoists. It is practiced both in the medical community and actively pursued among Daoist followers and successfully combines techniques that go back to both medical and Daoist sources. The most obvious and direct forerunner of Qigong is Chinese gymnastics, known as daoyin, which literally means “guide [the qi] and stretch [the body].” Using the same four basic methods as Qigong today, daoyin teaches practitioners to move the limbs and torso in a particular way while exercising deep breathing and mentally circulating the qi within. Through this, the body’s qi-flow is regulated and pathogenic elements are expelled. Gradually the body not only becomes supple and flexible but health improves and longevity is attained. Gymnastics for many centuries have been described as a valuable tool to prevent old age and cure diseases. They nourish the qi, refresh the body after hard work, help fasting and other spiritual practices, and open the body for a long and joyful life. How, then, did daoyin relate to Daoism in the course of Chinese history? To begin, let us look at the early documentation and role of the daoyin tradition.

The DaoYin Tradition

The earliest documents on daoyin are found in medical literature on healing and health maintenance. Following the dictum of the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic that the best physician is one who prevents diseases and never even has to treat a patient, gymnastic and breathing exercises formed a part of traditional Chinese medicine that specialized in preventative practice and was known as yang-sheng or nourishing life. Practices used are commonly called longevity techniques and include diets, breathing exercises, gymnastics, massages, sexual practices, the absorption of solar and lunar energies, as well as various forms of meditation. Used both for healing and enhancing health, these methods ensured not only the realization of the natural life expectancy but were found to often result in increased old age and vigor.

Our earliest sources on these methods, and thus also on gymnastics and breathing, are a set of manuscripts unearthed at Mawangdui and Zhangjia shan in southern China. Written on silk, bamboo and strips of wood, they date from the second century b.c.e. and present practical advice on how to nourish life with the help of gymnastics, breathing, dietetics, and drugs. Works include: Conjoining Yin and Yang (He yinyang), Discussion of the Perfect Way in All Under Heaven (Tianxia zhidao tan), and Recipes for Nourishing Life (Yangsheng fang).

A text called The Rejection of Grains and Absorption of Qi (Quegu shiqi), furthermore deals with techniques of eliminating grains and ordinary foodstuffs from the diet and replacing them with medicinal herbs and qi through special breathing excercises. The text repeatedly contrasts “those who eat qi” with “those who eat grain” and explains this in cosmological terms, saying: “Those who eat grain eat what is square; those who eat qi eat what is round. Round is heaven; square is earth (Harper 1998, 130). The most famous and relevant to our topic among the Mawangdui manuscripts is the Gymnastics Chart (Daoyin tu). It contains color illustrations of human figures performing therapeutic gymnastics. Some of the recognizable captions refer to the names of exercises already mentioned in the Zhuangzi, such as “bear-hanging” and “bird-stretching.” The text, although fragmentary, shows the importance of gymnastic exercises, used in conjunction with self-massages to dissolve blockages, help circulation, and increase the harmony of qi in the body. It also documents the early use of animal models for physical exercises, a practice that has been linked with ancient shamanic dances (Despeux 1989, 237-38).

Another manuscript on gymnastics is the Book on Stretching (Yinshu), found among several medical texts in Zhangjia shan, Hubei, about 150 miles north of Mawangdui, Dated to 186 b.c.e., it begins with the description of a daily and seasonal health regimen, including hygiene, dietetics, regulation of sleep and movement, as well as adequate times for sexual intercourse. After that, the text details fifty-seven gymnastic exercises, including massages. Some exercises are preventative, others more curative. The third and last part of the Book on Stretching deals with etiology and the prevention of diseases. The most important factors that cause diseases, according to this work, are climatic excesses such as the heat of summer, moisture, wind, cold, rain, and dew. An unstable diet, excessive emotions and a lifestyle inappropriate to the season are also named as possible causes of an imbalance of qi. The text recommends various therapies, such as breathing exercises, bodily stretches and the careful treatment of the interior qi. It says: “If you can pattern your qi properly and maintain your yin energy in fullness, then the whole person will benefit” (Wenwu 1990, 86).

It is interesting to note that the text makes a distinction between “upper class people,” who fall ill because of uncontrolled emotions such as rage and excessive joy, and lower ones whose conditions tend to be caused by excessive labor, hunger and thirst. It further notes that the latter have no opportunity to learn the necessary breathing exercises and therefore contract numerous diseases and die an early death. Obviously longevity techniques were very much the domain of the aristocracy and upper classes who could affort quality medical care and the instruction by specialists of prevention (Engelhardt 2000).

Following these manuscripts, records on gymastics include mention in dynastic histories, such as the biography of Hua Tuo, staff physician of Cao Cao under the Three Kingdoms in the third century. According to his official biography, he created an integrated system of gymnastic exercises known as the Five Animals’ Frolic.

Futher codification and development of gymnastic exercises occurred in various medieval medical sources, such as the Compendium of Essentials on Nourishing Life (Yangsheng yaoji). It summarizes early sources and describes longevity practice in ten sections: 1. Strengthening the vital spirits; 2. Caring for the breath; 3. Maintaining the body; 4. Practicing gymnastics; 5. Speaking properly; 6. Eating right; 7. Sexual moderation; 8. Right relations to the common world; 9. Taking medicinal drugs; and 10. Observing protective prohibitions (Stein 1999, 103).

The most important medical source on gymnastics in the middle ages is the Origins and Symptoms of Medical Disorders (Zhubing yuanhou lun), compiled under the supervision of the physician Chao Yuanfang and presented to Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty in 610. The text presents for the first time a systematic treatise on the etiology and pathology of Chinese medicine, distinguishing four major categories of diseases: inner, outer, women’s and children’s. Each of these four main parts is then subdivided into sections that outline the origin of the disorder in question, its process of development and its major clinical symptoms. After this, the text does not prescribe phytotherapeutic or acupuncture prescriptions but rather specific exercises of gymnastics, massages, breathing or visualization. This new classification of the practices of nourishing life in accordance with a systematic etiology and pathology represents a big step forward in the development of these techniques (Despeux 1989; Despeux and Obringer 1997).

Further texts of the Tang dynasty continue this tendency, clearly identifying gymnastics as part of the medical tradition and linking them with specific diseases. For example Master Ning, one of the classic gymnastics masters, is cited in the sixth-century Gymnastics Scripture (Daoyin jing) as saying:

We practice gymnastics because they make all the pathogenic energy evaporate from our limbs, bones, and joints. Thus only good energy prevails and can become more pure and essential. Practice the exercises diligently and with care whenever you have time between work and conversation. Either in the morning or at night is fine. Gradually your bones and joints will become firm and strong. The hundred diseases will be eliminated completely.

Whether you have caught a chill [wind-attack disorder] in your chest or are thoroughly fatigued and cannot rouse yourself; —whether you have periods of deafness when you cannot hear or find your eyes going dizzy and your mind turning mad on you; —whether you have energy moving against its proper current and rising up violently or experience severe pains in your hips: —in all cases you can actively expel the disease by practicing these exercises and guiding the energy to the place of trouble, following the proper charts and focusing it on the right spot. By guiding the energy you will supplement the energy of your spleen and stomach systems; by practicing gymnastics you will heal your four limbs. (2ab; Kohn 1993, 144-45) How, then, did Daoists approach this medical tradition of gymnastics?

The Daoist Perspective

From the earliest sources and throughout the middle ages, Daoists acknowledged the presence of preventative medicine and the methods of nourishing life as a valuable tool but considered it secondary. Even the very earliest mention of gymnastic exercises in the Zhuangzi of the third century b.c.e., has a rather denigrating feeling to it. It says:

To pant, to puff, to hail, to sip, to spit out the old  and draw in the new, practicing bear-hangings and bird-stretchings, longevity his only concern—such is the life favored by the Daoying practitioners , and  the man who nourishes his body,  hopes to live to be as old as Pengzu, . (ch. 15; Watson 1968, 167-168)

The contrast made in the Zhuangzi is between the liberated master who has a direct connection to the Dao and lives freely in its flow and the technical practitioner who needs to study hard and work systematically at his attainments. A story in chapter 7 illustrates the contrast. Here, a Daoist master named Huzi or Gourd Master gives in to the urgings of his disciple Liezi and lets himself be analyzed by a fortune-telling shaman. The shaman comes repeatedly, seeing a different personality or mind image each time. After coming for the third time, he exclaims in exasperation: “Your master is never the same! I have no way to analyze him! If he tries to steady himself, I will come back and examine him again.” The master, in contrast, is unfazed and explains: “Just now I appeared to him as the great vastness where nothing wins out. He probably saw in me the workings of the balanced energies. Where the swirling waves gather there is an abyss; where the still waters gather there is an abyss; where the running waters gather there is an abyss. The abyss has nine names and I have shown him three. Try bringing him again.”

The next day, the shaman again joined Liezi to see the Gourd Master, but before he even came to halt before the master, his wits left him and he fled—confronted by a vision of the pure Dao at the origins of creation or, as the text says, “that which has not yet emerged from the source—totally empty, wriggling and turning, not knowing anything about who or what, now dipping and bending, now flowing in waves.” (Watson 1968, 94-97).

The same distinction between a level of existence that is completely at one with the Dao and a more technical approach to cosmic harmony is also made in the Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity (Baopuzi), an alchemical classic of the fourth century c.e.. It notes that those who nourish life with herbal remedies, diets, breathing, and gymnastics may deem themselves advanced practitioners of the Dao, but will never reach the higher levels, for which an alchemical elixir has to be prepared and active communication with the gods be established. First, the text clearly acknowledges the medical and long life benefits of the daoyin practices. But then it notes that while these methods may help health, they will not reach to the higher spheres, and that the truly marvelous alchemical recipes can reach much further, granting practitioners states of unlimited immortality and oneness with the Dao. The text has:

Man’s death ensues from losses, old age, illnesses, poisons, miasmas, and chills. Today people do gymnastics and breathing exercises, revert their sperm to nourish the brain, follow dietary rules, regulate their activity and rest, take medicines, give thought to their inner gods to maintain their integrity, undergo prohibitions, wear amulets and seals from their belts, and keep at a distance all those who might harm their lives. In this way they may avoid the six baneful things just listed that can cause death.

Physicians today have pills that activate and brighten the kidneys, powders that benefit the circulation, roasted boxhorn from strengthening bone structure, and infusions of yellow hedysarum as a general tonic. . . .Writings also assert that a certain Wu Pu received from Hua Tuo the Five Animals’ Frolic as a basic form of gymnastics and managed to live to over a hundred. If such are the effects of the humblest of medicines, just think what can be done by those that are truly marvelous! (Baopuzi 5.4a; Ware 1966, 103)

This position is radicalized further in organized Daoism, where the relationship to the Dao in the form of various heavens and deities superseded all other concerns and health was the direct result of a pure and pious life. Communal Daoists of the Celestial Masters, founded in the second century c.e., thus prohibited medical and health treatments in favor of religious cultivation. For them, the world was populated by gods and demons—the latter appearing everywhere and in every shape, from the lowly rabbit and the dirty rat to all sorts of natural and supernatural creatures. A list of such demons has been excavated from a Han tomb, and several others are found in the earliest surviving texts of the Celestial Masters. To combat them, members had to fortify their houses and bodies with talismans, learn to recognize the demons and call them by their proper names, and visualize themselves as demon-conquering heroes

The same also holds true for the major medieval schools of Highest Clarity and Numinous Treasure, although their followers were lay based and thus not prohibited from availing themselves of medical treatments. Still, their universe was dominantly characterized by their relation to otherworldly entities with cultivation practices that involved visualizations of gods, opening of divine palaces within the body, ecstatic excursions to the stars, and highly complex ceremonies of communication, purification, confession, and the exoneration of ancestors.

Methods akin to gymnastics and breathing were used mainly as purification measures in the preparation of rituals. Thus the Introductory Explanation to the Daode jing (Daode zhenjing xujue), a fifth-century texts on devotional observances to Lord Lao discovered among manuscripts found at Dunhuang, instructs followers who wish to recite the Daode jing to begin by burning incense and straightening their robes, then bowing to the ten directions. After this, while concentrating their mind and visualizing Laozi together with his main disciples, they should open the sacrd text and recite an incantation of invitation and praise to the deity that also places the practitioner into a cosmic context

In my room, the seven jewels come together,
Doors and windows open of themselves.
Utter in my purity, I strive for deeper truth,
Riding on bright light, I ascend the purple sky.
Sun and moon shine to my right and left,
I go to the immortals and find eternal life.

Following this, adepts are to click their teeth and swallow the saliva thirty-six times, applying long life methods. Then, however, they again move into the more religious spheres and are to see themselves surrounded by the celestial constellations of the four directions: the green dragon to the left, the white tiger to the right, the red bird in front, and the dark warrior behind. Only when placed in such a cosmic environment can they recite the sacred book

It is thus evident so far, that medical gymnastics as the forerunners of Qigong were acknowledged by medieval Daoists but considered potential hindrances or, at best, preparatory and secondary measures to their main concern of attaining immortality and oneness with the Dao.


Looking further into the early tradition, however, it becomes evident that methods akin to gymnastics, breathing, diets, and sexual control were also used by immortals—not as medical methods to restore and enhance health, though, but as ways of transforming the qi-constellation of the human body/mind and thereby attain a level beyond natural life known as immortality. A state of having gone beyond the limitations of this world and ascended to a higher sphere, this is a form of transcendence to a divine realm that is closely connected with the origins of the universe.

To attain this state, practitioners live in separation from society, engage in techniques of physical and spiritual control, have their mind set on interaction with the spirit world, and in the process of their training acquire magical powers. They live in the wilderness, dress in garments of leaves or deer skins, fast by living on pure qi or eat raw food they find in the woods (Eskildsen 1998, 20-21). They are symbolically associated with birds in the lightness of their bodies and their ability to fly (Kaltenmark 1953, 10). Being so close to nature, moreover, immortals attain extended longevity and continuous vigor and eventually reach the paradises, luscious mountains surrounded by extensive bodies of water, the most prominent of which are known as Penglai and Kunlun (see Sōfukawa 1981).

Not many sources remain that describe immortals and their practices. The first appear in the Han dynasty and are typically written by aristocrats and court writers—such as Sima Qian’s Record of the Historian (Shiji) and the Immortals’ Biographies (Liexian zhuan), attributed to Liu Xiang (77-6 b.c.e.). Additional information on immortals is found in later dynastic histories (see Ngo 1976; DeWoskin 1983) and hagiographies, such as Ge Hong’s Biographies of Spirit Immortals (Shenxian zhuan) and his work of The Master Who Embraces Simplicity, both of the fourth century.

The key characteristic of immortals is the transformation that happens in and to the body of the practitioner. Refining their inner qi to higher levels of subtlety, immortals become etheric beings, feathery, sometimes hairy, with no need to eat or drink and completely invulnerable to heat and cold, fire and water. Light as ether, they can appear and vanish in an instant, and despite highly advanced years typically look young, fresh, and radiant.

The main techniques leading to this wondrous state involve the refinement of qi, which is taken into the body as breath, food, or sexual energy. Immortals accordingly practice control in these areas, using breathing exercises and gymnastics, dietetics and sexual practices in their own unquie way. Harnessing the breath through methods of “expelling the old and inhaling the new,” they control breathing and reach high longevity, so that even at an age of several hundred years they still look as if they were only seventeen: a face clear like peach blossoms, a mouth of cinnabar redness, vibrant and smooth skin, and glossy black hair and eyebrows. However, even here breathing is only the preliminary stage, and immortals need to complete the elixir of immortality to fully ascend to heaven (Campany 2002, 357).

Food intake is another major way of achieving bodily transformation. Most commonly this means the ingestion of only natural substances, such as roots, nuts, berries, or pine needles. An early example for this is Chang Rong, who lived in the mountains and ate only ash raspberry roots, thereby maintaining the complexion of a twenty-year old for several centuries before finally being transported to the divine realm (Liexian zhuan 2.5b; Kaltenmark 1953, 152-53).  More famous than she is Yu Jiang, better known as Maonü, the Hairy Woman. A palace woman under the First Emperor of Qin, she saw the collapse of the dynasty approach and took refuge on Mount Hua. There she met the immortal Gu Chun, who taught her how to eat pine needles and survive in the wilderness—thus gaining the ability to live without solid food, become immune to cold and heat, and move as swiftly as if she were flying. After living at ease on the earth for several hundred years, she ascended to the paradises of the immortals (Liexian zhuan 2.7b-8a; Kaltenmark 1953, 159-60). Still a highly venerated and respected immortal, she is depicted in a leafy gown and with hairy legs and still venerated today on various Daoist mountains (Porter 1993, 69).

Another well-known immortal who used dietary techniques is Master Whitestone (Baishi xiansheng). He would have liked to concoct an alchemical elixir, but his family was poor and he could not afford to do so. Instead, he made it his habit to boil white stones and use them for food, the reason why he came to be called Master Whitestone, in combination with bits of dried meat. For the most part, however, he would abstain from all grains and solid foods and thus reach an age of centuries.

A third major way of controlling qi as it enters and leaves the body is through sexual hygiene. In many cases this means the practice of celibacy for the preservation of sexual energy and its circulation and refinement within the body (Eskildsen 1998, 38-40), but it can also involve work with partners. Men might have relations with numerous women in order to obtain their qi so they could augment their own stock by guiding the precious substance through the body for greater energetic refinement, but some women are also reported to have used sexual methods for their attainment of long life and transcendence (see Wile 1992).

In all these cases, longevity techniques are used by religious practitioners for the attainment of higher stages: first a level of complete health, then a transcendence of health in an extended longevity, often over several centuries, and finally a transformation of the body’s qi to a more spiritual level of oneness with the Dao. Unlike the organized religious Daoists of later centuries, the early immortals acknowledged and actively used the continuity of qi to guide them from healing through longevity to immortality. What, then, is the logic behind this perspective and how can it be part of an integrated Daoist teaching?

To be continued next month with Daoism and the Origins of Qigong, Part 2.

Campany, Robert F. 2002. To Live As Long As Heaven and Earth: A Translation and Study of Ge Hong’s Traditions of Divine Transcendents. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chen, Nancy N. 2003. Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry, and Healing in China. New York: Columbia University Press.
Chia, Mantak, and Michael Winn.  1984.  Taoist Secrets of Love: Cultivating Male Sexual Energy.  Santa Fe: Aurora Press.
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Despeux, Catherine, and Livia Kohn. 2003. Women in Daoism. Cambridge, Mass.: Three Pines Press.
Despeux, Catherine. 1989. “Gymnastics: The Ancient Tradition.” In Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques, edited by Livia Kohn, 223-61. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies Publications.
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Robinet, Isabelle. 1993. Taoist Meditation. Translated by Norman Girardot and Julian Pas. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Sōfukawa Hiroshi. 1981. Konronsan e no shōsen. Tokyo: Chūōkoron sha.
Stein, Stephan. 1999. Zwischen Heil und Heilung: Zur frühen Tradition des Yangsheng in China. Uelzen: Medizinisch-Literarische Verlagsgesellschaft.
Ware, James R. 1966. Alchemy, Medicine and Religion in the China of AD 320. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Watson, Burton. 1968. The Complete Works of Chuang-tzu. New York: Columbia University Press.
Wenwu.  1990.  “Zhangjia shan Hanjian Yinshu shiwen.” Wenwu 1990/10: 82-86.
Wile, Douglas. 1992. Art of the Bedchamber: The Chinese Sexology Classics Including Women’s Solo Meditation Texts. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[Dr. Livia Kohn is Professor Emerita of Religion and East Asian Studies at Boston University. A graduate of Bonn University, Germany, she has spent many years pursuing research on medieval Daoism and Chinese long life practices. She has written and edited over 25 books, taught many classes on Asian religions, and worked on a large variety of related projects.  In addition, she has practiced taiji quan, qigong, meditation, yoga, and other cultivation methods for many years. These days, she lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida, and is a Daoist freelancer. She  teaches workshops all over the world, runs international conferences on Daoist studies, and is executive editor at Three Pines Press and of the Journal of Daoist Studies. She has lived in Japan for a total of ten years and traveled widely in Asia, especially in China, Korea, and Thailand. Aside from her native German, she is fluent in Chinese and Japanese. To contact Professor Kohn, please e-mail liviakohn@gmail.com]
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