David A. Palmer’s 2007 book _Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China_ is a fascinating and well-documented history of the modern Qigong movement in mainland China. Qi Gong is the same as Chi Kung, literally meaning “breath exercises.” Starting in 1949 when some top Communist party officials had positive experiences with Qigong healing and decided to rebrand the movement and mind part of traditional esoteric practices as “Qigong” for promotion as a cheap healthcare modality for the masses, Qigong grew to be a massive popular movement in the 1980s. This led to competitive claims of increasing levels of supernatural powers by the many Qigong “masters” who battled for the millions of practitioners who were looking for healing and ways to develop Extraordinary Powers. This later phase was indeed called “Qigong Fever” (Qi Gong Re) in China, making it a suitable name for the book.
Palmer’s writing is academic and footnoted with original sources, from newspapers to promotional materials and lectures from both the Chinese government, its various Qigong Research Societies, and the Qigong masters themselves. It isn’t a light read or an introduction to the practice of Qigong. Students of modern Chinese history, particular medical and religious aspects, will enjoy the book. It may be a difficult read for those new to these areas of study.
Recently I’ve been exploring scientific research around Qigong, particularly External Qi Healing. The lineage history of Soaring Crane Qigong, one of the styles I became a certified teacher of, has also been of great interest to me lately. I ordered Qigong Fever when I found it had a couple references to the supposed founder of Soaring Crane, Zhao Jinxiang (teacher of my instructor while at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, Chen, Huixian). In the small research world of External Qi healing (external energy, similar to Therapeutic Touch), the name Yan Xin has come up frequently. A couple months ago I didn’t know anything about Yan Xin or his form Yan Xin Qigong. Now I know that he was one of the main figures in the modern Qigong craze in China.
One of the main revelations of this book is how small the group of major Qigong proponents was, and how they worked mostly to have political influence, and secondarily to have scientific and academic influence. One of the effects of their political connections was that media criticism of Qigong and Qi research was officially prohibited. Without open criticism of the poor and fraudulent research, the existence of external Qi and other paranormal abilities was taken in the popular media as proven. This contributed to a national fantasy of a revolutionary Chinese science of Extraordinary Powers such as Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP), telekinesis (moving items with the mind), and distance healing (both in groups, via cassette tapes, and individually). This point cannot be stressed enough: many in the Chinese government, scientific bodies, and medical bodies were very excited to have China lead the world in a new revolution of expanded consciousness and extraordinary abilities which were all directly related to Qigong practices. The idea that ancient Chinese meditation and esoteric practices linked in with modern science would propel the world to a new utopia was the key factor fueling the willful self-deception leading to the rapid development of Qigong into a craze on many levels of society.
Part of why this took off so much in China was the Communist suppression of religious traditions which had been categorized as “feudalist superstitions.” Especially among older women, Qigong gave a socially approved outlet for many of the traditional belief systems which had been hidden and prohibited since the Cultural Revolution. What started as bad research suggesting external Qi had been verified as real grew in less than 20 years into the fanatical cult Falun Gong, which mixed aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, and Qigong with an apocalyptic message full of demons and extraterrestrials. The messianic leader Li Hongzhi predicted the implosion of the entire universe in 1994 then claimed his personal powers had averted this universal destruction in 1997. As part of the official crackdown on Falun Gong (which is an ongoing controversy), the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) disbanded and restricted most other large Qigong groups. Small group practice in a “sports and fitness” context is allowed in parks and homes, but charismatic leaders with a religious message are no longer tolerated.
The first time the term qigong appeared was in a Tang dynasty (618-910) Taoist text, with the meaning of ‘breath techniques’. A few centuries later, under the Song (960-1279), the word was used in two documents, with the meaning of ‘efficiency of the breath’. Thereafter, occurrences of the term were extremely rare until the beginning of the twentieth century, when it appeared in a handful of titles. But only after 1949 did qigong become a general and autonomous category, universally used in Chinese medical, scientific and popular discourse, and englobing most traditional breathing, meditation, visualisation and gymnastic practice, to which, over the years, would be added martial, performance, trance, divination, charismatic healing, and talismanic techniques, as well as the Book of Change, the study of paranormal phenomena, and UFOs. (Palmer, 18)
Similar to the term “Traditional Chinese Medicine” (TCM), Qigong was a Communist streamlined reconstruction of a mix of earlier folk techniques, largely from Taoist traditions, but also incorporating folk and Buddhist religious practices.
Palmer gives several references to scientific research on Qi as well as Chinese skepticism and exposure of many Qi abilities as fraudulent magic tricks, but that is not the focus of his book:
Another question this book will not answer is whether qi exists and whether the Extraordinary Powers of qigong are true. Qi is at the core of a great diversity of practices which aim to cultivate it, manipulate it, and cause it to circulate between people and objects. Whether this is true or not will not concern us here. But that tens of millions of Chinese have cultivated this ‘qi’, and even done many things to cultivate it, and in the process built and changed relationships between minds, bodies and people, is undoubtedly true. These changing configurations of relationships, particularly in the social sphere, are what interest us here. (Palmer, 28)
For the purposes of my own research trail and this review, I’ll largely be picking out the threads of scientific research and skeptical criticisms, along with some other key points about the big players in the Qigong Fever.
Modern qigong was launched in the ‘Liberated Zone’ of Southern Hebei on 3 March 1949, when cadre Huang Yueting proclaimed the adoption of the name qigong to designate a set of body training exercises which a team of clinicians had been researching under his leadership in the previous few years. The creation of qigong was a political act: while destroying the ‘feudal’ social and symbolic context of traditional masters, the new medical institutions sought to reclaim their knowledge of body techniques and to train a new corps of ‘medical workers’ to teach and practise them in a socialist institutional setting. (Palmer 29)
The fact that the modern use of the term ‘qigong’ has a birthday and a specific father is new information for me. Huang Yueting was influenced greatly by Liu Guizhen, who had both become a lineage holder for an internal exercise method which he felt cured his ulcers and a member of the CCP. While the Chinese Communists were outwardly Marxist and atheist, it is clear from Chairman Mao’s dalliances in Taoist sex with his farmgirl harems to the Qigong practices of these other party members that the old “feudalist superstitions” mostly went underground and were modified just enough to feel acceptable to these upper Party members.
The “Discovery” of External Qi
This bit is more important to me than any other piece of data in this book. Clearly millions of people in China and the West felt firm in their conviction of external Qi healing following this one piece of research.
In 1979 Gu Hansen, of the Shanghai Institute of Atomic Research, created a sensation by announcing that external qi was a measurable physical substance. Afterwards, the concept of external qi as a form of matter would be accepted by all the Chinese scientists working on qigong. Gu Hansen started her experiments at the end of 1977, independently and without the support of her scientific unit, but in collaboration with the Shanghai Institute of Chinese Medicine, which, under the direction of Lin Hai, had just opened a qigong clinic. (Palmer, 51)
Hansen reported the qi was detectable as static electricity or of low frequency magnetic signals and was a micro-particle current. Palmer translates a passage from “qigong apologists” Li Jianxin and Zhang Qin from 1996:
10 March 1978 can be considered an extraordinary day. This day marks the start of a new age in the history of qigong in China. In collaboration, Gu Hansen, of the Centre for Atomic Research of the Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, and Lin Houshen, of the Shanghai Institute of Chinese Medicine, using modern scientific devices to make preliminary measurements on the external qi displaced during qigong therapy, detected low frequency, infrared ray modulations. This confirms that the qigong practitioner emitted electromagnetic waves containing information. It is the first time that the physical nature of qi was proven. The publication of the results of the experiment created waves within the country, aroused interest and drew the attention of numerous scientists towards qigong research. Their heroic undertaking had a determining effect on the rise of qigong in contemporary China, allowing it to free itself once and for all of the label of ‘superstition’ and ‘sorcery’ so long attached to it. (Palmer 52)
The problem is reported in footnote 19:
The measuring device was invented by Gu Hansen herself, but she refused to divulge the nature of the experiment to allow other researchers to replicate it. (Palmer 52)
I found no abstracts by Gu Hansen (or Ku Hansen, another spelling variation) on Pubmed.com (which has virtually every abstract published in any peer-reviewed journal, good or not), and just one article in a Qigong database. It appears Gu went on to make and market an external Qi radiating device, but it must not have been very successful as she reports it was just “used by more than a hundred units.” In other words, her “research” was never verified, unreliable, and when she tried to cash in on it by making a device to sell, it didn’t do very well. Yet it is the foundation of most modern “external Qi” claims. After some political meetings with demonstrations of rock breaking, kids who could read rolled up pieces of paper “with their ears” and someone who made static on a TV screen with his Qi (which makes me think of Steve Wozniak’s pranks with a device that made static on TVs), the Party approved. ”A sure sign of political approval, Gu Hansen’s experiments on external qi were reported on China Central Television in January 1980, and published in Ziran [Chinese Nature Science] magazine. (Palmer 56)”
Yan Xin picked up from there with his questionable studies beaming Qi to change petri dish cultures and laser beams. I’ll pick up there in my next post, as it’s time to take my dog for a walk.