Daoism and the Origins of Qigong

Daoism and the Origins of Qigong

by Livia Kohn


Qigong or “Qi Exercises” describes a group of practices highly popular in China and increasingly well known 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 faithfully undertaking these 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 (see Chen 2003).

As this 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 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 yangsheng 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 km 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. The text says:

The body needs a certain amount of movement. This movement serves to properly balance right and left, it helps to redistribute and assimilate the various breaths that are issued from the cereals, more than that it causes the blood to circulate properly and prevents the origination of diseases.

The human body is like a door hinge that never comes to rest. This is why Daoists practice gymnastics. They imitate the movements of the bear which hangs itself head-down from a tree, of the owl which keeps turning its head in different ways. They stretch and bend the waist, and move all the joints and muscles of their bodies in order to evade aging.

I myself have developed a series of exercises which I name the Five Animals’ Frolic. The five animals are the tiger, the deer, the bear, the monkey, and the bird. The practice of the Frolic aids the elimination of diseases and increases the functioning of the lesser members. Whenever a disorder is felt in the body one of the Animals should be practiced until one perspires freely. When perspiration is very strong, one should cover the affected parts of the body with dust. In due course one will find the body lighter, more comfortable and a healthy appetite will return. (Sanguo zhi 29.2a; Despeux 1989, 242)

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?


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 breath and draw in the new, practicing bear-hangings and bird-stretchings, longevity his only concern—such is the life favored by the scholar who practices gymnastics, the man who nourishes his body, who hopes to live to be as old as Pengzu, for more than eight hundred years. (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 practictioner 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 fortunetelling 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 practices. It says:

The ability to writhe like a dragon, stretch like a tiger, waddle like a bear, swallow like a tortoise, fly like a swallow, twist like a snake, dilate like a bird, look heavenward and earthward—all these will prevent the orange colored wax from leaving the Cavern Chamber in the head. Then when you have climbed like a monkey and jumped like a hare 1,200 times, your hearing will not deteriorate. The deaf may steam their ears with lizard. Or they may form a packed of jujubes, sheep-turd cinnamon, and plumed sparrow cinnamon, and seal their ears with it. All these procedures produce cures. (15.9b; Ware 1966, 257)

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 for 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.

If, despite such measures, someone was attacked by a demon, they would suffer sickness and disease. Moreover, such an attack could occur only because the person had been careless and had a moral failing. As a result, all healing of the Celestial Masters was undertaken through confession, ritual, and magic. First the sick person was isolated in a so-called quiet chamber, an adaptation of a Han institution for punishing wayward officials involving solitary confinement. There they had to think of their sins going all the way back to their birth to try and find a explanation for the illness.

Once certain sins had been identified, a senior master would come to write them down—in triplicate and together with a formal petition for their eradication from the person’s divine record. The three copies would then, in a formal ceremony, be transmitted to Heaven (by burning), Earth (by burying), and Water (by casting into a river), whose officials supposedly set the record straight and restored the person’s good health. Longevity techniques, such as gymnastics and meditations, were permitted only in the larger context of the supernatural universe and seen mainly as supplementary measures of purification (Kohn 2001).

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 text 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. They 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 unique 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 combinatin 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. His account in the Biographies of Spirit Immortals says:

He was able to walk as far as three or four hundred miles in one day. Though hundreds of years old, he still looked like he was about thirty. When someone asked him why he did not wish to ascend to heaven, he replied: “I’m not at all sure I should enjoy myself as much in heaven as I do in this world right here!” (1.17b)

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?


The three levels of healing, longevity, and immortality can be seen as three different dimensions of practice within the same greater universe of the Dao. The Dao can be described as “organic order”— organic in the sense that it is not willful and order in that it is clearly manifested in the rhythmic changes and patterned processes of the natural world. Not a conscious, active creator or personal entity, but an organic process that just moves along, the Dao is mysterious in its depth and unfathomable in its essence. But beyond this, as order the Dao is also predictable in its developments and can be discerned and described in ordered patterns. These patterns are what the Chinese call “self-so” or “nature” (ziran), the spontaneous and observable way things are naturally. Yet while Dao is very much nature, it is also more than nature. It is also the essence of nature, the inner quality that makes things what they are. It is governed by laws of nature, yet it is also these laws itself.

In other words, it is possible to explain the nature of the Dao in terms of a twofold structure. The “Dao that can be told” and the “eternal Dao.” One is the mysterious, ineffable Dao at the center of the cosmos; the other the Dao at the periphery, visible and tangible in the natural cycles. About the eternal Dao, the Book of the Dao and Its Virtue says:

Look at it and do not see it: we call it invisible.

Listen to it and do not hear it: we call it inaudible.

Touch it and do not feel it: we call it subtle. . . .

Infinite and boundless, it cannot be named;

It belongs to where there are no beings.

It may be called the shape of no-shape,

It may be called the form of no-form.

Call it vague and obscure.

Meet it, yet you cannot see its head,

Follow it, yet you cannot see its back. (ch. 14)

This Dao, although the ground and inherent power of the human being, is entirely beyond ordinary perception. It is so vague and obscure, so subtle and so potent, that it is beyond all knowing and analysis; we cannot grasp it however hard we try. The human body, senses, and intellect are simply not equipped to deal with this Dao. The only way a person can ever get in touch with it is by forgetting and transcending ordinary human faculties, by becoming subtler and finer and more potent, more like the Dao itself.

The Dao at the periphery, on the other hand, is characterized as the give and take of various pairs of complementary opposites, as the natural ebb and flow of things as they rise and fall, come and go, grow and decline, emerge and die. The Book of the Dao and Its Virtue says:

To contract, there must first be expansion.

To weaken, there must first be strengthening.

To destroy, there must first be promotion.

To grasp, there must first be giving.

This is called the subtle pattern. (ch. 36)

Things develop in alternating movements as long as they live. It is the nature of life to be in constant motion. It is the nature of things to always move in one direction or the other, up or down, toward lightness or heaviness, brightness or darkness. Nature is a continuous flow of becoming, whether latent or manifest, described as the alternation of complementary characteristics and directions that cannot exist without each other. This becoming can be rhythmic and circular or it can move back toward the source of life in the ineffable Dao, which at the same time is a forward movement toward a new level of cosmic oneness

In this larger cosmic vision, healing and longevity involve either the recovery or the the maintanance of harmony with the visible and tangible patterns of the Dao, while spiritual attainments of enlightenment and immortality mean the overcoming of the natural cycles and the ultimate return to the Dao at the center of creation, the uncreated void at the base of all. The practice of Qigong and gymnastics can serve all three, supplementing, enhancing, or transforming the qi that makes up both the body and the universe.

Seen in terms of the body’s qi, the three levels of practice involve different scenarios and trajectories of qi management. As is well known, the body consists of two forms of qi: a basic primordial or prenatal qi that connects it to the cosmos and the Dao; and a secondary, earthly or postnatal qi that is replenished by breath, food, and interaction with objects and people and helps the body survive in everyday life. Both forms of qi are necessary and interact constantly with each other, so that primordial qi is lost as and when earthly qi is insufficient, and earthly qi becomes superfluous as and when primordial qi is complete (as in the case of the embryo in the womb). People, once born, start this interchange of the two dimensions of qi and soon begin to lose their primordial qi, especially through interaction with the world on the basis of passions and desires, sensory exchanges, and intellectual distinctions—the very same features considered most harmful for cosmic interaction in the classical texts.

When people have lost a certain amount of primordial qi, they get sick and eventually die. Healing, then, is the replenishing of qi with medical means such as drugs, herbs, acupuncture, rest, gymnastics, and so on. Longevity or health enhancement, next comes in as and when people have become aware of their situation and decide to improve their quality and enjoyment of life. Attaining a basic state of good health, they proceed to increase their primordial qi to and even above the level they had at birth. To do so, they apply various longevity techniques, including diets, breathing exercises, gymnastics, massages, sexual practices, and meditations. These ensure not only the realization of the natural life expectancy but may even result in increased old age and vigor.

Immortality, third, raises the practices to a yet higher level. To attain it, people transform all their qi into primordial qi and proceed to increasingly refine it to ever subtler levels. This finer qi will eventually turn into pure spirit, with which practitioners increasingly identify to become spirit-people and transcendents. The practice that leads there involves intensive meditation and trance training as well as more radical forms of diet and other longevity practices. Unlike healing and longevity, where the natural tendencies of the body are supported and enhanced, immortality demands the complete overcoming of these natural tendencies and the body’s transformation into a different kind of energy constellation. The result is a bypassing of death, the attainment of magical powers, and residence in cosmic realms, such the immortals’ paradises.


Daoyin exercises as much as the other longevity techniques, therefore, can be used equally for medical, health enhancing, and spiritual purposes. When done for therapy, the specific direction toward which they are aimed does not seem to matter. When used to enhance overall health, there are some instructions on geographical orientation and astronomical constellations, with the east being the most common, as it corresponds to spring and rising qi. Done as a preparation for higher spiritual attainments, the exercises are often conbined with formal purifications and with rituals to the gods. However, their basic patterns remain the same on all three levels, so that similar sequences of gymnastic exercises are used in all cases.

Still, the exercises are not entirely the same. Certain practices that are useful in healing may be superfluous in the attainment of longevity, while some applicable for immortality may even be harmful when healing is the main focus. Take breathing as an example. When healing or extending life, natural deep breathing is emphasized, with the diaphragm expanding on the inhalation. When moving on to immortality, however, reverted breathing is advised, which means that the diaphragm contracts on the in-breath. Undertaking this kind of reverted breathing too early or at the wrong stage in one’s practice can cause complications, from dizziness to disorientation or worse.

Again, the point is made clear in the case of sexual practices. In healing, sexual activity with a partner is encouraged in moderation and measured ways, with both partners reaching regular orgasms. In longevity practice, sexual activity may still be undertaken with a partner, but ejaculation and other loss of essence and qi is avoided and the sexual stimulation is used to raise the awareness of the positive flow of qi in the body, which is redirected to relieve stress and increase vitality. Through the practice, as Mantak Chia and Michael Winn state, people “become more aware that all living things are one” (1984, 171).

In immortality, finally, sexual practices are undertaken entirely within one’s own body and without a partner. They serve the creation of an immortal embryo through the refinement of the sexual energy jing first into qi, then into cosmic spirit shen. Ni Hua-ching emphasizes accordingly that in advanced attainment sexual energy should not be used to have fun or beget children, but must be sublimated into spiritual energy, which will then give birth to the spiritual embryo and help people to attain the immortal state (1992, 110).He says:

It is hard for people to establish the correct goal of life. Typically people are looking for emotional happiness in the form of lots of pleasure, fun, stimulation or excitement. For spiritual people, it is necessary to avoid pleasure, excitement, stimulation and fun. Actually, those four things have a healthy and unhealthy level. In other words, some fun is all right, because it does not harm your life being. However, even on a healthy level, if fun is overextended, it can become negative and damage your energy being. (Ni 1992, 111)]

Immortality is thus the creation of an inner spirit being and means the avoidance of ordinary joys and excitements. Practices associated with it are not only unsuitable (and probably impossible) for people on the levels of healing and longevity, but may even be harmful if attempted improperly.

The same point, that practices of a similar nature vary significantly among the three levels, can equally be made for diets and fasting. Thus diets on the medical and health levels involve abstention from heavy foods such as meat and fat, as well as from strong substances such as alcohol, garlic, and onions. Instead, practitioners are encouraged to eat lightly and in small portions. As their qi increases, they will need ever less food, until—in immortality practice—all main staples can be cut out and food is replaced by the conscious intake of qi through breath in a technique known as bigu or “avoiding grain.”

In all cases, longevity practices and thus Qigong and gymnastics serve to guide people from a wasteful and neglecting attitude toward their bodies and minds toward a more wholesome, healing, and caring way of dealing with themselves. Allowing the conscious bodily experience of the cooperation among all body and mind energies, the practice increases the mental awareness of oneself as part of the Dao, manifested as a flow of energy that rises and ebbs, comes and goes, moves and halts. As one reaches a state of mental quietude and greater stability in one’s heath, the practice leads on towards a more encompassing understanding of self and world, which also includes a sense of wonder, of gratitude towards the natural world and the greater universe. The tense, ego-bound self loosens and a sense of open qi-flow takes its place. Healing moves on to longevity, and as cosmic awareness increases, even to immortality.

Historically, organized Daoists changed their attitude toward the application of longevity techniques after unification around the seventh century. Around the very same time when the medical tradition began to systematize and organize long life methods in their classics, Daoists integrated the practices of the immortals of old more actively and acknowledged their value. Looking at the Daoist origins of Qigong, there is, therefore, both a distinction and a continuity among the organized religion with its foremost focus on divinity and otherworldly powers and the tradition of life-enhancing practices that can be used on all different levels. It is thus not surprising that long life methods should be transmitted among Daoist texts and that Qigong to the present day serves as a key part of Daoist practice.


So far, we have looked at daoyin as the key forerunner of Qigong—a practice that uses to a large extent the same techniques and shares the same worldview, that similarly reaches from health enhancement to spiritual dimensions. However, daoyin alone is not Qigong, and there are a number of practices commonly undertaken today that have a different origin, that in fact go back to more religious Daoist practices. In the last section of this presentation, I would like to point out a few of those, focusing mainly on the transformation of the body into a cosmic energy system, the visualization of animal nature and cosmic flow, and the impact of inner alchemy.

One of these practices is the cosmicization of the body through the ingestion of the so-called five sprouts, also known as the “method of mist absorption,” which involves partaking of the pure energies of the five directions. Part of medieval Daoist cultivation and described especially in the texts of Highest Clarity (Robinet 1989, 165-66), the practice begins with swallowing the saliva while chanting invocations to the original qi of the four cardinal directions. Then adepts face the direction in question, usually beginning with the east, and in their minds visualize the qi of that direction in its appropriate color. A general mist in the beginning, it gradually forms into a ball, sort of like the rising sun, then through further concentration shrinks in size and is made to come close to the adept. Eventually the size of a pill, the sprout can be swallowed and guided mentally to the organ of its correspondence. A suitable incantation places it firmly in its new receptacle, and gradually the adepts body becomes infused with cosmic energy and partakes more actively of the cosmos as a whole.

The sprouts, as Isabelle Robinet points out, are originally the “germinal essences of the clouds” or “mist.” They represent the yin principle of heaven—that is, the yin within the yang. They manifest in human saliva, again a yin element in the upper, yang, part of the body. They help to nourish and strengthen the five inner organs/orbs. A Highest Clarity scripture known as On the Code of the Dao (Daodian lun) explains that they are very tender, comparable to the fresh sprouts of plants, and that they assemble at dawn in the celestial capital, from where they spread all over the universe until the sun begins to shine. Turning like the wheels of a carriage, they ascend to the gates of the nine heavens, from where they continue to the medium level of the world—to the five sacred mountains ruled over by the five emperors of the five directions—and finally descend into the individual adept. They thus pass through the three major levels of the cosmos (Robinet 1989, 166).

The virtue of these sprouts is twofold. They are “emanations of the highest poles” and as such full of the power of far-off regions, the fringes of civilization where the Dao resides in a rawer state. At the same time, they are “tender like freshly sprouted plants” and as such contain the entire potential of being in its nascent state. This growth potential, the small and imperceptible qi in a state of pure becoming, is the main objective for the Daoist practitioner. “Sprouting” means inherent creation, purity, newness, return to youth. It also implies the prevalence of the soft over the hard and the power of yin over yang that Laozi describes in the Daode jing . Here yin is represented by the saliva that adepts absorb. The practice is undertaken at dawn, the time when everything awakens to life, yet another symbol of creative, unstructured potential. By ingesting the sprouts, the Daoist partakes of the inherent power of celestial bodies and feeds on the pure creative energy of the universe its most subtle form. It is thus not surprising that the absorption of the sprouts is also used as a preparatory practice for the “abstention from grains.” By and by the sprout intake replaces adepts regular nourishment and allows them to identify with the germinal energy of the sprouts. They thus can become lighter and freer, appear and disappear at will, overcome the limitations of this world, and attain immortality in the heavenly realms (Robinet 1993).

Another Daoist practice that has made its way into modern Qigong is inner observation or neiguan, the active, conscious introspection of one’s body and mind. As documented in texts since the Tang dynasty, and in particular in the Scripture of Inner Observation (Neiguan jing; see Kohn 1989), practitioners are guided to turn their perception inside and realize the realities of body energies and consciousness movements within. Soon they begin to understand how they function and react both physically and psychologically. With prolonged practice, they become aware of the subtler energies of life and see themselves increasingly in terms of qi-patterns than ego-centered actions. As the Scripture of Inner Observation says, adepts come to see the body as part of Heaven and Earth, raised through yang and nourished by yin, helped and guarded by the spirit and material souls, organized in accordance with the five phases and the six musical tones, radiating with the power of the seven stars and the eight luminaries.

They learn that beyond their tangible qi, they consist to a large extend of spirit (shen), the primordial, formless, and ever-changing force, which in connection with the physical body causes human beings to be alive. Manifested in the human mind, where it is often distorted to serve egoistic and one-sided needs, spirit is brought back to a state of rest as the mind is concentrated and relaxed. Adepts come to see that just as the Dao pervades the universe in utmost perfection, so spirit working through their mind can govern their life perfectly—that is, as long as it is observed and cultivated and not wasted on sensual amusements and the exertions of the senses. From confusion and defilement, adepts recover the primordial state.

Doing so, they come to realize the impermanent nature of the ego-based vision of self and body and replace this identity with one that consists of an assemblance of energy, essence, and spirit. They realize in their own lives the dictum of Zhuangzi that “human life is a coming-together of qi. If it comes together there is life. If it scatters there is death” (Watson 1968, 235). Human life is only one part of the continuous natural transformations of qi; it is merely borrowed from heaven and earth but since it resembles them closely in its structuring and undergoes the same transformations as all creation, it can be made just as perfect, just as flowing, just as eternal. Realizing this inherent nature of life and themselves, adepts see that there is no true master of body and mind and acknowledge how little conscious control they have over life’s transformations. Increasingly able to let life and the body go on changing as they please, they can forget themselves and dissolve into the higher patterns of the Dao.

This Dao, in the Daoist context, however, is not just a flow of energies, but populated by gods, spirits, and other supernatural entities. As the practitioner becomes more attuned to his life and body as the universe, he or she also comes to actively perceive the gods and spirits as inhabitants of the human body. The body and thus the self becomes increasingly a microcosmic replica of the starry heavens above, full of palaces and chambers, towers and terraces, gods and immortals. The deities who reside in the paradises of the other world are as much at home in the adept’s body, and again—as through the ingestion of the five sprouts—the adept comes to cosmicize his or her self, expanding identity into a larger sphere.

Along the same lines, the Daoist transformation of the self in the process of inner alchemy, reaching from essence through energy to spirit and the emptiness of the Dao, has become part of modern Qigong discourse and many techniques of inner alchemy are actively applied in practice. Not only perceiving of the body as an entity of qi-flow and a replica of the universe, adepts of inner alchemy take active control of the energies and, through the systematic circulation and collection of qi, transmutate the body into a cauldron for the growth of an inner elixir. Starting from a tiny seed, it blossoms forth and gives rise to the immortal embryo, which then, over ten months of intense meditation, grows to completion. A primordial light begins to shine through the entire body, and adepts enter a state of deep absorption, allowing the tenuously growing spirit embryo to grow to fullness and take on a life of its own—moving about the heavenly realms in a new variation of the ecstatic soul journeys of Daoists of old.


To conclude, Qigong as practiced today has a long and varied history in Chinese culture. Strongly rooted in the medical tradition, it has continuously over the past two millennia been used for healing, curing, and health enhancement. By extension, it has helped people extend their lives and improve their capacity for enjoyment and vivacity. Beyond its clearly visible medical roots, however, Qigong has also been linked in various ways with the Daoist tradition—notably through the qi-controlling practices of the ancient immortals and a number of exercises adopted into the modern repertoire from religious Daoist cultivation and ritual.

The main distinction between health and longevity on the one hand, and advanced spiritual or immortality practice, on the other, within the overall system of Qigong is the degree to which the body is aligned with the flow of yin and yang or the Dao on the periphery versus being transformed, transfigured, and energetically reorganized to a higher level—the ineffable Dao of creation at the center of all. Are we practicing to enhance nature or to overcome it? Is the goal of our efforts to become stronger, more vibrant, and more successful in this life or is it to transform ourselves completely into a mystical dimension of existence that reaches far beyond this body and this world? Whenever the goal of Qigong is transcendence, the practice has passed into the realm of the Daoist religion—a passage, however, that cannot be undertaken without first completing the medical curriculum and enhancing health to the utmost.


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.

Despeux, Catherine, and Frederic Obringer, eds. 1997. La maladie dans la Chine médiévale: La toux. Paris: Editions L`Harmattan.

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.

DeWoskin, Kenneth J. 1983. Doctors, Diviners, and Magicians of Ancient China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Eskildsen, Stephen. 1998. Asceticism in Early Taoist Religion. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Harper, Donald. 1998. Early Chinese Medical Manuscripts: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts. London: Wellcome Asian Medical Monographs.

Kaltenmark, Max. 1953. Le Lie-sien tchouan. Peking: Universite de Paris Publications.

Kohn, Livia. 1989. “Taoist Insight Meditation: The Tang Practice of Neiguan.” In Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques, edited by Livia Kohn, 191-222. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies Publications.

Kohn, Livia. 1993. The Taoist Experience: An Anthology. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ngo Van Xuyet. 1976. Divination, magie et politique dans la Chine ancienne. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Ni, Hua-ching. 1992. Internal Alchemy: The Natural Way to Immortality. Santa Monica: College of Tao and Traditional Chinese Healing.

Porter, Bill. 1993. The Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. San Francisco: Mercury House.

Robinet, Isabelle. 1989. “Visualization and Ecstatic Flight in Shangqing Taoism.” In Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques, edited by Livia Kohn, 157-90. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies Publications.

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.