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Schools of Qigong

According to some sources, the roots of qigong can be traced back to the dawn of written history, or over 5,000 years ago. The art of qigong took cohesive shape and became recognized sometime before 2,500 BC, during the rule of the Yellow Emperor Huang Di. Since then, numerous branches of qigong have emerged, distinguished by their goals and practice methods. By the mid-twentieth century, most schools of qigong fell into five major branches: Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, Medical (Healing), and Martial Arts (Boxing).

The Confucian branch is based on the ethics-centered philosophy of Confucius (551-479 BC). Its goal is to regulate the mind, purge ones emotions, cultivate ethical values, heighten ones creative abilities, and seek perfection for the sake of society. The practitioner seeks peace and tranquility. Confucian temples exist all over China. The most important one houses Confucius remains. It is located in the center of Qufu in the Shandong province (picture IX). Government officials of all dynasties have carried out rituals in the philosophers honor there.

The Taoist branch gained prominence in the third century BC although some scholars believe that Taoism appeared about 5,000 years ago. The school incorporates various ancient sects, beliefs and philosophies. Its key concept is Tao (way or path), and it emphasizes living and acting naturally, without premeditation. Concepts from indigenous ancient cultures rarely translate precisely into the language of contemporary culture. Cultures in different historical periods have different ways of thinking, different worldviews, and modes passing on knowledge. Because of this, a more extensive analysis is necessary to arrive at the original meaning of Tao.

Character 1In order to grasp the philosophy imbued within this ancient Chinese character, we need to consider the way it is drawn, the order and placement of strokes.
Characters 2 & 3 The left block is part of the character for going or movement.
Character 4The horizontal line means the whole world, the entire Universe. The two strokes above indicate the Universes two basic ingredients Yang and Yin.
Character 5 & 6The right lower block means I alone. The whole right portion of the character stands for head.

Based on this, Tao delivers the following philosophical message: Each human is part of the Universe from birth. Human development takes place in accordance with universal laws. In the course of ones life, one must change and progress with the understanding that everything in the Universe is interconnected. There are universal, fundamental laws governing nature and human society. These must become clear and obvious to all of us and people must observe them individually and as a society. When the we accept the Tao into our hearts, we will achieve harmony and wholeness, like the Universe. This will allow us to work anywhere in the Universe, at any point in time and space, fulfilling our human and universal purposes. Hence, Tao is the path of human development, from simply existing, to seeing and understanding the world.

The term Taoism appeared 2,000 years ago, when the philosophy of Tao merged with the philosophies of De (a good force), Yin-Yang, the spirit of Chen, and the doctrine of immortality. Taoist practice is the art of inner alchemy, and it trains the body and the mind simultaneously. The mental training includes the Taoin mind, a method of practice that facilitates stillness of the mind, or the qigong state. This method equally emphasizes exercising and observing nature in an effort to integrate ones Ya into the flow of Tao. The oldest Taoist shrine is the White Cloud Temple in Beijing, also called the Temple of Lao Tzu (picture VI).

The Buddhist and the Taoist schools of qigong share many elements. Buddhism is the oldest of the world religions, preceding Christianity by five centuries and Islam by twelve centuries. Its founder was Prince Siddhartha Gautama from the Sakya warrior caste, who lived in the Ganges valley twenty-five centuries ago. He chose to abandon the comforts of his palace for the life of a wandering mendicant. Eventually, he became known as Sakyamuni (Sage of the Sakyas) and as Buddha (Enlightened One). He journeyed throughout the Ganges valley, teaching his philosophy, performing miracles, and planted the seeds of students and followers for forty years. Buddha departed this world when he was eighty years old, an event known as the great passage to Nirvana. It is believed that Buddha returned to Earth in infinite reincarnations in order to continue his mission of showing humanity how to end suffering.

The path to deliverance in Buddhism is open to anyone, regardless of social or economic status, race, or level of education. Scholars say that its inclusiveness allowed Buddhism to become a world religion and to spread so effectively in India and to other countries. Buddhism spread to China from India in the first century AD. There are many Buddhist temples in China. Among the best-known are the Longmen (Dragon Gate) Caves in Henan province (picture X). The construction of this cave monastery took over 400 years, starting at the end of the fifth century AD. The sandstone is carved into 2,100 natural and artificial grottos, over 100,000 Buddhist statues, 2,000 high reliefs, pictures and texts, including healing instructions. Today the shrine is a treasury of traditional Chinese medicine, a tourist center, and a pilgrimage site.

Unlike the Taoists, Buddhists perceive life as a chain of suffering and endless reincarnations in the cycle of rebirths. The continuous striving towards perfection is the only way to overcome ones karma, achieve enlightenment, and experience the Buddha state. Most phenomena are considered illusionary, and the method of education is directed at containing the mind, controlling the emotional state, reflecting, and opening the psyche to absolute truth. In terms of mental training, Buddhism provides more structure than Taoism, such as the practice of mandala observation and visualization, as well as chanting mantras and dharanis (certain phrases and sounds).

Numerous sub-schools exist within Buddhism itself. Among them is the school of Chan Buddhism (from the Sanskrit word for observation or meditation), known in the West by its Japanese name, Zen Buddhism. This school emerged in the fifth century BC and is characterized by a strong emphasis on sudden enlightenment (versus continuous perfection). However, the preparation for this epiphany is lengthy and requires sitting meditation (passive form); dialogues, where the students ask questions with no logical answers (active form); and the practice of martial arts. The founder of the Chinese school of Chan Buddhism is the Indian prince Bodhidharma, known also as Da Mo, who is as revered as a Buddha (Picture XII).


One needs a strong and healthy body in order to open to the Universe, to unite with nature, and to acquire inner peace, tranquility, and spirituality. Therefore, all qigong schools teach the art of self-regulation and healing. Medical (or Healing) qigong has borrowed selected elements from various other schools and from traditional Chinese medicine. The main goal of this sub-system is self-regulation, disease prevention, healing, prolonging life, and reaching old age with a healthy body and a clear mind.

The name of the Martial Arts (or Boxing) school is self-explanatory. Its purpose is to strengthen the body and the spirit so that the practitioner can defeat enemies and defend oneself. Martial arts practice enables instant, yet composed, reactions in any situation. Self-regulation and healing are also emphasized. After all, a warrior must be in shape and able to recover fast. However, in terms of healing methodology, the Martial Arts school differs significantly from the rest. It includes a few styles of Wushu-qigong. Among them are the well-known hard qigong and the less-known soft qigong.

In general, qigong methods fall into two categories: hard and soft. The hard methods develop the capacity to activate instantaneously the bodys functional systems at full power in order to trigger psychological and physical abilities. It desensitizes the body to physical impact and cultivates the skill to concentrate qi in any part of the body very fast. This explains some practitioners ability to break cement blocks, bricks, and wooden slabs with their heads or hands; to carry heavy weights (like a car on ones chest, for example); or to prevent sharp objects (knives, swords, sabers, etc.) from breaking the skin. Soft qigong promotes healing and allows the practitioner to control ones body, to move fast for many hours without needing rest, and to climb steep mountains incredibly fast, as if flying. Messengers and warriors used to be trained in light qigong. Soft qigong Masters can be observed walking over eggs without breaking them, or along a paper ribbon between two poles without tearing it. It should be noted, however, that this is a somewhat simplistic distinction. In reality, the border between hard and soft qigong is not so easy to draw.

Apart from this, the exercises in all schools are divided into three types: static (sometimes called quiet, calm, or motionless), dynamic, and static-dynamic (combination of still poses and movements). Each exercise within these categories has a specific purpose: to regulate the body, the breath, and the mind, or a combination of the three.

This classification of qigong as 5 branches was created at the beginning of the twentieth century. The separation of schools remains somewhat superficial, though, since many of the premises and philosophical principles upon which they are based are intertwined. For example, the term Tao is common to all qigong schools in China; the term qigong appeared only in the third or the fourth century AD, when it applied to a very few schools with a rather narrow specialization. The term acquired its broader application (describing anything related to psycho-physical training) as late as the 1960s.

When the Peoples Republic of China was formed in 1949, the new government championed systematic research into the effect of qigong on people. The investigations were halted during the cultural revolution and picked up again in the 1970s. Qigong was introduced to clinics, sanatoriums, educational institutions, and even the National Academy of Science. Today, qigong training is part of the university curriculum. It is taught by well-known qigong Masters from different schools, including some monks.

It is important to realize that life in Chinese monasteries differs fundamentally from that in Christian monasteries. Being a monk does not necessitate spending ones life in isolation. People go to monasteries to perfect a skill they intend to practice in the future, such as medicine or martial arts. Their education could take years or decades. Sometimes a monk becomes a Master in his field and returns to society to use his skills helping and training others. He might wander for many years, finding and coaching the most talented students. As a rule, however, training takes place in designated monastic schools. Currently, many monasteries are open to tourists and visitors.

Recently, qigong has gained the recognition of the public and the scientific and medical communities. Many styles of qigong have merged, which is affecting the traditional classification system. A more contemporary classification places all religious schools in a separate, religious block.

The healing, preventive, and medical methods have become the focus of increased attention. The medical-healing branch has become especially popular outside China, where numerous Masters (of various nationalities) practice and teach. International recognition and acceptance of the healing power of qigong has led to the establishment of the World Academic Society of Medical Qigong. In the fall of 1996, Beijing hosted the Third International Conference on Medical Qigong. The Fourth Conference was held there as well in 1998. The conferences provide a forum for theoretical and research work on the ways qigong affects brain activity and physiological processes. Emphasis is placed on practical applications, such as healing a wide spectrum of diseases that are often considered incurable by other medical disciplines.

The new classification system still retains a separate category for sports-oriented qigong schools, including different styles of Wushu, Sanda (a Chinese kickboxing style with take downs/throws), and other kinds of martial arts. A new member of the qigong family is the school of Scientific qigong. This school studies the human bodys abilities and the physical changes that take place inside qigong Masters and/or their patients. It also investigates such phenomena as telekinesis and teleportation. (i.e., work with space and time). Finally, Scientific qigong explores methods that help practitioners to acquire knowledge such as clairvoyance and telepathy.

ZY qigong has a special place in the new classification system. ZY qigong involves the higher levels of qigong. Even though the school is new to Westerners, it is recognized as the oldest of all existing schools (over 7,000 years old).

The above schools comprise the Chinese National Association of Qigong. Among the functions of the Chinese National Association of Qigong are 1) to train specialists in healing and preventing illnesses; 2) to establish healing centers and sanatoriums where qigong methods are applied together with traditional Chinese medicine; and 3) to organize national qigong conferences, which provide forums for qigong masters, scientists, and other interested people from around the world. For many years, the President of the association was the Chinese Minister of Health. His social status underlined qigongs role in the preservation of Chinas cultural heritage, and it also showed the countrys commitment to the future development of the art. After the Ministers death, many scientists and technology specialists have been elected as presidents.

Every qigong school represents a branch of the Association with its own President who must be a qigong master (and not just any master, but a renowned specialist in his or her area). In addition, the master must engage in benevolent activities within the legal and ethical/moral framework of the time.


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