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Will the Real Qi Please Stand Up?

Book Review

Donald Mainfort

Volume 24.5, September / October 2000

Qigong: Chinese Medicine or Pseudoscience?
By Lin Zixin (Editor), Yu Li (Sima Nan), Guo Zhengyi, Shen Zhenyu, Zhang Honglin, Zhang Tongling.
Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2000.
ISBN 1573922323. 149 pp. Hardcover, $25.

Across the globe, qigong (chi-gong) is many things to many people. The Chinese government has officially recorded over 3,000 different styles of what has become a form of religion for a nation craving some form of cultural, philosophical, and national identity. This book is significant because it is the first critical evaluation of qigong printed in English by Chinese scientists, who attempt to separate what they euphemistically call the “real” qigong from the sensationalism that has grown up around the ancient idea of qi.

The current popular view holds that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a “natural” alternative to the “harmful side effects” of scientific medicine. Although the fusion of the two words qi and gong never appeared in print before the mid-1950s, the recently coined qigong term now appears prominently in TCM. After initially being attracted to qigong as a way of restoring health and well being, students may also be drawn toward promises that qigong can unleash latent psychic ability, claims that the authors firmly reject. Members of the China Association of Science and Technology (CAST) have investigated such claims for many years.

Originally published in China for Chinese readers, the book has just recently been made available in English. More work on the translation and some professional editing would be welcomed, however. For example, many misleading statements are made that suggest the authors really believe in qigong “energy.” They remark about the wonderful cultural treasure that has benefited all of humanity. Some statements are even made to the effect that qigong has been proven scientifically!

The translator frequently neglects to indicate that a statement is a claim, not a fact and it isn't until sometimes several chapters later that we learn that the statements were only that: unsubstantiated and sometimes bogus claims. The authors gradually explain that the “experiments” were found to be seriously flawed and the resulting “proof” invalid. In the end, all that remains of what they describe as such an important contribution to the world boils down to nothing more than stretching, relaxation, and faith healing. This is what they vigilantly refer to as the “real” qigong. There may be political and cultural reasons for such diplomatic semantics.

Campaigns and regulations were imposed in China during the mid-1980s that discouraged the spread of rampant con-artistry, in which qigong masters were seriously bilking the public and in some cases dispensing poisonous medicine that led to a number of deaths. Now if you wish to register as a qigong organization, you must first file a petition with the Qigong Science Institute of China. They must then gain approval from the Chinese Science Association, which is under the jurisdiction of the Science Commission of the City of Beijing. This bureaucracy was intended to guard against "non-scientific” and “superstitious” groups, but the distinction seems to be based more on how well the advocates are able to bribe (establish “relationships” with) officials, rather than on any real scientific criteria. It is ironic that when CAST was formed, it had to do so as a branch of an official qigong organization. The only way for them to organize was as a team investigating what they call "false” qigong, with the implication that they are acting as guardians of the “genuine” qigong.

Just as former President Deng Xiaoping labeled his capitalist reforms “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” so the authors must adhere to the “true qigong” oxymoron. Perhaps it would be just too shocking to officially declare that the emperor has no clothes. Meanwhile, Yu Li (known in China as Sima Nan) has for several years offered a large cash prize to anyone who can demonstrate “real” qigong without cheating.

Examples of deception by some of the most popular qigong masters (referred to as qigongists) are examined, including Yan Xin, who now enjoys great popularity in the US. Yan became a TCM doctor in 1982, but two years later “his medical license was revoked due to his odd superstitious practices. Then Yan hunted for work elsewhere and became a quack doctor.” Some of Yan’s high-profile failures are documented, as are those of other “qigong gods.”

The final chapter is a report by Beijing Medical University psychiatrist Zhang Tongling on the effects of qigong-induced psychosis (zuohuo rumo). Delusions, hallucinations, and psychosis can result when people (especially those who are highly susceptible to suggestion) become obsessed with practicing qigong, a condition frequently encouraged by their masters. She says that selecting an "improper method” and practicing it for too long can result in the symptoms that she has specialized in treating for over twenty years. But what is the “right” method, one might ask? Well, what it finally comes down to again is just simple, uncomplicated relaxation. But in China rujing, not qigong, is the term used to describe relaxation meditation aimed at clearing the mind and thinking of nothing. Though the authors point out the great difficulties involved in defining qigong, they state that qigong stresses intense concentration on complex imagery, supplied from books, audiotapes, or from the master. This is what they say separates qigong from other activities. Dr. Zhang’s recommendations appear to be a polite way of saying that the only “correct” way to practice qigong is to choose some other activity (like rujing or tai chi) and call it a form of qigong.

Tennis anyone?

Donald Mainfort

Donald Mainfort, who has lectured, taught English, and traveled extensively in China, now writes from Minneapolis.