Qigong Fever.  by David Palmer.  Columbia University Press, 2007.
Qigong Fever. by David Palmer. Columbia University Press, 2007.


Catching Qigong Fever.

I have read my fair share of books on religion in late imperial and modern China.  Unfortunately I had been neglecting a classic.  In 2007 David Palmer released a volume titled Qigong Fever: Body, Science and Utopia in China through the well-respected Columbia University Press.  I am not sure why it took me so long to finally read this book.  I suspect that it was a confluence of factors.

My main research focus is Wing Chun and the late 19th century arts of Southern China.  Obviously modern Qigong, a product of currents that were taking shape from the 1920s-1940s and which finally crystallized into a recognizable form in the 1950s, did not yet exist.  That is not to say that qi-based body technologies, internal alchemy and self-cultivation philosophies were unknown or had no influence on the martial arts of the south.  They certainly did.  But none of those things are quite the same as modern Qigong practice as it developed in mainland China, and then was spread to the west in the 1980s and 1990s.

I liked Breathing Spaces (Columbia UP, 2003) by Nancy Chen.  It gives a very granular view of the Qigong movement and its relationship with medical reform in the PRC.  Given that Qigong was somewhat tangential to my main research interests I just assumed that I knew what I needed to know and turned my attention to the daunting pile of books and articles on my desk waiting to be read.

Recently I discovered just how wrong I was.  While looking for some sources on public Daoist organizations in the Republic of China period I picked up a copy of Qigong Fever to see what it had in its bibliography and notes.  I liked what I saw so I read an initial chapter on the early history of Qigong and was immediately hooked.  Within a couple of days I had finished the book.

As it turns out I already knew quite a bit about the early history of modern Qigong in the 1950s.  I have studied the biographies of enough martial arts masters who were drawn into the world of “official medical qigong” during the 1950s and early 1960s to be pretty familiar with that story.  I was also aware that much of this world had come crashing down in the later 1960s when Qigong was singled out for some particularly unpleasant attention by the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution.

What I had never really understood, indeed what I had never stopped to think about, was how you went from the initial destruction of the highly centralized and professionalized Qigong sector, dominated by doctors and medical administrators, to large groups of senior citizens cultivating their Qi in the public parks of Beijing and Shanghai in the 1980s and 1990s.  This became an actual social movement that encompassed a large percentage of Chinese society.  It was loosely networked and, unlike its immediate predecessor in the 1950s, was largely outside of the control of any single hospital, profession, government committee or ideology.

And then it all came crashing down.  The rise of Qigong as a popular movement had long made many individuals in the Chinese government, both those concerned with modern medicine and internal security, very nervous.  However, the fact that many important party members and government officials were open, sometimes quite vocal, supporters of the movement made a crackdown difficult.

Falun Gong, which had first risen in the Qigong sector, changed all of that.  The backlash against this group was a galvanizing moment for the party.  Old political allies were no longer able to provide cover to their patronage networks, and more officials came to see Qigong as a new popular religion competing with the Community Party for moral authority.  Of course that is the one thing in modern China that a person or group simply cannot do.

Palmer’s volume is an incredibly researched history of this period.  He presents a variety of different types of data including archival documents, literature reviews and public surveys.  Yet his book is far from the dry academic tome that one might expect.  Instead the rise and fall of the Qigong movement gives his story a natural plot progression.  It reads like the very best process fiction.  At times it felt like I was watching a season of The Wire set in Beijing in 1995.

Process fiction is fascinating precisely because it focuses on the normally invisible institutions, organizations and offices which we run our world, but that few of us ever really get to see in real life.  Palmer’s careful study is not just important for students of Qigong.  He also offers a glimpse into the at times byzantine workings of the Chinese government.  It is hard to understand the nature of the relationship between the Chinese martial arts and the state when so much of how the latter works is just fundamentally different from what we are used to here in the west.  The light that Palmer sheds on this topic is both helpful and genuinely interesting.

The "internal" martial arts and other Qigong practices tend to be especially popular among senior citizens and others who are seeking relief from chronic conditions.
The “internal” martial arts and Qigong practices tend to be especially popular among senior citizens and others who are seeking relief from chronic conditions.  Source: Wikimedia.

A Model for Understanding the Modern History of the Martial Arts

Hopefully I have convinced you to take a look at this book.  If not, here is another reason that anyone interested in the academic study of the Chinese martial studies should pay very close to attention to it.  This study is a wonderful example of exactly the sort of research project that we need on the reemergence of Wushu and the traditional fighting arts in mainland China after the end of the Cultural Revolution.

It seems that when discussing historical studies we have a strong bias to believe that the very ancient is always “better” or more valuable than the low hanging fruit that more contemporary decades offer.  And yet it is those recent decades that most directly shape the world that we actually live in now.  Further, modern social history often enjoys a wealth of sources that just are not available when researching the distant past.  There are books, media reports and government white papers that historians can call upon.  In many cases it is even possible to do interviews with people who were involved in the actual events.  It seems pointless to let these sources die and be dispersed through the natural progression of time before we value them enough to take a close look at what they have to teach us.

While reading Palmer I was struck by the fact that the “Qigong Fever” his book explores happened at almost exactly the same time as the “Kung Fu Fever” that gripped a related, but slightly different, segment of society following the end of the Cultural Revolution and the release of Jet Li’s movie, The Shaolin Temple.

As a field we desperately need a solid modern history of the sudden reemergence and effervesce of the traditional martial arts in mainland China in the 1980s and 1990s.  I think that many of us miss exactly how odd and interesting that period really was.  We are too close to our subject matter in that regards.  We love the martial arts, and so it just makes intuitive sense to us that everyone else should love them as well.

Of course the government should be spending large amounts of money promoting a national martial art (Wushu).  Of course lots of people should be joining martial arts clubs and classes in local community centers, back allies and public parks.  Of course a communist nation should rehabilitate Buddhist temples associated with violent forms of hand combat and turn them into major tourist centers.  And it makes perfect sense that the Chinese government should use Kung Fu as an important tool of public diplomacy.

Actually, none of these things make total sense.  At least not without some additional explanation.  From an objective standpoint it is not at all clear that the end of the Cultural Revolution should have inspired an explosion of interest in the martial arts.  All sort of traditional activities and festivals were suppressed and most of them never came back.  There was no necessity to any of this.  In fact, I find the current decline of interest in hand combat training within the PRC much easier to explain than the expansion of the much more dynamic period of the 1980s and 1990s.

The truth is that the Chinese martial arts have always been a somewhat socially marginal pursuit taken up by a handful of people, either to help them get a job (as an actor, police officer or soldier) or by a smaller number of dedicated hobbyists.  Given all of the competing ways to spend ones time and money in China today it is not surprising to see a return to this historic status quo.  Fevers eventually cool down, and fads fade.  That is not a mystery.

The real questions are the following: what touched it off in the first place, how was it supported both socially and politically, and why did it last for as long as it did?  I think that as a field we have a partial answer to that first question, but we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the second and third ones.

David Palmer’s work is interesting to me because he outlines in great detail exactly how a single researcher could go about answering each of those questions.  What we really need is a modern history of the Chinese martial arts in the PRC from 1975-2008.  It seems to me that the end of the Cultural Revolution is a natural place to start this story, and the failure of Wushu to secure an Olympic berth as an exhibition sport in the Beijing games is a fitting conclusion.

The reemergence of the Chinese arts did not happen in a vacuum.  Trained individuals needed to be willing to come forward early in this period, and they needed to have the support of local party officials in their own work unit to both begin to practice publicly and to spread their teachings to other work units and institutions (such as high schools and universities).

Sunday morning Taiji practice at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
Sunday morning Taiji practice at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.  Source: Wikimedia.

At a higher level, party and government officials in the areas of sports, medicine and defense all needed to support the liberalization of the “martial arts sector” for these groups to begin to spread and expand on a national scale.  Without high levels of political support it would have been impossible to form associations or get access to the public spaces and institutions where instruction could happen.

So why did these officials support increased investment in Wushu and tolerate the reemergence of many traditional folk styles?  Ultimately a much wider range of political officials would become involved with the martial arts sector.  Local governments saw the booming interest in the martial arts as a potential source of tourist dollars and they competed with each other for the public attention.  Media censors who had traditionally taken a very strict line against any visual presentation of violence in films had to be persuaded to allow a resurgence of interest in comparatively violent Kung Fu movies.

Likewise newly independent presses quickly discovered that with the market reforms of the 1980s they had to print material that people wanted to buy if they wished to stay in business.  Martial arts books, magazines and manuals were produced in huge numbers because they sold well and were seen as politically safe by the censors (who never totally disappeared).  Given how much effort the government put into limiting the popular interest in the martial arts at various times since 1949, why were they now viewed as being not just “safe,” but desirable?

Lastly, how did martial artists organize themselves to take advantage of these new opportunities?  Some formed alliances with the newly emerging Qigong sector, while others looked for political allies in the military, sports and educational areas.  Even more relied on the good graces of local and municipal governments.

A variety of different strategies were adopted.  Some martial artists attempted to create schools with “modern institutions,” while others sought to recreate (or re-imagine) traditional lineage structures.  A handful of martial arts sought to explicitly link themselves to institutions in the Buddhist and Daoist sectors, while many more strove to maintain the dominant “materialist” and “scientific” ideology favored by the state.  So how did these different groups fair?

Palmer reminds us that each one of these questions has a very specific answer.  Sometimes those answers are contradictory, with different institutions within government backing opposing visions of the future.  The “Kung Fu Fever” of the 1980s and 1990s was likely a complex compromise of conflicting pressures and trends that emerged out of these competing visions.

Without a more detailed understanding of the immediate past it is hard to evaluate our current situation.  Clearly a lot of structural, economic and political changes have happened in China over the last 30 years.  It may be impossible to really understand how the Kung Fu bubble burst without first discovering what was inflating it.  Palmer has given us a road map and set of tools to do exactly that.  Now it is up to us to go out and do the research.  If you are a graduate student looking for a dissertation topic on the Chinese martial arts, I would suggest that this is a golden project.  This is precisely the sort of dissertation that would get picked up by a university press.

Qing era copy of  Weisheng Jieyao (Eight Pieces of Brocade).  Texts such as these helped to inspire, and were often incorporated into, the modern Qigong phenomenon.
Qing era printed copy of Weisheng Jieyao (Eight Pieces of Brocade). Texts such as these helped to inspire, and were often incorporated into, the modern Qigong phenomenon.  They were also popular with 19th century martial artists.  Source: Wikimedia.

Locating the Origins of “Qi” in Qingong and Chinese Popular Culture.

Palmer made many specific observations in his book that could have generated fine blog posts.  However, I would like to briefly draw the reader’s attention to one specific set of discussions in Chapter 3, titled “The Grandmasters.”  I think that every major research project has its own history, and that is often just as interesting as the story that the author has to tell.  Palmer actually started off this project intending to do intensive ethnographic analysis of various Qigong communities.  For reasons that we do not have time to discuss, the book he ended up writing was actually much more an example of social, or even political, history.

Nevertheless, that initial stratum of ethnographic evidence is seen in multiple places throughout this work, and it is particularly important for shaping the discussion of the different types of figures in the Qigong community in Chapter 3.  As part of his research Palmer did both intensive interviews and more general surveys.  I find his survey data intriguing as he managed to collect responses from over 500 Qigong teachers and masters.  If the sampling methods were sound that number of observations will allow for the use of fairly sophisticated econometric methods of analysis.  Two of his specific survey questions struck me as important to the sorts of discussions that we often end up having in Chinese martial studies.

For instance, when critiquing current attempts to discuss the relationship between the Chinese martial arts and various spiritual traditions in a recent review article, Professor Kai Filipiak had the following to saw:

“The second religion that has been related to Chinese martial arts is Daoism, but historical evidence for Daoist practice of martial arts is rare.  Attempts in modern research to apply concepts of martial arts to Daoist origins are almost [always] anachronistic.  For example, in Chinese history the concept of qi was a general concept used in different philosophical, medical, and religious contexts.  Qigong exercises were as well part of different traditions.  We do not know when exactly qigong became part of martial arts practice, nor from which tradition it was taken.  The example shows clearly that we must carefully examine the origins of traditional concepts and their relevance for martial arts.”

Kai Filipiak.  “Academic Research into Chinese Martial Arts: Problems and Perspectives.” In Michael A. DeMarco eds. Asian Martial Arts: Constructive Thoughts & Practical Applications.  pp. 24-27.

I think that for the most part Professor Filipiak offers us some constructive advice in these paragraphs.  Qi was a very broad category of thought used by many different groups to mean different things (not all of which were mutually compatible) in traditional China.  Nor would these different schools of philosophy, metaphysics, art, medicine and spiritual or martial cultivation have necessarily recognized each other as “fellow qi workers.”  It was only the imposition of western modes of scientific and mechanical thought in the late 19th and early 20th century that made this particular categorization possible.

This is actually one of the more interesting characteristics of the modern Qigong movement.  Palmer demonstrates in some detail that it is a deeply hybridized community.  Different masters brought with them their own schools of practice when they “came out of the mountains.”  They then subordinated these practices to a shared modernist discourse and set of state approved goals (at least on the surface).  It was the goals and discourse that made this sector “Qigong,” not the specific body technologies that they employed.  Practitioners and government officials were all well aware that in the past these tools had come out of a variety of different sectors, many of which were now considered to be “feudal superstition.”  Purging these regressive elements from their practice was one of the main tasks of the Qigong sector and its political overseers.

In short, “Qigong” as a conceptual category is something that can only be said to have existed in late modern China.  No one in the 18th century would have even been able to make sense of this category of thought.  It’s a great example of how something that seems “very traditional” might actually be a response to the shock of modernity and rapid social change.

So to say that efforts to locate “Qigong” in the origins of the Chinese martial arts are mistaken is prima facie true.  Filipiak and others want to spend most of their time discussing the ancient history of the martial arts (whether that is a good idea is another question entirely) and Qigong is a distinctly modern phenomenon.  To conflate the two is to commit a category error.

Yet it’s a very easy error to commit.  I am sure that I have done so as well.  Unless one firmly differentiates the body technologies used in these exercises (breathing control, visualizations, gymnastics, projecting Qi through talisman ect…) from its goals (what really defines “Qigong” as a modern project) one is bound to apply modern categories to ancient practices.

As a matter of fact, by rhetorically linking Qigong, which was explicitly “materialist” and “modern,” to the question of ancient Daoist gymnastics and its association with the martial arts in the preceding quote, Filipiak commits exactly the same error that he warns others against.  Qigong and ancient Daoism may share certain body technologies, but that does not make them the same thing.  Further, the martial arts of the Ming and Qing may have adopted and shared some of these same body technologies for their own purposes.  But that does not make a martial artist a practicing Daoist priest (except in a few rare instances when they actually were priests).

However, in our enthusiasm to separate out these different social category we should not assume that just because martial artists were not usually members of formal Daoist lineage traditions, that they cannot have also had similar (even identical) body technologies or an interest in self-cultivation.

Shahar has concluded that Daoist gymnastics were an important ingredient in the heady brew that launched the revival of unarmed boxing in the late Ming.  This in turn set the stage for the expansion of these traditions in the Qing and their expression as the now recognizable “martial arts” of the modern era.  Lorge and Filipiak take issue with this conclusion even though they basically rely on the same set of sources as Shahar.  Often the debate seems to come down to nuance and emphasis.  How much emphasis should we put on a handful of written passages and texts when trying to judge the intent of the mostly unlettered boxers of the distant past?  Perhaps Palmer’s move of separating out the actual body technology from the intent or goals behind it may help to smooth things over.

I suspect that this move will be not only be helpful but necessary.  For instance, the more we learn about 19th century Chinese Boxing the more obvious it becomes that self-cultivation techniques, breathing exercises, medical practices and sometimes even folk magic traditions were pretty common.  In fact, they were common throughout Chinese society as a whole.  Anthropologists have a name for this complex, they call it “traditional Chinese culture.”  I am mystified as to why we should expect that the literati, artists, opera singers, doctors, priests and even the ethnic Muslim minority, would all have different types of qi-cultivation technologies, but somehow martial artists and soldiers would be uniquely excluded from the exercise?

Empirically we know that they were not.  Sun Lu Tang learned multiple types of Qi based self-cultivation techniques from his early teachers long before he ever undertook his own personal quest to study Daoism and the Yiching.  Note that these early exercises in self-cultivation were not seen as equivalent to being a Daoist by the various martial artists of the area.  He still needed to go out and find a teacher for that.  But they were seen as essential to being an accomplished martial artist.

A Daoist Priest in Modern Beijing.  Source: Wikimedia.
A Daoist Priest in Modern Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.

Nor was this concern with Qi cultivation, both in a medical and more “spiritual” sense, confined to the martial artists of the north.  The Bubishi, an extensive southern boxing manual from late 18th or early 19th century Fujian, also includes references to Qi.  It simply takes for granted that its readers know about and realize the importance of various breathing and self-cultivation techniques that are necessary to reach the highest levels of the art.  It seems unlikely that the intended readers of this text practiced these technologies with the intent of becoming Daoists adepts.  Yet they did view these same disciplines as being important to becoming a mature, wise and well prepared “martial artists.”

Things get even more complicated once we move to the modern era.  For better or worse large amounts of spiritual philosophy (along with other nationalist and modernist currents) was imported into the Chinese marital arts of the 1920s and 1930s.  The same process seems to have repeated itself in the late 1940s and 1950s.  Needless to say, in the 1980s and 1990s some aspects of the Chinese martial arts became almost an applied school of New Age thought.

That process may seem mistaken or “inauthentic” to modern military historians, but it is also exactly what happened.  While individual lineages or schools have every right to maintain the purity of their original transmission, it seems less than productive to rail against “Qi” or “spirituality” in the Chinese martial arts as a whole.  This isn’t a recent trend.  It has been going on for the better part of a century, and grew out of practices that actually were indigenous to the arts (even if they made Tang Hao uncomfortable).

It seems that the scholarly thing to do is to simply acknowledge that the connection between the martial arts and Qi has become part of modern Chinese popular culture.  One can then ask some of the more specific question that Filipiak suggested.  For instance, what aspects of traditional Chinese culture had the greatest impact on the emergence of this 20th century understanding?

David Palmer has already started to answer that question.  Qigong became a hybridized, catch all, category for ideologically modern non-religious self-cultivation and body technologies in the 1980s and 1990s.  Most of the masters in his survey learned their Qigong from books, seminars or clinicians.  However, about 20% of his respondents claimed to have instead learned these basic techniques from older lineage based traditions.  They then modernized and imported these teachings to the “Qigong sector” where they could more easily be spread and commercialized.  This data opens an interesting window onto the specific sorts of cultural traditions that went into the creation of popular Chinese ideas about Qi.

Table 2: Claimed Sources of Masters’ Traditional Initiation

    Traditions                                No. of Masters                         %

  • Martial (wu)                            75                                            47.5
  • Medical (yi)                            55                                            34.8
  • Buddhist (fo)                          16                                            10.2
  • Daoist (dao)                           15                                             9.5
  • Literati/Confucian (wen/ru)     7                                               4.4
  • Book of Changes                   4                                                2.5
  • Extrodinary Powers                3                                                1.9
  • Muslim                                    1                                                0.6

[Note of the sample of 554 respondents only 158 (28.5) masters claimed any form of traditional initiation or lineage teaching.  Of these some claimed more than one lineage. P. 93].

A couple of very interesting things emerge from this data.  To begin with, the overwhelming majority of individuals in popular society who know about and practice traditional body technologies have never been part of any specific tradition of transmission.  Rather they learned about these things through the media.  As we begin to understand more about the importance of printed publications in the martial arts community, both in the late Ming and the Late Qing, I suspect that we are going to discover that this has been true for some time.

Further, many different sectors of traditional society seem to have contributed their Qi cultivation techniques to modern Chinese popular culture.  The rituals of magicians and mystics, scholars and artists, priests and monks, are all represented in current Qigong practice.  However, the contributions of these groups are dwarfed by the input of traditional medical practitioners.  In a very real sense it would appear that Qigong is not even really Daoist, at least not if we are referring to organized formal devotional Daoism.

Still, almost half of all of the respondents claiming a traditional transmission of their Qi cultivation skills learned these within a martial arts setting.  This is a remarkable finding.  Further, Palmer’s table on page 92 indicates that roughly half of these transmissions happened between 1950 and 1978, while the rest occurred during the years of the “Kung Fu Fever” that swept the country (1979-1991.)

Rather than being an odd outlier that requires a special explanation, the Qi cultivation techniques of the Chinese martial arts appear to be an important repository of body technologies from at least the Qing on.  Further, this category existed quite distinctly in the minds of both practitioners and observers form other modes of practice.  As a cultural category, martial cultivation was not reducible to either religious, medical, or artistic practices.  Further, martial arts theories apparently had an important impact on the emergence of modern Qigong from the 1980s onward.

An illustrated document showing ancient health cultivation techniques dating from the Western Han.  Source: Hunan Provincial Museum.
An illustrated document showing ancient health cultivation techniques dating from the Western Han. Source: Hunan Provincial Museum.

Conclusion: Why does it have to come from anywhere?

In one of the first essays that I posted on this blog I discussed a sophisticated attempt to deal with the origins of Wing Chun, tracing it to a specific culture hero from the central plains.  Does it really make sense to say that Wing Chun is a product of Northern Chinese martial culture?  No.  It does not resemble the arts of Henan or Shandong.  On the other hand it looks a lot like a number of other styles from the Pearl River Delta.  Yet “we all know” that anything important or praiseworthy in southern Chinese culture must have originated in the North, and so students never tire of trying to find the “northern origin” of what is manifestly a southern art.  We seek to find the hidden origins of Wing Chun not to understand the style, but to legitimatize it.

We see similar sorts of conversations in a number of areas throughout the field of Chinese martial studies.  People start out with a strongly held theoretical (or even mythological) view and then tell stories that support their beliefs.  As a result we are routinely told that either all martial arts originated at Shaolin, or that the temple never had anything to do with any of them.  Rarely do we get a balanced discussion of the very important, but also limited, role of monastic violence in Asian history.

Likewise either the Chinese martial arts (all of them) are a direct expression of sophisticated Daosit ideas, or “Qigong” was just an anachronistic addition to the martial arts in 1979.  “Everyone knows” that late imperial boxers never practiced body technologies related to Qi cultivation.  As illiterate working class individuals they cannot possibly have been interested in such things.

It seems that in many western discussion of the Chinese martial arts, the idea of Qi remains a scandal.  In conceptually separating the actual technology of self-cultivation from its intended goals, Palmer may have proposed a solution to our dilemma.  His method of analysis would allow us to admit that in fact martial artists all over China did practice all sorts of breathing and gymnastics exercises for a variety of reasons.  So did academic students, herbal doctors and landscape painters.  But that does not mean that any of them necessarily had the same world view or goals as a young office worker practicing Qingong in a park in Beijing in 1985.  Of course that was never what Shahar, or any other scholar that I am aware of, was actually arguing.

The research methods in Palmers book could help us to take that category of “martial qi cultivation” and break it down even further.  Feats of hard qigong seem to have been associated with the martial arts throughout the Qing dynasty and likely date back even further.  Its not a matter I have ever looked into in great detail.  Likewise certain types of gymnastics and breathing exercises were also commonly seen by the early 19th century.

It is not only possible but likely that other sorts of exercises were add to the martial arts in the 1920s and again in the 1950s and 1980s.  It may very well be possible to identify these and separate them out.  But I think the larger challenge is actually just to accept that in Chinese popular thought “martial qi” really is a basic category that does not have to come from anywhere.  On a more theoretical level, what makes it “martial” in character is probably the goals that it pursued rather than the various techniques that it employed (or where those techniques were first borrowed from).

Beyond this rather limited discussion, Palmer’s book makes a number of other important contributions.  The “Qigong Fever” of the 1980s and 1990s is an important social phenomenon that will be of interest to a number of students of the Chinese martial arts.  Further, the crisis that ends this period is a valuable case study in the institutional nature of the Chinese government and the methods it uses to forge links with other social actors.

Lastly, Palmer’s book is an outstanding example of what a dedicated researcher can accomplish.  He provides a set of conceptual tools and a road map for anyone else hoping to understand major trends in modern Chinese society.  The field of Chinese martial studies needs someone to pick up this toolkit and produce a structurally similar volume on the “Kung Fu Fever” of the 1980s and 1990s.  Such a book would make a valuable contribution to our understanding of the martial arts, and it would allow us to better tackle a number of pressing questions.