“Let the patient practice exercises of guiding-pulling continuously and let him take drugs. Drugs alone do not suffice for the treatment.”
—Huángdì Nèijīng Su Wen 黃帝內經素問

In China health and longevity have been important from early times onwards and in this context physical exercises have already been performed thousands of years ago. The oldest recorded work of Chinese medicine, the Yellow Thearch’s or Huang Di’s Inner Classic, Basic Questions (黃帝內經素問, Huángdì Nèijīng Su Wen), dated about 200 bce, already shows evidence of physical exercises for treatment of diseases. Early evidence was also found in Mawangdui in the 1970s in a Former Han era tomb. A silk painting, dated 168 bce, showed 44 images of people in different positions, as well as descriptions of exercises for health maintenance and treatment of diseases. Unfortunately, the silk drawing is not fully preserved; today it is on display at Hunan Provincial Museum.

Drawing of Daoyin (The Physical Exercise Chart).
Drawing of Daoyin (The Physical Exercise Chart). Photo © by Hunan Provincial Museum.

During the following centuries and millennia varying kinds of physical exercises developed and survived the turmoil of Chinese history, mainly because they have not been recorded in writing but were directly passed from master to pupil. These exercises had various names; the term qigong was only established in China in the 1950s. Qigong is now also known in the West as one of the Five Pillars of so-called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) next to acupuncture and moxibustion, drug therapy, therapist massage (推拏/推拿, tuīná), and dietary therapy.

The Chinese characters for "qigong".

The two Chinese terms (氣/气) and gōng (功) together form the word “qigong” (氣功/气功, qìgōng). TCM often equates with “energy” or “life force”. For this, however, there is no historical evidence. In classical Chinese medical literature, like the Su Wen, is used in various contexts. There it, for example, circulates like blood through the human body but can, in contrast to blood, be resorbed through food or inhaled through breathing. It is also used in other contexts:

rén yǐ tiān dì zhī qì sheng
“Man receives his life from the qi of heaven and earth.”
—Huángdì Nèijīng Su Wen 黃帝內經素問

In general, the concept of can perhaps be described as something that exists everywhere and in various forms. Something that as of yet does not necessarily have a physical reality but that can be used to describe different phenomena.

The second syllable of the word “qigong”, the Chinese term gōng, means “work” but also “skill”. Therefore, qìgōng can be understood as “work with qi” or as “the skill to handle qi”. Sometimes qìgōng is simply translated as “qi-exercises”. In Chinese medicine a harmonious flow of qi is essential and disturbances of the same can assumedly lead to disease.