Taiji and Qi Gong

by alex renwick on 2010/10/19

Master Chen happened to be in the studio while I was taking a break from doing yilu.  I had done thirty forms that day, and I had in mind to do ten more in the hour left of class.  Naturally, I was looking around for distractions before continuing.

“I have a question,” I said, approaching Master Chen.  He nodded, encouraging.  “I have been wondering about the relationship between taiji and qi gong.”

Master Chen took a deep breath and said, “Let’s go sit down.”

We settled around the coffee table in the outer room.  Mat and Allan joined us.  Master Chen began speaking.

“Hong used to say, When you train, don’t talk.  When you talk, don’t train.”

That seemed plain enough.  But there was more.

“We will never conquer Time,” he said.  “We can only physically experience it.”

Our place in the universe is such that we cannot access Time.  It does not exist in our dimension.  At least, I think he said things like that.  It seemed very abstract and I was wondering what his point was when he came to the following analogy.

“You are forty years old.  Imagine someone who is only twelve.  You could tell him everything about your life. He could watch a movie of it, sped up, showing every moment.  Still, he would not know what is to have lived forty years.”

OK, now I’m getting it, I thought.  There is nothing Master Chen could tell me that would be a substitute for doing another ten yilu. Talking is nice, but only by training do we really get anywhere.

“Back to your original question,” Master Chen said.

The digression on metaphysics threw me off.  I had to scramble to remember the question I had had starting out.  “On the one hand there is taiji, which comes from a martial practice,” I said,  “and on the other is qi gong which is concerned with cultivating and manipulating qi.  The practices seem to intertwine.”

“No, they don’t,”  Master Chen replied.

“At least they seem to in North America, recently,” I said, laughing.  “I have even seen taiji refered to as ‘moving qi gong’.”

“Yes, people have called it that,” he said.  “But that doesn’t make any sense.  If taiji were ‘moving qi gong’ then there would be no taiji.  There would be only qi gong.”

“When did qi gong begin?” I asked.

“Qi gong began in 1972,” Master Chen said.

At this point Mat protested.  “That can’t be true!” he said.  “In your book you talk about embryonic breathing going back thousands of years.”

Master Chen was unmoved.  “For thousands of years people have been sitting on mountains thinking about their breathing, or doing tantric yoga, or other practices, but none of it was called ‘qi gong’ until 1972.  The term is artificial.”

“How old is taiji?” I asked.

“Everything comes from something before it, but you can identify a beginning when there is a turning point.  The turning point for taiji occurred between the Ming and Shun dynasties, about 400 years ago.  The term ‘taiji’ occurs in Taoist writings much earlier, but the meaning was different.  It did not refer to the martial art.  Some people like to trace the origin of taiji to the Taoists, but that is a contrived history.”

So that answered my question.  Taiji and qi gong are distinct traditions.  “Qi gong” is itself generic term covering a variety of traditions.  The practice of teaching qi gong and taiji together is quite recent, becoming common only since the 1990s, according to Master Chen.

The conversation continued to other topics and used the entire hour, and then one hour more.  That was all there was to class that day.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Todd Elihu October 19, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Sounds like you’re learning a lot, Alex! I look forward to more of your reports from the North American headquarters.


alex renwick October 19, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Thanks Todd. I am learning a lot. It’s like seeing a mountain up close that you had seen from far away. Far away it looks nice enough, but you don’t see the immensity until you stand at the base.


Allan Belsheim October 22, 2010 at 10:52 am

Well written. I enjoyed your article and eagerly await the next posting.


Paul Janssens October 23, 2010 at 12:20 am

Very interesting. Thank you very much for writing about this. When I was at Daqingshan I always kicked myself when Master Chen started to talk that way. While Hong was a humble and had no pretenses. From the stories that Master Chen told us, he was well versed in the same conversational skills.
On occasions, as we sat around the large ‘lazy’ susan in the front room of the Daqingshan Restaurant, we talked about chinese texts, and we arrived at ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower’. Where upon Master Chen mentioned in passing that he had read it four times. I seemed to be the only one that nearly fell of his chair.
Hehehe. Good reading.


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