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Year : 2020  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 216-219

Qi, return to bodily experience: A new perspective of Qi and Qigong experience research

Graduate School of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan

Date of Submission16-Mar-2020
Date of Decision23-Apr-2020
Date of Acceptance15-May-2020
Date of Web Publication28-Dec-2020

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Xinzhe Huang
Graduate School of International Relations, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/CMAC.CMAC_19_20

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For a long period, Qi and Qigong experience were studied within the theoretical framework of natural science, psychology, and TCM. This article reviews the modes and problems of Qi and Qigong researches, discusses the theoretical basis of phenomenological researches in anthropology, exemplifies some important researches and ideas about bodily experience. Furthermore, the possibility and difficulty of utilizing these methodologies and ideas are analyzed out as well. Aims to open up a brand-new horizon of Qi and Qigong research, enriches our understandings of the culture of Qi and Qigong, and makes Qigong better adapt itself to the contemporary and the world.

Keywords: Body, embodiment, phenomenology, Qi, Qigong experience

How to cite this article:
Huang X. Qi, return to bodily experience: A new perspective of Qi and Qigong experience research. Chin Med Cult 2020;3:216-9

How to cite this URL:
Huang X. Qi, return to bodily experience: A new perspective of Qi and Qigong experience research. Chin Med Cult [serial online] 2020 [cited 2021 Jun 18];3:216-9. Available from: https://www.cmaconweb.org/text.asp?2020/3/4/216/305174

  Introduction Top

Qi is the essence of Chinese medicine, the soul of traditional health, and the core concept of oriental views of body and universe, which has lasted for thousands of years. Before the natural science and western philosophical epistemology traveled to the Eastern world, the Qi was self-explanatory inside the traditional Chinese thought, however, now it has become a research object of scholars either in East or West, across various fields and disciplines.

Qigong, which is born through the body's participation of the cultivation of Qi, is undoubtedly the most direct way to understand the culture of Qi. However, there is still a lot of controversy in the long-term research on the grasp of the essence of Qi. Researches on Qi and Qigong experience often objectively depend on various natural scientific experiments, the individual bodily experiences are always described and reduced as figures and images by laboratory apparatus and statistical analyses. Yet, the particularity and indeterminacy of individual experience are often much less dealt with. This article aims to review the insights of body philosophy and anthropological research on bodily experience and discuss how to apply it to the grasp of Qi and the Qigong experience, thereby opening up a new horizon to Qi and Qigong research.

  Research Models and Problems of Qi and Qigong Top

In the 1950s, when Liu[1] explicitly put forward the concept of Qigong, the research on the clinical efficacy of Qigong and the theoretical research of Qi and Qigong within the discipline of traditional Chinese medicine had started in China. Now, research on the causal relationship between practicing Qigong and the therapeutic effects of some diseases, especially chronic diseases, has attracted the attention of scientists and clinical researchers not only in China but also in the world. Especially in Japan and the United States, a considerable amount of research has been conducted to make clear the effect of Qigong and the essence of Qi. However, unlike the double-blind experiments and random samples taken by the research of drug efficacy, the mechanism of clinical effect brought by Qigong can be always concluded as a placebo effect, self-suggestion, or the trance state in the context of modern western psychology. This makes the understanding of the meaning and efficacy of Qi and Qigong very limited because no matter whether it is a placebo, a self-suggestion, or a trance, such interpretations put the effect of Qi and Qigong into a “black box” that cannot be expanded. In other words, what makes placebos, self-suggestions, and trance that come from Qigong practice produce a therapeutic effect? Such a question still cannot be exhaustively answered. On the other hand, the theories of traditional Chinese medicine and philosophy can explain the mechanism of Qi and Qigong quite well. For instance, Shen and his colleagues[2] emphasized the relevance of bodily movement and Qi, they discussed the “essential Qi” through detailed literature review and text analysis of “Dao Yin” in the context of several important antiquity TCM literature such as Huang Di Nei Jing (《黄帝内经》 Yellow Emperor's Internal Classic), Zhu Bing Yuan Hou Lun (《诸病源候论》 Treatise on the Pathogenesis and Manifestations of All Diseases) as well as some famous books of ancient Chinese philosophy. Balaneskovic[3] analyzed the logic behind a specific Qigong named Wu Qin Xi (五禽戏 Five Animal Frolics) through the Chinese philosophical theories and rules of Yin Yang and Wu Xing. However, without this specific theoretic framework, Qi and Qigong are still difficult to be understood clearly and decently. This will greatly limit the spread and development of the culture of Qi and Qigong, especially to the people who are not so familiar with the Chinese traditional culture.

After the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), Gu and Lin[4]'s research on “external Qi” made it possible for Qi to be measured materially and objectively. With the support of Qian Xuesen, this kind of research on the materiality of Qi has blossomed in various research institutes in China and even affected other countries such as Japan and the United States. In these studies, Qi was covered by a lot of modern concepts, such as infrared radiation, electromagnetic waves, biological photons. However, with the development of a large number of studies, the studies on the materiality of Qi has also been questioned by scholars in different fields in the world. In order to find out the truth, the U. S. National Center for Health Research[5] even invested billions of dollars in research on Qi from 1993 to 2007. However, the materiality of Qi still remains in the conclusion of “unknown energy”.

On the other hand, the social phenomenon of Qigong fever emerging during the 1980s and 1990s in China caused by the discovery of “external Qi” attracted the attention of many sociologists and anthropologists. Among them, Palmer[6] and Nancy Chen[7]'s research is the most influential. Unfortunately, the focus of their research was not on the actual bodily experience brought about by Qi and Qigong, but rather on the political and economic influence on the Chinese bodies of Qigong in the background of the post-Cultural Revolution era.

  From Body in the Culture to the Culture in Body: Phenomenological Methodology for the Description of Bodily Experience Top

As was above-mentioned, from the research models of Qi and Qigong, whether the studies of clinical effects, the interpretation of Qigong by traditional Chinese medicine theories, the exploration of the materiality of Qi in natural science, or the narrative of sociology and anthropological studies on the background of the bodies that practicing Qigong, these studies are all based on a well-constructed culture (medical or clinical theories, traditional Chinese medicine theories, natural science methodologies, political and economic backgrounds), to explore another kind of culture (Qi, Qigong) produced by body. In fact, there is a more direct method for us to understand the culture of Qi and Qigong, the bodily experience, including such factors as feelings, senses, or emotions, imaginations, which emerged in the practice of Qigong. This method will not make Qi and Qigong only account in a particular context, which makes it difficult to be understood as a common human experience. However, can the subjective experience of Qi or Qigong be explained more scientifically?

Since the 1990s, social and humanitarian sciences have paid unprecedented attention to the body. In the process of studying the body, scholars in the fields of anthropology, psychology, political philosophy, history, and philology have gradually expanded their focus from dualism, such as body-psychology, meaning-behavior, and individual-group, to include a new concept of embodiment that breaks through these dualisms.

Although the embodiment is now widely used in modern sciences including cognitive science and artificial intelligence, its original theory has its roots in philosophy, especially phenomenology led by Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, and it achieved great development from the poststructuralist theories put forward by Foucault, Bourdieu, and others. From Heidegger's “being-in-the-world” to Merleau-Ponty's “lived body”. discussions within the field of phenomenology concerning flesh/body are all designed to overcome and transcend the subject-object and mind-body dualism thinking mode that has long dominated various academic fields, while Foucault and Bourdieu chose the influence of power, social practice, and others on individuals' body as the main research subject.

Thomas Csordas, a religious and medical anthropologist, proposed that embodiment should be regarded as an anthropological research paradigm[8] after he had studied the religious/folk treatment culture for a long time. He used this paradigm to conduct in-depth research and discussions on Catholic treatment rituals (exorcism) in North America, which gained widespread attention in the fields of cultural anthropology, psychology, sociology, and religious studies. Csordas did not interpret the special experience that emerges after religious treatment from the usual religious texts, the structure of rituals, and the theory and concepts of psychology, but inherited and further developed the ideas of the Merleau-Ponty phenomenology of perception, starting from the individual's body, and focusing on the detailed description of the preculture and preobject physical experiences of feelings, kinesthetic sense, emotions, imagination, etc., to grasp how the culture and object are constructed from the body. He pointed out[9],[10] that culture is rooted in the body, and proposed the somatic modes of attention or a specific way of analyzing the physical experiences in the treatment culture, which means that, based on the interaction and inter-subjective experiences between the environment and body, and between one's own body and others' bodies, culture arises from the patterns of attention with the body and attention to the body. A genuine description of the pattern of attention to the body captures moments of body experience and the cultural construction of the body, which shed light on how culture constructs the body and is created in the body.

Similarly, Taiwan anthropologist Yu Shunde[11] discussed culture by using culture bodily experience as a core concept and collected papers in various fields with a focus on bodily experience, edited them, and published observing the object to its details: A research on objects and bodily experience. He argued that the meaning of an object does not come from the existing culture, but is embodied in the action of observing the object to its details, because our body as the subject of the experiences perceives different in-body and out-of-body perception categories, and the meaning of things is built in the environment of personal life through learning, experience, and actions. Thus, it can be seen that both the building of the treatment culture in Csordas's research and the development of the meaning of things put forward by Yu Shunde are inseparable from the realization of bodily experiences. The same is true of understanding the culture of Qi and Qigong. As the theories of Qigong are under the guidance of mind-body monism, the understanding of its essence can not be merely based on natural science, existing theories but also can use the phenomenological approach, to break through the limitations of the cultural context, and to have a more comprehensive exploration of Qigong and the nature of Qi.

  Qi in Practice: From Epistemology to Ontology Top

Qi, as the core of Qigong, is also a body practice with East-Asian and Chinese characteristics. Japanese philosopher Yuasa[12] pointed out that the concept of the body in the East is a practical issue related to life experiences, and is concerned with how the relationship between the mind and the body evolves through cultivation, rather than what the relationship is. Although Yuasa[13],[14] also conducted many discussions and observations on the experiences of Qi and Qigong, he discussed the essence of these experiences by using existing frameworks such as Carl Jung's Synchronicity theory and the results of natural scientific experiments, instead of directly drawing on the bodily experiences of Qigong practitioners or analyzing the development process of these experiences.

Qigong is one of many body practices, so how to understand Qigong and Qi must focus on the body itself. The idea that body techniques and body practices build a specific culture and reflect a particular culture has become the consensus among anthropologists and sociologists. Therefore, how can we understand the construction of Qi culture in this Qigong practice through the body? The answer requires us to move out of the epistemological framework like what is Qi epistemology and shift to the ontological framework of how Qi exists in practice. Dutch medical anthropologist Annemarie Mol[15] conducted a long-term and thorough field survey at a subsidiary hospital in a well-known university in the Netherlands. She found that in the case of atherosclerosis, the condition appears to take on multiple forms because of different diagnostic practices (laboratory, clinical manifestations, etc), and often there may be inconsistencies in each form of atherosclerosis due to the different diagnostic methods. Thus, she suggested in her book entitled The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice that even under the strict disease classification system, diseases in biomedical clinics do not always appear to be the same, but depend on the practices.

If Qigong is viewed as a technique acquired by bodily practices, Ingold's[16] point of view may give us some inspiration. He pointed out that skills acquisition (he called it “enskilment”) cannot be simply understood as inheritance, but as a process of inter-subjectivity, and interaction with the environment. In Qigong practices, this environment refers to not only the external environment but also the internal environment of the body. The external environment includes the material and cultural environment, while the inner environment indicates such things as feelings and emotional changes. In other words, observing the process of enskilment can also be analyzed as a detailed description of the interaction processes between these two environments.

  Conclusion: The Direction and Obstruction of the Study of Qi and Qigong Experience Top

The above analyses have introduced some of the discussions and insights of body philosophy and anthropological research on the body in recent years and discussed some new ideas for understanding the experience of Qi and Qigong. Of course, the body here is no longer the body in the sense of biology and anatomy, but the body “being-in-the-world,” which, through continuous interaction with the environment, not only constantly constructs cultures but is also constructed by the cultures. If we can do some empirical research in this direction, it will undoubtedly lead us to deepening our understanding of the Qi and Qigong experience, rather than being limited by the existing context and theories.

However, there are also some obstacles, and the difficulties can be predicted in doing research which focuses on bodily experience. First, because of a large number of scientific researches on the materiality of Qi which as a unknown energy has been deeply rooted in people's cognition, and, to bypass this stereotype and return to the bodily experience, this approach itself is not easy to be accepted. Second, since Qigong is an important part of traditional Chinese medicine, practitioners tend to cite statements in ancient Chinese philosophy and traditional Chinese medicine texts to express their true feelings when describing the experience of Qi. Moreover, changes in bodily feelings and emotions are also difficult to be verbalized or worded, which makes it hard for researchers to describe and analyze these changes in detail. Finally, because of a long-standing linear thinking and logic thinking of causalism, one particular feeling or bodily change will make Qigong and practitioners think they have caught the sense of Qi. This is also a roadblock that prevents us from fully, concretely, nuanced understanding of Qi and Qigong.

To solve these problems, by switching the mode of thinking, researchers themselves should also actively participate in Qigong practices, and take their own perception and experience into account. In fact, this unique research approach has already utilized by some anthropologists and philosophers[17] who studied bodily experiences of the specific culture. Researchers' experiences combined with empirical data of bodily experiences, which account for the real Qigong practice site, will give us a new perspective on describing Qi, observing Qi, understanding Qi and the culture of Qigong.

Financial support and sponsorship

This research achievement was financially supported by the research fund “international research activities,” a support system for enhancing the research quality of young researchers of the Institute of Ars Vivendi in the academic year 2019.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

  References Top

Liu GZ. Chinese medical qigong therapy in experimental research. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 1955;10:22-3.  Back to cited text no. 1
Shen XD, Ding J, Xu F, Li XQ. An exploration of the original meaning and connotation of daoyin from “movement” and “essential qi.” Chin Med Cult 2018;1:14-17.  Back to cited text no. 2
Balaneskovic S. Hua Tuo's Wu Qin Xi (Five Animal Frolics) Movements and the Logic Behind it. Chin Med Cult. 2018;1:127-34.  Back to cited text no. 3
Gu HS, Lin HS. Preliminary experimental results to the materiality of Qigong's “Yun Qi therapy”. Chinese Journal of Nature. 1978;1:12-3.  Back to cited text no. 4
Chen K. Update on Qigong Practice and Qigong Research in the United States. Available from: http://www.qigonginstitute.org/. 2007. [Last accessed on 2019 Nov 01].  Back to cited text no. 5
Palmer D. Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China, 1949-1999. New York: Columbia University Press; 2007.  Back to cited text no. 6
Chen N. Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry, and Healing in China. New York: Columbia University Press; 2003.  Back to cited text no. 7
Csodas, Thomas J. Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology. Ethos 1990;18:5-47.  Back to cited text no. 8
Csodas, Thomas J, Harwood A, eds. Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1994.  Back to cited text no. 9
Csodas,Thomas J. Somatic Modes of Attention. Cultural Anthropology. 1993; 8:135-56.  Back to cited text no. 10
Yu SD. Observing the Object to Its Details: Research on Objects and Bodily Experience. Taiwan: National Tsing Hua University Press. 2008.  Back to cited text no. 11
Yuasa Y. Body: An Attempt at the Philosophy of the Eastern Body. Tokyo: Sōbunsya Press; 1977.  Back to cited text no. 12
Yuasa, Y. Ki, Practice and Body. Tokyo: Hirakawa Press; 1986.  Back to cited text no. 13
Yuasa, Y. What is Qi: Energy from Human's Body. Tokyo: NHK Publishing; 1990.  Back to cited text no. 14
Mol A. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. London: Duke University Press; 2002.  Back to cited text no. 15
Ingold T. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge; 2000.  Back to cited text no. 16
De Antoni. A, and Emma E.C. Feeling (with) Japan: Affective, Sensory and Material Entanglements in the Field - Introduction. Asian Anthropology. 2019;18:139-53.  Back to cited text no. 17


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