What does the term Qigong mean?

Last updated on May 22nd, 2020 at 11:30 pm

The word “Qigong” was first used by a Chinese Daoist monk named Xu Xun in his book, “Teaching Record of Quiet and Clear Sect,” in the Jin Dynasty (about 300 B.C.).  After that, the word “Qigong” was not mentioned until the end of Qing Dynasty in the early 19th century, when it was referred to in the chapter called “Qigong Supplementary” from a book titled “The Harmony of Vitalities.”

The word Qigong was not commonly used in the thousands of previous years of Chinese history.  However, the concept of Qigong has had a long history under names such as “guide and lead”, “exhale and inhale”, “stay still and observe”, “store and think”, “nurture the Qi”, “listen to breathing”, “nurture life”, “immortal arts”, and so on.

The formal usage of the word Qigong began in the 1950s when the first specialized institute of Qigong healing and research – Tangshan City Qigong Sanatorium – was established in China.  From then on, the word Qigong became popular and gradually replaced all other names.

But what does the term Qigong mean?  When it was first used, many people thought that Qigong meant deep breathing exercises because the word “qi” does mean air in Chinese.  Even now, thumbing through some Chinese-English dictionaries, you may find Qigong translated into English as breathing exercise.  To this day, there is no generally agreed upon definition of Qigong or answers to the question of what the term means.

For example, the school that emphasizes “mind intention” exercises defines Qigong as “ exercising methods that use consciousness to allow one’s life movements to be in an optimal state” and also as “ the science that studies methods that stimulate the human body to adjust itself and that also refine the mind, body, and breathing through indifference to fame and benefit in order to achieve a state of nothingness, guide the Qi, and strengthen the essence by guiding the mind intention to heal ailments,  maintain health, improve abilities, and prolong the life-span”.

Some scholars attempt to give a definition that includes all possible aspects of nurturing life, fitness, longevity, and combat; improving ability; saving Qi; and revealing intelligence”, while another says, “Qigong, based on a classical holistic view of life, is the persistent practicing of the art of nurturing benefits and enhancing the human body’s pre-birth qi and abilities and is the knowledge of attaining an advanced balance between mind and body as well as the science of exploring the mystery of life”.

Some people approach Qigong from the aspect of entering tranquility and define it as “using the integrated adjustment of mind, body, and breathing as the means of bringing out the latent abilities of the human body.”

All the above definitions can serve as references, but none of them give an understanding of Qigong’s essence.

If you open any classical Chinese book, regardless of whether its topic is astronomy, the calendar system, medicine, philosophy, cosmic concepts, military affairs, the nation, education, literature, history, scriptures, metaphysics, martial arts, law, art, Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, or any other traditional natural and social science, you will see that all of them included a discussion about Qi.  This is especially so in books about traditional science and technology, where Qi was described in a detailed and complete manner.

In ancient China, Qi was a very complicated philosophical concept, but it was generally considered as “the essence of all matter is the master”.  Qi produces crops on the earth and creates stars in the sky.  It is called spirit or ghost when flowing between heaven and earth and creates stars in the sky.  It is called oracle or sage when captured in the heart. In other words, Qi is all energy and thus, all matter.


Further, we need to see what “gong” means.  In Chinese, it refers to achievement through cultivation and practice over time.  What’s being cultivated and practiced over time? Qi, or energy, in simple words, gong is reaching different achievements over time through cultivating and practicing methods that affect Qi.

Gong has two dimensions that must be integrated, one is internal cultivation and the other is external cultivation.

  • Internal cultivation is the practice of cultivating one’s heart and body. Of the two, heart cultivation is primary and body cultivation is secondary.
  • External cultivation is cultivating and nurturing one’s morality and noble thoughts and feelings.

When comparing these two dimensions, cultivating the heart and body is primary.

The grand method and purpose of cultivating the heart and practicing with the body is founded on an understanding that exceeds the scope of ordinary social life.  This is to say that the method of cultivating the heart and practicing with the body  is based on the natural essential relationship between the human and the universe as well as the essential ideology of the natural unity between the self and nature.  Anyone who can start to cultivate in accordance with this has a chance to get on the path towards enlightenment.

Qi is the root source of all events and changes in all of the universe’s natural things.  Every natural thing in the universe is made up of Qi.  Human beings are one of the universe’s natural things and are certainly formed by Qi as well.  Therefore, humans and the universe are unified in their source.

Universal Qi

The universe is immense and filled with immortal substance and everlasting Qi.  It is without boundaries in space and has no beginning and end in time.  It can give birth to all things, change inexhaustibly, and yet integrate into one.  Its moral characteristics are broadness, selflessness, vitality, and helpfulness.

When the unification with the universe is truly achieved through practicing the cultivation of the heart and mind, one reaches enlightenment.  All these aforementioned moral characteristics will emerge naturally.  Therefore, the internal cultivation of heart and body is primary.

External cultivation is disciplining the self to be upright in both body and mind and never do things out of self-interest that will harm others.  One has to be certain that one’s language, actions, and thoughts do not do anything evil and are always kind.  One must purify one’s own mind to avoid accumulating negative karma.  Then, all the obstructions that block cultivating the grand method of the right way will be reduced and eventually fully eliminated.

External cultivation supplements internal cultivation as a method to reach enlightenment and can accelerate internal cultivation.

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