Qigong Fever; Body, Science, and Utopia in China.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Sivin, Nathan
Pub Date: 06/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2009 Source Volume: 42 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Palmer, David A.
Accession Number: 202479958
Full Text: Qigong Fever; Body, Science, and Utopia in China. By David A. Palmer (New York: Columbia University Press, xii plus 356 pp. $34.00).

For most non-Chinese, qigong is a mysterious exercise that combines patterned breathing and movement in order to increase health, happiness, and (according to some) wisdom. Westerners who study qigong are usually told that it is a discipline thousands of years old, that the regime they practice happens to be the only authentic version, and that their teacher is its only authentic exponent.

This remarkable study will come as a shock to many readers, from the first sentence on: "Modern qigong was launched in the 'Liberated Zone' of Southern Hebei on 3 March 1949, when cadre Huang Yueting proclaimed the adoption of the name qigong to designate a set of body training exercises which a team of clinicians had been researching under his leadership in the previous few years. The creation of qigong was a political act: while destroying the 'feudal' social and symbolic context of traditional masters, the new medical institutions sought to reclaim their knowledge of body techniques and to train a new corps of 'medical workers' to teach and practise them in a socialist institutional setting." What the "authentic exponents" have been transmitting, in other words, is some version of a Party official's invention, a new combination of breathing, meditation, and gymnastics cleansed of what the Chinese Communist Party's doctrine execrates as superstition, but which occidentals tend to think of as ancient wisdom. This is a story of alternating growth and prohibition, of a boom that attracted millions of practitioners, a fever indeed of profit-making, and finally a notorious repression that ended the boom in China by 2000.

David Palmer, a scholar of anthropology and religious studies, originally planned to do a field study of qigong practice. After reaching some depth as a practitioner of several methods, he has traced the history of qigong in socialist China. There is already a large literature on qigong. This book goes further in showing how its evolution--and devolution--were part of the dizzying metamorphosis of Chinese society, politics, and culture between 1949 and 1999. These are the main lines of his narrative:

Qigong moved out of Hebei onto the national scene only with the ideological turn against Western influence in 1953-61. Those in the Party who insisted China could find its own way in the world, guided by Marx, Engels, and Mao, attacked those who saw a need for China to depend more on modern science and technology and less on doctrinal correctness. Many high officials who had been treated with qigong in Hebei appreciated it as a means to health that was intrinsically Chinese, accessible to everyone in a very poor country, and more politically manageable than Western medicine. But in 1961-64 Chairman Mao attacked the Party leaders who had promoted qigong. Qigong books ceased to appear from 1965 to the late 1970s; qigong-clinics were among the many institutions that closed down during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping's Four Modernizations (1977) gave priority to modernization, including scientific research. The simplicity, efficacy, and cheapness of qigong made it an important topic of study.

A new kind of qigong sprang up in which masters externalized their qi, focusing it on patients and curing them, often at a great distance. Foreign observers saw them induce mass trance, holy rolling, speaking in tongues. The individual no longer need become adept; the master did the healing. As a 1991 book put it, qigongs "advanced level is shown by Extraordinary Powers: penetrating vision, distant vision, distant sensation, the ability to immobilise one's body, to fly miraculously, to cross walls, to soar spiritually, to call the wind and bring the rain, to know the past and the future"--skills familiar from gongfu movies. Some taught all comers to perform healing and paranormal feats with their own qi.

Many high-ranking scientific and political figures such as Qian Xuesen (H. S. Tsien), the creator of the Chinese missile and space programs, defended these innovations as technical breakthroughs. They backed "fundamental research" on qigong against the opposition of others equally eminent. New societies and university courses proliferated. As millions entered qigong movements, some became highly efficient commercial enterprises, their managers trained using Harvard Business School methods. These innovations yielded fabulous wealth to their founders. Their recruiting of Party members, their high official connections, and the wealth that government organs collected for "supervising" them made serious regulation practically impossible.

By the beginning of the 1990's, the problems had become too serious to ignore. Demonstrations of "extraordinary powers" had failed in publicly embarrassing ways; "qigong psychotic reaction," delusional or suicidal, had formally entered the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Enrollments began to drop. Qigong seemed to many just one more corrupt attraction of a tumultuously changing society with no ideals left but getting rich. Li Hongzhi, master of the quickly expanding Dharma Wheel Qigong movement (Falungong), with strong backing within public security agencies, unexpectedly bucked the trend with a reformed "moralistic, messianic and apocalyptic doctrine." It based practice on truth, compassion, and forbearance; suffering became a means to salvation. By 1995 Li was claiming to be the "omniscient and omnipotent saviour of the entire universe" (p. 225). His movement was the largest in China, although he denied that it was a variety of qigong. It was only a matter of time before this fiercely autonomous doctrine--which expected adepts to stand up to repression--collided with the Party bureaucracy's demand for subservience and predictability.

A series of peaceful demonstrations against verbal attacks by government operatives led on 24 April 1999 to a quiet sit-in outside the Beijing residential quarter of the highest leadership. It ended without incident, but in July the outcome was a national crackdown on Falungong and then restrictions on all qigong organisations and practices that ended support within the Party. "Most masters stopped their activities, took a low profile, went underground, or emigrated to the West." Although limited personal practice was still legal, "the sector ceased to exist as a vibrant social space" (p. 280).

This was not, as Palmer makes clear, simply a blow of dictatorship against personal freedom, or a democratic rebellion against the Communist Party. The qigong movement was invented by officials, and their support fertilized its many metamorphoses. The rise of charismatic masters introduced a strong element of what Palmer calls religiosity that was incompatible with Party control. In most movements disciples experienced this dimension only in their intimate relations with their teachers, but Falungong moved it to the center. That inevitably precipitated a debacle.

1 am not sure whether "religiosity" is the best word for this existential pivot. Palmer defines it as "certain universal subjective dispositions ... rooted in mundane hopes for the avoidance of disease and misfortune, in aspirations for self-realisation, or in the search for transcendental salvation or wisdom. ... As a subjective disposition, religiosity disregards artificial boundaries between the private and the social, between the religious and the secular, between personal pain and political judgements [sic]" (p. 2.5, my italics). But I cannot offer a better term.

This is a fine and worthwhile book. There is no space to do justice to its informed and sophisticated conceptual analysis. Its writing is a bit more academic than need be, but the prose does not, as in so many books, interfere with the argument. This is the best work in its field.

Nathan Sivin

University of Pennsylvania
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