The History of Qigong and Tai Chi: Facts And Myths

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Image of Woman Doing Qigong in China

“What are you talking about?” he said. “Tai chi is MUCH older than qigong!”

I raised an eyebrow at this. Probably two eyebrows since he was being so aggressive.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Earlier in the conversation, this so-called “expert” had also insisted that the “chi” in tai chi means “energy”.

It absolutely doesn’t.

And tai chi is not older than qigong  — not by a long shot.

The man I was chatting with, let’s call him Dan, had presented himself as a tai chi instructor and an authority on the subject.

But his statements about qigong and tai chi were unequivocally false.

Unfortunately, untruths like this abound in the the world of qigong and tai chi, causing confusion for students.

Let’s correct some of those myths, shall we?

(Note: If you want to skip all the history, then scroll down to the video at the bottom, which will give you a super-simple 6-minute explanation, along with a few demonstrations.)

How Old is Qigong?

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Qigong is an umbrella term for a variety of ancient Chinese healing arts, all of which focus on cultivating the qi, or internal energy, especially for health, vitality, and longevity.

The most important thing you need to know about qigong is that it works wonders for self healing. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter if it’s 1000 years old or 4000.

But I LUVS ME some history, and I find the history of qigong to be fascinating.

First, let’s clarify that qigong is a modern, umbrella term for various Chinese energy arts. In the past, these arts were called by many different names. Today, because they all share similar theories on energy cultivation, we lump them all together under the single term qigong.

Here are a few examples of the historical evidence we have regarding qigong:

  • ca. 5000 BCE – archeological evidence (pottery) shows a qigong posture that looks just like a famous posture  called “Hugging the Tree” that is still practiced and taught today.
  • ca. 400 BCE – The Classic of the Way’s Virtues (The Dao De Jing, 道德經) by Lao Tzu (老子) speaks about focusing on your qi through breathing, and about cultivating softness (a hallmark of qigong).
  • ca. 400 BC – Chuang Tzu (莊子) talks about how past masters breathed qi down to their feet, which is an advanced qigong technique.
  • ca. 300 BC – The Circulating Qi Inscription (Xing Qi Ming, 行氣銘) basically describes the Small Universe Qigong technique, another advanced qigong method.
  • ca. 200 BC – The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (Huang Di Neijing 黃帝內經), which is the fundamental text of Traditional Chinese Medicine, speaks about breathing qi and keeping the mind tranquil and promote longevity. It also talks about Qi Circulation Theory, the Theory of 5 Elements, and the Theory of Yin and Yang

As you can see, there’s considerable evidence suggesting that qigong is older than Jesus. And many scholars think that it might even be older than the pyramids!

But what about tai chi? How old is that?

How Old is Tai Chi?

Sunset

Let’s get back to my conversation with Dan, the tai chi “expert”.

In an attempt to prove his earlier statement about tai chi being older than qigong, Dan said the following:

“The I Ching talks about tai chi, and it was published in the 9th century BC!”

If Dan could have dropped the mic and walked off stage, I think he would have.

Dan struck me as one of those guys who doesn’t let a few pesky facts get in the way of his opinions.

Despite his confidence, Dan’s statement is ridiculous.

I wouldn’t criticize a beginner for a statement like this, but an expert should know better.

Unfortunately, his opinion is shared by others. I see it popping up more and more often in the tai chi world.

Let’s bust this myth that tai chi was created in the 9th century BC.

Putting the Chuan Back in Tai Chi

The I Ching (The Book of Changes, 易經) is an ancient Chinese divination text.

And technically, it DOES talk about tai chi. But not the tai chi that Dan was talking about.

I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating:

Tai chi, the beautiful, slow-motion martial art that is good for the health, is actually called Tai Chi Chuan (太極拳).

The “chuan” at the end makes a big difference.

Look, I’m guilty too. It’s easier to just say “tai chi”. But when we leave off the “chuan,” we’re not talking about the same thing any more.

Instead, we’re talking about the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang. You already know at least one thing about this philosophy:

yin-yang-sepia

This symbol above is called the tai chi tu. Tu in this case just means “symbol” or “diagram”.

In other words, tai chi (太極) is a philosophy, whereas Tai Chi Chuan (太極拳) is a martial art.

Of course, Tai Chi Chuan incorporates the theory of yin and yang, thus adding to the confusion.

What The I Ching Really Says

Dan was correct that the I Ching speaks about tai chi (the philosophy)

But he was false in asserting that it speaks about Tai Chi Chuan (the martial art).

When it comes to the origins of Tai Chi Chuan, Dan wasn’t off by a small amount.

If someone said that Jesus was born 1000 years ago, that statement would be more accurate than Dan’s.

In that case, they would only be off by about 1000 years, whereas Dan was off by at least 2000!

The Actual Origins of Tai Chi

There are 2 main origin stories for the martial art called Tai Chi Chuan:

  • Story #1 – Tai Chi Chuan was created by the Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng in the 12th Century AD.
  • Story #2 – Tai Chi Chuan was created by Chen Wangting in the 17th Century AD.

Many modern scholars subscribe to the 2nd story because of the lack of evidence to support the Zhang Sanfeng theory.

But even if you believe that Zhang Sanfeng created Tai Chi Chuan — that’s still 2000 years later than Dan’s origin story.

The Grandmother of Tai Chi Chuan

Okay, so we’ve established that Tai Chi Chuan was created — at the absolute earliest — in the 12th century AD.

And we’ve established that qigong was created — at the absolute latest — in 200 BC.

So that’s a difference of 1300 years — MINIMUM.

In truth, the difference is likely a lot more than that.

I like to say that qigong is the grandmother of tai chi. It’s not just one generation older, but two.

Qigong is not the parent of tai chi because there were other arts in between, notably Shaolin Kung Fu.

What About Shaolin Kung Fu?

A Shaolin Kung Fu pattern called "Hungry Tiger Catches Goat"

A Shaolin Kung Fu pattern called “Hungry Tiger Catches Goat”

If there is a parent for Tai Chi Chuan, it’s undoubtably Shaolin Kung Fu.

Whichever origin story you subscribe to for Tai Chi Chuan — it leads back to the Shaolin Temple in China.

If you believe that Zhang Sanfeng created Tai Chi Chuan, then you must also acknowledge that he spent time learning kung fu at the Shaolin Temple.

If you believe that Chen Wanting created Tai Chi Chua, then you must acknowledge that his home town in Henan province was quite close to the Shaolin Temple. Plus, by the the 17th century, most martial arts in China had been influenced by Shaolin Kung Fu one way or another.

Shaolin Kung Fu is generally viewed as an external martial art, like Karate. But there were secretive internal branches of Shaolin Kung Fu as well.

It’s safe to say that without the internal practices of Shaolin Kung Fu, Tai Chi Chuan would not have developed.

Similarly, it’s safe to say that, without the internal practices of Shaolin Qigong, Shaolin Kung Fu would not have developed.

In other words, Qigong is the grandmother, Shaolin Kung Fu is the daughter, and Tai Chi Chuan is the granddaughter.

Now don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love Tai Chi Chuan, and practice it every day. In fact, I prefer it to Shaolin Kung, which I practiced for many years.

But I also love Grandma Qigong.

And many people prefer qigong simply because it’s not a martial art, and because it’s simpler.

This video below was taken during a workshop that I gave in Mexico City. It will give you super simple overview of the history of qigong, Tai Chi Chuan, and Shaolin Kung Fu, along with a few quick demonstrations.


If you’re like me and you like reading about history, then the following articles will be a big help:

The Difference Between Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and Chai Tea

The Difference Between Kung Fu, Gung Fu, and Gung Ho.

The Man Who Made Shaolin

History of Qigong: The 18 Luohan Hands

History of Qigong: Sinew Metamorphosis

History of Qigong: Bone Marrow Cleansing 

Mindfully yours,
Sifu Anthony

I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world to use qigong for their own stubborn health issues. I teach online courses, and also lead in-person retreats and workshops.

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27 Responses to The History of Qigong and Tai Chi: Facts And Myths

  1. John November 2, 2016 at 12:12 am #

    Interesting historical research.

    My own take on Qi Gong is that kinestheology and ergonomic structure is not necessarily part of the practice. It makes sense to me that the alignments and coordinations were combined in later.

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais November 2, 2016 at 5:39 pm #

      Hi John. Thanks for the input.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “kinestheology and ergonomic structure”, but perhaps you’re talking about the physical and visible aspects of qigong?

      Techniques like the Small Universe involves almost no visible movement. The qi is moved internally using the mind and the breath.

      • John November 4, 2016 at 5:30 pm #

        As Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art, part of the practice is how to develop strength and stability in a posture for releasing and neutralizing physical power. Qi Gong, like Yoga, to my understanding did not develop with a component of “How do I hit someone with more effectively and efficiently.” The six coordinations as I learned them were about issuing or neutralizing power. This is an additional level of complexity; more basic than structure for power is general health and flexibility. It makes sense to me anyway that each idea would be developed separately (health, power) and then combined later.

        • Sifu Anthony Korahais November 4, 2016 at 5:37 pm #

          John, your basic premise correct. For example, a Qigong exercise like Lifting The Sky is not designed for self defense.

          But the history gets a bit murky because qigong and the internal martial arts overlapped a great deal. They didn’t develop separately.

          In that regard, there are qigong exercises specifically designed to increase martial power, like the zhan zhuang postures, or One Finger Shooting Zen. But both of those happen to also be good for the health!

  2. Rachel November 2, 2016 at 7:02 am #

    Thanks Sifu. It’s great to have a basic understanding of how these things relate to one other, I learnt a lot from this blog 😀

  3. Sandie November 2, 2016 at 8:11 am #

    Thank you Sifu, great to have so much essential info and history in a condensed, easy to read form.

  4. Brian November 2, 2016 at 11:57 am #

    Excellent short video and description of the historical progression. Thank you for sharing!

  5. De Tao van November 2, 2016 at 1:46 pm #

    But, but, QiGong did not exist before the 1950’s. Most exercises were known as DaoYin. Mao ZeDong urged the old masters to come up with a standardized set and they named it QiGong.

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais November 2, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

      Hi Nico. Thanks for the input.

      It’s not correct to say that qigong didn’t exist before the 1950s. But if you mean to say that the term “qigong” didn’t exist, then you are more correct.

      The truth is that qigong is a modern, umbrella term for various Chinese energy arts. In the past, these arts were called by many different names (including qigong). Today, we lump them all together under the single term qigong.

      But the various energy arts share many theories in common, like qi circulation theory, yin and yang, and the five elements. In this sense, it’s appropriate and fair to bundle them together under the term “qigong”.

  6. Catherine seow November 2, 2016 at 7:33 pm #

    Hi Sifu Anthony Korahais, Thanks! very informative..Good read for people like us who enjoyed our daily group-exercise which also includes qigong movements.👍

  7. Elle Renée November 2, 2016 at 8:28 pm #

    The school of San feng Wudang, really bridged the gap between Shaolin and Neidan, creating Taiji. If you follow that school of thought.

  8. John November 2, 2016 at 8:51 pm #

    I learned 2 Tai Chi forms online and also practice some Qigong that I learned. Both have helped me immensely with anxiety and depression so I appreciate what you are doing bringing knowledge to people and helping them deepen their practice..

    John

  9. John Christopher Day November 3, 2016 at 11:09 am #

    What is your opinion of WIng Chun Shifu Anthony?

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais November 3, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

      Hi John. My opinion of Wing Chun? Like anything, it’s great if you can find a good teacher!

      I briefly studied a more internal branch of Wing Chun, and enjoyed it.

      But if you can’t find an internal branch, then just find a good teacher, and add a qigong routine.

      • John Christopher Day November 4, 2016 at 4:30 pm #

        Thank you very much! Are you familiar with Benny Meng? He’s also got a Wing Chun Museum in Dayton, OH that I want to visit soon. I saw a few pictures of students at his school doing single whip poses but I don’t know for sure if they look into internal arts. He said his lineage is from Ip Man’s. Anyway thank you for answering. Keep seeking balance as Mr. Miyagi says! 🙂

        • Sifu Anthony Korahais November 4, 2016 at 5:38 pm #

          Thanks for the kind words, John. I’m not familiar with Benny Meng, sorry.

  10. Cindy November 3, 2016 at 4:37 pm #

    Hi Anthony, I would like to contact you by e-mail however, when I clicked on “click here” under Contact Me, which is at the bottom of the page, it came up as an error. How may I contact you privately?

  11. Beverley Kane, MD November 6, 2016 at 11:50 am #

    Thanks for another fantastic column. For a fair and balanced discussion of myth, history, and philosophy, I also recommend Douglas Wile, “Lost T’ai-Chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty,” SUNY 1996. Wiles divides the history into 3 main areas: theory, forms, and philosophy. He gives us the benefit of a lot of new materials, hidden for so long in, that are coming literally out of the woodwork in the somewhat relaxed (toward qigong and tai ji) climate in China. I spent about 40 hours constructing a summary and timeline in a Word doc, also discriminating likely myth from likely historical fact, from this book. FB me if anyone wants a copy.

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais November 6, 2016 at 7:49 pm #

      Thanks Beverley! I’ve read that book, but I’d love a copy of your Word document. I think you have my email address.

  12. Kyro Lantsberger November 13, 2016 at 6:13 pm #

    Douglas Wile is a first rate scholar in this area, but if I recall correctly he has amended a great deal of his earlier work based on newer research.

    Fantastic article by the way.

  13. Pam Dye January 16, 2017 at 8:13 pm #

    Thanks-I’m still trying to get my history straight. I am just wondering if you go by the Zhang Sanfeng theory of the birth of Tai Chi Chuan (him replicating the movements of the snake and bird and creating a style of Tai Chi) then where do the Wudang priests come into the picture? Were they around at the same time the Shaolin monks?

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais January 25, 2017 at 6:07 pm #

      Hi Pam. I think it’s hard to verify the Zhang Sanfeng theory historically, but I suspect that there is some truth to it. Whether or not he was inspired by the snake and the crane is not a big deal. The question is — was he the patriarch of what we now call Taijiquan?

      It’s a question that we may never have a satisfactory answer to.

      Yes, the Wudang priests were around at the same time as the Shaolin Monks. They were Taoist priests, where as the Shaolin monks were Buddhist.

  14. Orazio Chiodo February 18, 2017 at 11:19 pm #

    SiFu I have been training in the martial arts for 35 years and have done the same thing as far as researching the historical roots. I believe you cant get to where your going with out knowing where you’ve been. Since my introduction to Qi Gong due to injuries sustained during military deployments, I am amazed at that nobody in my area knows anything about Qi Gong!. Ive been asked to teach and i find it difficult to present Qigong due to the fact that i am afraid that anything i say will be misunderstood by Tai Chi Quan practioners. The management asked me to teach side by side. I fear the mentality is the same as the martial artists in the area. But i must say you gave me a lot of food for thought.

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