“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”.
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?
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?
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:
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?
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:
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 how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.