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chi kung (ch'i kung  or qi gong)

Ch'i kung or qi gong (pronounced chee gung and henceforth spelled chi kung) is claimed to be "the science and practice" of chi. Chi kung literally means energy cultivation. Physical and mental health are allegedly improved by learning how to manipulate chi through controlled breathing, movement, and acts of will. Chi kung masters claim to be able to heal at a distance by manipulating chi. It is even said that one can strengthen the immune system by mastering one's chi.

Most Westerners are vaguely familiar with Kung Fu and Tai Chi, both of which are related to chi kung. The former is a martial art and the latter is a type of exercise, or internal martial art. The former is sometimes known for demonstrations of breaking bricks with bare hands. The latter is known for the graceful poses of its practitioners. These demonstrations, and stories of even more powerful demonstrations, are offered as evidence of the paranormal or supernatural power that comes to those who master chi.

Asian martial arts schools have become very popular in the West. There is certainly a good side to these training centers for children and adults. They encourage attention to diet and physical exercise. They cultivate physical strength and mental self-discipline. Many focus on self-defense, and they boost self-confidence and self-esteem, even if they don't really make one invincible. However, they also often encourage students to believe they can achieve supernatural or paranormal powers, or heal just about any illness by an act of will, by training and discipline under a "master."

What empirical evidence is there for chi or its harnessing? Testimonials and self-validating statements are offered in lieu of controlled scientific tests.   Nevertheless, advocates are convinced they are not deluded in their metaphysical explanations. The acupuncturist is convinced he or she is unblocking chi. The reiki therapist and therapeutic touch nurse think they are channeling ki or prana. The Reichians think they can heal the body by harnessing and directing orgone. As a philosophy, chi kung and its relatives may provide one with a sense of harmony, power and meaning. As a metaphysical belief there is no way to disprove the existence of chi. However, explanations of events in terms of controlling and harnessing chi are superfluous by Occam's razor.

The most convincing evidence are the demonstrations given by so-called masters of various martial arts who claim to use chi to knock out people without touching them. As long as those being knocked about are believers, the demonstrations work. As soon as a skeptic enters the ring, the powers fail. Why? One explanation is that the believers are acting as they believe they are supposed to act. They are role-playing, which is not to say that they are not sincere. Nor is it to say that they are pretending. They are acting according to suggestions, much the way people act on stage with a stage hypnotist. Before making up your mind about chi masters, look at thi video clip of Yanagi Ryuken who tries to use chi to ward off an attacker in a demonstration.

Then look at these two videos of chi masters. Dillman demonstrates not the power of chi, but the power of suggestion. The fellow in the Phillipines demonstrates what can happen when you play with sharp swords and can't stop your slice fast enough to make it look like energy protected you.

See also acupuncture (for a breakdown of the differences between placebo and false placebo effects), energy, magical thinking, placebo effect, sham acupuncture, therapeutic touch , vibrational medicine, Yellow Bamboo, the New Age page of links, Energy Healing: Looking in All the Wrong Places, and my review of the "documentary" Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What.

reader comments

further reading

I have written several articles and short pieces about New Age energy topics. The following is a list of those I think are most relevant to the qigong article above.

Framing the Medicine Wars

Evaluating Personal Experience

Energy Healing: Looking in All the Wrong Places

Evaluating Acupuncture Studies: Laughable vs. Dangerous Delusions

How safe are alternative therapies?

Oprah and Oz spreading superstition at the speed of night 

Ancient Wisdom

Prescribing Placebos

Mesmerized by hypnotherapy

Statistics and Medical Studies

Review of R. Barker Bausell's Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine

books and articles

Huston, Peter. "China, Chi, and Chicanery - Examining Traditional Chinese Medicine and Chi Theory," Skeptical Inquirer, Sept/Oct 1995.

Lin, Zixin (editor). Qigong : Chinese Medicine or Pseudoscience? (Prometheus, 2000).

Randi, James. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1995).

Qigong: Chinese Medicine or Pseudoscience? by Zixin Lin (Editor), Yu Li, Guo Zhengyi, Shen Zhenyu, Zhang Honglin, Lin Zixin


"Acupuncture, Qigong, and "Chinese Medicine" by Stephen Barrett, M.D.

The Twelve Primary Qi Channels by Yang, Jwing-Ming

Last updated 05-Nov-2015

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