Daoyin tu (Exercise Chart, c.138 BCE)

Classical Period
Whilst it is not really possible to say exactly how and when inner-cultivation exercises became established as a part of Chinese culture, it seems fair to say that the foundations of these modern practices can be traced back to before the Common Era. Tradition ascribes such knowledge to the prehistoric founders of Chinese culture, and some scholars have argued that some form of meditation and Qigong practice informed the authors of important Chinese classics such as the Dao de jing (Tao Te Ching) and the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). Whether or not we accept these explanations, it is clear that in the first centuries of the Common Era commentaries and medical manuals were written which marked a significant step in the development of traditional Chinese inner-cultivation practice.

Huxi san xiao (Three Laughs at Tiger Brook, 12th c. CE)

Middle Period
Moving into the Middle Period, the spread of Buddhism brought many profound doctrines and practices that were gradually assimilated into Chinese culture. This assimilation led to new forms of inner-cultivation practice seen in the Quanzhen (Complete Reality) School of religious Taoism, and also in the emergence of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. This development of Chan Buddhism in China is also associated with the legendary figure of Bodhiharma, said to have sailed from India in order to spread the Buddha’s teachings, and to have initiated martial arts practice at the Shaolin Monastery. Then, later still, Zhang Sanfeng is held to have combined the harder styles of Shaolin martial arts with his understanding of inner-cultivation to create the fundamental martial exercises that developed into modern day Tai Chi.

Yinshizi jingzuo fa (Master Yinshi’s Quiet Sitting Method, 1914)

Modern Period
In the modern era information regarding these practices spread much more easily throughout Chinese society, numerous books were written to explain the methods involved and the benefits which they could bring. This period also saw the spread of scientific thought throughout the country, and many people started to move away from the traditional explanations given for inner-cultivation practice. As these secular forms of practice grew in popularity, the Chinese government also became involved, resulting in government approved exercises. This process led to a narrowing of what was accepted as orthodox practice, but many traditional Qigong systems were preserved within specific families and clan groups.