Daoyin Yangsheng Gong

Taiji Forum 2017

Historical Development of Daoyin Yangsheng Gong


Professor Zhang Guangde is the Founder and Honorary General Director of the Daoyin Yangsheng Gong Centre, a former Professor and Researcher at the Wushu Dept. of Beijing University of Physical Education, and a permanent Member and Vice-Secretary of the Chinese Wushu Research Association.
He developed the modern Daoyin Yangsheng Gong healthcare system that is, as the name implies, firmly rooted in the daoyin (guiding and pulling) branch of yangsheng culture.

Daoyin – Dao refers to the fact that physical movements are guided by the strength of the mind and in turn stimulate the internal flow of qi within the body. Yin means that with the aid of physical movements, qi can reach the extremities of the body. In this way, the flow of qi links the zang (yin) organs and fu (yang) organs, before returning to its starting point. There are many postures and movements in daoyin exercises, but the emphasis is on achieving a state of harmony between body and mind.

Yangsheng is generally translated as ‘nourishing life’ and consists of various self-cultivation practices, generally considered to be Daoist, which are directed towards health and longevity.
Life (sheng) can be supported, maintained, cultivated and nourished (yang) by sustaining the ‘Three Treasures’: Jing (Essence), Qi (Energy) and Shen (Spirit).
Everyone is born already possessing a certain amount of jing and qi but these energies eventually diminish with age. To enable longevity one should maintain or restore these energies. Shen, however, comes to an individual at birth and must be cultivated throughout life. Yangsheng whose techniques are based on physiological, psychological, and behavioural principles are central to this belief.
According to the ‘Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’ Daoist self-cultivation practices can be divided into three categories: Meditation, Alchemy and yangsheng. The yangsheng category includes such practices as daoyin, breathing, sexual hygiene and dietetics.

However, the ‘Encyclopedia of Taoism’ widens the yangsheng practices to also include massage, meditation and visualisation, healing, and rules of daily behaviour.
What this indicates is that the definition of yangsheng is very fluid. No definitive list of what constitutes Yangsheng practices can be made. It has changed over time and continues to change even today as in the West it has been mixed with New-Age ideas. One thing that has not changed is the inclusion of the core practices of daoyin, breath-cultivation and sexual-cultivation.
The core practices are also part of the yangxing (Nourishing the Body) and are often confused with each other, though ‘body’ techniques alone are considered inferior to the ‘life’ techniques because they do not go far enough as they do not work with tianli (the Celestial Principle).

Historically, yangsheng was already evolving during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) as Chapter three of the book Zhuangzi (c. 3rd century BCE) is titled Yangsheng zhu (Principal of Nourishing Life).
Although various traditions of daoyin try to trace their roots back to legendary people like Pengzu (the Chinese Methuselah), the immortals Chisongzi (Master Redpine) and Wang Ziqiao and the ancient master Ningfengzi, who have specific sets of exercises names after them it is also clear the earliest roots of daoyin are in Shamanism.

Han dynasty 206 BCE – 220 CE

Among the texts found in tomb No. 247 at Zhangjiashan, built for an early Western Han era official who had died in 186 BCE, was ‘Yinshu’ (Pulling Document) the earliest extant text on daoyin. From this document, it can be seen that daoyin was not just a system to treat illness but a central regimen to build a strong, healthy body. The tomb also contained the ‘Maishu’ (book of channels) which is not a yangsheng text as such but it uses the yangsheng physiology as its model.
Among the manuscripts found in tomb No. 3 at Mawangdui (dated to 168 BCE) were several dealing with yangsheng and daoyin: ‘Yangsheng fang’ (Recipes for Nourishing Life), ‘He yinyang’ (Harmonising Yin and Yang), ‘Shiwen’ (Ten Questions), ‘Tianxia zhidao tan’ (Discussion of the Highest Way Under Heaven) and the now famous ‘Daoyin tu’ (Daoyin Diagram).
Hua Tuo (141-208), a famous doctor, created wuqinxi (Five-Animal Play), a daoyin exercise that imitates the movements of tigers, deer, bears, apes and birds, which is still popular.
Zhang Zhongjing (150-219), another famous physician, wrote in his Jingui Yaolue (Summary of Prescriptions from the Golden Chamber), “We should always take care of ourselves and prevent pathogenic wind from penetrating our channels and collaterals, and treat it before it flows through our internal organs. When our limbs feel heavy and uncomfortable, we should do some daoyin exercises to get out the stale and take in the fresh …”
In the Shenjian (Extended Reflections), Xun Yue (148-209) interpreted the cultivation of the vital principle in a Confucian way: one should seek moderation and harmony and avoid any excess, and breath should be circulated to avoid blocks and stagnation, just as the mythical emperor Yu did when he succeeded in quelling the flood waters.

Six dynasties 220-589 CE

During the Six dynasties period yangsheng continued to develop in medical, Daoist, and Xuanxue (Arcane Learning) circles.
Xi Kang (223-262), author of Yangsheng Lun (On Nourishing Life) introduces the idea that the awakened, or concentrated mind is a prerequisite for effective results.
Xu Xun (239-374) was a regular practitioner of daoyin exercises. He was called Xu the True Master and lived to the age of 136. His art of daoyin was later summarised into a very popular book called Ling Jianzi (Miraculous Swordsmanship).
Ge Hong (283-343), author of Zhouhou Beijifang (Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies) and the Baopuzi (Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity), said that daoyin exercises were meant to “cure diseases beforehand and achieve harmony among all elements.” The aim of yangsheng was essentially prophylactic and therapeutic, and Ge Hong established a distinction between it and the achievement of immortality. According to him, in yangsheng there is complementarity and gradation among the different techniques: ingestion of drugs should be practiced together with circulation of breath; but to circulate breath one should also know the sexual techniques.
The first text to deal with daoyin systematically is the Daoyin jing, the only text in the Daoist Canon that deals exclusively with physical practices. Its full title is Taiqing daoyin yangsheng jing (Great Purity Treatise on Healing Exercises and Nourishing Life, c. 4th century). The work consists of a collection of gymnastics and breathing techniques, including those of Daolin (i.e., Zhi Dun, 314-366), representing the schools of various immortals of antiquity (Chisongzi, Ningfengzi, Pengzu, Wang Ziqiao). The breathing techniques and animal-like movements placed under the patronage of Ningfengzi continue an ancient tradition. This is one of the main texts for students of daoyin tradition in China and contains a wide range of information about several different schools within the tradition.
One of the most important texts of this period was Yangsheng yaoji (Compendium of Essentials on Nourishing Life) by Zhang Zhan, which is preserved only in fragments, from the third century originally contained quotations and summaries of sources of yangsheng techniques from the second century bce to the fourth century ce.
Tao Hongjing (452-536) wrote the Yangxing Yanminglu (Record on Nourishing Inner Nature and Extending Life) which contains the earliest surviving text of the liuzijue (Six Character Formula) which is still a very popular daoyin exercise set. Frequently daoyin is associated with self-massage. Indeed, the fifth section of this book is devoted to daoyin and massage.

Taiji Forum 2017 – Yangsheng

Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-906) dynasties

In the Sui and Tang periods, daoyin and breathing were at the heart of yangsheng and was widely put into clinical practice.
The Buddhist, Zhiyi (538-597), wrote the text Tiantai Xiaozhiguan (Lesser treatise on Concentration and Insight) in the form of dialogues. This was noted for its practical approach toward and deep insight into the meditation branch of yangsheng.
The greatest innovation in the field of therapeutic Daoyin occurred in 610 when Chao Yuanfang (550-630), a doctor of the Imperial Medical Academy, compiled the Zhubing yuanhou lun (Treatise on the Causes and Symptoms of Diseases) in fifty chapters containing over 1,700 medical discussions and a great many sets of daoyin exercises classified in accordance with the origins and symptoms of given medical conditions.
In 652, Sun Simiao (581-682), a renowned physician, compiled the Qianjin Yaofang (Prescriptions of a Thousand Ounces of Gold) in which he introduced many therapeutic exercises based on daoyin, notably a version of the Liuzijue.
Sima Chengzhen (647-735), a patriarch of the Shangqing school of Daoism, wrote the Xiuzhen Jingyi Zalun (Miscellaneous Discourses on the Essential Meaning of Cultivating Perfection) which gave exercises to be practised daily and required them to be performed in the correct sequence if they were to be effective in curing disease and maintaining health. This was a new development in daoyin.
It was during the Tang dynasty that daoyin became an official part of the Court Medicine and was generally in the hands of the massage specialist.

Song dynasty (960-1279)

The yangsheng practices underwent significant changes from the Song period onward which integrated the elements drawn from neidan practices.
Zhang Junfang (961?-1042?) compiled the Yunji Qiqian (Seven Slips from a Cloudy Satchel c. 1029), a collection of Daoist scriptures contains several daoyin routines including Wuqinxi, Xuanjian’s daoyin, Pengzu’s daoyin and many others.
Daoyin found a place in many medical documents written in this period and thereafter. The Shengji Zonglu (Comprehensive Treatise of Sage’s Advice 1117), compiled by a staff of court physicians, contains two chapters on daoyin.
The Daoshu (Pivot of the Dao 1151?) is a large compendium of texts compiled by Zeng Zao (b.?-1155) dealing with neidan (inner alchemy) and yangsheng. Its range of subjects also covers meditation, breathing, daoyin, sexual practices, and waidan (outer alchemy).

Ming dynasty 1368-1644

Sancai Tuhui (Illustrations of Heaven, Earth and Man) compiled by Wang Qi and his son Wang Siyi, is an encyclopedia, completed in 1607 and published in 1609 which contains a set of daoyin exercises devised by Chen Xiyi (b.?-989) to be carried out at different hours in different periods of the year.
Sets of methods for quiet sitting meditation were worked out and handed down by Neo-Confucianists Wang Yangming (1472-1528) and Gao Panlong (1562-1626).
Yang Jizhou (1522-1620) author of the most significant text of the period on acupuncture, Zhengjiu Dacheng (The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxabustion) pointed out that regular practice of Qigong “keeps one hundred diseases away.”
Li Shizhen (1518-1593), a great physician, emphasised the importance of co-ordinating daoyin practice and medical treatment in his Qijing Bamaikao (Research on the Eight Extra Channels, 1578).
Hu Wenhuan wrote the main work on yangsheng: the Shouyang congshu (Collection on Longevity and Nourishment [of Life]; ca. 1596), which includes texts that deal with aspects of the life of literati, including the arrangement of the studio, diets, breathing methods, and ingestion of medicines.
Yimen Guangdu (Extensive texts from the peaceful gate 1597) an encyclopaedia compiled by Daoist Zhou Lujing contains several daoyin routines.

Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and the modern period

Gordon Faulkner

Although Shen Jinao, an outstanding doctor of the Qing dynasty, devoted exclusive chapters of his book Sheshizun Shenshu (Shen’s Experience on the Conservation of Health), to the treatment of disease through daoyin exercise, the Qing dynasty produced no important work on yangsheng.
In the later part of the dynasty daoyin began to decline and in the early days of the Republic of China (1911-1949), some books on daoyin were published. Though except for Jiang Weiqiao’s 1914 book Yinshizi Jingzuofa (Master Yinshi’s Quiet Sitting Methods) most were of little value. As a whole, daoyin was neglected and on the verge of extinction. Fortunately, it was brought back to life in the early 1950’s under the people’s regime when the Chinese government organised comprehensive research into what became known as Qigong.
Daoyin Yangsheng Gong finally comes into the picture with Professor Zhang Guangde who was born in Tangshan, Hebei Province, in 1931. Coming from a medical family background, he was encouraged to developed an interest in wushu and daoyin.
Professor Zhang made a keen study of the classical theories of daoyin, yangsheng. He had inherited a family owned “Exercises for Chronic Diseases” from his maternal grandfather and thus began to develop Daoyin Yangsheng Gong in the mid 1970’s when he was severely ill.

Theoretically, Daoyin Yangsheng Gong is guided by the theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine such as the concept of holism, the theory of diagnosis and treatment based on differential analysis of symptoms and signs, the ancient theories of Yin and Yang and the Five Phases and Energy Circulation through Channels, and the aetiology and pathology of diseases and related studies of modern medicine. It also involves the stimulation of key acupressure points in the body while enhancing mental development and spiritual awareness.

Daoyin Yangsheng Gong is now part of the Chinese National Fitness Program. The Chinese Olympic Committee recommends it for its athletes and the Chinese Wushu Association considers it to be a premier healthcare system.
This system is unique in its specificity. Many other systems are quite general in their overall approach (one system to cure many different ailments). Daoyin Yangsheng Gong has specific movement patterns to activate the flow of energy according to the particular needs of the patient or practitioner. Thus, there are specialised forms for the Heart, the Spleen, the Kidneys, and so on. In cases of specific health issues versus general health maintenance, varying combinations or sequences of these form practices which can be ‘customised’ and prescribed according to the patient’s condition and how it progresses.
Daoyin Yangsheng Gong is designed to work on three levels. First, it can be used for health maintenance, to improve vitality and prevent disease by keeping the immune system strong. Second, it can be utilised directly as a primary or adjunctive treatment for chronic disease or certain acute conditions. Thirdly, it can be utilised as a recuperative therapy for those in a recovery phase.

Author: Gordon Faulkner

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