(Investigator 98, 2004 November)

Gaining popularity among "new agers" is the old Chinese form of Qigong. Dating back to the Zhou Dynasty (1100 - 21 B.C.) it combines regulated breathing with body movements in order to purify the major organs of the body, strengthen the immune system and treat various diseases.

The concept of Qi, sometimes transcribed as Chi, was first developed by Lao-Tzu as an art to be practised both for martial and therapeutic reasons. He taught that Ch'i, or vital breath, (somewhat similar to the elan vital of early European philosophy) was an unimpeded flow through a network of invisible meridians throughout the body which keeps a person alive. When this flow is impeded, illness results. By stimulating the appropriate spots as in acupuncture, reflexology and other similar concepts, health is restored.

To his focus on relaxation and meditation were added some other features to the practice by his disciples. Among other aims were the ability to see with the ears and hear with the eyes.

With relatively little following until the 1950s it underwent revival when Chinese physicians found it to have beneficial effects on hypertension. Short lived however, the art was denounced during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as anti-Marxist and witchcraft.

With the advent of intellectual freedom in China, Qigong came back into favour and became referred to as Extraordinary Functions of the Human Body (EFHB). They included such "extraordinary" feats a la Geller – bending spoons, reading inscriptions on crumpled paper without viewing them, breaking matches sealed in boxes and so on. All of which when investigated objectively turned out to be schoolboy pranks, simple tricks and just plain cheating.

By 1991, according to a report in the Toronto Globe and Mail, 60 million Chinese were practising Qigong, and practitioners appearing on television and auditoriums were as popular as televangelists in America.

At the invitation of Mr Lin Xixin, the editor of the Science and Technology Daily of Beijing, a team from CSICOP consisting of Paul Kurtz, James Randi, Philip Klass, Ken Frazier, Barry Karr and James Alcock, visited China in 1988 to evaluate Qigong. The results showed no evidence of paranormal powers.

It is important to differentiate between internal and external Qigong. While the former concentrates on breathing, exercise and relaxation techniques to promote health and fitness, external Qigong belongs well and truly in the realm of the paranormal. Among the claims attributed to the Qigong masters are the emission of healing Qi from their fingertips and the ability to move objects; clairaudience, enabling them to hear conversations thousands of miles away; to start fires with their thoughts and to diagnose illness by hearing with their ears. Cancer, AIDS and broken bones are also listed among their alleged cures using Qi.

Some QiGong doctors reportedly possess the extraordinary ability to manipulate patients' limbs at a distance and to effect physical and chemical changes in the acupoints.

One trial conducted by the CSICOP team involved a Qigong master, Dr. Lu, who claimed that Qi emanating from his fingertips had reduced the size of a swelling on a patient's spine, reducing pain and restoring movement. While in the same room as Dr Lu, the patient responded to the rhythmic movement of his hands and arms, but although the team was assured by Dr. Lu that that the Qi radiations could pass through walls the patient failed to respond, leading to the conclusion that she was responding not to any unknown healing energy, but the visual gyrations of Dr. Lu.

There are three common QiGong exercises performed either in a sitting, standing or lying down position, and where movement is involved with gentle circular and stretching.

The gastrointestinal movements help secrete stomach juices which aid digestion and in China are claimed to be effective in treating constipation, blood pressure and duodenal ulcers.

Unfortunately like so many other simple health therapies origina-ting in the "mysterious" east, when objectively examined there is much left to be desired in the way of hard evidence. The Lonely Planet Guidebook on China for example, bluntly describes the practice as a "circus act."

Devices used by practitioners on their patients have been shown to be blatantly fraudulent – one, a miniature vacuum cleaner supposedly sucks out "bad Qi" and literally blows in hot air or "good Qi."

While any form of gentle calisthenics and fresh air may well have a beneficial effect on one's health, it does have its limitations. One should be very wary indeed of the extraordinary claims associated with this type of medicine.


Alcock, James. Kendrick Frazier, Barry Karr, Phillip J Klass, Paul Kurtz and James Randi. 1988. Testing Psi Claims in China: Visit by CSICOP Delegation. Skeptical Inquirer 12(4):364-375.

Alcock, James E. 1995. Qigong: Chinese Pseudoscience. The Skeptic. 8(6):12-16. PO Box 475, Manchester M60 2TH. UK.

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. 1993. Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience, Diamond Books, London.

Kastner, Mark & Hugh Burroughs, 1993. Alternative Healing, Halcyon Publishing, La Mesa California.

Shen, G.J. 1986. "Study of mind-body effects and Qigong in China."

Advances. Institute for the Advance-ment of Health. 3(4):134-142.

Taiwan Skeptics, 1994. Chee's Sandwich, Taiwan Skeptics, September 1994.

Yu Guangyuan. 1982b. "Comments on the propaganda about reading with the ears in the past two years and more." Knowledge is Strength. No. 5.

Zha, L and McConnell, T. 1991. Parapsychology in the Peoples Republic of China: 1979-1989. The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 85,119-143.

[From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age]

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