China in perspective

Training and Therapy

a drawing of a person in long robes sitting on a mat and stretching his arms to one side while looking to the other.

In his famous Satire X, dating back to the 2nd century, Roman poet Juvenal tops his list of things most desirable in life with “Mens sana in corpore sano”, or "a healthy mind in a healthy body". The link between physical health and mental wellbeing permeates Chinese culture as well. Moreover, the connection between ‘essence’, ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ - the so-called Three Treasures or Jing, Qi, Shen - stands at the very core of traditional Chinese medicine.

a book lies open on a table, showing a drawn diagram of a body on the left page and Chinese script on the right

Qi (“vital force”) is a complex concept used to describe the physical and psychological energies that permeate all that exists. In early Daoist philosophy, methods were developed to control and change one’s qi, so that bodily fitness and spiritual strength would allow for a longer life. Similar meditation exercises soon gained pride of place in Chinese healing practices.

a woodcut of swirls and patterns, showing circulation of Qi through the body

Qigong (“discipline of the vital force”), a training combining meditation, relaxation and breathing techniques with elements of martial arts, was believed to avert illness and help lengthenning life if executed correctly.

a woodcut printed on paper showing a man seemingly in freefall, his body bending downwards.

Closely connected to qigong but considered a separate discipline is taiji quan (“the supreme ultimate fist”): a method for conditioning the body and the mind that is rooted in exercise and meditation among Buddhist Shao Lin monks as early as the 5th century. Training in taiji quan helps to harmonize the complementary forces of yin and yang, with the absolute union of both - the taiji - as the end goal. This “Supreme Ultimate” oneness is represented by the black (yin) and white (yang) symbols forming one round shape (taijitu).

Painted outdoors scene with two figures carrying a banner adorned with the taijitu

Central to taiji quan exercises are the meticulously choreographed positions and movements that alternate in a steady rhythm, with stances changing in a flowing, non-disruptive way.

a man stretches his right leg to above his head as a tai chi exercise in front of a temple looming in the mist in the background.

Over 100 such exercises are known and taught in the different schools of taiji quan, many poetically named to describe the effect the movement is supposed to have. From “Golden Cockerel Stands on left leg” and “Wave Hands Like Clouds” to “White Crane Spreads its Wings”: in this typology, too, inspiration from nature is never far away.

a group of people do the same tai chi exercise on the sidewalk of a street, all lifting one leg in the air and putting their hands on their hips

Like taiji and qigong, daoyin is a method used to refine and direct qi as well as to cultivate jing (“essence”). With flexibility of mind as the ultimate goal, the exercises are meant to install harmony between the world inside and outside of the practitioner.

painting on paper of several people in long flowing dresses doing different tai chi poses

When meditation and exercise fail to restore the yin-yang balance or cultivate the Three Treasures, traditional Chinese medicine proposes a range of treatments. Acupuncture is believed to be among the oldest, although its exact origins remain contested. The main idea behind the technique is that in order to manipulate the qi, specific points in the network of meridians in the body should be punctured. A successful application would not only relieve the patient from pain but also cure theirhis ailment or disease.

a woodcut print on paper showing a sidelong view of a human body, with tens of points on the body marked with Chinese text

Around 100 BC the basic theory of acupuncture was first codified in Huangdi Neijing, the most important ancient text in Chinese medicine. In Europe, acupuncture became commonly known in the early 19th century, but customs, theories and practices soon started to transform: in its Western manifestation, the spiritual components of acupuncture were abandoned, new diagrams of flows and trigger points were drawn, and puncturing the skin was believed not to aid energy flows but to manipulate electrical currents running through the body.

Many other practices from traditional Chinese medicine have become popular around the world, including the use of herbal preparations and supplements. The scope of herbal medicine is gigantic, as hundreds of ingredients - including dried plants, desiccated animal materials and minerals - are used for more than 100.000 different recipes.

a gouache painting on paper of a few onion bulbs sprouting leaves

Spices, herbs and superfoods such as ginseng, ginger, turmeric, ginkgo and loquat are used worldwide for their healing, reviving, rejuvenating, purifying or beautifying qualities.

a circular painting of round fruits hanging from a tree branch, accompanied by Chinese scripts

While the efficacy of herbal therapies remains disputed, several of the plants used in traditional Chinese medicine have become staples of today’s pharmaceutical market. As a result, around 200 modern medicinal products have been created by building on centuries-old Eastern practices.

a man in a white lab coat stands smiling in front of different plates filled with dried fruits, roots, leaves, and other medicinal extracts.