Chinese Yangsheng: Self-help and Self-image

In: Asian Medicine
David Dear
Search for other papers by David Dear in
Current site
Google Scholar
Free access


Yangsheng 养生 means nurturing or nourishing life. It is about health and health cultivation. The term that has been around for two thousand years or so first appeared in the manner in which we now understand it in the Yangsheng lu 养生录’(Records of Cultivating Life’) of Ji Kang 稽康 in the Three Kingdoms Era (220–265 CE). This was the period that followed the disintegration of the Han Empire. Yangsheng represents and encompasses many strands of rich discourse on health, philosophy and ‘the art of living’ that stretch back at least two and a half thousand years in Chinese history to the mid-Warring States era. Some of its elements are simple and familiar, both in the East and now in the West, while others require a much greater level of acculturation and range into the arcane and obscure. However, in essence, Yangsheng is about popular practices—popular in the sense of those carried out for and by people themselves in their daily lives. It can also be seen as popular in the sense of fashionable or, indeed, highly fashionable, as at different points in history it has enjoyed or suffered, in one form or another, from intense public attention. On the basis of extensive semi-structured interviews, film recording and mass media reports during six years of participant observation, this article argues that the Yangsheng fever of the last decade has seen a growing commercialism, a reflection of the economic power of the newly- wealthy urban middle classes. In many cases, successful commercialisation has involved complex negotiations between practitioners, religious organisations, commercial operations and the State. If the Qigong fever of the 1980s and 1990s had a somewhat austere and Salvationist aspect, Yangsheng of the 2000s, which covers so much of the same ground in the quest for health and identity, has had a certain low-key decadence.



Yangsheng 养生 means nurturing or nourishing life.1 It is about health and health cultivation. The term that has been around for two thousand years or so first appeared in the manner in which we now understand it in the Yangsheng lu 养生录’(Records of Cultivating Life’) of Ji Kang 稽康 in the Three Kingdoms Era (220–265 CE). This was the period that followed the disintegration of the Han Empire. Yangsheng represents and encompasses many strands of rich discourse on health, philosophy and ‘the art of living’ that stretch back at least two and a half thousand years in Chinese history to the mid-Warring States era.2 Some of its elements are simple and familiar, both in the East and now in the West, while others require a much greater level of acculturation and range into the arcane and obscure. However, in essence, Yangsheng is about popular practices—popular in the sense of those carried out for and by people themselves in their daily lives. It can also be seen as popular in the sense of fashionable or, indeed, highly fashionable, as at different points in history it has enjoyed or suffered, in one form or another, from intense public attention. On the basis of extensive semi-structured interviews, film recording and mass media reports during six years of participant observation, this article argues that the Yangsheng fever of the last decade has seen a growing commercialism, a reflection of the economic power of the newly- wealthy urban middle classes. In many cases, successful commercialisation has involved complex negotiations between practitioners, religious organisations, commercial operations and the State. If the Qigong fever of the 1980s and 1990s had a somewhat austere and Salvationist aspect, Yangsheng of the 2000s, which covers so much of the same ground in the quest for health and identity, has had a certain low-key decadence.

The core philosophy behind Yangsheng is an epicurean sense of balance—nothing in excess, nothing to be denied. Historically its main focus is on exercise, either gently dynamic or relaxational, dietetics and sexology. Alongside this one can find a myriad of prescriptions and prohibitions that will enhance or protect one’s vitality. This vitality would generally be categorised as qi 氣 (or Ki) in East Asia. A shared philosophy and vocabulary around the idea of qi intimately links Yangsheng with medicine, martial arts, moral philosophy and religious meditative practices all over East Asia. Indeed, this extended cultural linkage even reaches into politics—the politics of identity, and potentially, in extreme cases, political rebellion. It is precisely because Yangsheng has shared its vocabulary and philosophy with these other activities that it is so ubiquitous, long-lived and powerful. The shared language and culture in each of these fields of practice acts to reinforce the concepts of the others, creating an all-embracing network of discourse in the life of the individual. Conversely, it is no less important that it is the embodiment of a philosophy in the practitioners themselves that keeps these ideas current, relevant and credible. This is what I would call ‘Yangsheng culture’; a web of discourse and practice that conflates bodily experience and history—real or imagined—into the evolving field by which individuals chart their lives. In today’s world, the scope of Yangsheng activities has expanded to include bird- or animal-keeping, tango dancing or choral singing. In short, it might seem to include almost any activity that enhances one’s health and appreciation of life. But the core remains the same; exercise, food and sex—the key governors in the self-regulation of an individual body.3

Qi and culture

But what is ‘qi’? Life force? Life energy? Life Breath? Vital Energy? Essential Energy? Bio-electricity? It can be ascribed to inanimate objects; viz. rocks, water, foodstuffs, medicines as well as to people. The earliest recorded use of qi was in terms of meteorology and geography.4 Its meaning has developed and changed over history, and changes from context to context and person to person. Sometimes it becomes a physiological phenomenon and sometimes a psychological or emotional one. Sometimes it still retains its meteorological5 root but sometimes it becomes a metaphysical or indeed a moral expression.6 All these things can and are described in terms of qi. In our current age, some differentiate Qi with a capital ‘Q’, meaning the intra-corporeal phenomenon dealt with by Chinese medicine, from the broader phenomena—but to most people for most of Chinese history such a distinction would have been incomprehensible. Qi (and qi) makes more sense perhaps if thought of as an experience of perception; it is something the doctor perceives in the patient before him or her, something the walker in the countryside perceives in the nature around him and something that the individual Yangsheng practitioner perceives in the sensations of their own body (or indeed sometimes not!).

Qi is thus a multi-faceted catch-all concept for describing something one can not objectively measure. It is in fact a concept of genius because it allows a skilled operator to manipulate the immeasurable or the unknowable, rather like algebraic equations in mathematics. However, its intrinsic subjectivity means it can never be scientific, despite numerous well-intentioned attempts to find a ‘scientific reality’ behind the concept.7 Furthermore, this means it is always open to claims of fraudulent manipulation by the unscrupulous, incompetent or self-deluded.

The first record of qi as a physiological phenomenon amenable to intervention occurs in a short script engraved on what may be a jade belt pendant dating from the mid-Warring States era. Here is Harper’s translation:

Swallow, then it travels; traveling, it extends; extending, it descends; descending, it stablizes; stablilizing, it solidifies; solidifying, it sprouts; sprouting, it grows; growing, it returns; returning, it is heaven. Heaven—its root is above; earth—its root is below. Follow the pattern and live; go against it and die.8

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

The Warring States jade Xing qi ming 行气铭 from Li Ling 2006, p. 270.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242

If we are looking for similarities, rather than differences, across the ancient world it is here that we see qi start to take on its association with breath and the apparent parallels with life breath or pneuma. However, qi and pneuma are in the end quite distinct and different, as concepts around qi continued to develop well beyond the limits of what one might call ‘simple’ life breath. None the less, from the point of view of Yangsheng, the imagery of breath was, and remains to this day, crucial both as a focus for meditation and a practical health-giving exercise.

One thing that can be said with certainty is that in East Asian culture the reality of Qi is taken for granted. It is as real and self-evident as the blueness of a clear sunny sky, or the sharpness of a biting north wind. It is, in short, a doxic phenomenon, a quintessential element of the cultural discourse. Thus most modern scholars and students of Asia would not attempt to translate it into Western terminology. Qi is qi. End of story.

Methods and sources

The information on which this article is based has largely come from an extended research period in the UK and China from 2006–12. I have sought to establish a ‘thick’ description of my subject, absorbing myself in the culture and literature of the Yangsheng discourse, questioning friends and acquaintances about their habits and beliefs, attending temples, clinics and classes. My informants have come from a range of backgrounds; martial arts students and teachers, doctors of both Chinese and Western medicine, Daoists and Buddhists, academics, journalists, retirees, young business people and domestic migrant workers. The oldest was 82, the youngest (interviewed with her father) was eight. I have conducted around 40 detailed interviews, many recorded on videotape, along with, where appropriate, filming of the activities and environment in which they take place. My work in the media has also facilitated the inclusion of mass media reports about self-cultivation as evidence of popular belief or, indeed, the manipulation of popular belief. The latter has also facilitated an analysis of the political dimensions of self-cultivation and the role of the state in controlling what is acceptable in the everyday practice and belief of individuals and communities—and, of course, what is printed on the subject. Popular books on self-cultivation and works by scholars about self-cultivation have also provided fertile material for understanding the ways in which ancient sources figure in the imagination of contemporary practice.

Filming is an especially useful technique because, besides the unedited rushes providing an unmediated record of the subject’s words, in reviewing the interview it allows you to observe the smallest detail of interviewee responses and expressed emotions. I followed many of my subjects over long periods of time, several years in some cases, and a number have become good friends. This poses something of a challenge to the researcher; when subject informants become friends one may be reluctant to discuss them in a critically analytical way. At best, it seems impolite, at worst, a positive betrayal. However, it is these deep relationships that often offer the deepest insights, especially to a non-native researcher. It is a dilemma that I still have not entirely come to terms with, not least because analysing friends in this way also sets into question one’s own foibles and peculiarities. The best solution I have found to date is to attempt to randomise and abstract their information into wider points of observation or analysis.

In ‘For Your Reading Pleasure’, the anthropologist Judith Farquhar discusses the problems of researching a popular culture project in China. The scale can simply become unmanageable. The ever-cycling web of connections, social, political and cultural, means that one manifestation can rarely, if ever, be considered in isolation from a vast network of other factors. In Farquhar’s words, ‘[the] classical vision of knowledge does not help us when we turn to popular culture’.9 Another not inconsiderable problem of researching in China is that if you set out with any sort of agenda, conscious or unconscious, you will tend to find what you are looking for, partly because of the vastness of the culture’s human resource. To quote Farquhar again, ‘in the domain of the popular, counterevidence for our every argument emerges even before we have fully realized what it is we wish to argue’,10but particularly because people will frequently tend to tell you what they think you want to hear.11 My attempt to negotiate these problems was through what I would call ‘a saturation method’; a long period of extended and deep participant observation. If I set out with any preconceptions, I did try to set them aside. Over time I came to forget what these set-aside preconceptions even were, or if I tried to recall them they seemed so naïve as to be incredible. In the end, my conclusions have led me to a place I could never have expected or imagined, though hindsight of course makes it seem all so obvious and inevitable. It has been a challenge maintaining my balance between myself, a participant observer, and my de facto experimental body in a relentless flow of information and opinions, be they personal or broadcast and published. In the end it has left me almost entirely neutral as to content, but with a very clear picture of the process by which self-cultivatory practices make their mark, the benefits and potential pitfalls, and a not-altogether comfortable insight into the randomness of life and the delusions which we use to protect ourselves.

I have not, here, provided much quotation from these interviews, nor can I deliver the film. Thus this article is intended as a survey of my findings from both sources together with personal reflections.

Where in all this does Yangsheng fit?

Even the most hardline scientific sceptical rationalist would admit that if you take gentle daily exercise, pay close attention to your diet, and regulate your habits and passions by rule of moderation, your general health will benefit. No mysticism, no rocket science, the basic rules and practices of Yangsheng are extremely simple, the external physical aspects changing little even when incorporated into more extreme religious practices.

The earliest ‘pure’ evidence of Yangsheng in the early imperial period comes from the tomb finds at Mawangdui tomb 3 (Changsha Guo, present-day Hunan; closed 168 BCE, excavated 1973) and Zhangjiashan tomb 247 (Nanjun, present-day Hubei; closed 186 BCE, excavated 1983–4).12 From the former we have, besides the scrolls on medicine, remedies and sexology, the now widely reproduced Daoyin tu 導引图, the chart of ‘Guiding and Pulling’ exercises designed to condition the body. From the latter, the Yinshu 引書 ‘Pulling Book’ (c. 186 BCE), is a good example of an early seasonal health regime with its prescriptions for both personal hygiene, diet, exercise and sexual regulation.

From these two vital sources we have first-rate evidence that core elements of the practices and concerns of the search for individual health and well-being, reliably dated to two thousand years ago, were essentially the same as today. Nevertheless, these concerns existed in a very different economic and cultural climate.

Who wants to live forever?

The greatest single difference was the popularity and prevalence of the xian 仙 immortality cults. Sometime in the early imperial period, or just prior to that, there appears to have arisen the belief that life could, if one found the right formula, be extended indefinitely. This would be real physical immortality. This is not as mad as it seems to us today. The logic behind it is typically pragmatic. If doing something, no matter what (call it ‘A’), can extend one’s life and good health by many years—to live into one’s eighties at a time when typical life expectancy might be less than forty—then doing more ‘A’ or finding the perfect formula for ‘A’ would surely lead to immortality. This is no more illogical than the nineteenth-century pioneers of science and technology who believed that these in their turn would solve all of life’s problems. The miracle of Galvanism made Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein seem possible. The search for immortality took hold in a big way with Qinshi huangdi’s 秦始皇帝 expedition to search for the immortals in the mythical Penglai 蓬莱 islands somewhere in the eastern sea. An expedition of one thousand young boys and girls of suitable purity was despatched to seek out their secrets which the terrifyingly autocratic First Emperor would have assumed was his necessary right. There is no record of its return.13 The First Emperor died in 208 BCE. For much of the next thousand years this search focused on the use of zhusha 朱砂 which, in a variety of preparations, was found packed around the body of the Lady Dai in the Mawangdui tomb discoveries.14 It clearly prevented a certain amount of corporeal decay. Tests showed here, and in a number of other corpses, that the substance had also been ingested prior to her decease. Thus, no doubt out of recognition for its embalming qualities, the cult of cinnabar consumption began. It was finally abandoned in the ninth century CE after a series of Tang Emperors had succumbed to the consequences of heavy metal poisoning.15 There were less tortuous ways to attempt immortality. The legend of Pengzu 彭祖, known as Ancestor Peng, who reputedly lived until he was nearly nine hundred years old through his mastery of the sexual arts, is the foundation of the much-cited myth of that particular route to salvation.16 More pertinently, the legend illustrates the close connection, again entirely logical, made between sexual vitality and health. As expressed in Chinese medicine, the link is found in an individual’s yuan qi 元氣 (original qi) the pre-natal qi that, since medieval times in China, was thought to be bestowed at conception and had to be guarded against depletion through the course of life, lest one invite a premature demise. This yuan qi was and remains the root of one’s ‘kidney energy’ one aspect of which is sexual energy. Claims to have the power to enhance it are commonly found on the packaging of medicines, aphrodisiacs and food tonics today. Thus the concept is a philosophical (as well as practical!) recognition of the cosmic nature of sexual generation above and beyond any individual controls and concerns.

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

‘Pulling warmness illness’ © Wellcome Library L0040263.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242

Even to this day, there are groups who sincerely believe that transcendence or immortality is attainable through physical or meditative religious practice. This was certainly an avowed aim among the followers of Daoist Abbot Li Yi whom I spoke to and interviewed in 2009 at his Shao Long Guan 绍龍官 temple in Chongqing.17 However, such beliefs are not limited to those of an overtly religious bent. Otherwise highly educated and ‘modern’ people believe, or like to believe, that somewhere in the nation’s vast mountain ranges immortals, or transcendent beings, still exist.18 Such transcendents can traverse time and space, passing through solid objects at will and live as long as they are wont, in a state of perfect health, to an incalculable age. However kooky or wrongheaded this might seem to outsiders, it is perhaps akin to continuing beliefs in angels, arhats or extra-terrestrial aliens in other cultures.

Scepticism towards some of the more extreme claims made by cultivation practitioners is not new. From the earliest times there were many critics of the xian cults.19 Writings attributed to the philosopher Zhuang Zhou 莊周 in the fourth century BCE mock the ‘huffers and puffers’ who practise daoyin 导引 and follow the way of Pengzu.20 On the other hand, sections of the Zhuangziapparently endorsed some form of breath meditation and qi circulation in the idea that ‘the superior man’ breathes through his heels.21 The noted sceptic and rationalist philosopher, Wang Chong 王充 (27–100 CE), is quite specific in his support for the exercise regimes and his scorn for the followers of the immortality cults.22 While in the fourth century BCE, the writings of 孟子 Mengzi (Mencius) talk of cultivating flood like qi.23 For Mencius this qi was an essential moral and political force innate to all humans.

What this all this shows is that Yangsheng—and by that I mean those ideas Harper calls macrobiotic hygiene in the Western Han (202 BCE–9 CE) texts, existed from the very earliest times within a complex network of overlapping, notwithstanding often contradictory, ideas that relate not just to the individual’s body but to all aspects of life experience. That the network is somewhat chaotic is part of its strength. Just as data transmission over the internet can be considered robust in the myriad pathways of servers it might take, equally the self-reinforcing network of Yangsheng culture is hard to totally evade or deny—even the sceptics usually find something in it to subscribe to.

Luxury or imperative?

If Yangsheng has passed through many differing social and economic climates, one aspect is a constant. Yangsheng is a luxury. One has to have the luxuries of time, sufficient wealth and education to enjoy it fully. The ancient texts make quite clear that while the Han elite may hope to extend their lives through the practice of ‘macrobiotic hygiene’, there is no hope for the peasants. They are simply condemned to work, struggle and die.24 They lack even the basic knowledge of the necessary breathing exercises. In today’s world, many more individuals enjoy the economic and educational resources to participate in the project of Yangsheng. However, all too often the pressures of time and financial or other insecurities deny them the opportunity as surely as it was denied to any Han dynasty peasant. Ming dynasty texts are particularly expressive of this elitist nature, and indeed of something of the aspirational dimension to Yangsheng culture. The Yangsheng ‘bestseller’ of the late Ming Dynasty was the Zun sheng ba jian 遵生八笺 by Gao Lian 高濂, published in 1591. Besides describing exercise forms and medicinal remedies or even recipes for immortality, much of the book is taken up with wealthy lifestyle concerns such as how to purchase and arrange art objects or fashionable artefacts.25 Yangsheng is wedded to a sense of self-improvement, however that may be interpreted by the individual. People participate in it because they want something better. Better health, yes, but there is often a search for moral betterment, which in itself is part quest for better health, and of course knowledge of Yangsheng and its practices is an important form of cultural capital. Perhaps not as esteemed as the study of medicine but certainly overlapping with it and working in the same fields. Farquhar has described in her research work in Beijing, in China today Yangsheng is more ‘democratic’ in that the knowledge is more widespread and more people have time to practise.26 It has become conflated seamlessly with folk medicine, the mass participation exercise forms beloved of the early years of Communism, the natural sociability and neighbourliness that manifests in Chinese society, and the various patriotic or nationalistic study movements that seek to cherish and expound that which is unique about China. If ancient practitioners sought perfected health, at least discursively, as a preparation for immortality, many modern ones are more concerned with the costs and pains of medical treatment when things go wrong. This is Yangsheng as prophylaxis.27 Government departments now seek to co-opt its image and culture in their local health campaigns. New exercise forms are devised and propagated, books are published by the dozen. Television shows regularly feature Yangsheng, either as part of the cultural didactic which looms large in the public consciousness or simply to boost the credentials of what might otherwise be a fairly mundane cookery show. The two-character phrase embellishes the advertising and merchandising of everything from jars of honey to saunas and spas, country villa sales or indeed tourism promotion for cities and whole provinces.28

Much of today’s Yangsheng boom seems to closely mirror the Qigong Fever of the 1980s and 1990s, as described by David Palmer in his excellent treatment of the subject.29 This should not be surprising. The personal issues individuals seek to address and the social and cultural mechanisms available to them to do so are themselves little changed. What is changed is the shift from a subtle political subtext, Qigong representing in some senses an assertion of a moralistic national vitality,30 to a straightforward and overtly commercial one. However, like the Qigong fever that preceded it, or perhaps rather more so, the Yangsheng boom exploits and draws sustenance from the whole history of the medico-cultural discourse over the last two thousand years.

Back to basics

Early-risers in any Chinese city will come across their fellow citizens engaged in purposeful activity. This involves stretching and bending, walking briskly forwards, walking backwards—sometimes even more briskly (quite tricky if you try it for any length of time). They also shadow-box, shadow-box with trees, stand under trees and paddle the air towards themselves with deep inhalations, occasionally some letting out yelps or howls. Unlike the joggers in the parks of Western cities they are not punishing their bodies to shed weight or improve its resistance or resilience. These exercises, in essence indistinguishable from those pictured in the Daoyin tu, are designed to expel stale qi from the body and imbibe the fresh Yang qi of the morning hours.31 The freshness of the air that settles overnight inestimably increases the appreciation of the effect. Beneficial per se, the stretching and bending is of course designed to open up the channels and free any obstruction to the flow of Qi around the body. Movement is associated with health while stagnation is pathogenic. The concept is even enshrined in the title of one of the classics, if not the great classic, of Chinese medicine. This is the lingshu recension of the Huangdi neijing 黄帝内经 (The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon). Lingshu means ‘miraculous pivot’ and derives its name from the proverb that the hinge or pivot of a door is protected from attack by insects on account of its continual movement.32

The exercise forms are widely varied and practitioners will select what they feel is suitable for them by habit, by season or the perceived condition of their body, and by the social connections that define their lives. Taiji quan 太极拳, which nowadays marries martial arts to the concepts of neigong 内功 (inner work) and the Yangsheng health model, is one of the most obviously dynamic forms. A relatively modern invention, first described in literature in the sixteenth century,33 it is rarely, if ever, practised for health alone. There is always some deeper cultural connection that is being sought. This could be spiritual, philosophical, continuance of a family heritage or part of an individual redemption story.34 Simpler forms of exercise may have simpler ambitions. The distinguished ladies of a certain age that gather in groups to chat and exercise in parks or on street corners may not be seeking any conscious connections beyond the social ones they so obviously enjoy. However, with every tip passed on or new idea tried they are unconsciously subsuming themselves into the whole network of that culture. If they were to deign it worthwhile to even give the slightest pause for such a thought, they would undoubtedly be quite pleased with the idea.

Not all neigong/Qigong exercises are dynamic. Some are entirely meditational, based on silent sitting or dazuo 打坐 techniques which would appear to show the influence of Buddhism firstly on Daoism and subsequently on the health cultures which share its vocabulary and philosophy. The health benefits of meditation are something still under active research but not in general dispute. The success of ‘meditational medicine’ offers a clue to one of the key mechanisms of Yangsheng.35 Aside from the benefits of any ‘me time’ effect, the period of calmness and deliberate shutting out of our normal quotidian worries combined with visualisations of a positive psychosomatic model of good health creates an environment in which positive sensations can flourish and negative ones can be managed. Contemporary Chinese medicine, not least those modern forms that have developed outside of China, gives wide recognition to emotional components in a great many illnesses and most especially in chronic conditions. Heavily influenced and dignified by modern psychotherapy, this emphasis can claim an origin in the resonances imaginatively created between the emotions and the internal organs as established in early imperial times.36 However, simply ‘thinking nice thoughts’ is not enough. Practice needs to be placed within a frame of reference that carries weight beyond mere personal preference and to mobilise more than just the normal waking consciousness.37 This can be seen as placing the practice within the ambit of ritualised and symbolic action sometimes characterised as placebo.38 Above all it requires repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.39 Perhaps even to the point of tedium and beyond. In this it is little different from the practice of any advanced skill. Playing a musical instrument is an obvious example. Through this process of constant repetition of action, the actor is not simply facilitating habit but is in fact constructing a new body on both a neural and physiological level.40 The dexterity of the gifted concert pianist or the radiant good health of the Qigong master are not simply unpolished gifts of nature.

That food and sex are the other key markers of Yangsheng practice should come as no surprise. When starting a discussion, one of Mencius’s interlocutors says ‘Food and Sex are as nature’ Shi se xing ye 食色性也,41 the master makes no demure. It is a simple recognition of the inescapably obvious. Perhaps using the terms ‘nourishment’ and ‘reproductive capacity’ makes this formulation seem a little less outré to a Western mindset. ‘Food and Medicine are from the same source’ is another popular expression that captures the way in which the notion of nutritional care expresses its relationship to good health.

While there are many prescriptions as to what food is beneficial for which condition and in what particular manner—which support a thriving book market42—probably the most important part of the Yangsheng approach to dietetics are the prohibitions. These include the avoidance of cold foods which might damage the piwei 脾胃 or spleen and stomach.43 The piwei is quite literally the core of an individual’s physical existence and must be kept warm. As almost all of us have experienced at some time or other, an unlucky or foolish dietary choice can lead to acute pain and discomfort. Casual or careless abuse over a lifetime will eventually lead to chronic illness in the whole body system. If you order a beer in a city restaurant you are likely to be asked whether you want it chilled or ‘changwen de’ (at room temperature). This actually shows the influence of Western culture with its taste for chilled drinks. Most people still choose the latter option, and outside the sophisticated modern cities such a choice is very unlikely to be on offer. In a similar vein, many young women will avoid eating ice cream, sometimes entirely, but certainly during their menses for fear of damaging their fertility. Whether such damage is a scientific possibility is irrelevant. Culturally and psychologically, under those particular conditions the material, ice cream, is perceived as a threat. This is the real key to Yangsheng in relation to food culture. It is less in what it proposes but in the very fact that it makes the ‘practitioner’, if that is not too elaborate a word, the eater, pay close attention to what he or she consumes. Actual rules and tastes are as varied as you might imagine in such a vast population spread over such a huge area with so many different types of environmental conditions. Some items, particularly those that are also used in Chinese medical formulae, have a fairly consistent application. Gouji zi 狗机子 (Chinese wolfberry)44 is one obvious example among many. Other foodstuffs, such as chilli peppers, are used in a more contrary manner. Strong chillis are clearly damaging to the piwei, and some people will therefore avoid them entirely,45 but others will eat them because the sensation of heat they generate is seen as driving out the pathological influence of a damp climate. In theory at least, it is this quality that makes them the famous essential of Sichuan cuisine. However, the short answer is that people eat them because they like them. They negotiate the rules according to their own taste and conditions. The point is that they do so within a conscious framework of reference, and one which is fairly settled, in contrast to the food fads and scares which sweep through Western media.46



Family Yangsheng magazine cover.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242


Instruction book for a new officially sponsored Yangsheng stick form Taiji.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242


Collectors’ items. What you won’t be reading now. Yangsheng’s fallen idols.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242


Bookcover. Zhang Qicheng’s I-ching “The Great Way of Yangsheng”

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242



Yangsheng Spa—mega size.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242


Yangsheng Beauty parlour in a local housing development.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242


Menu item in a fairly standard mid range restaurant. Chongcao at $100 per bowl. Chongcao shops and stalls now dot wealthy areas of Beijing.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242


Yangsheng hotpot.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242


Sunday morning in Beijing’s Jingshan Park. Yangsheng exercise—old and new.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242



Choral singing.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242


Taiji and Daoyin.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242


Shui Shufa. Water Calligraphy. “The moving hand writes. . . .”

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242


It takes 200 to tango. . . .

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242


Alone in nature. . . . almost.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242


Breathing qi from the tree.

Citation: Asian Medicine 7, 1 (2012) ; 10.1163/15734218-12341242

Apart from Yangsheng itself, the network of ideas linking dietary regulation to longevity is taken one step further in the concept of shiliao 食疗 (food as medical treatment). The great Tang Dynasty physician Sun Simiao 孙思邈 (581?–682) wrote:

The nature of drugs is hard and violent, just like that of imperial soldiers. Since soldiers are so savage and impetuous, how could anybody dare to deploy them recklessly? If they are deployed inappropriately, harm and destruction will result everywhere. Similarly, excessive damage is the consequence if drugs are thrown at illnesses. A good doctor first makes a diagnosis, and having found out the cause of the disease, he tries to cure it first by food. When food fails, then he prescribes medicine.47

Thus foodstuffs are identified as the primary preferred method of regulating health and curing, or preferably preventing disease. In this one step, the culture of Yangsheng becomes engaged with the culture of Chinese medicine. In Chairman Mao’s words, that ‘treasure house’ of disparate knowledge, experience and peculiarity. An aspiration to study Chinese medicine is commonly expressed by Yangsheng practitioners. Any action pursuant will depend on the nature and ability of the individual. In many cases it will no more than cherishing a modern copy of the Huangdi neijing. But as with the Bible found in many in Western homes, it may but rarely be referred to. However, it nonetheless underpins the individual’s sense of validity in the course of action he is undertaking, and gives a sense of participation and appropriation in the whole great project of Chinese culture.

Somewhere between medicine and Yangsheng sits a newish trend for yaoshan 药膳 (medicinal cuisine) restaurants. These restaurants serve medicalised cuisine. They sometimes use standard culinary ingredients similar to shiliao but in other cases offer dishes which feature exclusively medical ingredients and which would not be part of a normal diet. Professor Zheng Jinsheng 郑金生 makes an excellent historical survey of the subject in which he notes a clear distinction between the culture of shiliao (food as medicine) and yaoshan.48 The primary purpose of the former is prophylactic, whereas the latter would seem to be addressed to specific manifested ailments. The modern yaoshan culture with its aim to appeal to a mass market is, as Professor Zheng describes it, a pale reflection of its past incarnations. In fact the modern vogue for yaoshan, or at least specific yaoshan restaurants, would anecdotally seem to be in some decline, not least because their market has been pirated by ‘ordinary’ restaurants moving in on their patch. Fig G, for example, is a menu item from Beijing dongfang hong 北京東方紅 containing chong cao 虫草 (cordyceps).49 A blurring of distinctions between food and medicine, and the reinforcing effect of medical concepts transported into popular practice, provides an added sense of purpose and justification for the practitioner. If the vogue for yaoshan is in decline in general there is one area where foods intended to directly and immediately alter the corporeal status of the consumer is as popular as ever. The cuisine is designed to enhance the sexual potency of the consumer (chong cao and hai shen dish is just one example). Many normal restaurants will serve dishes such as camel, donkey or bull’s penis as part of their standard fare.

The tomb finds at Mawangdui 马王堆 and Zhangjiashan 张家山 in the 1970s have given us a unique direct insight into the health and hygiene regimen of the early imperial aristocracy. The sexology texts from Mawangdui, notably the texts given the modern titles of ‘Tianxia zhidao tan’ 天下之道谈 and the ‘He Yin Yang’ 合阴阳, read like marriage guidance. They include instructions and techniques for the regulation of sexual life to assist the health and harmony of the partners. This is, and remains, the essence of Yangsheng practice.50 Broadly speaking, the two key markers of Chinese sexology are the control of male seminal emission and the prime importance of the female orgasm in providing the health, or other, benefits to both partners. Practices, postures and techniques are the subject of various prescriptions which show remarkable consistency over many centuries. Yangsheng theory is also notable for its emphasis on the necessary harmonisation of qi between the two partners, essentially through foreplay but also through post-coital care. This article is not the place to attempt a detailed discussion of Chinese sexology but it is important to note that subsequent Chinese practice does develop down two other very different lines. First, in a decidedly non-Yangsheng textual corpus, which now makes up a substantial part of the material called fangzhong shu, 房中術 ‘the Art of the Bedchamber’, and would now be better described as elaborated recreational sex.51 Secondly, in the practice of neidan 内丹 (inner alchemy) generally, but not exclusively, associated with Daoism, in which the language of waidan 外丹 (the metallurgy based ‘outer’ alchemy) is used to describe the training of the sexual energies within the body, either in solo or dual practice with the goal of spiritual transcendence.52 Links in the practices between these three areas remain considerable, but they can be distinguished by their quite different ultimate objectives, viz. consummate pleasure, spiritual transcendence and regulated good health. A key aspect of Yangsheng sexology is the containment and curtailment of lust. Sex should be practised without succumbing to extremes of desire or excitement, just as all extreme emotional states are regarded as harmful to health. However, this proscription equally applies to dual practice in neidan where lust and excitement will obstruct the practitioners’ abilities to observe and move their essence, qi and spirit and so obviate the practice entirely. As with much in life, an individual’s practice or motivation would likely be mixed and waver between different aspects at different times.53 In any case, in such a charged area of discourse it would be unwise, in any culture, to expect to discover a fully consistent or coherent body of opinion. In the Tang era, the Yangsheng formulation of sexual theory became directly incorporated into wider medical texts as demonstrated in Sun Simiao’s Qianjin yifang 千金翼方 (Prescriptions Worth One thousand Gold Pieces). In the Fangzhong buyi 房中补益 (Benefits of the Bedchamber) chapter, Sun Simiao explicitly extols the ability of one person’s body to heal another’s and enumerates the health benefits of controlled sexual cultivation.54 This is placed within the wider context of Sun Simiao’s pioneering of gynaecology and a form of what Joseph Needham might have called proto-eugenics, in that a key part of the regulations that Sun prescribes concern the conditions for the conception of healthy children and the avoidance of birth defects. The conception of healthy children is naturally one of the oldest55 and most basic objectives of Yangsheng and therefore demonstrates how in one way or another Yangsheng philosophy inevitably impinges on the lives of the vast majority of East Asians. A Yangsheng tradition of sexology continues in medical theory and the Encyclopaedias for Daily Use (Riyong leishu 日用类书 [leishu]) or household manuals of the Ming era.56 In the early 20th century, it received something of a revival on the back of Ye Dehui’s Shuangmei jing an congshu 双梅景暗丛书 (Shadow of the Double Plum Anthology) which reconstructed the fragmented Tang era Chinese sexology texts found in a copy of the Ishimpō 医心方 (Recipes at the Heart of Medicine) preserved in the Japanese Imperial Library.57 In recent times Yangsheng has been the area of discourse which has permitted the otherwise taboo explicit description of sexual activity. This in spite of the fact that, just as in the West, a number of offerings on the health or history bookshelves are clearly designed to titillate as much as educate. In ancient Chinese Yangsheng, sexology occupies a somewhat conflicted place in modern Chinese thinking. The influence of Western culture and the perceived 150 years of humiliation at the hands of the Western powers has to some extent warped the discourse towards Western values—or at least values that can be used ‘to face up’ to external criticism. On the one hand, there is evident pride that Chinese culture dealt with the problems of sexuality and health in such a sophisticated way two millennia before the appearance of comparable ideas in Western sexology: Havelock-Ellis, Stopes et al. On the other hand, promiscuity and sexual excess are the hallmarks of corruption in business and politics with accusations of sexual immorality frequently levelled at those that rightly or wrongly fall foul of authority.58 The Daoist priest Li Yi 李一 who was publicly disgraced by being denounced for fraud in 2010 was quickly accused, amongst other things, of practising shuang xiu 双修, dual sexual cultivation, either for Yangsheng or neidan with his female acolytes. The accusations were never substantiated and, along with other unsubstantiated and prima facie libellous allegations of rape, quickly disappeared from the list of his misdemeanours. Nonetheless, this was an easy way to raise the temperature of the sensationalised media campaign against him. In fact, for a self-proclaimed Yangsheng expert, Li Yi’s public teachings seemed somewhat curious by their studious avoidance of traditional sexology. By contrast, Daoist scholar priest Zhang Xingfa 張兴发 devotes a substantial chapter to the subject.59 Perhaps Li’s circumspection was because he was only too aware what a minefield this might become. Equally it is worth noting that in March 2012 one of Li’s acolytes, Qin Mingyuan, 秦铭远, was exposed by Hong Kong’s Phoenix television as running a Tan Cui 谭崔—Tantra—cult at a ‘temple’ in Guilin and various other sites in South China. Qin taught ling xiu 灵修, which Phoenix interpreted as wife/partner-swapping. Lurid allegations aside, the evidence they produced certainly suggested a fairly ‘touchy feely’ sensual culture and the fees for admission, as with Li Yi’s temple rites, were not negligible. However, what the exposé really seemed to show was the ‘Californication’ of Chinese culture as the predominantly young middle-class patrons of the temple sought to deal with the same emotional and physical pressures of life as afflict the rest of the modern developed world.60

Yangsheng as discourse . . . and politics

From what has been described above, we can see Yangsheng as a more or less universal ‘Technology of the Self’ and we can start to get an inkling of its efficacy and it effects. Its concepts, such as the avoidance of excess, find support in philosophical works such as the Daode jing 道德经 (The Way and the Potency) and its physiological assumptions are reinforced by appealing to medical classics like the Huangdi neijing or the Qianjin yaofang 千金药方. While the bodily techniques are universal to all who have the inclination to pursue them, the connections to other aspects of Chinese culture make it a unique vehicle for the appropriation of this culture by those who might otherwise occupy a strictly subaltern position within it.

In this it begins to merge into the twentieth-century project of Guo Xue 国学 (National Studies).

Guoxue is a broad nationalistic project that is simultaneously intellectual and populist. It embodies the sense of Chinese exceptionalism that pervades Chinese culture. ‘Foreigners have Hanxue which they call sinology but we have our Guoxue’ pronounced Professor Chen Lai, Qinghua’s Dean of the Academy of Chinese Learning, on CCTV4’s regular lecture series Wenming zhi lu 文明之旅 ‘The Voyage of Culture’.61 According to Chen, Guoxue originated in the 1920s at Qinghua as a intellectual movement aimed at revalidating Chinese culture. The self-strengthening movement of the nineteenth century which sought to modernise China, at least in terms of Western technology and techniques, had, partly as a result of its various perceived failures and disappointments, led to an atmosphere of negativity towards Chinese culture and its people. Guoxue specifically sought to combat this negativity, but to do so it did not seek to perpetuate traditional Chinese study forms. Instead adopted ‘Western epistemology and methodology [and] depended on a Western originated education system’.62 It has undergone its own popular ‘fever’ since the 1990s.63 Implicit in Guoxue is a certain sense that only ‘we’ native Chinese can truly understand Chinese culture. One might agree, up to a point. One might equally say the very complexity of experience, social, cultural, educational, which the Professor’s statement celebrates, is for many a serious obstacle to anything but the most clichéd and shallow of interpretations. Chinese natives live with the weight of a culture pressure-cooked into their minds and bodies. They live it, feel it, breath it, but are rarely treated to anything other than the most hackneyed discussion or analysis in what it means. It has always been an area of acute political sensitivity, subject to the latest ‘correct’ interpretation or dismissal.64 While most Yangsheng practitioners claim adherence to the classics like the Huangdi neijing, their experience of it is hazy, an emotional interpretation of what they think history should be. This is more likely to come from a contemporary comic book or bande dessinée than any other source. Of course, the scope of Guoxue extends well beyond contemporary Western Sinology.65 The programme is itself a prime example of popular Guoxue, as are the many other publications and broadcasts66 among which Yangsheng is frequently a popular theme.

Yangsheng thus becomes politicised in China. This is with a small ‘p’, since it becomes an integral part of the debate of what it is to be Chinese and specifically to identify yourself as Han. One can of course interpret a social political context for body practices in every part of the world. An unsurpassed analysis of the construction of ‘Han’ identity can be found in Frank Dikotter’s The Discourse of Race in Modern China.67 Nancy Chen’s research on Qigong in the 1990s demonstrates the exercise forms’ power to liberate the individual practitioners.68 In de Certeau’s terms, the strategy of those who speak with authority is continuously nibbled away by the tactics of those on whom they would impose this authority.69 Judith Farquhar and Zhang Qicheng 张其成 make a similar point in regard to the Yangsheng practitioners they studied in Beijing. Their conclusion is that ‘[Y]angsheng nevertheless achieves a kind of lordship. It exerts control over life from within, practicing the civilized arts that give form to life.’70 Professor Zhang himself distinguishes at least two tiers of practitioners. Those who are content with practices that are simply aimed at good health and those that then become motivated to undertake a deeper metaphysical and/or political quest.71 A prolific author, the professor’s own publications on the Yijing 易經 and Yangsheng have fed this latter demand. He even has his own ‘Zhang Qicheng Guoxue Wang’ (Zhang Qicheng’s Nation Studios Network) website.72 Yangsheng is one of those areas in which scholars, Jekyll and Hyde-like, have a tendency to turn into participants (and sometimes vice versa).

That the metaphysical should become political is both implicit and explicit in Chinese culture. The former case is made in the Yangsheng theories that were applied to the body of the rulers from the Warring States onwards, while the latter can be traced to Mengzi:

The people are of supreme importance; the altars to the gods of earth and grain come next; last comes the ruler. . . . When a feudal lord endangers the altars to the gods of earth and grain he should be replaced. When the sacrificial animals are sleek, the offerings are clean and the sacrifices are observed at due times and yet floods and droughts come, then altars should be replaced.73

Today we can see the nervousness the central government exhibits towards independent religious authority. Historically civil unrest has almost always been accompanied if not initiated by religious unrest. The Yellow Turban rebels against the Han in 184 CE, the ‘White Lotus’ millenarian Buddhists during the Yuan period, and the quasi-Christian Taipings of the mid-nineteenth-century religion are just a few of history’s more notable examples.

In his book Chaos, Resistance and Control, Robert Weller describes a model of how people’s instincts and norms can coalesce into a challenge to the status quo. This involves a four-stage process of ‘saturation’, ‘potential’, ‘precipitation’ and finally ‘thinning-out’ by which new or old norms are reconvened.74 Yangsheng culture with its relationship to medicine continuously bubbles between ‘saturation’ and ‘potential’. However, in 2010 we started to see the ‘thinning-out’ process when first various Yangsheng ‘masters’ were publicly denounced as frauds, and then in 2011 the Beijing Municipal Government controversially sought to create an approved list of Yangsheng teachers and authors.75 Qu Limin 曲黎敏, Assistant Professor at Beijing’s University of Chinese Medicine (北京中医药大学) was one of those whose works were judged to be deficient. An official list put her error rate at only slightly behind that of the notorious Zhang Wuben 张悟本.76 Zhang, now seen as a blatant fraudster, was a self-proclaimed Yangsheng dietician. His teaching started out conventionally enough and was regarded as sound in the basics. However, no doubt in response to the opportunities of fame and fortune, he started to propound the theory that eating up to two kilos of meng beans a day could cure all disease including cancer. The shops saw a ‘run’ on the beans, just as they would a few months later with table salt when rumours spread that it could protect people from the radioactive fallout from Fukushima. The authorities and the medical profession were not amused.77 Zhang Wuben’s books were banned and his name became the touchstone to link with all other errant Yangsheng masters.

So it was that Daoist Abbot Li Yi found his name paired with Zhang’s when the campaign took off against Li in the summer of 2010.78 For a decade, Li Yi had been energetically promoting himself and his new revivalist brand of Daoism. It styled itself in a neo-traditional form. That is to say, a conscious recreation or re-enactment of ‘tradition’ patched together from the elements that its creator thought it out to be. Li, a confident and eloquent speaker, made frequent television appearances espousing the importance of Daoist values in modern life and appealing in particular to the ‘Guoxue mentality’ of the uniqueness of Chinese cultural values. His arguments were both reassuring and disingenuous but that did not matter as he was confidently expressing what his audiences wanted to hear. Li Yi almost certainly used some sleights of hand to promote his own particular brand of Yangsheng gongfu. Li’s detractors made much of the fact that in the 1990s he had lead an acrobatic performance troupe. After his fall from grace, his demonstration of taixi 胎息 embryonic breathing on Shanghai TV in 1995 became among the most controversial of his activities. The implication was that this was just a Houdini-type circus stunt. In 2004, he opened his own temple complex in the north of Chongqing and started to promote it as a centre for Yangsheng treatments, retreats and life techniques. In addition, he invited and initiated lay followers into his ‘pai’ 派 sect and assiduously cultivated rich and/or influential patrons. This success would surely have caused much jealousy among older and more established Daoist leaders. The able and enterprising young Abbot was successfully blending religiosity, Yangsheng healthcare and leisure tourism. It was a complete package to succour those bruised and bewildered by life’s tribulations—or indeed those left insecure by unexpected success. Accused of all sorts of wrong-doing, his only real ‘crime’ seems to have been a desire to get rich—which is not much of a crime in today’s China. In August 2010, after an extraordinary nationwide media campaign against him, Li Yi resigned all his official posts with the Daoist associations. According to some of his disciples, Li Yi has gone into biguan 闭关, ‘contemplative seclusion’, telling them ‘Trust the Government, trust the Dao’.79

Conclusion . . . or new beginnings

All the foregoing should give the reader some idea of how deep and pervasive Yangsheng culture is within China. It is deep because it pertains to the most intimate aspects of our lives. It is pervasive because it is tied through language and philosophy to many other facets of Chinese culture but most notably medicine, religion and moral politics. Everyone has an opinion. Judy Farquhar’s recent collaboration with Zhang Qicheng provides us with evidence of how pervasive Yangsheng is throughout an older generation in Beijing. Their numerous vignettes of everyday life show how belief interlaced with reinterpretations of philosophical texts and precepts are staple to the tailoring of Yangsheng history for contemporary priorities.80 Added to this is a growing commercialism of the concept, a reflection of the economic power of the newly-wealthy urban middle classes. If the Qigong fever of the 1980s and 1990s had a somewhat austere and Salvationist aspect, the Yangsheng fever of the last decade, which covers so much of the same ground in the quest for health and identity, has a certain low-key decadence about it. Luxury villas are advertised in the suburbs for their Yangsheng qualities of retreat from the urban struggle (ideals equally found in the writings of Ming dynasty Yangsheng authors). Luxury health spas, a fad for luxury or extravagantly packaged and priced medicines like chong cao, tourism to areas of outstanding beauty81 are some of the markers of the new Yangsheng. However, when the hype is stripped away, the demand for Yangsheng is a constant. Young people, unless beholden to a family tradition, typically have no interest in the subject. But young people do not stay young forever. Marriage and the desire for children, work stress or a sudden experience of critical illness, and most commonly, fear of medical bills, all drive people to seek out the physical and psychological resources that Yangsheng offers. The typical story of the Yangsheng practitioner is a redemption story: ignorance, a sudden crisis and then salvation through the new found practice and knowledge.82 The confidence that this new knowledge brings restores not just the body but starts to build a whole new identity for the practitioner. The positive feedback that is received from the perception of improved physical health induces a willingness to imbibe further popular and esoteric knowledge. This is Professor Zhang’s second level of engagement. One’s identity is first reasserted by taking control of and responsibility for one’s own bodily health. The secondary level of engagement opens up the whole gamut of religious, spiritual and metaphysical possibilities, albeit most likely in established cultural forms. There are dangers associated with this. A willingness to believe creates a vacuum in the minds of not a few practitioners that many foolish or unscrupulous teachers are willing to exploit.83 For others, an excess of self-conviction can manifest itself as psychosis; zouhuo rumo 走火入魔 or piancha 偏差 ‘deviant’ qigong.84 However, for most people, just as the benefit of driving a car will outweigh the risk of having an accident, benefits clearly outweigh the risks. Yangsheng may not make you immortal but it can certainly help maintain good health and manage the problems of ill health. It creates a positive attitude to the control of one’s body and reinforces the sense that one has of oneself; a power and a mechanism to alter it for the better. In a 180-degree contrast to Arthur Kleinman’s studies of psycho-physical disorders in Chinese society, Yangsheng acts as a systematic basis for somatised good health. It is a positive health model that seeks to avoid the costs and woes of illness. However, if Yangsheng, in that sense, is crisis-driven, it is pleasure-seeking. The practice of Yangsheng is very much about the enjoyment of life. Experience that is life-enhancing. On a recent trip with friends into the hills west of Beijing to collect ye cai 野菜 (edible wild plants), we were escorted by a nature reserve guide who showed us where to look and what to pick.85 After dusk we sat down to a meal to consume some of our bounty, along with some beers. Our previously slightly bashful guide, having given us an exposition of his views on harmonising Yin and Yang, concluded very firmly: ‘After all, the object of Yangsheng is to make your body comfortable, isn’t it?’, which is pretty much the definition of life for most normal people in China—and probably elsewhere too.

1 ‘Nurturing’ is the current conventional English translation of yang 养. I prefer the expression ‘Cultivating Life’ or even the more general ‘Self-Cultivation’ because they express more than simply nurturing or nourishing in the physical sense—even if this is the basis of most practice. Secondly, my preference emphasises the individual responsibility and inward focus that Yangsheng evinces even though it has many collective and externally focused dimensions.

2 The Yangsheng lu comes to us via the tenth-century CE Japanese compilation of Chinese medical culture Ishimpō (Prescriptions from the Heart of Medicine) by Tanba no Yasuyori 丹波康頼. Mention of the term Yangsheng goes back to the writings attributed to Mengzi (Master Meng) but is used there as a description of filial piety while in those associated with Zhuangzi (Master Zhuang) the term is related to a rather more esoteric spiritual path through life rather than health cultivation per se. Physical practices also come under the rubic of Daoyin 导引 and Yangxing 养形. See Stanley-Baker 2006, pp. 29–32. Yangsheng has in fact always been a somewhat amorphous category that subsumes many different practices and goals. See also Zhuangzi 15 (‘keyi’ 刻意), tr. Graham 1989 [1981], p. 265.

3 In fact, I would argue that all these new Yangsheng activities can be related to the same ancient core concerns. Dancing obviously relates to exercise, singing to the breathing exercises which historically were central to many regimen practices while in animal raising the pet-owners can be seen as cultivating their own benevolent qi. Even scientific medicine seems to confirm the health benefits to humans of properly managed pet ownership. See

4 The earliest references to qi are from Shang and Zhou inscriptions and are associated with food and sustenance. These perhaps anticipate the life-giving and vitalising qualities that eventually came to be associated with qi. Harper 1998, p. 77.

5 Chinese language amply demonstrates this in the prolific number of words and phrases relating to emotions or weather which incorporate the term qi.

6 Mencius (Fourth century BCE), is the locus classicus for the expression of qi as a moral force. Mengzi 3A (‘Gongsun chou’), pp. 7–8, ed. SSJZS vol. 8, p. 54. Tr. Lau 1970, pp. 76–7. The Nei Yeh ‘Inner Training’ chapter of the Guanzi (c. Fifth century BCE) shows its political dimension in the body of the Emperor. See Roth 1999, pp. 99–123.

7 See Palmer 2007, pp. 67–73, on the involvement of China’s former top defence scientist Qian Xuesen in the creation of a ‘somatic science’ based on Qi. In the US, the works of Dr James Oschmann on ‘Energy Medicine’ seem to be ploughing a parallel furrow.

8 Harper 1998, pp. 125–6.

9 Farquhar 2001, p. 109.

10 Farquhar 2001, p. 110.

11 ‘If you are looking for something, they will make it for you!’, as I was warned by an eminent historian at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies before I began my research in China.

12 These scrolls are like a snapshot in time, present evidence unmediated by the hand of later editors and compilers and therefore the vagaries of the living traditions—for which of course they have now become further fuel. Seven of the thirty or so manuscripts buried in Mawangdui tomb 3 are devoted to the healing arts. For the excavation report, see He Jiejun (ed.) 2004, pp. 73–86.

13 Shiji 6 (‘Qinshi huang benji’), p. 247.

14 Li Ling 李零 2006, p. 244.

15 Ho and Needham 1959; Lo 2002.

16 Harper’s excellent elucidation of the textual evidence related to the rise of the xian cults points to two other figures, Chisongzi and Wangziqiao, as being the contemporaneous inspiration for these groups. However, it would seem their legends became increasingly conflated with that of Ancestor Peng until, by the time Wang Chong was writing in the first century CE, his name had become the cipher that covered ‘the brand’. See Harper 1998, pp. 113–18.

17 Author’s notes and recordings, 2009.

18 This has been avowed to me in interviews on a number of different occasions. One such being a Neidan teacher, another, more surprisingly, being a secular and cynical journalist. They are not the only examples. Most individuals wil1 accept the idea vaguely without too much serious questioning because it is part of the belief network. It can be accepted as aspiration or fact. See Penny 2002b.

19 It is likely that much of the immortality cult ‘discourse’ may have been simply an attention-seeking exaggeration—brand promotion, if you will. This is an idea with which I have a great deal of sympathy. Harper 1998, p. 116.

20 Graham points out that this may have been a later ‘Yangist’ point of view dating to the second century CE. Graham 1989a, p. 264. Harper concurs. See Harper 1998, p. 115.

21 Graham 1989a, p. 84. See also Graham 1989b, p. 198.

22 Harper 1998, p. 118.

23 Mengzi 3A (‘Gongsun chou’), 7–8, ed. SSJZS, p. 54. translated in Lau 1970, p. 77.

24 Lo 2007, p. 406.

25 Clunas 2004; Chen Hsiufen 2008. Indeed, knowing what we do of Gao Lian’s rather privileged life we may suspect that his mien was rather closer to the style guru than the physic or fitness instructor.

26 Farquhar and Zhang 2005.

27 From the legend of Bian Que and the Duke Huan in the Shiji through to Sun Simiao in the Tang Dynasty and on to this day, diagnosis by facial observation and treatment prior to the manifestation of disease was the hallmark of the highest quality of physician, equal and sometimes superior to pulse-taking. See Kuriyama 1999, pp. 153–92. See also Despeux 2005, pp. 176–205.

28 ‘Epicure’ is a brand name in the UK that for over a century has been associated with exotic or luxurious foodstuff. The precise nature of what is exotic or luxurious changes over time with changes in social and economic conditions. However this is yet another example of how the conception of a philosophical discipline is transposed in popular culture into a “hedonistic” pursuit.

29 Palmer 2007.

30 Qigong can be seen in this light from two perspectives. a) as an outlying beneficiary, for a time, of Mao’s post liberation project to find unique objects of pride in Chinese culture of which the project to construct TCM was part. Needham’s warm welcome in China was another face of this. b) post-Mao, the Qigong fever was attached to a desperate search for physical, psychological and moral catharsis for the generations that had suffered under Mao.

31 See the first textual description of a diurnal rotation of the breath in the Mawangdui manuscripts given the modern title of Shiwen 十问 (Ten Questions) MWD (‘shiwen’), nos 23–39.

32 LSCQ 3.23. Tr. Knoblock and Reigel 2000, p. 100.

33 By legend, Taiji quan was invented by Daoist Immortal Zhang Sanfeng 張三丰 during the Yuan dynasty. The earliest textual evidence is Quanjing jieyao 拳经节要 (Essentials of the Hand Combat Classic) by Ming General Qi Jiguang 戚继光 (1528–88). See Wile 1996 on the history of the Taiji classics.

34 For one of my informants, a Taiji master in Beijing, this was the continuance of his family heritage as a Manchu Bannerman (Blue Banner). In the 1960s and 1970s he served in an elite paramilitary riot squad and practised these techniques. He now expresses regret about his duties at that time but remains intensely proud of the tradition and heritage embodied by his skills.

35 See Davidson and Lutz 2008.

36 See, for example, the oft somatised expression of the emotions as related to the Yin and Yang channels of acupuncture, each of which is associated with one of the five organs as they were understood in Early China. Lingshu 5 (10 ‘Jingmai’), pp. 2a–12a. These relationships of organ to channel and emotion are systematically set out in every modern textbook of Chinese medicine.

37 One of my interviewees described how, when practising a sitting Qigong, she had to repeat to herself everyday ‘I believe there is shen (神, spirit, deity/ies) in the world’. She did not believe. She nonetheless kept repeating this phrase while meditating. One day, after several years, she realised she did believe and within a short time discovered she had unusual powers to manipulate qi for healing.

38 Placebo is a difficult and controversial concept within this context because it implies the causes and effects are somehow bogus and unreal. This is clearly not the case. Placebo treatments are often effective and the illnesses cured or alleviated real. It is actually a failure of the unrealistically dualistic mind vs. body model in Western scientific thinking that creates this problem. It is a mirror of the bogus nature vs. nurture debate. As with the embodied mind and the mind embodied the two are inextricably linked, interdependent and mutually influential. Chinese medicine and Yangsheng’s elegant solution to this problem is of course ‘Qi’. See Moerman, 2002.

39 The massive number of repetitions is a feature of the earliest manual of therapeutic exercise which regularly recommends that exercises are practised thousands of times. ZJS (‘Yinshu’). See Lally et al. 2009 on habit-forming research.

40 The research of Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University into bio-electronic ‘cyborgs’ provides a fascinating insight into the plasticity of the human brain. See also Davidson and Lutz 2008 on meditation and ‘neuroplasticity’.

41 Mengzi 11A (‘Gaozi’), p. 2b, ed. SSJZS, p. 192, translated in Lau 1970, p. 161.

42 The overall publication of Yangsheng titles recorded at China’s National Library 中国国家图书馆 rose, year on year, from 111 in 2000 to 883 in 2010. The figure fell back to 438 in 2011.

43 The Zhonghua shiwu biandian 2007 is a fine example. Despeux 2007.

44 Chinese wolfberry is possibly the most widely used ingredient of all. There are staple health-giving foods like zhou 粥 congee, tonic wines and many Chinese herbal prescriptions. They are regarded as boosting the essential kidney energy in particular. They are also seen as especially suitable for women though I suspect this may have more to do with commercial and cultural factors than strict medical logic.

45 Classic Yangsheng dishes are typically lightly cooked and mild in flavour—bland even. Again the principle is to avoid overstimulation.

46 The ‘framework’ might be supposed to consist of four elements. 1) personal taste, 2) bodily condition, 3) the environment, 4) the lore attached to a particular foodstuff. Of course most of the time the decisions are not consciously negotiated but simply decided by habit. There are of course contrary examples. See Zhang Wuben below, and China is not without its own serious food scares but these are usually focused on product quality rather than on what to eat. The website tracks China’s food problems.

47 Beiji qianjin yaofang 26 (‘Shizhi’), p. 464.

48 Zheng Jinsheng 2006, p. 55.

49 Dong chong xia cao 冬虫下草 ‘Winter worm summer grass’ (cordyceps) is the body of an underground-dwelling moth pupa parasitised by fungus which kills the pupa and produces a single small mushroom stalk from its head—the summer grass. Chong cao ‘fever’ has led to extraordinary prices for the product on sale in China—thousands of dollars per gram of the most ‘refined’ products. This had troubling social consequences for the regions where it is found in the Himalayas and Tibet.

50 By sexology, I mean materials that study and describe sexual behaviour and/or regulate and promote it through various proscriptions. This contrasts with material simply designed to titillate.

51 Fangzhong shu appears as a category in the Hanshu yiwenzhi, the bibliographical treatise of the Han imperial library and is, at that time, more or less coterminous with the Yangsheng and medical discourse of the Suwen recension of the Huangdi neijing corpus. After the Tang era, the category quite clearly develops a more recreational bent and ceases to be closely aligned with medico-health practice but becomes part of the entertainment industry. This is most notably in the Ming dynasty when it is represented in the novels and stories of the booming print medium. Furth 1994, p. 133, notes the increasing criticism in Yangsheng texts of ‘non Yangsheng’ Fangzhong shu practices in the later empire.

52 Hudson 2007, chapters 4 and 5. Early Daoist churches also practised massed sexual rites, though these were later repudiated, at least in public, by the Shangqing and Quanzhen sects. See Raz, this issue.

53 Harper 2005b. See also Liu Lexian 2005.

54 Wilms 2010, p. 9.

55 Umekawa 2004, p. 24.

56 Wile 1992, pp. 113–46.

57 Umekawa 2004, p. 82. Wile 1992, pp. 4, 13, 51.

58 Even as I review the final draft of this article, disgraced CPC central committee member Bo Xilai, whose ultimate fate one might have supposed would have been to have his misdemeanours hushed up, has now been most severely indicted and accusations of ‘maintaining improper relations with women’ added to the charge sheet against him. See South China Morning Post, 29 September 2012.

59 Zhang Xin