Qigong and Taijiquan – Compared & Contrasted Pt.1

“What is the difference between Qigong and Taijiquan?” is possibly the most frequently posed question to any teacher of Qigong or Taijiquan. It is a fair question; to which there is a simple answer, and a complex answer. But, the alternative question, “What are the similarities between Qigong and Taijiquan?” is equally valid.

Knowing the definition and meaning behind a word helps to understand its purpose. Qigong and Taijiquan have entirely different meanings, with different Chinese characters and pronunciations, and different purposes (originally). To the Chinese, and those that read calligraphy, there is no confusion between these words, even amongst those with no direct experience of either. Qigong is composed of two words – “Qi” (energy or breath) and “Gong” (work or skill or exercise). So, the translation of Qigong is “Work for Energy” or “Energy Work” and also “Breathing Skill” or “Breathing Exercise”. Therefore, we know the purpose of Qigong is health and vitality, and prolonging life.

Taijiquan, on the other hand, comprises three words. “Tai” (Big or Great which is Yang – an expanding energy), “Ji” (Limited or Ending which is Yin – a contracting energy), and then “Quan” (Fist or Boxing). Placing these words together to create the phrase “Big Limited”, without understanding the context, or what this represents, seems gibberish or nonsensical. But, expanding and contracting are two energies that harmonize and balance, and keep each other in check. The two opposing and complementary forces are known as Yin and Yang, or as the Chinese say, “Yin Yang”. Water (Yin by nature – cool and descending) can douse or control Fire (Yang – hot and ascending), and similarly when contained and heated, Water (Yin) can be boiled and evaporated, and controlled by Fire (Yang). Wuji (Nothing) creates Taiji (Something), which gives birth to Yin Yang. Any time we see the word Quan (or Chuan) at the end of a word, we know it is a martial art, such as Shaolin Quan, Xingyiquan or Yiquan (I Chuan). So, Taijiquan simply means “Taiji Fist” or “Yin Yang Boxing”. While Taijiquan, no doubt, for millions, has been proven as a health, fitness, and longevity practice, its roots and original purpose lay in training combat skills.

The words Qigong and Taijiquan, as written here, come from the Pinyin Romanization (dating back to 1950) of the Chinese characters (calligraphy). The Chinese writing for each is not remotely similar, and written as English, using Pinyin, there is no reason to suggest Qigong and Taijiquan are related at all. This is why I prefer Pinyin, and my Sifu only uses this method. However, the oldest Western Romanization, called Wade-Gilles (completed in 1892) and commonly still used today, has Qigong written as “Chi Kung”, and Taijiquan written as “Tai Chi Chuan”, or more accurately, “T’ai Chi Ch’uan”. You will notice that using the Wade Gilles version, both arts contain the word “Chi”. This is the basis for the confusion. Those that understand the “Chi” in Chi Kung as vital energy, and see “Chi” in Tai Chi Chuan, naturally, come to assume it is the same word, and, follow the logical conclusion that “Tai Chi Chuan” must have something to do with energy, and that the two must be similar, or related. Wrong! In fact, this word has nothing at all to do with energy! The “Chi” in Tai Chi is really pronounced with a “J” sound, so phonetically it should sound like “Jee” instead of “Chee”. The Chinese character for Ji meaning “Limited” or “Ending” is very different from the Chinese character for Qi, meaning “Energy”, which, from ancient times, is written as the steam-like vapor created from cooking rice, that is detectable by the senses, but is shapeless, and formless. So, Wade Gilles plays no small part in the confusion shared by many.

The Western definition of Taijiquan also can be misleading. In most circles, it is referred to as “Grand Ultimate Fist”, or “Supreme Ultimate Boxing”. This translation, most commonly accepted and used today, could be phrased better. It is frequently misunderstood, even amongst most martial artists, and especially Tai Chi practitioners. When you hear Grand Ultimate, what is your first impression? You might naturally assume Grand Ultimate has to be the greatest, and nothing is better. So, Taijiquan or Grand Ultimate Boxing must be the best martial art, right? Wrong! This is not the true and right meaning of Taijiquan at all. What has been translated as “Grand” or “Supreme” from Tai is simply the “Big” or expanding, and what we have as “Ultimate” from Ji is merely the “Limited”, or “Ending”. The words together just refer to Yin Yang, and not the Best or Supreme Ultimate, which, under any circumstances, would be a most bold, and arrogant claim. So, it is only a boxing skill or martial art that is based up on the principles and interchange of Soft and Hard, Slow and Fast etc. and has taken the name accordingly.

The simple answer as to the difference between the two is that Qigong covers various internal training exercises for health and longevity, while Taijiquan is one of the famous branches of traditional Chinese martial art, albeit today mostly practiced more for its health benefits (due to its internal training).

Some may be surprised to know that Taijiquan can actually be considered a type of Qigong because it comprises internal training, designed to cultivate and balance Qi, for health, and follows the same essential principles and demands. Taijiquan Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang considers Chen Taijiquan a complete system of Qigong. I believe a comprehensive and complete system of Taijiquan offers far more health benefits, including balance, co-ordination, strength and stamina and Qi/ vitality than the majority of simplistic Qigong styles commonly found today, that really only cover relaxation, and tend be of a more static variety. But, a few remaining traditional Qigong systems run deeper, covering health and spiritual aspects that Taijiquan does not, including special meditations, opening specific points and channels, and developing uncommon skills from healing techniques and Qi transmission, to opening the Sky Eye, Long Distance Vision, Releasing Fragrances (of jasmine, nut, special incense etc. from the internal organs), Iron Body, and Light Gong, to name a few.

Taijiquan moves Qi throughout the entire body, and balances this energy, but its purpose lies in combat; developing rooting power and firmness, and explosive energy in attack, as well as softness/ emptiness in yielding, or defense. Qigong’s movements are all aimed at releasing the negative, sick, turbid, stagnant or stale Qi (Bing Qi) that is responsible for illness and disease, and then gathering, balancing and storing the fresh, healthy or positive Qi (Hao Qi). Qigong works to open the acupuncture channels so that Qi can flow smoothly, and mobilizes Qi flow, and it works to opens the acupuncture points to allow Qi to enter and leave the body, like opening the doors and windows of a house to change the stale air for fresh. It acts like a massage for the internal organs, working and stimulating them, and as the entire body breathes, it cleanses like an internal bath. Qigong includes many self-therapy methods for health and for healing. These include slapping along the channels, tapping specific points, transmitting the energy to points, and dredging channels, shaking or vibrating hands to release sick Qi, and various hand gestures to manipulate Qi. Qigong targets specific medical conditions, and works just like acupuncture treatment. In fact, Qigong is often even referred to as “acupuncture without needles”. While both Qigong and Taijiquan are considered morning and evening exercises (and they can be practiced any time), with Qigong there are specific times of day and directions to face to maximize the effect of breathing exercises, because, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), these relate to the different internal organs. So, for a person seeking to strengthen the function of specific organs, or working to develop “special” skills, then particular hours and directions must be taken into account. Some Taijiquan masters were sick or feeble as children and encouraged by parents to learn Taijiquan. They not only recovered, but thrived, became “super healthy”, and attained longevity, in good health!

There is much history of Taijiquan as a curative for many conditions, but sadly, the research and studies are incomplete. Qigong has been proven effective as treatment with documented medical case histories of diseases with organic changes, such as ulcers, and chronic conditions, such as neurasthenia, tuberculosis, asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, arthritis, hypertension/ hypotension, diabetes etc. Major Chinese hospitals contain Qigong units, and there are Qigong hospitals, employing Qigong therapy solely. Both skills produce similar physiological effects. The mind becomes tranquil, respiration becomes deeper and posture improves, the external body harmonizes with the internal body, the acupuncture channels (jingluo) are opened and Qi becomes balanced and flows smoothly. The muscles, bones tendons and ligaments are strengthened, as the functions of the digestive, lymphatic, and endocrine systems are improved.

Purely as a health skill, Taijiquan is far beyond most forms of physical exercise, but compared to a traditional complete system of Qigong, its health potential is somewhat limited due to its martial demands. For example, Taijiquan principles maintain that the back must be held “straight as a flagpole”, neither allowed to bend backward nor forward from the waist. This is necessary to maintain inner equilibrium and also support the existence of the Dantian. Qigong, on the other hand, includes bending forwards and backwards, from the waist, to stimulate the kidneys, and allow greater flexibility of the spine and waist, which equals a more youthful, supple body. Taijiquan, as primarily a martial art, is defense-oriented, and must maintain a structure that protects the body at all times. Expanding movements in Taijiquan cause the arms to open outward, but they must never fully extend, as elbows must remain sunk to protect the ribs, and to prevent Qi rising, which enables rooting energy for stability and power. Qigong, without such concerns of attack, allows greater relaxation and freedom of movement. Outstretched arms open the chest, which stimulates the heart and lungs, and enables the body to take in even more Qi. In turn, this exposes the soft, vulnerable parts of the body, where the Yin channels (jingluo) reside that connect with the Yin/ Solid or major internal organs, which is not a concern with Qigong, but it is as far as Taijiquan is concerned.

Integral to both Qigong and Taijiquan is the role of the Dantian (located within the lower abdomen), but for different purposes. “Dan” itself refers to the essence of energy (concentrated as in crystal form) and “Tian” refers to a field or area. In Taijiquan, the Dantian and waist must coordinate with the entire body (“If one part moves, every part moves”) to generate “issuing power” (Fajing) fully, and be able to turn freely, in order to redirect and neutralize incoming force, so the Taiji principle “Four Ounces Deflects A Thousand Pounds” can be applied successfully. The Dantian is like the center of a sphere, and once it moves the whole body responds to the movement. The Dantian is the main energy center within the body, and the main source of power in Taijiquan. By itself, the Dantian does not have much power, but when this energy communicates with the rest of the body a very strong force is generated.

In Qigong theory, the Dantian is also the center, but this area is purely the source of health, vitality and strength. However, with Qigong theory there are three Dantians that are recognized and discussed. What we have referred to previously as the Dantian is considered The Lower Dantian, when discussing the other Dantians, which are the Middle Dantian and Upper Dantians. Lower Dantian (located around Qi Hai point) is where Qi develops and stores first, it governs reproductive energy, spleen, liver and kidneys, and connects with Earth and the physical. Middle Dantian (located at the centre of the chest or Shanzhong point) relates to heart and lungs, and also is the “Heart Center” in terms of governing care, compassion, empathy, trust, morality, sincerity, courage, generosity, openness, etc. so this connects with Humanity and the emotional. Upper Dantian or “Sky-Eye” (Yintang point located within the forehead) is the source of wisdom, intuition, inspiration, and creativity. Mind connects with Heaven or Cosmos and the Spiritual. Upper Dantian is both a receiver and transmitter of Qi. In Qigong, all three Dantians are equally important, in order for the individual to be whole, or complete. We need to be physically healthy in order to develop the Spirit and Mind and our human potential, to reach Enlightenment. Mind and Heart, or Wisdom and Compassion, must develop and be used together, in order to work properly, and produce the right results. Compassion without Wisdom only results in a well-meaning fool that acts with the right intentions, but invariably manages to do the wrong thing, in the end. Similarly, as one develops Mind, with greater insight, intuition, intelligence, and even certain psychic abilities, without humility and compassion, he/ she can easily fall prey to arrogance, egotism, detachment, selfishness, and immorality or amorality, which ultimately impedes true spiritual progress. In my opinion, a true and sincere person, with a caring heart, and giving nature, and down-to-earth common sense is far more impressive and rare, and should be prized more highly, than a person with just unusual mental/ psychic abilities and physical skills. The Three Dantians represent The Three Treasures – Earth, Human, and Heaven and their relationship to one another. Man stands between Heaven and Earth, and connects them, is connected by and to them in the same way as the Dantians relate to one another. Middle and Upper Dantians are never really discussed, or employed in Taijiquan, but Taijiquan includes Wu De, or martial ethics, that covers morality and how to behave correctly.

Qigong and Taijquan’s history and evolution are based on similar philosophies. Daoism and Buddhism exert influence on both. Taijiquan was founded upon Daoist principles of Yin Yang, while the physical skills found within the movements of the bare handed forms and weapons forms derive largely from Shaolin skills, which originate from Buddhist temple fighting monks. The traditional Qigong schools essentially were created with the philosophy and knowledge or either Daoist priests or Buddhist monks and nuns.

I would estimate more practice Taijiquan, globally, than Qigong, as Taijiquan is a household word, while most people have still never even heard of Qigong, let alone know what it is. This also is ironic, as Qigong is so much older than Taijiquan, and Taijiquan’s very existence, and renown as a health exercise is owed entirely to Qigong, or internal training. Qigong is a modality of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Taijiquan, despite its known and proven curative effects on many illnesses, is not. Qigong is considered by the medical classics to be the highest level of medicine; placed above herbs, acupuncture, massage, and moxibustion or cupping. Why? Because, unlike the other modalities that require dependency on the doctor to administer external medicine or treatment, Qigong teaches the patient to heal himself. (Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.) Despite this, Qigong, today in the West, is not fully understood, or appreciated, within contemporary Western schools and colleges of Chinese Medicine and TCM doctors. A pre-eminent college of acupuncture in New York City demands of a student two semesters of Taijiquan be completed, and yet, only one of Qigong, as part of the course requirements, in order to graduate the program. This makes no sense at all, as it is only Qigong that works with acupuncture points, and not Taijiquan, and it is only Qigong that is a modality of TCM, and not Taijiquan. This only serves to show how little Qigong is understood by TCM in the West. Unless doctors and licensed practitioners of TCM in the West, seek out traditional systems, for their own interest, they do not know too much about Qigong, beyond the most simple and most rudimentary level (perhaps the one semester they learned in medical school?). Not too many Western-trained TCM doctors practice Qigong (or even Taijiquan for that matter) as a daily regimen for their own personal health maintenance. Unlike Western medical doctors, Chinese medical doctors in the past had to set an example to patients and remain healthy themselves, and most, if not all, would have been highly skilled in Qigong.

While the two skills are separate and distinct, with different methods of training, the threads that connect them are very strong. They are entangled and entwined, with a number of similarities where the principles and also the benefits meet. This situation can best be represented well by a Venn diagram, which consists of two separate circles that overlap. One circle is Taijiquan and the other is Qigong. In the middle, where the circles intersect is the shared philosophy, shared physical demands, with emphasis on relaxation, Dantian breathing, and good posture, and the shared physiological effects on the body, mind and Qi. Without Qigong, or internal training, there would be no Taijiquan, as there would be no soft (rou) with the hard (gang). It would simply be just like any other external or hard martial art relying on superior fitness, speed and strength; but one that does not offer health and balance, and awareness of the subtle or internal body. And, without Taiji (the Yin Yang philosophy, not the “Quan”/ martial art) there would be no meditation (Yin) combined with physical exercise (Yang), and, hence, no Qigong. Qigong is founded upon Taiji theory, and Taijiquan is founded upon Qigong principles. Both are different journeys to the same destination – that of self-discovery and self-knowledge, and understanding Dao, through living practice.

– Adam Wallace