In China: A Qigong Master at Work

In China: A Qigong Master at Work By Jaime A. FlorCruz (TIME – MAY 16, 1988)
Clad in white robe and white cap, Zhao Xuezhong swaggers into the spartan Beijing hospital ward and greets his patient with a toothy smile. He looks at the middle-aged woman for a few seconds and then recites her medical history in staccato tones. “Ten years ago, you had an appendectomy,” he tells Yang Jinlu, 52, a ruddy-faced peasant from Miyun County, 40 miles northeast of the Chinese capital. The surprised patient nods. “Five years ago, you had gastroenteritis and your stomach gave you pain whenever you ate.” She nods again. “That’s because you are so short-tempered,” he concludes. “You get stressed too easily.”

The solemn-visaged Zhao, 50, stands beside the couch on which the woman, who complains of chronic stomach and back pains, lies motionless. He stretches out his right arm, crosses his index and middle fingers, and aims them at her feet for three minutes. He waves his hand close to her body, as if shooing a fly. Then he kneads and pats her shoulders to conclude the 15-minute session. “Song le,” she smiles, agreeing with Zhao that her system has been “unclogged” and obviously feeling better.

As early as 2 a.m. every day, hundreds of patients from all over China queue up in front of Huayi Hospital in southeastern Beijing to visit a man they consider their last resort for relief. For a fee of 4.5 yuan ($1.20) a session, Master Zhao offers cures for ailments ranging from backaches to irregular menstruation to paralysis. He is a master of qigong (pronounced cheegoong), the ancient Chinese discipline of concentrating one’s qi, or vital energy, in order to stimulate a person s body for therapeutic or curative purposes.

As medicine, qigong is based on precepts similar to those of acupuncture, a procedure that has often surprised Western experts with its successes. Zhao feels that his brand of qigong is no less effective. “My qi is like a laser beam that unclogs the jingluo [meridians],” he explains, referring to the invisible channels in the human body along which, according to traditional theory, vital energies flow. Practitioners of both qigong and acupuncture believe that illness results when these meridians are blocked. “Once the jingluo are unclogged, the patients are cured,” Zhao asserts.

Only two decades ago, qigong was denounced by the Chinese government as witchcraft. The government’s antagonism let up in 1978, after the Cultural Revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s was declared over, and doctors and intellectuals argued that qigong, though unscientific by Western standards, could help sick people. Now the practice is sweeping China again, and a debate swirls about its effectiveness. But there is no doubt that Zhao’s patients swear by him, Over the past four years, Zhao and his nine-member staff say, they have had a 90% success rate in relieving the ailments of more than 50,000 patients.

Kang Shizun, 40, is one, He suffered a hip injury on a farm in Inner Mongolia, to which he and his wife were banished during the Cultural Revolution, The tanned, lanky Kang, now a local government functionary in Beijing, was in excruciating pain two months ago when he was rushed to Zhao on a flatbed tricycle. He swears he got relief almost instantly. “I felt my bones twitch when the doctor emitted his qi,” Kang recalls gleefully as he paced the ward at Zhao’s clinic. “After five minutes the pain was gone.”

Zhao claims to be working a similar miracle on Yan Ding, 3, a mentally retarded girl whose parents say she couldn’t speak, stand or walk when she first visited Zhao in December. “This is a hard-tocure type of case, and I’ve cured many of them,” Zhao boasts, aiming his fingers at the bob-haired toddler as she stands precariously on a couch. After several months of therapy, Yan can now stand up and murmur words like “papa” and “mama.” Is her development due to the master’s ministrations? Yan’s aunt, who brings her to the clinic for therapy sessions, is convinced it is. “Her parents had given up all hope,” she says, “but Yan has shown good signs of recovery.”

Zhao attributes his curative power to teyi gongneng, or extraordinary human body function, the name that qigong practitioners have given to their innate powers. Zhao claims, for example, that he can diagnose illness with his eyes: “Like an X-ray machine, they can emit the qi and scan their rebound.” He also swears he can diagnose ailments by looking at pictures of patients, even if they have no evident symptoms. Zhao admits, though, that he is not omnipotent. “I can’t cure all illnesses,” he says. “Like medicine, my therapy works for most people but not all.”

Six years ago, Zhao says, he was a skeptic about qigong. A former repairman in a Beijing electronics plant, he says that in 1982 he changed his mind after suffering from dire heart and kidney troubles. “I was so jaundiced and emaciated that my friends called me an unearthed cultural relic,” Zhao recalls. He finally enrolled in a qigong class and over the span of two months became a convert. Zhao says he honed his healing power through repeated yoga-style exercises. Word of his talents spread, and Zhao, who has no medical diploma, was hired in 1984 as “special doctor” by the employees’ infirmary of the Water Conservancy Ministry in Beijing. In 1985 he was licensed by the Beijing bureau of health as a qigong doctor.

Zhao is modest-at least somewhat about his talents. “I’m still an ordinary man,” he says. “Like everybody else, I eat.” But he clearly enjoys the prominence-and the material rewards-associated with his healing powers. Zhao says his monthly earnings are “above 100 yuan and below 1,000 yuan” (between $27 and $270, compared with the basic industrial wage of $40), and he enjoys certain perquisites. “Some old women kowtow to me like a god,” he says impishly. Grateful patients offer him gifts in kind: fruit. wine, even paintings and specimens of artistic calligraphy. “We accept them lest they feel insulted,” he says with a grin. An insult, after all, might reclog their meridians.