Qigong exercises on a silk scroll, c. 168 BC, found in the tomb at Mawangdui, China, in 1973.
Lift up your head
Calm your eyes
Look far away, as far as you can
Look beyond the walls
What do you see?
The Jinhua caves are located in a wooded, hilly area about 200 miles southwest of Shanghai. The most famous cave, Double Dragon Cave, is entered by a stream that passes under a stone overhang just a few inches above the water. Visitors must lie flat in a shallow boat as it is pulled by wires under the outcrop. Rock whizzes by a couple of inches in front of your face and suddenly you are there, in the earth’s womb, where people have come for millennia to meditate—lifting up their heads, calming their eyes, and visualizing a world beyond the walls that hold us.
In November, I came to Jinhua with about 400 others on a ten-day retreat to study with Wang Liping, probably China’s most famous teacher of qigong, a form of meditation and breathing exercises rooted in traditional Chinese religion. Qigong’s heyday was in the 1980s and 1990s, when it spread rapidly across China as a kind of ersatz religion. Back then, the Communist Party still actively discouraged religious life but qigong escaped regulation because its backers had cleverly registered it as a sport. In fact, it offered a typically Chinese path to salvation: physical cultivation leading to enlightenment. Some qigong “grand masters” claimed supernatural abilities, saying they could conduct electricity or read books without opening them. But many offered moral guidelines—”popular fundamentalism,” some scholars called it—that appealed to people who had seen the Communists’ ideals collapse during the Cultural Revolution.
This was the beginning of China’s religious revival and qigong became ubiquitous in Chinese parks and streets. Chinese spoke of a “qigong fever” that had infected the country. But it came to a crashing close in 1999 when the government brutally cracked down on the militant qigong group Falun Gong after it staged protests in downtown Beijing. Most qigong groups disappeared or went underground, and as a result it is all but impossible today to practice qigong in public parks.
Wang, who stopped teaching before the crackdown and laid low for much of the past decade, avoided this malestrom. Now he is making a comeback.