Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry, and Healing in China

Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry, and Healing in China

Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry, and Healing in China

Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry, and Healing in China

Synopsis

The charismatic form of healing called qigong, based on meditative breathing exercises, has achieved enormous popularity in China during the last two decades. Qigong served a critical social organizational function, as practitioners formed new informal networks, sometimes on an international scale, at a time when China was shifting from state-subsidized medical care to for-profit market medicine. The emergence of new psychological states deemed to be deviant led the Chinese state to "medicalize" certain forms while championing scientific versions of qigong. By contrast, qigong continues to be promoted outside China as a traditional healing practice. Breathing Spaces brings to life the narratives of numerous practitioners, healers, psychiatric patients, doctors, and bureaucrats, revealing the varied and often dramatic ways they cope with market reform and social changes in China.

Excerpt

BREATHE. Imagine your breath as the way, taking the energy around you and combining it with your own energy. Relax. Exhale and empty yourself. Inhale and fill your being with the vitality of life. Visualize your qi energy as it circulates within your body and nourishes your inner organs. Open your senses to being in this universe. These instructions came from a group of lively women in their fifties to seventies who met every day to practice this exercise together in Beijing. It was a familiar entry for anyone who has been introduced to the healing exercises known as qigong. Such instructions may sound exotic or mystical, but, like tai chi and yoga, qigong offered individuals the opportunity to engage in mind-body cultivation and healing. Through breathing exercises and visualization of qi (vital energy), qigong not only offered pleasurable somatic experiences but also generated new breathing spaces that transformed the contours of daily life.

In the post-Mao period, qigong flourished as a highly charismatic form of healing. I argue that the turn toward self-cultivation and alternative healing did not occur in a vacuum. Instead, as the Chinese state shifted from subsidized medicine to for-profit market medicine, qigong masters quickly assembled vast networks, across China and abroad, in response to concerns for health in the new economy. Three central arguments frame this ethnographic study. First, qigong was immensely popular mainly because it met people's needs to cope with chronic health concerns while promoting a sense of belonging. The transition to a market economy facilitated the widespread . . .

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