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Finding Qi and Chicanery in China


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A Harvard historian lets qi under her skin.

This article appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Spirituality & Health. When I first went to China, this is what I thought I knew. I knew that organizing the current preoccupation in the West with phenomena like qigong was a narrative of modernist discontent. The narrative tells us that we in the “West” have fallen out of touch with our bodies’ deeper rhythms and wisdom, become out of balance within ourselves. It urges us to look to the wisdom of the “East” that never forgot the ancient practices of mind-body integration and may be in a position to help us complete ourselves. I also knew that, in 1993, PBS had aired a hugely influential three-part special, “Healing and the Mind,” with Bill Moyers. The dramatic opening called “The Mystery of Chi” took viewers on an hour-long journey to China, a “mind/body culture,” and it was made clear that we were here in China to bear witness to understandings of healing mind and body that were not to be found “back home.” The focus of the show was on qigong, presented as a series of meditative movements said to be good for health. Qi was identified in He …

Anne Harrington is a professor of the history of Science at Harvard University and co-director of the Harvard University Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative.

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