We see our grandmothers go square dancing; young people retreat to gyms in every corner of the city. Is fitness in China therefore an import?
Long ago, in the absence of gyms, people needed to improvise in order to improve their levels of fitness. Tao Kan is a good example, living to be 76 years old, and one of the sixty-four great generals of the time. It was all down to his fitness regime. Each morning, he would move a pile of bricks across his courtyard, to then move it back again in the evening.
On the whole, however, ancient fitness was more a matter of practicality. In the time of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (more than 4,000 years ago), the war between Huang Di (黄帝), Yan Di (炎帝) and Chi You (蚩尤) was more a war of survival. The then aim of fitness was mainly to strengthen the body in order to fight the elements as well as the enemy. Therefore, physical fitness of the time came through labour, cutting wood, hunting or farming.
It was during The Three Kingdoms period (circa 184 CE) at the end of the Han Dynasty that people really began to realise how to keep healthy and even how to treat disease through exercise. Physician, Hua Tuo (华佗), was known as the “master of surgery” due to his proficiency and the fact that he was the first person in China to employ anesthesia. He went on to be heralded as the third medical deity of the era (建安三神医), together with Zhang Zhongjing (张仲景) and Dong Feng (董奉).
However, many people do not realise that one of Hua’s inventions became the earliest fitness program in China.
“Wu Qin Xi” (五禽戏)
Young Hua had traveled abroad and along the way, he studied medicine and saved lives at the same time; never pursuing fame and fortune in his life, Hua’s medical ethics could be said to be very noble. After carefully observing the many kinds of animals he encountered along his travels, and combining such with the physiological characteristics of the human body, Hua was able to invent a set of aerobic exercises for the elderly and infirm; the Wu Qin Xi. The exercises are imitations of five kinds of animals’ posture and movements; tiger, deer, bear, ape and bird.
According to records, Wu Qin Xi was not only China’s first fitness program, but it was also the first practicing of “sports medical treatment”, being able to relax and stimulate blood circulation, muscles and bones, to achieve the effect of health. Furthermore, it is very possible to feel fatigued and stomach discomfort after a hard workout; after a quick Wu Qin Xi and an application of talcum powder, the body will feel light and ready for food!
Legend has it that one of Hua’s students tried out the exercises after a long period of exercise, leading to a somewhat spooky improvement in both hearing and eyesight. Little wonder therefore, that Hua’s creation is a precious treasure of traditional Chinese medicine culture that has been passed down for 4 millennia and practiced from generation to generation.
“Qi Gong” (气功)
In order to pursue longevity, ancient Chinese peoples also paid special attention to physical exercise. Chinese Qi Gong likely also dates from the era of the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors.
Huang Di (黄帝), or the Yellow Emperor (2,717-2,599 BCE), is largely credited with deriving the first form of Qi Gong. Although the concept first appears in the book, “Huang Di Nei Jing” (黄帝内经; The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine), the work was in fact ghost written by later generations, who chose not to replace the name out of simple respect for the “ancestors of the humanities”.
Huang lived to be 118, at that time when life expectancy was just 30 or 40. It is largely thought today that he lived so long on account of his fitness and general health, through a regular practicing of Qi Gong.
“Long Whispers” (长啸)
Prominent poet of the southern song dynasty (1,127 CE), Lu You (陆游), grew up physically weak, but lived to be 85. His secret was the Long Whisper discipline in Qi Gong, a continuous production of high-pitched sounds made by controlling one’s breathing. Over time, the technique not only increases lung capacity and removes waste gas from the body, but also relaxes the body and mind.
Many other famous people in ancient China created their own sport for fitness, such as the swing master; Liu Che (刘彻). Not only was he an emperor of the Han dynasty, but he also developed the “swing” fitness concept. Originally known as “Qian Qiu” (千秋; a thousand years of Autumn), it did not become popular until the era of emperor Wu Di (汉武帝), who swapped the characters around in order to avoid the taboo of the eternal life for which he begged. Qiu Qian, or swing, quickly became popular among the people, and for good reasons.
As the body swings back and forth, direction, speed and height from the ground are constantly changing; the resulting increase and decrease in gravitational forces upon the body are good for maintaining a coordinated balance. The swing is also great for strengthening the waist and abdomen; with the body’s swinging, there follows a rhythmic expansion and contraction of muscles. As a pressure and tension reliever, the swing excels, while it can also help relax the nervous, cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
In a nutshell, the swing is China’s magical fitness equipment. No wonder the ancients were convinced of its importance, breaking records through fitness that even people today could perhaps not surpass.