The term Qigong didn’t become widespread until the 20th century, before this terms like dao-yin ‘leading the energy’, xing-qi ‘leading the circulation of qi’ or yang-shen ‘nourishing the spirit’ were used. As qigong has been passed down orally and evolved gradually over many generations attempts to plot its history inevitably rely on speculation, guesswork and legends. Qigong like exercises are generally believed to be about 5000 years old. Some claim that qigong evolved from shamanistic animal dances, while others assert that it evolved from yoga like exercises that came from India with Buddhism.
For much of its history qigong was practiced in Taoist and to lesser extent Buddhist temples, with an emphasis on spiritual development and meditation.
Legend has it that Da Mo (otherwise known Bodhidharma), a Buddhist monk from India arrived at the Shaolin temple in the 6th century, to find the monks in such poor state of health that they found it difficult to meditate for long periods. The story goes that he spent nine years in a cave meditating and developed muscle tendon stretching (yijin jing) and bone marrow washing (xi sui jing) qigong to help the monks. At the time the monastery was frequently attacked by bandits, so this qigong was gradually incorporated their martial arts.
The successful Chinese army general Yue Fei 1104-1142 is believed to have developed the still widely practiced eight pieces of the brocade (ba duan jin) to keep his troops healthy. He never lost a battle.
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that qigong was taught openly in China for its health benefits. This was encouraged by the communist party, because there was a shortage of doctors at this time. Up until this point martial artists and monks only taught relatively small numbers in secret. Today qigong is practiced by millions of people in many different countries.