Grandmaster Anthony Wee Kuen Hong is on a mission to bring the Chinese practice of qi gong to the wider public. By Ilsa Sharp
Qi gong has a bit of a branding problem. First of all, there is that “Q” masking the true pronunciation, “chee”, making the term opaque to the non-Chinese speaker unfamiliar with the pinyin romanisation of Chinese characters. Before pinyin, this ancient Chinese meditation practice was spelled “Chi Kung.”
Secondly, for some reason, qi gong’s close relative, tai chi (also known as t’ai chi ch’uan or taijiquan in pinyin) is far more widely known. But these two traditional Chinese practices, while drawing from similar sources, are quite different. And qi gong is probably much older, rooted in at least 2,000 to 4,000 years of Chinese history, with a pedigree of more like 6,000 years when you factor in its probable ancient Indian origins. That makes tai chi a mere baby with a track record of possibly fewer than 800 years.
“Qi gong? That’s tai chi, isn’t it?” is the typical response when I tell people that I am learning qi gong. But it isn’t.
Qi gong exponent, 68-year-old sigong (Grandmaster) Anthony Wee Kuen Hong, is the Singapore-born founder of a syncretic qi gong school named Chi Dynamics now based in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. He is “grandmaster” because he has already trained others to the level of sifu (teacher). He explains the relationship of the two arts poetically: “Think of a tree. Tai chi with its elegance and grace is the tree’s leaves and flowers, but qi gong is its roots, less pretty but deeply earthed. The one cannot be without the other.”
In another conversation, he says, “Qi gong does not emphasise movement — it is mostly internal. The internal action stimulates the qi fl ow. Tai chi uses movement as an end in itself. Qi gong has never been a martial art whereas tai chi has (taijiquan means ‘supreme ultimate fist’). But qi gongis an energy builder for the martial arts.”
So, what is qi gong then? I’ve heard outsiders variously tag it as a form of “callisthenics” or “isometrics”. Both notions are way off the mark. The best quick answer that I have come up with myself is, “Well, it’s a sort of Chinese yoga.” But even that’s a pretty inadequate and superficial description of so subtly integrated and complex a system of exercises, encompassing physical movement, breathing, mind, meditation and, indeed, a whole philosophy of life.
Why do I do it? Simply, it makes me feel well and focused, both relaxed and energetic. And my annual medical checkup confirms that my health is good, even though I gave up gym workouts several years ago.
The West and the Western-educated in Asia are hungry for a deeper understanding of self-help systems like qi gong. Western medicine is increasingly meeting Eastern traditions halfway, on common ground, agreeing that there are objectively demonstrable health benefi ts to be gained from such practices.
Sigong Wee is committed to the task of communicating qi gong principles to a wider public. That is what his new wisdompacked book is all about. His Chi Dynamics system, founded in Singapore in 1981, amalgamates classic qi gong with elements of tai chi, kung fu and the famed Shaolin martial arts, and even Yoga. He has packaged the art in well-ordered, simple formulaic frameworks — digestible “bites” — in English while giving the nod to medical science as he strives to satisfy the typically Western demand for rational explanation and objective proof. His is a qi gong tailored to modern life.
You can see sigong Wee’s experience writ large upon his ruggedly handsome face. At times, it channels the pugnacity of a Chinese triad gangster (in 1972, he got boxing legend Muhammad Ali to karate-chop him in the Adam’s apple and didn’t flinch), other times the smile creases of a wise grandfather or a kindly bus driver (which is apt because in 1987, he got a 9.5-tonne double-decker public bus in Perth to drive over his prostrate body twice in one day, demonstrating his mastery of qi strength and setting a world record).
Highly trained in martial arts such as Northern Shaolin and the relatively rare — and fairly vicious — Southern Shaolin Wu Mei Nei Gong (“the inner power of the fighting nun”), sigong Wee first began his kung fu apprenticeship at the tender age of 12. Worried that his son was too young for this close encounter with physical violence, his father took him out of training. However, soon after his son’s dangerous bout with pleurisy at 16, he allowed the boy to resume. As all professional kung fu practitioners are expected to do, sigong Wee pays full tribute to his own three early masters, sifu Lim Kah Siang, sifu Woon Dah Mie, and sigong Tan Seow Koon.
As a result of this early training, the oung Anthony Wee was the kind of toughie undergrad who at Singapore University was constantly on call to act as a bouncer at student socials or brought in to “sort out” the local bullies. Despite such distractions, he obtained a BA in Philosophy in 1968, although he jokes, “But I really believe it was in ‘BS’ as in Billiards ‘n’ Snooker!” A silver medallist in the Southeast Asian Pugilistic Tournament of 1971/72, sigong Wee was also Singapore’s national kung fu champion and captain of the Singapore pugilistic kung fu team competing at the tournament. In 1975, he founded Singapore’s Shunlin Wushu Kwan Association, teaching martial arts.
But these days, the one-time pugilist is more interested in the healing arts of qi gong. His epiphany came in 1980 when his then 65-year-old father took sick with bronchial cancer and was given six months to live. Under sigong Wee’s guidance, the older man practised qi breathing and meditation, and lived another 15 cancer-free years. He died at 80, of other causes, not cancer.
Cancer care has preoccupied sigong Wee ever since. His booklet, Cancer Care with Chi Dynamics, edited by Dr Quek Swee Lip, is targeted at cancer sufferers and their carers — download this free from the Chi Dynamics website, www.chidynamics-qigong.com
Qi gong is not magic, however. And certainly no magical cure for cancer either: Chi Dynamics claims no more than its demonstrated role as a “powerful supplement” to primary cancer therapies. The “gong” part of the term qi gong — “work” is material to successful practice. You need to work at it. You need to focus. You need to replenish your qi ‘store’ daily if at all possible. It’s quite amazing how the apparently semi-static poses in qi gong, once performed with the mind and body fully focused, can leave you with the feeling of having exercised just as much as if you had been pumping iron at the gym.
Wee’s recently published second book, The Dynamic Free Flow of Qi, outlines in great detail the background, principles, practice and benefits of qi gong as interpreted through Chi Dynamics. (His first book is: The Flow and the Power of Chi Dynamics, 2003, available with a companion video disk)
I asked sigong Wee if one could use his books as handbooks to practise qi gong without ever going to a class or studying under a teacher.
“That would be one-dimensional,” he replied. “You would have no visual image of what constitutes a perfect movement.”
So, the books have to be considered as aids complementary to actual study and practice.
The two characters 气功 informing qi gong refer to “energy” (qi) and “work” (or skill/practice, gong). While the practice has the potential to be spiritual, it certainly is not religious. Some call it a science, others an art, and a cynical few, “hokum!” For most qi gong practitioners, the proof of the pudding is in its eating. For them, it works. The movement of qi energy around the body can actually be experienced. The almost solid rod of warm energy that can connect the two lao gong (“palace of labour”) points situated in the palms of two facing hands is tangible, real.
Visual reference images are certainly important, as sigong Wee has said. The word “energy” somewhat misrepresents qi: this energy is no bolt of lightning, but it does slightly resemble an electric current running through the body, buzzing and humming at the extremities, fingers and feet. Yet when you watch a master like sigong Wee tracing its fl ow delicately
through the air with his extended fingertips, the first image that comes to mind is more like a weaver spinning out skeins of fragile silken thread.
Qi gong practice is based on traditional Chinese beliefs about the fl ow of this qi, or “life force” if you like (Prana in the Indian cultural context), along defined channels or meridians in the body, via specific points already well known as the “acupuncture points” used in traditional Chinese medicine. The aim of qi gong is to increase the free flow of qi through the body, and to direct it towards healing at specific points, when and where needed. For example, the practice features special movement patterns directed at five key organs: the heart, lungs, liver and spleen, kidneys and digestive organs.
Qi gong, then, effectively is a holistic system of preventive medicine and selfhealing, benefiting the practitioner with a sense of well-being and with good health. When you are a very experienced practitioner, there is the possibility of being able to pass on positive qi to others in need, such as to act as a healer. But that takes time and hard work.
At the heart of qi gong practice lies targeted breathing, and the power of yi, best translated as mind, intent or focus. Qi gong practice does include meditation techniques. It is in the harmonious unification of the breath-mind-movement trinity that qi gong sources its power.
The first thing that most qi gong students have to do is relearn how to breathe. As sigong Wee notes, some 90% of us simply breathe wrongly. Where a “normal” adult may take in 11 to 14 breaths per minute, a qi gong practitioner may take only fi ve to eight breaths. The qi gong “secret” is diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing. Untrained, most people will breathe shallowly, from the upper chest or throat; in qi gong, however, you are taught to breathe at a deeper level, so that the belly rises with your inhalation, not the chest. With time and training, this diaphragmatic breathing style becomes automatic in daily life, greatly increasing oxygen fl ow in the body, and with it, overall energy and health.
It may seem incredible to some, but there are no fewer than five breathing styles in qi gong practice, each of them targeted to a particular purpose or effect. They range from very soft, as in fu or chui breathing, to loud and harsh, such as pi and tu breathing (tu breathing being very like the “haa!” sound commonly thought to be typical of the more strenuous martial arts), or sibilant, such as the hissing xi breath.
These five breathing styles are linked with the five elements of Chinese tradition: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Sigong Wee’s Chapter 7 in his new book paints a fascinating portrait of how these elements manifest themselves in differing human personalities. Balancing these elements within the body and mind is a major goal for the qi gong practitioner.
Physical qi gong stances and movements range from things as simple as a rhythmic wringing of the hands to free the qi (looks very silly to the casual observer, but it works), through one arm upheld to “heaven” with the other palm down to earth to more complex patterns such as the “butterfly stretch”, performed with rocking feet, sweeping arms and a final loud tu breath.
While some postures may involve standing on one leg, the basic qi gong starting stance is almost knock-kneed, with feet turned in and firmly “planted” on the earth. One of the most startling discoveries for the beginner after a relatively short period of training is that very “planted” feeling, a sensation of strength and perfect balance, based on a firm, stable and strong connection with the ground. This must surely be what people mean when they say someone is “grounded”.
Qi gong also entails a virtuous circle: you need to be relaxed to do it and experience it well; on the other hand, the practice itself in turn enhances your sense of relaxation.
Being too intellectual about qi gong is likely to cause problems with the practice. Sigong Wee constantly returns to the refrain that “most of us are more left-brain — this is the caution and the logic that keeps us out of trouble. But we need to rebalance it with more right-brain activity, to analyse less”. To borrow a well-worn phrase, he means, “Go with the flow.”
Sigong Wee grants that for the majority, this is not an easy ask: “Only about 30% of my students feel it [the free flow of qi] in various degrees. Why not all? This has to do with the mind. It is about letting go and not using the ‘thinking’ left brain. You need to ‘feel’ with your right brain as ‘free flow’ is totally a right-brain activity. You have to be lost in your feelings and not be self-conscious.”
Sigong Wee’s international Chi Dynamics network, comprising some 4,000 or more practitioners, covers Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the UK, as well as Perth and Sydney in Australia. Recently returned to Asia after two decades based in Australia, he now runs Chi Dynamics Malaysia as a community “clinic”, and is currently finalising a new Chi Dynamics International training centre in Singapore, a spacious 929 sq m suite of rooms located in Leng Kee Road in Alexandra, made available thanks to the generosity of friends and sponsors. Keen to create a personal legacy, he intends to train and qualify no fewer than 100 new qi gong instructors at this centre by 2013. “This should help promote community health better in both Singapore and Malaysia,” he explains.
He loves to teach and is an entertaining presenter; he’s likely to break into a song while demonstrating “healing sounds”, betraying his love of karaoke singing. He once told a student, “I have never run a class or seminar I didn’t enjoy. The day I do, I shall stop teaching.” He has also told this writer, “I want people to be well trained by good instructors. I would like people to enjoy their health.”
Is he doing himself out of a job? “No, not at all, for the more you give, the greater the demand!”
Freelance writer Ilsa Sharp has been a student of sigong Anthony Wee and Chi Dynamics for five years, under the instruction of senior instructor Gillian Nunn in Perth, Western Australia. She holds a BA Honours degree in Chinese Studies from Leeds University, UK, and formerly resided in Singapore for 30 years. The author of several books on the region’s history and natural history, she now commutes here from her Perth base.
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