Did Taoist cultivation exercises really influence Western gymnastics?

I was watching a video recently about the origins of Swedish Gymnastics, the exercise system created (or codified) by Dr. Pehr Henrik Ling in the 18th Century. Swedish Gymnastics was part of the “Physical Culture Movement”, which began in Europe during the 19th century, spreading to England, the United States and can still be found today in the form of Gymnastics, Body Building and modern massage.

(Discussion of Swedish Gymnastics is usual centered around the fact that they contain more of the content of a modern Yoga class than you find in anything from ancient India. This information usually comes as a shock to most people, but postures like Downward Dog or Table Top are straight from Swedish Gymnastics and have little to do with ancient Indian Yogis on a path to enlightenment. You can find out more about that in the book Yoga Body by Dr Mark Singleton, or his Yoga Journal article.)

But today we are not interested in Yoga. We’re interested in the connection between Swedish Gymnastics and Taoist health exercises. It’s always been been assumed that Ling was, at least, inspired, by the Chinese/Taoist breathing, gymnastic and alchemical systems (what we would call Qigong today) when he created his gymnastic system, if not actually copying them, but the following video by Physical Culture Historians makes the case that there was no Chinese connection for Ling’s work at all. Have a watch:

It’s quite a persuasive video. I mean, it doesn’t matter much these days – nobody except cultural historians really practices the old style of Swedish gymnastics anymore, as far as I can see, and millions of people practice yoga and Chinese Qigong, but it did start me thinking about the whole question.

From watching the video it appears that the commonly quoted idea that Ling traveled to China at some point is bogus. Which leaves the idea that he might have been exposed to a book on Taoist gymnastic exercises. Everything traces back to the 1779 article by Jesuit priest Cibot “Notice du Cong-fou [Kung-fu] des Bonzes Tao-see Tao shih” which you could translate as “Kung Fu xercises of the Taoist Priests”. The video above calls these the “old form of the popular Baduanjin exercises” – however, I’m not convinced that’s what they are, but anyway… I agree with the point the video is making, which is that these seated exercises don’t seem to have much in common with Ling’s exercises, which are all done standing.

The video makes no reference to Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, Vol 5, which is the work that, I think for most modern scholars, adds the most credence to the idea that Ling’s exercises were based on Chinese Taoist gymnastics. But Needham is also using Cibot as his source. Needham says:

Our little digression, if such it was, on Chinese calisthenics, has brought us to the time when the Jesuit P. M. Cibot (3) presented Europeans with a short but celebrated paper on the strictly macrobiotic exercises of the physiological alchemists.a His ‘Notice du Cong-fou [Kung-fu] des Bonzes Tao-see [Tao shihJ’ of + 1779 was intended to present the physicists and physicians of Europe with a sketch of a system of medical gymnastics which they might like to adopt-or if they found it at fault they might be stimulated to invent something better. This work has long been regarded as of cardinal importance in the history of physiotherapyb because it almost certainly influenced the Swedish founder of the modem phase of the art, Per Hendrik Ling. Cibot studied at least one Chinese book, but also got much from a Christian neophyte who had become expert in the subject before his conversion. Cibot did not care much for the Taoist philosophy, but believed that kungfu and its medical theory was an ‘estimable system’ which had really worked many cures and relieved many infirmities.

Did this work really influence Ling? Maybe he read it, who can say, but I think the idea that Ling’s exercises are in any way copies of these Taoist exercises seems to be stretching things a bit. In any case, there were already plenty of existing exercises systems in Europe that are the most likely source of Ling’s influence, not to mention that Ling got a lot of his stuff from fencing, which he was very familiar with.

I think we also have to address the issue of whether anybody can truly create something new, or not, as well. Every new Kung Fu style, for instance, is not really new, it’s a blend of things that have come before with some new ideas added.

So, I have to say, it is looking like Needham is wrong here and that Ling wasn’t influenced by Chinese sources, but equally, I don’t think Ling created all these exercises himself out of thin air. Every great innovator stands on the shoulders of giants. Either way, Ling’s system remains a fascinating snapshot of exercise methods that started to sweep Europe, and US, paving the way for the things that would follow.

One thought on “Did Taoist cultivation exercises really influence Western gymnastics?

  1. Pingback: ¿Han influido realmente los ejercicios de cultivación taoísta en la gimnasia occidental? - Artes Marciales

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