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.

Scandinavian gymnastics and Qigong

Mark Singleton wrote a book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, in which he questions the ancient roots of Yoga. Is it really old, ancient, or even Indian? You can read his article summarising his argument here.

“What did it mean that many of the poses I was teaching were identical to those developed by a Scandinavian gymnastics teacher less than a century ago? This gymnast had not been to India and had never received any teaching in asana. And yet his system, with its five-count format, its abdominal “locks,” and its dynamic jumps in and out of those oh-so-familiar postures, looked uncannily like the vinyasa yoga system I knew so well.” –

Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice

I really love discovering these odd curiosities of 19th and early 20th century European gymnastic or martial arts that look incredibly like what we practice in the Asian martial arts styles, Qigong or Yoga. The link between 19th century French Savate (kickboxing) and the Japanese version of Karate is another fascinating connection that I’ve looked at before.

Recently I watched another video about 19th century Swedish Free Gymnastics:

Swedish Free Gymnastics has long since declined, but was pretty popular in the 19th century. There are some great archive pictures and video of the movements in that video above, and they look incredibly like what we know in China as Qigong – the idea of slow, smooth, elegant movement with force balanced around the body. In fact, some of the positions look exactly like Qigong movements I’ve been taught and practiced myself.

“The Swedish system of gymnastics is distinguished from other methods in the fact that a special apparatus is not absolutely needed for its exercises. If any argument were necessary to prove the hygienic and intellectual benefits of physical exercise, in these days of varied athletics, a scrutiny of the handbook now under notice would excite due enthusiasm. The whole range of gymnastic performance, from the simplest to the most complex exercises, is herein put before the reader with explicit directions for practice, and with a gratifying abundance of illustrations. The fact that the English language has hitherto had no comprehensive manual on the Swedish system is the occasion of the publication ; the official service of Baron Posse confirms his fitness for the authorship of this book of rules; while in mechanical arrangement nothing seems to have been omitted that would induce fondness for gymnastic practice.”

Posse, Nils. The Swedish system of educational gymnastics. B

As the video says, the similarities have lead some people to wonder if Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) was actually the inspiration for these movements. There was, after all, a political connection between China and colonialist Europe powers in the 19th century, that culminating in the Opium Wars.

The author of the video sensibly disagrees with the connection to Tai Chi Chuan, and so do I. For a start, I think these movements from Sweden are likely older than Tai Chi Chuan, The general assumption amongst people is that Tai Chi Chuan must be really, really old, yet there’s no evidence of its existence before Yang LuChan arrived in Beijing in the 1860s.

But leaving the Tai Chi Chuan question aside, the movements of Swedish Free Gymnastics look more like Qigong than Tai Chi Chuan anyway, but there are records of Chinese health movements (“tao yin”) stretching back thousands of years in China, so I don’t think we can claim a European origin for Qigong. Some sets like the Muscle tendon change set are really famous.

However, I wouldn’t discount the role of influence. The Europeans arriving in China in the 19th century in large numbers and with superior military force resulted in huge changes. As China began to experience defeat at the hands of the European powers, it turned it attention to modernising and adopting these new methods or warfare, economics and exercise. We talked a lot about this in our podcast episodes on the history of Tai Chi Chuan.

As China looked to the West new ideas of commerce, military methods and politics were considered for the first time. I wouldn’t be surprised if some element of the gymnastics of the time slipped in as well, as it did in India, with Yoga.

Yoga came from Europe

“What did it mean that many of the poses I was teaching were identical to those developed by a Scandinavian gymnastics teacher less than a century ago? “

woman flexing her legs

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I’m sharing this article again because I really like it. I like the moments where your perspective of the world is turned upside down. When your perspective suddenly shifts and what you thought was permanent is shown to be on the same shifting sands as everything else.

These moments seem to be happening on a daily basis with the political turmoil in the UK at the moment. Democracy lurches left and right. The once unthinkable becomes thinkable, normal, everyday reality.

But the thing is, we invented Yoga. Not the ancient Hindu practice. The modern-day Yoga of tight pants and sweaty mats. The Yoga you see practiced in classes all over the country on wooden floors in rooms with steamy windows. It is Western culture given an Eastern polish and exported back to us to pander to our fetish for spirituality.

Original link removed – I think this is the same article.

Your daily Tai Chi ritual – creating order out of chaos

backlit clouds dawn dusk

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Scott posted some answers to various questions he gets over at Strengthness with a Twist, his blog. I thought the first one was most interesting:

What do you mean when you say martial arts are rituals?

Rituals are ways of making order out of chaos. Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order. It is a daily ritual that has deep, lasting, and profound effects on every aspect of our being. This is true of martial arts world wide, but it is particularly clear in the structure of Chinese martial arts as they were understood before the Boxer Uprising.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote since it’s pretty clear to anybody who does a daily practice of Tai Chi (or related martial/yoga/chi kung type practice) in the morning, that it soon becomes a kind of ritual, whether you like it or not. Not a ritual in the Western religious sense, but a ritual for your body (which Scott is arguing is, in fact, the true essence of religion in the Eastern sense).

I like his definition of “bringing order from chaos” even if it does sound a bit Jordan Peterson fan-boy-ish 😉

But if we can separate the phrase from the alt-right ideology it has become attached to, that phrase is what you are doing to your body when you practice Tai Chi in the morning. Having just woken up in the morning you can consider your body to be in a state of ‘chaos’ – you’re not yet functioning at 100%, your tendons will be shortened from lying down for so long and your body might ache from uncomfortable sleeping positions, and it needs to stretch. In fact, we stretch as a reflex action once we wake. Mentally you are also not yet “with it”, at least not until you’ve properly caffeinated.

A morning Tai Chi “ritual” (or “routine” if you like), can bring you back into occupying your body properly and get it ready for the demands of the day. When I think about what the main health benefit of Tai Chi is, I think it’s this. People tend to treat Tai Chi as a panacea that cures everything from a bad back to an ingrowing toenail. I take all the latest ‘scientific’ research about the miraculous healing benefits of Tai Chi with a pinch of salt. I think its best feature is simply this: it’s a way of gently ordering and strengthening the body in the morning, ready for the day.

I also like Scott’s later quote,

Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order

This one brings to mind a whirling Baguazhang practitioner spinning in circles, taming the elements he is working with, or two sword fighters caught in the midst of a leaping blow.

two man in white shorts fighting using sword during daytime

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It all sounds a bit fantastical, but again, I think there’s some truth buried here.

Through techniques in martial arts, we are bringing order to the chaos of the fight. This is perfectly demonstrated in a Jiujitsu match – it’s all scrambling, spinning madness, then order is established as a joint lock or choke is put in place, as one practitioner controls the limbs and body of the other through correct position, leverage and technique, and the ‘fight’ ends.

Performing the Tai Chi form is an analogy for how the whole universe was created out of chaos, and order established. When you start the Tai Chi form, in a still, standing position you are in a state of Wu Chi – the undifferentiated primordial state of emptiness, but always with the possibility of giving birth to something. Then the big bang happens and you start to move – Yin and Yang become differentiated and you are continually moving between these two opposite poles. The body opens and closes in a continuous spiral. As one part of the body is opening, another is closing until the final movement – often known as “Carry the Tiger back to the mountain”- when you return to stillness. The mountain here represents that primordial stillness. You have brought order to chaos and returned to the mountain.

adventure alps amazing beautiful

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