Ba Duan Jin translates in various ways, including ‘The Eight Treasures’, ‘Eight Silken Movements’, ‘Eight Pieces of Brocade’ or ‘Eight Silk Weaving’. This ancient practice spread across different cultures in various diverse forms due to cultural exchanges between India, Tibet and China and, as a result, it is widely practised all over the world and has become the most well-known and popular of all the classic ancient Qigong forms. Its name reflects its intention, which is to impart a soft, smooth, ‘silk like’ quality to the muscles, joints and energy flow.
It was primarily designed to be a form of medical Qigong, to repair injury and improve overall health, but it is also used as part of the training regime in some martial arts, in particular among those practising Shaolin Kungfu, where it is the first form taught in Shaolin Medical Qigong.
Each movement of the form focuses on strengthening a particular area of the body, while unblocking and intensifying the energy flow throughout specific energy meridians related to that area. Linked together, the eight separate exercises benefit the entire Qi (energy) meridian network, which includes the internal organs through which the energy passes.
The results of various medical studies have revealed that Ba Duan Jin significantly improves the flexibility of the spine, calves and Achilles tendon, and also the shoulder joint and and sacroiliac joint. In addition, it alleviates pain in the knees and strengthens the entire physical structure, in particular the quadriceps muscles and the calves. Used as a warm-up exercise it helps to prevent athletic injuries.
The level of difficulty of Ba Duan Jin can be adjusted to suit all physical types, young or old, and advanced versions of the form dramatically increase core strength and flexibility.
Like most of the ancient Qigong forms of China, the origins of Ba Duan Jin are shrouded in myth and legend. Some say the exercises began several thousand years ago, dating back to the Song Dynasty (960–1279). However, according to the British Health Qigong Association (BHQA), Ba Duan Jin may have originated prior to the Song Dynasty, though it substantially evolved during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
In 1979, when archaeologists excavated the tomb of a noble who lived around 160 BCE, they discovered a silk scroll entitled ‘Dao Ying Xing Qi Fa’ (Method of Inducing Free Flow of Chi), which dates from the Western Han dynasty (206BC to AD23). It shows 44 drawings of men and women in different poses, each of which was followed by a caption giving the name of the disease that the pose might help cure. Among these poses were eight positions which closely resemble the Ba Duan Jin practised today.
However, the most popular story about the origins of Ba Duan Jin asserts that during the Southern Song Dynasty, a legendary Chinese military general and national folk hero, Yue Fei (1103–1142), developed a set of 12 fundamental exercises to train his army. These he later simplified to eight: Ba Duan Jin.
The martial historian Professor Meir Shahar notes Yue’s mention as a lineage master in the second preface of the Sinew Changing Classic manual (1624), which is why many regard him as the creator of Ba Duan Jin Qigong. The fact that Yue and his army were never defeated in battle was attributed to this Qigong training.
The martial relevance of this ‘medical Qigong’ is still very apparent today – visitors to the famous Shaolin Temple in Henan, China, will see statues of monks performing Ba Duan Jin, and the monks themselves who are living at the temple use this system, in combination with Yi Jin Jing, as part of their daily training. Indeed, variations of the seated version of Ba Duan Jin, created by Tao Hong-jing in the fifth century, were performed in Wudang Mountain Daoist Temples around 800–1200 CE as a light workout for Shaolin Temple monks engaged in hard style martial arts.
In the 20th century, in the late 1970s, Chinese universities and other educational institutions began introducing Ba Duan Jin into their national traditional sports curriculum, and doctors began to investigate its beneficial influence on health via controlled scientific studies. This has served to catalyse a significant evolution of the theory and practice of Ba Duan Jin and, nowadays, Chinese health professionals who use traditional Chinese medicine recommend specific exercises from the Ba Duan Jin form as a complementary health benefit – the archer being a favourite for respiratory problems.