Longevity is distinctly a Chinese value, a long-standing goal of Chinese traditional medicine and a focus of Daoist religious practices. Valuing a long life in good health fits well with the long-standing Chinese emphasis on honoring ancestors, implying respect for seniority. There were and are many techniques developed over the centuries to favor longevity, including dietary practices, ritual and exercise routines involving qigong as well as sexual disciplines that were the subject of numerous classical texts.
The goal of all such practices is to maintain health, unlike the Western medical focus which concentrates on curing illnesses. The place of Chinese traditional medicine in Western eyes might best be categorized as “preventive medicine,” which only began attracting attention as of the late 20th century.
The central concept for health and longevity in Chinese Civilization is qi. Techniques such as acupuncture and herbal medicines are based upon the understanding of qi as that fluid energy which manifests itself in the operations of the human body as well as in the surroundings. The term “body” must of course be understood in a non-Western sense because in the Chinese context everything exists in a continuous field of qi manifesting itself as both “body” and “surroundings.” The purpose of acupuncture and other traditional medical techniques is to balance the flow of the qi such that surroundings and body are productively open to each other and there are no blockages in this flow. Qi then moves in response to the yang and yin dynamics that are understood to be required for health . The health of the individual is, then, partly dependent upon the “health” of the environs. Adjustments of the yin and yang characteristics through acupuncture, moxibustion, qigong or herbal medicines serve to reestablish equilibrium in the flow of qi. Longevity has not gained similar prominence in the West, perhaps because the Western distinction between body and soul made immortality of the soul the primary focus of attention. Also, unlike China, the West tends to accord less status to old age, particularly in Modern times. Today’s Westerners, led by the USA, focus more on youth and the future.
© John G. Blair