Recently in a small, dimly lit treatment room in downtown Taipei, Wesley Chen instructed his patient to lie down. A frayed wire, which he wrapped around a small piece of metal, is now plugged in. He covers the metal with a wet cloth, grips it, and places his hand on the patient. Electricity surges through his hands and into his patient's body. This, he says, is electric qi gong.
Though the ability to properly harness electricity is a relatively recent development, a realization of the power of electricity and how it relates to qi dates back centuries. According to Chen, early observations of nature, specifically lightning, led people to the conclusion that this force was pure qi energy. Crude attempts at trying to filter that energy into one's body were unsuccessful, to put it mildly. Within recent history, before the advent of modern electrical wiring, hand crank generators were used.
Electric qi gong, or dian qi gong, is a means of treating a patient without the exhaustion of the practitioner's own energy. Its purpose is to supply and move qi within the patient's body. It is simply another tool practitioner's of Chinese medicine can make use of. There are many tools available to a practitioner of Chinese medicine, Chen states. It is important to understand the functions of each. All are valid.
The term, he believes, is a bit misleading; giving people the illusion that electricity can be created and transferred by the practitioner. The technique mimics that of standard medical qi gong with the major exception of the use of electricity. He says that by using electricity one is able to conserve their energy, as opposed to depleting the body through the possible transference to the patient.
Within Chen's native country of Taiwan these techniques are considered the domain of folk medicine. Such skills are not currently taught in modern TCM schools, nor can one currently be licensed as a practitioner of electric qi gong. In Chen's case, it was through years of studying martial arts and qi gong that his teacher chose to relay this treatment method to him. His academic background, which is in electrical engineering, reinforced his desire to move in this direction as opposed to studying at a TCM school. Chen's personal interest is in the evolution of techniques with the available technology, as opposed to a reliance on more traditional methods.
Like much of Chinese Medicine, Chen believes many are deceived by electric qi gong's seeming simplicity. Individuals interested in experimenting with practitioner methods often overestimate their ability to pass a current through their body to devastating results. The fact that one can handcraft a "machine" by wrapping a frayed wire around a piece of metal has led to many injuries amongst those who mistake great practitioner skill for ease of practice. The tendency, amongst most people, is to hold onto the metal conductor and be unable to release it. An effective practitioner must learn how to control the flow of the current. They must control themselves in dealing with shocks to avoid damaging the body. A standard electrical outlet has alternating current (AC). The body must learn to handle these fluctuations in power. There is a difference, he believes, between knowing how to use electric qi gong and knowing how to use it correctly. Some know how to use this tool but don't understand why it developed or how to apply it.
According to Chen, a common misconception is that being a practitioner of qi gong will lead to the ability to handle electricity. This skill, he states, is not attained through general practice, but through a particular style of qi gong that was developed for this purpose. Through this style, the body quality is altered so that the electricity does not harm the practitioner. In Chen's opinion, it is his years of practicing this style and his increased understanding of energy that protect him.
The means by which Chen diagnoses patients is based on a technique he learned from his master. By observing the patient and running his hands over their body he is able to detect problems with their qi. He describes this ability as sensing holes in the body's energy as well as sensing the color of the energy. Certain colors, he states, are associated with sickness and others with health. Even personality and mood are sensed and evaluated. The length of treatment, as well as the length of each session, is based both upon the strength of the practitioner and the level of patient need. An average session can last between one and two hours. The sensation felt by the patient depends largely upon the amount of electricity the practitioner passes through his or her hands. This feeling can be quite similar to that of a TENS machine. Patient descriptions range from a tingly flood of energy to pain due to strong muscle contraction. Chen also believes that these differences in sensation depend on the strength of the body and how much electricity a patient can tolerate. The patient serves as the guide for what is and isn't comfortable. As with e-stim, electric qi gong is contraindicated for people with pacemakers and defibrillators.
As Wesley Chen finishes the treatment, his patient takes a moment and then slowly sits up. The shrill, operatic-like singing that mimicked the electrical currents intensity has finally stopped. Chen steps out of the room and begins preparing tea. The result of the treatment is written on the patient's face: total relaxation.
Chen, Wesley. "Electric Qigong." Personal interview. 23 Mar. 2012.
Amelie de Mahy is an American acupuncturist, who spent the last two years studying Chinese medicine in Taipei, Taiwan. She recently returned from India, where she did medical work with the Tibetan religious community of Northern India. She is a graduate of the Academy of Oriental Medicine at Austin.