The Art of Balance

Interview by Robert O'Malley

(De-guang He is a master of medical qigong, a licensed acupuncturist, and a herbalist. He and his wife, Zhenzhen Zhang, recently opened Acupuncture & Herbal Health Care/Beijing House at 15 Elm St. in Waltham.)

I grew up in the countryside in Anhui Province. My village was very beautiful. The farmers there grew mostly rice, but also crops such as potatoes and wheat.

I was the sixth of seven children. When I was a child there weren't many doctors. I remember the countryside people usually used traditional Chinese medicine. When I caught a cold or had a fever my mother would always cook a soup for me. It was very effective. When my mother was a child and had a cold, my grandmother would also have her drink some soup. It's a practice that is passed down from generation to generation. My mother knows a little about Chinese medicine, but she is not a doctor.

If my mother's soup wasn't effective she would bring me to a traditional doctor, who would usually give me some herbs, which would be cooked to make a drink. The doctors would choose from several hundred herbs. Their choice would depend on the disease they were trying to cure. In Western medicine there may be one kind of remedy - such as aspirin - for a cold. But traditional medicine is different. If you have a cold. the choice of medicine could depend, for example, on whether you have or haven't a fever.

In the Chinese countryside there was little Western medicine. The traditional medicine is usually passed from generation to generation, but Western medicine is learned in a school. When I was a child I knew about the traditional medicine and also the Western medicine.

When I was in my third year of high school, before I took the test to go to college, I didn't feel very well. It turned out that I had a disease. When I was a child I really liked sports - badminton and wushu - and I thought my health was very good. But I got this disease, an inflammation of my skin.

In the countryside no one knew what the disease was, and I was also worried. I didn't know what was wrong with me. Now I know I got that disease because sanitation in the village was not that good. I had to go to the hospital to have an operation.

After that experience I thought I would become a doctor, because in the countryside there weren't many doctors. Doctors are really needed there. I took the test to go to the university and eventually went to the Anhui College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Only two of the 30 to 40 students in my high school class went to university, and I was one of them.

Why did I choose traditional medicine? When I was sick as a child I would usually drink the herbal soup. I thought it was a good way to be cured. The Western-style medicine required an operation or an injection. I thought an operation would not be so good and was also a little afraid of it. I thought traditional medicine was cleaner.

At the school, we studied all the traditional Chinese therapies, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, and massage. We also gained a general knowledge of Western medicine.

Traditional Chinese medicine looks at the whole body, not just at one part of it. For instance, if you have a headache, the traditional doctor doesn't just think about the headache. Maybe the cause of the headache is a problem with your blood. Maybe the fluid is not so good, so you get a headache. Or maybe you get a headache because you have a cold. In Chinese medicine there's something called qi. Maybe the qi is not flowing so well, so you get a headache. Or maybe you have some psychological problem - a family or workplace problem - that is causing the headache. So we think about all the possible causes before deciding on the disease and the treatment. We don't just think about the headache. If it's a blood problem, acupuncture or herbal medicine could be used to make the blood flow better.

In Chinese medicine we also have what are called meridians, or jing luo. In Western medicine you have nerves, but meridians are different from nerves. For instance, if you have pain in your teeth, I can insert an acupuncture needle in another part of the body that is connected to the teeth by the meridian. The whole body is connected by the meridians.

For some diseases traditional Chinese medicine is better than Western medicine, but for others, Western medicine is better. I think having two kinds of medicine is better than having just one kind. Traditional Chinese medicine is usually good for chronic diseases that require long-term treatment. Traditional Chinese medicine also has fewer side effects than Western medicine; you can almost say it has no side effects, so I think that's good.

When I first went to the college in 1979 I didn't know anything about qigong. At that time there were some qigong experiments taking place in Shanghai. They found that the qigong could stop pain. I read a qigong magazine and soon became interested. When we study traditional medicine we have to study the qi, the blood, and the water or fluid in the body. The blood we can see and the fluid we can see, but the qi we can't see. I thought qigong was curious because you could feel it but not see it. I started to practice qigong and found that if I did the exercises I could feel the qi, just as I could feel the effects of acupuncture. It's the same idea. In college I practiced qigong on my own.

After five years of study I passed another test to enter the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, which specializes in qigong and acupuncture. I practiced by doing qigong exercises and also studied many books about qigong. At that time qigong was new. I was one of the first people to get a master's degree in qigong and acupuncture. The Chinese health news wrote a story about this.

After I graduated I worked at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. I collected books and articles on qigong and did some teaching. I also did experiments on the physiological changes that take place as a result of qigong practice. We found that electrical changes occur in the body during practice. We also did some experiments with qigong and the kind of lung disease found in coal miners. We found it's effective in treating this kind of disease.

Qigong combines three kinds of methods. One involves sitting like this (in meditation). You don't move. This involves concentration of the mind and attention to the posture. Another kind of qigong involves movement. Usually the movement is like the movement of some animal. A third method involves deep breathing or stopping the breath and concentrating. This is the most difficult method. You don't think anything; you just concentrate on your abdomen or some special thing.

I practice every day, usually for one hour. If I have more time I do more. When I do qigong I feel very relaxed. My mind is very quiet. I also feel the qi flow in my body; I feel warm. Usually when you do qigong you feel something is different. You could feel goose bumps. When you feel very cold or feel very nervous you get goose bumps. But you can't control them. I can control them and make them come out when I want. (He sits still in his chair and goose bumps come out of his arm. ) I move my qi. When you do qigong you feel something different. It's interesting.

I became more and more interested in qigong, and eventually went to Tokyo to study in Tokyo University's psychosomatic department. I also studied about qigong and the goose bump phenomenon. No one I know can make goose bumps come out of their skin at will. I did an experiment on the kind of changes that takes place in the body by practicing qigong. Usually goose bumps are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. You can't control them because they happen naturally. But when you do qigong you can control some part of the sympathetic nervous system. I think I move my body's qi to make the goose bumps come out. I don't know exactly when I realized I could do that. I just did the exercise everyday and some days I felt so good, so comfortable. Usually I would close my eyes and lie down. I was so comfortable and suddenly I saw these goose bumps.

This month my wife and I opened a clinic in Waltham. I will do herbal medicine, acupuncture, and qigong. My wife and I graduated from the same Chinese traditional medicine college. We know each other from school. She lived in Japan before coming to the US three years ago. She specializes in herbal medicine and acupuncture. She is also a teacher and supervisor at the New England School of Acupuncture and does herbal medicine and acupuncture at a local hospital. Last Saturday we started our first qigong class.

In Japan I had many qigong students. Most of them were housewives who weren't too busy and had time to think about their health. In Japan and China everybody knows about qigong, but in America not so many people know about it. They know about tai chi or meditation but they don't know about qigong. There aren't so many qigong teachers here.

In Japan I taught people how to use qigong to lose weight. It's very effective. I usually have 12 sessions over a six-week period. Several hundred people took the course. In that six-week period, people could usually lose about 10 pounds. That's the average. The highest weight loss was about 20 pounds. To lose weight you practice internal qigong, which means you do it by yourself. There is also external qigong in which the qigong master moves qi through his hand to the patient.

Qigong can keep the body balanced. Chinese always think that the body will become diseased when it is out of balance. When the body is in balance you will have no health problem. For instance, if your body temperature is normal it's OK, but if the temperature is too high you will get a fever. Qigong helps people keep the balance. When the qi is weak the balance is broken; if the qi is strong the body will maintain its balance.

A person who always wants to eat will never feel full. They are always hungry. People who feel full and don't feel hungry have a different problem because that's not normal either. It's normal to feel a little hungry. Some people may want to eat because the balance is broken. Qigong can keep the balance and suppress the appetite to some degree.

Some people gain weight because they don't move enough. That's also a problem. People don't move either because they have no time or don't enjoy doing it. I teach people some simple movements.

Why do Americans have a problem with weight? One reason is they don't move enough. They go everywhere by car and don't have an opportunity to exercise. Another problem is food. The food here is not very good. People eat too much meat or fat and not enough vegetables. Chinese food has many vegetables. So I think the American diet leads to imbalance.

Sometimes when I am walking on the street I see people eating and drinking. I don't know if they are eating lunch or not. Maybe some people eat four or five times a day instead of just three times. I don't know why they do that. One problem involves the availability of food. There's too much food available here. When you see it or smell it you want to eat it. Still another problem may be stress. America is a very competitive society. When people feel stress they have to do something to relax. Some people like to exercise so that's good. But some people don't have any time, and its difficult, so they eat and drink to feel comfortable.

Although this may be changing now, the Chinese government in the past usually gave everybody a job, so a person could always keep the same job. Both the hard worker and the lazy worker would get the same salary, so it wasn't so competitive. But in America it's different. If you don't work hard, or keep learning, you could lose your job, so it's very competitive.

But I think Americans may be healthier than rural Chinese, but I believe urban Chinese are healthier than Americans. Many people in the Chinese countryside don't get enough nutrition, which is why many have short life spans. They're weak but they have to do hard work. Also, when they have a disease they don't have enough money to drink medicine. There also aren't enough doctors available in the countryside and the people haven't health insurance. I know this because I am from the countryside.

But I think conditions are much better in Chinese cities. For one thing, city people have some health insurance. Also, if you went to China you would also see many people going to the park every morning to exercise. Chinese food is also more healthful than American food because it contains many vegetables and not so much meat and eggs. In China you don't see people who are very fat. If people are too fat, it's easy for them to get high blood pressure, diabetes, and many other diseases. I think people who eat too much maybe will die earlier than those who eat normally.

I usually eat Chinese food. I don't like American food, though sometimes I have eaten a hamburger or Kentucky Fried Chicken. At home the main dish is of course rice, along with vegetables, doufu, and eggs or meat. My food contains many vegetables but little meat. I think this is the best way to eat.

I came to the United States on April 13. I like the United States and think the American system is a good one. If you have ability here you can do what you want, but in China there's not so much freedom. I don't find it difficult adjusting to American life. Of course, there are differences. In Chinese culture people don't talk too much about themselves, but here people tend to say they can do anything. 'I can do that, I can do that.' they say. So it's more competitive. It's a little difficult, but I think it's better.

Before I came here I lived in Japan for six years. Japanese culture is very similar to Chinese culture, but the Japanese still keep some traditions - the old Chinese traditions, I think (he laughs). For instance people on the top and those on the bottom have different behaviors. In Japan, a person has to listen to his boss and obey him in everything. Even if the boss is wrong you still have to obey him.

Japanese have the longest life span. I think their food is very healthy. They eat many vegetables and fish, but not so much meat. There are more people with pot bellies in Japan than in China, but fewer than you see in America. This condition will develop if you eat too much and don't move enough.

Having four seasons is also good. I think a climate that is too cold or too hot isn't good for health. If the weather is good you feel comfortable, but if it's too cold it's difficult to do things and you don't feel comfortable or relaxed. Also, if you are working in a climate that is too hot you will get tired easily.

The health care system in Japan is much better than the system in China. Japan is a developed country and China is a developing country. They have much medical equipment, in some instances maybe more than the Americans. And in Japan everyone has health insurance (national health insurance).

The Japanese also use a futon rather than a bed. Every day when they get up they have to pick up the futon and put it in a cabinet. This involves one kind of movement (bending over to exercise the back). They also have to remove the futon from the cabinet and place it on the floor. People who sleep on beds have more low back pain than people who sleep on futons. Also, when the Japanese say hello they do this (bows). I think this is another kind of movement. So every day when you first meet Japanese, they will do this four or five times. So I think this is a good exercise.

The Japanese also usually don't lose their temper. If a boss says something unpleasant to them, they always have to agree; they always say: 'hie hie (yes, yes).' You can't be angry or you'll lose your job. If you feel angry it's not good for your body. Depression is also not good for your body. I think it's better for your health if you don't feel angry about little things. Anger is not so good.

Little by little many Americans are becoming interested in traditional Chinese medicine. People became interested in acupuncture when Nixon went to China in 1972. The newspapers talked about acupuncture and Americans began to use it. Recently the TV news and the newspaper had stories about acupuncture, saying it is effective. Many Americans are getting interested in acupuncture.

Traditional Chinese medicine techniques strive to recover the body's balance and strengthen the qi. In acupuncture , you insert needles in the acupoint to strengthen the qi. In qigong you either practice by yourself to strengthen your qi or you receive qi from a qigong master to become strong. Herbal medicine is very different but it also is used to recover and maintain balance, strengthen the qi and the blood, and improve the circulation.

I practice tiao yang zang fu gong (a practice to balance and strengthen the organs), but many people do other types of qigong. There are Daoists and Buddhists who do qigong. I can't say I believe in Daoism or Buddhism, but some Daoist theory is good. In traditional medicine many theories come from Daoism.

Tiao yang zang fu gong is based on traditional Chinese medicine theory regarding the body's meridians and the organs. It involves exercises, breathing, and concentration. Daoists and Buddhists use qigong for their own purposes, but I use qigong for treatment and for long life, to prevent disease. Qigong treatment, for example, can be effective in treating diabetics. I teach the patient qigong so they can do it everyday. After three weeks, they should feel an effect.

Using the term "qigong" to describe these methods only began in the 1950s. For thousands of years before that it had a different name but the method was the same. Qigong perhaps originated 4,000 years ago as a method that used movement to treat disease. Wushu is a martial art, but wushu that uses qi is also a kind of qigong.

It's hard to say what qi is. Translated into English qi means energy. When I make some movement the energy I use is qi. Where does the energy come from? It's hard to say. If someone asked me to show them that energy I wouldn't be able to give it to them. But you would understand that I have energy. Let's say that today my energy is not so good; I feel tired. But the next day I have more energy. You can say this energy is qi, which comes from food, breath, and movement. That's the body's qi. Science is starting to study it, but it's difficult, because maybe the instruments are not so good. In China many scientists are starting to do experiments to study qi. When you do qigong, for example, you feel some movement. But what is it?