(Liang Xingyang is a senior Daoist priest and the secretary-general of the Changan District Daoist Association. )
Health cleanses have in recent years been gaining in popularity with China’s middle class. To detoxify their bodies, they subject themselves to all sorts of purges, and it may seem at first glance that Chinese people have been inspired by the recent fads in the West. However, they are actually partaking in an ancient Chinese tradition, bigu, which has its roots in Daoism.
Bigu shares many similarities with health cleanses in the West. Both work toward the same goal of establishing a healthy lifestyle through regulating what goes into your body. However, from the perspective of lifestyle, bigu goes deeper than a simple body cleanse, for it’s designed to not only moderate physical health, but increase the spiritual awareness of its practitioners.
There are two main reasons for bigu’s resurgence in popularity. First, China has finally reached a level of wealth where many people are actually overfed. While increasing wealth is of course a good thing generally, it also often contributes to unhealthy eating habits among citizens. Many people therefore take part in these cleanses to lose weight or detoxify.
Second, our society has developed to the point where most Chinese people can meet their material needs, and can thus better focus on maintaining connections with traditional culture.
This history of the practice can be traced back to pre-Qin dynasty, around 2,200 years ago. In 1973, a manuscript that advocates avoiding grains in diet was unearthed as part of the Mawangdui Silk Texts — ancient Chinese philosophical and medical documents — in central China’s Hunan province.
Unlike modern Western cleansing methods, bigu has a strong religious influence. It was initially perpetuated by Daoists as the first step towards immortality: abandon food, which the body converts into waste, and instead absorb qi, a type of spiritual energy. In doing so a person feeds their soul, leading to spiritual immortality.
Because of this connection with Daoism, many people see the practice as a mythical tradition, and believe it to have extraordinary rejuvenating effects. However, while this may seem superstitious on surface, the positive physical and spiritual effects of cleansing your body of toxins cannot be denied.
Still, there are several steps one must take to ensure a successful bigu: when fasting, the body stops gaining energy from the external world, and one should be careful to stay away from rigorous activities; fasting must begin and end gradually since abrupt changes in diet are extremely unhealthy; a person must remain calm and not go through strong emotional lapses; meditation should be an essential part of the process since it fosters awareness of the body’s changes through introspection.
Many legends of high-intensity bigu permeate the history of Daoism. The priest Deng Yu, who lived around 500 A.D. was said to have lived on only the minerals he absorbed from spring water for more than 30 years. In the 8th century Pan Shizheng lived as a hermit for more than 20 years on Mount Song, in central China’s Henan province, subsisting only on pine leaves and water. I have personally witnessed priests participate in one month-long bigu, during which their body intakes and outputs are extremely minimal.
In recent years I have noticed a sharp influx of people to my temple in northeastern China’s Liaoning province, most of whom are coming to participate in bigu. However, there are many cleanses that a person can perform by themselves at home too. One popular one employs honey, fruits, and salt. The honey water serves to unclog the intestines and, along with the fruit, provides the body with energy. The salt replenishes sodium levels.
The first two days should be spent preparing. The fruit should be consumed and water drunk to flush out the body. On the third to fifth days, the cleanser should cut down fruit intake to a minimum and the ensuing fasting will purge the body of toxins. Salt should be ingested on the fifth and seventh days. During the final two days, the person should begin eating fruit again and eventually come full circle and gradually begin returning to their regular diet after the seventh day. This should not be done more than once a month.
When done correctly, bigu can be a wonderful exercise that stimulates a person both spiritually and physically. However, it should always be conducted scientifically, either at home by a person who understands the process, or under the guidance of a priest. It has stood the test of time and has helped foster generation after generation of Daoists.