In traditional Chinese society health is considered a kind of accumulated merit which you dedicate to others-- and to the resolution of your own unresolved ancestors. For instance, I might decide Iâ€™m going to eat only vegetarian food and dedicate that act to my mother, who is prone to illness. There is a confluence between religious Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism in which they all agree that there is a mechanism whereby the inappropriate actions of our ancestors can, to some degree, be rectified ('put right') by the upright conduct of their descendants. This notion is at odds with Western cultural distinctions but is intrinsic to the meaning of the word gongfu.
Inappropriate conduct in the Chinese context, a Chinese sinâ€”if you will, is an action which creates ongoing problems for other people. It is an event which is unresolved. Thus appropriate conduct is action which resolves lingering problems, but it is also actions which are efficient in that they leave no need for further actionâ€”they are self resolving. The term for this process in Chinese is zhengqi. (The word means orthodox and upright, but also to rectify, resolve, or correct qi).
For example, I was teaching some Chinese elementary school students in San Francisco, and I had learned from a very smart 5 year old girl that her grandfather, a Red Army general, had come from China to live with her family and that he was very sick. After winter break I asked after his health and she stood very upright and said with a big smile, "My grandfather died two weeks ago." This was not the first time I had experienced this cultural phenomenon, but every time it happens my first reaction is shock. " She canâ€™t be happy," I thought to myself. By smiling she was letting me know the facts, but also letting me know that I did not need to get involved emotionally in her family affairs. She was trying to limit the spread of those aspects of her grandfatherâ€™s life which were still unresolved. Her actions were zhengqi. Obviously this particular expression of cultural values doesnâ€™t translate very well, otherwise I wouldnâ€™t still be talking about it.
When a person dies, his inappropriate conduct, and his unfinished projects can linger. Most influence fades quickly after a persons death, but not everything. Imagine if you were to die right now? What actions would your family or friends have to take to resolve your death. If you have young children, someone is going to have to care and provide for them. This is why we write wills. But only issues of money and property get dealt with in a will. It is even possible that the will we left could create jealousy and lawsuits. If you were murdered the perpetrator would have to be found and punished. If you have a job, someone would likely have to be found and trained to replace you, or perhaps your business would close and all the people it serves would have to find that service elsewhere. Emotional conduct can linger after death too. Hatred of a particular ethnic group can be passed on to ones children, as can a habit of drinking alcohol to numb depression.
So the idea of gongfu, is to improve yourself. It is to improve your collective-family-self. It is to take actions which resolve bad habits you may have inherited, directly or indirectly.
Of course the influence of our ancestors need not be negative. Our condition and opportunities at birth are largely do to our ancestors. It is hard to say how much of the way our lives go is do to our own merit and how much we inherit. The idea of gongfu, accumulation of merit, acknowledges that the merit we eventually pass on to others is an accumulation of the merit of our ancestors, our teachers and our own upright conduct.
Gongfu means: self-improvement for the good of others.