Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The myth of Iron Shirt

Iron Shirt (鉄布衫 in Chinese) simply put is the ability to take punches. The term has been mystified, and magnified, in various Chinese martial art fictions depicting a legendary martial art skill not only having the ability to take punches but also against sharp weapons (and rumors had it that some Chinese boxers died tragically through holding such belief during the Boxer Revolution against European invasions). As our knowledgeable reader Iv Cho once commented [click here], a body able to take punches is a prerequisite to do free fights in the ring. Modern day professional boxers can easily take a few hundred pounds of punch at his abdomen (please check up this earlier post by my buddy fellow blogger Rick You hit like a girl) . An interesting question: how do tai-chi practitioners in the old days being trained in the art of taking punches?

The science of taking punches at the abdomen is simple. The practitioner's abdomen has to simulate a strong elastic ball. When an elastic ball is being punched, the force will be dissipated evenly as well as partly being absorbed. The method, in the briefest sense, is inhale, focus and receive the punch. Before he is able to simulate his abdomen as such, a practitioner has to work on building his torso and abdomen strong, for the simple fact that a balloon will not be able to take any punches! The practice of tai-chi nei gung is precisely aiming at training one with a strong elastic abdominal ball. The act of conditioning this strong elastic ball with actual punches will evidently be necessary. For example, at the end of 12 Yin styles in 24 styles tai-chi Nei Gung, a practitioner is required to chi-rub his abdomen in circles(fascia conditioning), test-punch his own abdomen and do it again a few round (it is supposed to be done while standing, though doing it lying down seems to be more effective [but less convenient while doing the 24 styles]). Actual punching drills by a training partner will probably be required if one is considering stepping onto the ring for real.

Another interesting fact is that during the earlier editions of UFC, wrestlers shocked their Muay Thai and boxing counter-parts by their willingness, and ability, to take a few punches or kicks, then entered and tackled their stand-up opponents into submission. Wrestlers (in particular those in Greco-Roman wrestling with rules forbidding attacks below waist, as well as forbidding leg tripping, resulting in more spectacular throws) can indeed take much "punishment" on their bodies, oftentimes more so than boxers.

Tai-chi practitioners in the old days understood the logic behind and trained themselves accordingly. For example, according to the biography of Wu-style master Wu TuNan (吳圖南), who was led by his father to train under Wu grandmaster Wu JianQuan (吳鑑泉) when he was a boy because of poor health (the two Wus were not related), he had this break-fall training experience. Master Wu first conditioned young Wu's body through tai-chi stretching (纏絲功/松功), tai-chi nei gung(太極内功) and doing the tai-chi form(太極套路). According to young Wu, the toughest part came later. Master Wu would then do pushing hands (推手) with him, with the singular objective of throwing him on the ground so that his body would fall flat from a height, as determined by his master! In one or two unfortunate incidents, when he was accidentally dropped onto a wooden chair or table breaking it in the process, the pain was so bad that he said he felt rather wishing to die than to continue! Young Wu was trained like a modern day wrestler in taking punishment, or more so actually. Nowadays, some tai-chi schools still keep this tradition of using break-falls to condition a student's body, with tatami and no wooden chairs nor tables around!

PS: The above discussion only applies to punches at the body, and the abdomen in particular. And even then, other important techniques like rolling with the punches have not been discussed.


  1. Interesting thing, what happens inside the body as a result of a regular practicing of this nei kung. Let’s for example take the case when somebody ( weight 80 kg) jumps onto the abdomen of the practitioner from 2 meters high. The simple mechanics calculation - S=1/2 gt^2 , where the distance S=2 m, g=9.81 m/s2(the gravity constant vector), we presume that the initial speed is zero.
    So after 0.64 seconds, at the moment of the impact the jumper speed is 22,7 km/hour (6,3m/s, v=gt).
    The force applied (F=mg) is about 785 N. In all cases this creates a big pressure in the body which has to be handled. There must be something in addition of the elasticity of the abdomen.
    I believe that the fascia holding the internal organs has been greatly developed in a way protecting them in those extreme situations. Many years ago I watched a video of Mantak Chia , explaining the concept of the protection of a ‘’hard body’’ in a balloon, then other balloon all around the first one, than a third balloon outside.
    The other point is the correct methodology of doing the exercises (and a transmission in general). I remember the story of a Chen style practitioner wrongly taught by a “’tai chi uncle”’ of CTH and after the test jump he started to bleed from all orifices. So he called CTH , who told the pure Chen style practitioner to go to a rubbish man (CTH student) to be taught properly. (Source book : Complete Tai Chi Chuan by Dan Docherty, a fighter and a top CTH student).
    So in our practice we do not have to forget that in Tai Chi as in life there are situations of CAVEAT EMPTOR.

  2. Thank you for your lengthy analysis. But I am yet to see a demo dropping a steel ball weight 80 kg, which, if you think about it carefully, fits into your analysis a bit more. Anyway, the CTH demo is quite impressive.

  3. Thinking about it carefully, in case of a metal ball we have to take into account several additional parameters - the contact point, wich theoretically at the first moment is a "point", then the bigger pressure (p=F/s) because the contact surface of the feet is much bigger than the ball, then what happens if the ball falls several inches below etc. :)
    My general idea was that this internal training develops the whole body fascia and when taking punches the practiioner relies on that rather then on strong muscles absorbing the punch, which is a different type of training.

  4. Nice discussion. I think your general idea is right, and it is the same for boxers and Muay Thais; training method may differ (and I believe chi-kung method is superior in the sense that it starts from a much lower starting point [i.e. initial body conditions], hence, it is a superior system for body-conditioning for most people), physics remains the same.

    My father warned me when I was a kid: never comment (in public) on other sifus' demo, because their livelihood depends on it. And I respect my father's opinion... I mean, you need to think about it really carefully....:):)

  5. Thinking about it really carefully your father was right. I think the meaning of it is : never critisize other sifus and never reveal in public what you have been taught provided that you had been asked for it. For example if you publish a video of some of these exercises you directly go against your fathers advise. Comments for me in public in a possitive way are OK but of course we do not have to toe the line.
    Thanks again Paul.

  6. Thanks for trusting what I know is worth publishing, but secrecy was not what I learned from my father. He actually urged me, for many years before, to teach a wider audience irrespective of race or status in society (due to my life's other responsibilities, I've not been even close to his expectations, though I'm catching up a bit with this blog...:):)). 24 styles actually has been in the public domain for many years with the publication of Wang's book and his video, not to mention Mantak Chia and others, though the materials presented still leave room for further discussions, if I may say so.

    Thanks for commenting, as always.

  7. I've been shown a 24 styles taichi gong, and it looked somewhat different from Wang Dixian's book/video. Who's to know what the "proper" version is?

  8. There is no single "proper" version, as there is no single "proper" tai chi form. 24 styles nei gong had always been an "inner circle" practice, as such, what is being shown now might not necessarily be the whole story. The "24 styles neigong" that I practice (and that I learned from my own family lineage and which I have improved upon) is more elaborate than (and in places differ from) the Wang style. Probably I'll write a book on it some day...

  9. Please do write a book. Especially an English one. I think we all need such practices to be more "open". I always worry that I'm wasting my time learning a practice when other more efficient ways of generating the same benefits might be at hand.

  10. I do believe opening the practice will be beneficial to everybody, including those who have learned it behind closed door. There is this common management/behavioral science study that when a message is mouth-to-ear communicated, its meaning will always get distorted after a few rounds. Moreover some practitioners will keep their practice "as is" even if they fail to reap much benefit (or fail to understand the logic behind), and they will keep teaching their students "as is". Of course, I'm not commenting on any practitioner in particular (one thing for sure, I'm also commenting on myself, can't say I am being exempted here..:):)). My analysis is only a logical deduction.

    I am serious about putting off some time for the book project. I'm close to 60 now, better do it quick before I start forgetting about everything...:):)

  11. So Paul, how's the book project coming along? It's been more than a year since this post. I've read the Phillip Starr book "Developing Jin", which I thought went some way toward publicising some "secrets" previously not discussed. Cheers

  12. Hi BTC, it might just be one of those mythical things called 他心通, a few days ago I wrote a draft article on the reasons why it is (for me) so difficult to write a book on the internal arts. I hesitated to post it up.....perhaps I should, in it I tried to explain to interested readers like you the reasons why I have been procrastinating! Anyway thanks for hurrying me up.


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