Martial Arts Myths: Chi projection

I recently placed a video on my Facebook page that showed some of the nonsense that gives martial arts a bad reputation. That triggered the idea to write a series on Martial Arts Myths.

Why? Because no matter how hard you squash those myths, like cockroaches, they crawl from under your foot and multiply once again. I don’t think we’ll every be able to eradicate them so that leaves educating people, hence this article and the following ones on other myths.

That said, let’s start by defining our terms.

 

Martial Arts Myths: Chi projection

I don’t think it’s necessary to define “martial arts”, we’re passed that stage. A “myth” however can be defined as “any invented story, idea, or concept.” In other words: a lie, an untruth.

The concept of “chi” is more difficult to explain. The most common translation is “vital energy” though that is not entirely accurate either as in the ancient Chinese world view ghosts existed and had “chi” too. “Energy” might be a better translation but that doesn’t really work either for Western minds as science has a solid classification for the different types of energy we can measure. So we’re a bit stuck here.

“Projection” in this case means transferring the “chi” without physical contact.

Bringing all this together, here’s the the claim some people make:

There exists a skill that gives you the ability to transfer “chi” from one person to another in a combat or self-defense situation, without making physical contact.

Supposedly, you can learn to control your chi and then throw it across a distance at an attacker to incapacitate him. They call this chi projection, kong jin (empty force), ki power and a host of other names.

It’s all the same thing though: a myth.

Here’s a typical demonstration:

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As you can see, the “master” yells and projects his chi at his students with the usual, ridiculous results. Here’s the funny thing though: when you look at the slow motion footage, you clearly see they are throwing themselves to the ground as opposed to being stopped by some unseen force.

The only reasons this teacher’s stuff “works” is because he uses his own students to demo on, people who have been mentally conditioned to play their part. You rarely, if ever see uncooperative non-students in such a demo. When that does happen, this tends to be the result:

This “Kiai master” did all sorts of funky stuff with his students, in his own school. He even offered fortune telling services (for big bucks, of course) to naive believers. But he made the mistake of issuing a challenge to anybody who doubted his chi powers were real. It didn’t take long for an MMA fighter to take him up on his offer and you saw what happened next: he got his ass kicked good.

It takes a special kind of idiocy to put out such a challenge and expect people to never take you up on it. It takes an entirely different level of being self-delusional to actually show up when a fighter takes you up on that offer. Deep down, that “master” knows he’s selling bullshit. But apparently, he convinced himself he could handle it when somebody comes at him for real

More on that in a bit, first this.

My session with the chi projection master.

About 15 years ago, a guy showed up to a seminar I was hosting and from then on kept on saying we needed to train together. I ignored it until a friend of mine said he actually did have some fighting skill. I wasn’t convinced but was willing to take his word for it and set up a time with the guy for a “mutual exchange” as he called it.

Turned out he was a friendly guy, polite and respectful at first. We talked a bit, discussed martial arts myths and chi projection in particular and I expressed my disbelief. Then he wanted to see how I did pushing hands. So I explained how we train in my school and we did some free style pushing hands.

I broke his balance repeatedly which made him upset and he complained I was using my muscular strength instead of good technique. I replied that if I had done that, he would have been thrown a whole lot harder. And that me using brute strength should make his job of breaking my balance with his superior technique a whole lot easier. His response was that he never trained like I do and always included striking, so we trained his way from then on.

I guess he tried to recover his lost dignity because right away, he came at me with enthusiasm and a lot of force. The first couple exchanges ended quickly with me breaking through his defenses and slapping my palm in his face, fingers pushing gently (but firmly) into his eyes. The next exchange ended when I kicked him in the head. The final exchange finished with me sweeping him to the floor and him landing with a resounding thud.

At that point, he refused to continue and started talking about his chi projection skills. How he had once put a student in the hospital for a week with a no-touch strike and later on healed him with his hands when the doctors couldn’t find what was wrong.

I politely asked to demonstrate that on me.

He said he couldn’t control it. Sometimes his chi projection worked, sometimes it didn’t.

I asked to try it anyway.

He refused.

I left and never saw him again.

He stopped calling me to train with him.

Martial Arts Myths - Chi projection

Martial Arts Myths, Unicorns, same thing.

 

What are they thinking?

My story here is just one example of martial arts myths in action, there are many more. But it illustrates what I want to cover next: how on earth is it possible that people:

  • Believe this stuff actually works.
  • Spend lots of money to learn it.
  • Convince themselves it’s a good idea to teach it.

For the first one, I believe it’s very simple:

People want to be fooled.

They want to believe magic is real. They want to believe that they can do the impossible. So they re-frame their thinking to absorb information that confirms their bias and then ignore opposing views. They also willfully re-arrange their thinking to find solutions for the conflicts of reasoning they discover along the way. This is called cognitive dissonance and it’s a well-studied problem in all societies.

In Western countries, an example is the lottery. This is basically a state-organized pyramid scheme. Your chances of winning are 1 in about 13 million to 1 in a couple hundred million, depending on certain factors. If you’re realistic about this, you know the odds are totally against you winning the big payout. But because every time somebody wins it, you cling to the hope that it might be you next time. So you keep on paying every week for a ticket because you never know…

In other countries, it manifests itself differently.

A few years ago I was in Bali to train a client and went to a local market, the kind of place where the villagers shop. I walked around a bit and drifted over to a stall from where the incessant chanting came. There was a small crowd gathered around a “magician”, as my translator called him.

He was sitting down, a big snake in a box next to him and “proof” of his claims of the supernatural in pictures all around him. Apparently the guy gave out blessings to his followers and they were constantly handing him over their money while he chanted those blessings. I kept track for a little while and saw him making a decent salary for that country in just five minutes: his followers were in ecstasy.

Here’s the thing: the pictures he had there were from tabloids (“I married Elvis’s Alien Clone” type magazines), medical books (showing horrific mutations and diseases) and some modern works of art (Piccinini‘s half-woman, half-cow.) I recognized most of them but the followers clearly had no clue.

Had he tried his con game on the campus of a Western university, any art or medicine student would have laughed him out of there. But not so in a country rife with poverty and a poor education system. Those people believed him because they want to believe in magic. It’s still a part of their culture.

Martial Arts Myths - Chi projection

The “Magician” in Bali

Show me the money!

Once people start believing these martial arts myths, or merely doubting that they are impossible, they go to enormous lengths to make it their own. They’ve already convinced themselves they want to investigate this further so they seek out people who offer that knowledge. That’s why you see martial arts myths like chi projection alive and well in this day and age when science can prove it’s nonsense: the con men know how to work a mark.

Unscrupulous teachers figure out there’s money to be made from the gullibility of martial artists and they start to reel them in by offering freebies first and then progressively charging more. By that time, you’re spending way too much money on something you would never even consider if you look at it rationally: you’re suffering from commitment bias or escalation of commitment and keep on paying. In short, this means you tune out information that proves you should stop because you already spent so much time and money on it. So you decide to go all in and dig even deeper. Not unlike like those people who play the lottery for decades and never hit the jackpot but keep going anyway…

Good con men can keep this going for a long time and wipe out people’s bank accounts. They always have an explanation why it’s your fault that the chi projection thing didn’t work correctly. Here’s an example of that in action:

When it doesn’t work, you get this weird explanation about putting your tongue in the wrong spot or pushing with your toes. Isn’t it funny how there was no mention of that in the beginning? How it was all “this stuff works great, you can’t resist it.” up until it fails?

 

Another example is the Yellow Bamboo scam. It was pretty big a few years ago but seems to have simmered down somewhat. They claimed to teach chi powers and asked lots of money for their courses. This is the promotional video from back then:

 

This is what happens when they challenge people who don’t play ball:

Like I said in the beginning, I’ve yet to see somebody make chi projection work consistently against non-compliant partners and this video is some more proof of that.

But even if it did work, how many self-defense situations do you know in which you can take a minute or so to do your meditation and breathing exercises before you have to deal with that incoming attack?

The right answer is: about zero.

 

 

Conclusion

It’s only human nature to want to believe the magical and mystical things you see around you. And for thousands of years, people did just that (remember, at one point in time everybody knew the earth was the center of the universe and the sun revolved around it…) but that doesn’t mean we have to remain ignorant.

I’ve encountered some weird stuff in a couple decades of training, really bizarre things. But never, not once, has somebody been able to prove their chi projection skills on me. Even though I asked repeatedly. Nor do I know of any of my friends who have serious training and fighting experience who can claim having experienced it. They all say the same thing: it’s a martial arts myth.

Personally, I loathe the snake-oil salesmen who take advantage of people and sell them this nonsense. They deserve whatever beating they get when somebody eventually decides to test them. I also loathe how they give martial arts a bad name by their antics.

I feel bad for the believers though. They’re being taken for a ride, a costly one, and often don’t realize how far they have drifted from reality. Violence is scary and it can be uncomfortable, even traumatizing to be confronted with it. But learning parlor tricks to deal with it is no solution. Which is why I wrote this article; in the hope of spreading the word to those who haven’t been sucked in yet but are at risk.

If you want to help out, please share this article so others can read it and make an informed decision when they encounter such a scam artist. Or write your own piece on it, from your own experience. The more we can spread this message, the more this myth will die down. I doubt it will disappear forever, people being people, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

 

In closing, I’d like to leave you with the words of a famous teacher to one of his students:

Don’t teach bullshit; the truth is hard enough already.

Both as teachers and students, it would be good if we try to follow this advice.

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Comments

  1. Dani Nemes says

    Wim, my main man, I really loved you article, just a minor thing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_the_Flat_Earth
    There wasn’t a time, whe everybody knew that the Earth was flat. :)

    • I know, I was exaggerating to make my point. :-) I’ll change it to heliocentrism but less people know about that.

  2. Great article! Liked the Rhino analogy. As they say in the North of England: “There’s nowt stranger than folk!” And yes, they give martial arts a bad name, especially Tai Chi Chuan. Mind you, it’s probably the same people who tell everyone that the ‘chi’ in Tai Chi Chuan is the same…seen and heard that one a few times.

  3. A nice indepth article again. Neil Martin and Ed Hines have written good articles as well on this subject. I practice Tai Chi as well but this aspect that some people believe in really puts me off about the art sometimes. I have had one individual say that my energy was weird when I told him I really didn’t believe this Chi projection stuff works and better just to practice just the physical side to the art. Basically he was calling me an a***hole but have never had someone say that to me before! Another told me that I need to learn from ‘real’ masters!

    I wish this particular aspect of Martial Arts could be quashed as it gives particularly Tai Chi and Aikido a very bad name in my opinion as they talk alot about Chi/Ki in their systems. No wonder some people think that Traditional Martial Arts are no good for self defense and the need to do combatives instead (incidentally, I prefer TMAs although never done combatives, I have no objection to it). When all you really need IMO is to understand what you are doing and how to apply properly given the circumstances you are in.

    Anyway, hope the Sheffield seminar goes well!

  4. You can add this one to your collection:

    http://www.mokurendojo.com/2008/11/chi-tards.html

  5. Good disclaimer on their official website:

    Please note: Yellow Bamboo can only be used for good purpose, if one tries to use it for a bad purpose either nothing will happen or the magick will have a boomerang effect back on the sender.

  6. Great article indeed, Wim. But what is your opinion on pressure points ? If I remember that’s how George Dilman got know at first.

    • There’s a lot of bullshit in that area too Steven and Dilman went way overboard with his stuff in that area. I’ll cover all that in an upcoming article.

  7. Charles James says

    Hi, Wim: Can you feel it, that little tingling sensation as you read this comment. I have the awesome power to project my chi/ki through the computers and internet infrastructure. If I were trying harder you would be in a daze right now but you know, I didn’t want to overcome you first try. OhRahhhh, feel the ki/chi, OhRahhhhhhh!

    Now, for only a dollar three ninety nine I will gladly email you my technique :-)

    Fun and informative article but I got Dillman beat by a mile ;-)

    Charles

  8. A lot mysticism prevails in the martial arts. Otherwise intelligent people fall prey to these myths.

    I was hoping that mixed martial arts would be the final nail in the coffin for these myths since none of this B.S. like Chi projection takes place in the octagon.

    I always like reading your material and watching your DVD’s because you are very logical and everything you present is backed by science and solid body mechanics.

    • Thanks Marc, that’s exactly what I try to bring across with my books and videos.
      The myths will probably never die completely. People are people and they want to believe that stuff is real. We’ll just have to keep on debunking it. :-)

  9. One dead giveaway is the way the receivers react and fall. They are worse than the pro wrestlers. They wave their arms around, snap their heads back, spasm their bodies, and stumble-step until they plop onto the floor.

  10. I said it before and I’ll say it again: If this combat chi stuff works we’d see some “chi master” give in to the lure of money and head to the UFC to clean up.

  11. j. a. mullins says

    the reality of the martial arts has become mired, even drowned, in a global pop culture steeped in prophet fueled misses; misunderstanding, misdirection, misguided, misconception, and misapplication.

    historically chi seems to have filled that gap of what caused an effect that couldn’t be logically explained by the ‘science’ of the time.

    “Why sifu, how is it that if I kick bob’s liver into paste that he dies over night?”
    “Because chi in the body flows through the liver, by interrupting the chi flow through bob’s liver he was unable to supply chi his brain while he slept and died.”

    I was working in the mid-east and met an interesting fellow from Israel who was studying Hopology. We got into a discussion about history and its effect on martial traditions. This fellow, Moshe, explained how he had worked for nearly a decade in Hong Kong translating old documents and manuscripts and had come up with a personal theory that chi was originally how the old school martial artists explained the effects kinetic energy transference. The ancients understood strength, flexibility, endurance, body structure, technique, and so on but when it came to kinetics they knew there was really some kind of energy in use, but it was still something that couldn’t be clarified.

    As for the magical, mythical, dynamic chi machines my favorites are Bruce Frantzis (who is actually a really good martial artist) and all those crazy Russian guys from Systema that talk about disrupting the body’s bio-electric system by projecting focused internal energies.

    As for me, when it’s chi, or not to chi, definitely not. And I am a hsing-i man.

  12. A lot of what used to be considered magic has since been explained by science. I was impressed by aikido first time I saw it in the mid-1960s, and the “unbendable arm” trick was explained as the flow of ki. But it was just a convenient way to explain the dynamics of relaxation and concentration, and easier to visualize than a technical and mechanical explanation would be.

    Ki, or chi, or tenaga dalam (silat’s “inner energy”) are, for my money, all natural things that look like magic because most people don’t understand the structural mechanics necessary to produce the results.

    We understand about “animal magnetism,” or hypnosis, how powerful suggestion can be, and people who believe you can hurl real energy from your outstretched hand across the room to knock somebody down, no cheats? They will feel it.

    If can do it to somebody who isn’t ready to belive that? Hang on to that technique, it’s a keeper …

    Steve

  13. As Santayana once said “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it” or something like that. With regard to this chi crap, many appear not to be aware of the tragic outcome of the “Boxer Rebellion” in China. These “Boxers” believed that they would be impervious to Western weapons. They found out otherwise once bullets starting flying. :-)

    Brian

    • They sure did. I studied the Boxer Rebellion a few decades ago. Nasty stuff.

    • j. a. mullins says

      Hey Brian,
      it is tragic how the faith generated by mysticism can be so blinding in the face of obvious dangers. The Picts believed in their magic to make them impervious to Roman iron, the Sioux believed in their medicine’s power to render them invisible to the white man’s vision, and so on. Those powers based in martial/mystical abilities seem crazy to us, but were an ingrained part of the belief system of those cultures.

      Throughout the ancient world there are all sorts of implications of misuse of such beliefs to empower and prophet individuals. Many martial arts systems have been perverted, misrepresented, and completely fabricated in order to sell someone else a ‘magic bullet’.

      I would imagine that most surviving systems today only did so because some enterprising individual took the system public, as in made it publicly accessible to anyone in general like we do in commercial martial arts schools now, to sell the genuine article to make a decent living. It is in the arena of social interest that leads to true academic growth in martial systems through the open exposure to people who may not have normally been exposed to the system due to social position or cultural acceptance.

      And along comes the occasional smart guy who realizes that he can move to a nearby town, teach the basics of the system while improvising the rest, and make a living off of the style originator’s name. Knowledge travels, the world has been a global economy for most of civilization, and money is a powerful motivator. So, taking something or renown usefulness and selling it (the hallmark of merchants for ages) in a place where people are not inherently familiar with it, such as a new and/or unique martial art, is an obvious gimmick. And chi is there to help explain why this works or why that can’t harm you when the charlatan doesn’t have a real explanation.

      Give it hundreds of years to transform and now we have the latest craze in chi fueled, hippy-dippy, save the zombies martial artists.

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