The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Wing Chun Wooden Dummy

Below is an excerpt from the excellent blog, Kung Fu Tea.The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

The Wooden Dummy as the Teacher of Wing Chun Theory

My new Jong has really given me a lot to think about.  Besides the immediate questions of engineering that go into making a piece of equipment like this functional, it is also forcing me to study and rethink aspects of the form that had gotten a little fuzzy in the last few years.

First one must learn (or review) the basic sequence of movements taught in every modern lineage of Wing Chun.  Yet the actual “arguments” and “questions” advanced by the dummy form go well beyond realm of mere choreography.  Of all of the forms in Wing Chun, I believe that the dummy’s is the most interactive and requires the highest level of thoughtful engagement by the student.

Wing Chun’s basic unarmed forms tend to be abstract.  This is the easiest to see with Siu Lim Tao (the introductory set), but the same quality is also present in Chum Kiu and Biu Jee.  Siu Lim Tao presents the students with a set of movements.  Unlike in other Asian martial arts, these are not arranged into a mock battle or a “shadow boxing” routine.  There is no enemy to visualize when you are doing the forms.  Or if there is an “enemy” he would be incredibly erratic.

Instead these forms read like reference books on the basic structures used by the system.  In Siu Lim Tao the new student is introduced to the fighting zones, the basic punch, and then all of the different ways that the arm can move as a variant of that one punch.  As Ip Ching has observed, in the introductory form one movement comes after another, but there is no logical dependence of the second on the first.  There is no tactical reason to expect that the second movement should always come next.

One way to think about Siu Lim Tao is as an organizational system to help the student think more systematically about the possibilities of human movement and how they might apply to fighting.  It is not random.  It has its own logic, but it’s the same sort of logic that one would encounter if you were to sit down and read the dictionary.

Siu Lim Tao presents the new student with a collection of basic movements that form the alphabet of Wing Chun.  In the next two forms students are shown how to string those letters together into words and sentences.  But the project remains somewhat abstract.  And as an abstract conversation about the nature of human movement, it is also pretty universal.

All of this changes when a student approaches the dummy.  Different chapters of the dummy form display some variety in their logic, but all of them have a tactical progression.  In each case there is a very specific reason that one movement follows the next.  In some instances the student reacts to an “attack” by the dummy, in others he strings together movements into simple combinations or complex patterns of entry and evasion.  Whereas the early unarmed forms were about establishing a language of movement, the dummy asks its practitioner to begin to formulate these into more complex arguments about the nature of fighting.

This has a definite impact on the attitude that one must approach the dummy with.  As Ip Ching and Heimberger have argued, this form requires a high degree of mindfulness (see Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger. Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. 2004 for what remains one of the best discussions of the Wing Chun wooden dummy tradition).  Rather than simply stringing the various movements together in a choreographed routine, students must strive to “react” instantly and naturally to the dummy’s actions.  Only in this way can you begin to build the correct power and intent into the various sections of the form.

One of the areas where this becomes evident is in the footwork and movement of the dummy set.  This form cannot be practiced from a static position.  Instead different chapters require students to move into, or away from, the dummy at various angles.  One must apply the lessons of Chum Kiu to move from one side of the dummy to the other while still projecting power forward, into its core, rather than just sliding across the arms.  Vitally important is to learn how to coordinate the hips and subtle shifts necessary to give the movements their proper alignment, speed and power.

Of course all of these things should also be part of chi sao.  Students should be used to starting from “unbridged” positions.  They should be comfortable working on entry and kicking.  Yet, for a variety of reasons, this often doesn’t happen.  A lot of chi sao is somewhat static, focusing only a single range with limited structures.  This is often the case when working with students who are still new to the system.  The dummy forces the more advanced student to integrate and apply various aspects of the system in new ways.

Of course Wing Chun is not the only southern art to employ a wooden dummy.  It is interesting to do a comparative study of various Jong designs and how they reflect/facilitate the training forms that have developed in conjunction with them.  Choy Li Fut, which has its own more mechanically complicated dummies, employs a number of broad, sweeping, long distance punches.  The length of its Jong’s arms and the strategic placement of ricebags allows for the forceful applications of these special techniques.

I don’t think it would be possible to approach a Wing Chun dummy in quite the same way.  One of the points that Ip Ching has argued is that all of the movements in his father’s dummy form are essentially reactive.  They all suppose that the dummy has done something, presenting the students with a question that he or she is then forced to respond to.  This closely mirrors the classic Chi Sao strategy of establishing a solid structure and being sensitive to mistakes or openings in your opponent’s actions that can be safely exploited.

In short, much of the actual distinctive physical culture of Wing Chun, from specific combinations and defensive techniques, to broader questions of fundamental strategy, are encapsulated and taught through the dummy form.  Again, none of this material should be totally new to the student.  Each of these elements will have likely been introduced somewhere else.  And students will spend a lot of time working the specific “lessons” or “applications” of this form.  But the dummy is unique in its ability to bring all of these fundamental insights together in one place, while challenging students to build a more complete understanding of the various aspects of their art.

The Mook Yan Jong allows students to study, practice and contemplate aspects of the Wing Chun system in a way that is unique.  It disciplines and amplifies the style’s approach to combat.  In some senses, the dummy form is where we move beyond the more universal elements boxing and begin to contemplate Wing Chun’s specific answers to the question of interpersonal violence.

“Embodiment” has become an important topic in the academic study of the martial arts over the last ten years or so.  These fighting systems do seem to have a remarkable capacity to generate and convey transformative understandings of the self from teacher to student.  Ethnographers have noted that much of this instruction happens through non-verbal channels of physical culture, as individual postures, energies and motions are conveyed from one generation to the next.

Of course it is pretty much impossible to learn a meaningful version of the dummy form without a teacher.  Still, I have always been struck by how large a percentage of Wing Chun’s theory is actually taught and reinforced by this one unique training tool.  For advanced Wing Chun students it opens an avenue for solo exploration and experimentation that is somewhat unique for a “sensitivity” based art.  Indeed, the image of the lone Wing Chun master, working with his dummy for hours on end, has recently come to dominate the popular imagination.

Nor is this image wholly inaccurate.  Once one begins to “respond naturally” to the questions posed by the dummy, it is pretty easy to lose an hour on free flowing experimentation and improvisation.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Haga Style Kendo

In general, Japanese martial arts underwent changes following WWII. There is a school of Kendo that continues to teach pre-war Kendo however, Haga-ha.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Review of Jonathan Bluestein’s Research of Martial Arts

 “The heart of the study of boxing is to have natural instinct resemble the dragon.”
 – Wang Xiang Zhai

Anyone who has been a regular reader of Cook Ding’s Kitchen should know the name Jonathan Bluestein. Most of the top ten most popular articles written over the nine years that this blog has been in existence have been guest posts written by Jonathan.

Well, he’s gone and done it again. Not a guess post, but a book.

Jonathan Bluestein’s Research of Martial Arts has just been published. I was honored to be able to review an advance copy of the electronic version. It will also be available in hard back.

First of all, having put together two modest books, I greatly admire the work that went into the layout of this book. It flows. It is attractive. The pictures and illustrations are meaningful. Jonathan did a fine job.

It is said that when you teach, you learn. Jonathan has been teaching the traditional Chinese martial arts of Xingyiquan and Piquaquan for some time now and as an exercise in working out his own idea of the theory of martial arts for himself and his students, he has undertaken this project which comprises about the first half of the book.

Jonathan’s explanation of the theory of martial arts is comprehensive, well thought out and articulated. Even if you don’t particularly agree with some of the specifics of Jonathan’s theories you have a template for articulating your own theory of the study and practice of martial arts and how all of the various pieces stick together. Jonathan has set a standard to which you can measure your own understanding.

This is not a “how to” book by any means, it is a "why" book. It seeks to impart some knowledge so that the reader, from beginner to an advanced practitioner can better inform his practice.

Both so called External and Internal martial arts are examined. It is explained how the distinction and terms are somewhat arbitrary, but they much of our thinking about martial arts is related to these terms.

He begins with an examination of external or “outside – in” characteristics: physical strength, endurance, the ability to sustain blows, flexibility, techniques and so on; and how these different attributes adds up to the development of a martial artist.

Next he examines the internal, “inside – out” martial arts and their characteristics: alignment, structure, balance, relaxedness, yi, the six harmonies, etc; and how all of these pull together to form an effective martial art.

He then moves on to that place where internal and external methods combine. For myself, I’ve practiced Yoshinkan Aikido, Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang and a variant of Yiquan, but I also run, have trained in MMA and am currently working on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This chapter really hits home.

It is a very rare individual who would be totally at one end of the spectrum of study and practice or the other.

He not only discusses how this combination of internal and external applies to each of us in our practice, he does a survey and overview of martial arts that are considered to be “hard/soft,” specifically taking the case of Wing Chun and Aikido (which from my own experience has a wide spectrum of study and practice; the style I learned was considered a “hard” form of aikido).

The remainder of the book consists of a wonderful collection of interviews with, or articles by notable martial artists whose insights enliven the theories discussed.

For this collection alone, this book is a must have.

I know that I’ll be chewing on the ideas presented here and will be looking at my own practice both in the short and long term a little differently for a long, long time and I’ll be better for it.

Please visit the Research of Martial Arts website:

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Three Essentials of Yiquan's Wang Xiang Zhai

Below is an excerpt from a post at Taoist Meditation. The is the first of a three part series. The original post may be read here.

The three essentials of internal martial art - No 1: Isometric contraction and relaxation

Master Wang Xiangzai is one of the most important (if not the most important) contributor to internal martial arts in the modern era after the Qing Dynasty. Master Wang's contribution goes beyond his style of YiQuan (意拳) or Da Chengquan (大成拳). In the later years of his life, he focused his teaching on healing. In Chinese, healing is always primarily physical or medical in nature, with psychological healing plays a second fiddler. I am going to write about the three essentials of his advanced contribution (beyond his contribution to standard zhan zhuang) as emphasized differently by his three important students.

In this article, I shall talk about Master Wang's first essential as presented by his student, the late Master Yu YongNian 于永年 who passed away a few months ago in Beijing. Master Yu became famous in the West mainly through the teaching of his student (or grand-student) Master Lam Kam Chuen who now resides in UK and has established an internal martial art academy there (teaching tai chi is included, as most Westerners know tai chi more than any other styles of Chinese internal martial art. It makes good business to teach on tai chi, irrespective of anything!) Master Lam has also written a number of good books on zhan zhuang and related topics on internal martial arts. Interested readers will have no problem Googling his books on internet.

Master Yu's contribution had mainly been in the area of healing. He had written only one book on the subject (though printed in two different versions in China. An interesting phenomenon in China's publishing industry, which is highly boisterous, is that many published books there come and go quickly, a new version with different name but the same materials sometimes appear with a new publisher a few years later. The reasons behind such phenomenon I shall not deal with here.) In one chapter of his book, he wrote about his method of advanced zhan zhuang, a subject most authors hardly touched upon, and if mentioned at all, nobody pays much attention anyway. Stories of touch (or even no contact) and throw, though unrealistic, are more interesting than advanced workout methods.

In his book Master Yu focused on presenting different kinds of stationery zhan zhuang, tailored made for patients with different problems. He was not a professional chi kung healer, and he did not impress me with his clinical skills as presented in his book (which contribution came from another student of Master Wang Madam Zhuang whom I shall write about in the second post on the topic). His main contribution is his system of widely applicable stationery forms, together with his advanced techniques for the more eager students.

His advanced technique, in the briefest sense, is to use isometric contraction and relaxation during zhan zhuang, preferable using combat stance. In the beginning, two nearby points/joints will be selected, for example, left hand and left shoulder. While in zhan zhuang, a student focuses on these two points and does isometric contraction and relaxation. All muscles will contract at the same time between the two points and then relax. From then on, different points and different parts of the body will be engaged for isometric contraction and relaxation. In the limiting case, the muscles of a student's whole body will contract and then relax together. A special manifestation of muscles-as-one. In demonstration, a student's calf can be felt, by a touching hand, as contracting and relaxing rhythmically. Finally in the most advanced form, one point will be fixed outside a practitioner's body.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The 48 Laws of Power: #11, Learn to Keep People Dependent on You

One of my favorite books on strategy is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers.  Where The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is written as an overview of the whole topic of strategy, seeking to provide an overall understanding of the subject; and The 36 Strategies tries to impart the knack of strategic thinking through 36 maxims related to well known Chinese folk stories, Mr. Greene focuses on how we influence and manipulate one another, ie "power".

Mr. Greene draws from both Eastern and Western history and literature as his source material. Sun Tzu and Machiavelli as cited as much as wonderful stories of famous con men. Among my favorites is about a scrap metal dealer thinking he bought the Eiffel Tower.

Each of the 48 Laws carries many examples, along with counter examples where it is appropriate that they be noted, and even reversals.

It is a very thorough study of the subject and the hardback version is beautifully produced.

One of the things I admire about Greene is that he not only studied strategy, he applied what he learned to his own situation and prospered.

Today, from the 48 Laws of Power Blog, we have #11: Learn to Keep People Dependent on You

To maintain your independence you must always be needed and wanted. The more you are relied on, the more freedom you have. Make people depend on you for their happiness and prosperity and you have nothing to fear. Never teach them enough so that they can do without you.

Necessity rules the world. People rarely act unless compelled to. If you create no need for yourself, then you will be done away with at first opportunity. If, on the other hand, you understand the Laws of Power and make others depend on you for their welfare, if you can counteract their weakness with your own "iron and blood," is Bismarck's phrase. Then you will survive your masters as Bismarck did. You will have all the benefits of power without the thorns that come from being a master.

Bismarck understood the importance of keeping people dependent. He sought out a weak ruler, Frederick William IV, king of Prussia and created a relationship of dependency. He was a key player in restoring the king’s power so much so that when the king died, his brother William who preceded him depended on Bismarck as well. Bismarck became their strength, their intelligence and their spine and in the process, he became a powerful force to reckon with, he was the man behind the throne, calling the shots.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Roots of Southern Chinese Martial Arts

Bernard Kwan at Be Not Defeated by the Rain posted a translation of an excellent article on the Northern Chinese roots of Southern Chinese martial arts. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

The Process of transmitting Martial Arts to the South and their Localization

As the ancient martial arts left few traces in the written record, what we know is limited and the remaining content of ancient martial arts still extant in the South has been explained in the previous issues of Hong Kong Wu Lin. For a detailed exposition, please consult the essay "The Evolution of Ancient Martial Arts"

The emergence and flourishing of Cantonese martial arts actually mainly took place during the Qing period. Many people who study Cantonese martial arts, focus their attention upon actual schools, techniques or people. But due to a lack of historical records, most of the information passed down is of a rather late period, most coming from the end of the Qing and the beginning of the Republican period, with a major emphasis on the Republican period. Using the oral transmission to re-imagine the development of the Cantonese marital arts during the Qing period is unreliable. Thus when studying formation of Cantonese martial arts from the Qing to the Republican period, we have to begin with a study of society, understand the actual circumstances and investigate the relationship between marital arts and society and popular culture. The social phenomena which bear a relationship with the development of martial arts which merits our attention are : (1) The militarization and armed conflict in arising from the increasing population in Guangdong; (2) The internal migration resulting from the unrest and turbulence in the middle of the Qing period, leading to the transmission of martial arts from north to south; (3) The self strengthening movement of the twentieth century that led to a "Guoshu Fever", resulting the further spread of marital arts amongst the general populace.

The Population Explosion in Guangdong and development of a Militarized Society

Qing-era Guangdong and Fujian saw a historically unprecedented increase in population. Certain Qing policies such as the maritime embargo, caused the livelihood of the coastal population to be caught between a rock and a hard place, but it did to a certain extent place a limit on the growth of population.  However when we reached the Golden Age of Qianlong, the lessening on taxes on the general populace led to a jump in the rate of growth of the population, and at the end of Qianlong's reign, the population of Fujian and Guangdong had far exceeded that of the most prosperous times during the Ming period. This population increase let what had been a sparsely populated area to experience an invisible pressure, forcing the marginalized masses from lowest rungs of society to leave their agrarian society, to search for a new pastures to make a livelihood. Having left their homes on the farms and their family networks, and in order to protect their rights and resist the depredations of the prominent families and landowners, these  migrants formed many Brotherhoods, and through oaths of fealty created many "clans" unrelated by blood which gradually evolved into a large "underground society".

The history of Cantonese martial arts make reference often to "Overthrowing the Qing and restoring the Ming", to a large extent this was a slogan used by the secret societies to justify their existence and promote themselves. As to for the Southern Chinese Brotherhoods, secret societies and "underground society" researchers both in and outside of China have done a great deal of research, and interested readers should consult "Brotherhoods and Secret Societies in Early and Mid-Ming China: The Formation of a Tradition" (Ownby 1996) and "Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China,: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864" (Kuhn 1980). What is worth noticing, is that the militarization and arming of Cantonese society and the flashpoint, was originally the conflict of family groups over land, and the formation of these non-traditional associations was a result of the worsening of the ratio between land and resources and the population. However later on, with the spread and development of these non-traditional associations, they transformed into vehicles for illegal appropriation, often taking part or even inciting local armed conflict, or even inciting mass rioting and insurrection, leading Southern China to become a large disaster area in the late Qing. With our current state of research we are unable to ascertain the role of the martial arts schools or certain marital arts teachers roles in this situation, but one thing is certain, the militarization of Southern China a close connection with the development of martial arts, and the contemporary weapons - such as the double knife (butterfly knife), cudgel staff - and their related techniques also have direct correlation with this phenomenon.

The problem of the Qing population was one affecting the whole country, apart from the Shandi Hui and Big Knife Association of southern Fujian and Guangdong, the social unrest caused by these non-traditional organizations, affected the each part of China, the Yi He Brotherhood - "Quan Fei" spread to Shandong, Henan, Hebei, and Anhui, and the Taiping Kingdom laid siege to Jinling, and spread its military strength to Guangxi, Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Anhui, Jiangsu, Henan, Shanxi, Zhili, Shandong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Guizhou, Sichuan, Yunnan, Jiaxi and Gansu provinces. This cross provincial movement rested upon a wave of population migration, and was a trend causing the horizontal transmission of culture. The transmission of northern boxing south, taking root in a foreign land was born out of this megatrend, of which the most prominent was the Tai Ping Kingdom.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Are You a Fighter?

Below is an excerpt from a post at The Title Blog. It applies to more than just stepping into a ring or onto a dojo floor. The whole post may be read here.

Let’s be real. Not everyone is capable of being a fighter.  It may be in everyone’s DNA, but without that everyday exposure to their survival instincts they lose touch and that natural mind/body connection gets lost.  What it takes, physically and mentally to fight, becomes foreign and feels awkward. They may try, practice and want to fight, but just don’t have what it takes.  Everyone was born with an inherent ability to fight for survival, but not everyone was born to be a competitive boxer.
Sure, most anyone can learn to “box” to varying degrees of success and aspire to call themselves boxers, but in the ring and in the gym you have to prove yourself worthy of being able to call yourself a real fighter.

So here it is….completely subjective, without judgment or malice….just keeping it real. Ask yourself if these sound like you.  Answer honestly and objectively and the self-analysis could be worthwhile and could even change how you approach the sport.

The Top Ten Signs that Say “I am a Real Fighter.”

1.  I show up.
2.  I make weight. 
3.  I conduct myself like a professional in and out of the ring.
4.  I honor the gym and the people in it.
5.  I keep my word.
6.  I have heart.
7.  I have a vision for my career.
8.  I have my priorities straight.
9. I don’t have a sense of entitlement.
10. I don’t quit easily.          

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Review of Three Books

Below is an excerpt from an article at The Financial Times, reviewing three books on improving the way we think and our outlook of the world around us. They are all on my wish list. The original post may be read here.

March 7, 2014 6:12 pm

Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, by Gary Klein, Nicholas Brealey, RRP£12.99/PublicAffairs, RRP $27.95, 304 pages
Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want, by Nicholas Epley, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99/Knopf, RRP$26.95, 272 pages
Trying Not To Try: The Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity, by Edward Slingerland, Canongate, RRP£16.99/Crown, RRP$26, 368 pages

A year or so ago, browsing in a bookshop, I came across a shelf dedicated to “Smart thinking”. I had never seen this term used to describe a category of books before yet I instantly knew what it meant. Its elevation to official bookseller’s category is confirmed by the appearance of “Psychology/Smart Thinking” on the back jacket of Gary Klein’s new book, Seeing What Others Don’t, and by Penguin’s launch of its “Think Smarter” e-newsletter.

A crude but generally accurate definition of what makes a smart thinking book is anything you could easily imagine being the subject of a TED talk. The recipe is to find a leading expert and get him (alas, still more often than her) to write about an idea in his field that is interesting to a wider audience and which he believes – or at least claims – can help us change our lives for the better. It has been called intelligent self-help, but since most potential readers would not appreciate the implied association with the dumber varieties, “smart thinking” has a certain advantage.

At their best, these books have facilitated a rich flow of ideas from specialists and academics whose work until recently was little known to the lay readership. There is no better example of this than Daniel Kahneman’s phenomenally successful Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), a book that distils a lifetime of research into one lucid volume.

Like all genres, however, smart thinking already has its own tired tropes that too many authors fall back on. Chapters open with intriguing anecdotes; jackets and introductions promise transformational revelations; authors weave in personal stories, with self-deprecating confessions of their own wrong turns and heartwarming memoirs of the hikes, spouses and little children that deeply moved them.

Sure enough, three new books heading straight for the smart thinking shelves all get off to shaky starts by following the standard template too closely. Psychologist Nicholas Epley delivers the usual oversell in the preface of Mindwise, when he promises to tell us “how to become wiser about the minds of others”, stating that his goal “is to improve your psychological vision”. Edward Slingerland, a professor of Asian Studies, also finds himself offering the obligatory assurance that by reading his Trying Not to Try “you will gain new insights that you can apply to your own life”. Klein, meanwhile, tries too hard to give Seeing What Others Don’t a narrative drive, resulting in some painful prose: “At times I felt like a bull charging forward at a swirling cape, hoping to make contact with a shadowy matador.” But first appearances can be deceptive and it turns out that all these authors have a lot to say, and mostly say it well.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Forged to Fight

Below is an excerpt from an article at Title Boxing Blog, on the psychology of fighting. The full article may be read here.

Built for Combat and Forged to Fight

by Doug Ward on March 30, 2014

There have been several features dedicated to the psychology behind fighting, the fact that humans are actually hardwired to fight and survive.  The fact is, it’s not only psychologically inherent by nature, fighting is also physically inherent by nature.

Recent studies published by the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, has shown that contact sports can actually cause your body to convert cells into lean tissue.  The demands of high-impact sports, like boxing causes the brain to send signals to the body that it needs to be protected by muscle instead of by fat.  As a result, this conversion occurs at a cellular level.

This, in theory, isn’t all that different from bodybuilding or muscle strengthening in general.  By placing a high demand of weight or volume load on your muscles, they harden, grow and become stronger.  The breaking-down or tearing of muscle tissue, forces the muscles to rebuild stronger and bigger.

This finding has very specific applications to boxing because it is about as high contact and high impact as you get in sports.  The message here is that your body will adapt and conform to do as much as you ask it to do.  Part of your job as a combatant is to create a suit of armor you can take into battle; one that will not only inflict damage, but will also help protect you.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Dan Tian in Internal Martial Arts

We have another guest post by Jonathan Bluestein, who has written some of the all time post popular articles at Cook Ding's Kitchen. Below is an article on the Dan Tian in Internal Martial Arts. Enjoy.

Dan Tian Gong in the Internal Martial Arts

Clarification: In this article shall be discussed the lower Dan Tian (丹田) area, also commonly referred to as ‘Tan Den’ (丹田) or Hara (Belly) in Japanese.

There is a problem with the current discussion of the Dan Tian in martial arts literature. The vast majority of it is ambiguous at best. People fall prey to using metaphors borrowed from Traditional Chinese Medicine, which are not conductive to an actual understanding of martial arts theory. Other times, explanations are intentionally confusing, in order to make sense only to ‘those in the know’.

This article will not teach you how to develop the Dan Tian area. It is not an instructional. Neither would this be an anatomy lesson. However, I will be attempting to elucidate many things relating to the function and training of the Dan Tian in the Internal Martial Arts in a manner more conductive and coherent than what is commonly found elsewhere.

As you should know, the Dan Tian area is located in the middle of our belly’s mass, and its height is roughly three horizontally held fingers below the naval. I gather that in actual practice, the region used as ‘Dan Tian’ encompasses most of the abdomen’s inner contents between the middle of one’s crotch line and the belly button.

It is impossible not to use the Dan Tian area. The musculature in this region is involved in most of the complex movements we make in daily life. Therefore, the Dan Tian area is active in all martial arts. What sets the Internal Arts apart is that they have methods for developing refined control over this area, or that such control is gradually gained through other methods of theirs.

Dan Tian usage is not the be-all-end-all final secret of the fighting arts. It is simply an additional method, among many others. Dan Tian methods are more common than most suspect in the various martial arts, but this is not apparent since in writing they are seldom discussed as thoroughly as in this article (which despite its length is barely an introduction to the topic at hand).

Two main martial purposes for developing the Dan Tian

1.      A steering wheel – this area can be used to help steer the motions of the rest of the body. Later, one is able to connect to another’s center of gravity, and use one’s own Dan Tian to steer the opponent as well.
2.      An engine – movement in the Dan Tian area can initiate the movement of the whole body, and also contribute powerful waves of momentum by either Rotation or Vibration (more on that later).
These two purposes are not contradictory. The Dan Tian is supposed to smoothly function as both a steering wheel and an engine. There are several other good, non-martial reasons to develop refined control over this region, but I shall not be discussing them in the confines of this article.

The basics

The onset of Dan Tian Gong is with proper breathing, and this comes before its usage as either a wheel or an engine. Without learning to breathe deeply and correctly into the Dan Tian area, it cannot be ‘developed’. Lowering the breath to this area is simple, and can be taught within less than a minute to most people. However, maintaining such breathing for prolonged periods of time can prove incredibly difficult to get used to, especially when moving. This is partly why in the Internal Arts, we have repetitive semi-meditational drills such as Zhan Zhuang (Post Standing), Circle Walking and Silk Reeling, which allow the body to become accustomed to correct breathing and the holding of a solid and well-connected martial structure. 

Only after Dan Tian breathing has been assimilated by the practitioner, can he or she begin to sense the area better. The very attempt to breath correctly creates more nerve endings in that region, and increases one’s sensitivity to it. This takes time – in the caliber of months and years. The more advanced stage of breathing would include the following techniques:

- Reverse breathing:  Learning to expand the Dan Tian while exhaling, and deflate it while inhaling (the opposite of our natural breathing pattern). And its natural follow-up:

- Dan Tian pushing: Pushing air into the Dan Tian when issuing Fa Jin (explosive power), to add force to the strike. This also carries the benefit of protecting the abdomen wherein it is hit during one’s attack, and under correct timing (something which cannot be planned in advance), it may cause an opponent striking one’s belly to bounce back, or even break one’s hand. This mechanism is not necessarily involved in all of one’s movements or attacks.

Unfortunately, this is the stage past which most practitioners never endeavor – either because they have not been patient enough, or had not the luck to find a teacher with more knowledge.

Beyond breathing

After enough time has passed, the practitioner’s body would be aligned in a superior way. As momentum passes more efficiently through such a structure, the Dan Tian can now take control of it, and add its own specific contribution.
Two main types of Dan Tian methods train in the Internal Arts:  Rotating Dan Tian and Vibrating Dan Tian. I shall now discuss them both.

Rotating Dan Tian

This is the most common Dan Tian method. It involves the moving of the Dan Tian area in a very apparent way, and in appearance is similar (though not identical) to Yoga Nauli Breathing. The Dan Tian, now felt as a large ball, is moved around in a circular fashion. It can rotate left and right, up and down, and diagonally. The circles are used as the initiators of whole-body movements, and to add momentum to these movements – hence, an ‘engine’.  At the same time, the circles made with the Dan Tian are coordinated with the circular movements of the rest of the body – therefore also a ‘steering wheel’, as a car’s steering wheel maneuvers from afar the motions of the tires.

A person touching the belly of an adept practitioner will feel his Dan Tian as a rotating ball. As one’s skill increases, the focal point of rotation becomes smaller and smaller. In the beginning, when this is just learned, all of the abdomen can be felt moving in a clumsy way. Years of practice can lead to a level of control that can shrink the size of the focal point being manipulated to that of a medal, and eventually even the tip of a finger. This occurs as over time, the practitioner requires less movement on behalf of this area to generate the same amount of control and momentum.

The most common methods to develop a rotation Dan Tian involve moving the hands in a circular manner with the body, breathing correctly, and slowly allowing the Dan Tian to take control. This is very apparent in exercises such as Chen Taiji Quan’s ‘Silk Reeling’ and Dai Xin Yi’s ‘Squatting Monkey’. The Dan Tian naturally reacts better to the circular than to the linear. Dare I say, that methods such as a Karate Tsuki and a Boxing Uppercut are not conductive tools for the development of the Dan Tian (which is fine, as they have other uses). Another requirement for this process to occur is slow movement, which is another prominent feature emphasized in the Internal Arts. Control over the Dan Tian is a byproduct of Yi (purposeful mental intent), and Yi cannot be focused into any are when moving too quickly.

Vibrating Dan Tian

In various lineages of Xing Yi Quan and Baji Quan, the training methods of Vibrating Dan Tian are known as Tuo Tuo Gong. In Wu Zu Quan, similar methods are part of the ‘Quivering the body and vibrating the shoulders’ form (Yáo shēn dǒu jiǎ 摇身抖甲).  The latter has many video examples available online.

This method is far less common than the previous one. In essence, Vibrating the Dan Tian area is making very tight and fast circles. To make these, a prerequisite is a prior ability to rotate the Dan Tian to an acceptable degree. Using Dan Tian vibrations, the external sections of the abdomen do not move in a pronounced way, as when using the first method. Instead, the insides of the Dan Tian region are twirled.

At first, the spinning of the Dan Tian’s insides is initiated by the legs. Then, the practitioner learns to pick up on that initial rotation, and used small muscles within the abdomen, as well as other muscles which envelope the spine, to keep the rotational vibration going, and accelerate it. As the insides accelerate, the entire body trembles as it absorbs the vibrations. As soon as the body takes on the vibrations, it can add them to the wave of momentums hurled into a strike, throw or joint-lock, and use it to increase the effectiveness of the end result. Other benefits are that the opponent is less capable of absorbing rotation, let alone as a fast vibration, and that the recyclable nature of these vibrations can re-absorb a missed strike or a counter-attack and make them less taxing on one’s body. As before, this is both an engine and a steering wheel.

It is easy to differentiate the two Dan Tian methods if we think of a ball filled with water. The first method is more about the rotation and movement of the actual ball, which tends to be relatively slower. The second method is about the fast rotation (vibration) of the water inside the ball. Another very valid metaphor would be that of a Powerball, and those who have played with such a device should be able to draw an analogy between its workings and the descriptions I have written of.

Another difference which I have yet to discuss is that to vibrate the Dan Tian, one requires not only a functional capacity to rotate the area, but also a well-connected structure. Vibrating the insides of the Dan Tian can be taught to beginners. However, wherein their bodies are not held together as one, the momentum would not pass from the Dan Tian to the striking limb (inefficient engine), and the vibrations would not sync well with the rest of the body (lame steering wheel). Unlike the first method, the second one cannot be trained at slow speeds, and is easier to train while holding a stationary position (as in the practice of Zhan Zhuang) rather than while moving around.

An additional method for training both large Dan Tian rotations and Dan Tian vibrations is through the use of large wooden poles or spears. Drawing circles in the air with these weapons is very useful for such practices, as the large lever they create engages one’s core musculature and naturally arouses the Dan Tian into action. Some specific movements, such as the spear’s Lan-Na-Zha, are more effective than others in developing these skills. Once the practitioner can use Dan Tian Gong, it can also be applied with other weapons.

When properly trained, Dan Tian Gong can be embedded into most of one’s movements (while standing, kneeling or even sitting). In terms of martial usage, the highest level of this skill is the effective combination of both Dan Tian methods. That is, to have the Dan Tian rotate at large whilst also vibrating on the inside, and make all of these micro-movements lead and connect with the rest of the body.

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