Archive for March, 2010


Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 4 Lady in the Chariot

No. 4 Lady in the Chariot: [you] went through quite a fright, why not give up quest for office.

Tang Dynasty, middle of Kaiyuan period (712-756), scholar from Wu County (western part of Zhejiang province) went to the capitol for the national service exam. After arriving in Changan, during a leisurely stroll on the streets, the candidate suddenly encountered two youths dressed in linen. They bowed to him respectfully as if they knew him. Thinking they got the wrong person, he didn’t really mind.

Several days later, he ran into them again. They said to him “Sir, we have not fulfilled our obligations as hosts since you arrived. We were on our way over to extend the invitation. It’s great that we ran into you just now.” They were very insistent while being extremely polite. Even though the candidate fell suspicious, seeing the obvious sincerity, he followed them nonetheless.

Crossing several streets, they came to a hutong on the east side of the city. There were several stores facing the street, they all went in. Inside the rooms were very neat. The two youth invited him to sit down, and produced a very elaborate meal. Several other young men sat with them, all exceedingly polite. But they kept going outside to look, as if waiting for someone very important. This went on until pass noon, when every started saying “[they’re]coming, [they’re]coming”.

From outside the door came the sound of a chariot. A luxurious chariot, decorated fully with gold inlay, came to a full stop in front. The chariot was followed by several youths. As the curtain came up, a young woman appeared. She’s approximately 17, 18, radiantly beautiful. She wore her hair high – they were completely covered in flowers and jeweleries. Her cloth were silk, in muted color. The two youths greeted her on their knees, she did not return their salute as she did when the candidate saluted her. The young lady invited the candidate to an inner room.

She sat down in the center facing outside, and invited the three of them to sit down. After they had saluted and sat down again, another ten or so youths joined them at the table. They all wore light, brand new clothing.

The servants brought in more food, all of which extremely refined. Several rounds of drinks later, the young lady raised a cup to the candidate “most honored guest, so glad we made our acquiescence today. I heard you possess the most extraordinary skill, may we be blessed with a performance?”

The candidate felt extremely humble, “since childhood I’ve been studying nothing but Confucian classics, I am untrained in either voice or instrument.” The young lady: “I’m not talking about those. Xian Gong (term of respect for man) please think carefully about other extraordinary skill you may have.”

The candidate though long and deep, finally “when I was at school, I was a naughty child. I used to practice walking on the walls while wearing my boots. I’m good for a few steps. Other than that, I really am not familiar with any games or entertainment.” The young lady was delighted “that’s what I want you to show, if you please.”

The candidate rose from his seat, took a deep breath, and ran straight up onto the wall. He took several steps before leaping down. The lady said “very difficult indeed.” She turned her head to the other youths at the table, and asked they perform their skills.

Bowing deeply, each youth in turn performed their skills: some can walk on the wall, some can grab the ceiling beam and walk with their hands that way,.. all of them have light body skill, and looked like birds in flight. All of these things the candidate has never seen before. Shocked and in awe, I knew not what to do. Shortly after, the stood up and left. The candidate returned to his lodging house in a state of shock. Still in a trance-like state, he did not know what type of people he just ran into.

Several days later, he ran into the two youths again. They asked him if they could borrow his horse, to which he agreed to immediately.

The next day, a big news came out. There has been a theft in the emperor’s palace. The authorities conducted a most intense and rigorous investigation. They found but one clue, the horse used for carrying the loot. They traced the horse to its owner – the candidate.

The candidate was arrested, escorted to the most inner sanctum of the government office. There, after being forced through a tiny door, a heavy push sent him tumbling into a put tens of feet deep. When the candidate looked up, he can see the ceiling was at least 70, 80 feet high, with a tiny opening just over a feet in diameter.

Full of anxiety and fear, the candidate can do nothing but wait. After a long while, a bowl of food was sent down with a rope. Starving, he ate quickly. Afterward, the bowl was raised back up through the hole.

Deep into the night, the candidate could not sleep. He started to get angry “I am an innocent victim of some kind of trap, chances are this is how my life will end.” Still frustrated, he looked up and suddenly saw a thing, looking like a bird, flew right through the tiny opening and landed in the pit next to me. It was actually a person.

“You went through quite a fright, but I’m here, so no worries”. It’s voice of the lady in the chariot. Her voice again: “I will get you out of this.” Out came a bolt of satin, which she tied around his arms and chest, the other end she tied to herself. She flew straight up, through the ceiling, and over the high walls of what the candidate can now see is the imperial palace. She kept on flying, carrying the candidate, not landing until they were tens of miles outside the city. She said to him “Xiang Gong, return to your hometown now, as for dreams of higher office, let’s hold off until sometimes in the future.”

Grateful he has been freed, the candidate beg his way back to the south, never daring to venture west again in search of fame and fortune.







Wuyizidi: as Jin Yong had pointed out, everything about this tale feels modern: a gang of supremely-talented thieves, headed by a charismatic young woman; all young, all beautiful, all extremely well-dressed, aristocratic in manners… One imagine the candidate fit their profile, hence their effort to recruit him. Unfortunately they found his gongfu lacking. So they set this clever trap for him. Having been freed, he’s still a fugitive, so he can never reveal what happened to him.


Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 5 Ruzhou Monk

No. 5 Ruzhou Monk: Five shots to the back of the head, Fei Fei says “No”.

Tang Dynasty, early years of Jianzhong (780 – 805), scholar Wei was moving his family to Ruzhou (central western part of Henan province). On the road he met a monk. Riding side by side, they struck up a good conversation.

Near sun down, they came to a fork in the road. The monk pointed to one path: “several miles that way is my monastery, would you like to stay there over night?” Wei said “Very good”. He sent his wife and rest of the family ahead. The monk directed his men to go ahead to prepare meal and bedding for the guest.

More than ten miles later, they still have not arrived. When asked, the monk pointed to a place in the woods where smoke is rising: “that is the place”.

But once there, the monk did not stop, but kept going. By now it’s already dark. Wei became suspicious. He was expert with slingshot, so secretly he took out the slingshot and 10 brass shots from his boots. Only then he confronted the monk: “Student has to arrive in Ruzhou by a set time. It is only because my desire to discuss spiritual matters with you that I agree to come this way. We have already traveled more than 20 miles and still have not arrived, why is that?” The Monk replied “Be patient, we’re almost there.”

At this point it became clear to Wei the monk is a bandit. Wei took a shot at the monk. The brass ball struck dead center in the back of the monk’s head dead. But the monk kept going as if he felt nothing. Wei shot him four more times in the back of head. Only then did the monk reach for the back of the head where Wei shot him, saying slowly “no more practical jokes.” Horrified, Wei knows there’s nothing more he can do, so he did not shoot any more.

After a long while, they finally reached a large manor. Tens of servants with large bright torches came out to greet them. Seating down at a large hall, the monk smiled and reassured the scholar, “not to worry”. Looking to the side he asked the servants “Have you being treating the lady well?” Turning back to the scholar, “Sir you can see your wife, she’s over there.”

Wei followed the servants to the adjacent hall, and found his wife and daughter safe, and that they’ve been treated to a most sumptuous meal. The three of them knew they were deep in dangerous territory, they couldn’t help but break into tears. Wei comforted his wife, then returned to see the monk.

The monk rose up and took Wei’s hands into his: “this poor monk was a big bandit. I was thinking of robbing you. But after you shot me so impressively, I realized your shooting is second to none. If it were anyone else, they’d have a very hard time dealing with it. Right now I have no ulterior motives, please rest assured. The shots you used, luckily I did not lose them.” As he said this, the monk touched the back of head, and all five shots dropped into his hands.

Seeing this type gongfu, Wei shuddered inside. Soon a large banquet was set up. In the center of a large table was a steamed calf. On the calf there were more than 10 extremely sharp knives, neatly inserted. On the outside of those are many pancakes.

The monk invited the scholar to site down. “Poor monk has several younger blood brothers. I would like to summon them to greet you.” At this point five or six large men appeared at the bottom of the stairs. They all wore red, with large, wide belts. The monk shouted “greet the guest!” The men saluted in unison. Wei returned the salute. The monk said to the scholar “Your martial skill is indeed rare in this world. If they met you, their destruction would’ve been instantaneous and complete.”

After the meal, the monk confided in the scholar “I have been a bandit for a very long time. Now that I am old, I’ve made up my mind to quit. Unfortunately I have a son, his martial skill surpasses even my own, I beg him to end him for me.” Then he called out “Fei fei, come out to greet the honored guest!”

From back of the hall a youth appeared. Dressed in jade green with long sleeves, his body is extremely thin, his complexion like that of wax – dry and yellowish. The monk said to him “please go to the rear hall to attend to the guest.”

After Fei Fei left, the monk took out a long sword and handed it to Wei. He said with extreme sincerity: “Please use all your might to kill him, so that he will not be the source of trouble in my retirement.” He lead the scholar into another hall, the doors of which he locked when he backed out the room.

The hall was lit on the four corners with lamps. Fei Fei stood in the middle of the room with just a short whip. Wei took one shot, sure it would land, but with a sharp crack Fei Fei struck it in mid-flight with his whip. The shot sped away from his body, lodged deeply into a beam high near the ceiling. Now Fei Fei started to deploy his light body skills, running on the walls, as quick and agile as a monkey. Wei took four more shots, each one knocked away by Fei Fei.

The scholar then went after Fei Fei with the long sword. Going back and forth swiftly, Fei Fei was like a bolt of lightening. Sometimes he’d get as close as within a feet of the scholar. Wei managed to cut off several sections of Fei Fei’s whip, but can never really touch him.

After a long while, the monk opened the door. “Did you help rid this old monk of the menace?” Wei told him everything that happened. Disappointed, the monk let out a long sigh; staring at Fei Fei for a long time, he finally said “So, you have made up for mind to be a bandit, even our guest cannot do anything to you. Ai, who knows how this is all going to end?”

The monk and the scholar would discuss the arts of swordsmanship and hidden weapons until daybreak. The monk accompanied Wei back to the fork of the road, and gave him several hundred pi (one pi = four yard) of fine fabric before bidding a teary farewell.






Wuyizidi: Fei means fly. “Fei Fei” sounds like the modern word “Ah Fei” – punk. Indeed Fei Fei of this story, in name, appearance, and demeanor, struck many readers as kind of proto-punk.


Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – 19 The Merchant’s Wife

No. 19 The Merchant’s Wife: righteous as wife to her husband, but cruel as mother to her son.

Tang Dynasty. Sheriff Wang Li reached the end of his term at Yugan County, and had to go to capitol Changan to obtain new assignment. Unfortunately he made a mistake in his paperwork, earning the ire of the chief administrator who rejected it, withholding his new appointment. The situation became desperate as his money ran out: he had to let go of his servant, and sell his horse. Stranded in an unfamiliar place, three meals a day became a rarity. He resorted to begging at various temples for cold, left-over food.

Walking back from the temple late one night, he met a beautiful woman on the road. Sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, sometimes side by side, they struck up a conversation. He was honest and sincere, both of them found their conversation agreeable. He invited her to where he was staying. She did not refuse. They became intimate; that night she stayed with him.

The next day, the woman said to him “Gong (term of respect for man), how desperate and destitute your life is! I reside at Chongrenli. My finances are more than adequate, how about you come live with me?” Li, delighted by her beauty, and touched by her generosity, said “I am in such a pitiful situation, your generosity is more than I dare hope for. May I ask how you make a living?” The woman replied “My husband, a merchant, passed away more ten years ago. The business still stands. I can go attend to the business in the morning, and take care of you and our home in the evening. If I can make 300 Qian (unit of currency, usually made of copper. In Tang dynasty 1.5 kilos of rice can be purchased with 3-5 Qian) a day, it would be enough to take care of all household needs. But it may not be enough for entertainment and travel while Gong is waiting for new assignment. So long as Gong find me agreeable, why not stay with me until the new assignment comes down in the winter?” Li promptly agreed.

So it is they came to live together at the merchant’s wife place. She always kept the house in perfect order, was very capable in running the business, and treated Wang Li with love and respect. She handed over to him the keys to everything.

Before she leaves every morning, she would have the whole day’s meals prepared. Every evening, she would return with rice, meat, and money earned during the day. Seeing how hard she works, Wang Li suggested she get a servant. She said that was not necessary. So Wang Li did not press the issue.

The two lived very happily together. After a year, she gave birth to a son. So every day she would return at noontime to nurse him.

Two years passed. One day she returned with a sad expression on her face. “I have an enemy whom I loath with my very being. I’ve been searching for him for a long time, waiting for an opportunity for vengeance. Today I finally accomplished that goal. I must leave the capitol immediately. Please take care of yourself. This house was build for 500,000 Qian. The deed to it is inside the screen. This house and everything in it are my gifts to you. I cannot take the baby with me. He is your flesh and blood, please look after him often.” Saying all of this with tears in her eyes, she bid him goodbye. Try as he might, Wang Li could not get her to stay.

But he froze when he spotted what was in the leather bag she was holding with one hand. It was a human head. Seeing all colors draining from his face, she smiled “don’t be afraid, this has nothing to do with Guan Ren (popular expression in Tang and Song dynasty for husband), you will not be implicated.” Lifting up the bag, she agilely leaped over the wall. Her body was so light, she looked like a bird in flight. By the time Wang Li chased to the door, she was long gone.

Feeling gloomy and melancholic, Wang Li paced the courtyard alone. But then he heard the sound of her from outside the door. Overjoyed, he rushed to open it. “I cannot bear parting with the child, I want to nurse him just one more time.” Holding up the child, she could not stop caressing him. After a while, she stood up to leave again, waving as she departed. Wang Li saw her off to the door.

When he returned to the room, and raised the lamp to check on their son, he saw the bed was covered in blood: the child’s head and body in separate places.

Confused and horrified, Wang Li stayed up all night. After burying the child, he dared not stay in the house. He took out some money, acquired a servant, and moved to the outskirt of the city to lie low and observe what happens next.

But strangely, a long time passed without new news of the killing(s). Later in the year Wang Li finally received the new assignment. He sold the house and went on his way to the new post. After that, he never heard any news about the woman again.

(from Xue Yongnuo‘s book Collection of Strange Incidents)







As someone who grew up with tales of knight-errants, what’s shocking is not the head of the enemy in a bag thing, or even the infant killing (will elaborate on this later in commentary on Tale no. 9 – Nie Yinniang), but how open the society was 1500 years ago: a man and a woman, strangers on the road, can proposed to live together within the first day they met…

And one is drawn to speculate about her interior life endlessly: what was Wang Li to her (her major attachment was not to him but with the child, a bond she severed in the most definitive manner), what their brief years of normal life meant for her, what will she do now that her biggest goal (vengeance, not family happiness) has been met…


Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen – Introduction

In Jin Yong‘s book Journeys of the Knight Errand 侠客行, he included a set of traditional woodcuts called Portraits of Thirty-three Swordsmen《卅三剑客图》.

This type of illustrations were usually found in ancient editions of literary works. This set is considered to be one of the finest examples of such illustrations. And no wonder, it was created by famous Qing Dynasty artist Ren Weichang 任渭长.

Jin Yong’s copy of the illustrations did not have accompanying text, thus causing him to “look up tens of [such] journals and records of Tang, Song, and Wu Dai periods” to search the origin of several more obscure characters depicted.

We know today these portraits were based entirely on the book Legends of Swordsmen 剑侠传. Edited by Ming dynasty literary giant Wang Shizhen 王世贞, the book was a very well-edited selection of thirty-three tales of swordsmen from Tang, Song, Yuan, and Mind Dynasty.

These portraits were in a slightly different order than the one in the book. I will be translating them in the following order: first some of the most representative and easy to translate ones, then others arranged by theme (assassins, hidden in plain sight, swordsman, magicians, old men, rescues, marriage between swordsman and mere mortals…), and finally, the best, longest ones. They will be accompanied by original text from Legends of Swordsmen.



Magic finger … empty force

In Taiji Quan, people sometimes talk about empty force: throwing an opponent without touching. Technically then, to qualify as such you cannot touch the opponent physically with any part of your body. A lot of times we see masters (famous ones too) claiming what they’re doing in a demonstration is empty force, when in fact it was a bit of showmanship used to impress novices/outsiders, like a magician distracting the audience from what is really going on.

The term Taiji means coexistence of yin and yang at the same moment in time. So for a skill to be called Taiji attack and defense has to be done at the same time. Of course if you already have control of the opponent, you can choose not to deliver the final blow. So in these demonstrations, the master will ask someone to attack him, then he would merely point with his free hand and say “look, all I have to do is raise this one finger, point up here, and all the problems are solved. And this finger is not even touching you! It’s an example of empty force.” Distracted, what the student doesn’t see is that the real work is done by the other arm and rest of the body.

In Taiji Quan the body is one giant circle/ball that deflects/redirects the incoming force, to help with that, a beginner usually do something with the free hand (point in the correct direction) to complete the circle he’s attempting. At advanced levels you can do this with just your mind. Once you have someone’s center, you can further embellish this by shaking your finger (actually your who body is shaking/bouncing, but the movement is very small), each time causing the opponent to move.

There are other variations of this. My teacher used to kid with us: when we push him he would cause us to lean over, getting uprooted in the process. And with one free hand at his side, palms facing up, he would wave upward and say “look, I’m lifting you up with this hand, not even touching you!”

One application where this is easy to understand is when you try to reach your opponent with one arm, he touches it on the inside with arm on the same side (for example your right and his left), and in one unified movement, rotate his torso to his left with a spiral arm circle in the left arm, unbalancing you outward and downward to his left, at the same time his other arm chopping down on your neck as part of same circle. You can go down before his chopping hand reaches you. By definition, yang is where his mind is. So when you attack and he feels the pressure on his left, he just put his mind on attacking with his right. Since he has six integration, this automatically causes the left side to follow and redirect as part of same overall motion. But to the outside observer, not feeling what you’re feeling, seeing the focus of his eyes and the attacking hand, would thinks that’s what’s causing you to go down. To him it looks like empty force. But you know it’s actually internal force – his arm that’s touching you is not moving much, but it’s transmitting a controlling force.


Single Whip

Single Whip is one of the most common application ideas in Chinese martial art. You can find it in most northern styles. The skill usually involves standing close, side-to-side with an opponent, hooking the opponent’s outstretched arm with one hand, and throwing him with an arcing overhead motioning with the other arm.

The whip it’s referring to is the kind we call bullwhip (see below), not the other major type of whip – riding crop, which is stiff, stick-like.

It’s so named because it describes exactly what the skill should be like: your spine is the relatively rigid handle of the whip. Your arm the soft, flexible body of the whip. Power is initiated in the waist area – at the butt of the whip. So the motion is not that of a staff, trying to knock over (and down) the opponent, or a lever, trying to pry him off his balance. The mental image is that of trying to strike a far away target behind the opponent’s head with a soft whip.

From experience, people have discovered that in martial art, sports, physical labor, using the correct mental image can help the person naturally use the correct mechanics, alignment. For example, Mark Rippetoe in his Starting Strength talks about how in squat, it’s natural for people to concentrate their efforts on where the weight is felt, on the upper back, neck area. And if they concentrate on pushing there, it would lead to excessive use of local muscles instead of whole body force. That’s how people can strain their neck. The really helpful mental image there is to imagine pushing up from sacrum in lower back. If you put your mind there you automatically do everything correctly for that motion. In martial art training, many secrets are small things like this, it all seems obvious after someone told you, but on your own it might take a lifetime to reinvent the wheel.

The same principle applies to single whip: if you concentrate on point of contact – your arm and opponent’s side, you’ll have to use a lot of force to unbalance him. Most likely you will not be able to, as the tendency here is to use just your arm to unbalance him. But if you put your mind on the imaginary target behind his head (from your perspective, not back of his head), and concentrating on trying to reach it with your hand (tip of the whip). You’ll find that you can move him very easily. This is because using this imagery, you naturally use your whole weight to move his center of balance, rather than applying a more awkward force using side of your arm. The other thing is, because force is spread out throughout your body, the opponent does not detect this type of change easily before it’s too late.

Finally, what can really make this motion effective is the snap at last moment. It’s what makes a whip lash sting. Here, rather than a gentle arc, which is similar to a linear motion, and therefore relatively simple force to deal with, that extra motion makes it a much more complex circular force to follow and respond to. You can throw a person a lot further by just adding this small extra motion.

Single Whip is a very old skill, people obviously put a lot of thought in naming it.



In martial art we use the word dantian 丹田 a lot, what does it mean, why do we call it that?

The word 丹dan has many meanings. For example the earliest reference is to the red sands found in Ba Yue (southern China). For the purpose of our discussion here, the most relevant definition is this one “丹者、石之精。故凡藥物之精者曰丹。” – “dan, [is] the essence of stone; hence for any medicine, its [pure] essence is called dan” (from Eastern Han dynasty reference work Shuo Wen Jie Zi 说文解字).

Traditional belief about relationship between qi and lifespan is as follows: we were born with qi, which is called xian tian qi (pre-birth qi). The experience of living in this material world, the assault from both outside (pollution, injury, etc) and inside (seven emotions) all reduces this qi. When this qi is exhausted, we die. But this world also provide us with ways of making up for the lost qi – from heaven (air), earth (food, water, …), and human sources. The qi obtained this way is called hou tian qi (post-birth qi).

One fundamental difference between Chinese and non-Chinese religious/spiritual traditions is that in religions like Christianity and Buddhism, the physical body is not regarded as important, soul is considered the essence (the eternal aspect) of our being. In Daoist practices (at least low and middle level), while soul/spirit is also regarded as the essence, the goal of practice is to achieve immortality of both body and mind. This is called 性命雙修 xing ming shuang xu – cultivation of both mind and the body.

Early efforts to achieve immortality were crude. It was based on one hand the simple observation that things in nature can change states – even hard metal can be melted down to liquid, then evaporated into air (seemingly to nothingness). So the thought was, if we can melt down metal and rocks to their essence (dan) in liquid form, if we ingest that, then maybe we can transform ourselves to a higher-state pure being. The assumption here is we are like other earthbound things, are heavy with impurities. And that immortals, up there, in the air/heaven, are clean, light, and pure. The process of cultivation then is to remove impurity. A process which, of course, is man’s biggest secret.

This goes hand in hand with the other basic idea that “we are what we eat” – here that means whatever quality you want to enhance in your body, you want to ingest something of that quality. So if you have liver trouble, you eat livers of other animals. If you want to have an incorruptible body, you ingest something in nature that is known to be highly incorruptible. The most visible examples of which are heavy metals like gold, lead, mercury, which rust (oxidation, technically same as combustion) very slowly.

So during the time Shuo Wen Jie Zi was written (100AD), dan was basically abbreviation for jin shi dan yao 金石丹药. Yao mean medicine. Jin (gold, metal) Shi (rock) has several meanings. If people say they collect jin shi, it’s referring to engraved seals. But in this context, it meant heavy metal.

From Journey to the West: the gods threw Monkey King inside a vessel for forging dan, hoping to kill him and create dan (his body’s made of divine rock) in the process. Here he freed himself and knocked the vessel over.

Unfortunately, in liquid form most of these things are highly toxic for humans. So several hundred years and many poisoned emperors later, people realized this approach represented a deadened. So they started looking inward. Within the body it was thought there are three essential treasures: jing, qi, and shen. Shen of course is the spirit, the highest level. So over thousands of years, nei gong practices were developed to first transform jing to qi, then qi to shen. What we call qi gong is actually a basic skill in nei gong. If you can’t move and manipulate qi around the body, then none of this can be accomplished. Using qi gong, people transport jing from lower dantian (hui yin point) to middle dantian (what most people in martial art refer to as dantian, right below the navel). In the middle dantian ‘cultivation’ is done to harvest the jing, transforming it into qi. Afterward, this qi product, is transported to upper dantian (eyes) to supplement shen. Since this qi product is thought to have the same effect as external magic elixir (transformation into shen), it’s also called dan.

That’s the basic idea behind all neigong practices. Each school differ in the manipulation/cultivation, and transport methods. This approach, using raw materials from within the body rather than from the outside world, is called nei dan gong, or simply nei gong. The previous one is called wai dan gong. Since the method of immortality is still the biggest secret, people retained the same terminologies used for wai dan gong, terms like dan (elixir, herb/medicine), field, cauldron, picking, etc, to keep things secret from outsiders.

March 2010
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