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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Arts and Religion, Martial Studies

Invulnerability in the Chinese Martial Arts: Meir Shahar on the Origins of the “Iron-Cloth Shirt” and “Golden-Bell Armor”

hard qigong.marketplace.spear



Meir Shahar. “Diamond Body: The Origins of Invulnerability in the Chinese Martial Arts” in Perfect Bodies: Sports Medicine and Immortality, Edited by Vivienne Lo. London: British Museum, 2012.

Introduction: The Significance of Invulnerability in the Chinese Martial Arts

I can think of few topics that the Chinese martial artists I regularly associate with want to discuss less than invulnerability magic or spirit possession. Granted, this has a lot to do with selection bias and the sorts of individuals who are drawn to the more “practical” and “modern” aspects of the Southern Chinese martial arts. These are the communities that my personal and academic study focus on.

Yet as I watch other discussions unfold, “serious” martial artists seem to be pretty uninterested in hard Qigong. Even at a time when these time-honored displays are being banished from the Chinese military, no one is calling for urgent efforts to “document” or “preserve” them. This is actually somewhat remarkable as a concern for the fading of tradition seems to be one of the critical social markers of the modern Chinese martial arts community. Yet when it comes to the practice of “hard Qigong,” the “Iron-Cloth Shirt” or “Golden Bell,” many commentators seem uncharacteristically silent.

Nor is this indifference entirely new. On the one hand a great many schools and manuals still teach these techniques and demonstrations are not hard to find. Yet since the early 20th century there seems to have been a marked tendency to recast all of this as mere “showmanship” and to downplay its association with the “real” martial arts.

At least two forces are at play here, both of which have their origin in the “respectability politics” of the Republic period. Martial arts reformers, eager to sell their systems to the newly emerging urban middle class, wished to cultivate a more refined and nationally aware brand. Needless to say, ubiquitous displays by economically and socially marginal street performers undercut these efforts.

And then there was the Boxer Uprising. As I have noted before, the traditional Chinese fighting arts probably came closer to actual extinction in the decade following the Boxer Rising than at any time before or since. Reformers who wished to save the martial arts needed to expunge any hint of the national humiliation that followed the rebellion. For progressives and the May 4th Intellectuals, the martial arts became emblematic of everything that was too backwards, superstitious or feudal to be part of the modern nation. As a result, practices that were deemed to be too esoteric or problematic had to be jettisoned from the system.

Even though some of these more marginal traditions have survived, students of Chinese Martial Studies may be reluctant to engage with them. Perhaps it is because we rely too much on the written sources that were produced by various sorts of reformers (Jingwu, Guoshu…etc) when deciding what defines “real” kung fu. Or maybe (as in my case) it is simply a reflection of the communities that we happen to be most familiar with. Whatever the reasons, Meir Shahar’s chapter “Diamond Body: The Origins of Invulnerability in the Chinese Martial Arts” invites us to take a closer look at these practices.

I suspect that many readers will be unfamiliar with this particular essay as it only appears in an edited volume that focuses on sports and medicine rather than the martial arts. Some of this material will be familiar to those who have already read Shahar’s 2008 volume The Shaolin Monastery (Hawaii University Press). Yet this important essay stands on its own merit and deserves careful consideration.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Shahar’s 2008 volume for those of us interested in Chinese martial studies. In addition to providing a fantastic treatment of the Shaolin Temple this work also guided readers through an exploration of many of the extant textual sources on the Ming and Qing era martial arts. Better yet, it signaled to academic publishers that there was an untapped demand for similar projects in other areas of Martial Arts Studies.

Shahar’s volume has helped to inspire a large number of conversations and become one of the most frequently referenced works on the Chinese martial arts. Yet sometimes I get the feeling that there is not a lot of agreement on what he actually suggested. Given the various perspectives that his work is read from, and the complexity of the subject matter, perhaps this is to be expected.

It is also the reason why students of Martial Arts Studies will want to pay close attention to his more focused essay on the origins of the Chinese invulnerability techniques. Published four years after his volume on Shaolin, this paper allows Shahar to both demonstrate the centrality of these practices to the evolution of modern Chinese martial culture, as well as to clarify his previous arguments on two important (and controversial) points. These have to do with the role of religious practices in the development of the Chinese martial arts as well as the centrality of Indian influence in the development of some aspects of Kung Fu.

"Sword Dancer."  Image circa 1910, distributed circa 1930.  Source" Vintage Postcard.

“Sword Dancer.” Image circa 1910, distributed circa 1930. Source” Vintage Postcard.

“Diamond Bodies” to “Iron-Cloth Shirts:” Reviewing the Evidence

In some respects these points are surprising. Both have been mainstays of popular discussions, and both have been widely (and deservedly) debunked. The standard form of these arguments generally goes something like this. All Chinese martial arts derive ultimately from Shaolin (or possibly Shaolin and Wudang) and are therefore rooted in China’s great spiritual traditions. Further, Chan Buddhism was brought to Shaolin by Bodhidharma. He was an Indian missionary who introduced both meditation and Kung Fu to the monastery. We can then conclude that the roots of China’s fighting traditions lay in the Indian martial arts.

Shahar’s 2008 volume provides ample evidence of why both of these commonly heard arguments are mistaken. I would say that one of his book’s most important contributions has been to help move the popular discussion away from a facile search for Chan Buddhism within martial practices. So why does he return (in a way) to these same issues in his 2012 paper?

The answer to that question is rooted in the paradoxical relationship that exists between invulnerability practices and the broader world of the Chinese martial arts. His argument throughout this paper is that a better understanding of the technical origins of the former will help to add a needed dose of nuance to our understanding of the later. And this nuance may be particularly helpful in guiding those working their way through his longer study on Shaolin.

Shahar begins his essay by pointing out two important facts. First, the late imperial and modern invulnerability techniques that have gone under names such as “Golden-Bell Armor” and “Iron-Cloth Shirt” are not representative of the Chinese martial arts at large. Many practitioner and teachers have (and want) nothing to do with such techniques.

Nor would it be correct to assume that these things were always common in the past. As we already saw with our discussion of invulnerability magic among the Red Spear militias of the 1920s, when these teachings appeared in the countryside of Shandong and Henan province, most of the preexisting martial artists viewed them as something new (and heterodox) rather than the restoration of a “traditional” practice.

It is probably best to view such practices as a minor sub-current that flows throughout the Chinese martial arts. Yet at the same time we must acknowledge that this is a remarkably persistent stream of belief and technique that has a habit of popping up in the most unexpected places after long periods of silence.

While the beliefs and practices that underlay these techniques are the easiest to observe with militarized groups such as the Boxer and Red Spears, the basic techniques that they employed were also shared by a wide variety of teachers and practitioners. Many of these individuals made their living in busy markets where they demonstrated feats of hard Qigong while selling patent medicine and charms. Their “hardened physiques” (which could withstand blows from hammers, spears or swords) were used as a testimony to the efficacy of their wares. So while these beliefs may not have been part of the orthodox course of study in all schools, they were widely disseminated among China’s highly mobile population of martial artists.

Nor was this fascination confined to illiterate village masters or marketplace performers. Shahar points out that literate and educated individuals were also fascinated with the image of the “diamond body” of the perfect martial artists. These were the people who left the surviving accounts of marketplace demonstrations (some going back to the Ming dynasty), who wrote wuxia novels and operas that featured the frequent use of invulnerability magic, and who attempted to understand and explain the invulnerability magic of the vulgar masses as a variant of their own more erudite theories on the “circulation and concentration of Qi.” In fact, it was the literary works produced by these individuals that helped to shape the cultural milieu that all Chinese martial artists operated within. Thus even if most individuals did not claim any expertise in these areas, the techniques of invulnerability were always out there “somewhere.”

Shahar wastes little time and declares to his readers within the first few paragraphs that the ultimate origins of these invulnerability techniques lay in the ancient Daoist gymnastic system known as daoyin, premised on the idea that it is possible for an individual to control their internal flow of “energy.” In fact, the quest for invincibility is related in substantive ways to the more famous questions of immortality.

He then asserts that the specific details of these techniques suggest that they are not ultimately of Chinese origin. Rather, they are directly dependent on the idea of the ‘Diamond Body’ and the techniques of Tantric Buddhism imported from India to China between the 5th and the 8th century CE. While the martial legend of Bodhidharma remains a myth, a closer examination of late-imperial invulnerability techniques may demonstrate the long-term impact of Indian thought on both the martial arts and Chinese culture.

After reviewing a number of textual and empirical sources in the first half of this article, Shahar asks how it is possible that these medieval beliefs (originating in esoteric Buddhism) were able to reemerge in the late-imperial world of practicing martial artists? Interestingly he finds that some of the baser marketplace performers of the late Ming were pretty open about their sources. They found the inspiration for their hard Qigong feats in “The Sinew-Transformation Classic.”

The forged preface of this work did much to introduce the ancient sage Bodhidharma to the world of the Chinese martial arts, yet Shahar dates the actual compilation of the current version of the text to about 1,000 years later (roughly 1624). The work exhibits a marked interest in “hardening the physique” through a combination of meditation, exercise and progressive beatings so that one could withstand both illness and physical threats.

Shahar points out that various versions of this text were widely disseminated and it is hard to understate its effect on late imperial martial artists. A number of the invulnerability manuals produced in the Qing and Republic periods mirror it on either a textual or technical level. Indeed, the Sinews-Transformation Classic is the oldest such manual still extent, and seems to have directly inspired much of the genera that followed in its wake.

Some interesting semantic issues begin to emerge when one closely considers the vocabulary of this work. Most of the translations of the Sinews-Changing Classic make no reference to “Golden-Bell Armor” or “Iron-Cloth Shirts,” the most common generic names for invulnerability practices in the Qing dynasty. Rather it speaks of the quest for the “Diamond Body.”

Other novels produced during the late Ming also tend to use similar terms. Even Monkey in “Journey to the West” is said to exhibit a “Diamond Body.” How then can we explain both the symbolic significance of these terms in the late Ming, and their subsequent absence in the Qing, while continuing to assert the centrality of the Sinews Changing Classic?

Readers should note that one of the more important aspects of Shahar’s argument is actually tucked into the footnotes. Specifically, in footnote 24 he observes that other experts in the transmission and dating of this particular text have found that in later and more corrupt copies there is a tendency for the idea of the “Diamond Body” to be replaced with more general metaphors about bodies that have become as hard as metal. This would seem to be ultimate origin of the popular imagery which emerged by the end of the Qing dynasty. Shahar implies that the move from a “Diamond Body” to a metal one actually happened within the evolution of the Sinews Changing Classic textual tradition.

Still, this corruption is not without a certain degree of significance. Shahar goes on to argue in the final pages of his article that the specific imagery of the “Diamond Body” did not emerge in the Sinews Transformation Classic by accident. Instead it was a reflection (and a memory) of the prior importance of Tantric or Esoteric Buddhism much earlier in Chinese history and the unique (mostly magical) contributions that it made to Chinese martial culture.

The author provides readers with a basic introduction to this school of Buddhism and its history in China which concludes with examples of 8th century Tantra masters employing both mudra and spells to invoke the “Diamond Armor” which was a central part of many of that school’s religious rites. These masters explicitly noted that once invoked this Diamond barrier not only protects one from spiritual but also physical threats.

The greatest mythical teacher of such secrets was Vajrapani, often portrayed as the Buddha’s over-muscled guard and the titular deity of the Shaolin Temple. Tang storytellers in the 12th century forever linked Vajrapani to the temple’s reputation for producing martial monks when Zhang Zhou published a fictional account of the young meditation master Sengchou’s encounter with the martial deity.

As Shahar notes, it might be simple to dismiss this story as an isolated fiction except that nearly contemporaneous inscriptions at the temple describe the magical methods by which monks were invoking the same deity hoping to gain both spiritual and very physical strength. This story and the inscription seem to indicate that while we have very few sources on this period, Shaolin may have been known for a unique martial monk tradition prior to the Ming dynasty. Yet the special “martial arts” that its monks practiced were essentially esoteric or magical in nature.

So was this linking of Tantric and martial culture unique to Shaolin, or even China? In the final paragraphs of the paper Shahar leaves the reader with a single source suggesting that an exploration of the Indian Yogic literature would likely conclude that it too shared the quest for spiritual and physical benefits through the forging of a “Diamond Body.” The legend of Allama’s magical contest with Siddha Goraksa (where the latter’s Diamond Body is bested by the former’s “emptiness”) can even be read as an explicit criticism of the popularity of these practices.

Shahar’s succinct conclusion is worth restating:

“The 17th century Sinews Transformation Classic furnishes a direct link between medieval Tantric Buddhism and the emergence of the late-imperial martial arts. The manual’s adamantine vocabulary derives from the concept of the ‘Diamond Body’, which was introduced to China by the Buddhist Diamond Vehicle (Vajrayana). The esoteric search for an everlasting diamond physique served as the ultimate source for such invulnerability methods as the Golden-Bell Armor and Iron-Cloth Shirt. The cult of the Diamond God Vajrapani, coupled with the forging of magic diamond armor inspired the hardening techniques that are currently practiced in China. The obsession with the imperishable body illustrates the inseparability of military and religious goals in the Chinese martial arts, no less than their indebtedness to Indian Esoteric Buddhism. In this respect, the hardened body demonstrates the long-term impact of Indian religion on Chinese culture.”


A display of strength using a Wukedao, or heavy exam knife.  Source: http://steelandcotton.tumblr.com/post/79458102847/i-dont-oppose-playing-ball-in-the-least-but-i#notes

A display of strength using a Wukedao, or heavy exam knife. Source: http://steelandcotton.tumblr.com/post/79458102847/i-dont-oppose-playing-ball-in-the-least-but-i#notes


One of the most critical debates within Chinese martial studies has focused on the role of religion in the evolution, transmission or understanding of these fighting systems. Tang Hao first debunked much of the popular lore on this subject in the 1930s, and more recently authors like Stanley Henning and Brian Kennedy (among others) have made important contributions to our understanding of this subject. Indeed, Shahar’s own work from 2008 served to once again demonstrate the many ways in which these popular theories fundamentally misunderstood both Chinese religious and martial history.

Yet the conclusions of this more recent paper may introduce a greater degree of nuance into our discussion. China’s medieval contact with India had a profound effect on many areas of life, so it is not clear why we should not expect to see some of these in the realm of the martial arts. Likewise, scholars are only now beginning to appreciate the impact that Tantric Buddhism had on medieval Chinese culture. Rather than ascribing everything to Chan (or Zen), as popular discussions of the martial arts often do, a greater appreciation of the literary and spiritual symbolism of this school might help to enrich our understanding of some aspects of the martial arts. The critical contribution of this paper is the realization that a detailed examination of late imperial invulnerability practices, often neglected in modern discussions, might open some exciting areas of investigation.

Still, no paper is without its weaknesses. Ironically one of these is simultaneously a strength. Shahar is always a clear writer, but this chapter stands out as something that is really easy to read. It is relatively short (only about 8 double-column pages of text), and assumes no prior knowledge of esoteric Buddhism and only a minimal understanding of the Chinese martial arts. One strongly suspects that Shahar wrote the piece for an audience of generalists, rather than specialists. And given the venue in which it was published, that was clearly the right choice.

The fact that this article keeps jargon to a minimum, includes lots of illustrations and employs minimal footnotes makes it a great choice for use in a course syllabus or reading list, even at the undergraduate level. Yet at times I did find myself wanting more. Rather than simply being assured of the great number of later manuals that followed the lead of the Sinews Transformation Classic, I would have appreciated a more detailed survey. Likewise, the question of how the “Diamond Body” evolved into the “Iron-Cloth Shirt” of the later Qing struck me as a fundamental issue that deserved more extensive treatment than a single footnote could provide.

This is especially important as a seemingly simple switch in vocabulary effectively deprived the late-imperial invulnerability techniques of one of their last solid symbolic links to Tantric culture. Given the centrality of this transmission to Shahar’s argument I would have liked to see the individual steps spelled out in greater detail. Of course the textual record is spotty enough that this may not be possible.

One could say much the same thing about the prior transition between the world of the 12th century Tantra master and their quest for the “Diamond Armor” to the 17th century environment that gave rise to the Sinews Transformation Classic. How exactly was this symbolic tradition transmitted for over five centuries? Granted, this late imperial work is the oldest complete hardening manual that currently exists, but are there any clues in the literature that might be suggestive? Do its exercises imply a dependence on prior religious texts, literary works, or something else entirely?

Even if the existing textual record does not allow for a full exploration of these critical linkages, a more developed theoretical model might also be helpful. One of the most striking things about the invulnerability tradition that Shahar identifies is its ability to exist as a submerged thread within China’s martial culture, only emerging in certain times and places, yet always eluding eradication by wary political and social elites.

Unfortunately this sociological aspect of the story is never developed. Why do such practices survive, even to the current day? How do they survive setbacks such as their very public failure during the Boxer Uprising? Who turns to them? Have these mechanisms changed over time, or has the sociological appeal of this sub-current within the Chinese martial arts always been similar to what we see now? And what role has popular culture (novels, plays and other media) assumed in this process?

Shahar’s work provides a lucid and clear introduction to some of the major historical questions surrounding the origins of invulnerability practices in the Chinese martial arts. Yet much of the story remains to be explored. What we discover may have important implications for our understanding of the larger world of the Chinese martial arts.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: From Battle Magic to Self Actualization: Understanding the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts


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