Historical Martial Arts, Qi Jiguang, Translations, Wu Bei Zhi

The Fist Verses of Qi Jiguang (Redux)

At times I go back at my previous translation work and try to update them with any new information or insight I have had since my last attempt. This was one of the first translations I published and I thought I would give it a little spruce up and tighten the edges. There are a few things that I have learned since then that have some effect on the translations. But It also gives me an opportunity to consolidate some of the background information in one place and streamline its communication.

I have also reformatted the translation to be easier to read. Each page in the Wubei Zhi has two stances represented on it. The texts is read right to left and the translations correspond to the side of the page that is being translated. Hopefully this will be easier and more accessible than my previous attempt.


Here is the full translation of the Qi Jiguang’s Fist method as it appears in the Wubei Zhi. I want to make this available to everyone who expressed interest and to anyone else who might find it helpful. I do not intend this to be authoritative or even unchanging. Input and discussion is always wanted and appreciated. I hope you find it enjoyable to read. 

Historical context

“拳經捷要篇 -The Essential Chapters of the Fist Canon.” First was published in Qi Jiguang’s seminal training manual, “JiXiaoXinShu”. It was later published in the Wubei Zhi in its complete form. Understanding the content of this work is dependent upon understanding the historical contexts both in the military sense and the social or societal arena. 


While violence and crime were a large factor in Ming daily life, there were also more positive influences. Printing and publishing saw an enormous rise during the Ming as did literacy. With a more literate populace, the demand for books of all types grew. Printed books became big business. The publishing boom the 16th century produced thousands of texts to be consumed by a growing lettered class. It is in this environment that we find the rise of the martial arts/military  treatise being bought by non-military people. 

Qi’s first book “JiXiaoXinShu” was published into this environment and there can be a convincing case that this is the oldest example of a martial arts manual for the training of individual skills. Where as prior, this information was most  likely held by the military families as trade secrets, Qi decided to include examinations of various martial arts for the battlefield and focus on the individual training of troops. 


Qi Jiguang wrote “JixiaoxinShu” in the late 1500’s near the end of the Ming Dynasty. The circumstances of his writing this book and subsequently re-editing it later, concern the Coastal pirate crisis involving the Woku. The Woku, more commonly referred to as ‘Japanese Pirates’, were an enormous problem for the Ming at the end of the 1500’s. These bands of raiders which consisted of mostly local Chinese bankrolled or under the command of self appointed Japanese Sea Lords who were operating under the nose of the Ming trade war with Japan at the time. 

Not only were the raids themselves a problem for the region, but due to rampant corruption, many local authorities were collaborating with the Woku. This allowed them to bring their raids far inland and away from the coast. They were able to reach and pillage communities that were considered safe from them before. 

Assigned to the region was another famous and influential writer of Ming Dynasty, General Yu DaYou, author of “Jian Jing”. General You was frustrated with the lack of support he received from the Capitol, who in turn withheld funds and equipment due to lack of real progress in the crisis. General Yu insisted that he needed more fire arms and ships to adequately meet the threat. The Capitol refused. 

When General Qi arrived on the scene, he knew that asking for material support would be a fools errand. Instead, he came up with progressive if not novel approaches to the lack of technology and men available to them. He formed a mercenary army, consisting of volunteers from the affected farming communities. He specially chose these people as they were used to hard work, they were defending their homes, and they would be paid for their trouble (Huang). The problem was, that in the past, soldiers and military personnel came primarily from the hereditary military families and had some experience in the act of warfare. This system had begun to break down in the mid- Ming which also contributed to the public’s general lack of faith in the Ming Forces. 

Because these men were not from traditional military back grounds, there was a need to train them from the ground up. It is this method that he later detailed in his treatise “JiXianXinShu”- the New Methods of Military Effectiveness (Huang). One of the unique features of this book is that it is one of the first military treatises to cover the training of individual martial arts by soldiers. Since the men he was using a the time did not have formal training in military exercise or fighting on the battlefield, Qi therefore, included the training regimens for several weapons and one chapter devoted to empty handed technique. 

The martial arts that Qi choose to represent in his writing is linked to the strategies that he devised for the crisis. The spear takes the lead followed by the shield and dao, sported by archers with both conventional and fire/explosive arrows.At the end of the section is talk of the staff and finally is the bare handed section. Qi’s reason for including unarmed martial art is, as he states, mainly for conditioning and keeping the troops occupied and focused. Some while they may have found some direct application in friendly wrestling bouts soliders may have while encamped, even Qi says in his introduction that there is little use for such things in the theater of war. 

The Art Represented 

Much is conjectured about Qi’s unarmed method. The names of each technique are familiar to modern practitioners of Chinese martial arts. Many of these names appear in several separate martial traditions. Taiji, for instance, shares a fair number of these techniques with in the various lineages of the art. Some take this to mean that this document is the direct antecedent to the art of Taijiquan. While it is difficult to say if there is a direct connection or that if Qi’s writing indicates an art that has been practiced since the Ming, the names and techniques described here are shared by a fair number of arts including Baji, Fanzi, Pigua, Cha Quan, Tang Lang (mantis), and several others. Qi says that he himself has taken these techniques from various sources. It could be the the origins for the names are there and this is indication of unbroken lineages into modern times. 

However, if one looks at the situation of new conscripts learning new skills and bringing them back to their home villages, a migration of common names through a wide variety of people and communities does not seem so far fetched. Let’s remember that Qi’s book was published and sold to non military readers as well and did gain a following among the literati. If these techniques were used in the training of provincial troops from surrounding areas, these men would take these technique, names, and sequences home with them and repurpose them for the needs of the community. It is in my opinion easy to assume that this is at least one factor in the creation of styles that share technique nomenclature yet not a technical base nor common lineage. 

The techniques themselves seem to be centered around what could be deemed “fast wrestling” today. Fast wrestling is a sport in which wrestling moves are performed as quickly as possible and points are scored with successful throws without the use of extended ground fighting. Essentially, pin them as fast as you can. Battlefield techniques do not usually include lots of wrestling. But grappling and wrestling are far more useful than hitting in this context. Qi admits that this is included for exercise and conditioning only and has little direct relevance to war. 

Qi also makes the claim to have extracted these techniques as the best examples from the famous styles being practiced during the day. He then lists many of them with the impression being given that this is very much like a hybrid style made up of techniques from others. Some may be tempted to call this “mixed martial arts” because of that fact. However, I believe it is an error to equate the purpose of Qi’s fist method with the sport of MMA. Martial arts have always borrowed and taken from other arts to add and expand their own. It does not follow that the mixing of techniques from different traditions was particularly rare or frowned upon. The sport of MMA is a mix of martial art for a single purpose of getting the most effective techniques for submitting your opponent. The use of fighting in the armed forces is much more broad and, in Qi’s method, the unarmed exercises serve a health and fitness purpose exclusively. Much like many modern practitioners of Taijiquan practice today. 

Translation Notes

When attempting to translate anything, there are certain issues which must be attended to through the very fact that languages have different solutions to the same problems. One of these is the issue of linguistic expansion and contraction. This is when a single word in the source language cannot be expressed with a single word or “gloss” in the target language. It is necessary then to explain the concept in as concise language as possible to communicate the meaning and intent. This is a common occurrence in any language, but in written Chinese it happens with considerable frequency and can have lasting effects on the understanding of terms and concepts.

In translating the verses of Qi JiGuang into English rhyme, there are some instances of linguistic and translation liberty being taken. A certain amount of linguistic expansion and contraction is necessary to achieve proper rhyme and meter that is internally consistent within the translation. The form of the verses is also changed to find an equivalent form in English that encompasses several metrics in the original.

Verse structure

The verse structure I have chosen for these translations is based on U.S. armed Forces “Cadences” or marching rhymes. I have chosen this form as it is related to the military context, of which the text is a part, and for its simplicity. I have imagined as if these verses were used as a call and response drills for large groups of provincial soldiers. As such I have kept the language on the courser side, although still giving nod to Qi JiGuangs practice of poetry. Although I have little knowledge of classical Chinese Poetic forms, Qi and his fellow military people were often criticized on their writing as being overly simple and naive. Although some did find Qi’s poetry to be pleasing, writers like Shen DeFu claimed their success was due to their uneducated audience and low brow environment of the frontiers and borderlands .

Settling on the military cadences, I used two forms; a quarter note version and an eighth note version. Most fit better into the eighth note form but there are several that are in the quarter note cadence.

  1. Quarter note: Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta Taaa
  2. Eighth note: Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ta

Rhyme scheme

The Rhyme scheme I have chosen is a simple AA,BB structure to reflect the simplicity the succinct and brief nature of the originals. The simple rhyme scheme also is a feature of nemonic rhymes to facilitate their memorization. The simple paired scheme is a one that is intuitive to most languages and cultures.


At times in the text, the first person is used. At other times the second person being given instructions is used. And at still other times it is unclear on whether the passive or active voice is being used. I have attempted to keep it as consistent as I can. The particulars of Literary Chinese grammar make it sometimes difficult to determine the subject and/or object in the sentence. Again, these factors are in addition to the already mounting factors when the target translation is to be in verse.

Qi Jiguangs’s Empty-handed method is perhaps one of the more well known documents from this time period in the martial arts. This is in large part due to the fact the many of the names of techniques used in this text are still found in martial arts today. Many traditions cite this document as an early predecessor to the modern arts they practice. Especially Taijiquan, these arts often refer back to this document without much in the way of analysis. As these names are often popular, they have over the years acquired some conventional glosses. I have made a directed effort not to simply use these familiar translations but rather the render the name in as clear language as I can to describe the action taking place or to give a clearer context with the language. No doubt this might cause some initial confusion amongst readers who are looking at this through the lens of their own art. But, I am approaching the text as a separate practice, however influential it might have been. 

Linguistic and Lexical issues

One specific note that should be pointed out is the translation of the word “Quan” 拳. While the word  is a familiar suffix denoting a martial art, it is used in a few different ways in this text. In the past the word has ben translated as “boxing”. I have stayed away from that gloss for the most part as its is imprecise within the discussion we are having. I will at times translate it as “fist” to stay within the idiom, but when it is talked about in general terms, Have used the rather wordy, “unarmed techniques/combat”. With both these approaches I intended it to read better without the reader needing to code switch too much. 

探馬 Tian Ma, is a phrase that has gone through some changes. At first, I relied on my Taiji teacher’s conventional explanation of it being a phrase for testing a horse for a saddle. While the image may still be consistent with that. However, the traditional use of it was a term for a mounted scout. I have had to change a bit of the translation to make the verses work with the new information. So while the posture its self is translated as “Mounted Scout”, It is translated as “Search on the Horse” in poem #8. While they seem very different in English, they refer to the same movement.


I would like to thank Ting from the Great Ming Military blog, Clifford Lao, and Ma Xianfeng for their invaluable help and input in the subtleties of Literary Chinese and Ming history. Thanks also go to Ben Judkins , Daniel Mroz, and Keith Seely for the many conversations and discussions about the history and culture of China that have informed my research. It is my sincerest wish that practitioners of martial arts will find these at the very least interesting if not illuminating to past practices. I also hope that it encourages more people to make their own translation attempts of these texts. Multiple perspectives are always needed.

 Any errors are my own and I accept any and all criticism or correction.


Fist Classic Essentials of Agility


[While this art is not very useful for preparing troops (for war), it can help with conditioning, or as an initial practice of martial arts. However, most people cannot become strong this way. But, they can also benefit from this practice as it is. Therefore, this section is placed at the end of the other sections. Chapter 14]

   拳法似無預於大戰之技,然活動手足,慣勤肢體,此為初學入藝之門也。故存于後,以備一家。學拳要身法活便,手法便利,腳法輕固,進退得宜,腿可飛騰,而其妙也,顛起倒插 ; 而其猛也,披劈橫拳;而其快也,活捉朝天;而其柔也,知當斜閃。故擇其拳之善者三十二勢,勢勢相承,遇敵制勝,變化無窮,微妙莫測。窈焉冥焉,人不得而窺者,謂之神。俗 云:「拳打不知」,是迅雷不及掩耳。所謂不招不架,只是一下;犯了招架,就有十下。博記廣學,多算而勝。

Unarmed combat seems to offer nothing in the way of the preparation for large scale war, but the exercising of the hands and feet forms habits for moving the limbs as a unit, making this practice a doorway to learning the art (of war).  This chapter is provided last to complete the preparation of skills.  To learn the fist (unarmed techniques) it is necessary to have the body mechanics lively yet simple, the hand work simple yet keen,  footwork is light, giving the ability to advance and retreat at will and legs that can leap and jump. How wonderful it is; To rise high and fall low, and how fierce; the chopping across with the fists, how quick; lively grasping for the sky, and how soft; to know how to endure and evade. For this reason I have chosen 32 of the best unarmed techniques, each one follows from the previous, with applications to an opponent, it can be adapted in unpredictable ways. How refined, how deep! The uninitiated will watch you and claim you are a supernatural master. A common saying; “The fist hits without knowing”, surely it is like trying to cover your ears before the thunder.  They say no provocation, no resistance, just one action will bring them down; attack will provoke resistance, then ten attacks of their own will follow. Play the game but remember the larger lesson, Those that strategize and plan will be victorious. 

  古今拳家,宋太祖有三十二勢長拳,又有六步拳、猴拳、囮拳,名勢各有所稱,而實大同小異。至今之溫家七十二行拳、三十六合鎖、二十四棄探馬、八閃番、十二短,此亦善之善者也。呂紅八下雖剛,未及綿張短打,山東李半天之腿,鷹爪王之拿,千跌張之跌,張伯敬之打。少林寺之棍,與青田棍法相兼;楊氏 鎗法與巴子拳棍,皆今之有名者,雖各有所取。然傳有上而無下,有下而無上,就可取勝於人,此不過偏於一隅。若以各家拳法兼而習之,正如常山蛇陣法,擊首則尾應,擊尾則首應,擊其身而首尾相應,此謂上下周 全,無有不勝。

The Ancient Schools of the Fist; Taizu has 32 stances of long fist, also six step fist, monkey fist, and decoy fist. The names of the stances each have their own qualities, but in reality they have a great amount of similarities and only small differences. Today the styles of note are Wen Family 72 step Fist, 36 locks, 24 throws of the Mounted Scout, 8 dodging turns, and 20 short (hits). Lu hong’s 8 take downs, although it is strong, it does not match the “cotton fist” or “Short Hit”. ShanDong’s Li BanTian’s kicks, Eagle Claw Wang’s grappling, 1,000 throws of Zhang’s throwing (method). Zhang BaiJing’s striking. The staff methods of Shaolin Temple and QingTian compliment each other, Yang Family Spear and Baozi style staff. This is all we have today, although, they have their own strengths and weaknesses. Some systems may have the upper and not the lower, or have the lower and not the upper. Victory may be possible for individual, but this is not a comprehensive approach. If each Family Fighting method is combined and practiced, it is the principle of the “Mountain Snake Formation”; strike the head and the tail must respond, strike the tail and the head must respond, strike at their body and both head and tail must react. This is what is meant by upper and lower are together, and victory is certain. 

  大抵拳、棍、刀、鎗、叉、鈀、劍、戟、弓矢、鈎鐮、挨牌之類,莫不先有拳法活動身手。其拳也,為武藝之源。今繪之以勢,註之以訣,以啟後學。既得藝,必試敵,切不可以勝負為愧、為奇,當思何以勝之,何以敗之 !勉而久試,怯敵還是藝淺,善戰必定藝精。古云:「藝高人胆(膽)大」,信不誣矣!

Overall, the practice of the fist, saber, spear, fork, trident, sword, halberd, archery, hook, scythe,  and others in this class, train the movement of body and hands first with the unarmed method.  And therefore, this method of unarmed combat is the wellspring of martial arts. Here the movements are transmitted by illustrations of the stances, explanation of the secrets, introducing the student to the method. Those that have learned this must test themselves against an enemy. Do not be ashamed or elated of the outcome, instead, ponder why you were victorious or how you were defeated. Make a concerted effort and experiment for a long time. When one is apprehensive their art is shallow, excellent fighting surely decides the essence of the art. The ancients have said; “The exulted artist is a man with great bravery”, trust this without reservation. 


When I was in ZhouShan, I was able to train with Liu Cao-Tong in boxing at the public hall, they say “If one commits only to blocking, ten more blows will come”,  just as with the very clever staff attack of chaining strikes together. 

2. Golden Rooster stands on top,

Present your leg then sideways chop, 

Rush in low and Trip the Bull

They cry to heaven loud and full. 

1. Tie Your Coat and come outside,

Single Whip with Sudden Stride,

With out the courage to advance,

Sharp eyes fast hands will have no chance. 

4. Crossed Single Whip firmly pries it’s way in,

When finding it hard from their kick to defend,

Rush in with continuous, liftings and chops,

Knock down Tai Mountain into low stances drop. 

3. Mounted Scout was Song TaiZu’s,

Stances all can drop and move, 

Attacking and dodging will give you strength, 

Receive their punches in short range

6. Ride the Dragon Inverted to feign a defeat, 

As they enter I turn and reveal my deceit. 

His attack it is fierce his hits they are strong,

But my beating continues, he can’t last for long! 

5. In The Seven Star Fist, the hand follows the feet,

Stepping in close, upper lower to beat, 

The enemy limbs are fast like the wind, 

My own heavy chops will disturb them to win.  

8. Hill Attack changes left with a palm to the right,

They chop, I come in with a heart level strike,

Further I go like Search on the Horse

With one hit I end them with just the right force.

7. Hang up the Leg as bait for a trick, 

It’s not easy to follow when I switch it to kick,

My Palm makes him see the heaven and stars,

To fight me again, afraid all of them are. 

10. Lying in Wait for the beast in it’s den,

The inch step corrals them like they’re in a pen,

Continuously kick with the legs and the thighs,

Receiving a hit means they surely will die. 

9. Hidden Below drops down fast with the legs, 

Step in and knock them down  off a few pegs,

Hooking the foot and locking the arm,

Feint high, go low, trip and do harm. 

12. Defend from their legs with Pluck the Elbow,

I intercept close watching high and then low,

Chopping and pushing and pressing you need,

To hit them not rushing your hands or your feet.

11. Throwing Technique enters, splits and then hangs,

Take advantage with kicks fearing them seeing your plans,

Fly to the left across from the right,

Fend off with one palm and out go the lights!  

14. Grabbing and Seizing envelopes the foot, 

Left and Right press Si Ping standing with root,

A straight punch comes in, lively I throw, 

So that his kicks and his punches, they all are too slow.

13. Sudden Stride waits for the time it can change,

Kick with both legs when you come into range,

Their stances are solid, their hands like the wind,

Why accept the attack when I can dodge it to win?

16. The Ghost Kick begins and shoots out toward them first,

Rush in, turn and hit them, their heart will then burst,

Stand with them on your back like a coat,

An elbow to the heart is no playful joke. 

15. Blocking the Well stance goes directly ahead,

Scissor their knee while blocking the head,

Roll, pierce, chop, lean, wipe off, and hook,

Armored Generals themselves to their cores will be shook.

18. The Beast Head comes in if the opponent is near.

When we meet, my quick footwork will grip him with fear.

Feint low, go high, they cannot defend,

Receive his short chops and charge into them.

17. Directed Defense Stance is shaped like a “T”,

My defenses make it hard to attack me freely,

Kick the knee, turn, and jump up to their face.

Fast Red Fist short range to show them their place.

20. Subduing the Tiger leans back for a kick,

But, he returns my attack I must brace forward and quick. 

I look and see that his stance is not steady,

I sweep him behind before he is ready. 

19. Middle Siping is pushing with root,

Hard attacks and quick footwork are both rendered moot, 

With two hands their one hand is quickly subdued,

A short hit from here is skillfully shrewd. 

22. Inverting Thrust does not provoke with a guard,

With quick tripping legs their foundation bombard,

Stretch the back like a bow, step in with a dash,

The valley will echo with the hit’s sudden crash. 

21. The High Siping method is agile and changes, 

Like flying zig zag in and out of short ranges 

Block the enemy limbs so they cannot attack. 

My foot it may kick and the fist can beat back. 

24. One Lash hacks across and down,

Block their legs and face them down,

Fear not men who’s strength is crude,

They’ll talk with gods through my hits true.

23. Spirit Fist blocks in front to invade down below,

Step in, gather fire, use your chest as bellows, 

Meeting skill, simply seize them and make them fall down,

Raise your hand to prevent them from gaining new ground. 

26. The Hand of Dawn’s body slants defending from feet,

Seamlessly lock them to compel a retreat.

Knock Down the Pillar by quickly kicking their thigh, 

Teach them so well, their own master will die. 

25. Ground Dragon trains the legs to go low,

Lift them then enter with a heavy red blow,

They run from me, fine, I will still take the day,

Rushing in close to block, stop or delay.

28. Ride the Tiger moves and kicks,

Hide your legs with subtle tricks,

Sweep your heel both left and right,

The hand can slice them like a knife.

27. The Gooses Wing inclines in close,

Footwork fast and continuous,

Chase them down and kick through their base,

Chop, shear, and push you must keep pace.

30. Block the Head Canon charges in with out fear, 

Step in like a tiger, throw both fists like a spear,

When they dodge I will trip them and stomp them again,

Even if they don’t fall they must start again.  

29. The Crossed Phoenix Elbow steps out pounding  to start,

Then fast downward palm to strike at their heart,

Like an eagle with talons grab and tear them asunder,

Surely hand must unite with foot that is under

32. Banners and Drums comes in to suppress,

Approaching them chopping like crossing the chest. 

Everyone sees the throw with the twist,

Embracing the Tiger no way to resist.

31. Tame the Phoenix by leaning and use the elbow.

Move, strike, and roll, they have no where to go,

Return to the outside and twist them to bind,

Throw them down, to fight back they’d be out of their mind.


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