No touch knockouts. Pressure points fighting and Dim Mak. Sending a foe flying several feet back in the air with not so much as a flinch.
In the peeling back of he mysteries of Qi, let’s start with the low hanging fruit. The extraordinary claims of Qigong. Qigong (also spelled Chi Kung pronounced “Chee gong”) is often brought up when speaking about amazing feats and claims of martial arts and spiritual pursuits. These feats are often demonstrations of so called superhuman abilities that can be attained through the practice of Qigong and related exercises. Impenetrable skin, fire proof bodies, and the ability to throw a person several feet away with barely a touch or even no touch at all. There are of course less fantastical interpretations of Qi in martial arts, but for now, we will focus only on the supernatural claims and feats usually demonstrated as proof of the power of Qi.
These feats can be for entertainment, and most times we see them is in that context. A show of Shaolin monks breaking spears for an audience of tourists, a street performer delighting a crowd, or a grand display of magic in Las Vegas by a master illusionist. We can see most of the amazing feat s of Qi in these places far more readily than a martial arts school.
However, among certain arts and in certain circles, these feats are the absolute goal of each student. There are thousands of current and former students to systems like, taijiquan, Qigong, Lin Kong Jin, and iron body technique. They fill the lore and fiction of marital arts being attributed to heroes of stories and myth. And there are certain teachers who make a living off these things. They have groups of students who will seemingly sacrifice years of work and vaults of money to attain a bit of this skill for the people. The tricks and feats demonstrated by these charlatans are easily debunked and revealed as what they are, tricks. This means these people are frauds, right? Not necessarily.
The difference between a Fraud and the Fooled.
There are essentially two broad types of instructor of these systems; frauds and fooled. Frauds are those men and women who set out to trick, con, and steal money from their practitioners. Frauds can also be in it for notoriety and fame (although true frauds usually shun any and all critical eyes on their scam). Frauds are those that have ill intent and KNOW what they are doing is fake. Fools on the other hand, do not fully know what they are doing. They may truly believe they have these powers and abilities, and no knowledge of the inner workings of the tricks. These teachers are often far more plentiful and more difficult to challenge without looking like you are beating an under-equipped opponent.
Frauds are often the subject of its of this talk and a lot of the issues with Qi in general. These are easy targets as their malice and willingness to do harm makes them enjoyable for us to take down. This feeds into the common martial art feeling of wanting to be a protector of the weak and vulnerable. It feels good to watch a con man fall, especially after they have done damage to innocent lives. The difficulty with frauds is that they are secretive, private, and often not in the public eye that much. How do you confront and deal with frauds?
Xu Xiaodong, an amateur MMA fighter in China has made a name for himself by publicly challenging and subsequently beating the stuffing out of several traditional Chinese martial arts masters. Xu considers all traidintfoial martial arts that claim to have fighting prowess are frauds and that they cause harm to the over all martial culture. He holds these fights with taiji masters and others to prove this very point. The issues with tis approach came to him quickly. The Chinese government did not appreciate Xu’s approach nor his targets. He challenged many famous and well respected teachers of martial arts, undermining the governments attempts at cultural outreach and patriotism oriented events. Xu was also derided by many for his brutality when fighting these often older men who obviously had no real chance. This is often chalked up to apologizing the traditional martial arts and their lack of fighting ability. It was not a good look.
Now, this approach to frauds is fine, but the last part does carry a warning; you must be certain your target is a fraud. If one looks at the fights Xu has had, one can see a big disparage between him and his opponents. Besides age, they display no physical fighting ability much less a threat to a young fighter like Xu. Xu beat them easily, but not so easily as to be definitive. Beating up these men seems like a big win for the cause, until you look at it closer. The men the showed up to these challenges are convinced of their abilities. They actually think they can do these things. In that way they are not frauds and beating them senseless does nothing to advance the goal of reducing such bad players. An old man who does Taijiquan in the park does not need to be punched in the face to be shown to have no powers. Simply grab them and set them down the ground and they will be humiliated. But the added violence on someone who obviously does not have any idea of what is about to happen again, looks bad. And it is easily manipulated by the opposition.
These men that show up to challenges are not frauds in my book. They are the fooled. Someone, maybe a teacher, a self proclaimed “master”, or even themselves has convinced them that these powers and abilities are not only real, they can be unlocked by THEM! These people are in the same boat as their students. They have bought the idea and are running with it. Every day, their experience is guided by their bias until before they know it, they surely accept that they can do these things. But they cannot. Certainly they must know nothing is happening and they just want to believe it, right? At times yes, but while these are the basic types that one encounters among teachers, it can be very hard to figure out which one anyone really is. It is easy to fool ourselves, and teachers who are accomplished in other areas may be vulnerable to swallowing the idea of Qi based technique whole. At times they are even aware of the failure and blame it on themselves, thereby trying to push the attention to another reason.
Illusion and delusion
So, how hard is it to fall into the trap of believing your own fictions or the fictions of someone else? The answer is much less comforting than most would like. The factor the matter, our brains are set up to be fooled like this. It is part of how wet re able to function and think the way we do. Humans have cognitive biases that govern what we do in the world based on our expectation and past experience. This is directly related to our ability of pattern recognition, and the argument can be made that it is simply the exploiting of this natural process that we are really talking about here. Our ability to decree patterns in nature and build expectations and methods to elicit specific results based on these patterns is key to our cognition, but it is also a vulnerability when someone is intentionally or unintentionally tapping into these biases to manipulate the individual.
We can start with the idea of illusion. Either one that is produced for you or one that is produced by you from your expectations. There are many illusory experiences that we encounter daily. A moving picture, the sun setting behind the horizon, the idea that driving is safer than flying. All of these are illusions that we live by in some form or another. And they go very much deeper. Illusions abound in our daily life, most passing without us noticing when we experience these illusions, but they are convincing to us.
If we experience an illusion that is convincing to us in the moment, and we do not examine it right away, that can lodge its self in our brain as a first hand experience. That is a very powerful thing to us. We feel better about the truth of things if we experience them first hand. In fact, often time when speaking of matters of believe, the canard “You would need to feel it for yourself” or some such utterance is often used as a retort to the skeptic. Some even say they were skeptical as well until they felt/saw/heard it for themselves. If a teacher who has authority and fame demonstrates an assortment of illusions to a crowd, they can be sure that at alert some of them have been convinced but hem. From there it is a short step to accepting a host of thing one would have rejected out of hand as being absurd.
There are many illusions that are used with what we are talking about. And many things in the body that help to make these illusions powerful to us. One of the most important for our discussion is the ideomotor response. This is the phenomena where the body moves without the conscious brain or awareness being involved. The common example is when you drive through a light and can’t remember if you stopped at it or not. The actions and responses are so ingrained in you from driving, you route, and the mundanity of the situation that your mind focuses on something else while your body and movement continue on as expected. This response is to blame for many of the experiences we have with Qi gong in martial arts.
The ideomotor response can make us have very spooky experiences with a variety of things. Ouija boards work on this principle as well. But in Qi, if an instructor has developed a strong enough relationship with the student, or the student is sufficiently devoted to the teacher, the students brain can act to make the things that the teacher is saying are going to happen, happen. Conditioning to particular results can enable an unscrupulous teacher fill a great number of people into performing at their whim. If one of those that have been fooled go and teach themselves, they can unconsciously follow the same steps to condition a group of student themselves. This second group, however, does not know that what they are doing is false. And it is these people who end up being the loudest voices in the discussion on the Qi side. They swear by its effectiveness and its reality. And it is very hard to convince them otherwise. The conditions and the illusions combine to create a delusion-a false impression of reality.
Of the various tricks and feats attributed to Qi, none is more famous and contested than the actions that require little to no physical contact. These are the famous no touch knockouts and the “empty force” pushing with no contact. A quick search on Youtube will reveal many videos of people purporting to perform these miracles. They range from mildly convincing to outright ridiculousness. Most fall somewhere in between. The idea of issuing force and affecting a target without touching them physically is soothing that found much thrift in the martialists novels and stories of great heroes. The are the Chinese equivalent to the tales of swords and sorcery of the West. Even though they are fictional, thee stories have had a great impact on the martial arts. This can progress to claims of setting things on fire by looking at them and other more absurd ideas.
The progression is usually gradual, as not to alert the more skeptical parts ones mind. It may start with the teacher pushing people over in drills like pushing hands or demonstrations of “applications” of the moves the form. As one progresses students through the idea that their teacher can do amazing things, these effects become more pronounced in the student. The teach may be able to cause the student to be thrown a distance away with nothing more than a flick of the wrist. Or the student may find themselves stuck in a position unable to retaliate. Once a group of individuals gets to this stage of involvement, the feat become more and more inexplicable. People not only being thrown away, but jumping and flailing uncontrollably, being stopped out of a full run dead to the spot or made to fall over with a shout or movement, or simply falling unconscious only to be revived very quickly by the instructor and their assistants.
This progression is the same for the Fraud and the Fooled. The fraud uses this progression to lull students into a sense of security in their own observations and skeptical ability. This will cause them to gradually let their guard down. Each time there is a small opportunity to break through the screen of incredulity, the teacher will perform a small trick that, to the uninitiated, seems amazing. The greater the skepticism in the student (mark) the greater the effect of the self working tricks of physics have on their belief. Knocking one off balance a bit when they feel solid. Performing a knock down technique without explanation. Performing a trick like “the unbendable arm”. All of theses things slowly change a doubters mind to one of a believer. They may not be the most vocal of supporters, but their support lend credence to the instructor when they are mentioned. It is very convincing for most of us to hear a person say “I was a skeptic until…”
For the fooled, they simply follow the progression set down by the teacher. If the teacher is an advanced level cult leader, there will be something inherent in the process that keeps the necessary progression to fleece the unwitting and skeptical alive. Although, very little attention Is paid to resilient skepticism in favor of cooperative students who can help soften the wills of the other students. A vocal skeptic or one who sees through these tricks is quickly ostracized and excluded fro the group. The group, because it is insular, falls deeper into the fog of the illusion until finally it becomes a delusion. Once this has happened, it is difficult to break the spell.
What is there to do?
The real difficulty in all of this is what to do about it. While the major frauds and scammers are relatively few and quite savvy at skirting authorities, they can cause significant damage. Not only to the people involved but also to martial arts in general. Preponderance of the types of schools and acts further enshrines the idea that the martial arts of Asia are mystical systems of magic and superpowers. Even those that do not seek superpowers, they can believe they attained healings when they have not and then stop care for their condition. Or a person can assume they posses a skill and are embarrassed, ridiculed, or even attacked when they are unable to produce the effect they are claiming. These are rare but any incidence of the is unacceptable.
The other danger in groups like this is the conventional risks that come from cult like behavior. Sexual molestation, physical abuse, and metal torture are things that often are found in such deeply deluded groups. If the leader feels they can manipulate members to believe in their powers they can easily (and often do) manipulate people into doing things they would never do under other circumstances. As the saying goes: “If one can get you to believe absurdities, they can get you to commit atrocities.”.
As we have discussed, in the moment, direct confrontation can prove to on lookers, more or less, that these things are untrue. However, it is impossible to prove a negative, and my experience up to now tells me that people will find all kinds of reasons to believe e things even after they have been demonstrated to be false. Also, as we see from Fighters like Xu, challenging them and fighting them will do little as the real con artists would never accept such a challenge. The progenitors of these ideas and methods persists. There are many things that people accept whole heartedly that have been proven to be false time and time again. The excuses for this are uncountable. “This one guys wasn’t good”, “The atmosphere was wrong”, or even “If they had their big toe up it won’t work”.
The only real thing we can do is simply promote realistic interpretations of old ideas like Qi and expose the fraudulent ideas as best we can. Simply pointing them out is enough to dissuade some, but the real progress must be made in our own teachings and training. We must be vigilant for these types of things. Even in our own training. Qi is not the only BS that is pedaled in the martial arts. Fitness myths, anatomy myths, and physiology myths are common place in all forms of training for sports and leisure. Often times these less absurd notions lead to acceptance of the more extreme. If you think that the body is 98% water, then a “Quantum Qi Master” can more easily convince you that water can carry emotions and therefore affect your health. And then you have people playing Mozart for their water bottle before working out. These simple seemingly harmless ideas are not a far cry away form being able to knock someone out without touching them. Even though it seems that way from the outside.
There are those out there that regularly try to debunk and show light on the scammers and the frauds. Channels like McDojo Life and Ramsey Dewy not only send up the no touch knockout masters, but, also some of the crazy “self defense” videos as well. While these parties are essential to the struggle, and they provide an enormous service, they can at time confuse the frauds from the fooled. Which brings us to our own actions. The most important thing when we study these arts is that we know our own goals and have realistic ways to achieve them. If someone promises magic powers or even great fighting ability and yet, your best efforts fall short, it is time to reevaluate the teacher. Try to critically approach these topics, no matter who is delivering them. Turn on those BS detectors and listen to them when they blare. Often times we have initial reservations that might correct, so always have an exit strategy.