I recently placed a video on my Facebook page that showed some of the nonsense that gives martial arts a bad reputation. That triggered the idea to write a series on Martial Arts Myths.
Why? Because no matter how hard you squash those myths, like cockroaches, they crawl from under your foot and multiply once again. I don’t think we’ll every be able to eradicate them so that leaves educating people, hence this article and the following ones on other myths.
That said, let’s start by defining our terms.
Martial Arts Myths: Chi projection
I don’t think it’s necessary to define “martial arts”, we’re passed that stage. A “myth” however can be defined as “any invented story, idea, or concept.” In other words: a lie, an untruth.
The concept of “chi” is more difficult to explain. The most common translation is “vital energy” though that is not entirely accurate either as in the ancient Chinese world view ghosts existed and had “chi” too. “Energy” might be a better translation but that doesn’t really work either for Western minds as science has a solid classification for the different types of energy we can measure. So we’re a bit stuck here.
“Projection” in this case means transferring the “chi” without physical contact.
Bringing all this together, here’s the the claim some people make:
There exists a skill that gives you the ability to transfer “chi” from one person to another in a combat or self-defense situation, without making physical contact.
Supposedly, you can learn to control your chi and then throw it across a distance at an attacker to incapacitate him. They call this chi projection, kong jin (empty force), ki power and a host of other names.
It’s all the same thing though: a myth.
Here’s a typical demonstration:
As you can see, the “master” yells and projects his chi at his students with the usual, ridiculous results. Here’s the funny thing though: when you look at the slow motion footage, you clearly see they are throwing themselves to the ground as opposed to being stopped by some unseen force.
The only reasons this teacher’s stuff “works” is because he uses his own students to demo on, people who have been mentally conditioned to play their part. You rarely, if ever see uncooperative non-students in such a demo. When that does happen, this tends to be the result:
This “Kiai master” did all sorts of funky stuff with his students, in his own school. He even offered fortune telling services (for big bucks, of course) to naive believers. But he made the mistake of issuing a challenge to anybody who doubted his chi powers were real. It didn’t take long for an MMA fighter to take him up on his offer and you saw what happened next: he got his ass kicked good.
It takes a special kind of idiocy to put out such a challenge and expect people to never take you up on it. It takes an entirely different level of being self-delusional to actually show up when a fighter takes you up on that offer. Deep down, that “master” knows he’s selling bullshit. But apparently, he convinced himself he could handle it when somebody comes at him for real
More on that in a bit, first this.
My session with the chi projection master.
About 15 years ago, a guy showed up to a seminar I was hosting and from then on kept on saying we needed to train together. I ignored it until a friend of mine said he actually did have some fighting skill. I wasn’t convinced but was willing to take his word for it and set up a time with the guy for a “mutual exchange” as he called it.
Turned out he was a friendly guy, polite and respectful at first. We talked a bit, discussed martial arts myths and chi projection in particular and I expressed my disbelief. Then he wanted to see how I did pushing hands. So I explained how we train in my school and we did some free style pushing hands.
I broke his balance repeatedly which made him upset and he complained I was using my muscular strength instead of good technique. I replied that if I had done that, he would have been thrown a whole lot harder. And that me using brute strength should make his job of breaking my balance with his superior technique a whole lot easier. His response was that he never trained like I do and always included striking, so we trained his way from then on.
I guess he tried to recover his lost dignity because right away, he came at me with enthusiasm and a lot of force. The first couple exchanges ended quickly with me breaking through his defenses and slapping my palm in his face, fingers pushing gently (but firmly) into his eyes. The next exchange ended when I kicked him in the head. The final exchange finished with me sweeping him to the floor and him landing with a resounding thud.
At that point, he refused to continue and started talking about his chi projection skills. How he had once put a student in the hospital for a week with a no-touch strike and later on healed him with his hands when the doctors couldn’t find what was wrong.
I politely asked to demonstrate that on me.
He said he couldn’t control it. Sometimes his chi projection worked, sometimes it didn’t.
I asked to try it anyway.
I left and never saw him again.
He stopped calling me to train with him.
What are they thinking?
My story here is just one example of martial arts myths in action, there are many more. But it illustrates what I want to cover next: how on earth is it possible that people:
- Believe this stuff actually works.
- Spend lots of money to learn it.
- Convince themselves it’s a good idea to teach it.
For the first one, I believe it’s very simple:
People want to be fooled.
They want to believe magic is real. They want to believe that they can do the impossible. So they re-frame their thinking to absorb information that confirms their bias and then ignore opposing views. They also willfully re-arrange their thinking to find solutions for the conflicts of reasoning they discover along the way. This is called cognitive dissonance and it’s a well-studied problem in all societies.
In Western countries, an example is the lottery. This is basically a state-organized pyramid scheme. Your chances of winning are 1 in about 13 million to 1 in a couple hundred million, depending on certain factors. If you’re realistic about this, you know the odds are totally against you winning the big payout. But because every time somebody wins it, you cling to the hope that it might be you next time. So you keep on paying every week for a ticket because you never know…
In other countries, it manifests itself differently.
A few years ago I was in Bali to train a client and went to a local market, the kind of place where the villagers shop. I walked around a bit and drifted over to a stall from where the incessant chanting came. There was a small crowd gathered around a “magician”, as my translator called him.
He was sitting down, a big snake in a box next to him and “proof” of his claims of the supernatural in pictures all around him. Apparently the guy gave out blessings to his followers and they were constantly handing him over their money while he chanted those blessings. I kept track for a little while and saw him making a decent salary for that country in just five minutes: his followers were in ecstasy.
Here’s the thing: the pictures he had there were from tabloids (“I married Elvis’s Alien Clone” type magazines), medical books (showing horrific mutations and diseases) and some modern works of art (Piccinini‘s half-woman, half-cow.) I recognized most of them but the followers clearly had no clue.
Had he tried his con game on the campus of a Western university, any art or medicine student would have laughed him out of there. But not so in a country rife with poverty and a poor education system. Those people believed him because they want to believe in magic. It’s still a part of their culture.
Show me the money!
Once people start believing these martial arts myths, or merely doubting that they are impossible, they go to enormous lengths to make it their own. They’ve already convinced themselves they want to investigate this further so they seek out people who offer that knowledge. That’s why you see martial arts myths like chi projection alive and well in this day and age when science can prove it’s nonsense: the con men know how to work a mark.
Unscrupulous teachers figure out there’s money to be made from the gullibility of martial artists and they start to reel them in by offering freebies first and then progressively charging more. By that time, you’re spending way too much money on something you would never even consider if you look at it rationally: you’re suffering from commitment bias or escalation of commitment and keep on paying. In short, this means you tune out information that proves you should stop because you already spent so much time and money on it. So you decide to go all in and dig even deeper. Not unlike like those people who play the lottery for decades and never hit the jackpot but keep going anyway…
Good con men can keep this going for a long time and wipe out people’s bank accounts. They always have an explanation why it’s your fault that the chi projection thing didn’t work correctly. Here’s an example of that in action:
When it doesn’t work, you get this weird explanation about putting your tongue in the wrong spot or pushing with your toes. Isn’t it funny how there was no mention of that in the beginning? How it was all “this stuff works great, you can’t resist it.” up until it fails?
Another example is the Yellow Bamboo scam. It was pretty big a few years ago but seems to have simmered down somewhat. They claimed to teach chi powers and asked lots of money for their courses. This is the promotional video from back then:
This is what happens when they challenge people who don’t play ball:
Like I said in the beginning, I’ve yet to see somebody make chi projection work consistently against non-compliant partners and this video is some more proof of that.
But even if it did work, how many self-defense situations do you know in which you can take a minute or so to do your meditation and breathing exercises before you have to deal with that incoming attack?
The right answer is: about zero.
It’s only human nature to want to believe the magical and mystical things you see around you. And for thousands of years, people did just that (remember, at one point in time everybody knew the earth was the center of the universe and the sun revolved around it…) but that doesn’t mean we have to remain ignorant.
I’ve encountered some weird stuff in a couple decades of training, really bizarre things. But never, not once, has somebody been able to prove their chi projection skills on me. Even though I asked repeatedly. Nor do I know of any of my friends who have serious training and fighting experience who can claim having experienced it. They all say the same thing: it’s a martial arts myth.
Personally, I loathe the snake-oil salesmen who take advantage of people and sell them this nonsense. They deserve whatever beating they get when somebody eventually decides to test them. I also loathe how they give martial arts a bad name by their antics.
I feel bad for the believers though. They’re being taken for a ride, a costly one, and often don’t realize how far they have drifted from reality. Violence is scary and it can be uncomfortable, even traumatizing to be confronted with it. But learning parlor tricks to deal with it is no solution. Which is why I wrote this article; in the hope of spreading the word to those who haven’t been sucked in yet but are at risk.
If you want to help out, please share this article so others can read it and make an informed decision when they encounter such a scam artist. Or write your own piece on it, from your own experience. The more we can spread this message, the more this myth will die down. I doubt it will disappear forever, people being people, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
In closing, I’d like to leave you with the words of a famous teacher to one of his students:
Don’t teach bullshit; the truth is hard enough already.
Both as teachers and students, it would be good if we try to follow this advice.