Golden bell and Iron shirt

In some traditions there is an interesting gap betweeen what people think they are going to learn from the tradition and what actually ends up being transmitted. Recently I found a nice example of that while practicing Qi Gong.

In his classic Seventy-two arts of Shaolin (Zhong, 2004) Jin Jing Zhong describes the training method “Covering with a golden bell.”

This exercise is a hard one, it strengthens both outside (muscles, bones, sinews) and inside (the inner organs). It is the most important hard exercise out of all 72 Arts. This exercise is rather complicated and difficult. It is necessary to make a mallet of stuff and strike with it on the whole surface of the body, on the front and the back. At first you will feel some pain but after training for a long time feeling of pain will gradually disappear. At that time the mallet of stuff can be replaced with a wooden one. When you feel no pain from blows, the wooden mallet can be replaced with an iron one. Bring to perfection until you feel no pain from blows.

If you practise this method for two or three years, your breast and your back will become strong like stone or iron; it is of no importance whether the enemy punches or kicks, it will do no harm. Even a sword blow will not do any injury to a man who practises the skill of “Gold Bell.” Chest and back bones of that man become compacted like a single whole. It is necessary to use tinctures to cure bruises of muscles and bones after blows with mallets or falls (somersaults).

Similar in method and aim are two other special training methods, “Iron shirt” and “Iron bull.” All promise that, after several years of hard training, the devotee’s body will be invulnerable to normal blows and even to edged weapons such as swords and spears.

Now, if you are thinking, “bullshit,” then don’t worry, I am too. But hold on.


Iron shirt, iron bull, and golden bell are all varieties of qigong, a kind of physical and mental training designed to enable a person to increase and direct his or her life energy (qi). Qigong practices range from quiet seated meditation (such as Eight Buddhas seated qigong) to powerful and dynamic martial arts forms (such as Sanchin). Iron shirt and golden bell qigong are considered “hard,” “external” practices because they develop the strength of the body.

The Chinese temple boxing expert Zhou Zi He (1874–1926) and his Okinawan student Uechi Kanbun (1877–1948) did public demonstrations of iron shirt as part of their business selling herbal medicines in Southern China (Bishop, 1999). There are conflicting accounts of Zhou’s life—he was the head of a Buddhist temple, a Taoist priest, a civil boxing instructor—possibly because he was involved in resistance to the Qing government (Dollar, 1996, pp. 58–59). During the Boxer Uprising, many boxers went into battle lightly armed, believing that their golden bell and iron shirt qigong would make them invulnerable to swords and bullets. See—fatal bullshit. But hold on.

Ultimately, Uechi Kanbun went to Japan, where he taught Zhou’s style of boxing, including the iron-shirt form Sanchin. My teacher studied with Uechi Kanbun’s son, Uechi Kanei, on Okinawa. I have seen experts take powerful punches, stand on swords, and bend spears, all ostensibly due to their ability to direct their qi so as to avoid harm. It does not seem like it should be possible, but there it is. I myself—no expert—have been able to take surprisingly hard blows without even bruising by [what feels like] directing my energy to the point of impact. If someone would have told me this was possible, before I had seen it, I would have cried bullshit.

So in this tradition bullshit is freely (and, I must say, liberally) mixed with sober instruction. Both are presented with adjuration to practice diligently for years, only after which will the promised abilities manifest themselves. And, in some sense, both are plausible: after all, the boxers who charged British guns were no less intelligent than I am.

I asked my current instructor what he made of all this, and he said that these stories were used to encourage novices to train hard, but that eventually, when they train hard, they come to see and experience the other benefits of the training. In addition to its alleged martial applications, iron shirt may also be studied for health benefits (Chia, 2006), for instance, and there are many attitudinal benefits to diligent training as well. This sort of indirectness is (frustratingly) characteristic of Shaolin training, so I cannot say I was terribly surprised by his answer.

I relate this story to raise the question of how we might understand traditions where what is intended is only indirectly related to what is transmitted. This is not an East-West difference: participants in the Boxer Uprising clearly interpreted their tradition quite directly. Nor is this a matter of literal versus symbolic interpretation. There is nothing symbolic about golden bell instruction: it means exactly what it says, only its intended outcome is something completely different than what is described. The intended outcome is not symbolized anywhere in the instruction. I’m not sure how we should understand this sort of indirect transmission.

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