One day in ancient China a crash of symbols and drums is heard as a crowd converges around a man with several assistants.  Suddenly he leaps into the air and commences a thrilling Gongfu form, his assistants adding loud rhythmic accompaniment.  At the end of the form the master smashes several roofing tiles as a demonstration of his internal strength and the crowd is both entertained and astounded.  As the performance concludes the assistants produce large jugs of medicinal wines and brightly colored pills to sell as cure-alls for injuries, rheumatism or other diseases.  The Gongfu master is also a doctor of Chinese Medicine.  Specifically he is a specialist in Die Da Ke 跌打科, or Fall and Strike Medicine (also known as Dit Da in Cantonese).

            In China, medicine and the martial arts have long been linked like opposite sides of the same discipline.  Most martial artists have heard stories of special herbal “Hit Liniments” called Dit Da Jow in Cantonese (or Die Da Jiu in Mandarin; 跌打酒) created to enhance the efficacy of training or to treat injuries.  Master teachers kept these liniments as secret recipes handed down in their lineage even though few now understand the rationale for their composition.  Some teachers, because of their familiarity with traumatic injury, made their livings also as physicians who practiced orthopedics or traumatology – the aforementioned specialty known in Chinese as Die Da Ke.  Die Da specialists were the original creators of Hit Liniments.  With their expertise they could adjust herbal recipes for martial artists based on their styles of training or types of injuries.

            Today martial arts have spread across the world along with the fanciful stories of secret herbal prescriptions for health and longevity.  Unfortunately, the medical science that was once so closely associated with the martial arts and the medical knowledge used to create things such as secret Hit Liniments rarely followed alongside.  The “secret recipes” still passed on in martial arts schools are usually very common and simple herbal formulas for people familiar with the concepts and uses of Chinese Medicine.  Now that ambulances and hospitals are available to most people in the western world martial artists no longer need to take the same responsibility for their own health or the health of others in the training hall.  In ancient China this was not the case.  An injury needed to be dealt with by the student or the student’s instructor.


            Chinese Medicine 中醫 (CM) is one of the oldest professionally practiced medical systems, having served a majority of the world’s population for most of recorded history.  It is a literary medical system with a continuos written record that spans even by conservative estimates the last 2,000 years of Chinese history.  The two most commonly utilized modalities in CM are Chinese Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture, although physicians also practice physical medicine (massage and physiotherapy), dietary therapy, minor surgery, bone setting and other techniques.  Over the last 2,000 years CM has maintained a core theoretical framework that continues to be used today.  However, CM is neither an anthropological nor historical curiosity as throughout history it has and continues to constantly evolve its ideas and practices.  Like any valid medical system CM learns from and adopts useful aspects of other medical systems even including western bio-medicine.  Contemporary CM is a traditionally based yet modern and professional medial system that is fast becoming mainstream in the West as well as the East.

            What is commonly referred to as Chinese Medicine (or TCM, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Classical Chinese Medicine, Oriental Medicine) is actually best understood as “Traditional East Asian Medicine.”  Various professional and folk/home therapies from countries such as China, Vietnam, Korea, the Ryukyus and Japan all evolved from classical Chinese medical models.  While modern TCM from China may differ from traditional Korean or Japanese medicines, all have no doubt evolved from the same essential underlying theories.  In contrast, other Asian medical systems such as Tibetan, Ayurvedic and Unanai medicines maintain distinctly different core medical theories. 


            CM has its roots in folk therapies utilized by the Chinese since prehistoric times.  Medical theories were based on peoples’ observations of the natural world, human health and disease.  Ancient symbolic language relating health to natural earthly and cosmic phenomenon is still used today and represents a highly sophisticated and equally scientific understanding of the body as is that of western biomedicine.  With the gradual creation of societies in China, and with the advent of written language and printing technologies, various competing schools of medicine began reconciling contrasting theories.  Scholar physicians compiled theories into classical texts such as the Huang Di Nei Jing, a compilation of short treatises from differing schools of medicine that later became the foundation text for CM medical theory.  Gradually over several thousand years a body of learned physicians and an enormous written tradition was born and flourished in China as well as other neighboring countries.

            The study of medicine and martial arts were linked closely in ancient China.  In an era where medical care was scarce martial artists and martial arts teachers needed to know at the very least the rudiments of first aid when faced by traumatic injuries.  Furthermore a knowledge of anatomy was an asset in fighting so as to better understand the vulnerabilities of the human form.  The basic study of medicine was thus considered part of the standard curriculum for serious martial artists.

            Medicine was also important in spiritual traditions. In both Daoist (Taoist) and Buddhist spiritual practice, a detailed understanding of the body was essential for inner visualization exercises.  Furthermore, the practice of medicine was considered an act of compassion important in the Mahayana Buddhist traditions.  Many martial arts systems have their roots in monastic traditions and thus the two were often studied together by initiates. For example Da Mo (Bodhidharma), the Buddhist patriarch responsible for bringing Chan (Zen) Buddhism to China, is credited with transmitting the Muscle/Tendon Changing and Marrow Washing Classics.  These texts describe exercises based on classical medical theory and eventually became the basis of Shaolin martial arts.  The Shaolin Temple, in addition to being known for its martial traditions, was a repository of medical knowledge.  Herbal formulas used in the treatment of traumatic injury were highly developed by the Shaolin monk/physicians.

            Eventually more specific medical knowledge was integrated into martial practice so as to make it easier to injure or subdue an opponent.  Based on a detailed understanding of the physical and energetic body martial artists began developing specialized techniques such as Fen Jin 分筋(dividing or grabbing the muscles and tendons), Cu Gu 錯骨 (misplacing or dislocating bones and joints), bone breaking, Bi Qi 閉氣 (sealing off the breath causing an opponent to loose consciousness), Dian Xue 點血 (striking veins and arteries), and Dian Mai 點脈 (striking acupuncture points, also known as Dim Mak in Cantonese).

            As the use of medicine in martial arts grew, so too did the use of medicine to treat traumatic injury.  As early as the Western Zhou Dynasty (1066 – 70 B.C.E.) doctors were divided into four categories: Dietitians, Internal Medicine specialists. External Medicine specialists, and Veterinarians.  Doctors of External Medicine specialized in the treatment of for example sores, abcesses, ulcers, fractures and wounds.  One of the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E. – 220 A.C.E.) texts unearthed at Mawangdui, The Fifty Two Diseases and Prescriptions, details therapeutic techniques and herbal formulas for injuries such as traumatic bleeding and wounds from metal weapons and tools.  By the Sui Dynasty (220 – 960 A.C.E.) a physician named Ge Hong documented reduction techniques still used today for dislocated joints.  Also during the Sui Dynasty a Daoist physician wrote the first book specifically devoted to Traumatology – Secret Recipes for Treating Wounds and Bone Setting Taught by Celestials.


            Both the indigenous martial and medical traditions were heavily influenced by China.  Chinese medicine was first introduced to Japan via Korea during the 5th Century A.C.E..  By the 7th Century students from Japan were sent to study medicine in China and by the 8th Century a system of medical education based on the Chinese Tang dynasty model was established in Japan to serve the needs of the aristocracy.  The first major Japanese medical text, the Ishinpo, was published in 984 A.C.E. and based on over 100 original Chinese sources.

            Throughout history the Japanese continued to import and develop techniques such as Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture.  At some point, either by their own ingenuity or by the assimilation of Chinese techniques, Japanese unarmed fighting methods came to utilize vital point striking.  In addition, Kappo, or resuscitation techniques, were integrated into the curriculum in martial arts schools.  These techniques maintained and continue to maintain a prominent position in the atemi-waza (striking techniques) of Ju-jitsu.

            The island of Okinawa in Ryukyu Island Chain is the birthplace of Karate.  The Ryukyus were an independent kingdom until 1879 and, like Japan, had early contact with the Chinese.  During the 1300’s the Ryukyu Kingdom entered into a tributary relationship with Ming China that lasted into the 19th Century whereby the Ryukyuan kings pledged allegiance to the Chinese Emperor.  By 1393 a Chinese settlement was established in Okinawa and simultaneously a permanent Okinawan settlement was growing in Fuzhou, China.  It is probable that during this period of social and economic exchange both Chinese medical and martial sciences were transmitted to the peoples of Okinawa.

            Just as in China and Japan, the martial traditions of Okinawa adopted the art of striking vital points.  Okinawan martial artists also studied the rudiments of Chinese medical theory and Herbal Medicine.  The Bubishi, a once secret martial text of Okinawa, details information on striking vital points as was as herbal treatment for injuries.  Many of the chapters on Herbal Medicine in the Bubishi were written in such a way that the reader was expected to already have a rudimentary understanding of Chinese pharmacology and medical theory, thus substantiating that martial arts masters would have been trained not only in fighting techniques but also in Chinese medicine. (McCarthy, p.75)

            It is commonly known in Okinawa that, historically, masters were expected to know Chinese medicine.  Modern day Okinawan master Miyahara Katsuya (b.1918) relates that karate men of old “had knowledge of Chinese medicine.  Therefore, whenever something went wrong, they could take care of themselves.” (Silvan, p.77)  The modern master Motobu Choki recorded numerous herbal therapies of both Chinese and Okinawan origin for injury or fracture, along with basic first aid, joint reduction and revival techniques, in his 1926 book Okinawa Kempo Karate-jutsu.  Even today some Okinawan schools teach medicine as part of their advanced curriculum.  For example, Kojo-ryu advanced students learn five essential sciences and their relations to the martial arts: Shakaigaku (Social Studies), Sugaku (mathematics), Butsurigaku (physics), Tetsugaku (philosophy) and Igaku (Traditional Chinese Medicine). (Bishop, p.56)


            For various reasons including perhaps misunderstandings in translation, feelings of medical cultural superiority, or the dismissal of classical ideas as mere primitive superstition, during the 20th century many of the medical and traditional internal cultivation techniques of East Asian martial arts were forgotten by American and even sometimes modern Asian martial artists.  Foreign and exotic herbal remedies became curiosities instead of medicines.  Acupuncture theories and vital point striking was too esoteric and dangerous for westerners more interested in sport martial arts.  For example, The Complete Kano Jiu-Jitsu (Judo) by Hancock and Higashi published originally in 1905 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons contained 26 pages of information on vital point striking and resuscitation techniques.  However, when this book was republished by Dover Publications in 1961 (and in all subsequent reprintings) the publishers purposely omitted only these chapters because “their use to the public is doubtful.” (Hancock, title page)

            The following story illustrates this point.  When I lived and studied in Okinawa I trained with one of Shimabuku Tatsuo’s senior students.  Shimabuku, originally a master of Shorin-ryu, based his new martial arts system Isshinryu on older martial arts system as well as his understanding of the Bubishi. (McCarthy, p.23)  Shimabuku also studied Goju-ryu under Miyagi Chojun and was thus well versed in vital point striking and esoteric breathing techniques.  One day I questioned my teacher about whether Shimabuku used to teach the Shoshuten 小周天 exercise (also known as the Microcosmic or Lesser Heavenly Orbit), a basic Qi circulation exercise used in Daoist meditation and in some Chinese martial arts schools.  This question was greeted with a blank stare until I described the procedure.  He then realized what I meant and admitted that Shimabuku talked about this exercise all the time as a part of Kata practice.  Unfortunately the younger and more modern Okinawan students, thinking these exercises to be mere superstition, never practiced or taught these internal energy cultivation techniques.  Furthermore, almost none of Shimabuku’s American students either spoke Japanese or spent more than a year or so training with him and thus these advanced techniques were not transmitted with Isshinryu to America.

            Sadly this is a common story for Chinese, Okinawan and Japanese martial arts stylists.  Yet, in traditional martial arts a detailed study of modern and traditional anatomy is an asset in training so as to both better prevent and inflict injury.  In the west today there is an increased interest in traditional or holistic health systems.  Likewise martial artists are learning to move beyond training that ignores anything beyond competition “fighting.”

            Even as late as the 1980’s acupuncture and Herbal Medicine were thought of as superstitious folk quackery.  Today Oriental Medicine is professionally licensed in almost every state in the US.  Also during the end of the 20th Century there was an explosion in the amount of once “secret” martial arts knowledge openly taught or printed.  It is now easy to find books, videos or web sites about vital point striking, Qi Gong, and other esoteric martial arts techniques.  The Bubishi has been published in both modern Japanese and English, in several versions.

            Until know however there has been relatively little information about Chinese Medicine and the martial arts, especially material presented by a professional physician and long time martial artist.  The Institute for Classical Asian Medicine hopes to remedy this by providing the general public with access to the medical knowledge once secret in martial arts communities, and to help martial artists appreciate and reconnect with their medical heritage.