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Bullets and Black Belts: Myths of the Martial Arts

Do martial artists really train to dodge bullets?

News of a Burmese guerilla army led by two children made recent headlines, with tales of 400,000 invisible soldiers commanded by 12-year-old twins. The two boys leading this so-called "God's Army," a group only about 200 men strong, are said to possess mystical powers. Besides making magic ammunition that makes ten bullet holes for every shot, the boys claim to be invulnerable to bullets and land mines.

Outside of their ragtag band of followers, these claims would be dismissed as mere fantasy. But the belief in human powers overcoming technological weapons--like guns--is a recurring theme in myth, and especially in the martial arts.

Fists of Righteous Harmony

One of the more famous examples comes from the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. This wasn't the uproar over Mike Tyson's return to the ring, but an attempt by a secret society of Chinese martial artists to "expel the foreign devils" from China. Called the Fists of Righteous Harmony, this secret society was known as the "Boxers" by foreigners because of their kung fu practice.

The Boxers believed that their martial arts skills made them invulnerable to foreign weapons, including firearms. Although bolstered by Chinese imperial forces, the Boxers were defeated by rifle-wielding residents of the Foreign Quarter and later by the multi-national force of Japanese, British, American, Italian, and Austrian military.

Shirts of Iron

The Boxers' belief that their bodies were impenetrable to bullets may have stemmed from the practice of "iron shirt." Iron shirt refers to toughening one's body to withstand blows from kicks and punches, and at advanced levels, piercing and slashing weapons. The desired effect is to build a shield around your torso, as if you were wearing a shirt made of iron.

Even today, demonstrations of iron shirt amaze onlookers with feats such as breaking boards and stones on top of someone's stomach, or bending swords against someone's body, or walking on someone lying on a bed of nails. Practitioners of iron shirt attempt to receive full-power blows to the torso without receiving any damage.

Modern science explains the iron shirt phenomenon in several ways. Perhaps the gung fu practitioner has deadened the nerves in that area, making him or her resistant to pain. This deadening could have been accomplished by repeated damage to the nerves, or application of herbal poultices and liniments. Or maybe by using focused exercises, the iron shirt student has strengthened those areas receiving the blows, and by mentally blocking out the pain, can withstand attacks.

Traditional explanations usually center around the use of chi, or qi, to build a "shield" of chi energy around the iron shirt practitioner. There's a lot of dispute about the existence of chi--whether it's truly "The Force" of Jedi knight fame or merely hocus-pocus. At the very least, it's a convenient way to explain the mystical practice of iron shirt.

Dodging the Bullet

Being impervious to bullets is one thing--dodging bullets is another. While it would seem impossible to be able to dodge bullets, like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, there's some history about training in the martial arts to dodge projectiles. For example, at higher ranks in some martial arts, black belts attempt to dodge thrown knives or even catch arrows. Ninjitsu, karate, and kenpo practitioners have all demonstrated the arrow catch--even on US television's That's Incredible show. But because of the incredible danger involved, catching arrows and dodging bullets seems to be still the domain of fantasy, something Xena, Warrior Princess could do, but not mere mortal martial artists.

Yet the legends persist. There's even an account of the legendary Morehei Ueshiba,  founder of aikido, dodging the pistol fire of six army men in a demonstration of his skills. Common sense would tell you this has got to be bunk. ZZZPOLLBEGIN1511807POLLENDZZZ

But as it is a personal account by Gozo Shioda, himself an aikido legend and founder of his own style of aikido, it makes you wonder if it really could be true:

One, two, three. The six revolvers fired at the same time and a cloud of dust whirled around us. Then, suddenly, one of the six marksmen was flying through the air! What had happened? Before we could figure it out, Sensei was standing behind the six men, laughing into his beard.


Facing Ueshiba Sensei were the barrels of the six revolvers which had been fired. This far I could remember clearly, but the next stage, where Sensei had moved the distance of 25 meters and thrown one of the six marksmen, I simply could not understand. I couldn't find any explanation for other than "God techniques."

There's so many facets of the martial arts that are just too mystical to explain, at least within the science of today. Perhaps in the future we'll understand more about human reflexes, coordination, and skills, and determine ways to amplify them to a level where blocking bullets with bracelets like Wonder Woman would be possible. But for now, these tales are just another part of the fascinating mystique of the martial arts.

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