Life after the “Death Touch”
“If Sensei Tanaka is your Shidoshi, then show us the Dim Mak.”
- Dudes testing Van Damme in Bloodsport
Yes, when I was a kid Van Damme was a big action star and yes as a martial arts kid I was watching his movies. This line has now become a constant joke amongst my friends and I when the “Death Touch” is brought up. Which always seems to happen when anyone mentions or shows a point in class during an application. But the topic always seems to come up over and over on Facebook, forums, with new students, with people from other clubs when I teach workshops and so I figured I should just write about it once to help clear the air as best I can about the “mystery” of the “death touch.” Not claiming to be an expert or Grand Poo-bah of the “Dim Mak” in any way here, but I think it is misunderstood in a big way and there are a lot of people that seem to make money from keeping it a mystery. I hate it when people make students chase a carrot for years and years for profit. So here’s my opinion from my research, training and life so far.
點穴 Dian3 Xue2 as it is called most often in Mandarin (the translation Dim2 Mak6 stems from the Southern Dialect of Cantonese 點脈 spoken mainly in Hong Kong and the southern mainland. The first character Dian (Dim) is usually translated as either “point” or “dot”. This however is not referring necessarily to acupuncture points (although in some contexts it does) but to the action of pressing, hitting or ‘dotting’ something. In swordsmanship the word Dian is used to describe a type of very accurate stabbing movement but the word comes from calligraphy. When writing Chinese with a brush some characters have dots on them which require a particular movement of the wrist in order to make them appear correctly on the page. In short here the character is used to represent an accurate, skilled strike on someones body.
The second characters used 穴 (Xue2) or 脈 (Mak6) have similar but different meanings, the first character Xue2 translates as Cave or Hole and when combined with Dian as in Dian Xue can actually be translated as Acupuncture points. The second character Mak6 can be translated as pulse or vein and is sometimes used in the translation of Dim Mak as Striking the Blood. Either way we can take these terms to mean accurately striking vulnerable areas. My point here being that Dim Mak as it is generally known in the martial arts world does not mean “Death Touch”.
So if accurate striking at vulnerable areas is the skill being referred to then of course the use of Chinese Medicine knowledge quickly comes to to forefront of conversations. However before going down that path I would like to state that one does not have to be an educated Chinese Medicine Practitioner to know that heavy accurate strikes to the eyes, throat, groin and so on are going to cause real damage and disable an opponent readily. Accurate striking of vulnerable areas… Dim Mak.
But this is not the controversy about this area of martial arts practice and legend and is often disregarded as ‘real’ Dim Mak, definitely a debatable point. Most of the time people researching and trying to learn about Dim Mak are looking for the Chinese Medicine links to martial arts and how to essentially use the theory and practice of the medicine in reverse, to harm rather than help. But this too can be misinterpreted and misunderstood due to language barriers and of course Martial Arts Legends and stories. Before moving on to a more reasonable approach to the mystical side of this topic I must add one issue which is the popular form of entertainment in China of the Wu Xia novel and now movies. Dim Mak became “known” in general through the martial arts stories, fictional stories, of the martial arts novels. Stories about heroes being heroes and using their mystical martial arts powers to right wrongs and save damsels. This is the realm of Kung Fu Masters leaping on rooftops, running across water and lighting things on fire with their “chi”. (I normally use the modern romanization of Qi for the character 氣 except when it is being used to represent magical abilities and energies). These novels were written as fictional entertainment and somehow became what people thought martial arts skills really were, Dim Mak included. So let us leave magical red sand palm and the 72 consummate arts of Shaolin temple in the realm of fiction.
So I guess whats left now is what I have learned about the reality of Dim Mak skills.
I like to organize martial arts training and skills by three levels, beginner – intermediate – advanced. In general one cannot gain advanced skills without the foundations to build them on. The more esoteric and strange the skills may seem the less they tend to be understood by those seeing them simply because of a lack of the foundations they are built upon, Dim Mak is no different.
Beginner Levels of these skills are really quite obvious but tend to be overlooked as “not true Dim Mak” because they are so simple. The idea is simple, to attack weak parts of the human body accurately and in a connected and powerful way. These types of skills are then usually labeled with the Chinese Terminology of the points just to entice and make them seem exotic. Exoticism sells in the Martial Arts and this works from a business point of view and many a business or brand has been built on them. No literacy of Chinese Medicine or theory needed for these points, just memorization and training. Examples of points like this include:
Tai Yang (Great Sun) – Located at the temples on the sides of the head (Extra Point)
Feng Fu (Wind Mansion) – Located on the back of the neck below the occipital protuberance. (GV16)
Tien Tu (Celestial Pivot) – The base of the neck in the notch at the top of the chest. (CV22)
Hui Yin (Meeting of the Yin) – The perineum, between the genitals and anus. (CV1)
Fairly straight forward but when left in Chinese with translations of the names and the more modern number system used for TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) they all seem to be quite mysterious. But by the time we are out of school most of us already know that being struck in the temples, neck, back of the neck or between the legs is painful and disabling. The same could be said for kicking out the knees or stabbing fingers into the eyes, obvious and non magical. But to refer back to the name of the skills “Dian Xue” (Dim Mak) we need to have accurate and well connected powerful strikes to these places in order for them to work. This is the reason they are still skills that need training in body mechanics to generate force, timing in order to be able to find openings when they appear and accuracy so when the opportunity arises we can actually strike the targets. Without these, there is no reason to move forward into lesser known locations that are harder to learn and strike. The trinity of power, speed and timing in martial arts is often overlooked as the ‘obvious’ part of training. The thing is without looking at the real basics deeply and training them well, intermediate or advanced skills are unattainable.
Intermediate level of this skill set includes lesser known points that are more difficult to reach or have affects that are either more dangerous or less obviously known. It is here that you start to find people discussing Qi as a magical energy and “delayed death” and a lot of fantasy and legend thrown in. In my experience a lot of the things found here are points like Ren Ying (人迎 – ST9) which is in the neck and when struck even fairly lightly activates the carotid sinus. The carotid sinus monitors and controls blood pressure and when struck tells the system that the blood pressure is too high and the heart should be slowed down, a heavy enough strike, enough input and the heart can be stopped or de-fibrillated.
Another example of this type of “Death Point” or striking was sometimes called “Red Sand Palm” (红铁砂掌) which was referring to the red palm print left after the strike. Their is specialized training for advanced levels of red sand palm but at an intermediate level it is referring to being able to strike with a depth and penetration that an opponent could be damaged internally from a palm strike. The strike as will all iron palm methods appear soft and innocuous but carry a huge weight with them. Typically this was aimed at the right side of an opponents rib cage. Yes a person could suspect that RiYue or DaBao could be the target but realistically the liver is there. Enough power and penetration and you could rupture or tear the liver which in a tie without western medicine and surgery would result in death a few days later.
Keeping a practical or logical mind about all this type of stuff starts to present that TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine 中药) was examining how the same body worked as western medicine but from a different time, culture and perspective. The exoticness of the language and culture to the western mind and indeed to the Chinese as well without an education in these matters makes it appear as legendary skills or magical qi powers. Couple that with the secrecy of the Masters and hype and fiction in legends and Wu Xia novels and it is easy to see how it has become very clouded in modern day.
The advanced levels of this stuff gets very cloudy depending on who you talk to and what lineage you pursue and some of it is total B,S, No touch knockouts and “poisoning” someones “qi” and that nonsense is all rooted in the Wu Xia Novels, fantasy kung fu for kids and to entertain. So what is real?
Well from my experience things become more difficult to perform at high speeds in many lineages. Points that are more obscure that cause a lot of pain, activate the nervous system in a way that causes shock or maybe even unconsciousness. It gets weirder too, my Ma family teacher (馬青龍) taught me a couple of things that were in the “Dian Xue” category when I was training with him that had less to do with hitting or physical injury and more to do with activating the opponents nervous system and mind through focused intent ( 意), Basically this is the same as someone staring at you from across a room and you feeling your being watched, that link between human beings we have all experienced and this method he taught me was training to use it to mess with someones head in order to open them up for a follow up. He would refer a lot to Ri Yue ( 日月 Sun & Moon – GB24) and how directing a great deal of intent towards it on an opponent causes them to cover the point and become more defensive, opening other points to attack. Without making a huge writing about this skill in particular or how sometimes advanced level methods include “set up” points like using Nei Guan (內關 inner pass PC-6) to weaken the strength of the opponent briefly so another method can be used; suffice it so say there are weird things, that do work (in my experience) but are not even close to being easy to pull off in high speed real fights. But many times studying these skills are more about intellectual exercise or how they affect other parts of one’s martial arts than killing people, especially today in our modern world.
To sum up the wall of text, don’t over complicate things, expect fairy tales to be real or qi to be magic. Learning weaknesses of the anatomy and using that knowledge to defend yourself is “Dim Mak”. Try not to get bogged down or fogged up with the exotic language and medical terminology that often gets thrown in when this stuff is taught. To quote my Shifu whenever I would come to ask about using this method or that method in sparring and if it was correct “Did it work? Then it’s correct.” Enjoy the arts and all they have to offer but don’t get lost in fantasy. Everything in moderation.
Please feel free to subscribe to my youtube channel (neilripski) or add me on facebook to get in touch. I am always happy to help when and where I can. -Neil “thekungfuguy”Ripski