The greatest challenge to the historian is to present the truth in a clear, digestible form to even the novice, no matter how complex the narrative. The history of Chinese martial arts in particular presents us with many challenges; there are no absolutes here. We want to avoid popular fictions about martial arts originating in either Buddhist or Daoist monasteries, yet we must still examine how they were practiced by those individuals and how that practice affected the traditions as a whole. We cannot forever link martial arts with religious sectarian movements or secret societies; we have already seen and will see more examples quit to the contrary. Yet we must never forget that martial arts are not practiced in a vacuum and they are always subject to the society they exist within and the beliefs of those that practice them.
Discussion of the “Armor of Golden Bell” (Jin Zhong Zhao 金鐘罩) presents the historian with quite a few problems. Some martial arts students today remain fascinated by the idea of an almost super power that could make them resistant to kicks and punches. Others see in it the same hard Qi Gong tricks men in the JiangHu used to sell their medicines (both authentic and fraudulent) and charms. The second group denounces them as irrelevant to real application skills, a remnant of a different historical context and unnecessary. Of course, those with a sense of true history associate them with “invulnerability magic” and the dismal consequences of the Boxer Uprising.
Joseph W. Esherick’s book constantly makes distinctions between martial artists and sectarians, between the practices of martial artists who happen to be sectarians, and sectarian practices. As already noted, contemporary participants did not have the luxury of deciphering these fine distinctions. As with many historical events, we can only hope to understand them in retrospect but to learn from them so we have a better understanding of ourselves.
Many of the documents we have available regarding this practice are in relationship to the Boxer Uprising and their so called “invulnerability magic”. Esherick maintains that because some sectarians obviously practiced “Armor of Golden Bell,” it came under official notice. However, fundamentally it remained a physical exercise related to orthodox martial arts practice, not necessarily related to any particular religious sect. (Esherick 55)
Meir Shahar is perhaps best known for his volume on the Shaolin monastery, but in a short article entitled “Diamond Body: The Origins of Invulnerability in the Chinese Martial Arts” he presents a position quite contradictory to Esherick. First, Shahar considers “Armor of Golden Bell” essentially a heterodox practice removed from the mainstream Chinese martial arts community. Then he makes what this author personally considers two contradictory statements; that they were inspired by Daoist practices of Qi manipulation but have technical origins in the “diamond body” of Tantric Buddhism (密宗佛教).
Those familiar with this author may be aware that he studied for considerable time a system known as Lama Pai (喇嘛派). The method is considerably influenced by Tantric Buddhism and includes a method of body conditioning known as essentially the “diamond body exercises” (金剛練功). While my teacher and his group never embraced the idea those exercises would bestow the sort of “super powers” attributed to the “Armor of Golden Bell”, I found Shahar’s hypothesis quite interesting and still quite plausible.
The next logical question in this discussion would of course be why “Armor of Golden Bell” appears only in late Imperial China if it is based upon concepts which had arrived in China as early as the fifth century? Shahar’s most immediate answer is the appearance of “The Sinew-Transformation Classic” in 1624 and subsequent editions. The text certainly does embrace many of the same ideas and techniques and later versions show a gradual transition in language and concept from “diamond” to “metal”.
Another plausible explanation, indeed one that need not necessarily even contradict Shahar, is the reintroduction of Tantric Buddhism (密宗佛教) under the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty and then the Manchurian Qing Dynasty. Under both regimes, Tantric Buddhism (or Vajrayana, meaning “diamond vehicle”) was the official state religion. Even during the Ming Dynasty, Tantric monks may have been removed from the capital, but they remained active within China. Chinese writer Ah De (阿德) informs us that Tibetan Lama monks were present at the Shaolin Monastery in the Ming Dynasty (“Ming Period Lama Buddhism and Shaolin Monastery” 明代喇嘛教与少林寺).
Esherick J.W., The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1987
Meir Shahar. “Diamond Body: The Origins of Invulnerability in the Chinese Martial Arts” in Perfect Bodies: Sports Medicine and Immortality, Edited by Vivienne Lo. London: British Museum, 2012.