The lost jin skills of Judo

There is an interesting theory about martial arts that I want to talk about today. Let’s call it the Golden Age theory, as it posits that at one time there was a Golden Age of martial arts, probably in China. Now, ok, you might not buy into that theory, but please bear with me. Drop your natural cynicism for a moment and allow the idea to percolate in your mind a little as we take a trip back to ancient China…


The knowledge the ancients had in this golden age about how the body functioned was complete, detailed and comprehensive, producing something more than normal strength. It was an overarching understanding, so it covered all sorts of skills, not just martial arts, but as time went on, and social, political, economic and geographical environments changed this knowledge slowly degraded and fewer and fewer of these old skills survived intact. Today we are left with remnants of them passed down in different traditions, most notably Tai Chi, XingYi and Bagua, and clues left in the historical record.

That body of knowledge consisted of what is known today as the Internal skills of the martial arts. Most Chinese marital arts still contain some internal skills, what you might call “basic Jin”. We can tell that all martial arts descended from this skill set as you see the remains in today’s marital arts and you can still see clues everywhere, including the names of old martial arts like ‘Six harmony spear’ or ‘Six harmonies, eight methods’. This “six harmony” nomenclature refers to a way of moving the body in a connected fashion from the toes to the finger tips.

This way of moving existed in all martial arts once, and survived amongst a special few even into the modern age. For example, Morihei Ueshiba of Aikido had it, and he died in 1969. Some people have it today, to various degrees. Usually you find these people in the Chinese Internal arts, but there are glimpses of it everywhere, even in the Japanese maritial art of Judo.

If you’ve seen Olympic Judo matches you can see it’s an incredibly athletic sport that requires supreme physical conditioning and strength mixed with a high level of technique. But is today’s Judo really where the art originally started out?

There is an old kata in Judo called Gu No Kata, which consists of a number of movements performed with a partner. It’s pretty safe to say that these days the meaning of the movements has been lost, as it’s performed with raw physical stength, not what the Chinese would call Jin, but dig under the surface and you’ll find that it’s a series of Judo techniques which serve as internal strength testing exercises, linked together.

This article provides a description of Go No Kata.

And here’s what it looks like done in modern times:


It doesn’t look very “internal”, but watch this informative video by Mike Sigman in which he explains and demonstrates how the various postures of Go No Kata are done with Jin – i.e with strength from the ground through a relaxed (‘song’) body.

In Mike’s own words:

“The “tests” in Go-no-kata resolve into Up, Down, Back, Forward, and sideways. You need to develop your qi/frame and you need to work with jin forces until you’re comfortable with them because not only can you resist forces (they’re doing it for development purposes, not as a basic strategy for good Judo), but you can learn to take kuzushi using only the mind-directed forces of jin.

Here’s the video. It’s fairly short. If you haven’t played much with jin forces, it may not be obvious what is going on, so please try to meet up with someone that has some jin skills.”

Here are the different pictures he’s referring to:


Finally, watch this comparison video between Kanō Jigorō the founder of Judo and a modern practitioner, and ask yourself, what has been lost?


Threading into one

Let’s look at the Tai Chi Classic, attributed to Chan Seng Feng. We could spend the whole post debating who Chan Seng Feng really was, and if he ever really existed, but I think its better to hand that whole subject over to a qualified academic, so here’s Henning’s take on the matter.

What I’d rather be concerned with is what he, she, or whoever, actually wrote. In actual fact, as has been observed by many, from Wile to Wells, the documents that come down to us as the Tai Chi Classics, can be seen more as a revision of popular martial arts sayings and phrases that have been passed down over the years, rather than the inspired creation of a single author.

Marnix Wells' book Douglas Wiles' book

We can look at this more specifically with an example. The Tai Chi Classic, for instance, seems to be mainly concerned with the importance of making the body a unified whole “the whole body should be light and agile, _with all parts of the body linked _as if threaded together”, how this affects the sprit of the practitioner; “The ch’i [vital life energy] should be excited, _The shen [spirit of vitality] should be internally gathered” and how this is contributes to delivering (internal) power using TCC’s particular method; “The chin [intrinsic strength] should be _rooted in the feet, _generated from the legs, _controlled by the waist, and _manifested through the fingers.

It’s interesting to compare this classic to another body of older writing, the Ten Thesis commonly attributed to General Yue Fei of the Sung Dynasty. In the first of the ten thesis he emphasises this same notion of unity through what he calls “threading into one” (notice a direct comparison here with the Tai Chi Classic’s “as if threaded together”, and again later on “The whole body should be threaded together _through every joint _without the slightest break.

From Yue Fei’s Thesis of Integrity:

Although the postures cannot be classified, the Chi, however is, one. About what one means; from top to the bottom of the feet, internally there are viscera, bowels, tendons, and bones. Externally, there are muscles, skin, the five sensing organs, and hundreds of bones of the skeleton, mutually combined and become one. When struck will not open, when hit will not decompose. The top wishes to move, the bottom automatically follows. The bottom wishes to move the top will automatically lead. The center section moves, the top and the bottom will coordinate. Internal and external are combined, the front and the rear mutually required. This is what is called threading into one.”

So, you can see where these ideas come from, and also that they are not unique to Tai Chi Chuan. But to return the practical considerations, how should we ‘thread ourselves together’ during the Tai Chi form? And what does that really mean? The answer is to do with timing and co-ordination. As the Tai Chi Classic goes on to say:

If correct timing and position are not achieved,
the body will become disordered
and will not move as an integrated whole;
the correction for this defect
must be sought in the legs and waist

If you go to strike in, say, any of the punching moves in the form, or do one of the ward-off movements, without co-ordinating the body correctly your motion will be ineffectual. There are plenty of martial arts that can use the arm in isolation to deliver effective strikes, however Tai Chi Chuan is not one of them. To do things properly in a Tai Chi way you need to move your body as a single unit into the strike – power comes from the ground up through the legs, not from just the arm, as it says earlier in the Classic:

The chin [intrinsic strength] should be _rooted in the feet,
generated from the legs,
controlled by the waist, and
manifested through the fingers

To do that you must co-ordinate the body correctly. If your body has become disordered – say, you move your weight forward in your stance to early, ahead of the punch, then you can’t do this. And as I said in my previous post, the source of the problem is usually found in the legs and waist.

Lee’s Modified lists 10 essential co-ordinations for Tai Chi Chuan. The basic external ones being:

Shoulders co-ordinate with the Kwa (inner thigh area)
Elbows co-ordinate with the Knees
Waist co-ordinates with the Neck (turn them together when turning the body)
Tailbone co-ordinates with the Head (keep them in alignment together)

He doesn’t add the popular ‘hand and foot co-ordinate’ saying, but you can add that one in as well if you like, so that his theory aligns with the popular ‘6 Harmonies’ theory using in Tai Chi Chuan, XingYi and Bagua.*

As you perform your form you need to check that you are co-ordinating the body in this manner correctly. It helps to have some feedback from your teacher at this point, but you can also observe yourself to some extent through your feelings. Does it feel like the power is coming up from the ground and into your hands on each of the moves? To get this sort of feedback you need to be very honest with yourself. If you delude yourself that you’re doing it perfectly then you may be in for a shock when you try to apply your power on somebody else, and it has little effect!

* It’s my personal belief that he left out ‘hand and foot co-ordinate’ deliberately, since Tai Chi Chuan’s way of moving doesn’t always land the hand and foot together in the same way you see in the 5 Elements of XingYi, for instance – quite often in Tai Chi Chuan you step out with an ’empty’ foot, then move your weight to it once it is in position. However, if you consider this transfer of weight as the co-ordination of the hand and foot, then the same theory could be said to apply.