Hidden in Plain Sight by Ellis Amdur is a thorough examination of the subject of internal power exhibited by Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, and the historical origins of this type of power in martial arts from China and Japan. Ellis has many years of direct experience in Chinese and Japanese arts and also works (or worked) in a field that requires physical restraint skills to be utilised, so in short, he knows what he’s talking about. More importantly, he’s a good writer and thorough researcher. The book gets straight down to business, quickly identifying the different types of power that human beings are capable of producing, then how they apply that in martial arts using methods like whipping power or coiling power, then takes a closer look at exactly what ‘internal power’ is and why it’s different, or more refined, compared to other types of human-generated power.
But here I ran into my only real hiccup with the book. Internal arts are full of Chinese words like Jin, Qi, Shen and so forth, none of which are simple concepts that can easily be summed up in one word. In his descriptions of internal power, Ellis translates Jin to mean ‘intent’ (p.54, 56) quite a few times. To my thinking intent is more properly translated as “Yi” in this context, and is indeed a facet of Jin practice, but not a good direct translation of the word “Jin”, which means literally something like ‘refined strength’. Jin is strength produced by the application of Yi, rather than “intent” itself. The process of using intent in the internal martial arts is using the mind to create a path to the ground for jin to follow. A path which may take it from a point of contact with the opponent, for example, straight down to your feet, where it is supported by the ground. It’s a subtle difference, compared to translating Jin as “intent”, and not one which affects the rest of the book, but one which bugs me all the same
Perhaps reflecting the authors experience of having to restrain people in real life, the book is quite down to earth and honest about the realities of looking for this internal strength ability and what it means in practical terms. The main realisation you get is that it’s going to require a serious amount of practice to get basic abilities in internal strength. Time that could be better spent acquiring other skills that would be much more easily applied and learned say from an MMA teacher. I like that Ellis is quite honest about these important points because it’s something that is sometimes lacking in internal strength devotes, especially if they are trying to sell you something! Internal strength is not like a magic pill that once taken will transform you into a martial arts expert. In fact, any skills you develop in this regard still require placing in a martial context to be of any practical use, and that can take as long as developing the skills in the first place. My personal take is similar. I’d say that if your goal is to be an MMA fighter or you just want to learn self-defence skills, then the amount of time you are required to invest in developing ‘internal’ skills makes no sense – financially or otherwise.
There’s an impressive amount of research that has gone into this book, but since there are so many unanswered questions left about where Ueshiba got his abilities, a large amount of speculation from the author is added throughout which supports his general premise, which at times ignores other possibilities.
For example, at one point Ellis speculates on how this esoteric knowledge of internal power got from China to Japan. On page 103, in wondering what the famous figure Chin Gempin (a Chinese martial artist who ended up in Japan, just as the country was closing itself off to outsiders) could possibly have taught to three experienced Japanese martial artists, as the story goes, who went on to form their own now-famous Ryu (the historical ancestor of Judo amongst them) using this information. Ellis reasons “whatever he taught had to have had such an effect on such men that they made a foreigner part of their origin story, and furthermore, allowed them to develop such men as Ukei and Takino. Internal strength training is the only such methodology that I can think of.”
That could well be true, but I can think of something else, as I’m sure you can. (To be fair, in the footnotes Ellis does offers an alternative explanation – being connected to an older Chinese tradition was clearly great marketing, and the whole thing can simply be put down to advertising.)
That’s true, but there is a simpler explanation: submissions. Existing jiujitsu battlefield grappling methods dealt with grounding an armoured opponent, with the goal of finishing them off with a short knife that could easily be worked through the armour at weak points. As such, submission holds weren’t a priority in existing Japanese grappling methods. Equally, Japan’s native Sumo wrestling was more concerned with gaining a victory by rule set (e.g. pushing the opponent out of a ring, for example), rather than by submission. In contrast, the Chinese grappling methods of the time would have been ripe with Chin-Na techniques for breaking limbs or small joints.
(Edit: In this hypothetical situation I’m not trying to imply that submissions skills didn’t exist previously in Japan – they did, of course – rather that it could be that Chin Gempin was teaching some new types, or higher quality, types of joint locks that hadn’t been seen before.)
From Daito Ryu to Aikido
The second half of HIPS is history-heavy and I have to confess to skipping a few pages that turn into lists of who taught who in a particular Ryu. The history of Daito Ryu however, or rather the personal history of Takeda Sokaku, who was most likely the arts’ founder (since its history is undocumented) is quite revealing. Everything that it’s possible to know about Takeda is here. Ellis often steps over the bounds of mere speculation and delivers a psychological evaluation of a traumatised individual who grew up during the Boshin war, witnessing horrors on a daily basis. He transformed himself into a jiujitsu teacher after disappearing for 17 years. What he was doing and what he was learning in those 17 years nobody knows, but since it followed an incident in which he killed several construction workers in a brawl, and was almost killed himself, it’s probably better not to ask.
Finally, the book turns its attention to Ueshiba himself and collects as much information about his training as is humanly possible. It’s all here, including anecdotes from those that trained with him. There’s also a biography of his life, looking at what martial arts he came into contact with and when in great detail.
A final technical point: you won’t really learn how to do internal strength from this book. This is not a book of exercises, it’s a book about the exercises, and their historical context. In short, it’s a sit down read, not a ‘get up and practice’ manual.
If you’re interested in any of these subjects, and particularly if you practice Aikido, then you’ll find Hidden in Plain Sight provides plenty of food for thought. It’s a great resource and deserves a place on your bookshelf.