Martial Classics: The Complete Fist Cannon in Verse

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A period depiction of Ming Soldiers involved in the Piracy Crisis which inspired Qi Jiguang’s now famous discussion of military training. Source: Ming Qiu Shizhou Taiwan Zoukai Tu (Victory in Taiwan by Qiu Ying [pseudonym Shizhou] of the Ming, 1494 – 1552).  Click here to learn more about this important source.

Translator’s Note

Here is the full translation of the Qi Jiguang’s Fist Method as it appears in the Wubei Zhi, offered as a follow-up to my initial discussion of the challenges of translating this text into English verse. If you are coming to this discussion for the first time, you may want to read that initial essay before proceeding on. I want to make this available to everyone who expressed interest and to anyone else who might find it helpful. I do not intend this to be authoritative or even unchanging. Input and discussion is always wanted and appreciated. I hope you find it enjoyable to read. 


Historical context

“拳經捷要篇 -The Essential Chapters of the Fist Cannon” was first published in Qi Jiguang’s seminal training manual “JiXiaoXinShu”. It was later republished in the Wubei Zhi in it’s complete form. Understanding the content of this work is dependent upon understanding its historical contexts both in the military and broader social or societal arena. 



There are several social factors of this period in the Ming Dynasty that one must take into account when trying to place this treatise in its proper context. The traditional hereditary military system was breaking down. There were simply not enough officers or soldier being produced from those families to keep the Ming military at its former glory. The breakdown of Ming forces contributed to a rise in social violence including, rebellions, highway men and banditry, organized cannibalism, and other fairly horrific behaviors that occur when populations become desperate and have nowhere to turn.

While violence and crime were important factors in daily Ming life, there were also more positive influences. Printing and publishing saw an enormous rise during the Ming as did literacy. With a more literate populace, the demand for books of all types grew. Printed books became big business. The publishing boom of the 16th century produced thousands of texts to be consumed by a growing lettered class. It is in this environment that we find the rise of the martial arts/military treatise purchased by non-military readers. 

As the Literati grew in numbers, more and more books on every subject were produced. Those with an interest in military or martial affairs now had the ability to study these topics even if not born into the military class. People like Mao Yuanyi who wrote and compiled the largest written document on military affairs in the Chinese language, the Wubei Zhi, were able to access this information without being a member  of a hereditary Military family. This brought an entirely new perspectives to discussions of the martial arts. 

It is difficult to say when the Martial arts manual that we know today truly came about, but we have little evidence of these texts prior to the Ming dynasty. Surviving martial art texts from before the Ming are often vague and general, offering more strategic and tactical insight and philosophy than step by step instruction of technique. The true illustrated martial arts text was, more than likely, a product of the Ming publishing boom as the audience for such texts grew. 

Qi’s first book “JiXiaoXinShu” was published in this environment and one can make a convincing case that this is the oldest example of a martial arts manual for the training of individual skills. Where as prior, this information was most  likely held by the military families as “trade secrets,” Qi decided to include examinations of various martial arts for the battlefield and focus on the individual training of troops. 



Qi Jiguang wrote “JixiaoxinShu” in the late 1500’s near the end of the Ming Dynasty. The circumstances of his writing this book and subsequently re-editing it later, concern the Woku Coastal pirate crisis. The Woku, more commonly referred to as ‘Japanese Pirates’, were an enormous problem for the Ming at the end of the 1500’s. These bands of raiders, which consisted of mostly local Chinese citizens (often former fishermen or merchant sailors), were  bankrolled or under the command of self appointed Japanese Sea Lords. They operated under the nose of the Ming government, effectively undermining their trade war with Japan. 

Not only were the raids themselves a security problem for the region, but due to rampant corruption, many local authorities were actually collaborating with the Woku. This allowed them to bring their raids far inland and away from the coast. They were able to reach and pillage communities that were previously considered safe. 

Assigned to the region was another famous and influential writer of the Ming dynasty, General Yu Dayou, author of “Jian Jing”. General Yu was frustrated with the lack of support he received from the Capitol, who in turn withheld funds and equipment due to lack of real progress in the crisis. General Yu insisted that he needed more fire arms and ships to adequately meet the threat. The government refused. 

When General Qi arrived on the scene, he knew that asking for material support would be a fools errand. Instead, he came up with progressive if not novel approaches to the lack of technology and men available to them. He formed a mercenary army, consisting of volunteers from the affected farming communities. He specially chose these people as they were used to hard work, they were defending their homes, and they would be paid for their trouble. The problem was, that in the past, soldiers and military personnel came primarily from the hereditary military families and had some experience in the act of warfare. This system had begun to break down in the mid-Ming, which also contributed to the public’s general lack of faith in the imperial forces. 

Because these recruits were not from traditional military back grounds, there was a need to train them from the ground up. It is this method that Qi later detailed in his treatise “JiXianXinShu”- the New Methods of Military Effectiveness. One of the unique features of this book is that it is one of the first military treatises to cover the training of individual martial arts by soldiers. Since the men he was using a the time did not have formal training in military exercise or fighting on the battlefield, Qi included the training regimens for several weapons and one chapter devoted to empty handed technique. 

The martial arts that Qi choose to represent in his writing is linked to the strategies that he devised for the crisis. The spear takes the lead followed by the shield and dao, sported by archers with both conventional and fire/explosive arrows.At the end of the section is talk of the staff and finally is the bare handed section. Qi’s reason for including unarmed martial art is, as he states, mainly for conditioning and keeping the troops occupied and focused. While these techniques may have found some direct application in friendly wrestling bouts of the sorts that soldiers have while encamped, even Qi states in his introduction that there is little use for such things in the theater of war. 



The Art Represented 

Much of our discussion of Qi’s unarmed method must remain conjecture. The names of each technique are familiar to modern practitioners of Chinese martial arts. Many of these names appear in several separate martial traditions. Taijiquan, for instance, shares a fair number of these names within the various lineages of the art. Some historians have taken this to mean that this document is the direct antecedent to the art of Taijiquan. While it is difficult to say if there is a direct connection, or if Qi’s writing indicate the survival of an art that has been practiced since the Ming, it should be remembered that the names and techniques described here are actually shared by several styles including Baji, Fanzi, Pigua, Cha Quan, Tang Lang (mantis), and many others. Qi says that he has taken these techniques from various sources. It could be that the origins for the names are to be found in them, and thus may indicate an unbroken “lineage” into modern times. 

However, if one looks at the situation of new conscripts learning new skills and bringing them back to their home villages, a migration of common names through a wide variety of people and communities does not seem so far fetched. Let’s remember that Qi’s book was published and sold to non military readers as well and that it did gain a following among the literati. If these techniques were used in the training of provincial troops from surrounding areas, these men would take these technique, names, and sequences home with them and repurpose them for the needs of the community. It is in my opinion easy to assume that this is at least one factor in the creation of styles that share technique nomenclature yet no apparent technical base or common lineage. 

The techniques themselves seem to be centered around what could be deemed “fast wrestling” today. Fast wrestling is a sport in which wrestling moves are performed as quickly as possible and points are scored with successful throws without the use of extended ground fighting. Essentially, pin them as fast as you can. Battlefield techniques do not usually include lots of wrestling. But grappling and wrestling are far more useful than hitting in this context. Qi admits that this is included for exercise and conditioning only and has little direct relevance to war. 

Qi also makes the claim to have extracted these techniques as the best examples from the famous styles being practiced during the day. He then lists many of them with the impression being given that this is very much like a hybrid style made up of techniques from others. Some may be tempted to call this “mixed martial arts.” However, I believe it is an error to equate the purpose of Qi’s fist method with the modern sport of MMA. Martial arts have always borrowed and taken from other arts to add and expand their own. It does not follow that the mixing of techniques from different traditions was particularly rare or frowned upon. The sport of MMA is a mix of martial art for a single purpose of getting the most effective techniques for submitting your opponent. The use of fighting in the armed forces is much broader and, in Qi’s method, the unarmed exercises serve health and fitness purpose almost exclusively. In that sense at least, it is not that different from many modern practitioners of taijiquan practice today. 


Translation notes

Qi Jiguangs’s Empty-handed method is perhaps one of the best known Ming era martial arts texts. This is in large part due to the fact the many of the names of techniques used in this text are still found in martial arts today. Many traditions (most notably Taijiquan) cite this document as an early predecessor to the modern arts they practice. These arts often refer back to this document without much in the way of analysis. As the names are often popular, they have over the years acquired some conventional glosses. I have made a directed effort not to simply use these familiar translations but rather to render the name in as clear language as I can to describe the action taking place or to give a clearer context with the language. No doubt this might cause some initial confusion amongst readers who are looking at this through the lens of their own art. But, I am approaching the text as a separate practice, however influential it might have been. 

One specific note that should be pointed out is the translation of the word “Quan” 拳. While the word is a familiar suffix denoting a martial art, it is used in a few different ways in this text. In the past the word has ben translated as “boxing”. I have stayed away from that gloss for the most part as its is imprecise within the discussion we are currently having. I will at times translate it as “fist” to stay within the idiom, but when discussed in general terms, I have used the rather wordy “unarmed techniques/combat”. By using both approaches I hope that it reads more naturally without forcing the reader to code switch as much. 



I would like to thank Ting from the Great Ming Military blog, Clifford Lao, and Ma Xianfeng for their invaluable help and input in the subtleties of Literary Chinese and Ming history. Thanks also go to Ben Judkins for allowing me the platform to present my work. It is my sincerest wish that practitioners of martial arts will find these at the very least interesting if not illuminating to past practices. I also hope that it encourages more people to make their own translation attempts of these texts. Multiple perspectives are always needed.

 Any errors are my own and I accept any and all criticism or correction.




Essential Chapters of the Fist Cannon


[While this art is not very useful for preparing troops (for war), it can help with excess energy, or as an initial practice of martial arts. However, most people cannot become strong this way. They only listen to their own ears (only do movements with which they are familiar). Therefore, this section is placed at the end of the other sections as per it’s significance. Chapter 14]

拳法似無預於大戰之技,然活動手足,慣勤肢體,此為初學入藝之門也。故存于後,以備一家。學拳要身法活便,手法便利,腳法輕固,進退得宜,腿可飛騰,而其妙也,顛起倒插 ; 而其猛也,披劈橫拳;而其快也,活捉朝天;而其柔也,知當斜閃。故擇其拳之善者三十二勢,勢勢相承,遇敵制勝,變化無窮,微妙莫測。窈焉冥焉,人不得而窺者,謂之神。俗 云:「拳打不知」,是迅雷不及掩耳。所謂不招不架,只是一下;犯了招架,就有十下。博記廣學,多算而勝。

Unarmed combat seems to offer nothing in the way of the preparation for large scale war, but the exercising of the hands and feet forms habits for moving the limbs as a unit, making this practice a doorway to learning the art (of war).  This chapter is provided last to complete the preparation of skills.  To learn the fist (unarmed techniques) it is necessary to have the body mechanics lively yet simple, the hand work simple yet keen,  footwork is light, giving the ability to advance and retreat at will and legs that can leap and jump. How wonderful it is; To rise high and fall low, and how fierce; the chopping across with the fists, how quick; lively grasping for the sky, and how soft; to know how to endure and evade. For this reason I have chosen 32 of the best unarmed techniques, each one follows from the previous, with applications to an opponent, it can be adapted in unpredictable ways. How refined, how deep! The uninitiated will watch you and claim you are a supernatural master. A common saying; “The fist hits without knowing”, surely it is like trying to cover your ears before the thunder.  They say no provocation, no resistance, just one action will bring them down; attack will provoke resistance, then ten attacks of their own will follow. Play the game but remember the larger lesson, Those that strategize and plan will be victorious. 

古今拳家,宋太祖有三十二勢長拳,又有六步拳、猴拳、囮拳,名勢各有所稱,而實大同小異。至今之溫家七十二行拳、三十六合鎖、二十四棄探馬、八閃番、十二短,此亦善之善者也。呂紅八下雖剛,未及綿張短打,山東李半天之腿,鷹爪王之拿,千跌張之跌,張伯敬之打。少林寺之棍,與青田棍法相兼;楊氏 鎗法與巴子拳棍,皆今之有名者,雖各有所取。然傳有上而無下,有下而無上,就可取勝於人,此不過偏於一隅。若以各家拳法兼而習之,正如常山蛇陣法,擊首則尾應,擊尾則首應,擊其身而首尾相應,此謂上下周 全,無有不勝。

The Ancient Schools of the Fist; Taizu has 32 stances of long fist, also six step fist, monkey fist, decoy fist, the names of the stances each have their own qualities, but in reality they have a great amount of similarities and only small differences. Today the styles of note are Wen Family 72 step Fist, 36 locks, 24 throws of Testing Horse, 8 dodging turns, and 20 short (hits). Lu hong’s 8 take downs, although it is strong, it does not match the “cotton fist” or “Short Hit”. ShanDong’s Li BanTian’s kicks, Eagle Claw King’s grappling, 1,000 throws of Zhang’s throwing (method). Zhang BaiJing’s striking. The staff methods of Shaolin Temple and QingTian compliment each other, Yang Family Spear and Baozi style staff, this is all we have today, although they have their own strengths. Some systems may have the upper and not the lower, or have the lower and not the upper, victory may be possible for one man, but this is not a comprehensive approach. If each Family Fighting method is combined and practiced, the principle of the Mountain Snake Formation, strike the head and the tail must follow, strike the tail and the head must follow, strike at their body and both head and tail must react. This is what is meant by upper and lower are together, and victory is certain. 

大抵拳、棍、刀、鎗、叉、鈀、劍、戟、弓矢、鈎鐮、挨牌之類,莫不先有拳法活動身手。其拳也,為武藝之源。今繪之以勢,註之以訣,以啟後學。既得藝,必試敵,切不可以勝負為愧、為奇,當思何以勝之,何以敗之 !勉而久試,怯敵還是藝淺,善戰必定藝精。古云:「藝高人胆(膽)大」,信不誣矣!

Overall, the practice of the fist, saber, spear, fork, trident, sword, halberd, archery, hook, scythe,  and others in this class, first have the fist method to train the movement of body and hands.  And therefore, this method of unarmed combat is the wellspring of martial arts. Here the movements are transmitted by illustrations of the stances, explanation of the secrets, introducing the student to the method. Those that have learned this will surely test the enemy, do not be ashamed of the outcome, instead, ponder why you were victorious or how you were defeated. Make a concerted effort and experiment for a long time, if you lack courage your skill will be shallow, good fighting surely decides the essence of the art. The ancients have said; “The exulted artist is a man with great bravery”, trust this without reservation. 


When I was in ZhouShan, I was able to train with Liu Cao-Tong in boxing at the public hall, they say “If one commits only to blocking, ten more blows will come”,  just as with the very clever staff attack of chaining strikes together. 






Lǎn zhā yī chūmén jiàzi

biàn xià shì shà bù dān biān

duì dí ruò wú dǎn xiàng xiān

kōngzì yǎn míng shǒu biàn

Tie Your Coat and come outside,

Single Whip with sudden stride,

Without the courage to advance,

Sharp eyes fast hands will have no chance. 







Jīnjīdúlì diān (diān) qǐ

zhuāng tuǐ héng quán xiāng jiān

qiāng bèi wò niú shuāng

zāozhe jiàokǔliántiān

Golden Rooster stands on top,

Present your leg then sideways chop, 

Rush in low and Trip the Bull, 

They cry to heaven loud and full. 







Tànmǎ chuán zì tài zǔ

zhū shì kě jiàng kě biàn

jìngōng tuì shǎn ruò shēng qiáng

jiē duǎn quán zhī zhì shàn

Testing Horse was Song TaiZu’s,

Stances all can drop and move, 

Attacking and dodging will give you strength,* 

Receive their punches in short range







Ǎo dān biān huánghuā jǐn jìn

pī tiāo tuǐ zuǒyòu nán fáng

qiāng bù shàng quán lián pī jiē

chénxiāng shì tuīdǎo tài shān

Crossed Single Whip firmly pries it’s way in,

When finding it hard from their kick to defend,

Rush in with continuous, liftings and chops,

Knock down Tai Mountain into low stances drop. 







Qīxīng quán shǒuzú xiānggù

āi bù bī shàngxià dī lóng

ráo jūn shǒukuài jiǎo rú fēng

wǒ zì yǒu jiǎo chōng pī zhòng

In The Seven Star Fist, the hand follows the feet,

Stepping in close, upper lower to beat, 

The enemy limbs are fast like the wind, 

My own heavy chops will disturb them to win.  







Dào qí lóng zhà shū yáng zǒu

yòu zhuīrù suì wǒ huí chōng

nèn yī lì měng yìng lái gōng

zěn dāng wǒ liánzhū pào dòng

Ride the Dragon Inverted to feign a defeat, 

As they enter I turn and reveal my deceit. 

His attack it is fierce his hits they are strong,

But my beating continues, he can’t last for long! 




懸腳 虛餌彼輕進




Xuán jiǎo xū ěr bǐ qīng jìn

èr huàn tuǐ jué bù ráo qīng

gǎn shàng yī zhǎng mǎn tiān xīng

shuí gǎn zài lái bǐ yǎ

Hang up the Leg as bait for a trick, 

It’s not easy to follow when I switch it to kick,

My Palm makes him see the heaven and stars,

To fight me again, afraid all of them are. 







Qiū liú zuǒ bānyòu zhǎng

pī lái jiǎo rù bù lián xīn

nuó gèng quánfǎ tànmǎ jūn

dǎ rén yīzhe mìng jǐn

Hill Attack changes left with a palm to the right,

They chop, I come in with a heart level strike,

Further I go with Testing the Horse, 

With one hit I end them with just the right force.







Xià chā shì zhuān jiàng kuài tuǐ

dé jìnbù jiǎo kào wú bié

gōu jiǎo suǒ pī bùróng lí

shàng jīng xià qǔ yī diē

Hidden Below drops down fast with the legs, 

Step in and knock them down  off a few pegs,

Hooking the foot and locking the arm,

Feint high, go low, trip and do harm. 







Máifú shì wō gōng dài hǔ

fàn quāntào cùnbù nán yí

jiù jī lián fā jǐ tuǐ

tā shòu dǎ bìdìng hūn wēi

Lying in Wait for the beast in it’s den,

The inch step corrals them like they’re in a pen,

Continuously kick with the legs and the thighs,

Receiving a hit means they surely will die. 







Pāo jiàzi qiāng bù pīguà

bǔ shàng tuǐ nà pà tā shí

yòu héng zuǒ cǎi kuài rú fēi

jià yī zhǎng bùzhī tiāndì

Throwing Technique enters, splits and then hangs,

Take advantage with kicks fearing them seeing your plans,

Fly to the left across from the right,

Fend off with one palm and out go the lights!  







Niān zhǒu shì fáng tā nòng tuǐ

wǒ jié duǎn xū rèn gāodī

pī dǎ tuī yā yào jiē yī

qiè wù shǒujiǎo máng jí

Defend from their legs with Pluck the Elbow,

I intercept close watching high and then low,

Chopping and pushing and pressing you need,

To hit them not rushing your hands or your feet.








Yīshà bù suíjīyìngbiàn

zuǒyòu tuǐ chōng dí liánzhū

nèn yīshì gù shǒu fēngléi

zěn dāng wǒ shǎn jīng qiǎo qǔ

Instant Step waits for the time it can change,

Kick with both legs when you come into range,

Their stances are solid, their hands like the wind,

Why accept the attack when I can dodge it to win?







Qínná shì fēng jiǎo tàozi

zuǒyòu yā yī rú sì píng

zhí lái quán féng wǒ tóu huó

nèn kuài tuǐ quán bùdé tōngróng

Grabbing and Seizing envelopes the foot, 

Left and Right press Si Ping standing with root,

A straight punch comes in, lively I throw, 

So that his kicks and his punches, they all are too slow. 







Jǐng lán sìpíng zhíjìn

jiǎn lián tī xī dāngtóu

gǔn chuān pī kào mǒ yī gōu

tiě yàng jiāngjūn yě zǒ

Blocking the Well stance goes directly ahead,

Scissor their knee while blocking the head,

Roll, pierce, chop, lean, wipe off, and hook,

Armored Generals themselves to their cores will be shook.







Guǐ cù jiǎo qiāng rén xiānzhe

bǔ qián sǎo zhuǎn shàng hóng quán

bèi gōng diān pī jiē qǐ

chuān xīn zhǒu kào miào nán chuán

The Ghost Kick begins and shoots out toward them first,

Rush in, turn and hit them, their heart will then burst,

Stand with them on your back like a coat,

An elbow to the heart is no playful joke. 







Zhǐ dāng shì shì gè dīng fǎ

tā nán jìn wǒ hǎo xiàng qián

tī xī gǔn cuó shàngmiàn

jí huí bù diān duǎn hóng quán

Directed Defense Stance has feet like a “T”,

My defenses make it hard to attack me freely,

Kick the knee, turn, and jump up to their face.

Fast Red Fist short range to show them their place.







Shòu tóu shì rú pái āi jìn

nèn kuài jiǎo yù wǒ huāngmáng

dī jīng gāoqǔ tā nán fáng

jiē duǎn pīhóng chōng shàng

The Beast Head comes in if the opponent is near.

When we meet, my quick footwork will grip him with fear.

Feint low, go high, they cannot defend,

Receive his short chops and charge into them.



中四平勢 實推固




Zhōng sìpíng shì shí tuī gù

yìng gōng jìn kuài tuǐ nán lái

shuāng shǒu bī tā dān shǒu

duǎn dǎ yǐ shú wèi guāi

Middle Siping is pushing with root,

Hard attacks and quick footwork are both rendered moot, 

With two hands their one hand is quickly subdued,

A short hit from here is skillfully shrewd. 







Fú hǔ shi cèshēn nòng tuǐ

dàn lái zòu wǒ qián chēng

kàn tā lì zhàn bù wěn

hòu sǎo yī diē fēnmíng

Subduing the Tiger leans back for a kick,

But, he returns my attack I must brace forward and quick. 

I look and see that his stance is not steady,

I sweep him behind before he is ready. 









Gāo sìpíng shēn fǎ huó biàn

zuǒyòu duǎn chūrù rú fēi

bī dírén shǒuzúwúcuò

nèn wǒ biàn jiǎo tī quán chuí

High Siping method is agile and changes, 

Like flying zig zag in and out of short ranges 

Block the enemy limbs so they cannot attack. 

My foot it may kick and the fist can beat back. 







Dào chā shì bù yǔ zhāojià

kào tuǐ kuài tǎo tā zhī yíng

bèi gōng jìnbù mò chí tíng

dǎ rú gǔ shēng xiāngyìng

Inverting Thrust does not provoke with a guard,

With quick tripping legs their foundation bombard,

Stretch the back like a bow, step in with a dash,

The valley will echo with the hit’s sudden crash. 







Shén quán dāngmiàn chā xià

jìnbù huǒyàn cuán xīn

yù qiǎo jiù ná jiù diē

jǔ shǒu bùdé liúqíng

Spirit Fist blocks in front to invade down below,

Step in, gather fire, use your chest as bellows, 

Meeting skill, simply seize them and make them fall down,

Raise your hand to prevent them from gaining new ground. 







Yītiáo biān héngzhí pī kǎn

liǎng jìn tuǐ dāngmiàn shāng rén

bùpà tā lì cū dǎn dà

wǒ qiǎo hǎo dǎtōng shén

One Lash hacks across and down,

Block their legs and face them down,

Fear not men who’s strength is crude,

They’ll talk with gods through my hits true.







Què de lóng xià pántuǐ fǎ

qián jiē qǐ hòujìn hóng quán

tā tuì wǒ suī diān bǔ

chōng lái duǎn dāng xiū yán

Ground Dragon trains the legs to go low,

Lift them then enter with a heavy red blow,

They run from me, fine, I will still take the day,

Rushing in close to block, stop or delay.







Zhāoyáng shǒu piān shēn fāng tuǐ

wú fèng suǒ bī tuì háo yīng

dào zhènshì dàn tā yī jiǎo

hǎo jiào tā shī yě sāng shēn

The Hand of Dawn’s body slants defending from feet,

Seamlessly lock them to compel a retreat.

Knock Down the Pillar by quickly kicking their thigh, 

Teach them so well, their own master will die. 







Yīng chì cèshēn āi jìn

kuài tuǐ zǒu bù liú tíng

zhuī shàng chuān zhuāng yī tuǐ

yào jiā jiǎn pī tuī hóng

The Eagle’s Wing inclines in close,

Footwork fast and continuous,

Chase them down and kick through their base,

Chop, shear, and push you must keep the pace. 







Kuà hǔ shi nà yí fā jiǎo

yào tuǐ qù bù shǐ tā zhī

zuǒyòu gēn sǎo yīlián shī

shīshǒu jiǎndāo fēn yì

Ride the Tiger moves and kicks,

Hide your legs with subtle tricks,

Sweep your heel both left and right,

The hand can slice them like a knife.







Ǎo luán zhǒu chū bù diān duò

bān xià zhǎng zhāi dǎ qí xīn

ná yīng zhuō tù yìng kāi gōng

shǒujiǎo bìxū xiāngyìng

The Crossed Phoenix Elbow steps out pounding  to start,

Then fast going under to palm strike their heart,

Like an eagle with talons grab and tear them asunder,

Surely hand must unite with foot that is under. 







Dāngtóu pào shì chōng rù pà

jìnbù hǔ zhí cuān liǎng quán

tā tuì shǎn wǒ yòu diān chuài

bù diédǎo tā tā máng rán

Block the Head Canon charges in with out fear, 

Step in like a tiger, throw both fists like a spear,

When they dodge I will trip them and stomp them again,

Even if they don’t fall they must start again.  







Shùn luán zhǒu kào shēn

bān dǎgǔn kuài tā nán zhēlán

fù wài jiǎo shuā huí shuān

dù dā yī diē shuí gǎn zhēngxiān

Tame the Phoenix by leaning and use the elbow.

Move, strike, and roll, they have no where to go,

Return to the outside and twist them to bind,

Throw them down, to fight back they’d be out of their mind.







Qí gǔ shì zuǒyòu yā jìn

jìn tā shǒu héng pī shuāng xíng

jiǎo kào diē rén rén shí dé

hǔ bàotóu yào duǒ wú mén

Banners and Drums comes in to suppress,

Approaching them chopping like crossing the chest. 

Everyone sees the throw with the twist,

Embracing the Tiger no way to resist.



A contemporary depiction of Qi Jiguang’s troops from the recent film, “God of War.”



* Readers may note that this is alternate translation of this passage and differs from the one discussed in the previous post. As previously noted, this is an evolving work and I am open to ideas and suggestions:

Testing Horse was Song TaiZu’s,
Stances all can drop and move,
Advance attack, retreat to dodge,
Come in close with a fist barrage.



About the Author: Chad Eisner is a martial arts practitioner and instructor in Ann Arbor Michigan, teaching Ma She Tongbei and Taiji Quan. His experience in Chinese martial arts  and as a professional interpreter have naturally lead to a fascination with the translation of Ming dynasty martial arts texts. He is also the co-founder of Terra Prime Light Armory which uses historical based weapon arts to create lightsaber and fantasy martial arts for use in competition, performance, and learning.




Brook, Timothy. The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Harvard University Press Pape ed. History of Imperial China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013, ©2010.

Dardess, John W. Ming China, 1368-1644: A Concise History of a Resilient Empire. Critical Issues in History. World and International History. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, ©2012.

Di Cosmo, Nicola, ed. Military Culture in Imperial China. (Ryor, Kathleen, Wu and Wen in Elite Cultural Practices During the Late Ming) Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011, ©2009.

He, Yuming. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series. Vol. 82, Home and the World: Editing The “Glorious Ming” with Woodblock Printed Books of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013.

Huang, Ray. 1587, a Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline. New Haven: Yale University Press, ©1981.

Kang, Gewu. The Spring and Autum of Chinese Martial Arts: 5000 years, first ed. Plum Pub, 1995.

Kennedy, Brian, and Elizabeth Guo. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books :, ©2005.

Lorge, Peter Allan. Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

_____________. War, Politics, and Society in Early Modern China, 900-1795. Warfare and History. London: Routledge, 2005.

Ma, Mingda馬明達. 無系列Wu Xi Lie. chu ban. ed. Vol. A113-A114, 武學探針Wu Xue Tan Zhen. Taibei Shi: Yi wen chu ban you xian gong si, 2003.

Mao, Yuanyi茅元億. 武備志Wu Bei Zhi. [China: s.n. ; not before, 1644] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Miracle, Jared. Now with Kung Fu Grip!: How Bodybuilders, Soldiers and a Hairdresser Reinvented Martial Arts for America. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2016.

Qi, Jiguang戚繼光. Wu Shu Xi Lie武術系列. chu ban. ed. Vol. 6, Ji Xiao Xin Shu.績效新書 Tai bei shi: Wu zhou, 2000min 89.

Sawyer, Ralph D. The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China =: [wu Jing Qi Shu]. History and Warfare. Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.

Shapinsky, Peter D. Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies. Vol. 76, Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2014.

Swope, Kenneth. Campaigns and Commanders. Vol. 20, A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, ©2009.

Tong, James. Disorder under Heaven: Collective Violence in the Ming Dynasty. Stanford University Press, 1991.

Wile, Douglas. T’ai-Chi’s Ancestors: The Making of an Internal Martial Art. New York: Sweet Chi, 1999.



Martial Classics: The Poetry of Motion – Qi Jiguang in Verse

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General Qi Jiguang. Source: Wikimedia.


***I hope that the following guest post will be the first entry in a new occasional series here at Kung Fu Tea. While I am neither a linguist or historian of ancient China, I have found myself regularly attending the Cornell Chinese Classics Colloquium (CCCC) over the last couple of years. This fascinating series of workshops typically invites a visiting graduate student or junior professor to present a reading and translation of an ancient Chinese text of their choosing.  The presenter highlights some puzzles that arise out of their text, either linguistic or historical in nature. This sets the stage for what is often a lively, and always enlightening, discussion.

The only drawback of the CCCC series is that none of the various scholars have yet presented a reading of a martial or military text. This group typically looks at political, literary, religious or even medical documents.  Still, the growing interest in the reconstruction of various Chinese martial arts classics suggests that perhaps we could benefit from a similar effort. Students who are working on their own translation or reconstruction projects should feel free to submit a guest post.  Ideally their essay will introduce both a translation of a specific section of text, and discuss either the linguistic, historical or technical issues that it presents.  Hopefully this will inspire some good discussion. Given that there are very few academics who have translated these sorts of texts professionally, I would suspect that most contributions will come from amateur scholars, graduate students and individuals working on side projects.  As with the CCCC, everyone is coming here to learn, and (charitable) feedback is always welcome.  Enjoy!***


The poetry of motion: Qi Jiguang in verse

By Chad Eisner


When discussing Chinese martial arts classics it is often observed that, for a considerable period, the norm was to render technical information in verse form. Sometimes these verses are even called “songs” by modern martial artists. While this tradition has been kept by some, others have explicitly shunned the practice in favor of more straight forward instructions. Still, the fact remains that a sizable number of martial arts texts from the historical record are written in verse. 

Proponents of the verse method of recording martial arts knowledge cite their ability to communicate more than just sequences of movement, or a specific response to an action.  Properly understood they may also provide a framework for interpreting the technique in different contexts. Of course, verse also serve as a very convenient mnemonic for the memorization of traditions that may have been passed down orally. The issue with that method is that by keeping the language vague and open to interpretation, you make the act of understanding the technical information more difficult. When attempting to translate these poems to another language scholars face a large number of possible readings and reaching a consensus may be difficult.


Translation versus Interpretation

My background is as a (former) professional interpreter. Therefore I am coming at the act of translation from a specific place. Most people do not know the difference between interpretation and translation or that there is a difference between them at all. In the general sense, translation is the art of finding the equivalent words or phrases and interpretation is the act of discerning their meaning within their context. Professionally, “interpretation” happens live with little to no preparation or foreknowledge of what is being said. Translation is the act of transmitting information about things that are unchanging, as in being written down or recorded. 

These two process are related, of course. Translation is a part of interpretation but because interpretation happens live, there are certain methods one must follow in order to ensure that the information and intent of the speaker are being communicated. In translation, since the text exists in a static form, the translator has access to all of the linguistic information during the entire process. This allows a translator to formulate solutions to problems more carefully and thoughtfully. 

The result is that each profession approaches the translation of any text in a slightly different way. The translator looks for (in general) the most accurate and similar translation of each concept, including structure and word choice. The interpreter is more concerned with “equivalency” within the target language rather than a “word for word” approach. This may take the form of restructuring sentences, using different words, or finding completely unique idioms in the target language that serve the same function as the ones being used in the source language. A simple example of this is the greeting in Chinese “Nihao ma?” (你好嗎). Literally, this phrase means “Are you well?” But it is used much more frequently and in a wider context than the English phrase. It is therefore most often translated (or interpreted)  as “hello” as it is used as a generalized greeting in Mandarin the same as the word “hello” functions in English. These are generalizations and there are several schools of thought for both translating and interpreting that take harder or softer stances on these issues. 


Expansion and Contraction

When attempting to translate anything, there are certain issues which must be considered as many languages have different solutions to the same problems. One of these is the issue of linguistic expansion and contraction. This is when a single word in the source language cannot be expressed with a single word or “gloss” in the target language. It is necessary then to explain the concept in as concise language as possible to communicate the meaning and intent of the original text. This is a common occurrence in any language, but in written Chinese it happens with considerable frequency and can have lasting effects on the understanding of terms and concepts. 

When translating and interpreting poetry and verse, the job becomes that much harder. Not only does one have to contend with almost intentionally obscure literary allusions and aesthetic styles, but one must now also render it in a similar fashion for the target language. This makes it necessary to approach the task with more of an interpreter’s mind set, being willing to alter things to make them adhere to the same type of experience for the reader, in which ever language there are experiencing it. There are concerns regarding meter, rhyme, structure, devices used and many many more things that are indicative of poetry and verse beyond what is found in prose. 

These factors come together with the nature of poetry and verse to create a very difficult scenario for the translator. There will be numerous ways to translate the same text and none of them will really be more correct than some of the others. In “19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei”, Eliot Weinberger looks at 19 different translations of a four line Chinese poem. Just among the English translations one can find distinct and unique takes on the simple verse. This underscores the fact that there are many ways to interpret what is being said and therefore, many correct translations of any text in verse. 

This is not to say the effort is wasted. It is absolutely possible to render excellent verse to verse translations of songs, poems, and other forms of expressive writing. A good example of this is the song “Les Tomber les Filles “ written by Serge Gainbourg and performed by Franz Gall and translated and performed by the musician April March in 1995. March’s translation of the ’60’s era French pop song displays many of the techniques needed for translation of these types of texts:


Original by Gainsbourg: 

Laisse tomber les filles, laisse tomber les filles

Un jour c’est toi qu’on laissera

Laisse tomber les filles, laisse tomber les filles

Un jour c’est toi qui pleureras

Oui j’ai pleuré mais ce jour-là, non je ne pleurerai pas

Non je ne pleurerai pas

Je dirai c’est bien fait pour toi, je dirai ça t’apprendra

Je dirai ça t’apprendra


Translation by March: 

Hang up the chick habit

Hang it up, daddy,

Or you’ll be alone in a quick

Hang up the chick habit

Hang it up, daddy,

Or you’ll never get another fix

I’m telling you it’s not a trick

Pay attention, don’t be thick

Or you’re liable to get licked

You’re gonna see the reason why

When they’re spitting in your eye

They’ll be spitting in your eye


The first thing one notices is the title of the song. “Les Tomber les Filles” literally means “let the girls fall” or “drop the girls”. March’s translation of “Hang up the Chick Habit” does some fairly impressive things. First, it takes account of time period and chooses a phrasing with ’60 era flavor in the slang term “chick” used as an adjective. This immediately places the language in time and gets the listener into the right mindset. The idiom used in the French is reversed, conceptually, in the English translation. Where in the French we are told to “drop” the girls, the same sentiment is expressed by “hanging up” the habit of womanizing. Because of the nature of idioms and of course musical styles and concerns, finding equivalent phrases based on what they mean rather than the words they use is essential. 

Without going into too much detail on each the lines and their translation, a quick glance at the selection above will reveal that there is a significant difference in the literal meaning of the French and the transition by March. Again, due to the confines of music, restructuring, rephrasing, and finding equivalent words and phrases, not directly translated ones, is necessary. It is the underlying meaning that needs to be addressed and since verse is often used as a tool for delivering information, it is this meaning that needs to be understood before a translation can be rendered.


Image of a Taiji Boxer. Source: Burkhardt, 1953.


The question is then brought up, what value is there in the effort to translate and render these verses into Western equivalents? Besides the scholarly and linguistic value that such an exercise provides, it may also be important to the modern practitioner who is purely interested in the content of these texts rather than their academic discussion. Martial artists often take inspiration from these works in their teaching and practice. Making them accessible to more people would seem to be a laudable goal. 

Verse emphasizes form over function, sacrificing clarity. Modern attempts to not only understand the original message but then render it in verse form in the target language is a laborious, but ultimately rewarding, process. I have tried to keep the changes in my own project to a minimum, or in service of the verse structure. I have used my prior experience in Chinese martial arts, specifically Taijiquan, as a base for my interpretation of the techniques. I offer them only as an example of a single interpretation and do not claim authority on the matter. 

In translating the verses of Qi Jiguang into English rhyme, some linguistic and interpretive liberties have been taken. A certain amount of linguistic expansion and contraction is necessary to achieve a proper meter and rhythm that remains internally consistent throughout the text. The form of the verses has also been changed to find an equivalent structure in English that can encompasses the several metrics in the original. 


Verse structure

The verse structure I have chosen for these translations is based on U.S. armed Forces “Cadences” or marching rhymes. I have chosen this form as it is related to the military context, of which the text is a part, and for it’s simplicity. I have imagined (or rendered) it as if these verses were used as a call and response drills for large groups of provincial soldiers. As such I have kept the language on the courser side, although still giving nods to Qi Jiguangs practice of poetry. Although I have little knowledge of classical Chinese Poetic forms, Qi and his fellow military people were often criticized on their writing as being overly simple and naive. Although some did find Qi’s poetry to be pleasing, writers like Shen Defu claimed their success was due to their uneducated audience and the low brow environment of the frontiers and borderlands . 

Settling on the military cadences, I used two forms; a quarter note version and an eighth note version. Most fit better into the eighth note form but there are several that are in the quarter note cadence. 

  1. Quarter note: Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta Taaa
  2. Eighth note: Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ta


Rhyme scheme

The Rhyme scheme I have chosen is a simple AA,BB structure to reflect the simplicity the succinct and brief nature of the originals. The simple rhyme scheme also is a feature of nemonic rhymes to facilitate their memorization. The simple paired scheme is a one that is intuitive to most languages and cultures. 


At times in the text, the first person is used. At other times the second person being given instructions is used. And at still other times it is unclear on whether the passive or active voice is being used. I have attempted to keep it as consistent as I can. The particulars of Literary Chinese grammar make it sometimes difficult to determine the subject and/or object in the sentence. Again, these factors are in addition to the already mounting factors when the target translation is to be in verse. 



What follows is a sampling of my attempt. I have chosen the first four entires as they relate to modern Taijiquan practice and are often seen as antecedents of present day techniques. I do not attempt to draw lines of origin or make authoritative statements into the connection between modern naming conventions and Ming Dynasty ones. While the names and many of the positions are similar, the nature of the drawings and the text make it difficult to discern the original intent. Still, these are iconic techniques and positions that form the foundation of many practices today. 

These four entries also provide a good sampling of the various types and flavors of techniques presented. Qi’s text has a few basic structures and approaches. Some are straight forward, step by step instructions. Others are explained in general terms as responses to situations and changing variables. Lastly, Qi ends each verse with a superlative, often making statements of prowess that seem right out of kung fu movies or modern professional wrestling. 

My first attempt tried to take all linguistic information contained in the lines. The resulting translations were in my opinion, too verbose stylistically and did not match the succinct and brief nature of the originals: 

Lazily Tie Your Coat and come to stand outside,

Sink into single whip, with single sudden stride

Without the courage to attack, when your enemy is caught,

The sharpest eyes and the fastest hands will both be all for naught.

While far more skilled and expert translators, like Douglas Wile, have produced excellent translations, I hope to add a small amount of depth by offering a glimpse into what these lines would sound like in verse form. I feel that having them rhyme in this way can give a little extra flavor, and maybe foster more thought about the content of the text. Either way, I accept any and all criticism and know that there will be many errors in my work. These errors are mine but I have tried to accommodate alternate perspectives when available. 




Tie your coat and come outside,

Single Whip with sudden stride,

With out the courage to advance,

Sharp eyes fast hands will have no chance.





“Lazily Tie the Coat” begins the set.

Lower your stance and lightly step into Single Whip.

If you lack the courage to attack when facing an enemy,

Your sharp eyes and fast hands will be for naught.


The first verse. The verse is about the technique called “Lazily Tie the Coat”. It states that this is an opening move to the “set” or form (架子 JiaZi). The poetic liberties taken should be obvious. Reframing the same information as a command brought about a more literal yet figurative relationship in the sentence. “Come and stand outside” is used to mean a beginning relating to 出門- literally “out the door”. While it probably means ‘to begin’, keeping the poetic nature of the phrase offers a good equivalent in English.

The interpretation of the passage seems to be more general in its scope. The first two line describe the technique “Lan Zha Yi”-Lazily Tie the Coat and the step into “Single Whip”. Any practitioner of Taijiquan, especially Chen Style, should be able to picture this move in a particular way. The grappling of Lan Zha Yi and the step into Dan Pian (single whip) are ubiquitous in the various styles. Although the illustration of Qi’s move shows a standing position with feet together, a difference from the current practices in Taijiquan, it is reasonable to assume that the name of this technique is focused mainly on the upper body. Very much like Single Whip, Lazy Tie the Coat is an image or mime of an action of tying a long belt around a coat as was done in old China.

The last two stanzas give general advice for fighting. Essentially, take the initiative in an encounter and do not let up. Violence tends to favor the aggressor and if you lack the courage or fortitude to press your attack, it will fail no matter how good your other attributes are. Qi has put an number of these general axioms for combat amongst the verses.





Golden Rooster stands on top,

Present your leg then sideways chop,

Rush in low and trip the bull,

They cry to heaven loud and full.





Jīnjīdúlì diān (diān) qǐ

zhuāng tuǐ héng quán xiāng jiān

qiāng bèi wò niú shuāng dào

zāozhe jiàokǔliántiān

Golden Chicken Stands Alone rises up.

Brandish the leg and cross the fists together.

Thrust forward and turn the back in “Reclining Bull” to throw them.

Those that encounter this move will cry of their hardship to heaven.


This verse differs a bit from the first in that it is more akin to step by step instructions or “plays” denoting martial application. The instructions are for its application in fighting, one assumes in a one on one encounter. Modern practitioners may be more comfortable thinking of this technique as a solo exercise or mime of a combat technique.

However, the verse contains another named technique “卧牛” or “Reclining Bull”. Which seems to indicate a throw where the opponent’s legs are in the air. Essentially hitting the ground supine. One possible interpretation of this technique is a standard “fireman’s carry”. Coming in low and scooping the opponent up and throwing them over your shoulders. I have chosen to translate this technique as “trip the bull” to stay with in meter and rhyme.




Testing Horse was Song Taizu’s,

Stances all can drop and move,

Advance attack, retreat to dodge,

Come in close with a fist barrage.





Testing Horse was taught by Taizu.

Several stances can drop down and change.

Enter to attack and retreat to dodge with full vigor.

Come in close range where the fist’s reach is best.


This verse seems fairly straight forward as well. The first line is worth examination in a few aspects. First the name of this technique “Tan Ma” (探馬) is similar to the Taiji posture, “Gao Tan Ma” 高探馬 often translated as “High Pat on Horse”, it is more likely referring to testing a horse to see if it is able to be saddled. The high outstretched arm being the testing hand and the other arm folded but he side as if holding a saddle. Although like most of the illustrations, it is difficult to match them to real world actions.



The first line makes the claim that this technique was taught by “Taizu” the Emperor of the Song and a frequent figure in martial arts. The intent here seems to be to give the technique a sense of antiquity or lineage. This plays into the idea that traditional martial arts should have long histories. While that is a common idea in modern days, it held true in the Ming Dynasty as well. Several authors bemoan the loss of martial traditions, arts, and methods during their time. And while writers like Mao Yuanyi set out to preserve these traditions in works like the Wubei Zhi, the actual partitioners of the techniques, i.e. the military, were seeing firsthand the power of firearms and gunpowder based weapons. Qi, himself, wrote of the superiority of firearms and later built tactics almost solely around such weapons. Our present text is found in the Jixiaoxinshu, and was intended as a manual for the training of mercenary troops in provincial armies. Even in the introduction to this section, Qi states that “Barehanded fighting is all but useless on the battlefield”, and that he included the fist routines as a kind of exercise for troops. It may be that these troops responded to long histories and lineages more so than the upper classes and hereditary military families.

There is a liberal dose of restructuring in the first line. Trying to encapsulate the idea of antiquity and prestige I opted to go out on a limb. “Testing Horse was Song Taizu’s” seems to fulfill those requirements. This was done entirely for structural reasons and I was able to keep all information intact.



Crossed Single Whip firmly pries it’s way in,

When finding it hard from their kick to defend,

Rush in with continuous, liftings and chops,

Knock down Tai mountain into low stances drop.





Crossed single whip advances with tight circles.

When you find it difficult to defend kicks from either side,

Rush in with continuous downward and upward chops.

Sink low into the posture, Pushing Mount Tai.

“Ao Dan Bian” or “crossed Single Whip” is a common name and familiar again to practitioners of Taijiquan. The illustration provided by Qi shows the familiar stance of one hand held up in front as if in a chop and the rear hand made into a fist or hooked shape with arms stretched out straight from each other. “Ao” or “crossed” refers to the position of the forward leg to the forward hand which are opposing each other. So, if the right hand is forward the left leg will be forward.


An opera performer holding a bian during a performance.


“Dan Bian” or “single whip” refers to the upper body position and the arms. The arms are stretched out from the body and turned so that one hand is behind (often held in a hook gesture) and the other in front. The image is most likely of a mounted rider, holding the reigns with the front hand and the riding crop (bian 鞭) behind. It is a familiar position in opera indicating when the characters are riding in the narrative. In opera too, a long stick called a “bian” is used. The whip in this instance being a riding crop or short stick.

The rest of the verse explains the basic use of the technique. While there are many ways in which to interpret the movements explained, the logic of them seems salient. Qi advocates that his readers be aggressive with their intent and rush in with downward and upward strikes with which to disrupt, or otherwise interfere with, the opponents kicks. Once done, the practitioner sinks low into the stance “pushing Mt. Tai”. Essentially, it appears as if the technique comes in aggressively and then drops low to attack the legs, presumably for a knock down.



About the Author: Chad Eisner is a martial arts practitioner and instructor in Ann Arbor Michigan, teaching Ma She Tongbei and Taiji Quan. His experience in Chinese martial arts  and as a professional interpreter have naturally lead to a fascination with the translation of Ming dynasty martial arts texts. He is also the co-founder of Terra Prime Light Armory which uses historical based weapon arts to create lightsaber and fantasy martial arts for use in competition, performance, and learning. 




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Di Cosmo, Nicola, ed. Military Culture in Imperial China. (Ryor, Kathleen, Wu and Wen in Elite Cultural Practices During the Late Ming) Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011, ©2009.

Kang, GeWu. The Spring and Autum of Chinese Martial Arts: 5000 years, first ed. Plum Pub, 1995.

Kennedy, Brian, and Elizabeth Guo. Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books :, ©2005.

Lorge, Peter Allan. Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

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Wile, Douglas. T’ai-Chi’s Ancestors: The Making of an Internal Martial Art. New York: Sweet Chi, 1999.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Tai Hsuan-chih Remembers “The Red Spears, 1916-1949”





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