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





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