Yi Jin Jing (易筋經)
(Transforming Tendons Classic)


            Yi Jin Jing is a classical form of Chinese martial arts with almost legendary status.  What is Yi Jin Jing?  It is a question not very many can adequately answer, and not very many can claim to have a true understanding of it.

            Although in much that has been written about Chinese traditional training methods, Yi Jin Jing is often compared to Wu Qin Xi (五禽戲 – Five Animal Internal Energy Frolics) and Baduanjin (八段錦 – Eight Pieces of Brocade), and the three are regarded as the three main systems of classical Chinese internal and external qigong, however, Yi Jin Jing differs from Wu Qin Xi and Baduanjin in that it was originally not the name of a qigong system; rather, it was the name of a text on body training through martial arts.  The text is often attributed to Bodhidharma (西竺達摩祖師), but the attribution is obviously apocryphal.  The fact that the postscript was written by the Daoist priest Zining (紫凝道人) in 1624 during the Ming Dynasty clearly indicates that it was written in the Ming Dynasty.

            For a long time, only one volume from Yi Jin Jing was known to the world.  At some later point, Zhang wrote a supplementary volume which was appended to the original text.  The text as it was first written covers a wide range of topics, including Overview, Membranes, Internal Strengthening,  Massaging Techniques, Taking Energy from the Sun and Moon, Medicines (also known as Prescriptions for Internal Strengthening), Soaking, First Month Training, Second Month Training, Third Month Training, Fourth Month Training, Balancing the Force, Depth of Internal Force, Internal and External Training of the Rib Cage, Tools for Training, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth Month Training, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Month Training, Harmony with Yin and Yang, Sex Organs Training, Abstentions during Training, Prescriptions and Use of Medicines for Sex Organs, Internal Superpower Training, Hardening the Hand, External Power Baduanjin, Dynamic Force of Tendons and Ligaments, Moving Method, Internal Force and Focus Training, Illustrations of the Twelve Posture Exercise and their Descriptions, Flexible Shoulders and Wrists, Training of the Limbs, and Training of the Fingers. .  These topics are not discrete theories; rather, they are the parts of an integrated whole.  Generally speaking, they cover the basic theories, the basic principles and methods of internal training, and the basic principles and methods of external training.

            The word “jing” (經) in Yi Jin Jing is not used to refer to “method;” rather, like Wang Di Nei Jing (黃帝內經)or Shennong Ben Cao Jing (神農本草經), it refers to “a special text that records an incident or a skill.”  In other words, Yi Jin Jing is a special text that records “the transformation of tendons.”  As for “transforming tendons,” it is said, “change is the doctrine of yin and yang.”  About “jin” – tendons – the book has this to day, “Tendons are the network of tendons and ligaments in the body.  They are outside the skeleton, inside the muscles, even the four limbs and the hundred bones are all parts of the system of tendons and ligaments.  They hold together the body, they are the channels through which the blood and the pulse flow, and they are the external complement to the spirit.  For our shoulders to carry loads, our hands to grasp or our feet to walk; indeed, for any part of our body to move, we rely on the proper functioning of the tendons.  Such being the case, we cannot afford to allow the tendons to become flaccid, restricted, weak, and fragile.”  Yi Jin – transforming the tendons – is the way by which “through twisting and turning” we “ease the constriction of the tendons in those who suffer from cramps; bring strength to those whose tendons have become weak; bring extension and flexibility to those whose tendons have become shortened; and hardness to those whose tendons have become soft and weak so that bodies formerly spongy and soft can become hard as iron and stone.”  For this reason, Yi Jin Jing is a special text on strengthening the body.  Yi Jin Jing incorporates the characteristics found in different texts written or compiled through the ages on internal and external qigong – it emphasizes the close connection between strengthening the body and the study of martial arts, and of theory and practice.  On this point, it is unique among all the literature on healthy living and physical education in China.

            Specifically, Yi Jin Jing is different from other texts in the following ways:

  1. The creation of a systematic set of theories – Generally speaking, in ancient Chinese texts on healthy living, there is seldom equal emphasis given to theory and practice.  Yi Jin Jing, however, opens with theory, which is followed by careful analysis and ends with suggestions for practical application.  Where it deals with methodology, Yi Jin Jing relies not on experience, but on the application of the theories.
  1. Yi Jin Jing puts forward the theory of the interconnectedness of training the tendons, the membranes and fostering the qi.  Before its emergence, most studies of healthy living tend to focus entirely on the study of form, as in Wu Qin Xi, or entirely on the fostering of qi, as is done in the various kinds of internal energy training (or nei dan內丹).  Yi Jin Jing, however, advocates “before the tendons and ligaments can be strengthened, the membranes must first be strengthened; the strengthening of the membranes must centre on the fostering of qi.”  The tendons and ligaments referred to here are not just the fibrous tissue connecting bones or cartilages at a joint; they also comprise the soft tissues, the flesh and the muscles of the body.  Neither does the term “membrane” refer only to the thin, pliable layer of tissue covering surfaces; it also includes the nerves as well as the blood vessels.  In the section on Membranes in Yi Jin Jing, it is states, “Tendons and membranes are outside the bones.  The tendons hold together the skeleton; the membranes are found next to the skeleton.  The membranes are softer than the tendons; the membranes are stronger than the flesh.  The membranes are inside the flesh, but outside the bones.  They cover the bones and adhere to the flesh.”  The same section in the book also states, “The human body is composed of the internal organs, the limbs and the bones.  At the very centre, there are the spirit, qi and energy; shielding these are the tendons, bones and flesh.  All of these together make up the body.”  Of these components of the body, “the spirit, qi and energy are incorporeal, whereas the tendons, bones are flesh are corporeal.  It follows, therefore, that strengthening the corporeal parts will lead to strengthening of the incorporeal.  The two are complimentary and do not contradict each other.  This is the way to a totally healthy body.  This explains why to strengthen the tendons, we must also strengthen the membranes, and to strengthen the membranes, we must also foster the qi.”  “It is, comparatively speaking, easier to strengthen the tendons than the membranes; while it is difficult to strengthen the membranes, the hardest work is in fostering the qi.”  It proposes to start with the hardest; when one has gained his footing in the most difficult area, he can then make strides towards the easier part.  Hence, transforming the tendons must first start with internal training.
  1. It states the fundamentals for “internal training.” – In the chapter on “Internal Strengthening” in Yi Jin Jing, it is established, “the key to internal strengthening is firmness, the key to external strengthening is courage.  When one is both firm and courageous, one is truly strong.”  Based on this tenet, “there are three guidelines to Internal Strengthening.  The first is to follow the breathing and movement exercise.  The intention is to collect the qi (energy) from the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and body and keep it in a designated spot in the body.  The way to achieve this is through massage techniques which are explained later in the text.”  “The second guideline is focus.  The flow of energy, qi and blood in the body is directed by the human will.  Where the will leads, the flow follows.  When practicing the breathing and movement exercise, it is important to allow the will to follow the palm which is used for massaging.  This is called he shi (合式), or combination.”  “The third guideline is circulation (充周).  When one is focused on the massage, the collection of energy naturally follows.”  “Where the energy is collected, strength is collected.  When there is adequate energy accumulated, the strength will percolate.”  These guidelines underline the importance of the collection of qi (energy).  This is similar to what the health experts advocate – the fostering, training and distillation of that most basic element of human life, qi, including not only the original qi (元氣) and bodily vigour (氣血), but also the natural greatness of a soul, the magnanimity (浩然之氣) that Mencius (孟子) considers to be every man’s aspiration in life.  The chapter on Membranes in Yi Jin Jing states, “the purpose is to foster the original qi (元氣), collect the middle qi (qi of the middle energizer 中氣), secure the healthy qi (正氣), so as to improve the liver qi (肝氣), lung qi (肺氣), and the spleen qi (脾氣); to elevate the pure qi, reduce the power of the impure qi and shut off the harmful, unhealthy qi.
  1. Yi Jin Jing relates and analyzes the different kinds of internal and external training methods.  The two major categories of internal and external training methods are discussed in detail.  The first principle is progression: start from internal and progress to external training, from mild to rigorous, from easy to demanding, from separate to combined, advancing in due order.  The second principle is; rubbing is used as the core technique, but it is combined with slapping and supported with the use of medicines and medicinal soaks.  To put it simply, Yi Jin Jing proposes the use of self-massage and massage applied by others.  The use of both rubbing and slapping is something that is unique to Yi Jin Jing.  The third principle is the combination of movement and stationary exercises, but with movement as the core.  Although Yi Jin Jing gives some significance to stationary exercises, for example, Collecting the Energy from the Sun and the Moon, but the mainstay of Yi Jin Jing is movement, of which the most outstanding is Twelve Posture Exercise (十二勢).  Other examples of external training include Baduanjin (拔斷筋), Qianbacuan (千把攢), Waizhuangshenyong (外壯神勇), and Baduanjin (八段錦) .  They are methods for extending the benefits of the internal training to the external.  The goal is to achieve strength.  The training comprises eight different moves – lifting, raising, pushing, pulling, dragging, holding down, grasping and squatting.

            Yi Jin Jing Twelve Posture Exercise:  Wu Shang Xian (吳尚先), the well-known Qing Dynasty medical doctor, in his “Essay on Theories” (理論駢文)wrote “raising, lifting, pulling, dragging, holding down, grasping, squatting, pushing as mentioned in Yi Jin Jing can be used as reference;” but did not mention anything about the Twelve Posture Exercise.  It was only in the Zhang edition of the text that the Twelve Posture Exercise was included.

            Illustrations of the Twelve Posture Exercise states, “This exercise first came from the Buddhists.”  This is a clear indication that the exercise was not created by Bodhidharma; but it is undeniable that Yi Jin Jing Twelve Posture Exercise is a training exercise that has the characteristics of Buddhist martial arts training.  But since “A Guide to Health Standards” (衛生要述) started referring to Twelve Posture Exercise as Yi Jin Jing, it has become a common practice to think that Yi Jin Jing is only about the exercise rather than the system of internal and external training that is delineated in the actual text.

            Because of the above-mentioned connections and differences between Twelve Posture Exercise and Yi Jin Jing, the more appropriate name for the exercise is Yi Jin Jing Twelve Posture Exercise.  The defining characteristic of Yi Jin Jing Twelve Posture Exercise is that it combines strength, force and flexibility, movement and stillness, with the mind and power working as one.  It is not only a crucial exercise for the attainment of a healthful and strong body; it is also the foundation for martial arts training.  Classical qigong focuses on “gentle harmonious movements and slow, regulated breathing where every move is measured, so that the goals of prevention or treatment of illnesses are achieved.”  The intent of Yi Jin Jing Twelve Posture Exercise, though, is on building a healthy and strong physique and not on the treatment of illnesses.  Its movements are energetic and powerful and its goal is “the accumulation and fostering of qi and bodily strength, so that the bones are hard and membranes firm;” whereby, “firmness leads to courage and courage gives rise to firmness.”  The emphasis during training is “to achieve both energy and power; and both energy and power are concentrated and firm.”  In addition, movement must be accompanied by stillness, and in the process of training, both the mind and strength are brought to focus.  When practicing the stationary exercises, one is required to count silently to mark the amount of time spent on each move.  It is the presence of these characteristics that makes it a unique system.

            In conclusion, the Yi Jin Jing System of Training is a system of training that combines a range of internal and external training methods.  It is not limited to just the Twelve Posture Exercise.  It is also important to note that since its emergence in the Ming Dynasty, like Wu Qin Xi (五禽戲 – Five Animal Internal Energy Frolics) and Baduanjin (八段錦 – Eight Pieces of Brocade), it has developed and spread very quickly so that there are now many variations of Yi Jin Jing training.  To cite an example, these days more than twenty different versions of the Twelve Posture Exercise are extant.