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Claims of Chi: Besting a Tai Chi Master

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.1, January/February 2017

In nearly half a century of investigating strange mysteries, I have frequently encountered claims of the mysterious force or power known as qi or ch’i or simply chi (pronounced “chee”). The term translates as “air” or “breath” and, by extension, “life force” or “energy flow.”

In traditional Asian cultures, especially Chinese, chi is the essential principle in such practices as feng shui (pronounced “fung shway”), the art of creating harmonious environments; acupuncture, a form of traditional Chinese medicine in which needles are inserted at specified points to stimulate the flow of chi (Nickell 2012); and certain martial arts, including tai chi. I will expand on the latter here, exposing tricks used by masters and their followers.

I am quick to say I did not have much special knowledge for this particular investigation other than my background as a magician and wonderworker (Nickell 2005, 219–220, 231–232, 274), but I did have a college course in sport judo and was once trained—by karate black belt and physics teacher Matt Lowry—to break boards by striking them with my hand (Nickell 2011; 2012a).


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Figure 1. Author at the grave of Dixie Annie (Jarrett) Haygood, a.k.a Annie Abbott, “The Little Georgia Magnet,” whom strong men could not move. (Author’s photo, taken before a headstone was installed.)

Tai Chi, et al.

Tai chi is a shortened form of taiji quan, “Supreme ultimate boxing.” Conceived centuries ago as a martial art, it is now also practiced—as “Taoist tai chi”—as an exercise technique. In China in 2010 as a visiting scholar in an exchange program (see Nickell 2012), I watched people doing morning tai chi exercises. The graceful, flowing movements reminded me of Chinese brush calligraphy, and I found plausible the claims that the practice could help reduce stress and tone muscles.

In addition to tai chi, all martial arts typically involve the concept of chi—including kung fu, a Chinese form of fighting without weapons, and taekwondo, a type of Korean karate that uses such aggressive moves as jabs, chops, and dramatic leaping kicks. All rely on chi, the supposed internal life energy, as discussed in the Qi Encyclopedia (Lam 2016). Many unsupported claims are made for the magical, invisible chi—whose existence itself is unsupported by science.

Consider the myriad therapeutic claims made to promote tai chi. Martial arts authority Bruce Tegner (1973, 140) calls them “misleading.” As he explains:

Tai chi promoters claim that tai chi exercise will cure as many diseases and restore as many non-functioning organs as the old snake-oil remedies. While it is true that practice of the routine will promote general health and you will feel better if you do tai chi, there is absolutely no acceptable evidence that tai chi is a substitute for medical care. A tai chi teacher is without any preparation for diagnosing disease, or for prescribing for cure or care. If you are ill, see a doctor. If your ailment could be “cured” by doing tai chi, it could be “cured” by any routine of exercise. It is a cruel deception to make promises of “cure”; rather than enhancing the reputation of tai chi, it lowers it to the rank of a quack or crank activity. Tai chi is a good exercise and it deserves to be rescued from the bad reputation of cure-all quackery.

Chi Chicanery

Still other claims made for chi—involving tai chi and related martial arts—are actually due to skill and application of simple physical principles. Here are a few examples.

Candle Feat. In 1984, one of my university students, who had witnessed a sensational karate demonstration, told me how the practitioner supposedly flung off some of his “energy” (chi) to extinguish a candle. He supposedly accomplished this by simply pointing at the flame in a dramatic fashion.

I went to see the demonstration at a Lexington, Kentucky, high school. The martial artist had his mouth taped to prove he was not blowing out the flame. He moved his open hand in a rather short, quick blow toward the flame. It only flickered the first time, but on the fourth try was extinguished. I was later able—with some practice—to duplicate the feat. I also found that the secret to such a stunt had been published months earlier in a kung-fu magazine. The secret lies in “displacing the air. . . . The speed of your technique is what causes the flame to go out” (Blauer 1983, 86).

Cutting Apple on Throat. The same evening I watched the candle stunt, I also witnessed a seemingly risky feat in which a martial artist placed an apple on the throat of a reclining man and cut it in two with a sword. The blade went quickly down but stopped abruptly—rather in the manner of someone “pulling a punch” in stunt fighting. This might be practiced successfully.

The blade does not need to go all the way through the apple to cut it in two. Indeed, I have heard of a trick method in which a short length of rigid wire is inserted in the apple near the bottom to help stop the blade. Nevertheless, sometimes the stunt can go awry as shown in a YouTube video of an assistant having his throat cut—fortunately not fatally (“Karate Master” 2009).

Psychokinetic Effects. A young martial arts instructor and ex-con named James Hydrick fooled countless people in the 1980s by causing a balanced pencil to move by only pointing at it, turning pages of a phone book from several feet away by simply staring, and performing other feats. Touted by an Associated Press story and the TV program That’s Incredible, Hydrick seemed to gain scientific support for his powers when he passed tests given by an assistant professor of electrical engineering. Hydrick wore a karate gi and claimed Eastern philosophy helped him develop his mind power.

However, Hydrick was undone when magician and psychical investigator James Randi challenged Hydrick on What’s My Line?—offering him $10,000 if he could demonstrate genuine paranormal powers as claimed. Randi thought Hydrick was merely blowing to spin the pencil and flip the book pages, so he scattered feather-light Styrofoam pieces on the table around the book and challenged him to repeat the feat. If he were blowing, the Styrofoam pieces would be disturbed and thus reveal the trick. Hydrick spent an hour and half pretending to use his powers before giving up (Baker and Nickell 1992, 80). He later confessed, boasting that he had “tricked the whole world” (Korem 1988, 149).

No-Touch Knockouts. Again, karate master George Dillman allegedly discovered a technique allowing him to direct chi so as to knock down a human target. My Italian friends Massimo Polidoro and Luigi Garlaschelli investigated the claim for an episode of National Geographic TV’s Is It Real? They began by watching a video of Dillman waving his hands before a volunteer who started to oscillate and then collapse on the floor, “exactly as Obi Wan Kenobi would do on an Imperial guard in the Star Wars films” (Polidoro 2008, 20).

The skeptics suspected the feat depended on the power of suggestion. “It looked like the old hypnotic stunts where the hypnotist stands in front of someone, points a finger to his face telling him that he is going to fall backward and, after a while, the person falls as expected” (Polidoro 2008, 20). When they conducted an experiment with Dillman, and Garlaschelli stood with closed eyes as suggested, he learned that another factor was at play: It is easier to lose one’s balance with closed eyes. So he opened his and became immune to the punches of chi directed at him.

The investigators followed up with another test in which one of Dillman’s students stood behind a curtain that blocked his view while the karate master sent his supposed chi punches at intervals directed by the skeptics. This ruled out suggestion, and the student simply stood looking puzzled, awaiting the chi force that never came.

Portrait of Don Ahn graces his business card (author’s collection).

Rooting

Another questionable claim—one a television producer asked me to look into in 2009—involves what is known in the martial arts as rooting. This is the purported special ability—aided by drawing chi up from the earth while imagining roots branching down from the feet—to keep oneself planted firmly despite an incoming force (“Rooting” 2016). I watched a hastily shot video of tai chi Grand Master Don Ahn. What I saw reminded me of the stunts of certain “human magnets”—such as teenage Lulu Hurst of Georgia in the 1880s.

Billed as the “Georgia Magnet,” the fifteen-year-old Hurst would stand before the audience holding a stick parallel to the floor of the stage, while two strong men gripping it would attempt to move her. Instead, she merely pressed against the stick and not only prevented the action but pushed them across the stage to the spectators’ delight. Hurst called her power a “Great Unknown.” However, in time came criticism: the New York Times (July 13, 1884) called her performances “a phenomenon of stupidity” showing “how willingly people will be fooled. . . .”

Miss Hurst also became concerned with how spiritualists were embracing her as a powerful medium. After two years of performing, she married the young man who managed her show and returned to obscurity. She later confessed that the secret behind her power was simply “deflected force,” namely, “unrecognized mechanical principles involving leverage and balance.” She simply caused force applied against her to deflect, or glance off, and so become a useless effort (Nickell 1991, 34–40).

Among several imitators of Hurst, “One of the cleverest of these,” wrote magician Harry Houdini (1920, 228), used the stage name Annie Abbott. Her posters even billed her as “The Little Georgia Magnet.” She was a brief sensation in London, where she took her act in 1891, but—exposed by what Houdini (1920, 229) called “a keen-witted reporter”—she also soon faded from view. Her real name was Dixie Annie (Jarrett) Haygood, and she is buried in the Memory Hill Cemetery in Milledge­ville, Georgia, where I visited many years ago (see Figure 1).

Overpowering a Master

Master Ahn seemed to use principles similar to those of Hurst and Abbott. I flew to New York on June 26, 2009, to shoot a demo for a possible TV series,1 and I observed him closely. He remained firmly in place while others—singly or together—attempted to push him backward. Having others play by his rules ensured his success as he applied the principles of low center of gravity (his small stature and effective stance) and force deflection.2 He employed his forearm much as Lulu Hurst used a stick, having opponents place their hands there so he could use it as a lever, pivoting from the elbow.

I was the only one to displace him. I did so by subverting his method: I quickly crouched low, grabbed him bodily, and moved him—sputtering and protesting—straight back. He strongly objected, saying I was manipulating him. And so I was, refusing to play his game, which had nothing at all to do with chi and everything to do with physical principles.

Of course it was rude to have behaved so, but it was not the same as grabbing something from a magician’s hands. The latter is an honest deceiver, whereas—intentionally or otherwise—the martial artist who attributes such feats to anything other than physical principles is misleading the public.

To smooth things over, I pretended to have misunderstood what was expected and invited him to try again, allowing him to succeed. He not only resisted my push but actually repelled me, as I compliantly played by his rules and let him easily deflect my applied force.



Notes

  1. I never learned what happened to our videotape of this event, since I was drawn away to another film project. A producer did say he was very happy with my efforts (Gaines 2009).
  2. Dongkuk “Don” Ahn (1937–2013) was also a prominent artist residing in New York City. Born in Seoul, South Korea, he painted in acrylic on canvas using fluid brushstrokes reminiscent of Eastern calligraphy (“Don Ahn” 2014).

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.