Yijinjing: the original workout

Image of The Muscle & Tendon change classic (Yijinjin 易筋經) painted by Grandmaster Tu Jin-Sheng
The Muscle & Tendon change classic (Yijinjin 易筋經) painted by Grandmaster Tu Jin-Sheng

According to legend, the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism a direct inheritor of Buddha, traveled from India to China sometime between 420 – 527 CE. Called Bodhidharma or in China Tamo (達 摩). Thought to be the third son of an Indian king, the bearded, bug-eyed monk was determined to elevate the nature of enlightenment beyond his borders. Crossing distant mountains and seas, he wandered China sometime in the 5th Century.  Arriving at an unknown monastery hidden by the small forest after which it was named, Tamo found himself at Shaolin Temple. Once there, it is said that he found the state of the resident monks and their practice to be a disappointment. To weak to endure the hardships he had grown accustomed to these monks presented a problem and an opportunity. Finding a solution would require nine years of silent meditation, alone, in a cave at the Wuru Peak of the Song Mountain. 

It was after this prolonged meditation, Bodhidharma founded the Zen school of Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu. He sought to strengthen the bodies of Shaolin monks through kung fu so that they could endure the rigors of prolonged meditation. Some legends say he left several treatises on kung fu while other myths reduce this legacy to one. In either case the Muscle Tendon Change Classic (yijinjing 易筋經) was always among them. While there’s ample evidence of formal combat training that predates Bodhidharma, his work still symbolizes the initial conception of martial arts. It is this fusion of a spiritual practice with combat techniques that marks the point where a martial art was born from a set of mundane fight skills.

Today, scholars would say none of this happened. The earliest documents date to the early 17th century and are riddled with anachronisms, going so far as to include fictionalized characters. Among them is Wuxia progenitor Du Guangting’s (杜光庭 850–933) Bushy Bearded Hero (Qiuran ke 虬髯客) of the Tang dynasty. A character created some 400 years after Tamo was said to have lived but possessing a similar description. 

Predating them both as a possible author of the Yijinjing could be the Purple Staring Man of the Way ( Zi Ning Daoren 紫凝道人). While the term ‘Man of the Way’ (daoren) can be applied to both Taoist priest and Buddhist monk, one might interpret a purple staring man as describing Bodhidharma’s darker skin and legendary gaze. Tamo has also been credited with developing such Taoist qigong methods as the daoyin (導引). With those roots left shrouded by the mists of time, this iconic relationship between Tamo and the Yijinjing bridges a metaphorical linage that spans from India to Japan; with connective tissue linking Yoga to Kung Fu, Qigong and Zen Meditation.

More intense than what people consider a Qigong (氣功) breathing exercise, The Yijinjing is comprised of a varying number of postures which demand the development of strength, flexibility and stamina to successfully move from one to the next. The number of postures vary from 10 to 24, to 30 with numerological considerations for the 18 Arhats (buddhist saints) and the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. In some tales Tamo observed twelve animals on his way down the mountain from his cave and that was what also inspired his “12 fists.” The animal forms which comprise the work-out routines for such martial arts as Hung Gar Kuen, Choy Lay Fut and Shaolin Kung Fu.

Today the modern set of twelve postures is as follows-

  1. Ready Position (預備式)
  2. Wei Tuo Presenting the Pestle (韋馱獻杵第一式)
  3. Plucking Stars on Each Side (摘星換斗)
  4. Pulling Nine Cows by Their Tails (倒拽九牛尾)
  5. Showing Talons and Spreading Wings (出爪亮翅)
  6. Nine Ghosts Drawing Sabers (九鬼拔馬刀)
  7. Sinking the Three Bodily Zones (三盤落地)
  8. Black Dragon Displaying Its Claws (青龍探爪)
  9. Tiger Springing on Its Prey (臥虎捕食)
  10. Bowing Down in Salutation (打躬勢)
  11. Swinging the Tail (掉尾勢)
  12. Closing Position (收式)

Author’s Note

The Yijinjin was featured in the second and forth chapters of the Tiger’s Tale comic strip; originally published in the May 1996 & July 1996 issues of Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine.

Shaolin Temple as seen in A Tiger’s Tale.

The significance of the yijinjing‘s origin now plays a larger role with-in the A Tiger’s Tale graphic novel, as completed in 2019. Now, with the traditionally painting contributed to this project by Grandmaster Tu Jin-Sheng (shown above) as both a new source of inspiration and the premier piece for a Tiger’s Tale gallery, I’ve decided to expand that section of the story. Below you can see a glimpse of the work in progress.

Yijinjing: A Tiger’s Tale 2022

Special Announcement

Working in collaboration with Grandmaster Tu we’ve printed a limited run of postcards using the Yijinjing artwork above. A deluxe print is also in the works. Both will be made available to subscribers first (who’ve already had a glimpse of Master Tu’s other work), then they will be offered to our general audience on the new year; Chinese New Year. Subscribe below, it’s free.

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