What is Dim Mak 點脈 ?


Dim Mak 點 脈 is often translated in French by points vitaux (which we can translate as vital points) and in English by death touch or death point striking. I have always seen in it a semantic contradiction ; on one side of the vital points “of life” and on the other side the points “of death”. However, the translation of Dim Mak by death touch is very widespread in the world of martial arts, as well as in popular culture, and nowadays no one seems to wonder about the precise meaning of Dim Mak. Nevertheless, there is a gross translation error that has been perpetuated in the West for several decades.

 

Dim Mak were certainly popularized in post-war Hong Kong cinema martial arts movies. More recently, we all remember the tribute movies to this genre of cinema by Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill (volumes 1 and 2), where the heroine, Beatrix Kiddo, uses “the five point palm exploding heart technique” to kill the famous Bill. This technique is largely inspired by the Shaw Brother films, featuring the character Pai Mei 白眉 (or Pak Mei) in the movies Executionners of Shaolin (1979) and Clan of the White Lotus (1980).

I also remember a film that I had particularly enjoyed, The Kiss of the Dragon, by Chris Nahon in 2001. The character played by Jet Li uses acupuncture needles on specific points of the human body, which the we can qualify as Dim Mak, to cause several effects such as paralysis, falling asleep … and death :

“I put a needle in your neck. […] In a certain point. Very forbidden. It’s called the Kiss of the Dragon. […] The blood from your whole body goes to your head… it stops there… never comes down. But soon, it will come out from your nose, your ears, and even from your eyes… and then… you will die… painfully…” Liu Siu Jian (Jet Li)

Death touch are also found very often in shonen manga. One of the most emblematic is certainly the manga of the 1980s, Hokuto no Ken, where the hero, Kenshiro, specialist in martial arts and Dim Mak, survives in a post-apocalyptic universe in the punk rock atmosphere.

Click on the picture to watch the vidéo.

 

On the other hand, Dim Mak caused a lot of ink to flow during the disappearance of Bruce Lee in 1973 in Hong Kong. More or less absurd rumors have called into question Bruce Lee’s official death due to brain edema caused by an allergy to a pain reliever. According to these rumors, Bruce Lee was assassinated by the mafia or martial arts practitioners using a secret Dim Mak technique. For example, it has been mentioned that a Malaysian martial arts expert allegedly gave Bruce Lee a technique called “vibrating or quivering palm technique” which caused his death. [1]

 

Dim Mak are often imbued with esotericism and mysticism and are sometimes a fantasy in martial arts.

Ultimately, what does Dim Mak mean, what is it and where does it come from ?

 

Definition et history of Dim Mak 點脈

Dim 點 means point/press.

Mak 脈 means blood vessel. However Yang Jwing Ming considers that Mak (Mai in Mandarin) 脈 can designate the blood vessels, Xue Mai 血脈, but also the energy channels, Qi Mai 氣脈 [2].

Nervertheless, the character Mak or Mai 脈 being associated mainly with blood, we can translate Dim Mak 點脈 literally by pressing the blood vessels. Dim Mak is a Cantonese term, it is pronounced Dian Mai in Mandarin. An alternate term often used is Dian Xue 点穴 (in Mandarin) meaning pressing the cavities. 点 being the modern and simplified character for 點, cavity. Note that Dian Xue is a term also used to designate the practice of digitopuncture

What is it exactly ? According to the translation given, pressing the blood vessels, we could consider that these are techniques aimed at stopping or cutting the blood circulation with pressure points or strikes at specific part of the body, for example in the upper part of the neck to reach the carotid artery. However, these techniques are defined by Yang Jwing Ming under the term Duan Mai 斷脈 [2].

Ultimately, the Dim Mak 點脈 (or Dian Mai), or Dian Xue 点穴, consists of pressing or hitting the energy points of the human body, better known as acupuncture points [2] [3]. Gabrielle and Roland Habersetzer indicate in the Nouvelle Encyclopédie des Arts Martiaux d’Extrême-Orient [4], that it is about striking or pressing on vital points of the human body. These specific points are weak points in the human structure and are located along the meridians, Jing Luo 經絡, and their extreme ramifications. This knowledge is based on the theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine in an opposing approach for martial arts experts in search of increased efficiency.

Woodblock printing representing the main acupuncture points of the human body. Source : Engelbert Kaempfer, 1729. BNF Gallica

The internal martial arts of Wudang mention early the use of Dim Mak techniques in their practice. Zhang Sanfeng 張三丰 is said to have initiated the introduction of Dim Mak’s techniques into the internal arts, especially Taiji [5] [6]. Subsequently, Zhang Sanfeng’s heirs would have perpetuated this martial practice [7]. The mention of Dim Mak, or rather Dian Xue, appeared as early as the 17th century in a writing by Huang Baijia 黃百家, practitioner of martial arts from Wudang, direct student of Wang Zhenggnan 王征南.

“There are many acupoint targets, such as : points which cause death (Si Xue 死穴), muteness (Ya Xue 啞穴), fainting (Hun Xue 暈穴) and coughing (Hai Xue 咳穴)” Huang Baijia
[8]

Gabrielle and Roland Habersetzer also argue that the Taoist monks were the first to research this area. First with Zhang Sanfeng then other monks like Feng Yiquan who referenced 36 vulnerable points of the human body of which 9 cause pain, 9 paralysis, 9 syncope and 9 death. Feng Yiquan also added knowledge of the rhythms of the circulation of internal energy in the body [4] [9]. In this paradigm specific to Traditional Chinese Medicine, certain points of the human body are more sensitive and vulnerable at certain times of the day. For example, if one would strike a severe simultaneous trauma to the area above the nipple located on the third intercostal space, which corresponds to point 16 of the meridian of the stomach (also called Ying Chuang 膺 窗, the window of the chest), and this precisely between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., this would cause the death of the victim in less than a week [10] …not easy to calculate in an emergency situation with our biannual schedule changes ! Another example, the top of the skull (point 22 or 24 of the governing vessel meridian) would be more effective if it is hit in the morning [4] [9] … however beware of blows to the head at the end of the evening, they are just as dangerous !

The 36 original vital points. Source : The Bible of Karate Bubishi, p116, Patrick McCarthy.

The use of “death touch” is very common in Asian Martial Arts. They are found in many countries, so it is difficult to know if there is the same origin to this practice. However, it seems obvious that any practice focused on war, whatever it may be, aims to determine the strengths and weaknesses of its adversary. We did not wait for Sun Tzu or Vegetius to understand that it was necessary to attack the weak points of the enemy to defeat him.

When I was practicing traditional Japanese ju-jutsu, Hakko-ryu 八光流, I used to practice, or rather undergo, Gakun 雅 勲. This technique consists of exerting pressure on the opponent’s wrists along the meridians, with the head of the second metacarpal (the one which is upstream of the phalanges of the index finger) on an acupoint of the wrist after performing an input. It is not a wristlock, however, even if there may be a double technique : wristlock plus Gakun, for example during a matsuba dori 松葉捕. For having suffered them, I remember that the Gakun exercising on the meridian of the heart or the lung were particularly painful. Concretely, the Gakun are techniques of pressure on the points of energy, or acupoints, of the human body, however the term “death touch” was never used to designate this method. We find in some techniques of Qinna 擒拿 practices comparable to Gakun, where pressure points are mainly performed with the thumb [11].

In Japanese martial arts, when we want to talk about “death touch” we rather use the term Kyusho 急所, or Sappo 殺法, they are used in Karate. Gichin Funakoshi clarified that all the vulnerable points of the human body, the Kyusho, used in Karate are not exactly the same points used in traditional medicine. For example, a sting in the eyes or a blow to the base of the chin are not points used in traditional medicine [12].

“A death touch is only a point where a blow is relatively effective.” Gichin Funakoshi [12]

Another example, “death touch” are referred to in India by the term Marma. These are points similar to acupoints. According to the Marma theory, there are 107 points in the human body that are vulnerable and cause effects ranging from simple pain to death [13]. Marma strikes or pressure techniques are used in Indian Martial Arts like Kalaripayat and Mallayuddha, the traditional Indian wrestling.

To return specifically to the Cantonese term Dim Mak, de facto associated with the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, Patrick McCarthy argues that under the Qing, Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲 and his son Huang Baijia, both students of Wang Zhenggnan 王征南 heir to the arts of Wudang, would have transmitted their knowledge of Dian Xue to the legendary Southern Shaolin Monastery. From there, this knowledge would have spread in the Southern Chinese Martial Arts [14].

Yet the southern arts seem to have a different take on Dim Mak‘s interpretation, at least in our time. For example, in his book devoted to Choy Li Fut 蔡李佛, Master Lee Koon Hung evokes attacks on vital points and precisely enumerates 12 vulnerable targets of the human body : temple, between eyes, eyes, between upper lip and nose, jaw, below ear, throat, either side of neck, sternum, solar plexus, ribs and groin [15]. Even if Lee Koon Hung speaks of vital points, he does not specify that they are energy points, acupoints, but rather areas of strikes that are found in modern self-defense techniques. We find this same very pragmatic approach in Wing Chun or even in Hung Gar. I will have the opportunity to delve deeper into the subject in the section below.

 

Dim Mak and self-defense

The experience of street fights, the so-called “real” confrontations in our modern societies, have led practitioners of self-defense systems to ask themselves the right questions about strategies, principles of combat and the techniques to adopt to deal with a real situation. Identifying the weaknesses of the human body and defining the main targets are part of the essential knowledge of a realistic and pragmatic approach to situations of aggression.

During such an event, both the victim and the perpetrator experience an adrenaline rush due to the fear, stress, and excitement that this situation generates. Adrenaline is a hormonal substance, once released into the blood, it produces effects throughout the body such as : slowing or stopping digestion, increased heart rate and breathing, dilation of the pupils, increased tone and blood muscle strength … and, among other things, reduction or inhibition of pain. The goal is to allow the body to have enough energy to face an extreme situation and to choose one of two instinctive responses : fight or flight. [16]

Regarding the purpose of this post, what interests us here is the reduction or inhibition of pain. Add to this that under the influence of drugs, alcohol or mental illness, some aggressors may be completely immune to pain [17]. If we start from this postulate, the aggressor feels little or no pain, that requires an attack strategy ; then it is necessary to target the vulnerable points of the human body, to force the aggressor mechanically to stop his aggression and prevent him from fighting physically.

 

Rory Miller has defined four physical effects that can be caused to the opponent during a fight : movement, pain, damage or shock. Depending on the desired objective, one must choose a particular technique.

Note that according to the diagram below, the pressure points, which we saw above with the techniques of Gakun or Qinna, are not considered as Dim Mak according to the given definition. Indeed, their main effect is concentrated on pain.

Goal vs. Technique. Source : Meditations on Violence (p143) by Rory Miller

“In self-defense, pain is always an extra, never the primary goal of a technique.” Rory Miller [17]

In a realistic approach to a physically engaged aggression situation, then it is necessary to use techniques causing damage or shock to the aggressor, in order to end the confrontation as fast as possible. The damage destroys the structural integrity to the point that all or part of the body is not useable, for example a joint. The shock shuts down certain systems in the human body, usually by altering the circulatory or nervous system, so severely that the organism ceases to function, such as a blow to the liver. It doesn’t necessarily mean death or even unconsciousness. [17]

Since modern man became interested in self-defense, the vulnerable points of the human body are well known and those are still the same used today. These vulnerable points, which one could qualify as contemporary Dim Mak or self-defense Dim Mak, are born from experience, common sense and a minimum of anatomical knowledge. In 1929, Émile André already mentioned some effective targets to hit in order to “defend oneself in the street”. He spoke of a toe kick in the groin, punching the face, jaw, tip of the chin, neck, carotid artery, and punching the body in the region of the stomach [18]. A few decades later, Bruce Lee recalled quite similar targets in a context of self-defense. He insisted on two main targets which are the eyes and the groin, among others (see drawing below) [19].

Is it necessary to recall here that these two targets are excluded from all sports competitions ? Self-defense and combat sports are two different worlds, although there are often similarities.

Drawing by Bruce Lee. Main target on the human body. Source : Jeet Kune Do, commentaire sur la voie martiale [20]

“Fighting is not just hitting but aiming at the weak spots of your foe.” Bruce Lee [21]

All modern self-defense systems, and the martial arts closely related to this concept, highlight vulnerable points in the human body. Recently in French literature, self-defense experts have come up with something quite similar. There are essential and pragmatic targets that alter three physical characteristics of the opponent, namely : vision, breathing and mobility [22]. If one of these three characteristics is altered, the aggressor is put out of action for at least a few minutes.

The “modern” view of the vulnerable points of the human body.

Briefly, let’s go over the different targets in the diagram above, with the effects of a sufficiently powerful strike [23] :

  • Eyes : no need for powerful strikes here, eyes are very sensitive organs, a simple dust in the eye is already very annoying, a sting-type attack, apart from the pain, handicaps vision for a longer or shorter time . In addition, a severe blow to the eye causes compression of the optic nerve causing disorientation with vomiting and even unconsciousness.
  • Throat : A throat hit affects breathing by compressing the thyroid cartilage and crushing the larynx. It also affects the sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCOM) which is the passage of the vagus nerve, which can also lead to vagal discomfort. In Wing Chun, some advanced techniques such as Shat Geng Sau 殺頸手, literally throat cutting hand, are specifically dedicated to this vulnerable point.
  • Plexus : formerly solar, now celiac, is a nerve plexus which participates in the innervation of several organs as well as of the diaphragm. When you strike the plexus area, most of the time it is the diaphragm that is affected, the muscle responsible for inspiration. On impact, the diaphragm contracts causingbreathing distress.
  • Liver : it is the largest organ in the abdomen and the most exposed. Like any organ, it is very innervated therefore very painful on impact. During a shock, the liver compresses causing a nervous reaction of the liver and the gall bladder which also stimulates the autonomic nervous system and the vagus nerve, causing a succession independent of the control of the will ; among other things, the dilation of blood vessels throughout the body except those of the brain (autonomic nervous system) and reduced heart rate (vagus nerve). These effects result in a sudden drop in blood pressure. To restore blood pressure and blood flow to the brain, the body naturally positions itself horizontally. [24]
  • Groin : in particular the testicles, are sensitive organs because they are very innervated and unprotected. The impact causes intense and radiating pain down to the lower abdomen. As with the liver, other nervous chain reactions follow, especially on the vagus nerve, which can lead to nausea, sweating, headaches and unconsciousness.
  • Ankles and knees : a strike in these areas causes dislocation of the joint and mechanical instability which seriously affects mobility.

 

These few targets identified are the vulnerable points presented as being the most essential. Indeed, if vision, breathing or mobility are affected, the aggressor can no longer fight. We could add other targets, such as the chin, the jaw, the back of the occiput, the base of the skull or the back of the neck which have the particularity of causing what is called in boxing, and other combat sports, the brain knockout. A blow struck in one of these areas results in a shock wave, vibrations that will disrupt the functioning of the brain and cause unconsciousness.

 

Conclusion

According to the supposed origins, Dim Mak 點 脈, or rather Dian Xue 点穴, are techniques that would have been developed by Zhang Sanfeng 张三丰, the patriarch of martial arts of Wudang, as early as the Song dynasty (960-1279 ). These techniques consist in hitting or squeezing the energy points of the human body, more commonly called acupuncture points, and not all vocations to be fatal. Dim Mak or Dian Xue are often wrongly translated in the West by vital points or death touch, we can cite as an example one of the first book on this subject Dim Mak : Death Point Striking by Erle Montaigue. Translating Dim Mak or Dian Xue by death touch is clearly a misnomer. When we speak of death points in Chinese, literally, we use the term Si Xue 死穴 (in Mandarin).

Dim Mak have been put forward in pop culture, so there is still today a lot of mysticism around these specific points for an audience unfamiliar with martial arts. I remember a person I had met in ju-jutsu class about fifteen years ago, and who was interested in learning pressure point techniques with delayed effects to defend himself in self-defense. I had to answer him something like : “It’s useless to hit such a point in a self-defense situation. If you have an attacker in front of you, better to hit a vulnerable point than he puts it out of action as fast as possible. Delayed techniques don’t make sense in self-defense.”

Indeed, the pragmatism of modern self-defense systems, and some martial arts interested by this notion such as Wing Chun that I practice, tend to highlight vulnerable parts of the human body, more through knowledge anatomical science than by an energy concept specific to the theory of traditional oriental medicines. The two are not necessarily distinct and incompatible, some would say, in a way, I agree with them.

Finally, from the point of view of Taoist philosophy and its yin-yang concept, if we consider Dim Mak attack techniques as yang, then we can consider certain defense techniques as yin, I am thinking of the Iron Shirt, Tit Saam 鐵衫 (in Cantonese) or even on the Cover of the Golden Bell, Jin Zhong Zhao 金鐘罩 (in Mandarin), but this is another story…


Source

[1] Bruce Lee : The Curse of the Dragon, de WEINTRAUB Fred and KHUN Tom, Warner Brothers, 1993 and Bruce Lee : Fighting Spirit, p224, THOMAS Bruce, Blue Snake Books, 1994

[2] Comprehensive Applications of Shaolin Chin Na, p10-12, YANG Jwing Ming, ed. YMAA, 1996

[3] Advanced Dim Mak, p11, Douglas H. Y. Hsieh, Meadea Enterprise Co, Inc. 1995

[4] Nouvelle Encyclopédie des Arts Martiaux d’Extrême-Orient – Technique, historique, biographique et culturelle, p139-143, HABERSETZER Gabrielle and Roland,  ed. AMPHORA, 2012

[5] Discussing Distinctions between The Internal and External schools of Martials Arts 論拳術內家外家之別, SUN Lutang 孫祿堂, 1929. Source : brennantranslation.wordpress.com

[6] The Bible of Karate Bubishi, p108, MCCARTHY Patrick, Tuttle Publishing, 1995

[7] Taiji Boxing 太極拳, LI Xianwu 李先五, 1933. Source : brennantranslation.wordpress.com

[8] Biography of Wang Zhengnan 王征南先生傳, de Huang Baijia 黃百家, 1676. Source : brennantranslation.wordpress.com

[9] The Bible of Karate Bubishi, p109-110, MCCARTHY Patrick, Tuttle Publishing, 1995

[10] The Bible of Karate Bubishi, p145, MCCARTHY Patrick, Tuttle Publishing, 1995

[11] Comprehensive Applications of Shaolin Chin Na, p10-12 and p26-27, YANG Jwing Ming, ed. YMAA, 1996

[12] Karate-Do Kyohan, The Master Text, p239, FUNAKOSHI Gichin, Kodansha International, 1973

[13] Marma Science and Principles of Marma Therapy, p22, Dr Sunil Kuma Joshi, Vani Publications Delhi, 2010

[14] The Bible of Karate Bubishi, p111, MCCARTHY Patrick, Tuttle Publishing, 1995

[15] Choy Lay Fut Kung Fu The Dynamic Art of Fighting, p50, LEE Koon-Hung, ed. Lee Koon Hung Publishing Compagny, 1983

[16] Neurocombat Livre 1, Psychologie de la violence de rue et du combat rapproché, p24, JACQUEMART Christophe, Fusion Froide, 2012 et https://www.hormone.org/

[17] Meditations on Violence, A Comparaison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence, p139-143, MILLER Rory, YMAA Publication Center, 2008

[18] L’Art de se défendre dans la rue avec armes ou sans armes, p36, p48, p50 and p55, ANDRE Emile, Ernest Flammarion, 1929

[19] Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method, Skill in Techniques, p100-103, LEE Bruce, OHARA Publications, 1977

[20] Jeet Kune Do, commentaire sur la voie martiale, 1 – Principes et stratégies, p86, LEE Bruce, Guy Trédaniel éditeur, 1998

[21] Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method, Skill in Techniques, p99, LEE Bruce, OHARA Publications, 1977

[22] Protegor – Guide pratique de sécurité personnelle, self-défense et survie urbaine, p179, MOREL Guillaume and BOUAMMACHE Frédéric, AMPHORA, 2017 and Riposter – Abrégé de self-défense, développez votre efficacité en cas d’agression, p67, ILLOUZ Michael, AMPHORA, 2017

[23] Riposter – Abrégé de self-défense, développez votre efficacité en cas d’agression, p67-76, ILLOUZ Michael, AMPHORA, 2017

[24] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVZbEE0nx70&t=22s&ab_channel=Kenhub-LearnHumanAnatomy


 

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