Qi Jiguang’s Influence on Asian Martial Arts

By William A.

Ming General Qi Jiguang
Portrait of Ming General Qi Jiguang

General Qi Jiguang (1528 – 1588) was born in a hereditary military family in 1528 at Dengzhou, Shandong province. Qi received education in both the Classics and military skills from a tender age and assumed his father’s rank in 1544. He took the military examinations receiving the Juren degree in 1549, but was unsuccessful in the higher examinations in Beijing. While in the capital Qi participated in the defense of the city when the Mongols were able to break through the Great Wall in the summer of 1550 under the leadership of prince Altan Khan (1507 – 1582) who sought a tribute trade with the Chinese (Goodrich & Chaoying, 1976).

The Japanese (wokou) raids along Zhejiang’s coast intensified and in 1556 Qi received the post of  assistant commander in charge of defending areas around the Qiantang River, Ningbo, Shaoxing and Taizhou. It is during these pacifications campaigns Qi developed the tactics used to successfully train a force of 3,000 volunteers able to defeat the fearsome Japanese and their allies. Even though Qi researched the tactics and skills of his enemy, he developed a novel approach where the Chinese army could negate the pirates skills in hand to hand combat using their Katanas and bows. The troops trained by Qi were feared by the Japanese both during the China campaigns as well as the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592 – 1598) where the Southern Chinese troops were considered the best at fighting the Japanese and in very high demand during the conflict (Swope, 2005).

Qi compiled his military knowledge in two books namely the Book of Effective Discipline (Ji Xiao Xinshu) published between 1560 to 1561 and the Record of Military Training (Lianbing Shiji). Only the former included skills in the use of close combat weapons and empty hand fighting. These books were written to be used as practice manuals to aid in the peasant soldier’s training encompassing both physical and psychological aspects of combat (Huang, 1981). This material was reproduced in other military treatises and encyclopedia’s in China, Korea and Japan during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Recently some questions were brought forth by the excellent Chinese Longsword blog (a site dedicated to the study, translation and publication of old Chinese martial arts manuals) on whether the Japanese learnt the skills that appeared in Qi`s work as they appeared in the manual attributed to Yamamoto Kansuke who died in 1561 and if the staff techniques in Cheng Zongyou’s manual came from the Japanese. We will examine these queries based on the sources available to us at this time.

Left posture (fingering the elbow), right posture (throwing stance). Left page from Book of Effective Discipline. Right page from The Secret of High Strategy

The Secret of High Strategy (Heiho Hidensho)

Japanese civil wars broke out in what is called the Sengoku Jidai, “Age of Warring States shortly after the assassination of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshinori. During this period the Takeda Clan rose to power and within the rank of men who fought alongside the Takeda camp was Yamamoto Kansuke (1493 – 1561) who served as chief strategist. Ten years after Kansuke`s death Kosaka Danjo started the compilation of Kansuke`s writings but was unable to complete the work before his death. Forty years later Obata Kagenori published this material between 1616 to 1623 as the Koyogunkan. In 1701 the Heiho Hidensho was extracted from the Koyogunkan and followed by a 1804 version (Obata, 2000). There at least two English translations of the Heiho Hidensho one by Toshihiro Obata, Heiho Okugisho The Secret of High Strategy, and Secrets of the Japanese Art of War: From the School of Certain Victory by Thomas Cleary. The version we used which includes the original Japanese text was the version by Obata. The fact that the Heiho Hidensho was edited decades after the original author`s death is the first sign that the Chinese material might not have been part of the initial manuscript.

Staff techniques left page from Book of Effective Discipline. Right page from The Secret of High Strategy

The Heiho Hidensho is divided into three parts Nature and Weather, Physical Environment and Army Size and Quality including illustrations. For our discussion we will concentrate on the fighting techniques illustrated, starting with as the text point out self defense in a one on one scenario and not applicable for the battlefield as the contenders wear no armor. The illustrations have been copied from Qi`s work and only four postures were included, followed by techniques against a Katana by men dressed in traditional Japanese clothing. Postures/cuts with the Katana as solo exercises and partner practice are also illustrated. The text then shows once again material from Chinese sources including staff techniques from the Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method (Shaolin Gunfa Chanzong) by Cheng Zongyou published in 1610 (Shahar, 2008). The illustration shown in the Heiho Hidensho was copied from Cheng Ziyi’s (nephew of Cheng Zongyou) manual “Military Preparations Summary” published in 1632 postdating the work by Zongyou. This detail proves that the material in the Heiho Hidensho is a reproduction of later Chinese manuals.

28-389 - Copy
Shaolin Staff Manual reproduction in the “Military Preparations Summary” by Cheng Ziyi

The following section once again presents illustration from Qi`s spear postures, continuing with staff partner practice but with the difference that in the Japanese text the staff has been drawn with a spear tip. The illustrations clearly show a difference between Japanese vs. Chinese style clothing, which is an important detail about the origin of the material being depicted. It appears to us it was the Japanese artist’s desire to credit the Chinese origin of the images.

Staff techniques left page from Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method. Right page from The Secret of High Strategy

When the Japanese invaded Korea in 1592, the Korean troops were completely overran due to a combination of poor political, logistical and military decisions which facilitated the invasion. Thanks to the brilliant command of admiral Yi Sunsin (1545-1598) who kept the Japanese busy on the high seas, militias in charge of harassing the Japanese on land and the Ming relief force were all able to reach a stale mate with the enemy. Song Yingchang (1536-1606) a Ming official in charge of the logistics for the relief force to Korea discussed with King Seonjo (1552 – 1608) ways to improve Korea`s military implementing training and drilling following Qi Jiguang`s model. King Seonjo created a Military Training Agency and ordered the distribution of Qi`s Jixiao Xinshu to be put into practice by the Korean army. The Koreans also hired surrendered Japanese swordsmen to teach their sword skills to their troops (Swope, 2005). Even though the Koreans had access to Chinese military secrets it is highly unlikely the Japanese had the same chances; if the Japanese were the originators of the material depicted in Qi’s work as hinted on the Chinese Longsword blog things might had played out differently for the Chinese-Korean alliance.

Self defense skills from the Secret of High Strategy

Other Japanese Sources

The late version of the Heiho Hidensho is not the only manual that reproduced Qi Jiguang and other Ming dynasty Chinese martial arts manuals. The Military Science Study published in 1757 included empty hand and staff postures from Chinese sources. Given that we don’t speak Japanese we can’t assess if the text that accompanies each illustration matches the  original in Qi`s work, in some cases the order of the postures seem to have been changed. The details on the illustrations are also less elaborate and unlike the Heiho Hidensho were the clothing was drawn as close to the Chinese original, the Military Science Study depicts the warriors “au naturel”.

Fingering the elbow posture depictions. From far left to the right: Book of Effective Discipline (1561), Secret of High Strategy (1701), Military Science Study (1757), Comprehensive Illustrated Manual of Martial Arts (1790)

Japanese interest on their Chinese neighbour’s knowledge and customs was compiled by encyclopaedias covering a wide range of subjects including martial arts, one of them is the Tang People Illustrated Teachings Collection published in 1718. This encyclopaedia included depictions of archery, Qi`s empty hand, spear, staff, wolf spear, shield and knife (Dao) skills. Unlike the original the postures do not include the text that accompanied Qi’s version.

Tang People Illustrated Teachings Collection (1718)


It is undeniable that military skills were exchanged during the long and conflicted relationship between China, Korea and Japan. Chinese martial arts manuals were adapted by the Koreans and Japanese with the latter decades after these skills had become less relevant on the battle field. The Chinese material included in the Heiho Hidensho was compiled years after the death of its original author and not before given that these skills were a guarded secret in a time of war.


Goodrich, L. C., & Chaoying, F. (1976). Dictionary of Ming Biography. Columbia University Press.

Huang, R. (1981). 1587 A Year of No Significance. Yale University Press.

Obata, T. (2000). Heiho Okugisho The Secret of High Strategy. W. M. Hawley.

Shahar, M. (2008). The Shaolin Monastery History Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawaii Press.

Swope, K. (2005). A Dragon’s Head and A Serpent’s Tail. Oklahoma Press.

Wyle, Douglas (1999) T’ai Chi’s Ancestors, The Making of a Martial Art.

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