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Delayed Death Touch: Instructions to the Coroner of China Reveal Knowledge of Vital Points

By Rick Clark

Among the joys of researching a topic in depth are the little gems of knowledge you often uncover. Several years back I came upon a reference to a manuscript that was translated by Herbert Giles. One of the reasons this caught my eye was his name, Herbert Giles. He was one of the men responsible for developing the Romanization of Chinese (one of the two most used methods of translating Chinese pronunciation to Western spelling known as Wade-Giles).

Then there was the title, “Instructions to the Coroner” or “Records of the Washing Away of Unjust Imputations”. With a Masters degree in Criminology I began to wonder what type of forensic information might be discussed in an old Chinese manuscript. The “His Yuan Lu” dates from the reign of Shun Yu (1241 – 1253) and was written by Sung Tzhu. Giles first came across this work while stationed at Ningpo in 1873 and subsequently translated this text. It was then published in the “China Review” in 1874 and later republished in the “Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine” in 1924.

Once I acquired a copy of the translation I quickly scanned the text, and to my pleasure there were two charts showing vital points! Now here indeed was something to look at. A text that dated from the mid 1200’s, translated into English in 1874 that clearly addressed vital points. This may be the earliest text in the English language that mentions vital points. Consider the fact that the “His Yuan Lu” made available to us information on vital points forty eight years prior to the introduction of Karate into Japan by Gichin Funakoshi in 1922. Also, remember there are a number of books published in the early 1900’s that clearly discuss and demonstrate the use of vital point techniques.

With this in mind, the contents of this work become immediately provocative. The information given on vital points was limited, but clearly presented. There are two charts which show vital points on the front and back of the body. According to the text there are sixteen vital points on the front of the body (twenty two if you count them as bi-lateral) and six vital points on the back (twelve if counted as bi-lateral) for a total of thirty two vital points on the human body.

In addition there are thirty six non-vital spots listed on the front of the body and an additional twenty listed on the back. Although this was an early work, there are records of earlier books that have been lost describing the injuries that could be caused on another person by a trained fighter.

They are: “I Yu Chi” (Records of Doubtful Criminal cases) written in the 10th century by Ho Ning and Ho Meng, and the “Ming Yuan Shih Lu” (True Records of the Clarification of Wrongs) by Hsu Chih Tshai in the 6th century. Considering that the Shaolin monastery (to which many forms of Chinese martial arts trace their lineage) goes back to the 5th century, one could make a very tenuous assumption that Ho Ning, Ho Meng, and Hsu Chih Tshai could have had knowledge of the damage that trained individuals could inflict on one another without the use of weapons.

“His Yuan Lu” recognized two classes of vital points: those that could be fatal on impact and those that could cause death at a later date.”

In China there were two main sources of knowledge (or tradition) in the martial arts. The Shaolin temple is the one most people immediately associate with the fighting arts of China due to the television series “Kung-Fu”. However, there was another temple, Wudang, which followed the Taoist tradition. This temple has gained fame with the general public from the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.

Because of its age the “His Yuan Lu” may be one of the oldest books on forensic medicine ever written. This book was carried by the high territorial official who had the duty to act as coroner whenever they had to investigate a death. It is interesting to note that inquests were also held on the living if a person sustained a dangerous wound. This was done to establish a “death limit”. According to the “His Yuan Lu,” the wounded man in a brawl would be handed over to the accused to be nursed back to health. If the victim died as a result of the injuries suffered in the fight, the aggressor would be subject to a death penalty.

The author of the “His Yuan Lu” recognized two classes of vital points: those that could be fatal on impact and those that could cause death at a later date. The text notes that if a mortal wound is given to the top of the head, behind the ear, the throat, or the pit of the stomach death can take place quickly. Or, death can result in three days if a vital point located at the back of the head, the forehead, or the chest is struck. Then there are also “ordinary” vital points, which if struck can result in death within as long as 10 days.

From a practical point of view the vital points that result in immediate death would have been of the most interest to the warriors of those days, and even to the current day martial artist. In practical terms of self-defense, you would want to have an immediate reaction from strikes to vital points, rather than delayed effects. However, there may be some advantage to striking a person and having him die ten days hence: it might allow an individual to escape notice as being the perpetrator of a fatality.

It is interesting to read that fatal wounds resulted from blows delivered by the hands to the upper part of the body, the back, chest, and upper ribs and rarely on the lower ribs. Kicks would have been delivered to the pit of the stomach and the ribs. The author of “His Yuan Lu” believed that certain blows to the head, face, chest, breast, etc. could have mortal consequences. The author noted that if a blow resulted in the death of an individual at a later date, Coroners should look for somewhat larger bruising and inflammation. If the blow resulted in immediate death, then there would be deeper and more severe bruising.

This may be where some of the lore on the delayed death touch could have first surfaced. From a purely western point of view it is possible to understand how death could occur at a time later than the original altercation. For example, if you rupture the spleen or liver, you would not be able to survive unless you were taken to the hospital and surgery performed. At the very least severe infection might occur that could cause death. So it seems that the Coroners of China were well aware of the use of vital points and how they could result in the death of an individual either at the time of the assault or at a later date.

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About The Author:

Rick Clark specializes in the study of vital point applications within traditional martial art techniques and teaches vital points seminars throughout the world. He has published numerous articles and books on the subject and has just published "Pressure Point Fighting: A guide To The Secret Heart Of Asian Martial Arts," published by Tuttle. He can be contacted at 3099 E. Dallas Rd., Terre Haute IN, 47802, or via e-mail at and his website is Rick has been a frequent contributor to

Rick Clark's Book "Pressure Point Fighting"
is available from the FightiingArts Estore.


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Pressure Point Fighting
A Guide To The Secret Heart Of Asian Martial Arts
By Rick Clark

This is a straight forward, basic, use-what –works approach to pressure points and use of kata applications in fighting and self-defense. Clark doesn’t overwhelm you with theory of Chinese qi, meridians or western neurology. He just demonstrates technique and where to hit, body position and grappling skills – things that make the kata you have been practicing come alive and that provides the missing ingredients in so many people’s training. In the forward, Jane Hallander writes, “In my fifteen years as a martial arts journalist, I have seldom seen a martial artist with the ability and knowledge of Rick Clark, a person who not only knows several martial arts from all angles, but who can write about them in a manner anyone can easily understand.” You might also recognize Clark’s name from several of his articles on this site.



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Dim Mak, delayed death touch, pressure points, vital points

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