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Bruce Lee’s Iron Palm & Iron Finger’s connections Pt. 1/2

August 13 2016 at 11:43 AM
LJF  (Login LJF)

Iron Palm Kung Fu
Iron Palm or Iron hand Kung Fu is one of the 72 arts of the Shaolin temple. As the name implies, it is practiced using the iron shots and belongs to the category of external style or so-called “hard chi-kung.” Besides Shaolin (aka Sil Lum) Iron Palm, there are several other styles of Iron Palm Kung Fu like Ku’s style (Grandmaster Ku Yu-Cheung), Five Sea’s style and Wu Dang’s style.

The Iron Palm (aka Iron Sand Palm) is done with a simultaneous coordination of a physical hand strike coupled with the use and intent of the mind (Yi). There are 5 traditional hand strikes in Iron Palm: 1) The whole cupped hand 2) The finger tips 3) The knife edge 4) The bottom edge of the palm 5) The rear of the hand. Iron Palm can be used in a variety of open or close hand strikes. Practitioner often demonstrate his abilities by breaking hard objects like thick boards, bricks, coconuts, stones and even steel objects with his bare hands rapidly without sustaining injury. Highly skilled Iron Palm practitioner could deliver very powerful blows causing serious injury to his opponent. Hence, unless necessary, practitioners will refrain from using this devastating hand technique.

Did Bruce learn Iron Palm?
As seen from see from some of his Iron Palm training photos and according to Bruce himself, he did learn Iron Palm Kung Fu from James Y. Lee (circa 1962) personally and also self-learnt from his own Iron Palm manual (by Master Yuen Chor-Choy). Moreover, Iron Palm training methods can also be found in Praying Mantis and many other southern styles Kung Fu training as well. Bruce who had trained in Praying Mantis should have been introduced to Iron Palm way before James Y. Lee taught him this skill. In one of the Bruce’s handwritten notes on Iron Palm, he wrote there are 3 types of strikes, i.e. “1) Stamping palm which generates the “kin” (internal force) from the diaphragm and applies it to the wrist before striking; full concentration is required; 2) Cutting/Slicing Palm – same as above; 3) Biu Jee (finger jab) – strike with the fingers.” Bruce also illustrated his iron hands’ training and understanding in two of his own drawings. The first one depicted an iron palm striking an elastic object. Bruce wrote, “Firm yet not hard; Soft yet not yielding…the direction of flowing energy etc.” The second one depicted a man holding unto the iron bar and Bruce wrote, “Be like an iron bar and you will be lifted!!!”

Bruce wanted to increase the range of his arsenals so as to leverage his fighting ability against his opponent in street-fighting. As a keen young martial arts practitioner, he was eager to explore all kinds of martial arts. Hence, he was pleased to master this hand striking system from James Y. Lee. James himself learnt Shaolin (Sil Lum) Kung Fu from Master T. Y. Wong in San Francisco for 4 years. He later became well known for his Iron Palm specialty, and would routinely break bricks at demonstrations. James was the first to publish an Iron Palm book in America in 1957 and the book title was “Iron Poison Hand Training Book 1 (Break Brick in 100 Days).” The book cover was the photo of his top student Al Novak (1924-2011) breaking a stack of bricks. Novak was one of the first white Americans who mastered Iron Palm Kung Fu in the 50s.

James Y. Lee’s Shaolin (Sil Lum) Iron Palm
The Iron Palm Kung Fu which James Y. Lee (1920-1972) learnt belonged to Shaolin (Sil Lum) style. Shaolin Iron Palm is practiced through using of iron shots together with the application of Iron Palm liniment/ Dit Da Jow as the conditioning supplement. Through consistent training, practitioner could use his Iron Palm to break bricks, rocks and other hard objects. Eventually, the skin of the practitioner’s palm usually will get thicker, his bones become harden, and both his tendons and ligaments also get firmer.

James taught Bruce Iron Palm and provided him some bodybuilding tips (with Allen Joe’s guidance too) which Bruce picked up diligently. Bruce soon built a body with well-defined muscles and more significantly, his resilience and explosive power became increasingly greater. Consequently, this enhanced Bruce’s close range fighting ability tremendously. Talking about Iron Palm, one cannot help but to mention about the Iron Palm Grandmaster Ku Yu-Cheong whom Bruce respected a lot. He had even kept a photo and brief profile of Grandmaster Ku in his personal Kung Fu scrapbook.

Iron Palm Grandmaster – Ku Yu-Cheung (1894-1952)
Grandmaster Ku Yu-Cheung was famous for his Iron Palm Kung Fu. However, his palm was soft and different from many of the swollen palms’ Iron Palm practitioners. Grandmaster Ku’s Iron Palm was able to generate tremendous force and break hard rocks and steel easily. Many witnesses from Canton once saw Grandmaster Ku hit a stack of 14 bricks with his Iron Palm. To the astonishment of the witnesses, only the top and the bottom bricks remain undamaged while the rest of the 12 bricks in-between were all broken into pieces. The penetration power, strength of his palm and his ability to control the breaking were truly shocking and amazing.

In fact, Grandmaster Ku had already developed his Iron Palm and Iron Body (Shaolin Shield of Golden Bell Kung Fu) techniques with his Chi development. He once withstood three horse kicks using his Iron Body breathing techniques and suffered no injuries. Then, he slapped the horse on the back with his Iron Palm and killed the horse on the spot. When the horse was autopsied, it was found that all the internal organs had been ruptured. This is actually the high level of Iron Palm called the Cinnabar Palm (aka Red Sand Palm, an internal style, Soft Nai Kung), which is well-known for its penetration power through objects. It was said that, if the technique was applied by a Master, whilst no external evidence of any strike being made would be initially apparent, bright red palm marks would appear on the victim's body gradually after 3 days. Subsequently, death would ensue after approximately 10-15 days caused by damage to the internal organs. However, only very few people have mastered this deadly Soft Palm Kung Fu.

Iron Palm’s family
One of Grandmaster Ku’s top students was Master Yim Shan-Wu who later became the Sifu of Wong Jack Man in HK. Master Yim used to travel with Grandmaster Ku for martial arts performance and was his partner in the demonstration of bricking bricks. There were photos of them doing the demonstration together. This implies that the masters of Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee actually belonged to the same family as both practiced Iron Palm Kung Fu. It was also a coincidence that both of their Iron Palm masters bore the same Chinese surname, Yim/ Yimm (same characters in Chinese. Yim Shan-Wu and Yimm Keng-Hoi (James Y. Lee’s full Chinese name)). In this sense, James Lee should be considered the elder or Si-suk of Wong Jack-Man. If Wong Jack Man had known about this connection earlier, and based on the customs and rules of the Chinese pugilist world, Wong should have avoided the fight with Bruce out of respect for his Si-suk. Furthermore, if Wong knew that Bruce was also the student of Jing Mo’s Master Siu Hon-San, and therefore both belonged to the same family, i.e. Jing Mo Athlete Association (both were descendents of Great Grandmaster Fok Yuen-Kap), then, the clash between them probably might have been avoided. However, Wong who had then, just arrived in the U.S. had no knowledge of the above matters. Thus, it was destined the fight was unavoidable and history could not be reversed.

Photos of Grandmaster Ku Yu-Cheung:

The difference between Bruce’s Iron Palm and other masters’
Unlike some Iron Palm masters whose palms look like big puffy bun due to striking of hard objects over a long period of time, Bruce’s hand which had undergone similar trainings remained indifferent from ordinary people. The same goes to James Y. Lee. Besides proper conditioning, the use of appropriate internal force in striking is also crucial. If Bruce was able to break hard objects like bricks, cobblestone and thick boards etc. it was no doubt that he had mastered the Iron Palm Kung Fu. The reason why Bruce’s hands were different from other Iron Palm Masters might be due to the fact that Bruce had mastered skill that resembled the higher level Iron Palm Kung Fu, i.e. Cinnabar Palm, which requires the use of internal force (“kin”) and not external force (“lik”). Yet, the mastering of Cinnabar Palm usually takes a longer time than Iron Palm, normally 5-15 years. Thus, there were no clear evidences that show Bruce had mastered this skill. Another possibility was Bruce might have integrated the essence of various Palm techniques into his own palm’s training program plus the herbal liniment conditioning, which he eventually attained the desired result.

When we observe Grandmaster Ku Yu-Cheung’s palm, we could also see that his hand, similar to Bruce, was small but not engorged. This is the difference between the advanced level and the ordinary level Iron Palm. Ordinary Iron Palm applies external strength (“lik”) unto the limb to strike the surface of the object. The more one practices, the more abnormal and bloated the hands would become. Though the giant palm may looks great but one will suffer long-term pains as age catches up.

“Yin” & “Yang” Palm
Grandmaster Ku Yu Cheung was a big believer in Ying and Yang in his martial arts practice which led to his mastery of the external and internal arts. Basically, there are 2 categories of Palm, i.e. Yin & Yang Palm. Iron Pam (aka Iron Sand Palm) falls into the category “Yang” while Cinnabar Palm (Red Sand Palm) belongs to the category “Yin”. Both varied in their training methods and effects. Iron Palm is considered the hard (external) Shaolin Chi Kung, whereas Cinnabar Palm is viewed as the soft (internal) Shaolin Kung Fu. Whereas Iron Palm hits on the surface and leaves no trace behind, Cinnabar Palm penetrates the surface and usually leaves a red palm mark behind.

Another point to note about Bruce’s Iron Palm was that he revised the striking method by generating the 1-3 Inch power to incorporate with the Iron Palm’s internal force. Notice from the photo that the curve shape of Bruce’s palm hitting the bricks. Unlike Bruce, most of the Iron Palm masters normally raise their palms above their head to generate force before striking the object. Bruce just broke the object with his hand extended within inches away and he had never raised his palm above his head. This is similar to the Cinnabar Palm’s strike, which also resembled Grandmaster Ku Yu-Cheung’s style.

From Iron Palm training to JKD’s Biu Jee (JKD-BJ)
Nevertheless, in actual fighting, using great internal power strike alone is not enough. One needs to be good in other departments such as punching, kicking, jabbing, footwork, balance etc. Bruce once told Canadian host, Pierre Berton that, “…we use everything, not just the hand!...When you’re talking about fighting…with no rules, well baby, you’d better train every part of your body!”

Iron Palm is good at striking stationery object but in real fighting, it may not be ideal to strike moving objects. It needs the coordination of feinting, footwork etc. in order to work effectively. Hence, Bruce who had trained in Iron Palm (circa 1962-1965), probably had merged the training methods of Iron Palm with his Wing Chun Biu Jee (WC-BJ), and practiced the power and precision of his fingers (refer to his training/demo, photos circa 1966-1973). Nevertheless, Bruce did not totally discard Iron Palm instead he retained some of its training methods and incorporated them into his Jun Fun Kung Fu’s (later JKD) training.

Biu Jee’s (BJ’s) training inspired by Iron Palm
Bruce was a visionary martial arts practitioner and he revolutionized the ways which he trained his body and limbs. He probably was inspired by the Iron Palm training and revised some of the ways to develop his finger jab’s (Biu Jee’s) power. As seen from the photos, during training, Bruce would punch his fingers into the sand/ gravel box, poked his fingers at the finger jab leather belt, held the gripping device etc. This was rarely seen in the training of U.S. martial artists in the 60’s. But Bruce did. These all showed that he was very particular about using every part of his body as his weapons in the course of fighting.

Bruce had toughened his palms and fingers due to his training of Iron Palm and JKD’s Biu Jee (JKD-BJ) but his hands were not out of shape (Note: To toughen his fist, Bruce also had a habit of hitting the chairs, tables, lamppost etc since young). They still looked great and at the same time possessed the firmness and resilience. If Bruce had not died, he might have 100% mastered Jing Mo Jee (JMJ; aka Iron Finger). He once told Tony To Wai-Tung, Iron Finger could poke through the opponent’s body if it is fully mastered. This reminds us about the final scene in “The Big Boss” where he fought the triad boss and killed him by jabbing his fingers into his body violently.

So, did Bruce JKD’s Biu Jee (JKD-BJ; circa 1967) ultimately transform into Jing Mo Jee (JMJ; circa 1973)?

Photos of Bruce’s Iron Palm:

 Respond to this message   

  • Bruce Lee’s Iron Palm & Iron Finger’s connections Pt. 2/2 - LJF on Aug 13, 2016, 11:45 AM
  • Great article! Thanks LJF - NT - - Stephen C. on Aug 13, 2016, 2:56 PM
  • Al Novak's Iron Palm - Billy on Aug 13, 2016, 5:28 PM
  • Re: Bruce Lee’s Iron Palm & Iron Finger’s connections Pt. 1/2 - S.Wira on Aug 13, 2016, 7:01 PM
  • Great articles! NT - Anonymous on Aug 13, 2016, 9:22 PM
  • Well-Written, LJF! - jkdragon on Aug 14, 2016, 8:23 AM
  • Was Wong Jack Man a renowned fighter from HK? - shaolinguy on Aug 15, 2016, 6:02 PM
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