Back in the “old days” of the sixties and seventies, you would frequently hear that a karate master could drive his hand through your ribcage, rip out your heart, and show it to you before you died. Many took this as gospel, just as they did any other claim about the fighting arts from the mysterious Orient. But is it true?
The simple, definitive answer is yes and no. Yes, the conditioned human hand, powered by a strong, fast, skilled man who knows what he is doing can penetrate the flesh on occasion, at least under ideal circumstances. As to his fingertips smashing through skin, muscle, and ribs up to the wrist and coming out with something to show for it (beyond broken fingers), that’s probably a different story, although when it comes to fighting, you quickly learn never to say “never.”
The only record I’ve been able to find of this actually happening was not in Asia, but in Nemea in 400 BC between two boxers named Creugas and Damoxenus. As the story goes, following a draw, the fighters decided to give each other a free shot to settle the affair. Damoxenus survived a blow to the head, then had Creugas raise his arm, then drove his stiffened fingers through his side, exposing his intestines and killing him. This was obviously not common, since it so impressed the sports fans of the time that they commissioned statues of the event, which are now in the Vatican’s collection.
Let’s dissect what happened.
First, consider what is meant by a “conditioned” hand. Hand conditioning is a long, arduous, often painful, and occasionally crippling process involving extensive strengthening and hardening exercises. In a few years’ time, the hand becomes a blunt spear, capable of splitting pine planks, but flesh is not made of pine. If you’ve ever skinned a large animal, you know that skin, particularly when it is over a soft area of the body where it can’t be pinched against solid bone, is a tough substance, and no matter how hard you push against it, it is extremely difficult for a dull object to penetrate. To drive your spear hand through that and the flesh behind takes not only a strong arm, but incredibly strong fingers, extreme speed, total commitment, and consummate skill..
Damoxenus had obviously practiced extensively in order to be confident enough to even attempt this maneuver, and he would’ve failed had his form been anything less than perfect. Further, he had to have speed, because raw power alone would never have done it. Speed can do amazing things, as witnessed by the stories of straws and twigs being driven into trees during tornadoes. While a human can’t achieve the speed of mother nature, a skillful man can do amazing things.
The important thing to remember about all this is its rarity. Even among ancient peoples and extraordinary athletes at a time when hand to hand fighting was common, a spear hand actually penetrating a human body was so unusual that they commemorated it, and people still talk about it after 2400 years. I feel confident in saying that the chance of any martial artist, then or now, pulling off an identical feat is somewhere between slim and none, and less than that in heated combat. Damoxenus had a stationary target stolidly waiting for him, and time to adjust and compose himself like a modern karateka setting up for a difficult break. He was certainly in better physical shape and more experienced in real fighting than the vast majority of people alive today, inside or outside the dojo. More, he had that wonderful, all-important commodity that so often makes or breaks us: luck.
So, is the spear hand worthless in practical application? No, only limited. Instead of trying to drive the fingertips through the body, they should be used to attack only the softest of tissue areas: the throat and the eyes.
The spear hand to the throat is a classic technique; it is classic because it works. The throat is one of the most delicate and dangerous targets on the body. The spear is also the quickest and most compact of the hand techniques, and thus the most likely to hit it and concentrate power on the smallest cross-section; more, it doesn’t have to go “through” the skin of the throat, but only drive in an inch and a half to two inches to provide devastating and possibly fatal consequences while minimizing damage to the fingers.
The spear hand is most useful in attacking the eyes. Instead of the conventional fingers-together form, eye attacks with this weapon are launched with the fingers spread, and only the fingers tensed; the rest of the hand is kept relaxed to increase striking speed. All four fingers are used to multiply the chance of an effective hit. Eyes are fairly small, and people in a fight tend to get excited and move around unexpectedly. Some of the fingers will strike the face, but that doesn’t really matter; you’re not going for depth here, only about a half an inch or so of penetration, and, slightly bent, your fingers should be able to take that small of a shock without undue discomfort, let alone damage. The purpose is to poke the eyeball itself, incapacitating the vision, not to gouge it out or penetrate the bone behind it. The four-finger spear to the eyes also has the advantage of being the easiest martial arts technique to learn and perform. Unlike almost any other technique, as long as it is quick and the aim is right, things like strength, balance, and form are relatively unimportant to the strike itself since it places practically no reliance on power, only pure speed.
As for using it to penetrate the body, I’ll leave that to the gladiators.
Spear Hand: Fact and Fable by Gregory Kay