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Monday
May162011

I Debunk a Qigong Master

So this past Friday I watched a charlatan convince a good portion of his small audience that he has magic healing powers. There were about 25 of us present, but I’m told he did the exact same trick the weekend before to a room of around 2000. And if you watch the video below, you’ll see that he’s been doing the very same trick since at least 1999, when he appeared on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (hint - don’t believe it).

He’s a 78-year old Chinese qigong teacher and martial artist. I had a chance to speak with him at the reception before the demonstration and he struck me as very genuine and kind. He looks amazingly fit for 78, or even for 68, and the non-charlatan portions of his demonstration where he was doing martial arts were above reproach. I’d have liked him a lot if he hadn’t spent the previous thirty minutes lying to us all.

Through his interpreter, he offered to show us his power to raise temperature through moving qi (or chi). Five us sat on a bench, and he brought out a roll of paper towels, a normal box of aluminum foil, an empty plastic bowl, and a white, plastic dinner plate with a lip on it that contained about a quarter inch of clear liquid in it. Like any stage magician, he invited us to examine the paper towel and the aluminum foil and had someone not affiliated with him fill up the plastic bowl with water from the tap. He never mentioned the white plate.

The charlatan laid out two pieces of paper towel on the floor. He then took a sheet of aluminum foil about seven by seven inches and crumpled it while sticking it into the bowl of water. He then removed it and shook the water clinging to the foil out onto the paper towel, soaking it through. His interpreter then explained that it was very important that he flatten the sheet of aluminum foil back out again.

He placed the crumpled foil on the white plate. I was on the end of the bench nearest to the plate and had an unobstructed view of what he was doing. I could clearly see the foil was being submerged below the shallow liquid as he flattened it out into a square. He then took it out, folded it neatly and wrapped it in the wet paper towel. I believe he then folded it a few more times.

The charlatan placed the foil-wrapped-in-paper towel on my leg, right above the knee and waved his hand over it until it started to warm up. It took several tens of seconds, but once I said that it was getting warm, he picked it up and moved it to my shoulder, where it was still warm. He then proceeded down the line, placing the packet on each of us. We all agreed it was hot and getting hotter.

I took the opportunity to reach down and stick my finger in the liquid he’d flattened the foil in. I then tasted it. There was a definite chemical taste and afterwards I felt some numbness/discomfort on my tongue. Later on in the evening I repeated this taste test and had the same results.

The audience was so impressed with the trick, they wanted to see it again. Seven new subjects took their places on the bench. I had a chance to watch him do the trick again. This second time he flattened the foil out and then flipped it over and flattened it some more, immersing it in the mystery liquid for a longer period. During the ensuing demonstration, the packet seemed to get much hotter and people reported steaming and sizzling noises from the paper towels.

After that, he led the group in some qigong breathing exercises that were fine and gave a lovely demonstration of his martial arts skills, including a very enchanting routine with a fan. He then broke some chopsticks by pressing them against the hollow of his neck, which I’m sure you’ve seen before.

I told my friends and the person who’d invited me to the demo, and only one of them seem surprised, so I’m not sure how many people he really fooled. But he definitely fooled some of them into thinking he could heat aluminum foil using qi, and it really made me angry. I was a guest in the house and didn’t confront him. I’m honestly not sure I would’ve had the guts to do so even if I didn’t think it would’ve been rude. I had a hard time meeting his eye, to be honest, and just wanted to get out of there. Once he started taking people into a private room for qi treatments, I left.

The trick, by the way, is an old one. Aluminum foil reacts with a lot of things, and when mixed with sodium chloride and other chemicals you might find in drain cleaner or lye, it produces heat. Apparently they used to sell the trick in magic stores until it was deemed too dangerous (the foil gets hot enough to burn people). My favorite source I’ve found on it is this one from the 1940 issue of Popular Science, which explains how hair salons used it:

http://books.google.com/books?id=wCYDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA245&ots=-SrducIilL&dq=chemical%20to%20make%20aluminum%20foil%20heat%20up&pg=PA245#v=onepage&q=chemical%20to%20make%20aluminum%20foil%20heat%20up&f=false

That’s my first foray into on the spot skepticism. I’m pleased with myself of course, but mostly I find the whole thing kind of depressing. The man has plenty of talents as a martial artist, I don’t think he needs to be doing this kind of crass chicanery. I’m even more depressed at how many people - smart people - bought into it hook line and sinker. I’m sure I’ve made equally dumb conclusions about many things, but that doesn’t make me feel much better.

Here’s the video of the same guy performing the same trick on Ripley’s over ten years ago. The show is annoyingly credulous, but hey, I’ll consider that giving the charlatan equal time to respond to my allegations.

References (6)

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Reader Comments (4)

What disturbs me more than the fact that someone who has cultivated a practice as valuable as Qi Gong would trick his audience is the fact that this is the type of "superpower" that gets people interested in Qi practices in the first place. That type of person rarely if ever invests themselves deeply enough or for long enough in any given practice to gain the wonderful benefits of doing so. They imagine miraculous things happening and have big cathartic experiences and then in several weeks they are back to there normal routines not significantly altered in any positive way. So they figure something was wrong with the method. Next time it's Yoga or TM or psychedelics and the cycle continues. I think this may be a clue as to the motive for trickery of any instructor trying to make a living teaching something that requires long term practice and perseverance. I think it a flawed approach.
May 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Hocker
Exactly, Jeff! The breathing exercises he led us through after the chicanery was done were solid, and someone who did that routine every day would very likely experience a tangible benefit. But they'd never be able to heat aluminum without sodium chloride or an oven...
May 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRick Dakan
They imagine miraculous things happening and have big cathartic experiences and then in several weeks they are back to there normal routines not significantly altered in any positive way. So they figure something was wrong with the method. Next time it's Yoga or TM or psychedelics and the cycle continues. I think this may be a clue as to the motive for trickery of any instructor trying to make a living teaching something that requires long term practice and perseverance. I think it a flawed approach. efox-shop
September 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMP3 Player kaufen
Thanks for sharing your experience. Interestingly, he seems to be helping people with his treatments. Placebo effect? I'd love to see what that liquid was...
July 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDan @ Qigong NYC

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