By Colin Wright on August 21, 2013
You may remember my article from nearly two years ago, where I debunked a qigong medical study commonly heralded as concrete proof for the effectiveness of external qigong treatment for chronic pain. The study was sloppy, and void of experimental rigor.
I have since continued to engage qigong supporters, despite their reluctance to present empirical evidence and well-executed studies in support of their claims. In fact, their reluctance to engage in reasonable discussion reached a new level when I was banned from the qigong subreddit for posting my article there. I was assured that I would have my ban lifted “as soon as [I] agree not to post any more skeptical articles.” Well then, I guess I am banned for life.
Because of my qigong criticisms, I have recently become alerted to Master Zhou, who is billed as a Qigong, Tai Chi and Kung Fu Grand Master as well as a Master Medical Qigong Healer. He is widely cited as perhaps the most well-known qigong master alive, and has been featured on popular television shows such as Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, That’s Incredible, and on the History Channel’s Stan Lee’s Superhumans. This guy has given qigong healing treatments to the Dalai Lama as well as professional sports teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s got some serious qigong street cred. Surely this guy is the real deal; how can we possibly explain away his amazing, superhuman abilities? As it turns out, it is much easier than I had previously thought (and I previously thought it would be pretty darn easy).
I was given a link to Master Zhou’s website by some qigong enthusiasts, and was asked to look it over, watch his videos displaying his amazing abilities, and share my thoughts. So, I decided I would share these thoughts in a formal blog post for everyone to read. On the website there are two videos depicting four amazing powers: (1) heating aluminum foil with qi; (2) licking a red-hot iron without burning himself; (3) biting off a piece of red-hot iron and spitting it out without injury; and (4) touching a red-hot iron chain with his bare hands. There are a few others, but I felt that these four were his main act, and they are certainly the talk-of-the-town on many qigong forums. I will go over each of these feats and explain how he is doing them. SPOILER ALERT: It’s not qigong.
Watch the following videos before reading on to see his act, and see if you can catch what this guy is doing.
Heating Aluminum Foil with Qigong
When Master Zhou is performing this trick, notice that he dunks the aluminum foil in water before his demonstration. After its water bath, he wraps it in a wet paper towel and spreads it out flat on the table. At this point he waves his hand over it, ostensibly transferring qi energy into the metal, and the aluminum begins to heat up and sizzle. While this may look impressive, there is actually a very simple explanation for what’s going on. The trick here is that the water isn’t just plain water; it is likely a dilute strong base such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH). The paper towel is also soaked in the base, and the foil is spread out flat to ensure an even reaction over a large surface area. A lot of heat is produced in this reaction, and very quickly. This is because aluminum is a very reactive metal. It is amphoteric, which means that it can react with both acids and bases. There is a good reason why he chose to use aluminum, why he dunked it in “water,” and why he wrapped it in a paper towel and smoothed it flat. It simply wouldn’t work any other way. He could have walked away and the foil would still heat up and sizzle.
This trick is an old one, and you can perform it yourself at home. Products are available online. One in particular is called Hypno Heat, and can be purchased for $30. Impress your friends! Yes, apparently you too can become a qigong master. All you need is a conman mentality coupled with a basic understanding of a simple chemical reaction. No qi here.
Licking a Red-Hot Iron Bar
Firstly, notice how quickly Master Zhou taps his tongue with the hot iron, pulls his tongue back in, then out again, and again dabs his tongue quickly. There is a reason he keeps pulling his tongue back in before each time he touches it with the hot iron—he is making sure to keep his tongue very wet. Each time he touches it, you can see a small puff of smoke, which is his saliva vaporizing. His saliva, for the short amount of time the iron is contacting his tongue, insulates his tongue from the hot metal. This phenomenon is called the Leidenfrost effect, and here’s how it works.
When you pour water onto a hot pan, the water will usually stay in place and quickly vaporize. One would tend to think that if the pan is even hotter, the water will vaporize even faster, but they would be wrong. In fact, if you pour water onto an extremely hot surface you will notice the water bouncing around, or spreading out, and not evaporating quickly. There is something very interesting going on here; the water that first touches the scalding pan is instantly vaporized, which then forms a gaseous barrier between the pan and the water. Gas, given its very low density, is a very poor heat conductor. This barrier of water vapor actually acts as an insulator for the water above it, preventing it from vaporizing itself so quickly. In Master Zhou’s rendition, the metal bar is acting as the scalding pan, and his saliva is the water. There is a good reason that he doesn’t hold the metal against his tongue for more than but a split second. Simply put, the saliva will soon be completely vaporized and his tongue will have no insulation from the red-hot iron.
For an even more impressive demonstration of this phenomenon, check out this clip of MythBusters, where they dip their fingers in water, then immediately in MOLTEN LEAD, and then quickly out. They suffer absolutely no burns of any kind. Once again, Master Zhou is shown to be a fraud.
Biting a Red-Hot Iron Bar
This trick was fun to watch, and is even more fun to watch the second time, when you realize how he is doing it. Master Zhou, in this trick, bites off a piece of a hot metal bar and spits it out. He is unharmed. It looks impressive. At first I thought that perhaps his speed prevented him from being injured, but that still seemed like a reach to me. Luckily, the video provides a close-up and slow motion replay of this stunt. Carefully watch Master Zhou’s upper teeth when he bites the bar. They move! His entire upper set of teeth, gums and all, move quite a bit as he bites down. Master Zhou has just shown us his hand; he is wearing dentures. Since the teeth are not real, there are no nerves to be damaged by the intense heat. This is how he performs this trick. Nobody needs to invoke anything superhuman here to explain away this stunt. Master Zhou’s dishonesty is again on full display.
Touching a Hot Iron Chain with His Hands
For this stunt, Master Zhou heats up a metal chain until it is extremely hot. The chain is pulled taught, and he then alternates swiping each hand down the length of the chain. He then shows the audience his unburned hands. Seemingly quite impressive! But this trick is similar to one we are all familiar with—walking on hot coals. The secret to making this work is to move quickly. You should ask yourself why Master Zhou doesn’t just grab the chain for, say, 2 full seconds? Why does he have to just sweep his hands quickly over the metal? Well, that’s because he doesn’t want to keep his hands stationary long enough for them to conduct heat. This is a very simple “magic” trick performed by people all over the world. Furthermore, if Master Zhou’s hands are even just a little sweaty, he could be gaining some protection due to the Leidenfrost effect we described earlier. There’s nothing superhuman going on here.
Master Zhou is a fraud, and his followers have been deceived, plain and simple. There is absolutely nothing in Master Zhou’s performance that cannot be easily explained with basic physics and chemistry. The high regard and admiration people have for him is misplaced. He is an unscrupulous conman who preys on people’s trust, and makes a hefty profit from it. It would be one thing if all he ever did is cheap tricks. That’s fine, it doesn’t really hurt anybody, and magicians have been around forever. But Master Zhou goes one step further. He claims to be a healer, and brings in people with very serious illnesses for qigong treatment who may be forgoing other forms of treatment that have actually been demonstrated to work.
This is wrong, immoral, and it should be illegal, as no properly controlled studies that have been performed demonstrating qigong to be an effective treatment for anything. Despite that fact, Master Zhou’s website asserts that his treatments “have been verified by ample scientific, diagnostic and medical research documentation, for decades.” Really? Which ones? Every time I read a new paper someone has claimed to be the latest groundbreaking study proving qigong, I always get through it and ask myself, “Did I miss a page? I clearly must have overlooked the part where they explained their control group properly.” But no, I am not crazy; the control group simply wasn’t there. In fact, many of these “studies” actually claim that including mock or sham treatments is against ancient Chinese philosophy, or that they wouldn’t want to impose Western biomedical practices to this clearly Eastern practice. But it is precisely these biomedical practices that are needed in order to demonstrate that qigong actually works!
OK, how about this. If performing the simplest, properly controlled experiment is too hard for qigong “researchers,” then let James Randi do it for you. James Randi has had an open challenge for nearly 50 years, where he offers a large sum of money to anyone who can perform a supernatural, paranormal, or occult power under mutually agreed upon scientific standards of testing. Since 1996 the ante has been upped to one million dollars, but nobody has been able to claim it. In fact, nobody has ever made it past the required preliminary testing. If Master Zhou’s powers are real, then he should not hesitate to step forward and claim his prize, unless of course he is a fraud, and then he has everything to lose.