My guest in this episode is my first from the world of Brazilian Jiujitsu. He’s Estonian Jiujitsu coach Priit Mihkelson.
For over 15 years now Priit has been pioneering an innovative, logical and defensive style of jiujitsu that has been taking the BJJ world by storm.
He’s just back from running a training camp held in a castle in Italy and his seminars are sold out until mid June next year, so it was great to grab some of his precious time and catch up with him before he jetted off for his next training camp.
In this podcast we talk about defensive BJJ, training methods and technical innovations.
Thinking about my last post with the discussion from Tim Cartmell. Everything Tim says is great advice for people interested in learning to fight and applies to what we know as “martial arts” today, but I do wonder about the very starting point of their discussion, which is the assumption that underlies it all – “martial arts were created to teach people how to fight”.
It sounds so obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning. I mean, it’s almost farcical to think otherwise… but is it true? Were they all “created” for that purpose? How can we be sure?
Martial arts as practiced in Western countries today are obviously about teaching people to fight, but it seems to me that once you trace “martial arts” back further and further it becomes harder to separate them out from cultural practices that included “fighting”, but also encompassed a whole lot more – a whole world view that is no longer with us.
It seems to me that most people today see “martial arts” as the original, stripped-down, very concentrated pure combat practice, that over time has become waylaid with cultural and religious baggage that has been added after the fact.
I think they’ve got it backwards. I think it “martial arts” starts off as part of a really rich and deep, varied practice incorporating all sorts of aspects of the complex array of cultural activities… and in modern times we have stripped out the combat elements and separated them off from the other elements – to pursue in our leisure time, or by governments for political means. That was certainly what happened in China in the early 20th century, for example, with the Kuo Shu movement.
Does this matter? Does it make any difference to what we practice today. Probably not, but I think it’s a more honest view of the subject, and explains why we still have a lot of these cultural practices associated with marital arts, like the picture of Lion Dance above.
This period of Yang LuChan in Beijing (around 1860) is really the time we see the arrival of “martial arts” as a separate subject in Beijing, taught in its own right and not as part of something else, like a village ritual or festival rite, or as an entertainment performance, and different to what soldiers learned. Yang was teaching soldiers, yes, but he wasn’t teaching them how to fight on a battlefield. He was also teaching rich people. This was the newly created niche that “martial arts” fitted into – the serious leisure practice. After the Empress Dowager takes control and the Wu brothers are “out”, Yang loses his patronage and has to open a commercial school in Beijing, and it becomes a family business with his sons teaching too.
The “martial arts” as we know them, and as they were created, are a civilian occupation – the serious leisure practice of already tough men (think Yang LuChan’s banner men that he taught in Beijing), or the rich middle/upper class idlers with too much time on their hands (hello the Wu brothers).
“(Boxing arts do not seem to be useful skills for the battlefield, but they exercise the hands and feet, and accustom the limbs and body to hard work. Thus they serve as basic training. Therefore I have included this discussion of them as the final chapter, in order to complete this study [of military theory].”
As you can see – boxing arts were being practiced in Ming Dynasty China, but they were not considered part of regular military training. They were part of something else.
I’ve always got time to listen to Tim Cartmell talk about marital arts. In this interview he lays down some common sense about training and tells you what his experience training in Xing Yi and San Da in Taiwan was like in the 90s.
As we’re moving into Autumn, there’s bright sun and a bit of a cold bite in the morning air during Tai Chi practice. I find a change in the weather is a good time to reflect on the things I’ve learned so far and to change the focus of my practice back towards the fundamentals.
I feel like summer was a time to be more active and energetic in my practice and Autumn is a time to be more reflective, so I’m picking up the practice of fundamental single-arm silk reeling again. Refocusing my Tai Chi on the idea of 1) sinking my weight down into the lower body and 2) generating movement from the legs, hips and feet while trying to stay as relaxed in the upper body as I can. I prefer to focus on these two tangible things rather than to talk too much about dantien and qi.
So, let yourself do the movements of a Tai Chi form, but remember, you’re not allowed to move your arms at all! And by that I mean, you cannot move from your arms all. Your arms move, of course, but they move because of the lower body. And don’t just pay lip service to this idea. Really do it. Ban yourself from arm movements and see where it takes you. Movements that could be seen as superficial take on whole new layers of meaning when practiced this way.
What is Shamanism? And how does it relate to martial arts? In this episode I catch up with my old, friend and teacher Damon Smith to answer some of these questions.
Damon is an incredibly experienced martial artist with a background in various Japanese and Chinese arts including Karate, Kempo, Xing Yi, Baji and Choy Lee Fut. And those are just a few of the arts he’s pursued to a very high level.
But despite being a great martial artist Damon’s true love has always been Shamanism.
And while he’s no stranger to banging a drum, Damon’s shamanism is not the hippy dippy sort of practice you might associate shamans with, instead it’s a very down to earth and practical art, much like the martial arts he does.
In this episode we talk about the link between martial arts and shamanism, and where the crossovers lie.
There’s a great book review by Ben Judkins over on Kung Fu Tea of Daniel Miles Amos’ 2021 book Hong Kong Martial Artists: Sociocultural Change from World War II to 2020.
The book sounds excellent and offers first hand experience of the changes in the Hong Kong martial arts scene has gone through over an extended period of years, and as such really pins down the economic and social challenges that traditional Chinese martial arts face in the modern world.
I really liked the opening of the review, because it somehow sums up the message of the whole book in one easy to follow exchange:
“Some years ago, one of my younger brothers married into a Hakka family after moving to Hong Kong to teach. My sister-in-law finds my interest in the Chinese martial arts fascinating and even admirable. And she insists that her children should have an opportunity to practice martial arts as well. Yet she did not enroll them in a local Wing Chun class, despite the media buzz around the art. Nor did she seek out one of the traditional Hakka styles from her family’s home village. Like so many other parents, she placed them in one of the city’s many thriving Tae Kwon Do schools.
I asked her about this once while we were discussing martial arts films and her answer was both blunt and revealing. “Why would I turn my kids over to some sketchy alcoholic! Besides, after ten years in Tae Kwon Do you get a black belt and something to put on your resume when applying for University. What did they give you after 10 years of Wing Chun?”
Jesse Kenkamp (AKA The Karate Nerd) has done another great video on tracing the roots of Karate. Here he is with White Crane practitioner Martin Watts in Yongchun, birthplace of White Crane, which is usually considered an ancestor style to Karate.
What I liked about this video is Martin’s no-nonsense teaching of what are generally thought of as internals in Chinese martial arts and shrouded in mystery (usually by westerners using Orientalism to sell books 😉 )
My point in posting this is that Martin covers “sinking the qi to the dantien” at 4.00 – what it is and, most importantly how what it is not is just as important.
I appreciate Martin’s simple, down to earth explanation.
We stand on the cusp of a major new martial arts movie release – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 5 Rings. On it’s own this should be something I write about, but it’s also the last film that Jackie Chan’s prodigy, Brad Allen worked on before his untimely death at 48.
Australian choreographer, performer and stunt coordinator, Brad Allen, was the first non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. He was incredibly skilled – here’s a short sample of his wushu and athletic ability:
It’s not clear how Brad Allen died, but 48 is very young. RIP.
I haven’t seen Shang-Chi yet, but by all accounts it’s a Kung Fu film done right, that avoids all the usual stereotypes, and a good chunk of the film’s dialogue is spoken in Mandarin Chinese, which is then translated into English subtitles for audiences.
“As an Asian (Taiwanese) Australian, it is so obvious that the film was written through the lens of those who have a lot of love for Asian culture and have lived through the Asian experience,” wrote kabutocat on Reddit, starting a fascinating discussion about the English-language translations of Mandarin dialogue in the movie. “The Chinese lines are written so well that a lot of the times the English subtitles actually failed to convey the nuances behind each line.”
Shang-Chi’s origins lie in Marvels answer to the Kung Fu boom of the 1970s, with various Kung Fu-powered superheroes emerging, with perhaps Iron Fist being the post famous. The Shang-Chi comic was a product of its time and you can see orientalist tropes in its styling:
Shang-Chi was the first of the Kung Fu superheroes, and was designed to be the most gifted martial artist anyone had ever seen. He was trained in espionage, infiltration, assassination and more. But when he went on his first mission for his father, he broke his conditioning and dedicated himself to destroying his father’s criminal empire.
Here’s a breakdown of the film (warning SPOILERS).
Shang-Chi was the last film Brad Allen worked on, so let’s end with his excellent live performance with Jackie Chan on Saturday Night Live:
Click the link above, or you’ll find it on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Search for The Tai Chi Notebook.
Paul Bowman is a professor of cultural studies at Cardiff University. He’s the author of multiple books on martial arts, including several about Bruce Lee, and most recently, “The invention of martial arts: popular culture between Asia and America”, which was published by Oxford University press in 2020.
Paul also helped establish the academic journal Marital Arts Studies, and organised conferences for the Martial Arts Studies Research Network.
In this chat we reminisce about our times training together, talk about paul’s recent discovery of Brazilian jiujutsu and discuss the emergent field of martial arts studies.
In the last episode of the Heretics podcast we talked about Chinese wrestling – Shuai Jiao – but Damon also mentioned Manchu wrestling quite a bit. He described it, but you can’t get a proper idea of how it works without seeing it done, so let’s look a little closer.
Manchu wrestling is a unique form of puppetry popular in certain parts of China where the participant wears a life-sized puppet of two wrestlers in a costume that turns ther legs and arms into both the puppet’s legs. Various wrestling maneuvers are then performed. The skill is to make it look like the two puppets are really wrestling and pulling off moves on each other.
To a western martial artist interested in only “learning how to defend myself” this might all look a bit silly, but if you watch this documentary you’ll see that there’s quite a lot to it:
There are so many things here worthy of note.
Firstly, the connection between puppetry and Chinese martial art is ripe for research – I’m thinking of the other famous puppet show that martial artists are known for – Lion and Dragon dancing. These cultural and religious practices are still done by martial arts groups at demonstrations and festivals.
Everybody in the Manchu wrestling documentary calls it “wrestling” even though it’s a solo drill. They don’t call it a dance or puppetry. To them this is “wrestling”, but we’d never call it that in Britain, for example – I find that pretty interesting.
It’s a damn good work out. If you’ve ever done any BJJ floor drills where you walk around on your hands and feet you’ll know that it’s instantly exhausting. Manchu wrestling will get you fit! If you don’t believe me then have a go at some of these drills before you tell me I’m wrong:
Manchu wrestling actually looks pretty dangerous – you can easily break a wrist with the high-speed spinning they’re doing, especially if the stick you hold in the shoe breaks.
Mental health benefits: a part of the documentary is focused on the mental health benefits of Manchu wrestling, especially looking at its life-changing benefits for rural Chinese women whose lives seem to be reduced to raising children and farming. I found this interesting in light of how much mental health benefits are talked about in BJJ culture – “BJJ saved my life” is a commonly used phrase amongst gym rats. Perhaps there is something inherently therapeutic about any style of wrestling movements and the human body?