The big problem with Chinese Marital Arts


This post is something of a follow up to my previous sot on The Delusion of Grace Under Pressure. I’m aware I’m starting to ‘rag’ on Chinese Martial Arts, and don’t want this blog to turn into a negative blog about CMA, since there is much (beyond fighting and including fighting) to be gained by the study of CMA. But the practices are also hobbled by many cultural and out dated modes of training that badly need to be updated, yet are often not due to respect for the ancients, or more likely, the lack of any real need to update them.

If we were living in a war-torn, post apocalyptic future (actually, something like the war-torn Hebei province of old China, in which many of these Chinese martial arts systems first developed) then there would be no debate about this – methods that ‘worked’ would rise to the top naturally and things with no practical value would be abandoned without a second thought. But we do not live in these times, thank goodness, so we are left in a world where we’re all free to carry on doing what we want with no real repercussions. Following tradition, regardless of its application to today’s realities.

Anyway, I’m waffling. The point of this post is about this obsession the Chinese Martial Arts have with starting all engagements from a crossed hands position. Whether its the sticky hands of Wing Chun, the push hands of Tai Chi or the Rou Shou of Bagua (the list goes on) the majority of ‘sparring’ practice is done from a position where you are already touching your opponent.

You can get very skilled in this middle range, and develop an impressive ability to manipulate an opponent. The mistake is assuming that your ability here reflects your ability to fight. In the fight the reality is that you spend hardly any time at this range – you’re either all out, or all in.

This is a Tai Chi blog, so lets use Tai Chi as an example. In push hands we learn to listen and yield to the opponent’s force through the well known push hands exercise. It’s this aspect which is the key to the application of the art in combat. Beginning students are choppy and rough with their pushing and yielding energy, and easily controlled. They lack the flow, balance and smoothness in deflecting incoming pressure that a more experienced Tai Chi exponent can conjure up with ease, often effortlessly deflecting an attacking push to the side without losing the trademark sickly Tai Chi smile on their face.

Yet there is a world of difference between this more civilised practice and the realities of an opponent who is really trying to take your head off.

I think this is the biggest problem with all the Chinese Martial Arts, and the root of their lack of success in ring sports. So much time is spent with doing stuff from hand and arm contact and neglecting the ranges where most of the time is spent in the fight. In actual fights, or free sparring with resistance, it’s very, very hard to get contact with the forearms or hands when shit is going down. It’s even harder to keep somebody there. Why keep training for this almost impossible situation?

Now, I just know somebody is going to chime in with ‘Of course, we train from not touching too, but contact is the starting point for beginners’ – but really, how come 99% of all videos showing CMA applications start from crossing hands?

Western boxing doesn’t start there with its beginners, and it’s got a pretty damn good reputation for teaching people to fight very well with their hands. In fact, it’s the ultimate art for fisticuffs, because that’s all it specialises in (yes, I know ‘old school’ boxing was more like all out brawling with throws and elbows, etc, but I’m talking about ‘modern’ boxing here).

Seriously, I think most CMA has it backwards – doing stuff from contact should be a considered a high level strategy for the very advanced practitioner, not the starting point for the beginner.

I’m not proposing we abandon CMA in favour of boxing, but at least start to practice applications and sparring from ‘not touching’ as the norm, not the exception.

2 thoughts on “The big problem with Chinese Marital Arts

  1. I can only imagine how some battle-scarred 19th century biao shi (caravan guard) roughneck would view modern Taiji training methods. Not to mention all the philosophical/metaphysical abstractions that have been injected by western dilettantes into what was once a survival combat system practiced by hard-nosed security professionals.


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