Kung Fu and Karate do not come from wrestling, ok?

Everybody was kung fu fighting! Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

It’s time to say something slightly controversial, and I apologise in advance for the click-baity feel of the headline, but there’s no way to sum up a nuanced argument like this in less than 10 words. The thing is that there’s a real fascination these days with delving into Karate kata or Kung Fu forms and discovering the ‘real’ applications, hidden in plain sight, which are, always, wrestling moves, which were hidden away in the murky depths of time for vague and unspecified reasons.

This marital arts version of a conspiracy theory is a really popular idea at the moment, because, frankly, the wresting interpretations work a lot better than most of the applications of striking you see in these arts. However, that doesn’t mean its true!

Here’s a current example:

No, no, Kung Fu is NOT 90% wrestling. It’s just not!

Now look, I’m not saying that there are no throwing or takedown applications to Karate and Kung Fu moves – of course there are! But just because you can re-engineer some wrestling applications out of what are obviously supposed to be strikes, does not mean that those are the ‘original’ or ‘real’ applications. They are certainly an interpretation, but to claim some sort of historical precedent is going too far for me.

I would call my view somewhat heretical to modern orthodoxy based on the amount of comments I see under videos of people revealing the ‘real’ application of Kung Fu or Karate moves. It’s almost 100% positive, along the lines of “finally this move makes sense!”. I refer you to my previous point – just because these moves work better than the wacky traditional blocking and striking application usually taught does not mean these are the original applications. It’s a logical fallacy. A better question would be to ask, “why did they simplify or dumb these forms down so much that they’re unusable?” But I guess that’s a different topic…

Another reason why this wrestling-first approach is so popular is that learning real grappling or wrestling is just too much like hard work for some people. You’re going to need a working pair of knees and a body that’s probably 20-30 years younger than the one you’ve got, especially if you’re starting grappling from scratch. For the ageing martial artist the idea that they can just keep doing the katas or forms that they already know and now they are somehow also doing grappling is very tempting. As somebody on the wrong side of 50 I can see the attraction of this idea myself! But like all shortcuts, it cuts out the years of experience and hard work you’re going to need to put in if you want something you can use.

Wresting is, of course, older than martial arts, like Karate or Wing Chun, by thousands of years. This is not disputed. It seems that wherever men or women gathered, in any country, and conflicts needed to be resolved, wrestling naturally appeared as a way for this to happen, or as a way to keep people entertained, build a community connection, or in good physical shape for battle. It was a multi-purposed activity. For example, there has been Mongolian Wrestling for pretty much as long as there have been Mongolians. And it’s a tradition that has survived.

Modern Mongolian wrestlers. Photo by Agostino Toselli on Pexels.com

Cave paintings have been found in the Lascaux caves in France that have been suggested to depict sprinting and wrestling in the Upper Paleolithic time period, which is around 15,300 years ago.

Cave man wrestling?

This Egyptian burial chamber mural from Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum’s tomb dates to aroudn 2400 BC.

Wrestle like an Ancient Egyptian.

Almost every traditional culture has, or had, some form of indigenous wrestling. Many cultures that have evolved into living in villages, then towns, then cities have managed to maintain their wrestling traditions, even to the modern day. But most we have lost. For example, Collar and Elbow Wrestling was hugely popular in Ireland in the 19th century and spread to America where it again proved hugely popular with thousands of people coming to watch matches (even President Abraham Lincoln was a practitioner!)

Collar and elbow from the 1880s.

But huge changes in where people lived and worked lead to its demise until it vanished completely even in its native country. It seems that whenever a country experiences its industrial revolution, requiring massive shifts in population distribution, the folk traditions tend to die off, and wrestling is a folk tradition.

But that does not mean it is the original of Karate and Kung Fu.

I appreciate that you might not agree with me, so let me give you an example.

This video is comparing a karate technique to a Shuai jiao wrestling throw:

Yes, the movements have a physical similarity, but you are never – never! – going to learn how to do that throw by doing that kata. I mean, you could make that work so long as you only wrestle fellow karate practitioners and never ever get in a match with somebody who actually does wrestling. Then you’ll be fine. 🙂 Was this the original application of this kata? Who knows? But to assume ‘yes, it must be wrestling’ is such an illogical leap that to me it’s going too far. If you want to learn wresting, then just train wrestling. It’s that simple.

Here’s the Karate Nerd with a similar take on Karate Kata. Now, I quite like the Karate Nerd, so this is not an attack on him, but rather just an example of the current trend in marital arts regarding wresting applications and where it’s going.

Anyway, I feel like I’ve made my point and I’m just repeating myself now, so I’ll leave it there. But let me just recap one last time. Yes, there are some wrestling application in Karate and Kung Fu, yes you can re-engineer pretty much any movement to make it into a wrestling move, and no that does not mean that “it’s all wrestling“.

3 thoughts on “Kung Fu and Karate do not come from wrestling, ok?

  1. You are right, Graham. Weapons training was the root of empty-hand martial arts, not wrestling. The advantage of having a weapon as a force multiplier, reach extension, or cutting implement was so great that warriors never went into battle empty-handed.

    However, training weapons empty-handed was developed. The absence of a weapon freed students’ minds to consider their innate tools of attack, defense, and support of weapon usage, such as balance, footwork, force production, and off-hand actions. This type of training obviously evolved over millenia and varied from culture to culture, but in China, it was well documented as preparation for using weapons. Empty-hand fighting has always been a last resort for self-defense.

    It would be difficult to pin down, which came first, fighting with weapons or formal wrestling. These have obviously evolved in parallel and influenced each other. Any advantage that can be gained in battle or in competition is crucial. But, there is a philosophical divide between wrestling and martial arts, the former being a sport, perhaps training strength and endurance, but the latter was training for violence.

    Your point that gongfu is not all wrestling, or even takedowns, is a valid one. A well developed system has several layers of application, which a practitioner could follow. In modern times, the “wrestling” applications have largely been ignored in favor of striking and kicking. However, that Chinese wrestling was an influence on Chinese martial arts is undeniable.

    I think a good, fairly recent, example of this is the push-hands training from the Chen taijiquan tradition. I single out this training, only because I know it best, but it was not entirely unique.

    Beginners start thigh-to-thigh, hip-to-hip, side-to-side, and shoulder-to-shoulder. They learn any gap is an opening for attack. This close-in position is uncomfortable to many armed and empty-hand fighters, but a taijiquan adept learns to control his opponent, learns the power of even small movements, and becomes comfortable at this range, quite like a wrestler.

    With competence, distances are increased to the classic push hands starting position, wrist-to-wrist, hands-on-elbows. Students initially close the distance to that familiar, no-space distance. As they advance, this often becomes a type of clinch fighting, the goal being simply to unbalance their opponent. Without root and often unbalanced, it is difficult for the opponent to launch an effective counterattack. This also appears to be training borrowed from wrestling.

    However, if the participants are given single-handed weapons. The starting position in push hands becomes a bind, where opponents meet weapon-to-weapon. The empty hand may still control the elbow. In this case, push hands teaches how to unbalance and uproot the opponent to create an opportunity for an attack with minimal risk of counterattack. Then, according to a major branch Chinese military thought, the opponent is kept unbalanced and is relentlessly attacked until he succumbs.

    Returning again to push-hands training, the method of follow-up attack was unimportant. It was whatever the student trained afterward. A wrestler would train wrestling takedowns and follow throughs, a swordsman sword attacks, and a spearman spear attacks. I think this is an often misunderstood aspect of taijiquan. Push hands only trains how to gain the advantage. There was a complete martial art taught after teaching push hands, including weapon and empty-hand skills.

    Like other martial arts, Chen taijiquan empty-hand fighting methods included strikes, kicks, breaks, and so on. It also included takedowns, however the center of rotation of these actions tended to be higher than those created by judo and shuai jiao, so the head was the first part of the opponent’s body to contact the ground. This enhanced the ground as a weapon. These kinds of throws are counter to the sports philosophy of wrestling, where the goal is to leave your opponent defeated but uninjured. They are in line with martial goal of incapacitating an attacker as quickly as possible.


  2. RE: “For the ageing martial artist the idea that they can just keep doing the katas or forms that they already know and now they are somehow also doing grappling is very tempting. As somebody on the wrong side of 50 I can see the attraction of this idea myself! But like all shortcuts, it cuts out the years of experience and hard work you’re going to need to put in if you want something you can use.”

    This should be tattooed on the foreheads of the worst of the Chinese Internal Arts gurus out teaching middle-aged, middle-class people their “secrets” for top dollar at endless workshops so they can’t avoid mentioning reality to their sycophants!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Kung Fu and Karate do not come from wrestling, ok? – Roberto Luis Rivera

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