Is Chinese wrestling the root of all Chinese martial arts?

An interesting video has surfaced that links the guard postures used in Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) with postures in various Chinese martial arts. The premise of the video is that Shuai Jiao is the root of all the Chinese martial styles. The text accompanying the video says:

“Guards in traditional Chinese wrestling are meant to favor certain fighting techniques and strategies. Since Shuai Jiao is very ancient and there are precise references in these guards to the styles that exist today, traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles. My Master Yuan Zumou has clearly stated this for over thirty years. In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat. I have put the captions of the styles I know or of those that maestro Li Baoru (Beijing, late 80s) mentions in the video.”

It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately I can’t agree with such a blanket statement as “traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles“. Was it a strong influence on all Chinese styles? Yes, of course. But calling it the root of all styles is a bit strong for me. Some styles developed entirely from military practices, and a lot of styles have no wrestling component at all, or have their roots in weapons usage.

I can certainly see postures in the video that resemble Tai Chi – particularly the “White Stork Cools Wings” posture and another guard that looks a little like the “Wave Hands Like Clouds”. But we only have two arms and two legs – inevitably there are going to be similarities between postures found in different martial arts. That alone doesn’t confirm a genuine historial link. Influences betweewn marital arts can flow in both directions, too. So it’s quite possible that wrestling has been influenced by local village styles. And even things that are not necessarily combat arts, like xìqǔ, can have an influence on them.

I’d also have to take issue with the statement that “In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat.” Let’s not even get into the idea of what “real combat” is (Shuai Jiao matches have rules, after all) but it’s a simple fact that Shuai Jiao was enjoyed in the royal court in the Ching Dynasty (and probably all the dynasties before it) as a kind of entertainment for the nobles. The same thing happened in the Japanese royal court with Sumo, just as medieval kings in Europe enjoyed watching martial games like jousting and fencing. And obviously wrestling is still enjoyed as a kind of popular entertainment in America and Mexico today.

But let’s turn our attention to the contend of the video. A lot of the guards being demonstrated look quite showy to me – as if they were designed to impress an audience, particularly the Wave Hands Like Clouds style guard, where the practitioner seems to deliberately trip over his own legs.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Ever since modern Wu Shu put the emphasis on gymnastic ability over practicality, people have been searching for this false dichotomy between performance and practicality in historical martial arts, too. It’s almost like a real martial art isn’t allowed to have any ‘fun’ aspects to it. In reality, and with several historical examples, a martial art can be both a serious, practical tool for combat, and something that can be performed for social, entertainment and cultural reasons all at the same time.

Choy Li Fut schools often perform lion dance, and that doesn’t mean their kung fu won’t work in a fight. Similarly, I would contend that Shuai Jiao can be used as a form of entertainment and a practical method of self defence. Just like almost all Chinese martial arts can.

Martial arts, Bruce Lee and philosophy

“I’m not aware of too many things,
I know what I know if you know what I mean.”

Edie Brickell

I was listening to the Drunken Boxing podcast recently in which Byron Jacobs and Phil Morrell were talking about Phil’s training history in Fan style Baguazhang. At one point he mentioned two of his teachers and how different their approaches were. One, the daughter of the old master, would deal with tricky questions by showing the answer with a physical demonstration, but if you asked for an explanation of the technical details she would sometimes struggle. She could however, just do it. The other he mentioned had been a professional martial arts teacher all his life, and as such had a more varied teaching method. He could answer questions at a variety of levels, from physical demonstration to a discussion of theory.

Most people’s first introduction to Kung Fu was through the work of Bruce Lee – either his films, or the TV series Kung Fu, which he didn’t write, but was based on his idea. The TV series was full of flashbacks to Master Po teaching his Shaolin philosophy, and Enter the Dragon has the classic master and student discussion at the start, which anchors the whole film in a kind of generic Taoist philosophy. So, from the very beginning in the West, Kung Fu and philosophy arrived hand in hand.

Photo by Man Chung on Unsplash

Theory is one of those things that martial arts is chock full of, whether it’s yin yang symbolism or lofty philosophical ideas of the merits of the soft defeating the hard or the theory of the meridians and Chinese medicine. It’s impossible to deny that Kung Fu is built on theory.

But there’s an opposite view that theory has a limited place in the grand scheme of things and it’s inherently prone to misinterpretation.  It’s an aid to understanding at a certain point, but quite a limited one. 

Theory is an undisputed source of dispute in martial arts, especially online. The typical online argument about martial arts (as we discussed in our most recent Heretics podcast on martial arts and shamanism) is usually about the definition of terms. Different styles and different teachers tend to say the same things in slightly different ways, which are correct from their own perspective – provided the teacher understands it of course – but appear opposite when written down.

I think we can all agree that it’s perfectly possible to learn the practical application of kung fu without ever hearing the theory, but could most people could learn the theory and deduce the practical application?

The repurposing of Kung Fu postures

I really liked this video by The Wandering Warrior on Instagram:

True or not, he makes a good case for the move not being the backfist or punch it is usually shown as, and being a throw instead. In a way, there’s no right answer – the move is whatever you use it for.

But it made me think a lot about how Kung Fu postures are repurposed and reused through the years.

If we go back to one of the earliest written descriptions of Kung Fu by General Qi Jinguang in his “Boxing Classic” of 1560 we can see that all he’s showing are a series of still postures with written verse about the move in question.

You can see that the first posture shown, “Lazily pulling back the robe” shares some similarties with the posture discussed above.

Lazily pulling back the robe, Qi Jinguang, 1560

A Confucian cuture of respect for tradition and elders would naturally lead to respect for older kung fu postures, and you can see how they would get reused and repurposed to fit new needs over the generations.

I bet the current Yang style Single Whip posture is not chosen because it’s the optimal way of pushing forward with a single palm. Instead, it’s more likely a posture that has been passed down from older generations. Maybe it’s original meaning (if it had one) has been lost, over the years. Maybe it was once a Suai Jiao throw? Maybe it was once a posture from Chinese theatre or religious ritual? Who knows.

The important thing is, as always, what can you do with it now?

Kung Fu 2021

The classic TV series is back! This time the lead is female and the cast is almost all Asian. I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with it. I thought the trailer was pretty good. Not sure how I watch this in the UK though…?

Why you should train your martial art like a sport

“Sport” is kind of a trigger word for a lot of martial art practitioners, at least some of the ones I’ve met! So telling them they should train their martial art more like a sport usually goes down like a cold bucket of sick, but really I think they should listen.

“There are no rules on the street!”

“I train for the street, dude!”

“You mean a sport like netball, right?”

Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

When here’s the thing: Training your martial art like a ‘martial art’ is often an excuse for not working very hard and not really pressure testing anything you do.

Sport is a sweaty, dificult, thing to do that usually involves doing something pretty athletic (unless you count darts). Sport is also structured. Quite often in a martial art there is no real training methodology. People just turn up, do a few forms, practice a few safe applications against little or no resistance then go home again. The learning process can be a bit random.

I should stress, I don’t really think that there’s anything wrong with that, depending on your motivations for training, which often change as you age. Just feeling good about doing something is certainly reason enough to do it, but I think you should ask yourself, what progress are you really making? And, worse, are you becoming delusional?

Sports, in contrast, tend to be very structured. You train attributes specifically, and you engage in a focussed practice where you can drill to increase your ability in tightly defined things. Sometime those things are measured. You sit down and discuss progress with your coach. You troubleshoot and then you give it a go against somebody who is going to be uncooperative and gives you feedback. That’s real testing against nature – the sort of thing a human shaman would engage in 10,000 years ago.

Martial arts also have strange rules that sports don’t have – we have to call people odd titles like Sifu or Professor. There’s bowing and etiquette that looks strange to people outside the system. I can understand the cultural reasons for a lot of these things, but I often wonder that when these arts are put into a different culture, whether some of these things should be left behind because they’re not helpful and, in fact, can stand in the way of progress. For example, the little quirks like bowing to photos of dead guys or using a 1-2-3 clap system can gradually breed a cult-like quality of obedience that makes us stop questioning things.

I saw a brilliant video of a Muay Thai coach recently. I love the tiny details he’s giving. Muay Thai is an interesting martial art because it’s probably the most traditional martial art remaining on the planet, but it’s also a sport. It is undoubtedly effective and trained at the highest level in popular combat sports. I think there’s something to learn from that.

As I said earlier, I don’t think we need to make all martial arts into competative sports, but I think we can take elements of the sporting approach and apply it to what we’re doing, regardless of the martial art we’re doing.

Finally, the inspiration for this post is the latest brilliant episode of the BJJ Mental Models podcast to featuring Priit Mihkelson, about how to train your martial art like a sport. Give it a listen.

It’s also on YouTube:

The invention of martial arts

An excellent video by Prof. Paul Bowman to promote his new book, The Invention of Martial Arts: Popular Culture Between Asia and America.

This presentation looks at how martial arts arrived in the UK and when the concept of being a martial artist first entered into the popular consciousness. Along the way he covers Bartistu, the Avengers, James Bond, Bruce Lee, Kung Fu the TV series, Ninjas, the Wu-Tang Clan and the UFC.

Kung Fu work out with David Rogers

Michael Rook posted about an online course in Hap Gar that’s starting in January, so I thought I’d check it out and had a go with one of the free videos as my morning workout. The teacher is David Rogers of Rising Crane, and the workout is a nice, not too heavy, way to start your day while learning some Kung Fu. Plus it’s free, so give it a go! I really enjoyed it. After a warm up you’ll work on the first 5 basic punches of Hop Gar and some stances.

Richard is a teacher of Tai Chi and Hap Gar Kung Fu through the Rising Crane. David only takes one or two student groups a year for online learning, and it’s a very interactive, personalised training session so a whole group can move through it together, getting feedback as they go.

Registration is open for the next 7 days at Rising Crane Kung Fu Virtual Academy. He also has a Rising Crane Tai Chi Virtual Academy course starting this year as well.

I haven’t done Hap Gar before, but I’ve done a lot of Choy Lee Fut, and to my eyes there appears to be very little difference between the two. Hap Gar looks like a version of Choy Lee Fut to me, even the same names are used for the moves, so it was great to experience a Kung Fu style I was already familiar with, but from a slightly different perspective. I also liked his thoughts on fighting strategy for these long range styles that he gives at the end, around the 35 minute mark, plus I liked his thoughts on MMA.

That is one mean looking crane. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Another one bites the dust (the latest Xu Xiaodong vs Tai Chi master)

The Tai Chi ‘master’ lasted 10 seconds this time.

In the video above amateur Chinese MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong is fighting Chen Yong, the self-proclaimed sixth-generation Tai Chi Master of the Wu lineage. It’s the latest in a long line of fights between Xu and people who claim to be martial arts ‘masters’.

If we analyse the 10 seconds of action we can see Chen takes a forward weighted stance with his hands up in a high guard. It leaves him completely imobile and open for a kick. Xu kicks him low, Chen drops his guard and that was all she wrote.

Presumably Chen thought that whatever he had been doing for the past few decades was good enough training to actually fight with. But whatever Chen has been practicing… it wasn’t fighting.

Some of my Chinese Martial Arts colleagues get really upset with these fights. They think the whole thing is set up to make Chinese marital arts look bad and promote the UFC, and I’m somehow complicit in a plot designed to bring the whole Chinese martial arts down. Or that Xu won’t fight anybody young and fit and only challenges old men. It’s classic conspiracy theory nonsense.

I find this attitude odd because, frankly the UFC doesn’t give a crap about any of this. And nobody is making these delusional ‘masters’ fight anybody – they’re doing it of their own free will and more often than not, they are the challengers in the fights, and put up all the money required to make them happen. They clearly think they are going to win with their martial skill despite a huge age gap or a gap in fighting experience.

There is a strong tradition of Chinese Kung Fu masters appearing in faked fights on Chinese TV and seeming to be all-powerful. It’s that delusion that Xu fighting against. Watch this:

serpentza and Byron Jacob explain what’s happening in China.

A common thing I’ve hear is that nobody has heard of these ‘masters’ before. Again, that’s true, but there are a lot of delusional people in martial arts, so I don’t think that’s surprising. China is a big place. Perhaps it’s the use of the term “master” that gets bandied about so freely? In light of all these fights there has been a government move in China to ban the use of the word. Xu Xiaodong has been heavily persecuted – being forced to hide his face in clown makeup and have an insulting nickname in one fight. It didn’t stop him beating these ‘masters’.

But it’s not just Xu doing it. Here’s another video from a couple of years ago. In white pyjamas we have “The 47-year-old expert Zhu Chunping, who has been practising tai chi for decades” vs Yao Hantian “The 22-year-old Yao has been training kick-boxing for just six months”. Read the report in the South China Morning Post. From the 5 seconds of action in the video we can see Zhu takes up what looks like a version of the San Ti Shi stance from Xing Yi while Yao immediately starts moving, establishing range and holding his hands in a modern guard position. One right hand from Yao, which goes right down the middle of Zhu’s guard and he doesn’t react at all to, and it’s all over.

As for the attitude of trying to pretend these fights aren’t happening… I believe it’s some misguided implementation of Wu De – martial virtue. Why shouldn’t people watch these fights? If you engage in a bout with a ring, a judge, and cameras involved, that’s designed to be streamed or televised then clearly you are now in the entertainment industry. That’s what prize fighting is. If this was some sort of battle for honour or revenge it would all be played out in a dark alley somewhere and nobody would ever know about it.

I think the lessons these videos teach is so valuable that they’re worth posting. You need to keep it real (to some extent at least) if you want to teach “martial arts”. Even if that “real” is realising your limitations, and that you shouldn’t be fighting a 22 year old in a ring when you’re 47 and don’t have any fight experience.

Chinese martial arts are full of fantastic skills and valuable content, but if you spend all your time doing your “body method” training and no time doing fighting training, then don’t expect to be able to fight with it.

And let’s not keep hiding this stuff away – you don’t fix your problems by pretending they don’t exist.

“Here is where you’ll be falling down”.

Happy birthday Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee would have been 80 years old today. Here’s a Bruce Lee Birthday blog from ‘friend of the notebook’ Paul Bowman:

“It was Bruce Lee who effectively introduced the term “martial arts” into the Western lexicon. This may not seem hugely significant. But what it also means is that he sowed the seeds of a new identity: people could henceforth identify as “martial artists.” Ultimately then, although it is true that before Bruce Lee people were practicing what we now call “martial arts,” it was only after Bruce Lee—and perhaps only because of him—that the very entity “martial arts” and the identity “martial artist” came into social and cultural existence.”

Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash