I’ve been meaning to read the story of Matthew Polly’s time spent training at the famous Shaolin monastery for years, but I finally got around to it recently thanks to my Audible.co.uk subscription*. And what a great read it is! I’m sure we can all identify with the teenage Polly, unsure of himself and his place in the world, who falls under the spell of Kung Fu and decides to dedicate his life to the pursuit of it as some kind of escapism from the pressures and fakeness of the modern world. To Polly, Kung Fu represented something sublime, pure and otherworldly that actually meant something. But unlike most of us, he did more than just dream about it, he actually went to Shaolin and lived there for almost a year, at a time when there was no Internet, no easy way to get there and China had only recently opened up to foreigners, so most Chinese people had never even seen a Laowai in the flesh before.
Polly’s story could best be summed up as a sequence of misadventures punctuated by moments of sublime martial arts inspiration. He manages to get into all sorts of scrapes involving accidentally offending senior party officials, being entered into a tournament against a San Da champion and hilarious misadventures with the opposite sex. Part Bill Bryson-style travelogue, and part kung fu geek-out, this is a rewarding, even emotional, look into what the Shaolin monks were really like in the 1990s, just as their international fame as stage performers was starting to spread and take over from the mystical image everybody had of them from the Kung Fu TV show. (Interestingly, at one point Polly watches the Kung Fu TV show with the monks who laughed their heads off at the idea of burning a dragon and tiger into your arms by lifting a hot anvil and dropping it into the snow – “why would you do that???”)
What you really get from this book is a sense of what the Shaolin monks are really like back then, and how much more human, relatable and down to earth they are compared to the lofty ideas we all have of them. It answers all the big questions like, how good are they at actually fighting, how seriously they take the “monk” side of their lives and how they train iron first, arm, head and even iron crotch.
The little snatches of Chinese you pick up by reading the book are also a hidden bonus and bring the characters to life marvellously. By the end of the book you feel like they are your friends and you know them just as well as Polly did. Anybody who likes this blog would love this book. Recommended.
N.B. The cover with a monk holding a Burger King bag is representative of the idea of American values seeping into China, but a little misleading as there were no Burger Kings in China then, and certainly nothing like that in the rural backwater of the Shaolin village.
*Like a number of other books, American Shaolin is included in the cost of an Audible subscription, so if you are a subscriber you get it free.
“When you can take the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.” – Master Kan
Here’s the blurb:
“Did Western movies and TV lead to the creation of the Shaolin Warrior monks? Did the modern Shaolin fake something that had already been reinvented anyway? Did the Qing Dynasty really destroy the Shaolin temple, or did they instead create it? What influence did three subsequent phases of communism have on Shaolin? Was there a Southern Shaolin Temple, and what about the modern stuff at Wudang Mountain? These questions and more answered in our new episode on the infamous temple and its monks.”
Seeing these old masters from Taiwan looking so good while practicing their external arts has made me wonder about switching my priorities.
I’ve been enjoying the recent series of videos from Will on his Monkey Steals Peach YouTube Channel of his tour of Taiwan Kung Fu schools. The latest one features Long Fist. It’s been great to see so much good technique demonstrated and also a few of the younger students, proving the arts have a future.
But of course, a lot of the practitioners Will has featured are older, but that doesn’t stop them being proficient in dealing out the ass whoppings. This has made me reflect on my own training priorities. A lot of these fit-looking older men are training in arts that would be classified as ‘external’ like Long Fist and Mantis, rather than the so-called ‘internal’ arts like Tai Chi or Xing Yi, which are more normally associated with older people.
Perhaps shifting focus to these external arts, which have longer postures with more twisting and stretching, and are practiced more vigorously is a good idea as you get older?
I’ve got to admit, that while I do feel good after a few run throughs of the Tai Chi form, I probably feel more energised and exercised after a few runs through of a Choy Li Fut form. My cardiovascular system is placed under more stressed for one thing, and my joints get moved through a larger range of motion.
“When you practice the form, the slower the better!” – Yang Cheng-Fu
Of course, Yang Cheng-Fu in his 10 Important Points, famously used this distinction between internal and external to explain that external arts were “harmful” for you, and the fact that you don’t get out of breath doing Tai Chi proved its superiority! He wrote (recorded by Chen Weiming, and translated by Jerry Karrin):
“External martial artists prize leaping and stomping, and they do this until breath (chi) and strength are exhausted, so that after practicing they are all out of breath. In Tai Chi Chuan we use quiescence to overcome movement, and even in movement, still have quiescence. So when you practice the form, the slower the better! When you do it slowly your breath becomes deep and long, the chi sinks to the dantian, and naturally there is no harmful constriction or enlargement of the blood vessels. If the student tries carefully they may be able to comprehend the meaning behind these words.”
Yang Cheng Fu
Now, it doesn’t take a genius to make an observation that Yang Cheng-Fu could have done with losing a few pounds himself, and that since he died relatively young his thoughts on longevity should be taken with a pinch of salt. Frankly, I think he could have done with getting a bit out of breath now and again!
It’s also fairly obvious to anybody who has seen Chen style Taijiquan that ‘leaping and stomping’ can be a part of Taijiquan too.
However, I do think there’s something to what he’s saying. When moving slowly and achieving a mediative state of mind you can experience profound levels of relaxation that do feel different to other types of exercise. When you “slow your breath” and it becomes “deep and long” it can feel wonderful. However, is that enough? I think it’s a mistake to use this type of exercise to replace more traditional cardiovascular exercise, and your body will not thank you in the long run.
Why not do both? Tai Chi has its place, but so do external arts of the Shaolin variety. Perhaps the best approach is to not skew too heavily in favour of either, but to adopt a balanced approach where you train both equally? Let me know what you think.
I was just catching up with a recent episode of Will Wain’s trip to Taiwan to visit various martial arts schools. The episode I was watching was about a style called Six Harmony Mantis. Six Harmony Mantis looks like (and is!) a combination of Xing Yi/Xin Yi and Preying Mantis Kung Fu.
What I like about it is that the way the two arts have been combined is exactly the same way I would have done – take the best bits of both. So, it’s the Xing Yi footwork and body method with a few cool Mantis techniques on top. It’s a great idea!
But what really caught my attention about this episode was the second half, which is a fascinating look into the living tradition of Chinese Folk Religion and how its practiced in Taiwan. I mentioned in a previous post that there are a lot of influences on Chinese Martial Art that don’t come from a military background, and this is a strong one – Chinese Folk Religion. It’s a blend of all sorts of things, and a good contender for being the most widely practiced religion in the world.
In this episode you can learn about family temples, the gods that are honoured on them, spirit possession and more. I think spirit possession and martial arts have a big connection. Often when a person is possessed by a war-like god they perform war-like movements. A bit like marital arts forms…
When I started in Tai Chi I was taught that “Sifu” was a rank you were awarded only after years of dedicated practice when a certain level of mastery had been obtained in your martial art. Then one of my students took a trip to Hong Kong and it turned out that everybody was called Sifu! Your taxi driver, your chef in a restaurant, a car mechanic, etc. it just meant somebody who was skilled at something.
Sifu is Cantonese, Shifu (simplified Chinese: 师傅 or 师父; traditional Chinese: 師傅 or 師父; pinyin: shīfù) is Mandarin.
The character 師/师 means “skilled person” or “teacher,” while 傅 means “tutor” and 父 means “father.”
So, it wasn’t wrong to call your martial arts teacher your Sifu, but it wasn’t a rank that could be awarded. Something had got lost in translation.
In Brazilian JiuJItsu (BJJ) we don’t have Sifus or Shifus, but we do have Professors. That sounds even grander than Shifu, yet how many people know that Professor is just the Portuguese word for teacher? It’s like saying “coach”, but in a culture like ours that has real Professors (i.e. people working in academia) it gets a sort of elevated status. (Actually, professor is a slippery term in the West as well, because in North America it can mean anybody who is a researcher or teacher in a university, whereas in Europe it is generally used to indicate distinction in a field.)
Professor is, unlike Sifu a rank that can be awarded mainly because BJJ has a belt culture. (I’m sure that if Chinese marital art had a belt/rank culture then Sifu /Shifu would inevitably become the black belt rank.)
But BJJ has its own weird cultural oddities. Certain BJJ teams and academies have rules that every black belt must be addressed formally as Professor by lower ranked students at all times. How seriously these rules are taken tends to be up to the academy owner though.
I’m a professor myself, but I never insist somebody call me professor. That would be nuts. I just let them call me whatever they’re comfortable with, but I don’t object to it if they do call me professor. There are some black belts who make a big fuss if you call them professor, going as far as making fun of the person who said it or going on a mad rant. I think that’s just rude. It’s just as bad as being one of the people who insist on being called professor!
I prefer a middle way. Some people like the whole rank and respect thing, I get that, and they’re just trying to be respectful by calling me Professor, so I appreciate their effort. I just don’t make a thing out of it.
I’ve always believed that trying to control what other people do or say too much never turns out well in the long run. The same can be applied to martial technique. Whenever I try and force something to happen in a sparring situation, it rarely turns out well, even if I’m really good at it! And this is where my personal philosophy in BJJ aligns perfectly with Tai Chi. I find it much better to ‘go with what the guy is giving you’ rather than to try and impose your will on them. If he’s giving you his leg then stop trying to go for his arm and take his goddamn leg and do something with that instead!
It’s amazing how simple this strategy sounds, but how hard it is to apply against somebody really trying to get you, with real resistance. It’s so tempting to try and ‘just do your thing’ and impose your will on the opponent. Yes, sure, this can work, and you see it work all the time in competition. The problem is it requires serious amounts of athleticism and effort to achieve. It’s a high risk, yet high reward strategy. And one of the risks is that you might get injured because you’re usually going to have to use some force against force. I’m too old for that type of game, and I’d also like to say, too wise, but that sounds a bit pompous, especially when I’m the same guy who just this morning tried to feed that cat my (human) breakfast cereal by mistake.
When you catch yourself doing that, it’s hard to think of yourself as a Sifu, Shifu or a Professor. You’re just a guy who wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing, and who now owns a cat with a newfound taste for Chocolate Chip Mini Weetabix.
I think this post is perhaps a little half formed, but I want to get on to writing up my last lesson with Bear, so I’m going to put it out as is. Let the pieces fall where they may…
An interesting new video has been released by Will (a recent guest on my Tai Chi Notebook podcast) about his recent visit to Taiwan where he got to talk to various Taiwanese martial arts masters. It’s the start of a series and it looks like it’s going to be great – Will gets to walk down the smokey back alleys of Taiwan to find the martial artists and martial arts schools in Taiwan you wish you could. What’s not to like? Watch it here:
The blurb reads: “In the first episode, I meet up with my friend John Eusebio @longfistmantis to visit the bookstore of Liu Kang Yi. Mr Liu’s bookstore, Wuxue Shuguan has a huge collection of martial arts books, in both Chinese and English, and he has also spent decades collecting old and rare manuscripts. In this video he shares his insights on the development of martial arts from a military combat art, to an integrated system of both combat and health practice, as we see it today. He also shows us a copy of the Bubishi, the foundational manual of Okinawan Karate.”
Mr Liu talks about internal training, and how it relates to strengthening the tendons and fascia of the body, so that it can toughen and that can lead to more strength “qi” in the body. This all seems fairly accurate to me. (There’s discussion to be had about whether these methods were always a part of Chinese marital arts, or added in later from a different tradition, but that’s by the by). Then he talks about the 3 phases of development of Chinese martial arts, which is the part I wanted to pick up on.
To paraphrase, he says, the first is only martial training and not cultivating: it’s pure combat. No focus on health. This is the military period. The second is once it entered the civilian population. They train both combat and cultivate health, but separately, developing things like Yijinjing and Baduanjing. The third evolution was to combine combat and health, to bring both aspects together. Taijiquan is a good example of this.
Now, this is not a bad way of looking at the evolution of Chinese martial arts, but I think it’s a bit reductive, and crucially, it misses out a lot of other influences.
Lorge’s position is laid out clearly in the introduction to his book starts with this:
I actually really enjoyed Peter’s lecture about the history of Chinese martial arts at the Martial Arts Studies conference 2017, but it seems that both Mr Lorge and Mr Liu both view Chinese martial arts as a kind of offshoot of military training, and nothing more, and in both cases the subject doesn’t even seem to be up for debate, it’s just presented as self obvious. The parallel between both of them is that they are relying only on written sources as their research into the matter. In fact, a lot of the cultural traditions of ‘common folk’ were not recorded, since writing belonged to the upper classes.
Now, I’ll admit, there can be no doubt that the intermingling of civilian and military life had a massive influence on martial arts practiced by people in villages, particularly after the Ming Dynasty army was disbanded and returned to civilian life after its defeat by the invading Manchu’s, who seized control of Beijing in 1644. Xing Yi in particular is one of the martial arts that traces its origins to that event, to military methods kept alive by ex soldiers who were now civilians who had had their weapons taken away. A review of Xing Yi’s existing methods and techniques today reveals a clear bias towards methods that work with a spear, which would have been the dominant weapon in the military for soldiers, and also a concern for facing an attacker who is in front of you, not to the side, which is another feature of military arts. However, most other Chinese marital arts are more biased towards barehand actions than weapons, contain sometimes elaborate sequences that would appear to be more at home on a stage than in a street fight, or involve making specific hand gestures or actions that hint at a ritual quality, that it’s clear, to me at least, that something more is going on here. Rather than just military methods being translated into personal self-protection methods, we are seeing other influences.
In China, there is a long history of martial arts being used in religious ritual, festival culture, spirit possession, street entertainment, Xiqu (Chinese theatre) and Wuxia (which literally means “martial heroes”, a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China). I think those traditions have as much influence on the martial arts passed down to us today as the military does, and in a lot of cases, more. But, if you mention this to proponents of the “pure pugilism” brand of martial artist, they usually try and explain to you that all these things came out of marital arts. i.e. martial arts came first, and the dance/performance/theatre/ritual, etc came second. In fact, Lorge argues exactly this at 43.00 minutes in his lecture (which I still enjoyed!), despite cataloging wrestling going back centuries as pure entertainment for the Royal Court. This attempt to explain away the obvious flaw reminds me of when people present funky martial applications to form movements that clearly don’t look like marital movements. There are some frankly ridiculous martial application out there from well know teachers who, rather than just admitting that there’s no real martial application of this move that makes any sense, come up with something that just looks silly.
I’ve talked to a lot of martial artists on my podcast (20 episodes so far!) and I quite often broach this subject to see what kind of reaction I get, and I’ve found that the martial artists who live in Asia, or have lived there for some time, tend to have no problem with the idea that Chinese martial arts is a broad church of methods derived from various traditions. It tends to be the people outside of that culture who have a problem with what they’re learning not being a super-deadly killing art created for one purpose only – to be the best fighter! I suppose it’s because so many of these cultural traditions are still alive and well in Asia today that it’s hard to deny their existence. Just look around you. Martial arts training halls tend to have shrines in them where incense is burned as part of a religious ritual. Or the martial arts school participates in local religious festivals by enacting Lion and Dragon Dance routines, or giving a demonstration of martial arts. Or there is a semi-religious ceremony involved in becoming an indoor disciple, etc.
I think two things are going on here. First there’s a reaction against the modern Chinese trend of turning marital arts into a gymnastic demonstrations instead of fighting arts, and secondly there’s a reaction against the modern trend for making Chinese martial arts appear as spiritual and mystical in the same way Yoga is.
As Charles Holcomb wrote in 1990 , “Everywhere in China the martial arts either present themselves in the guise of simple exercises or are shrouded in arcane religious mysteries. Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills. The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?” 
I think that process of trying to present the martial arts as true hand-to-hand combat skills is very much alive and well today, I mean, its probably what most people are looking for when they start Kung Fu. I certainly was. But I think it’s also something of a reaction to the introduction of Chinese martial arts to the West, which came off the back of the Kung Fu TV series (which presented martial arts as mystical from Shaolin monks) and followed off the back of mystics like Alan Watts who presented a very counter culture sort of take on Eastern religion.
While there’s nothing wrong with that, my feeling is that it misses out on the wider, and weirder, historical context of the arts we practice today. They’re a rich blend of various traditions, and we should treat them as such.
 Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts by Charles Holcombe, Historian. Vol. 52 No. 3 May.1990. Pp. 411-431 Copyright by Michigan State University Press
My guest for this episode is Will Wain Williams. Will has a background in Taiji Mantis Kung Fu, which he trained in China, where he also lived for 13 years. He’s traveled around Asia documenting ancient Kung Fu systems for his YouTube Channel Monkey Steals Peach ( https://www.youtube.com/@MonkeyStealsPeach ).
I talk to Will’s about his travels documenting kung fu styles, as well as his upcoming trip to Taiwan and how he’s recently started Brazilian Jiujitsu.
Have you ever wished that running your martial arts academy was more accessible and more efficient? If so, it may be time to look into the latest Martial Arts Management Software.
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If you’re wondering whether your school needs this software, here are some signs indicating you should consider using it!
Billing and Collection Issues
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Members Tracking Has Become a Problem
Another common issue facing martial arts academies is keeping track of their members. With so many students coming and going, it can be difficult to keep track of all the different people training at your academy.
Missed Expiring Memberships
One of the biggest challenges when it comes to member tracking is ensuring that you are never missing expiring memberships. Martial arts management software can help to make this process easier, as the software can send automatic reminders to your members about renewing their memberships in a timely manner.
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Spending Hours On Admin Tasks
If managing financial reports and cash flow takes much more time than teaching Martial Arts, Martial Arts Management Software can help you save time and money. By automating processes such as billing and collecting data and information, you can spend more time on the things that matter most to your business.
Additionally, using martial arts management software often comes along with other benefits, such as improved cash flow and reduced costs. If you want to streamline your academy and make it more efficient, it’s worth considering investing in this type of software.
Messy, Disorganized Paper Filing Systems
The more your martial arts studio grows, the harder it is to keep up with all the paperwork for student registrations, attendance compiled, payment due and instructor qualifications-not to mention classes and business operations that can become confused without proper record keeping.
With Martial Arts Management Software, all of your data and information are stored digitally, making it easy to access and update at any time. This not only helps you to stay organized, but it also helps to keep your data secure, as paper files are often lost or damaged.
Lack Of Financial Reporting Tools
Every martial arts school needs to have efficient financial reporting tools in place, but all too often these can be lacking. This is where martial arts management software can help fill the gap.
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Inexperienced or Overwhelmed Staff Members
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If any of these issues sound familiar, then it’s time to consider using Martial Arts Management Software! With the right system in place, you can take control of your business and focus on running a successful academy.
In the comments section Richard asked a good question in response to my last post. I wrote a brief reply in the comments, but I thought I’d flesh it out a bit as a blog post, because it’s an interesting topic.
The question is, ‘what’s the point of Tai Chi applications?’ Actually, to be fair, he was talking specifically about the one application video in my last post, not about Tai Chi in general. But personally I think you can extrapolate the question to include the wider Tai Chi universe, and that would be where I’d look for my answer.
There are plenty of videos of respected masters of various styles of Tai Chi running though the applications of their form movements and producing a series of very questionable applications that would require a perfect storm of events to happen for them to work. I don’t want to post them here because I think it would distract from the point I’m making, but look up ‘Name of famous master’ and ‘applications’ on YouTube and you’ll find them.
I really like the phrase “a perfect storm” to describe Tai Chi applications because as far as I can see, most (if not all) Tai Chi applications one would require a ‘perfect storm’ of attacker, positioning and timing for the application work. Therefore the one application video I posted previously is not particularly different to any other Tai Chi application video, at least to me.
That might not be a popular opinion, but I think it’s true.
Contrast this with a martial art like Choy Li Fut. I’ll choose CLF because it’s a kind of a typical Chinese Kung Fu style. It’s has some key techniques like Sao Choy – sweeping fist and Charp Choy – leopard fist and Pao Choy, a kind of big uppercut, Gwa Choy, a backlist, for example.
Here’s 10 of the ‘basic’ techniques that you find in CLF:
If you watch a Choy Li Fut form then you’ll see these 10 techniques crop up again and again, but each form enables you to practice them in different combinations:
Or check out the famous first form of Wing Chun – Siu Lim Tao, it’s a series of techniques performed very, very accurately so you can refine and practice them:
Now when you do those techniques in a form, you are performing a technique that would work exactly as shown. The only thing you need for success is to actually contact with an opponent and do the move correctly at the right time.
Tai Chi as a marital art just doesn’t work in the same way. We don’t have a toolbag of techniques designed to be pull out and used ‘as is’. Ward off is not a fundamental technique of Tai Chi – instead Peng, the ‘energy’ you use in performing ward-off, is the important thing. And I think this leads to a lot of confusion about what Tai Chi forms are.
So, if we don’t have techniques that exist in the same way as other marital arts, how are you supposed to fight with Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is a set of principles and a strategy that together make it a martial art. In a nutshell the strategy part can be summed up with the 5 keywords of push hands – listen, stick, yield, neutralise and attack. The principles cover how the body is used, resulting natural power derived from relaxation, ground force and a series of openings and closings expressed in the 8 energies. When the principles of Tai Chi are properly internalised you become something like a sphere, which can redirect force applied to you with ease and respond as appropriate. All these things are elucidated in the Tai Chi Classics.
Now that short description probably leaves a lot out, of what Tai Chi is, but at least it’s a starting point.
If that’s your goal, then putting emphasis on individual techniques doesn’t make much sense. Everything you do now exists in relation to an opponent, rather than existing on its own terms. The Tai Chi form then becomes a series of examples of how you might respond to specific attacks. In essence, it is a series of perfect storms, one after the other, put in a sequence that is long enough that you start to internalise the principles of movement and energy use. And obviously the strategy part requires a partner, hence why push hands exists.
I think that’s also the reason why Tai Chi forms are so long and slow, btw, so you internalise things.
As a final note, I’d say the jury is still out as to whether the Tai Chi way is the best approach to teaching people to fight. It’s interesting to note that a lot of martial arts innovators tend towards this same nebulous ‘technique-free’ style of training the further they get into their research into martial arts. Bruce Lee for example, was moving towards freedom and the technique of no technique in his later years – see his 1971 manifesto ‘Liberate yourself from Classical Karate’ for example. Then there’s Wang Xiang Zhai who created Yi Quan by removing fixed forms and routines from Xing Yi Quan and mixing it with whatever else he had studied. See his criticisms of other Kung Fu styles in his 1940 interview, for example.
In contrast a lot of the martial arts that have actually proven effective in modern combat events have turned out to be very, very technique based. Brazilian Jiujitsu, for example, is taught through very specific techniques. So is MMA. Karate, for all of Bruce Lee’s criticisms often does very well in competition against other more esoteric styles because it contains some no nonsense techniques.
Another factor to think of is that while Tai Chi may have those lofty goals of producing a formless fighter in its classical writing, it often isn’t taught like that in reality. One of the martial arts that Wang Xiang Zhai is criticising as having lost its way and become a parody of itself in that 1940 essay linked to above, is, in fact, Tai Chi Chuan!
So, as ever with marital arts, I think the answer is: it’s complicated.
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:
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.
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.
This Egyptian burial chamber mural from Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum’s tomb dates to aroudn 2400 BC.
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!)
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“.