The great mystery of Kung Fu forms

One of the frequent criticisms I hear of the idea that there is a connection between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre and religion is that no respectable Chinese martial arts teacher has ever implied their work comes from dance or spiritual ritual, so the idea is laughable. I have experienced a pretty negative reaction from some of my Chinese martial arts friends to these ideas. The thought that the rough and tough martial art they genuinely suffered to learn and dedicated their lives to had religious or (worse) theatrical origins is anathema to their world view, akin to an insult.

But the question really is, how can they not be theatrical? Just look at Chinese martial arts – of course they’re theatrical!

Here are some questions to ask yourself: Why do we do long complex, showy forms at all? Why is Chinese martial arts still so strongly associated with Lion Dance? Why do its modern day performers so often put on demonstrations for the local community, on stages? Why do performances sometimes have chaotic drumming soundtracks?

I’m sure any competent Chinese martial arts practitioner can produce answers to all these questions based entirely in the physical realm of pugilism – it’s all physical training at the end of the day –  but when you put all these questions together an obvious picture begins to form.

Nobody looks at Capoeira and says, “this has nothing to do with dance”. So, why do most Chinese martial arts practitioners look at their long theatrical forms and say, “this has nothing to do with theatre or religious practice”?

There’s an inherent mystery to Tao Lu, or “forms” found in Chinese martial arts. This great video by The Scholar-General hopes to provide some answers:

What are we really doing when we do martial arts?

This is a fascinating talk between Drs Jared Miracle and Paul Bowman on martial arts. There’s a little section from 31.20 onwards where they get into the miasma that surrounds martial arts and how it can be manipulated for nation building and national identity. the example given is Tae Kwan Do and its need to be ancient. But they go on to talk about how, on a personal level, we often have an idea about what we are doing when we do martial arts that doesn’t necessarily match what we are actually doing or getting out of the martial art we practice.

Power is just one factor. Don’t obsess over it.

Aldo vs McGregor

When was the last time you saw MMA coaches or fans having a massive long, protracted argument about the best way to produce power? I can’t remember it happening. I don’t think that’s because they don’t care about it – they obviously do – but I think they recognise that it’s part of the whole that makes up a fighter, not the only thing to focus on. Being able to take a punch to the face or body without crumpling into the canvas is obviously a more important skill. Being able to produce a powerful stomp into the ground when you’re punching the air, leaving your fist vibrating and shaking to demonstrate the enormity of your power… is very good for show, but what about for real? Can you do that when you’re tired, you’ve already been hit twice in the body and kicked six times in the same leg?

MMA coaches and commentators talk a lot about Conor McGregor’s left. It’s one of the most famous KO weapons in MMA. He’s sent a lot of consciousnesses on a short break to Valhalla with it. I was listening to Coach Zahabi breaking down the Conor McGregor vs Dustin Poirier fight (video below). He calls McGregor the “One punch KO type guy”, with a “kill shot”, a “touch of death”. But on that night the KO didn’t happened. Coach Zahabi talks a lot about about what Poirier did to take the sting out of it – by constantly wearing McGregor down, clinching him, not playing his game.

If you look at the GIF above of Aldo vs McGregor you can see McGregor knocks Aldo out while moving backwards (Tai Chi people, feel free to yell out “Repulse Monkey!” here – it will do you no good, but it will make you feel better 🙂 ) this reveals what’s more important than power – timing. Power as the goal seems fruitless to me – what matters more is timing. If I could bottle timing and drink it I’d be drunk on it all the time!

The internal martial arts, with their emphasis on intricate, subtle and detailed body methods, qi, jin, “internal strength”, (and not much actual fighting), tend to fall prey to this obsession with power too easily. How much power do you really need? My answer is always “enough”. Once you go beyond “enough” then you start to detract from other areas of your game – timing, position, fluidity, flow, etc.. Power is part of the whole system of movement that should go with every Chinese martial art – if you extract that one aspect and look at in isolation then you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Here’s the breakdown by Coach Zahabi:

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.

What it was like learning traditional Chinese martial art in secret during the Cultural Revolution

This is a very informative interview with Ma Yue who is a Mashi Tongbei master. He talks about (amongst other things) what it was like growing up in a traditional martial arts family when the Cultural Revolution happened in China, and he had to be taught in secret. He also talks about the making of the first Shaolin Temple film, which is father was involved in, and what he sees as the many problems with Wu Shu today.

Part 1

Part 2

Do traditional martial arts need to ‘worry’ about MMA?

Is many a true word spoken in jest?

With the explosion on the Internet of videos of MMA fighters knocking out traditional martial artists I think that internal martial arts are feeling (rightly) like they’ve become the undeserved butt of a joke, while at the same time the older generation of teachers is passing away without enough new students to carry on their arts to the same standards. The modern generation don’t want to practice as hard and have other things to be interested in.

Noble institutions like Xing Yi, Baguazhang and Taijiquan, which developed a reputation for being effective, fighty, martial arts during the 1920s and 1930s in China are now starting to be thought of as ‘for health’ only, or useless for fighting with, while MMA is seen as the barometer of effectiveness. Or at least that’s the narrative I see being played out. But I’m just not convinced that this narrative is actually true

Firstly, I don’t think these videos of Xu Xiaodong beating up Kung Fu masters are necessarily about saying MMA is better than internal arts – they’re more about one man’s fight against the Chinese system. One man’s “rage against the machine”, which is the government’s control over the martial arts scene in China. It’s a battle for personal freedom that Kung Fu just happens to have got caught up in. The China state Wu Shu machine is relentless in imposing the “official” version of traditional Chinese martial arts on the population, and that often it has little to do with actual fighting (which gets sidelined into Sanda – Chinese Kickboxing – , which is often divorced from traditional Wu Shu). So-called masters were encouraged to start making outrageous claims about their kung fu abilities on Chinese TV in staged demonstrations that were presented as being real. For pointing out the flaws in this heavily state-promoted view of Wu Shu with his fists, Xu Xiaodong is paying a heavy price of social restrictions and persecution. His travel is limited and his freedoms are curtailed.

Over here in the West I often hear serious Kung Fu practitioners worry that if MMA is seen as the be-all and end-all of fighting then traditional styles will eventually fade away, and the evolution of martial arts will go down a sports-based cul-de-sac, in which you “aren’t even allowed to kick somebody in the head when they’re on the ground!”

I see things differently. MMA training is really rough (or at least, it is in most places). In terms of what the vast majority of martial arts practitioners want, it’s a fringe element. Your average office worker has no interest in turning up to work on Monday with a black eye and busted nose. The vast majority of martial arts practitioners are still in traditional arts, which might be more ‘street’ orientated, but tend to be less rough in their practice. They’re filling village halls with karate and tae kwon do classes, or doing judo at university, or BJJ at their local academy and Tai Chi in the park. Or at least they used to be before COVID hit. The percentage of these people that want to push their bodies to the limit and be beaten up on a regular basis is vanishingly small.

MMA is also a form of entertainment designed for television. When the big MMA stars compete at UFC on a Saturday and the crowd goes “Whoo!”, when a spinning head kick finds its target, I bet the numbers at local Tae Kwon Do clubs go up the next week, not down. I see MMA as a great promoter of all martial arts. It’s quite possible Conor McGregor has done more to promote traditional karate than anybody else in history!

I agree there’s a real risk that if MMA is seen as the only arbiter of ‘what works’ in combat then martial arts could evolve down a sports cul-de-sac, but I’d argue that MMA is pretty damn close to ‘real’, and the gains made by seeing what works in the cage compared to what passed as ‘real’ in martial arts before the UFC is like night and day.

People are not so stupid that they can’t understand the difference between a sport with rules and a martial art for self defence. And anyway, sure it’s against the rules to kick an opponent in the head when their knee is touching the ground, but who the hell is getting kicked full power in the head when they’re on the ground in a martial arts class anyway?

What we’re actually seeing is the end of the era of the ‘death touch’ and ‘ling kong jin’ no-touch nonsense that found a fertile environment to grow in a martial arts world that had lost touch with reality. An MMA guy in China beating up fake kung fu masters could just be part of the course correction that is required in the path of martial arts needs to walk right now.

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”.

Anti-vax jokers are everywhere in martial arts

Be careful who you train with, because anti-vax jokers are everywhere in martial arts.

Photo by Jhefferson Santos on Pexels.com

The COVID 19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the world economy, and it’s been equally as bad on martial arts practice. Chinese martial arts have proved more resistant to complete collapse because the majority of the training can be done solo. Taolu or ‘forms’ are prevalent and can all be done outdoors and socially distanced, and on Zoom. Things like BJJ however have really suffered, since it requires close contact. A solo drill version of BJJ is really just an exercise class. 

Now there is talk of a vaccine for COVID 19, and maybe before Christmas. The vaccine has the potential to return us to ‘normal’ in the martial arts. At least we’ll be able to train together safely again. You’d think that would be great news for martial artists, but now I’m noticing just how many of my martial arts associates won’t take a vaccine, because they are complete anti-vax nut cases. Sorry! I mean “vaccine hesitant”. Yes, that’s what we have to call them now.

All the conspiracy theories, stuff about Bill Gates wanting to microchip the world, COVID being made up, it all being a plan-demic, etc, it’s all, 100%, posted on my Facebook feed by martial artists, not by the other people I’m friends with.

For example, there’s one kung fu teacher I had from around 30 years ago, who I really respected, who has turned out to be a full on anti-vaxxer. He hasn’t even got his child immunised against measles because “I believe in Chinese medicine”. Well, that’s nice for you (man), but you’re putting weak, old and vulnerable people at risk from a killer disease because you have chosen to ignore science and not to get your child immunised against a potentially fatal disease. Your child might be healthy and fine, but they can pass it on to somebody who is recovering from cancer treatment and has a weakened immune system. But you don’t really give a crap about that do you? You’re too busy jabbing yourself with acupuncture needles and drinking herbs to care.

Next time you break a limb, just put some crystals on it. Job done.
Photo by Alina Vilchenko on Pexels.com

As you can tell, it makes me angry. So, apologies, but I’m going to go on a bit of a rant. 

There’s a reason nobody has polio anymore. We had a vaccine, and enough people took it that we achieved a herd immunity. The less people that take a vaccine the less effective it is overall, which is why measles is making a comeback in parts of the UK and the US.

“But we don’t know the long term effects!”

Hey, guess what, nobody knew the long term effects of any vaccine. It’s not like these new vaccines haven’t been tested – that’s all they’ve been doing to them. Testing them over and over to make sure they’re safe. History has told us that bad side effects happen within 2 weeks of taking a new vaccine, or generally not at all. Nothing is 100% risk free, and nobody is saying it is, but it’s all about balancing the risks. 

Perhaps it’s social media, and the sorts of idiots who post links and make youtube videos packed full of conspiracy theories that are to blame. But it’s the people who think watching them counts as “research” that are the problem. And why do so many marital arts people specifically succumb to this? That, I don’t know. They seem particularly vulnerable to strange beliefs. It probably explains why martial arts cults exist and why kung fu masters in China keep getting beaten up by a middle aged MMA guy.


And before you hit the reply button with “Yeah, but what about..” Just don’t. It’s your very whataboutism that is part of the problem. You spread confusion about vaccines every time you post these things – you’re part of the problem. Please stop it!

Anyway, rant over.