The boxing is tightly reeled

The Classic of Fighting is part of Yue Fei’s 10 Thesis, a collection of works also known as the Xing Yi Classics. (I once got into a bit of a tiff about these documents being attributed to Chen Changxin in error, but that’s another story.)

Photo by Dan Galvani Sommavilla on Pexels.com

The Classic of Fighting is one of the more practical works in the classics, and contains some fascinating insights on martial matters. Amongst the verse is this part:

“The outstanding person boxes through freely releasing technique. It is also useful if the boxing is tightly reeled using Qi in the haft grip”. 

The translation I’m using here is by my teacher Damon Smith and Shan Gao, and is reproduced in full in Xing Yi Quan, A study of Tai and Tuo Xing by Glen Board.

“Haft” here refers to the bit of the spear that you hold, but the same thing applies to holding a sword by the handle.

Later on in the classic it expands on what using Qi in the haft grip means:

“When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body; when one thing extends the whole body extends. The key to extending is to gain extension in the entrance; the key to the grip is to gain the grip from the root, as if coiling explosively. The coiling should become tight, like the power that exists in the bow at full draw.”

I really like this description as it gets across the feeling that needs to develop with the sword or spear as you use it day in, day out. So when it says “the coiling should become tight” I think it means over time. When you grip, it becomes like your whole body gripping the weapon, and if you want to move the weapon you have to move your whole body in a coiling manner. In fact, the best way to manipulate a weapon with your whole body is using reeling – spiral actions that move inwards and outwards. Our bodies are built for spiral movements. 

It’s also worth noting that the coiling is not done slowly, but explosively, although I’d suggest starting to find these coiling movements slowly and without using force first. If you want a simple exercise for developing coiling movements, then I’ve got one of those as well.

The other thing I wanted to mention before I go was the use of the word “boxing” here. Boxing would imply empty hand martial arts, but it instantly goes on to talk about a “haft grip”, which implies weapons. Of course, “fist” “boxing” and “martial art” are all implied by “Quan”, so it’s all open to interpretation.

Either way, it’s long been said that Xing Yi is a spear fighting art that is done mainly bare hand. The frequent references to weapons in its classics would seem to confirm this theory.

Take it outside

Photo by Nick Bondarev on Pexels.com

Another thing that sword practice does is force you to practice outside. Practicing martial arts outside is not something that’s popular in the UK. Village halls and sports centres across the land resound to the sound of a million “Ki-ah!”s, but if you practice martial arts outside you are instantly branded a weirdo.

If people in the UK see you practicing martial arts outside they shout stuff at you, or do a Bruce Lee impression. It seems to be part of our culture. It’s not like this in other countries. Inner Mongolia is a great example – its indigenous wrestling culture stretches back to caveman times, and is still practiced to this day outside on the grass.

“Inner Mongolians live a simple life that’s rich in human connection, connection with the earth and sky. This is something that wrestling brings us closer to.”

Sadly, today not only is Mongol language and culture under threat from the Chinese state, of which Inner Mongolia is a region, but wrestling itself is also under threat. As the Monogol language, identity and culture is destroyed, so people lose motivation to wrestle.

As this article on Bloody Elbow says:

“Em adds their thoughts to this with, “Mongols all over, especially the Mongols in the grasslands and the smaller towns, are depressed and sad. There’s a hanging feeling of hopelessness. It’s made wrestling difficult to do. People aren’t motivated to train, nor are they mentally focused. Their thoughts are elsewhere, which distracts you from having that ‘feeling’ during a match. Yet, the show must go on and a few Naadam have happened recently and it’s allowed wrestlers to get back to competing, uniting, and sharing a common goal of keeping their culture alive. Wrestling is one way to do this. Winter Training began in October and there is an even greater push to spread the art and culture internationally too.””

But the outlook does not look good.

“There is no doubt that if the PRC continues its forced assimilation of Mongolian culture, that this wrestling art will become forever changed. In turn, it can also impact the competitive landscape of Sumo, Judo, Shuai Jiao, Freestyle, and others. Bökh is simply too intertwined within what it means to be Mongolian, for the sport to not feel massive ramifications from cultural turmoil and forced influences from outside traditions.”

But to get back to weapons. Weapons make you practice outside, so you discover your own connection to earth and sky. Just try swinging a sword around inside for 5 minutes and you realise why.

Of course, in the UK it rains a lot. I find that I’m ok with practicsing fast moving arts like Xing Yi sword outside in the rain. It doesn’t seem to bother me. Slow moving Tai Chi forms in the rain however are miserable, and as for Zhan Zhuang standing practice – forget it. 

When it’s raining, that stuff belongs in the Ger.

Photo by Nick Bondarev on Pexels.com

Threading into one – Shen Fa and weapons

Day 3 of my experiment with switching my training around so that weapons (specifically sword) are the mainstay of my practice, and changes are already happening.

Today I want to talk about Shen Fa, which translates as “body method”. You could call it whatever you want really, but it just means “the way you move”. Xing Yi has a very detailed Shen Fa and in bare hand practice you have to make your body do it. In contrast, using a sword almost teases it out of the body. The key to Xing Yi Shen Fa is learning to use your body as a coordinated whole. If you start “using your arm” and muscling it, then nothing seems to work as it should.

As it says in the Xing Yi Classics:

“(When) the top wishes to move, the bottom automatically follows. The bottom wishes to move, the top will automatically lead. (When) the top and the bottom move, the center section will attack. (When) the center section moves, the top and the bottom will coordinate. Internal and external are combined, the front and the rear mutually required. This is what is called “threading into one.”

You could say that the sword forces you to do this threading, by using your whole body to do each move. I mentioned before that my teacher emphasised using a heavy sword, and that is part of the reason why. (The other is that this style of sword is for going through armour, but that’s another topic).

I’m focussing on just one Xing Yi animal for my practice at the moment – Bear Eagle. It’s quite a lengthy ‘form’ by Xing Yi standards (although much shorter than a typical Chinese sword forms”), so there are lots of variation in the moves involved. In Xing Yi you’re free to do the forms fast – in fact, sometimes, the faster the better. That means you need to “flick”, “jab” and “swoosh” (I’ll spare you the technical terms!) a pretty heavy sword through lots of very quick techniques. If you are using your body in an uncoordinated way then it’s simply not possible to control a heavy sword at speed with momentum and with the accuracy required.

I noticed that an older post of mine on the Principles of XinYi seems to have generated a lot of interest lately. While Xin Yi and Xing Yi have evolved to have a different look, they are both rooted in the same idea of threading into one, which originated from spear use.

Incidentally, I’ve decided to focus on sword not spear for my weapons practice – I’ll go over why another time, but one reason is that I don’t own a long enough spear. Needs must when the Devil drives hard!

Sword as your main practice

Sorry there haven’t been many blog posts lately. I just didn’t feel inspired to write anything, and when I don’t feel inspired, following the Tai Chi principle, I don’t like to force it.

Something has got me back into writing recently though. I was having a conversation with a friend about Chinese marital arts and specifically weapons, and I thought – ‘well, instead of trying to describe things in words, I can just show you this on Zoom’, and I ended up teaching part of a sword form. What a time to be alive! It’s great that we can do this. When I started martial arts there was no such thing as the Internet, and if you couldn’t make it to see your teacher all you got was the occasional crappy VHS tape to learn from. Now we can Zoom between continents in seconds. I love the spontaneity of it.

As usual, the process of having to teach something means you get as much out of it as the person learning – you have to riffle out your old memory box, and then practice it hard enough so that it’s polished back up to a decent level before you teach it. I’d definitely put my Xing Yi sword on the back burner to focus on other things since lockdown began back in March, so getting back into it was an absolute pleasure. I miss the physicality of it, and the subtlety.

What occurred to me is that we (the general corpus of Chinese martial arts practitioners) tend to practice bare hand as our main art, then tack on weapons as an afterthought. Historically (and I’m generalising here, but stick with me), it was always the other way around. Our precious bare hand forms are actually more recent things, tacked on the end of weapons systems. Wing Chun practitioners, for example, spend most of their form training time practicing Siu Lim Tao, not butterfly knives. This got me thinking… what happens if we swap it back to the way it used to be? 

What if, instead of heading outdoors to do Chi Kung, Tai Chi practice and Kung Fu each morning,  I instead picked up my sword and did sword routines, then tacked on a few barehand bits on at the end if I’ve got time?

I’m going to experiment with this idea for a couple of weeks and see how it feels. 

What I usually find is that practicing barehand does nothing for your sword practice, but practicing with a sword doesn’t seem to knock back your bare hand practice as much as you think it would: It’s much easier to transition from weapon to bare hand, than it is to transition from bare hand to weapon.

Even after a couple of days I can feel the physical difference. My forearms and wrists ache a bit from lack of conditioning. The sword I use is quite heavy – 800 grams, I think – and it’s a replica of a Ming Dynasty sword, hand made by Tigers Den in the UK. It’s great. I’ve put some tape over the handle, because it was slipping in the cold weather. That might ruin the esthetic, but at least it makes it look like a “used” weapon, rather than something that you hang on the wall.

Anyway, back to Zoom. Of course, as soon as I stepped outside to wave my sword around it started raining. This is Britain, after all. However I managed to get my laptop somewhere dry enough that it was only me getting wet, not the machine, and taught a few moves. It all went rather well I think. We’re going to do it again this week.

The whole thing brought back a lot of memories about practicing Xing Yi sword in the rain somewhere in a field back in the “naughties”, as the 2000s was called. My teacher used to be very into practicing outdoors in nature, and his mood positively lifted the worse the weather got and the further away from other people we got! There’s something to be said for not giving in to nature and working with it, no matter what it throws at you.

But, anyway, I think having the sword as your main “thing”, rather than it existing on the periphery of your practice, could lead to some interesting results. I’ll experiement and see. Let me know what you think, or if you’re doing something similar.

Xing Yi Snake: sword

I was looking through some old Republican era Xing Yi manuals on the excellent Brennan Translation website recently and was surprised to discover one of them had some Xing Yi animal sword forms included – Snake and Bear Eagle!

Images from 形意拳術抉微 SELECTED SUBTLETIES OF THE XINGYI BOXING ART 劉殿琛 by Liu Dianchen [1920] translation (c) Paul Brennan.

I was involved in the photoshoot for my friend Glen Board’s book on Xing Yi Snake at the start of the year, and we performed applications of the same movement with swords:

From the book Xing Yi Snake by Glen Board

Doing the same Xing Yi links (forms) with a weapon that you do barehand has always been a feature of the Xing Yi I’ve been taught. Xing Yi movements are after all adapted from spear use, so historically speaking the weapons applications are the original movements, from which the barehand is derived.

In modern times weapons use has obviously declined and people tend to think of Xing Yi primarily as a barehand art, but historically speaking that’s not the case.

I like the idea of applying the same movements barehand and with weapons – it always makes more sense to me.

The two books are 100 years apart!

The invention of the Samurai

grayscale photo of woman holding katana

Photo by Jermaine Ulinwa on Pexels.com

I wrote a short post for Cook Ding’s Kitchen blog the other day about our Heretics series on the history of Kempo and Jiujitsu.

If you’re interested in the history of Japanese martial arts then I would also recommend this talk by Dr Oleg Benesch on the Martial Studies podcast, which talks about a lot of the same stuff, particularly the interplay of Western and Eastern ideas after 1852, the invention of the ideal of the honorable Samurai warrior and, most importantly, castles!

Hagakure – wisdom of the Samurai

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“Hagakure is the essential book of the Samurai. Written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, who was a Samurai in the early 1700s, it is a book that combines the teachings of both Zen and Confucianism. These philosophies are centered on loyalty, devotion, purity and selflessness, and Yamamoto places a strong emphasis on the notion of living in the present moment with a strong and clear mind.”

Not being too familiar with Japanese writings I hadn’t come across this book before, but it was brought to my attention by a quote I stumbled across that I really liked:

“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.” 

The book seems to be full of pithy, simple, wisdom like that.

I’m not familiar with which translation is the best – probably one you can buy on Amazon since that’s usually the way things work –  but there’s certainly a free version of the book you can read here.

 

The Judo chop

shutoFrom the ever-enlightening Urban Dictionary:

Judo Chop

The act of taking your hand and making a chop motion on a persons shoulder near the neck area while saying in a loud manner, “Judo chop-HAI!”

1. Find a victim.
2. Creep up behind them.
3. Make sure palm/hand is flat and straight.
4 Raise your hand and chop the victim’s shoulder, making sure it is close enough to the neck.
5. Say the phrase, “Judo Chop HAI!” While doing so.
6. Walk away.

Following on from my last post about Internal Judo, I’ve been thinking about the (stupid) “knife hand” attack you commonly see in Aikido, Jiujitsu and Judo – “Shomen uchi”

 

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I say “stupid” because , well, it is. Nobody is ever going to attack you like this in reality. You even see it done with bottles and knives, but it’s pretty obvious that this technique is derived from a much more practical origins – an overhead strike from a katana:

shomenuchi

One of my friends does Judo. He loves it, except for the time when the teacher says they’re going to do “self defence” and the class has to learn how to defend against an overhead strike using a knife, or defend a haymaker by turning their back on the attacker and doing a hip throw. The first situation is ridiculous, the second, possible, but unlikely.

It’s hangovers like this, relics of the weapons-focus of the past that are left behind in martial arts, that provide more weight to the theory one of my old teachers used to have that what we recognise as “martial arts” didn’t used to exist a few hundred years ago when people could freely carry weapons, and soldiers were trained in how to use them. The invention and evolution of the firearm changed things a lot, and then once it was no longer considered civilised to carry a bladed weapon in normal daily life, things changed again. If it was acceptable to carry a sword nowadays, you can bet the local Tae Kwon Do class would be changing its syllabus.

If you think about it, the idea of defending yourself against somebody with a weapon, when you don’t have one, is a pretty hopeless task. Especially if they’ve got a knife. The only thing you can say about knife fighting for sure, is that they’re definitely not going to attack you with a big overhand strike to the temple. So why keep training it?

 

King of swords – was the katana the ultimate weapon?

It might be time to rethink what we know about ancient swords.

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I was having a discussion recently with a friend of mine who does Iaido. He’s working towards his first dan grade, which will take him about 18 months. The first kata, kneeling, has two cuts in total but there are (apparently) 140 mistakes you can make from start to finish. Seriously, what’s up with that? Personally, I would struggle to get excited about spending 18 months learning to use a sword that precisely. I mean, you could get a blue belt in Brazilian JiuJitsu in that time!

It doesn’t seem to really be about fighting with the sword, either, leaving that to Kendo to worry about. Of course, they do some two person ritualised combat stuff, but mainly they just spend their time trying to look Japanese, mysterious and spiritual, while cutting the air. People criticise kung fu for its “too deadly for the ring” mentality, yet Iaido, with its ritual drawing and cutting into the air, takes this further into “too deadly even for the training hall!” territory.

OK, I’m being facetious – doing the cuts in that video requires a lot of skill, but personally I’d rather be learning practical skills like how to really fight with a sword, not cut up tatami omote. Other people seem to love these things and that’s ok, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, as they say.

Inevitably talk of Iaido leads to discussion of the katana. The popular narrative, that the Katana is the king of all swords – the ultimate weapon – runs deep. From films like Kill Bill (A Hanzo sword!) to the Katana-wielding Michonne in The Walking Dead, we all know that if you want the ultimate sword, you need to go to Japan to get it. However, I’ve found that the more you look into Asian martial arts, the more the solid ground becomes quicksand, and the more the real becomes the unreal. The idea we have of the katana being the ultimate sword lies with the modern recreation of the samurai, the most fearsome warriors ever to walk the face of the earth, and bushido, the strict martial code they lived by.

These concepts and images permeate so many aspects of our culture, however, the truth is that much of Japanese history surrounding the samurai was re-written in the late 1800’s (by government decree) in order to bolster Japan’s own importance.

In his book “Inventing the way of the Samurai” Oleg Benesch writes of bushido, the strict moral code of the samurai:

“Rather than a continuation of ancient traditions, however, bushidō developed from a search for identity during Japan’s modernization in the late nineteenth century. The former samurai class were widely viewed as a relic of a bygone age in the 1880s, and the first significant discussions of bushidō at the end of the decade were strongly influenced by contemporary European ideals of gentlemen and chivalry.”

The book is expensive, but the dissertation on which it was based can be read for free online.

But it wasn’t just the Japanese who were romanticising and recreating their past – Europeans had a hand in it too. There has long been a western fascination with all things oriental, but this really took hold after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

“According to accounts of the time, the Japanese were using their swords during that conflict with surprising effectiveness. It was for a simple reason: every other nations were letting go of the sword as a weapon of war (and rightly so), but the Japanese were still training their men in fencing with a lot more energy. So of course when the Russians and Japanese met on the battlefield for duels (and some of them were recorded) the Japanese often won. It left an enduring image in the public’s consciousness as these stories got reprinted all over the Western world.” – Maxime Chouinard, posting in Martial Arts Studies group

We’re used to seeing documentaries that extoll the virtues of the Katana, like this one from NOVA:

In the description it says: “English archers had their longbows, Old West sheriffs had their six-guns, but samurai warriors had the most fearsome weapon of all: the razor-sharp, unsurpassed technology of the katana, or samurai sword.”

(Incidentally, I often wonder how much this idea of “unsurpassed technology” is again a modern construct, based on Japan’s status in the 1990s as the world leader in technology. It seemed like every cool piece of technology in that era came out of Japan, from cars and video games to Walkmans. This is just speculation on my part, but I think this is a reputation that Japan has never truly shaken off, and is often used to backfill history.)

But was the katana really that much more technologically advanced than European blades of the time? Not everybody thinks so.

From the Dimicator website: “Medieval European swords … were hi-tech weapons of their time, masterly crafted and mechanically superior even to the famed samurai swords… European blades flex back to straightness when bent.”

It would appear that, as with all tools, swords were primarily designed for the particular problems the users had to overcome. Medieval European blades tended to be designed for, and used, on the battlefield. The katana, in contrast, was introduced at a time of relative peace, and was used mainly for ritualised duelling. It was criticised for being ineffective on the battlefield, and the two person sequences were referred to as “flower swordsmanship”.

The katana is defined by having a curved blade. Indeed, curved blades are inherently stronger and easier to cut with than straight ones, but clearly the ideal design for a thrusting blade is straight, as most European blades were, indicating that the katana was more for slashing and cutting with than thrusting. This has often lead people to believe that the Kata was developed for fighting from horseback, however this idea has been refuted. There is also an academic paper by Michael Wert, “The Military Mirror of Kai: Swordsmanship and a Medieval Text in Early Modern Japan“, which observes that the Samurai’s main weapons were the lance and bow.

In terms of metallurgy, the European blades were every bit as sophisticated – they were just different types of swords, designed for a different purpose – often on the battlefield. Roland Warzecha from the Dimicator school comments:

“Katanas cannot flex because only the edge is hardened and the back is not. So when they are distorted to a particular degree, they either snap or remain bent. The distribution of high carbon steel and low carbon iron in a blade in order to make a sword both hard enough to keep an edge and cut but at the same time not too brittle to prevent breakage, is one of the true challenges with sword making, and their have been various solutions.

I think katanas are superb for the context they were made for. I am convinced that Japanese swordsmiths would have developed flexible swords if combat requirements had called for it. My theory is that it was the absence of shields in sword-fighting that is the reason, plus, because raw material was extremely limited, the sword remained an elite weapon, not available to most – unlike in post-1300 Europe.”

In terms of metallurgy, European blades were just as sophisticated, as this post on the Dimicator Facebook page reveals.

It’s looking like we may need to rethink our idea of the katana as the ultimate sword. The narrative that European blades were inferior to Japanese ones is slowly being rewritten.

Any sword is a series of compromises, and ultimately just a tool. Every tool has a purpose. Perhaps the real answer is that it’s not the sword that matters – it’s the person wielding it, and whether or not they have the skill to do so.