Are weapons forms more traditional than hand forms?

(Chen Wei Ming – Tai Chi Sword 1928)

I listened to a rather interesting comment in a podcast recently from a Tai Chi practitioner who preferred to do weapons forms rather than hand forms because “Tai Chi is really a battlefield art” and the postures in the hand form are clearly derived from holding weapons, and it was therefore more authentic to practice the weapons forms. The implication is also that the hand forms were retrofitted onto the art, while the weapons forms are the true origin.

There’s some truth in this idea depending on which art you art talking about, of course. Xing Yi for example – there’s no doubt that the weapons forms came first. Doing a Beng Chuan (a straight punch to the belly or chest area) barehand, as presented in the classical 5 Elements form, leaves a lot of questions unanswered – why is your head not protected as you punch forward, for example? Why is your other hand pulled back at your hip where it’s not doing much of anything? What stops them punching you in the face?

(Liu Dianchen, Beng Chuan, 1921)

As a barehand method, it’s clearly sub-optimal. Put a spear in your hand, and even better, wear armour, and  it starts to make a lot more sense though. The hand withdrawing to your hip is pulling the spear back after a thrust, for example.

But if we’re talking about the long, elaborate weapons forms found in Tai Chi, done usually in silk pyjamas, then you’ve got to ask yourself – what good is all that dancing about if your goal is martial effectiveness on the battlefield? Do you think Chinese soldiers, village militia or bodyguards with spears or Guan Dao did this kind of practice? I don’t think they did. Or maybe they did for demonstrations at the many and frequent festivals in old imperial China in the Qing Dynasty, but what use is all that on a battlefield?

While using a spear, for example, might be connecting your art back to an earlier time and usage, I’m not sure that your 180-move spear form, with jumps, twirls and spins is any more “authentic” than a modern day hand form. 

It’s very easy to fool yourself in Chinese martial arts. Stay sharp!

How to make your own martial arts staff

Highland survivalist Tom Langhorne shows you how to make your own martial arts staff, from selecting and harvesting the wood sustainably to crafting and refining it. If you need a little project to work on in lockdown, then this could be it!

He’s also got a great video that shows a comparrison of different staff fighting styles, which incluides: Jogo dau pau, Scottish Quarterstaff, German Quarter Staff and Japanese Bo,

And a video on the staff in general and its Scottish history:

The King (Netflix 2019), a short review

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The King (Netflix 2019) is the story of the rise of King Henry V and the battle of Agincourt against the French (1415).

Prince Henry is portrayed as a wayward teenager, who dislikes authority and has no desire for the throne or the complications of court politics and international diplomacy. Suddenly this emo teenager has the full weight of the English crown thrust on his shoulders, and pretty soon, against his will, he is at war with France and the famous field in Agincourt is calling.

There are virtually no women in this film. It’s as study of men. How men rule, how men lead and how men fight. And ultimately, how they lie.

The fight scenes are not bloody. They’re muddy. Smack, bang, wallop in the mud. But they feel realistic. I think the makers of The King have spent a lot of time talking to medieval armor experts and thinking about how fights in armor, between armored knights, would actually have played out.

While Agincourt is remembered for the English archers securing victory with their longbows, their effect in the battle, while important, is not portrayed as the decisive factor by a long way. It’s the use of the terrain, strategy and hand to hand combat that secures victory.

And the grappling. There is so much grappling. Specifically, grappling with weapons and armour. Forcing the opponent to the ground and working a blade in or bashing their head with a hammer.

The key factors seem to be, wrestling, impact from momentum (blunt or sharp edged weapons), and finally the environment – the mud.

Xing Yi, a Chinese martial art which I talk about a lot on this blog, has battlefield origins and seems equally obsessed with weapons, armour and the environment. The strikes in Xing Yi’s 12 animals all target weak points in armor. The bits where the joints in the human body are and the armor is, by necessity, weak to allow the limbs to move – up under the armpit, the inner thigh and the neck are obvious examples.

Another thing that Xing Yi emphasis is the stepping. So much emphasis is placed on making sure you don’t slip or trip in Xing Yi training. My XingYi teacher would insist on us stepping with the whole foot landing flat, never the normal heel toe action of walking.

Back when I was learning from him regularly we used to train outside (whatever the weather), so often this was on wet grass. Trust me – you don’t appreciate that heel toe stepping is vulnerable to slipping until you try it at speed on wet grass.

Over time we seem to forget these little things in our training, because in our modern life they are rather unimportant. People don’t wear armor these days and we usually train martial arts on flat wooden floored gymnasiums or village halls, in the dry. Watching The King was a good reminder of their importance. It’s the simple things like this that make the difference between living and dying on a battlefield.

When it comes to grappling in armor, The King suggests that tripping or simply unbalancing the opponent is the decisive factor. Forget the big hip and shoulder throws of judo, and think more about the little leg hooks and sweeps you find in folk style wrestling. It makes me think of those jacketed styles of folk wrestling which have survived today in isolated corners of the world, or the descriptions you read of Irish collar and elbow wrestling (sadly now lost), which start from a position of already being in a clinch with the upper body and the leg tricks where the art is found. Suddenly the reasons for training wrestling like that makes much more sense.

I enjoyed The King for all these reasons. Perhaps the closest we’ll ever get to a battlefield type situation in modern civilian life is a game of rugby. Either being in one or watching one.

In short, The King is great, war is a muddy business, and I need to start thinking about my stepping again.