Wait until you hear my crazy Baguazhang-Eagle-Dance/Archery theory

I find talking – as in real talking, not discussion forum kind of talking – with other martial artists always inspires some great thoughts. Recently, I was having a chat about some Eagle movements in Xing Yi and my venerable discussion partner noted that they were very similar to the Eagle Dance that Mongolian wrestlers do before a match.

Eagle dance.

My friend noted that the arm positions in the eagle dance are also quite similar to a lot of the arm positions in Baguazhang’s circle walking, like this one:

Baguazhang performed by Master Zhang Hong Mei.

Obviously, the performance is not exactly the same – the eagle dance can have music or a drum beat, but often doesn’t. However, music or not, it does have a rhythm, a beat, which are all things usually lacking in performances of Baguazhang. But Baguazhang does look a bit like a dance. It’s wonderfully twisty, mobile and changeable, but the Mongolian Wrestling dance is so much freer, it’s done with a smile, it’s clearly about having a good time. In contrast, Baguazhang is much more dower and serious. You could almost say it’s as close to dance as you could get if weren’t allowed to actually dance. You’re certainly not supposed to be smiling or showing emotions. I’m going to steal my friend’s hilarious comment about Baguazhang circle walking: “It’s almost like, ‘I want to boogie, but my Confucian culture won’t let me!‘”. 🙂

(As a side note, he also told me a theory about why there is no syncopation in classical Chinese music – it’s because in ‘ancient times’ drums were used to whip up the armies of the various tribes into a kind of pre-battle fighting trance, and when they wanted to unite the Han dynasty, they had to stop the tribes fighting. So, syncopation was removed from the music. I’ve got no proof for this theory, so just take it as an interesting idea, but banning drums it does sound exactly like the sort of thing Confucians would do.)

And that brings me onto my crazy Baguazhang/Mongolian Wresting/Archery theory. Dong Haichuan, the founder of Baguazhang and Yin Fu – his main student, spent 10 years together in Mongolia collecting taxes for Prince Su. This would have been during our Victorian times, so you can get an idea of the time period. Back in China the Dowager Empress Cixi sat on the throne in the Forbidden City.

10 years is a long time, and I find it impossible to believe that, being keen martial artists, that Dong and Yin didn’t have at least some exposure to Mongolian wrestling and/or religious practices, like Eagle dance, and that it could very well be reflected in the content of Baguazhang. I also wonder what all that exposure to a different culture to their own did for them.

Mill stone posture

Let’s look at another popular motif found in Baguazhang, the Mill store posture”.

Baguazhang performed by Master Zhang Hong Mei.

The key feature of the ‘mill stone posture’ is that the upper body and lower body are twisted away from each other in opposite directions as you walk the circle. If you’ve watched a lot of videos of Mongolian martial arts then it might remind you of something…

Another of the “manly arts” of Mongolian culture is horseback archery, which includes the ability to shoot an arrow behind you – the famous Parthian Shot, a horseback archery technique of feining a retreat then turning and shooting behind you 180 degrees once the enemy commit to chasing you.

Parthian Shot

The millstone standing posture of Baguazhang looks (to me) like some sort of training method for the Parthian Shot.

Here’s a video example of it being trained as a drill in Baguazhang:

Dong He Chuan was inside the imperial palace starting in 1864, the ruling Manchu’s (from the North) still had horseback archery as part of the military service exam. Is the simiarity of many Baguazhang postures to Mongolian martial arts a coincidence, or not? Who can say. The historical connection between Dong and Mongolia is there though.

And to finish things off, here’s a funny video I made with my kids when they were little. I wanted to boogie, but my kids wouldn’t let me! Ah, I miss those days, but I don’t miss the disturbed nights 🙂

Bagua circle waking with multiple attackers:

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

Why so many grappling styles stop when things go to the ground

If you throw your opponent to the ground in almost all of the old, traditional folk wrestling styles then you win. That’s it. Game over. To modern day martial artists that seems very odd, as we’re now all used to seeing MMA and BJJ fights on the ground, sometimes lasting minutes. But in olden times, if your shoulders touched the ground or you were pinned (or some version thereof), it was all over.

Why is that?*

Photo by Alan Stoddard on Pexels.com

You’ll find the answer in the latest episode of the Sonny Brown Breakdown in which he interviews Ruadhán MacFadden of the Hero with a Thousand Holds podcast.

“I talk to Ruadhán MacFadden. He runs a project titled The Hero with a Thousand Holds which looks at the culture and practice of folk wrestling styles around the world. In particular the people and places that the styles have emerged from and not just the techniques which they used. We discuss some of the mythology and culture behind these styles and what the future holds for them. And we get into some of the particulars of Icelandic Glima and Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling and Scuffling.”

* Ok,I’ll tell you the answer, (or one of the possible answers anyway). Wrestling between males (and sometimes females) was often used as a form of socialisation, and entertainment in tightly knight communities, or as a way of settling disputes without recourse to serious violence. Killing valuable members harmed the community’s chances of long term survival. In any case, there was nothing to be gained for the community from people getting seriously hurt either, so there had to be a simple way of declaring a winner without things escalating to the point that somebody was bludgeoned to death with a rock. Hence, once you landed on the ground, it was over.

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.

Irish Collar and Elbow wrestling, (back from beyond the grave)

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Collar and Elbow match, Dublin 1878

I’m a big fan of the Hero with a Thousand Holds podcast, which looks at relatively obscure wrestling styles around the world.

The first episode is devoted to the now lost wrestling style called simply, Irish Collar and Elbow.

What’s fascinating about this style is that it used to be huge. Thousands of people would turn up to watch a high profile match up over a century ago. It also spread to America where it became equally popular. Even George Washington was a practitioner!

However, it was superceeded by other styles of wrestling, and cultural and societal changes in its birthplace involving the industrial revolution (if I remember correctly) and the rise in popularity of boxing that resulted in its decline and eventual demise.

Ruadhán MacFadden, who runs the podcast, however, has been trying to recreate what it must have looked like based on his research into accounts of Collar and Elbow matches and his knowledge of contemporary grappling styles (he’s a brown belt in BJJ).

At a recent BJJ Globetrotters Summer Camp, he conducted a seminar showing what he’s discovered about this lost art. BJJ Globetrotters have now put the seminar online, so you can glimpse through a window into the past and see what this style of European martial art would have looked like: