Saeed Esmaeli is my favourite wrestler, so I thought I’d share a couple of clips of him. I love the fact that he’s currently working out of a church with his classes, as you can see in his Instagram clips:
I like the way he’s emphasising using the whole body in his movements, not isolated leg and arms, much as we are encouraged to do in internal martial arts. “Wrestle with your hips, wrestle with your body”.
Wrestling arises spontaneously in every culture all over the world. Saeed’s branch has its roots in Iran. The story of how he comes to use a church is explained in this article from the Bristol 24/7. “THE UNLIKELY BOND BETWEEN AN IRANIAN WRESTLER AND A BRISTOL VICAR”
“Rather than striking, Pahlevani wrestling teaches students the art of grace under pressure, a great metaphor for dealing with the pressure that life can throw at us and one that reverend James Wilson can get on board with.
St Gregory the Great on Filton Road in Horfield officially opened its heavy oak doors to Wrestle for Humanity, a unique community Olympic wresting club and mental heath intervention service run by coach Saeed Esmaeli, whose mission is to make wrestling accessible and to help people feel good and perform well both on and off the mat.
Having experienced war, revolution and poverty, Iranian-born Saeed has overcome racism, bullying and grief and understands adversity. He brings a message of hope in his ‘infused psychology’ one-on-ones and in every community wrestling class.”
An interesting video has surfaced that links the guard postures used in Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) with postures in various Chinese martial arts. The premise of the video is that Shuai Jiao is the root of all the Chinese martial styles. The text accompanying the video says:
“Guards in traditional Chinese wrestling are meant to favor certain fighting techniques and strategies. Since Shuai Jiao is very ancient and there are precise references in these guards to the styles that exist today, traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles. My Master Yuan Zumou has clearly stated this for over thirty years. In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat. I have put the captions of the styles I know or of those that maestro Li Baoru (Beijing, late 80s) mentions in the video.”
It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately I can’t agree with such a blanket statement as “traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles“. Was it a strong influence on all Chinese styles? Yes, of course. But calling it the root of all styles is a bit strong for me. Some styles developed entirely from military practices, and a lot of styles have no wrestling component at all, or have their roots in weapons usage.
I can certainly see postures in the video that resemble Tai Chi – particularly the “White Stork Cools Wings” posture and another guard that looks a little like the “Wave Hands Like Clouds”. But we only have two arms and two legs – inevitably there are going to be similarities between postures found in different martial arts. That alone doesn’t confirm a genuine historial link. Influences betweewn marital arts can flow in both directions, too. So it’s quite possible that wrestling has been influenced by local village styles. And even things that are not necessarily combat arts, like xìqǔ, can have an influence on them.
I’d also have to take issue with the statement that “In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat.” Let’s not even get into the idea of what “real combat” is (Shuai Jiao matches have rules, after all) but it’s a simple fact that Shuai Jiao was enjoyed in the royal court in the Ching Dynasty (and probably all the dynasties before it) as a kind of entertainment for the nobles. The same thing happened in the Japanese royal court with Sumo, just as medieval kings in Europe enjoyed watching martial games like jousting and fencing. And obviously wrestling is still enjoyed as a kind of popular entertainment in America and Mexico today.
But let’s turn our attention to the contend of the video. A lot of the guards being demonstrated look quite showy to me – as if they were designed to impress an audience, particularly the Wave Hands Like Clouds style guard, where the practitioner seems to deliberately trip over his own legs.
But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Ever since modern Wu Shu put the emphasis on gymnastic ability over practicality, people have been searching for this false dichotomy between performance and practicality in historical martial arts, too. It’s almost like a real martial art isn’t allowed to have any ‘fun’ aspects to it. In reality, and with several historical examples, a martial art can be both a serious, practical tool for combat, and something that can be performed for social, entertainment and cultural reasons all at the same time.
Choy Li Fut schools often perform lion dance, and that doesn’t mean their kung fu won’t work in a fight. Similarly, I would contend that Shuai Jiao can be used as a form of entertainment and a practical method of self defence. Just like almost all Chinese martial arts can.
As you’ll know from listening to our “History of Kempo and Jiujitsu” podcast episdoes, Japan was opened up to the West in 1852, but it would take a while yet for Japanese martial arts to reach British soil. As revealed in the article “The Golden Square Dojo and its place in British Jujitsu history“ by David Brough, in issue 10 of Martial Arts Studies, the Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture of Edward William Barton-Wright was the first martial arts club to introduce Jujutsu to the U.K in London (along with other things, like Savate), but it quickly seeded ground to more traditional Jujitsu dojos in Britain. Jujutsu was originally taught in the Golden Square Dojo in Piccadilly Circus, which opened in 1903, and was run the teacher Sadakazu Uyenishi.
Here’s a short film about him – the forgotten grappler:
A reanimated film of photos of Sadakazu performing jujutsu techniques from his “Textbook of Ju-jutsu” in 1905 exists on YouTube:
What I find interesting is how much of jujutsu practice was about performance in the early 20th centuary – (perhaps this is a role that is filled by BJJ sport competitions and Judo in the Olympics today). Early Jujutsu teachers from Japan toured the UK trying to create a name for themselves, putting on shows in dance halls, taking on local wrestlers in prize fights and performing feats of strength. It was very much like a circus attraction. In Brazil this exact approach lead to the creation of Brazilian Jiujitsu, but in the UK, its indigenous wrestling (things like Catch, Devonshire wrestling and Cornish wrestling) and jujitsu seemed to stay in their own lanes, and a hybrid creation never really saw the light of day.
By 1930s the Golden Square Dojo had been demolished and Judo had taken over from Jujitsu as the dominant version of the art in the UK, although various Jujitsu societies connected to the Golden Square continued to this day.
Bartitsu is best remembered today because of Sherlock Holmes being a practitioner, and is seen as the fusion of Victorian gentleman attire (including the walking stick or umbrella) and Japanese Jiujitsu, but also included other martial arts, including French Savate.
Bartitsu died out, although a modern revival appears to be well underway. Judo remained the dominant strand of Jujutsu practice in the UK for many decades, although it mainly seems to be practiced by children, while Jujutsu, in its Brazilian variant (BJJ) seems to have taken over as the dominant practice amongst adults today. (N.B. I don’t have figures to support that assertion, but that’s my strong impression).
Professor Brough was also interviewed about this article on the Martial Arts Studies podcast, which contained another interesting fact that I didn’t know – there are records of the use of the walking stick in Britain as a self defence style going back to 1830, pre Bartitsu. Professor Brough will be producing more research on that in the future. Sounds dapper!
And let’s not forget, the image of the Victorian gentleman with his walking stick/umbrella fighting off attackers saw something of a revival in the 1960s thanks to The Avengers. Ka-pow!
Bruce Lee and the Kung Fu craze took over the nation’s interest in martial arts in the 70s, but in modern times things have swung back to jiujitsu again, thanks to the popularity of MMA, from the 90s onwards.
Even martial arts movies seem to have swung back to jujutsu, with things like the John Wick series, Jason Bourne and just about every fight scene in any movie being required to contain at least one armbar on the ground in it. I think Sadakazu Uyenishi would look at martial arts today and be pleased with what happened and the influence his Jujustu had.
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.
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:
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”.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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) 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.
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: