Recently I’ve been training a lot of a short drill-like form that Phil Duffy taught me years ago. It’s a little sequence that contains about 8 or 9 basic Choy Li Fut techniques (depending on how you count them) and runs in a loop so you can just keep doing it over and over. If you wanted a good introduction to Choy Li Fut, that’s it. There’s pretty much everything you need in there to get proficient at something that at least resembles Choy Li Fut. There are no complicated animal methods or anything too fancy, just practical blocks, deflections and strikes done in a CLF style and using the basic Choy Li Fut stances.
And then I started wondering about what it would be like if a person only ever practiced that little form, but drilled it intensely every day over and over and also spared the techniques for a year. I wonder how good you could get if you just did that? I think you’d actually get pretty good! You’d need other conditioning drills, of course, and stretches, but you’d definitely have the essence of something.
And that got me thinking about the whole concept of simplicity in martial arts. Quite often we make martial arts overly complicated, especially in Chinese internal styles. There are basics to master first – fundamental principles of body movement, posture and breathing, that all need to be coordinated together with the internal elements like mental intent, jin and calm focus, etc. Then there are long forms to master, and then other forms on top of that. And that’s not even touching on the techniques you need to master. And push hands and weapons forms. It just goes on and on. It’s like Tim Cartmell said in our recent podcast conversation (and I’m paraphrasing him here) “in some of these styles you do so much body work that you forget the other guy is actually going to throw a punch!”
The heavy sparring emphasis I’ve experienced in BJJ has taught me that martial techniques can’t be too complicated if they’re going to stand a chance of working when the rubber hits the road. A six move combo to sweep somebody, pass their guard and choke then out is pretty unlikely to work in sparring just the way you drilled it in practice because no plan survives contact with the enemy. What works in real life are techniques and strategies that hit that sweet spot somewhere between the level of “too dumb” and “too complicated”. Those sorts of techniques, drilled to become second nature, have a real chance of working when you need them to. That’s the simplicity you want to aspire to in martial arts, and to me that’s the real power of martial arts like Choy Li Fut – they have enough subtly to make them interesting, but not enough to make them too complicated and impractical.
When I get time over the weekend I’m going to film my little mini Choy Li Fut routine and put it in the Patron’s area, so you can check it out there.
“You can’t tell a martial artists he’s a dancer without getting a bloody nose.” – G.Barlow, 2020
I haven’t posted much recently, but the recent deep dive my podcast has taken into the history of a particular Chinese martial art (Taijiquan) seems to have coincided with a number of contentious discussion I’ve had elsewhere on the history of Chinese martial arts that have been taking up my time. Let me redress that imbalance now.
Experience has taught me that if you tell a group of Chinese martial artists that Chinese martial arts used to be so intertwined with Chinese theatre and religion that the two were indistinguishable you invariably annoy them. You will be laughed at and shunned. There are howls of outrage.
No! Chinese martial arts are based purely on effectiveness for fighting! Are you crazy?!?!
But at the same time the very same people will put on demonstration of martial arts (sometimes in the street, but sometimes in an actual theatre!) and perform things like Dragon Dance, without giving it a second thought, or thinking it in any way detracts from their pursuit of serious martial skills, or their wish to be see as serious pugilists.
I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why this is. I think it’s hard for people living in the modern age to get their heads around what it would have been like to have lived at the time these arts they practice were created. Yet, it’s important to note that the people who created the Chinese martial arts we’re all familiar with now – things like Choy Li Fut, Wing Chun, Bak Mei, etc, lived in a time when ghosts, demons and ancestors walked amongst us. A time when rituals were used to appease their spirits and gain spiritual merit for the community, and martial arts played a huge part in that.
The performance of a martial arts form was itself the enactment of a ritual for self consecration. The Chinese Government always used ritual to organise the state. The Chinese state was a religious state (See China: A Religious State, Hong Kong University Press).
As the 20th century began in China, the shame felt over the Boxer Rebellion and defeat by European powers, gave way to the realisation that modern ways would need to be adopted to avoid the humiliating defeats that had gone before. This lead to an almost endless series of wars, revolts, reforms and tragedies that resulted in societal change right down to the core, and the martial arts being stripped of much of their social, spiritual and religious function to become simply pugilistic calisthenics. Considering the horrors China endured, we should be glad they survived at all.
Two great Chinese martial artists I have a lot of time for are Tim Cartmell and Byron Jacobs. Here they have a robust and fantastic discussion about what they’ve trained in and their thoughts on making Chinese martial arts practical again by using modern sparring methods (amongst other things).
The conversation is really down to earth and useful. It’s clear that they consider the Chinese martial arts to be about fighting first and foremost. Can you imagine throwing in concepts of theatre and spiritual rituals into this conversation? You’d be laughed straight out the door! (If Youtube has doors, that is).
I think that’s why it’s very hard to talk to martial artists about things like ritual, theatre and how these were entwined with Chinese martial arts almost 200 years ago. They are clearly not today, to the same extent, and yet the connection still persists in China (somehow!).
As Jo Riley relates:
‘In 1991 I filmed a wǔshù club training in the village temple in Zhong Suo village in Guizhou under their master Lu Huamei, who was also the head of the village theatre company. Lu teaches tangquan style, which is in the middle level range of skills, and over three hundred villagers train regularly with him (nowadays girls included). Six small boys also take part in the training, the youngest of whom is ten years old, and the skills they learn from Lu are also observed from standing on the stage with the village theatre company when they perform. As in many villages, the village temple, martial arts training and performance indivisibly form the cradle of acting in and spectating theatre’ (1997:17).
Riley, J. Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1997.
Some people are engaging in this conversation though, and I wanted to bring them to your attention. Daniel Mroz has just given a lecture at the most recent Martial Arts Studies Conference, (which was a virtual event, due to the Covid 19 Pandemic).
His lecture “The Meaning of Taolu in Chinese Martial Arts” is now online:
Or you can read it here:
Here’s a great quote regarding Choy Li Fut:
Historically, the Choy Li Fut exponents playing tàolù enacted a magical, religious role for their community. The play of tàolù in a seasonal calendar of popular rituals demonstrated the adepts’ martial prowess while earning spiritual merit for the entire community. By practicing and demonstrating the arduous and humbling physical training Choy Li Fut requires, these performers consecrated and re-consecrated themselves over and over to what Daniel Amos refers to as a religion of the body (1997: 31-61). This self-consecration made them spiritually inviolable and venerable in the eyes of their community. Their demonstration of skill acquired through perseverance, or gōngfū (功夫), was a meritorious act performed on behalf of the collective. This self-consecration was also tacitly expressed in theatre. Theatre permeated public and private life in 19thcentury China. While professional actors belonged to a marginalized underclass, people loved the entertainment they provided and hired them not just to perform but also to teach and coach. For professional, amateur and private groups, the learning, rehearsing and presentation of theatre was beloved, constant and intense. While non-actors would never play professionally, virtually everyone was involved in performing at some level. Chinese theatre, or xìqǔ (戲曲) and Chinese martial arts employ many virtually identical training methods.
Here’s a great presentation by David Palmer and Martin Tse on the connection between social practices, ritual, and martial arts:
Personally I would like to embrace both these world views – the practical and the spiritual (for want of a better word). I don’t think they need to be mutually exclusive at all. I am interested fully in the practical application of Chinese martial arts, but I’m also happy for its long and complicated history to enhance what I do. I don’t see it as a distraction or an irrelevance. I am so grateful these arts have survived during some of the worst atrocities in human history and made it through to the modern age, and I think viewing them in their original context empowers today’s modern practitioner.
Human beings are capable of entertaining many different perspectives on something simultaneously, even if they are sometimes contradictory. In the words of Bob Dylan on the opening track of his excellent new album,