Karate is something I’ve never done before, so it was a surprise to find myself doing some in the form of learning the Anan kata at a recent Foxfist event. The Anan kata is a nice little Karate form. In fact, there’s enough in there for it to be the only form you ever needed to learn for a small, self-contained, but effective, martial system. There are deflections, strikes, stand-up grappling and kicks.
The similarities between Okinawan systems and Southern Chinese martial arts systems are quite obvious in this kata, I think. But see what you think. Here is Anan being performed by somebody who, unlike me, knows what they’re doing with it.
In the comments section Richard asked a good question in response to my last post. I wrote a brief reply in the comments, but I thought I’d flesh it out a bit as a blog post, because it’s an interesting topic.
The question is, ‘what’s the point of Tai Chi applications?’ Actually, to be fair, he was talking specifically about the one application video in my last post, not about Tai Chi in general. But personally I think you can extrapolate the question to include the wider Tai Chi universe, and that would be where I’d look for my answer.
There are plenty of videos of respected masters of various styles of Tai Chi running though the applications of their form movements and producing a series of very questionable applications that would require a perfect storm of events to happen for them to work. I don’t want to post them here because I think it would distract from the point I’m making, but look up ‘Name of famous master’ and ‘applications’ on YouTube and you’ll find them.
I really like the phrase “a perfect storm” to describe Tai Chi applications because as far as I can see, most (if not all) Tai Chi applications one would require a ‘perfect storm’ of attacker, positioning and timing for the application work. Therefore the one application video I posted previously is not particularly different to any other Tai Chi application video, at least to me.
That might not be a popular opinion, but I think it’s true.
Contrast this with a martial art like Choy Li Fut. I’ll choose CLF because it’s a kind of a typical Chinese Kung Fu style. It’s has some key techniques like Sao Choy – sweeping fist and Charp Choy – leopard fist and Pao Choy, a kind of big uppercut, Gwa Choy, a backlist, for example.
Here’s 10 of the ‘basic’ techniques that you find in CLF:
If you watch a Choy Li Fut form then you’ll see these 10 techniques crop up again and again, but each form enables you to practice them in different combinations:
Or check out the famous first form of Wing Chun – Siu Lim Tao, it’s a series of techniques performed very, very accurately so you can refine and practice them:
Now when you do those techniques in a form, you are performing a technique that would work exactly as shown. The only thing you need for success is to actually contact with an opponent and do the move correctly at the right time.
Tai Chi as a marital art just doesn’t work in the same way. We don’t have a toolbag of techniques designed to be pull out and used ‘as is’. Ward off is not a fundamental technique of Tai Chi – instead Peng, the ‘energy’ you use in performing ward-off, is the important thing. And I think this leads to a lot of confusion about what Tai Chi forms are.
So, if we don’t have techniques that exist in the same way as other marital arts, how are you supposed to fight with Tai Chi?
Tai Chi is a set of principles and a strategy that together make it a martial art. In a nutshell the strategy part can be summed up with the 5 keywords of push hands – listen, stick, yield, neutralise and attack. The principles cover how the body is used, resulting natural power derived from relaxation, ground force and a series of openings and closings expressed in the 8 energies. When the principles of Tai Chi are properly internalised you become something like a sphere, which can redirect force applied to you with ease and respond as appropriate. All these things are elucidated in the Tai Chi Classics.
Now that short description probably leaves a lot out, of what Tai Chi is, but at least it’s a starting point.
If that’s your goal, then putting emphasis on individual techniques doesn’t make much sense. Everything you do now exists in relation to an opponent, rather than existing on its own terms. The Tai Chi form then becomes a series of examples of how you might respond to specific attacks. In essence, it is a series of perfect storms, one after the other, put in a sequence that is long enough that you start to internalise the principles of movement and energy use. And obviously the strategy part requires a partner, hence why push hands exists.
I think that’s also the reason why Tai Chi forms are so long and slow, btw, so you internalise things.
As a final note, I’d say the jury is still out as to whether the Tai Chi way is the best approach to teaching people to fight. It’s interesting to note that a lot of martial arts innovators tend towards this same nebulous ‘technique-free’ style of training the further they get into their research into martial arts. Bruce Lee for example, was moving towards freedom and the technique of no technique in his later years – see his 1971 manifesto ‘Liberate yourself from Classical Karate’ for example. Then there’s Wang Xiang Zhai who created Yi Quan by removing fixed forms and routines from Xing Yi Quan and mixing it with whatever else he had studied. See his criticisms of other Kung Fu styles in his 1940 interview, for example.
In contrast a lot of the martial arts that have actually proven effective in modern combat events have turned out to be very, very technique based. Brazilian Jiujitsu, for example, is taught through very specific techniques. So is MMA. Karate, for all of Bruce Lee’s criticisms often does very well in competition against other more esoteric styles because it contains some no nonsense techniques.
Another factor to think of is that while Tai Chi may have those lofty goals of producing a formless fighter in its classical writing, it often isn’t taught like that in reality. One of the martial arts that Wang Xiang Zhai is criticising as having lost its way and become a parody of itself in that 1940 essay linked to above, is, in fact, Tai Chi Chuan!
So, as ever with marital arts, I think the answer is: it’s complicated.
It’s time to say something slightly controversial, and I apologise in advance for the click-baity feel of the headline, but there’s no way to sum up a nuanced argument like this in less than 10 words. The thing is that there’s a real fascination these days with delving into Karate kata or Kung Fu forms and discovering the ‘real’ applications, hidden in plain sight, which are, always, wrestling moves, which were hidden away in the murky depths of time for vague and unspecified reasons.
This marital arts version of a conspiracy theory is a really popular idea at the moment, because, frankly, the wresting interpretations work a lot better than most of the applications of striking you see in these arts. However, that doesn’t mean its true!
Here’s a current example:
Now look, I’m not saying that there are no throwing or takedown applications to Karate and Kung Fu moves – of course there are! But just because you can re-engineer some wrestling applications out of what are obviously supposed to be strikes, does not mean that those are the ‘original’ or ‘real’ applications. They are certainly an interpretation, but to claim some sort of historical precedent is going too far for me.
I would call my view somewhat heretical to modern orthodoxy based on the amount of comments I see under videos of people revealing the ‘real’ application of Kung Fu or Karate moves. It’s almost 100% positive, along the lines of “finally this move makes sense!”. I refer you to my previous point – just because these moves work better than the wacky traditional blocking and striking application usually taught does not mean these are the original applications. It’s a logical fallacy. A better question would be to ask, “why did they simplify or dumb these forms down so much that they’re unusable?” But I guess that’s a different topic…
Another reason why this wrestling-first approach is so popular is that learning real grappling or wrestling is just too much like hard work for some people. You’re going to need a working pair of knees and a body that’s probably 20-30 years younger than the one you’ve got, especially if you’re starting grappling from scratch. For the ageing martial artist the idea that they can just keep doing the katas or forms that they already know and now they are somehow also doing grappling is very tempting. As somebody on the wrong side of 50 I can see the attraction of this idea myself! But like all shortcuts, it cuts out the years of experience and hard work you’re going to need to put in if you want something you can use.
Wresting is, of course, older than martial arts, like Karate or Wing Chun, by thousands of years. This is not disputed. It seems that wherever men or women gathered, in any country, and conflicts needed to be resolved, wrestling naturally appeared as a way for this to happen, or as a way to keep people entertained, build a community connection, or in good physical shape for battle. It was a multi-purposed activity. For example, there has been Mongolian Wrestling for pretty much as long as there have been Mongolians. And it’s a tradition that has survived.
Cave paintings have been found in the Lascaux caves in France that have been suggested to depict sprinting and wrestling in the Upper Paleolithic time period, which is around 15,300 years ago.
This Egyptian burial chamber mural from Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum’s tomb dates to aroudn 2400 BC.
Almost every traditional culture has, or had, some form of indigenous wrestling. Many cultures that have evolved into living in villages, then towns, then cities have managed to maintain their wrestling traditions, even to the modern day. But most we have lost. For example, Collar and Elbow Wrestling was hugely popular in Ireland in the 19th century and spread to America where it again proved hugely popular with thousands of people coming to watch matches (even President Abraham Lincoln was a practitioner!)
But huge changes in where people lived and worked lead to its demise until it vanished completely even in its native country. It seems that whenever a country experiences its industrial revolution, requiring massive shifts in population distribution, the folk traditions tend to die off, and wrestling is a folk tradition.
But that does not mean it is the original of Karate and Kung Fu.
I appreciate that you might not agree with me, so let me give you an example.
This video is comparing a karate technique to a Shuai jiao wrestling throw:
Yes, the movements have a physical similarity, but you are never – never! – going to learn how to do that throw by doing that kata. I mean, you could make that work so long as you only wrestle fellow karate practitioners and never ever get in a match with somebody who actually does wrestling. Then you’ll be fine. 🙂 Was this the original application of this kata? Who knows? But to assume ‘yes, it must be wrestling’ is such an illogical leap that to me it’s going too far. If you want to learn wresting, then just train wrestling. It’s that simple.
Here’s the Karate Nerd with a similar take on Karate Kata. Now, I quite like the Karate Nerd, so this is not an attack on him, but rather just an example of the current trend in marital arts regarding wresting applications and where it’s going.
Anyway, I feel like I’ve made my point and I’m just repeating myself now, so I’ll leave it there. But let me just recap one last time. Yes, there are some wrestling application in Karate and Kung Fu, yes you can re-engineer pretty much any movement to make it into a wrestling move, and no that does not mean that “it’s all wrestling“.
Jesse Kenkamp (AKA The Karate Nerd) has done another great video on tracing the roots of Karate. Here he is with White Crane practitioner Martin Watts in Yongchun, birthplace of White Crane, which is usually considered an ancestor style to Karate.
What I liked about this video is Martin’s no-nonsense teaching of what are generally thought of as internals in Chinese martial arts and shrouded in mystery (usually by westerners using Orientalism to sell books 😉 )
My point in posting this is that Martin covers “sinking the qi to the dantien” at 4.00 – what it is and, most importantly how what it is not is just as important.
I appreciate Martin’s simple, down to earth explanation.
This is a very nicely made video from the Karate Nerd that shows the influence of Western military methods (created by the French from Savate) on the formation of Japanese Karate. This influence of the West on Japan was something we talked about a lot in our podcast on The origins of Kempo and Jiujitsu, but it’s nice to see a video that uses old footage so well to demonstrate the point.
Here’s some of that lovely Savate from 1924, in normal and slow motion:
We couldn’t resist doing a podcast episode about Cobra Kai, the modern TV series version of the classic 80’s martial arts film Karate Kid, so here it is.
I think I keep getting the names of the two protagonists mixed up, but who in their right minds makes a TV series with two lead characters who have such similar names as Danny and Johnny? Oh well, that is the beauty of the Netflix TV series that is Cobra Kai!