Kung Fu and Karate do not come from wrestling, ok?

Everybody was kung fu fighting! Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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:

No, no, Kung Fu is NOT 90% wrestling. It’s just not!

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.

Modern Mongolian wrestlers. Photo by Agostino Toselli on Pexels.com

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.

Cave man wrestling?

This Egyptian burial chamber mural from Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum’s tomb dates to aroudn 2400 BC.

Wrestle like an Ancient Egyptian.

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!)

Collar and elbow from the 1880s.

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“.

The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast, Episode 14: The Power of Buk Sing Choy Li Fut, with Phil Duffy

In this episode my guest is Phil Duffy, a senior student of Sifu Wan Kei-Ho from Hong Kong, who carries on a lineage of Northern Shaolin and Buk Sing Choy Li Fut from the famous masters Ku Yu Chang and Tam Sam.

Buk Sing is a much rarer sub style of Choy Li Fut that involves less long forms and more conditioning and drills, and it’s the same style of Choy Li Fut that I learned in the UK, so when I met Phil back in the 2000s we had a lot to talk about.

We’ve kept in touch over the years so it was good to catch up again for a chat.

Here we get into the differences between the various Choy Li Fut styles, how it’s different training martial arts in Asia compared to the west, and we talk about the key to it all, the ging (or jin)  –  that special type of soft power, that some people call Internal power – that the Chinese martial arts are famous for, and how it’s used in Choy Li Fut. We also talk about the famed Wing Chun / Choy Li Fut rivalry and how Choy Li Fut relates to other styles from the same area of China, like the older Hung Kuen style.

Support The Tai Chi Notebook and join our Patreon:

http://www.patreon.com/taichinotebook

N.B. Patrons get a downloadable version of the podcast MP3 file. (Regular podcast is streaming-only).

Links

Sifu Wan Kei-Ho webpage:

http://www.kungfuwan.com/eng_home.html

Episode link

Can traditional masters beat MMA?

Friend of the Notebook, Byron Jacobs, who runs the Mu Shin Martial Culture Youtube channel and the Hua Jin Online Learning Program for Xing Yi and Baguazhang, just posted this monologue about Xu Xiaodong and the challenge matches that happened between him and various (self proclaimed) Chinese martial arts masters.

Now we’re a few months/years away from the high point of the Xu Xiaodong controversy it’s good to get a reasonable perspective on the matter from somebody who actually knows him and moves in the same martial arts circles in China.

It’s quite a long talk, but you can think of it like a podcast and listen to it while you’re doing your conditioning exercises. Wait, you are still doing those, right? 🙂

What started the Kung Fu Boom in the 1970s?

David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine

People often claim that it was Bruce Lee who was the father of the Kung Fu boom of the 1970s, but was he really?  Sure, Bruce brought a sense of realism to the genre, but it was Kwai Chang Caine who set the ball rolling.  The other popular TV series Monkey and The Water Margin were also influential, but felt like they were aimed at a younger audience. And for kids like me it wasn’t possible to watch a Bruce Lee movie – they all tended to be rated 18.

I’d go as far as to say that Lee wouldn’t have had the movie success he had, particularly in the west, if it weren’t for the Kung Fu series.

Here’s a good documentary on the making of Kung Fu – I still remember some of these action sequences, particularly the one where he kicks the knife out of the guy’s hand and it sticks in the roof, which is shown in this video. That moment was the start of my lifelong interest in Chinese martial arts.

Down, but not out? Kung Fu in Hong Kong

There’s a fascinating new interview with Daniel Amos about training Kung Fu in Hong Kong over at the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog. Daniel has been training in the same style of Kung Fu and living in Hong Kong since 1976.

The majority of the interview is about his academic research methods, but the last two questions are of most interest to Kung Fu practitioners and discuss the effects of globalisation that he’s observed on Kung Fu training over the last 45 years. The result seems to be a less “fighty” version of the arts being taught, and the breakup of the complex, interlocking social, cultural and religious weave of forces that made up martial arts in favour of a more easily packaged version that can be taught piecemeal.

The lack of sparring in modern Kung Fu houses is of course a cause for concern, however he says he believes that the knowledge is still there in young practitioners, particularly the children of Kung Fu masters, and could easily be revived in the future.

Have a good read of the answers to questions 6 and 7. Here’s a quote:

“Little sparing was occurring at Hong Kong martial houses in 2019, not only among those who practiced kungfu, but also in martial houses which taught martial arts styles developed in non-Chinese cultures. Students of western Muay Thai, for example, now probably the most popular martial arts practiced in Hong Kong, estimate that only ten percent of fellow learners do contact sparring.  The motivation of most is to get exercise, lose fat and stay in shape. 

During fieldwork between 2017-2019 among martial houses where kungfu was practiced, I witnessed only light, geriatric sparring, that performed by my kungfu brothers and me, all of us in our sixties and seventies, the eldest members of our brotherhood then still practicing.  Members of one of our brother martial houses were reported to be doing some limited sparring, but I did not witness it. In interviews with a variety of kungfu learners many complained that they’d like to do sparring, but it rarely or never happened in their martial house.       

Forty-five years earlier, if someone in Hong Kong wanted to learn one of the various kungfu fighting systems one usually needed to become a devout follower of a master, join his martial house, and enter into a complex socio-cultural system of loyalties and obligations. If one was loyal to the master, respected and followed the commands of more senior kungfu brothers and studied hard, one gained the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills associated with the specific variety of Chinese martial arts taught by the master. To belong meant not only showing up at the martial house five or six times a week for intense practice, but also participating in the brotherhood’s ritual practices and religious observations.  

By 2021, economic globalization and cultural homogenization in Hong Kong has a meant that the corpus of complex Chinese kungfu knowledge and practices of many styles of kungfu have frequently been fractured into separate parts, turned into individual commodities, and sold on the open marketplace.  This has placed the consumer, the potential learner of kungfu skills, in the driver’s seat.  “

Daniel Amos

Read the full interview.

Shang-Chi is here! And Brad Allen dead at 48

We stand on the cusp of a major new martial arts movie release – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 5 Rings. On it’s own this should be something I write about, but it’s also the last film that Jackie Chan’s prodigy, Brad Allen worked on before his untimely death at 48.

Australian choreographer, performer and stunt coordinator, Brad Allen, was the first non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. He was incredibly skilled – here’s a short sample of his wushu and athletic ability:

It’s not clear how Brad Allen died, but 48 is very young. RIP.

I haven’t seen Shang-Chi yet, but by all accounts it’s a Kung Fu film done right, that avoids all the usual stereotypes, and a good chunk of the film’s dialogue is spoken in Mandarin Chinese, which is then translated into English subtitles for audiences.

“As an Asian (Taiwanese) Australian, it is so obvious that the film was written through the lens of those who have a lot of love for Asian culture and have lived through the Asian experience,” wrote kabutocat on Reddit, starting a fascinating discussion about the English-language translations of Mandarin dialogue in the movie. “The Chinese lines are written so well that a lot of the times the English subtitles actually failed to convey the nuances behind each line.”

Den of Geek article.

Shang-Chi’s origins lie in Marvels answer to the Kung Fu boom of the 1970s, with various Kung Fu-powered superheroes emerging, with perhaps Iron Fist being the post famous. The Shang-Chi comic was a product of its time and you can see orientalist tropes in its styling:

Shang-Chi was the first of the Kung Fu superheroes, and was designed to be the most gifted martial artist anyone had ever seen. He was trained in espionage, infiltration, assassination and more. But when he went on his first mission for his father, he broke his conditioning and dedicated himself to destroying his father’s criminal empire.

Here’s a breakdown of the film (warning SPOILERS).

Shang-Chi was the last film Brad Allen worked on, so let’s end with his excellent live performance with Jackie Chan on Saturday Night Live:

You can find out more about Brad Allen here.

Daniel Mroz on defining Chinese martial arts – a podcast conversation

Daniel Mroz

After battling hard through various technical challenges I’ve finally managed to create a Tai Chi Notebook podcast with humans on! (Previous episodes of my podcast have been a robot voice reading my blogs). I’m pleased to have my good friend Daniel Mroz on board for my first real episode where we have a conversation about what Chinese martial arts might be.

You can find it on all the usual places you find podcasts – search for The Tai Chi Notebook on Apple podcasts, Spotify, etc.. or here’s a link:

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/6tuptU … c1bb1b468f
Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/t … 0530576920
Web: https://anchor.fm/graham47/episodes/Ep- … /a-a68h1lv

What is the relationship between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre, religion, mime, serious leisure activities and military tactics? How do all these factors intermingle and produce the arts we have today? In this wide ranging discussion between Graham Barlow of the Tai Chi Notebook Podcast and Daniel Mroz, Professor of Theatre at the University of Ottawa we tackle all these subjects and more. As well as being a professor of theatre, Daniel is also a Choy Li Fut and Taijiquan practitioner and has spoken at the Martial Arts Studies conference and contributes articles to various journals including the Martial Arts Studies journal.

Podcast Notes

1)
That Daniel Mroz quote in full:


“By ‘Chinese martial arts’, I refer to folkways that began to assume their present forms from the mid 19th to the early 20th centuries, at the end of the Imperial, and the beginning of the Republican periods of Chinese history. These arts train credible fighting abilities through exacting physical conditioning; through partnered, combative drills and games; and through the practice of prearranged movement patterns called tàolù  套路 (Mroz, 2017 & 2020). For millennia, up end of the Imperial period in 1912, China explicitly understood itself as a religious state (Lagerwey 2010). Communities across China not only used their martial arts to defend themselves, they performed them as theatrical acts of religious self-consecration, communal blessing, and entertainment in an annual calendar of sacred festivals (Ward, 1978; Sutton, 2003; Boretz, 2010; Amos, 2021). Modernization, and secularization at the end of the Imperial period removed the original context of these practices. The Chinese martial arts were transformed over the course of the 20th century by both their worldwide spread, and by their ideological appropriation by the Chinese Republic of 1912, and the Communist state that succeeded it in 1949 (Morris, 2004). Their religious heritage forgotten in many social, and cultural contexts within greater China, and internationally, the arts we practice today combine a legacy of pragmatic combat skill, religious enaction, participatory recreation, competitive athleticism, and performed entertainment.”

2)
THE STRENUOUS LIFE PODCAST WITH STEPHAN KESTING
334 – Ten Guru Warning Signs with Dr Dr Chris Kavanagh
https://kesting.libsyn.com/334-ten-guru … s-kavanagh

3)
Peter Johnsson
http://www.peterjohnsson.com/higher-und … reckoning/

Peter Johnsson – long video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6N3x_4 … 3gQGXHpgSG

Peter Johnsson – short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiSoLMx3v0I

Everybody was Kung Fu Citing

A glorious analysis of Carl Douglas’ smash no.1 hit around the world, Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting, by Prof. Paul Bowman, proving once again that things do not need to be beyond a certain level of complexity to be an important cultural document.

You can get this on audio too, but you really need to watch the video as a lot of this is relying on visual performance of the song.

The repurposing of Kung Fu postures

I really liked this video by The Wandering Warrior on Instagram:

True or not, he makes a good case for the move not being the backfist or punch it is usually shown as, and being a throw instead. In a way, there’s no right answer – the move is whatever you use it for.

But it made me think a lot about how Kung Fu postures are repurposed and reused through the years.

If we go back to one of the earliest written descriptions of Kung Fu by General Qi Jinguang in his “Boxing Classic” of 1560 we can see that all he’s showing are a series of still postures with written verse about the move in question.

You can see that the first posture shown, “Lazily pulling back the robe” shares some similarties with the posture discussed above.

Lazily pulling back the robe, Qi Jinguang, 1560

A Confucian cuture of respect for tradition and elders would naturally lead to respect for older kung fu postures, and you can see how they would get reused and repurposed to fit new needs over the generations.

I bet the current Yang style Single Whip posture is not chosen because it’s the optimal way of pushing forward with a single palm. Instead, it’s more likely a posture that has been passed down from older generations. Maybe it’s original meaning (if it had one) has been lost, over the years. Maybe it was once a Suai Jiao throw? Maybe it was once a posture from Chinese theatre or religious ritual? Who knows.

The important thing is, as always, what can you do with it now?