Kung Fu 2021

The classic TV series is back! This time the lead is female and the cast is almost all Asian. I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with it. I thought the trailer was pretty good. Not sure how I watch this in the UK though…?

Suspended from above. Bringing a sense of lightness to your Tai Chi.

One admonition from Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points, that has become something of a law in Taijiquan, is to ‘keep the head suspend, as if from above’.

This has produced all sorts of controversies in the Yang style side of the Tai Chi world. If you look at ChengFu’s student Chen ManChing, who did so much to popularise Tai Chi in the West, you see that he changed his form to truly embody this principle. His head, neck and back are vertical in all positions where he is not bending at the waist.

Whereas, if you look at pictures of his teacher, Cheng-Fu you see that he holds his back with a slight incline in forward postures.

Lineages derived from ChengFu’s peer Wu Jianquan, hold an even more inclined position.

I used to ponder these discrepancies a lot, but these days I have become more interested in the relation of the back (including the neck) to the hands and arms. When we lift and use our arms our tendency is to bend the top of the spine and drop the head forwards, a fact that can be proved each and every time you type on a laptop. Our head wants to move towards the object we are interacting with.

I was watching an excellent performance of a child doing Bak Sing Choy Li Fut shot in the 1960s. Young children doing martial arts can be great teachers because they effortlessly keep their posture as they move. It is only as we become adults that we seem to lose this ability.

Here’s the video. Watch the good posture he keeps – his back remains still in relation to the movement of his arms allowing his neck to stay extened and space and awareness to be present.

Choy Li Fut, 1960s

This is what I think is being asked for in Yang Cheng-Fu’s writings and the Taiji Classics, not mere fussing about how vertical a posture is. The freedom to move our arms but to keep our back still, and maintain our head and neck relationship without falling into the trap of bending towards the object of our attention.

But how to train this? Get a 4 pint carton of milk out of the fridge and swinging it in a figure of 8 in front of you. Now do it again and notice how you head wants to be pulled forward. Resist the pull and feel the work done by the torso muscles to prevent it from happening. It shouldn’t feel like they’re straining, but they are active.

You can do the same thing with a heavy Jian. Or if you feel like you can capture the same feeling without a heavy object, then in a silk reeling exercise, or in the Tai Chi form.

When you are standing still or sitting you can achieve the same torso and arms relationship but with even less use of muscle to maintain the position. You can let the weight of the upper body rest on the lower body, and down into the ground through the centre of the foot or the sitting bones.

Shoulds you have your head in that position to fight? Probably not – you want to tuck your chin a bit more, but the question is how you tuck your chin. The idea of the extended neck that you’re training by working on your posture can be transferred into the way you tuck you chin.

There are a lot of movement disciplines that also work on keeping the neck extended and the back still. Alexander technique and stage acting spring to mind, for example.

In a way the neck being tense, or feeling tired, after we’ve been doing something is a sign that we’re not doing it to the best of our ability. Especially if the shoulders get involved as well. If we can maintain the relaxed, neutral, position of the neck through movement, then it’s a sign that we’re using ourselves in a better way. Our breathing will be better, and we don’t lose that sense of lightness that the kid in the Choy Li Fut video from the 1960s so effortlessly demonstrates.

Keep your head up. Walk lightly, smile brightly!

Kung Fu and firearms

“Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills. The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?”

Charles Holcombe, Theater of Combat (1990)

I think it’s important to bear in mind Charles Holcombe’s classic article, Theater of Combat, when thinking of Chinese martial arts.

One recurring trope that I encounter from, as Holcombe puts it, “Western enthusiasts”, (a label I would apply to myself) is the idea that the Chinese martial arts styles evolved as effective fighting systems in a purer time, before the use of firearms became widespread, and that they gradually went out of favour as practical self defence arts in the face of modern weapons, and turned their attention instead to the more lofty goals of attaining physical fitness, health and spiritual enlightenment.

The idea gives credence to the original version of these arts being purely pugilistic. It follows that once the evil West showed up with their firearms the martial arts needed to find some other way to survive, so it tended towards gymnastic displays or spiritual attainment. It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t really hold sway with reality.

People forget that China is credited with inventing gunpowder and that the ‘older’ version of its martial arts was intricately embedded within a culture whose religious expression was revealed through performance at festivals and ceremonies, often officiated by a priest performing a ritual with a sword or a troupe of performing martial artists acting out conversations with the gods. 

Also, I think the “whiff of ancient mysticism” (as Judkins calls it) around the martial arts makes people think of them as being  incompatible with modern methods of warfare, like the gun. A popular theme within marital arts films, for example, is that of the introduction of guns destroying the old order, usually involving the death of an old master at the hands of a less skilled and resentful disciple who only had to pull the trigger. 

But, as Judkins explains, these media perceptions have twisted the truth:

“Historically speaking, this is totally backwards.  First the guns came, and then the modern martial arts developed.  What we see in China is quite similar to the puzzle that made life difficult for Perrin when he discussed Japan.

Firearms have been a fact of life in China since the 1300s.  At first they were difficult and expensive to manufacture, but the government employed large numbers of hand cannons, field artillery pieces and even massive rocket launchers from an early period.  If you are curious about what early military gunnery looked like you should check out the Fire Dragon Manual.  At the start of the Ming dynasty Chinese firearms were probably the most advanced in the world.  So what happened?”

Clearly there is more to this story of Kung Fu and firearms than we are aware. I’d recommend reading Ben’s full article: Forgetting about the Gun: Firearms and the Development of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts. and also his other article: Tools of the Trade: The Use of Firearms and Traditional Weapons among the Tongs of San Francisco, 1877-1878.

Enjoy!

Weapons of Chinese highbinders. 1900

Why you should train your martial art like a sport

“Sport” is kind of a trigger word for a lot of martial art practitioners, at least some of the ones I’ve met! So telling them they should train their martial art more like a sport usually goes down like a cold bucket of sick, but really I think they should listen.

“There are no rules on the street!”

“I train for the street, dude!”

“You mean a sport like netball, right?”

Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

When here’s the thing: Training your martial art like a ‘martial art’ is often an excuse for not working very hard and not really pressure testing anything you do.

Sport is a sweaty, dificult, thing to do that usually involves doing something pretty athletic (unless you count darts). Sport is also structured. Quite often in a martial art there is no real training methodology. People just turn up, do a few forms, practice a few safe applications against little or no resistance then go home again. The learning process can be a bit random.

I should stress, I don’t really think that there’s anything wrong with that, depending on your motivations for training, which often change as you age. Just feeling good about doing something is certainly reason enough to do it, but I think you should ask yourself, what progress are you really making? And, worse, are you becoming delusional?

Sports, in contrast, tend to be very structured. You train attributes specifically, and you engage in a focussed practice where you can drill to increase your ability in tightly defined things. Sometime those things are measured. You sit down and discuss progress with your coach. You troubleshoot and then you give it a go against somebody who is going to be uncooperative and gives you feedback. That’s real testing against nature – the sort of thing a human shaman would engage in 10,000 years ago.

Martial arts also have strange rules that sports don’t have – we have to call people odd titles like Sifu or Professor. There’s bowing and etiquette that looks strange to people outside the system. I can understand the cultural reasons for a lot of these things, but I often wonder that when these arts are put into a different culture, whether some of these things should be left behind because they’re not helpful and, in fact, can stand in the way of progress. For example, the little quirks like bowing to photos of dead guys or using a 1-2-3 clap system can gradually breed a cult-like quality of obedience that makes us stop questioning things.

I saw a brilliant video of a Muay Thai coach recently. I love the tiny details he’s giving. Muay Thai is an interesting martial art because it’s probably the most traditional martial art remaining on the planet, but it’s also a sport. It is undoubtedly effective and trained at the highest level in popular combat sports. I think there’s something to learn from that.

As I said earlier, I don’t think we need to make all martial arts into competative sports, but I think we can take elements of the sporting approach and apply it to what we’re doing, regardless of the martial art we’re doing.

Finally, the inspiration for this post is the latest brilliant episode of the BJJ Mental Models podcast to featuring Priit Mihkelson, about how to train your martial art like a sport. Give it a listen.

It’s also on YouTube:

The great mystery of Kung Fu forms

One of the frequent criticisms I hear of the idea that there is a connection between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre and religion is that no respectable Chinese martial arts teacher has ever implied their work comes from dance or spiritual ritual, so the idea is laughable. I have experienced a pretty negative reaction from some of my Chinese martial arts friends to these ideas. The thought that the rough and tough martial art they genuinely suffered to learn and dedicated their lives to had religious or (worse) theatrical origins is anathema to their world view, akin to an insult.

But the question really is, how can they not be theatrical? Just look at Chinese martial arts – of course they’re theatrical!

Here are some questions to ask yourself: Why do we do long complex, showy forms at all? Why is Chinese martial arts still so strongly associated with Lion Dance? Why do its modern day performers so often put on demonstrations for the local community, on stages? Why do performances sometimes have chaotic drumming soundtracks?

I’m sure any competent Chinese martial arts practitioner can produce answers to all these questions based entirely in the physical realm of pugilism – it’s all physical training at the end of the day –  but when you put all these questions together an obvious picture begins to form.

Nobody looks at Capoeira and says, “this has nothing to do with dance”. So, why do most Chinese martial arts practitioners look at their long theatrical forms and say, “this has nothing to do with theatre or religious practice”?

There’s an inherent mystery to Tao Lu, or “forms” found in Chinese martial arts. This great video by The Scholar-General hopes to provide some answers:

The Invention of Martial Arts, Popular Culture Between Asia and America by Paul Bowman

I’ve just got a copy of The Invention of Martial Arts, Popular Culture Between Asia and America, by Paul Bowman. (Amazon link. Non-Amazon link). Firstly, yes, that excellent cover illustration is a picture of Jim Kelly playing the iconic character Williams in Enter the Dragon, a character who speaks volumes about the international and multi-ethnic appeal of East Asian martial arts in the early 1970s. It was created by the incredible Jon Daniel, who passed away in 2017.

Some of Bowman’s work is very academic, but this one is for “normal people”, like me. I’m still on the Introduction, but feel compelled to write something about it because this book is dripping with ideas to do with the conversations we all have around martial arts.

That to me is what much of Martial Arts Studies is – it’s not about the martial arts themselves, it’s about “what we talk about, when we talk about martial arts”, which would otherwise be left unexamined.

Take his writing on theory in the introduction:

“At first glance martial arts may seem simple. But any discussion of them will involve an implicit or explicit theory about them.”

So true. If you’ve ever been involved in any sort of online discussion about martial arts you’ll find the participant are talking past each other because of an assumption of (often contradictory) theory that underlines everything they say to each other about any subject to do with marital arts. One person thinks the martial art is really all about this, and the other person thinks the martial art is really all about that, and they go on busily talking about different things.

He raises the brilliant point that no theory of martial arts (or culture) can contain all the answers and that “different theories offer variations and varieties of perspective. Looking at things from the perspective of one paradigm, or orientation, followed by another, and then another is stimulating and illuminating in many ways. The shifts in perspective caused by this can produce more well-rounded or enriched understandings of phenomena, and can also instil a prudent awareness of the limits of our own understanding. However, by the same token, such shifts can also produce contradictory, conflicting incompatible pictures of ‘the same thing’.”

It should come as no surprise that the title of the book can then be viewed in multiple ways. He’s not talking about the literal invention of the term “martial arts”, or the actual martial arts themselves, but the invention of the ideas about martial arts, ways of thinking about them, depicting them and valuing them.

I could go on, but really, I’d recommend grabbing a copy yourself.

Where Karate got its kicks from (it was the French!)

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:

Chasing perfection: Yang Cheng-Fu’s roll back posture

I thought I’d start a series of posts commenting on what I like about photos of famous masters of the past. I thought I’d start with this photo of Yang Cheng-Fu doing rollback from the Yang long form.

Yang Chengfu, Rollback.

Yang Cheng-Fu comes in for a lot of criticism, mainly I think because of his weight. He was a big man, but I’ve always been impressed with how precise and delicate his postures seem to be. What I like most about this picture is that you can almost feel the heaviness and sinking in what he’s doing, yet at the same time there is the precise placing of his hands and feet.

Tai Chi is a paradox in that you are supposed to feel light yet also heavy. According to the Tai Chi Classics your head needs to feel like it is being pulled up “as if suspended from above”, and yet your body needs to also have the feeling of sinking, “Make the chi sink calmly” and “The abdomen relaxes, then the chi sinks into the bones.”

You can see both these qualities in Yang Cheng-Fu performing Rollback, head upright, light and nimble, yet also firm and heavy. With the placement of his hands you also get a sense of the yin and yang being distributed throughout his body. The back hand has the intent of pulling and the front hand has the intent of pushing. He is not “double weighted” – each hand is expressing a different energy. The weight on his feet is on the back leg – again, not in no man’s land in the middle, but clearly distinguished.

You also get a sense of calm. This is not a frantic and hurried performance. It’s slow and deliberate, like a great river rolling.

There’s a lot you can learn from a photo.

Power is just one factor. Don’t obsess over it.

Aldo vs McGregor

When was the last time you saw MMA coaches or fans having a massive long, protracted argument about the best way to produce power? I can’t remember it happening. I don’t think that’s because they don’t care about it – they obviously do – but I think they recognise that it’s part of the whole that makes up a fighter, not the only thing to focus on. Being able to take a punch to the face or body without crumpling into the canvas is obviously a more important skill. Being able to produce a powerful stomp into the ground when you’re punching the air, leaving your fist vibrating and shaking to demonstrate the enormity of your power… is very good for show, but what about for real? Can you do that when you’re tired, you’ve already been hit twice in the body and kicked six times in the same leg?

MMA coaches and commentators talk a lot about Conor McGregor’s left. It’s one of the most famous KO weapons in MMA. He’s sent a lot of consciousnesses on a short break to Valhalla with it. I was listening to Coach Zahabi breaking down the Conor McGregor vs Dustin Poirier fight (video below). He calls McGregor the “One punch KO type guy”, with a “kill shot”, a “touch of death”. But on that night the KO didn’t happened. Coach Zahabi talks a lot about about what Poirier did to take the sting out of it – by constantly wearing McGregor down, clinching him, not playing his game.

If you look at the GIF above of Aldo vs McGregor you can see McGregor knocks Aldo out while moving backwards (Tai Chi people, feel free to yell out “Repulse Monkey!” here – it will do you no good, but it will make you feel better 🙂 ) this reveals what’s more important than power – timing. Power as the goal seems fruitless to me – what matters more is timing. If I could bottle timing and drink it I’d be drunk on it all the time!

The internal martial arts, with their emphasis on intricate, subtle and detailed body methods, qi, jin, “internal strength”, (and not much actual fighting), tend to fall prey to this obsession with power too easily. How much power do you really need? My answer is always “enough”. Once you go beyond “enough” then you start to detract from other areas of your game – timing, position, fluidity, flow, etc.. Power is part of the whole system of movement that should go with every Chinese martial art – if you extract that one aspect and look at in isolation then you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Here’s the breakdown by Coach Zahabi: