The (real) secrets of the Ninja

 

The duck test is a form of abductive reasoning, usually expressed as:

“If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”

The test implies that a person can identify an unknown subject by observing that subject’s habitual characteristics.

 

Ninja warrior

I was browsing through my Facebook feed recently and a friend had posted a funny martial arts video from a page called McDoLife. It came with the description:

“The most savage and terrifying form known to man!!

In the video a western male, who doesn’t look particularly young, strong, or athletic, and is dressed up in Asian atire, introduces a martial form he’s about to perform with the immortal words (delivered in a Southern drawl, and without a hint of irony), “it’s composed of 27 of the deadliest poison hand techniques ever devised. Each one of which is guaranteed to kill, cripple, or main any attacker. It is not for the squeamish nor the weak at heart.

Guaranteed!

Then, after a formal bow, he and a doomed student run through a frankly baffling performance of screaming, flailing arm attacks and kicks, to which his student makes no attempt to resist.

I found a copy of the same clip on YouTube here. Watch for yourself:

The man in the video is known as Ashida Kim (real name Radford Davies), who wrote several books on Ninjutsu, including Secrets of the Ninja, first published in 1981, which contains such gems as how to use a “cloak of invisibility”. It looks like the video was shot on VHS which would make it 1980s (?), probably. The YouTube title is “Kinji-Te, the Forbidden Fist of the Ninja.”

Despite there being no record of him ever have being trained by anyone (according to this Wikipedia page) Kim/Davies because famous in martial arts circles for teaching ninja skills during the ninja craze of the 1980s.

To modern eyes his videos look ridiculous. Back in the 1980s when access to quality martial arts instruction from the East was rare, and the Internet hadn’t been invented, these sort of things were common. It’s just a man flailing his way through a series of “deadly” martial arts techniques on an unresisting opponent – pretending to rake his face, rip out his throat, gouge his eyes, etc.

In the modern age of social media, we’re all used to funny videos like this popping up, and I was laughing along with the rest of the Internet, until I suddenly stopped and thought, hang on, “poison hand”… that rings a bell…

Then I watched the clip again and thought, “Hey, I know some of these moves!”. Before the video descends into a 100 move Monty Python-esque kata against a guy lying on the ground not fighting back, he was definitely doing the start of a form known as “Duck Sau” from a martial art I used to practice in my youth called “Feng Sau Kung Fu”. We pronounced it “Duck Sau”, but in written form it was presented as “Tu Shou”, which translated as “Poison hand”!

Here’s a video of the Tu Shou form being performed:

Note the similarities – after the initial bow to his student, Kim settles himself back into a riding horse stance, just like the Tu Shou performer does. His student attacks with a blow with his right hand and Kim steps back with his right leg into a back stance (known as “Duck stance” in the Li family system), raising his left hand as a deflection, and then proceeds to perform a sequence of arm attacks.

Feng Shou (“Hand of the wind”) is the kung fu section of the Li Family System of Taoist Arts taught by a figure famous in the British martial arts scene, Chee Soo (who died 1994). Since he was in Britain, and one of the few Chinese teachers openly teaching kung fu to the public during the kung fu boom of the 1970s, Chee Soo’s martial arts society became really popular in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, before another styles of Chinese martial art could really get a foothold in the country.  Of course, it’s popularity dwindled as the kung fu boom died out, and after Chee’s death his society fractured into different, smaller, groups, but they are all still teaching his system today.

Having practiced the Tu Shou form myself, I think that it’s essentially what Ashida Kim is using as the inspiration for his Kinji-Te form in the video.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that both forms are identical to an old karate, or Aikido form I don’t know, and if they are, then please tell me. The origins of Chee Soo’s martial arts are hard to prove themselves, the story being that he was taught everything by an old Chinese gentleman he met in London, who later adopted him as his nephew. However, it is documented that Chee Soo studied Judo, Aikido and Kendo and mixed with many other martial artists of the era.

But Occam’s Razor (and the use of the phrase “poison hand”) would suggest that one of these individuals probably copied the form from the other. (Another thing about the video that struck me was that the salute he does right at the start is exactly the same salute that I learned in a Feng Sau class).

The question then becomes…. who stole what from who?

 

Tu Shou in print.

You can read Chee Soo’s biography on the Amazon page of “Taoist Art of Feng Shou”. I think it’s pretty accurate and gives dates for various things. Of particular interest here:

“In 1973 Chee Soo and his daughter Lavinia made an appearance on BBC One’s Nationwide where they demonstrated Feng Shou Kung Fu to presenter Bob Wellings in the studio giving practical demonstrations of the power of internal energy or Chi. He also talked about the history of Chinese Martial Arts. The hallmark of his style was the relaxed technique and the emphasis on non-competition.”

You can view this video here:

So we know that he was teaching this form in the early 70s. In 1974 Chee Soo published “Teach yourself Kung Fu”, which contained the Tu Shou form. So, the Tu Shou form would have been available in print for people to view in the ‘70s, and also was being taught in public classes.

This would lead me to conclude that Kim obtained this form, if only by reading a book, from Soo, and used it as a basis for his “Kinji-Te” form. After all, the book was called “Teach yourself Kung Fu“…

If it quacks…

This whole investigation has made me really consider the role of lineage in martial arts. What exactly constitutes a lineage? Can martial arts really be created out of nothing? If not, then can they legitimately be considered as part of the lineage of a previous art, even if there has been no direct human connection between them – no teacher and student relationship – and it all came out of watching a video or reading a book?

But what if it was only an idea that formed the link? Ideas about martial arts can inspire. Tai Chi is a perfect example of an art that appears to be inspired by Taoist ideas, yet there’s not actual, provable, Taoist connection beyond the realm of myth. And what if modern day Tai Chi is being practiced by somebody who identifies as a Taoist, or even has lineage in a sect of Taoism. Is it then a Taoist art?

Was Ashida Kim’s Kinji-Te form an original, old, Ninja form, or was it in fact, his creation based on Chee Soo’s book?

Perhaps the safest model to use is, in fact, the Duck (Sau) Test. If it looks like a duck sau, swims like a duck sau, and quacks like a duck sau, then it probably is a duck sau (Tu shou)!

green and gray mallard duck

Photo by Saeid Anvar on Pexels.com