Basic Shuai Jiao exercises for the waist (Yao) and Fa Jin

There have not been many updates to the blog recently, but don’t worry, I’ve been busy working hard behind the scenes. I’ve just recorded a great conversation with Matthew Kreuger of the Walking with the Tengu podcast. “A podcast exploring classic writings as they relate to the modern martial artist.” We covered all sorts of topics including warriorship, philosophy and of course, martial arts. Matthew is going to be my guest on the next episode of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast, so look out for that, coming sometime in October.

One of the things we talked about was how Matthew has integrated Shuai Jiao throwing techniques into the standup component of his Brazilian Jiujitsu training. This is a really interesting approach, as you typically see BJJ integrated with wrestling or Judo, but mixing it with the stand up Chinese jacket wrestling style is not something I’ve seen before.

Shuai Jiao contains a lot of solo exercises for conditioning the body, and my ears pricked up when Matthew said that these exercises had really helped him with a back injury that had dogged his training.

Matthew has been a studying from the online school of Sonny Mannon, co-founder & Head Trainer for Guang Wu Shuai Jiao. I looked him up and found this basic introduction to Shuai Jiao warm up exercises video that he did in 2020.

Having just followed along these exercises I can see how they benefit the waist, core and lower back area. But also the flexibility in the legs – my hamstrings and calf muscles were particularly stiff the day after! That video follows on into this one, which is about ‘belt cracking’.

Belt cracking is less about stretching and more about developing that explosive shake that you see in a lot of Chinese martial arts, sometimes called Fa Jin. It’s interesting stuff, but in Shuai Jiao you’re generally not trying to hit with it, you’re using it to disrupt the opponent’s structure to create openings. You can see some applications of it on Sonny’s Instagram account:

Shuai Jiao – fact or fiction?

By Metatronangelo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22973514

I’ve been meaning to write a post on Shaui Jiao, the Chinese wrestling style, for a while now. We covered Shuai Jiao in one of our Heretics Podcast episodes a while ago, but you can’t say that it was a particularly good primer on what Shuai Jiao is. As usual, Damon found an obscure angle and the episode is really more about the strategies associated with the Azure Dragon in China, and linked somewhat tangentially to Shuai Jiao.

Shuai Jiao is wrestling. It’s done in a jacket, which can be gripped, and consists of a variety of throws and trips, the aim being to get your opponent to touch the ground with any part of their body other than their feet. It’s popular in various parts of China and regional styles have sprung up in different areas.

Almost any book you buy on Shuai Jiao will inevitably start with a history section, where the author links Shuai Jiao back to various ancient Chinese wrestling styles from different points in time – things like Jiao Di (‘Horn butting’) get mentioned. The idea is to establish a link between the Shuai Jiao practiced in China today and ancient wrestling arts spanning back several dynasties. The propaganda arm of the Chinese government would really like you to know that Shuai Jiao is 1) ethnically, Chinese, the ancient art of the Han peoples, and 2) Old.

Unfortunately, neither of these things are true. While things like Jiao Di, and actual wrestling styles existed in the past, there is no connection between them and Shuai Jiao.

Shaui Jiao itself is neither ancient or “Chinese” in origin. It has no direct connection to anything practiced by the ethnic Han Chinese. It was actually imported by the Manchu, the northern tribe who invaded China, overthrew the Ming Dynasty and started the Ching dynasty from 1644-1912. Like the Mongols before them, the Manchu loved wrestling as a form of strengthening soldiers and entertainment.

Byron Jacobs has produced an extensive history of Shuai Jiao over three videos that’s well worth a watch if you want to understand where Shaui Jiao really came from:

Of course, the origins of an art have no direct relationship to its effectiveness. As Damon says in the Heretics episode, being good at any form of wrestling is a big advantage in any martial art. Physical conditioning, being a strong robust person who is fit and good at physical alignment is a useful thing.

But wrestling often has more of a community function than other martial arts, and it’s the same in China as it is in the West – wrestling can be great fun. There is a Chinese Shuai Jiao tradition called Tian Qiao Shuai Jiao, which is an intangible cultural heritage of China. It’s a style of wrestling-based entertainment that any body who is familiar with the same tradition in the West will instantly recognise:

The joy of Manchu Wrestling

In the last episode of the Heretics podcast we talked about Chinese wrestling – Shuai Jiao – but Damon also mentioned Manchu wrestling quite a bit. He described it, but you can’t get a proper idea of how it works without seeing it done, so let’s look a little closer.

Manchu wrestling is a unique form of puppetry popular in certain parts of China where the participant wears a life-sized puppet of two wrestlers in a costume that turns ther legs and arms into both the puppet’s legs. Various wrestling maneuvers are then performed. The skill is to make it look like the two puppets are really wrestling and pulling off moves on each other.

To a western martial artist interested in only “learning how to defend myself” this might all look a bit silly, but if you watch this documentary you’ll see that there’s quite a lot to it:

There are so many things here worthy of note.

  • Firstly, the connection between puppetry and Chinese martial art is ripe for research – I’m thinking of the other famous puppet show that martial artists are known for – Lion and Dragon dancing. These cultural and religious practices are still done by martial arts groups at demonstrations and festivals.
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com
  • Everybody in the Manchu wrestling documentary calls it “wrestling” even though it’s a solo drill. They don’t call it a dance or puppetry. To them this is “wrestling”, but we’d never call it that in Britain, for example – I find that pretty interesting.
  • It’s a damn good work out. If you’ve ever done any BJJ floor drills where you walk around on your hands and feet you’ll know that it’s instantly exhausting. Manchu wrestling will get you fit! If you don’t believe me then have a go at some of these drills before you tell me I’m wrong:
  • Manchu wrestling actually looks pretty dangerous – you can easily break a wrist with the high-speed spinning they’re doing, especially if the stick you hold in the shoe breaks.
  • Mental health benefits: a part of the documentary is focused on the mental health benefits of Manchu wrestling, especially looking at its life-changing benefits for rural Chinese women whose lives seem to be reduced to raising children and farming. I found this interesting in light of how much mental health benefits are talked about in BJJ culture – “BJJ saved my life” is a commonly used phrase amongst gym rats. Perhaps there is something inherently therapeutic about any style of wrestling movements and the human body?

The Azure Dragon and Shuai Jiao

There’s a new episode of the Heretics podcast out. In this chat, Damon and I discuss Shuai Jiao, the popular modern Chinese wrestling style and try and separate fact from fiction. We discuss what martial arts it is related to and also if there is a connection to Japanese Kempo.

The best thing about this episode is that Damon talks a lot about Chinese cosmology, and how it may related to an earlier form of Chinese wrestling – we look at the cosmological concept of Qinglong, or the Azure Dragon.

The Azure Dragon on the national flag of China during the Qing dynasty, 1889-1912:

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/73-the-azure-dragon-and-shuai-jiao

I’d also recommend a listen to Byron Jacob’s Hidden History of Shuai Jiao, which we reference in the episode:

Is Chinese wrestling the root of all Chinese martial arts?

An interesting video has surfaced that links the guard postures used in Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) with postures in various Chinese martial arts. The premise of the video is that Shuai Jiao is the root of all the Chinese martial styles. The text accompanying the video says:

“Guards in traditional Chinese wrestling are meant to favor certain fighting techniques and strategies. Since Shuai Jiao is very ancient and there are precise references in these guards to the styles that exist today, traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles. My Master Yuan Zumou has clearly stated this for over thirty years. In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat. I have put the captions of the styles I know or of those that maestro Li Baoru (Beijing, late 80s) mentions in the video.”

It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately I can’t agree with such a blanket statement as “traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles“. Was it a strong influence on all Chinese styles? Yes, of course. But calling it the root of all styles is a bit strong for me. Some styles developed entirely from military practices, and a lot of styles have no wrestling component at all, or have their roots in weapons usage.

I can certainly see postures in the video that resemble Tai Chi – particularly the “White Stork Cools Wings” posture and another guard that looks a little like the “Wave Hands Like Clouds”. But we only have two arms and two legs – inevitably there are going to be similarities between postures found in different martial arts. That alone doesn’t confirm a genuine historial link. Influences betweewn marital arts can flow in both directions, too. So it’s quite possible that wrestling has been influenced by local village styles. And even things that are not necessarily combat arts, like xìqǔ, can have an influence on them.

I’d also have to take issue with the statement that “In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat.” Let’s not even get into the idea of what “real combat” is (Shuai Jiao matches have rules, after all) but it’s a simple fact that Shuai Jiao was enjoyed in the royal court in the Ching Dynasty (and probably all the dynasties before it) as a kind of entertainment for the nobles. The same thing happened in the Japanese royal court with Sumo, just as medieval kings in Europe enjoyed watching martial games like jousting and fencing. And obviously wrestling is still enjoyed as a kind of popular entertainment in America and Mexico today.

But let’s turn our attention to the contend of the video. A lot of the guards being demonstrated look quite showy to me – as if they were designed to impress an audience, particularly the Wave Hands Like Clouds style guard, where the practitioner seems to deliberately trip over his own legs.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Ever since modern Wu Shu put the emphasis on gymnastic ability over practicality, people have been searching for this false dichotomy between performance and practicality in historical martial arts, too. It’s almost like a real martial art isn’t allowed to have any ‘fun’ aspects to it. In reality, and with several historical examples, a martial art can be both a serious, practical tool for combat, and something that can be performed for social, entertainment and cultural reasons all at the same time.

Choy Li Fut schools often perform lion dance, and that doesn’t mean their kung fu won’t work in a fight. Similarly, I would contend that Shuai Jiao can be used as a form of entertainment and a practical method of self defence. Just like almost all Chinese martial arts can.