The real secret to martial arts – Bruce Lee and the concept of Jeet

Today I want to talk about a very useful martial arts teaching called the 3 timings. In many ways, these teachings are the secret to all martial arts, so you’re getting some pretty good value out of this free blog post! 🙂

The three timings have been handed down in many different martial arts lineages under different guises, but it’s all the same teaching. I suspect the 3 timings are as old as time itself.

Personally, I’ve found the three timings most applicable to weapons work, but they are obviously important for barehand too.

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

The version of the 3 timings handed down in my Chinese lineage was called “Yi timing, Chi timing and Xing timing”, but in English you’ll find them explained perfectly well by Paul Vunak here as simply, before, during and after:

Paul Vunak is a Jeet Kune Do teacher. Bruce thought the concept of “Jeet” was so important he named his martial art after it. The “Jeet” in Jeet June Do means to intercept, and intercepting is what the 3 timings are all about.

The 3 timings is a pretty simple concept. You can hit somebody:

  1. After” they have completed their technique (xing timing), for which you obviously have to move out of the way before you respond. This is the slowest timing and easiest to perform.
  2. During” their attack (chi timing). This is a much shorter timing and it could end up in a simultaneous death strike where you both hit each other, but ideally you would just sneak in first and beat them to the punch.
  3. And finally, “before” they strike you. This is the hardest timing to achieve, because it’s very easy to mess up. You need to hit them before they launch their attack, but equally, it does need to be in sync with a genuine attack. If you fire on Yi timing (”intention” timing), and they are faking, or not attacking, you’ll end up out of position and vulnerable. Yi timing therefore requires immense practice and sensitivity so that you can accurately read the whole situation in the blink of an eye, and be sure they were really going to attack.

Timing, I think, is the ultimate skill in martial arts. If you are a master of timing, then you almost don’t need any technique. If we are both holding swords and I can always time my attack to hit you anytime you come towards me then I can forget about “Green Dragon Scoops the water” or whatever fancy technique I know. It all becomes irrelevant.

So how do you practice the 3 timings? Well, I’d suggest that the first stage would involve getting a partner, like Mr Vunak has done in that video, and practicing responding to set attacks, so you can develop a feel for each timing. Obviously this would need to be done predictably at the start then slowly more variation can be introduced and the sparring can become freer. Instead of the other person just feeding attacks, they can try to start to make their own attacks and counters.

If you practice barehand and with weapons then you’ll notice how much quicker the timing needs to be with weapons. You have so much less time to react. In fact, going back to barehand after using weapons you will almost feel like you are moving in slow motion, which is a handy skill to have for obvious reasons.

With the timings at the heart of your practice you might also change the way you think about moving in martial arts. Ways of moving that require a unity of body and mind become much more important. You need to move everything together, and as one, to hit your timings.

The words of the Xing Yi Classic of Unification become more important:

“When the upper and lower move, the centre will attack.
When the centre moves, the upper and lower support,
Internal and external, front and rear are combined,
This is called “Threading into one”,
This cannot be achieved through force or mimicry.”

Hundreds of years after these words were written, Bruce Lee came to the same conclusions, and based his new martial art around the concept of timing.

How to hit in Xing Yi and Tai Chi

“When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And, when there is an opportunity, I do not hit – it hits all by itself.”
Bruce Lee

Practicing both Xing Yi and Tai Chi together helps you gain insights into both arts. Here’s what occured to me this morning: If you were to strip down Tai Chi and Xing Yi forms to their essentials then Tai Chi is a series of deflecting moves interspersed with occasional punches or kicks, and Xing Yi is a series of punches or kicks interspersed with occasional deflecting moves.

That’s a gross simplification, but I think it’s true to some extent. It’s what makes the two arts good companions for each other.

I’ve written before about not putting power in the form, but in a related note I think the idea of not using your arm to punch is another way of looking at it from a more Xing Yi perspective. It’s the same nut, just another way to crack it.

The famous Tai Chi practitioner, Cheng Man Ching, is said to have had a dream in which he had no arms, and it was only after that that he grasped the secret of pushing hands. The secret was that pushing hands had nothing to do with hands at all, and he credited this dream with in his ability to push people.

But I find it a lot easier to understand the ‘not using your hands’ thing when you are constantly pushing and deflecting. It’s a lot harder to do it when you are striking.

Xing Yi is obsessed with striking. Most of the forms are a series of strikes linked together (called “links” – Lian Huan). I’ve come to appreciate however that the key to it is to not use your arm to strike. I mean, yes, your arm is doing the striking, of course, but it’s like it’s not involved in the process. I’m thinking about what Bruce Lee said when he said “it hits all by itself”. But while I believe Lee was talking about a more spiritual process (the top line of the hexagram), I’m thinking about a more mid-line process that’s rooted in the body. The hand moves into the position you want, but what moves it there has nothing to do with the arm at all, it’s all from the body. I find that when Xing Yi becomes “too much in the arm” it ceases to be the art it’s supposed to be. 

Paradoxically by trying to hit hard, you ruin it. You’ve got to ease back a little bit – take your foot slightly off he gas and let the body do the work, almost as if you are a craftsman using a tool skillfully (your body) rather than making a great effort to get things done and just making a mess in the process.

I do not hit, it hits all by itself.

How to grip the sword

When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body” – Xing Yi classics

I am still trying to make sure I do some sword practice every day. Specifically I’m using Bear Eagle from Xing Yi as my main practice.

One of the big issues that becomes apparent when you do a lot of sword practice is the grip. My experience is that a solid grip means less wear and tear on your wrist.

I was therefore quite pleased to read this blog on how to grip a sword by Scott Rodell, since it confirms what I was taught and have found to be the best way to practice in terms of logevity. He recommends the same grip that I use.

The way I was taught was to grip the handle with all my fingers, not any kind of thumb/finger arrangement as you often see, and make sure all the fingers are below the guard, for obvious reasons. I think one of the keys to making your grip strong is to grip really hard with the little finger, that way you make sure it never sips off, because once it does the rest of the fingers tend to follow. As the Xing Yi classics say, “When the haft is gripped, this grip is done with the whole body“. With a strong, stable, grip you can start to connect the sword to your centre, so that movements from the torso can be reveald in the extremities – in this case, the sword.

Why are Bear and Eagle always together?

A nice email from Paula asks: 

“I am curious to find why Bear and Eagle are always together. Have you come across or know of any reasoning behind this?

Thank you in advance for your time!”

This is a good question – if you practice Xing Yi you’ll notice that all the animal forms are practiced as individual animals, yet Bear (Xiong) and Eagle (Ying) are often mixed together as something called a “harmonious fist” (He Quan). (Although you also find them as separate links too). There are a few reasons why this is so.  

Photo by Rasmus Svinding on Pexels.com

Firstly, although Xing Yi has no particular connection to Taoism, it does make use of the concept of Yin and Yang. All the animals have Yin aspects and Yang aspects – this can be most clearly seen in something like snake, where the yin aspects are represented by the pythons – crushing, choking and coiling, and the yang aspects are represented by the vipers – quick, darting and venomous.

In Bear and Eagle, each animal represents an extreme of the postures found in Xing Yi – Bear should be the most extreme Yin (softer, heavier, shorter posture) and Eagle the most extreme Yang (hard, powerful and big). Bear is only ever Yin and Eagle is only ever Yang. So, to have a balance of Yin and Yang, both are practiced together to produce the optimum fighting strategy.

Bear is used at close range, rolling on and around attacks through your structure and position the attacker should naturally lands on the end of your blows. Think of slipping a jab in boxing and landing an uppercut. In contrast, the Eagle actively goes out to strike the opponent using long piercing strikes at a longer range. So, as a strategy they work well together. 

That’s the most basic reason.

Secondly, 英雄(hero) and 鷹(eagle)熊(bear) have the same pronunciation in Mandarin and Cantonese. This may just be a coincidence.

Now we can slip into the more esoteric reasons. This is something I’ve only ever heard from my teacher, but it makes no difference to the first theory, so let me present it.

There is an animal native to China and Japan called the Bear Eagle (Xiong Ying). In the west we call it the Mountain hawk eagle. (Spizaetus nipalensis in Latin.)

From Wikiepdia: “ it is usually perceptibly bulkier and more massive than most other members of its genus. It is seemingly the largest member of the 10 currently recognized species in the genus Nisaetus, notwithstanding the recently recognized Flores hawk-eagle (Nisaetus floris) (which was separated from the changeable hawk-eagle).”

You can see its powerful legs in this picture. I always like the little tuft it has on its head.

The bear eagle gets it’s name from the way it will grapple with prey on the ground – a bit like a bear. So this single animal represents both qualities. If you believe that the Xing Yi animals were derived directly from observing nature (which was the thrust of the Li movement in the Song Dynasty) then it’s possible that the hunting and fighting tactics of the Mountain Hawk eagle were studied to produce what we have handed down to us in Xing Yi. It’s an unprovable theory, but there you have it.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter to me if you think of the Xing Yi animal as representing a separate bear and an eagle, or a mountain hawk eagle. It’s all the same thing, and you can gain a lot of insight into the Xing Yi link by observing all 3 animals. Sadly, YouTube is probably your best bet for that these days.

Lost in translation: The Xing Yi Classics

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Thanks to Richard Johnson for commenting on my last post, which had a section of the Xing Yi classics (The 10 Thesis of Yue Fei) translated by my teacher. My teacher’s translation definitely differs from others you find online – it includes many more references to weapons that are omitted in other translations I’ve seen, specifically a haft-grip and a bow, in these sections.

It matters, because reading other translations I’ve seen you’d get the impression it was about gripping your opponent, not your spear.

I thought it interesting that Richard called it “quite interpretive rather than a strict translation“:

The first quote is quite interpretive rather than a strict translation. I found it in the manual attributed to Yue Fei. It could also be instructions to curl one’s fist tight with the same energy as gripping a handle.

Richard Johnson

I’d agree with him, but, with a rather large caveat: I think all translation is an interpretation.

There is no such thing as a “strict” translation of these Chinese classics into English, because a literal translation of characters often comes off looking like the work of Yoda. Confusing, it is!

To get at the meaning of the text you have to rejig it into English, and here you need to know the context of the work, the time period it was written in and also have some working knowledge of the subject to do it in a meaningful way.

Thanks to Paul Andrews of Xing Yi Academy (they’ve just relaunched with a new subscription service, so check them out) who has done the following literal translation of these sections of the Jianshou Lun (Classic of Fighting), so you can see what I mean:

“I’m looking at my translation of the Jiaoshou Lun now.  So the first quote is: 

用拳要卷緊 Yòng quán yào juǎn jǐn, 

用把把有氣 Yòng bǎ bà yǒu qì. 

Literally –  Use fist must roll tight. Use grip must have Qi.  

So fist could be the fist or it could be “boxing”.  There is no mention of a haft here, there is nothing immediately before or after, but a little bit further on we get this:

手以心把 Shǒu yǐ xīn bà, 

心以手把 Xin yǐ shǒu bà.  

Literally – Hand uses xin to grip.  xin uses hand handle (shou ba together means handle/haft).  

In my own interpretation Shou (hand) can also mean “a technique”. So my take on this is: The methods use the xin to grasp and the xin transmits through the haft. Given this later reference to a haft/handle it is legitimate to understand that the entire section is talking about weapons so D earlier use of haft is in context.

Second quote:

一握渾身皆握, Yī wò hún shēn jiē wò,

一伸渾身皆伸, Yī shēn hún shēn jiē shēn

伸要伸得進, Shēn yào shēn dé jìn

握要握得根 Wò yào wò dé gēn

如卷炮, Rú juǎn pào

卷得緊, Juǎn dé jǐn

崩得有力, Bēng dé yǒu lì

Literally:  

One grasp mix body (hunshen together means “everything” or whole body) all grasps.

One extends everything all extends

Extending important to extend while entering

Grasping important grasp must root

As reeled (rolled up/coiled) cannon (explosion)

Reel must be tight

Collapse/compress must have power/strength

So:   

When grasping [the haft], the whole body grasps [the haft]. 

When one part extends, the whole body extends. 

The key is to extend while entering.

When grasping the grasp comes from the root, as if coiled ready to explode. 

The coiling becomes tight, Compressing to store power.

The first two phrases could also be interpreted as:  Grasp with the whole body and everything holds.  Extend with the whole body and everything extends.The last phrase is tricky.  Damon like the alternative 绷 – beng meaning to draw tight. But the character used in the text I have is 崩 – beng same as “Beng quan” meaning to collapse/crush/compress.This phrase could mean that the reel must be tight, like something compressing to store power (or if the alternative beng is used – like a bow at full draw).Or collapsing could refer to releasing the reel, letting go. Meaning that when released the power has to transmit. That phrase isn’t easy it could mean both.”

Threading into one – Shen Fa and weapons

Day 3 of my experiment with switching my training around so that weapons (specifically sword) are the mainstay of my practice, and changes are already happening.

Today I want to talk about Shen Fa, which translates as “body method”. You could call it whatever you want really, but it just means “the way you move”. Xing Yi has a very detailed Shen Fa and in bare hand practice you have to make your body do it. In contrast, using a sword almost teases it out of the body. The key to Xing Yi Shen Fa is learning to use your body as a coordinated whole. If you start “using your arm” and muscling it, then nothing seems to work as it should.

As it says in the Xing Yi Classics:

“(When) the top wishes to move, the bottom automatically follows. The bottom wishes to move, the top will automatically lead. (When) the top and the bottom move, the center section will attack. (When) the center section moves, the top and the bottom will coordinate. Internal and external are combined, the front and the rear mutually required. This is what is called “threading into one.”

You could say that the sword forces you to do this threading, by using your whole body to do each move. I mentioned before that my teacher emphasised using a heavy sword, and that is part of the reason why. (The other is that this style of sword is for going through armour, but that’s another topic).

I’m focussing on just one Xing Yi animal for my practice at the moment – Bear Eagle. It’s quite a lengthy ‘form’ by Xing Yi standards (although much shorter than a typical Chinese sword forms”), so there are lots of variation in the moves involved. In Xing Yi you’re free to do the forms fast – in fact, sometimes, the faster the better. That means you need to “flick”, “jab” and “swoosh” (I’ll spare you the technical terms!) a pretty heavy sword through lots of very quick techniques. If you are using your body in an uncoordinated way then it’s simply not possible to control a heavy sword at speed with momentum and with the accuracy required.

I noticed that an older post of mine on the Principles of XinYi seems to have generated a lot of interest lately. While Xin Yi and Xing Yi have evolved to have a different look, they are both rooted in the same idea of threading into one, which originated from spear use.

Incidentally, I’ve decided to focus on sword not spear for my weapons practice – I’ll go over why another time, but one reason is that I don’t own a long enough spear. Needs must when the Devil drives hard!

Xing Yi Snake: sword

I was looking through some old Republican era Xing Yi manuals on the excellent Brennan Translation website recently and was surprised to discover one of them had some Xing Yi animal sword forms included – Snake and Bear Eagle!

Images from 形意拳術抉微 SELECTED SUBTLETIES OF THE XINGYI BOXING ART 劉殿琛 by Liu Dianchen [1920] translation (c) Paul Brennan.

I was involved in the photoshoot for my friend Glen Board’s book on Xing Yi Snake at the start of the year, and we performed applications of the same movement with swords:

From the book Xing Yi Snake by Glen Board

Doing the same Xing Yi links (forms) with a weapon that you do barehand has always been a feature of the Xing Yi I’ve been taught. Xing Yi movements are after all adapted from spear use, so historically speaking the weapons applications are the original movements, from which the barehand is derived.

In modern times weapons use has obviously declined and people tend to think of Xing Yi primarily as a barehand art, but historically speaking that’s not the case.

I like the idea of applying the same movements barehand and with weapons – it always makes more sense to me.

The two books are 100 years apart!

Stop mashing together Chinese martial arts history!

Ching Dynasty soldiers, with a rifle.

I often come across a particular attitude to Chinese martial arts history amongst martial artists. They treat it as if it happens all together and all at the same time.

One common refrain you’ll hear is something like “the principles are all the same between Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi.” True, viewed from a certain perspective the “internal” arts are all based on the same principles, but I find this idea is often really being used to shut down debate and ignore historical facts.

It’s a lazy cop-out for doing actual research into the history of these martial arts. It’s a kind of “get out of jail free” card that squashes together events that happen decades, or even hundreds of years, and sometimes thousands of miles apart. It’s easy to forget just what a vast country China is, and how long its history is.

In a way, the last people you want doing your history research are martial artists. (My preference is for history scholars who are also martial arts hobbyists.)

I believe it was Sun Lu Tang who first grouped together Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi as “internal” arts in his 1915 publication, A Study of Xing Yi Boxing. Sure there had been talk of Neijia before this, but this was the point where the idea of grouping those three arts really took off.

Sun Lu Tang, 1930

He writes:

“I myself have barely scratched the surface of the Xingyi Boxing art. It contains the states of nonpolarity and grand polarity, the five elements and eight trigrams, a starting posture and various techniques. When we examine for its origin, it can be said to be of the same source as the two arts of Taiji and Bagua, as well as the two schools of external and internal, but was then gradually turned into its own system by later generations and has evolved into various styles, as is the normal way of things.” 

Sun Lu Tang – A Study of Xing Yi Boxing

The idea stuck, and later, when the Guoshu Research Academy was set up in 1928 to promote national unity initially the organisation was split into two sections – one dedicated to teaching “Shaolin” arts and the other to “Wudang” arts. (This proved disastrous because the two sections immediately started fighting with each other, in one case with bamboo spears!)

But the grouping of the Big Three, survived, probably with a little help from the Guoshu and then Wushu movements, and is still used today.

China was going through periods of tremendous change during the 19th and 20th century – 10 years here or there can make a huge difference to the political, social, cultural climate in which these arts operated and have profound implications on them.

Martial arts blew in the same breeze – swinging one year from being bastions of a return to traditional Confucian values, often with bloody outcomes, see the Boxer Rebellion, to being radical trailblazers in new scientific Western thought – see the Guoshu movement. 

And the influence of Western powers on China during this time was all pervasive. As were opium and guns! It’s often forgotten that guns were in common usage during the time period that all of today’s household names in Chinese martial arts were being developed – Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut, White Eyebrow, etc, 

My point really is simple: If you’re going to comment on Chinese martial arts then you need to take the wider Chinese historical perspective into account. 

If you enjoyed this post then you might like the Heretics podcast series on the origins of Jiujitsu and Kempo, Xing Yi and Tai Chi Chuan.

Review: Xing Yi Snake, by Glen Board

It’s hard for me to write an objective review of the book Xing Yi Snake by Glen Board, since (full disclaimer) there are pictures of me in most of it, and I also wrote a chapter at the end about the crossover between Xing Yi Snake and Brazilian JiuJitsu (an art I’ve been training for over 10 years). The author, Glen Board and I are both students of the same Xing Yi teacher, Damon Smith. As well as contribute the final chapter on Snake’s grappling methods, Glen asked me to help him out by appearing in the application pictures for the book, and I happily obliged.

You might be forgiven for wondering, ‘What? Xing Yi Snake and Brazilian Jiujitsu?’ Well, let me point you to this interesting fact – just as Glen’s Snake book was rolling off the printing presses, John Danaher, the Jiujitsu mastermind behind some of the most famous modern day practitioners of BJJ like Gordon Ryan and Garry Tonon, posted this on Instagram:

(Click the little graphic if the image doesn’t appear below)

The timing was simply an interesting co-incidence, but it goes to show that the overall theme of the Xing Yi Snake book – our mutual teacher’s insistence that there is something to learn from studying the actual fighting method of real snakes – is valid even in modern day combat sports. Real snakes are cunning, fearless predators, with two main weapons at their disposal, not only their heavy emphasis on restricting and choking methods, but also their bite, which is often venomous. 

Does that mean that this is a book about Xing Yi ground work? No, not at all. 90% of it is about the stand-up fighting methods of Xing Yi Snake. The chapter about BJJ at the end of the book is just an interesting add-on that you can take or leave.

I think it’s fair to say that the style of Xing Yi that Glen and I practice veers away from many modern day interpretations of the art, in that we have been given a heavy emphasis on the 12 Animals, and a great depth of content in each animal. I say “modern day”, but the whole process of moving the Chinese martial arts away from traditional practices (seen as outdated and associated with a past China was embarrassed about) and towards a more scientific and Western approach started after the disastrous Boxer Rebellion ended in 1901 and didn’t really stop throughout the whole 20th century until China ended up under Communist control and we had WuShu gymnastics instead of the rich, smokey traditions of old China, the oldest continuous civilisation on earth, infused with an ancient way of seeing the world and a respect for nature. Respect for nature was bleached out of China’s martial arts and culture at the same time, and was replaced by an authoritarian ideology. 

Some lines of Xing Yi have managed to avoid much of this cultural cleansing (especially traditions that fled China) and those have been the lines that our teacher has sought to pursue or uncover through his own research. While the connection to nature and animals has been hidden in much of modern Xing Yi, you can still find it lying there just beneath the surface in the old writings about Xing Yi or in the content of old forms. You can still look at Xing Yi’s 12 animals as a study of actual animal fighting methods (in human terms), and try and find a deeper meaning in the material presented, and if that’s what you’re interested in then Glen’s Xing Yi Snake book will help you along the right path.

In the book Glen presents the two Yin and Yang aspects to the fighting methods of real snakes  – the heavy crushing methods of the constrictor, and the quick, light, striking (biting) methods of the vipers – and how to find both in applications based on the movements found in Xing Yi Snake. 

There is no shortage of content here! Glen has packed the book with easy-to-follow and practical applications – something that used to be a rarity in Xing Yi books – as well as extensive Linking Sequences for solo practice, a look at the history of Xing Yi, a study of the real snake’s hunting methods, a discussion of fist shapes, power generation methods, weapons, Xing Yi classics, terminology and the strategy of the snake applied to Xing Yi fighting. 

In short, there is plenty here to keep you busy. You can easily learn a snake sequence from this book (especially if you are already familiar with Xing Yi), and practice the applications with a training partner. If you do then you’ll be coming back to it time and again to try out new things.

Here are some examples:

On the down side? As has been noted elsewhere, Glen has a habit of mixing Pinyin and Wade Giles romanisation methods freely throughout the book. Some people find this very annoying, but I don’t find it stands in the way of the message the book is trying to convey. I’d also say that this is probably not a book for complete beginners in Xing Yi, since there is very little discussion of the 5 Element Fists, which is where you should start your journey. Having said that, there is still plenty of discussion about the physical principles that make up Xing Yi, including the San Ti Shi standing posture and important details of how to generate power in Xing Yi’s unique way.

If you already have a grasp of the 5 fists and you’re looking to expand your understanding of the Xing Yi animals beyond the one or two moves usually found in most Xing Yi Snake forms then this book is probably a good place to start, and more accessible than Glen’s previous volume on two of the more advanced Xing Yi animals – Tai and Tuo, since Snake is a much easier animal to get a feel for.

So, while I can’t say this review is entirely objective and without bias (since I’m in the book!), I hope it has at least piqued your interest in a work that contains a vast amount of information. I’d say it’s impossible to find this amount of detail and information on just one Xing Yi animal anywhere else and I look forward to the next in the series.

Get it: Xing Yi Snake on Amazon.

Take a long hard look at yourself, Chinese martial artist

mirror fragments on gray surface with the reflection of a person s arm

Photo by Thiago Matos on Pexels.com

A new video in the long line running ‘Tai Chi master vs MMA guy’ series got posted the other day. Rather than talk about it here straight away I wanted to see what the reaction was from the martial arts community, and boy, it didn’t disappoint!

This whole MMA vs Tai Chi genre was started by the now-infamous Xu Xiaodong who posted the first video showing what happens when a delusional Tai Chi “master” gets in a fight with an MMA guy.

The qualifications for being a “Tai Chi master” these days seem to be that you have:

1) The backing of Chinese state TV, who will post lots of faked videos of you performing magical martial skills.

2) You have a sufficient number of minions and followers to do you bidding.

3) You look the part (silk pyjamas) and have can talk a good talk about your abilities.

Of course, none of these martial abilities are grounded in reality, so when you get in a challenge match with an MMA guy it usually ends quickly and badly for you. Chinese martial arts, particularly Tai Chi, is the focus of the soft power emanated by Beijing and the hyper-nationalistic Chinese government on the global stage. Therefore, publicly humiliating a Tai Chi “master” doesn’t make the MMA guy very popular in China, and Xu Xiaodong has been badly persecuted – his social credit score is now so low that he can’t even travel on trains and his social media accounts keep being deleted.

After the initial video of Xu Xiaodong surfaced he didn’t let the persecution put him off and he kept calling out the masters boasting of their skills on state TV. Challenge after challenge followed. One involved self-proclaimed Tai Chi/Xing Yi Master Ma Bao Guo who had previously paid a retired cage fighter Peter Irving in the UK to perform in a demo video that made him look good, and was boasting that this video was proof he was the real thing.

In this excellent article, Peter recounts the story behind the video.

Here’s the video:

To anybody that knows anything about fighting it’s obvious that Peter is just feeding attacks to Ma who reacts with some twitching responses. The fact that some people thought this was real says a lot about the mentality of minions and followers.

Xu and Ma’s challenge match was all set to go ahead (and would have ended the same way as all the others) but Ma actually called the police on his own challenge match and it was called off!

But Ma Bao Guo wasn’t giving up. At 69 he recently got in a challenge match with a San Da (Chinese kickboxing) guy who was 20 years younger than him. Here’s the video of Ma Bao Guo vs the San Da guy

As expected, it was a shocking display of ineptitude, and as I said, the reactions of the martial arts community have been interesting. Here are a few of the common responses I noticed:

  1. The rebranding of this as MMA vs Tai Chi to fit the narrative.
    The fight is actually between two practitioners of Chinese styles – one is Tai Chi/Xing Yi and the other is San Da, which is a homegrown Chinese kickboxing style. But it instantly becomes “MMA” because it fits the story created so far.
  2. “The Chinese have absolutely ruined kungfu.”
    Hard to argue with this really.
  3. Concern for Ma’s safety.
    This was my first thought – getting knocked out like that at 69 could have been fatal, and will likely have long-term effects.
  4. He needs to be sued for fraud.
    I wonder how many minions and followers he convinced of his nonsense over the years? I wonder what they think of his teachings now? If they gained health benefits are they now invalid?
  5. Why don’t those Kungfu guys that angrily complain about the fraudulent masters’ performance themselves step up to make Kungfu great again?
    It seems like a bit of false reasoning to me. I think the point is that if you are going to claim abilities then you need somebody to test them. Perhaps you need to be more realistic about what you claim? The reason Xu is not challenging 20-year-old kickboxers, is that they’re not claiming magical abilities on state-run TV. And also, it’s usually the old masters doing the challenging!
  6. “I look at someone getting beaten and it has little to do with me or my training.”
    True – exposing the delusional Tai Chi masters doesn’t mean that Tai Chi itself is delusional. If you are honest about what you can and can’t do, then that’s a good thing.

But then we get to number 7, and this is the one that really gets my goat…..

        7. “It says a lot about those that post these clips.”

What???

Aiming your ire at the guy lifting the curtain to show a little old man, not a wizard, behind it is something you’d attribute more to the mad emperor Nero, (who had a habit of shooting dead the bearers of bad news) than the sane and balanced mind of Marcus Aurelius, one of the last ‘good’ emperors of Rome.

The event was done publicly. There were press there with cameras. Ma had clearly arranged for this to be broadcast. And I can bet if (by some miracle) Ma had actually defeated the San Da guy, then heralds of his victory would be celebrated far and wide by everybody who purports to be a Chinese martial artist.

Stop trying to shame people for exposing the bullshit.

You can’t have it both ways. If you do something sportive and public then it remains pubic, regardless of whether you like the outcome. The point of challenge matches is to see what works. Part of the appeal of MMA for me is that it’s on one hand sport, but on the other a long-running public education project about what works in fighting.

I can already feel the voices of those “MMA is not for the street!” guys building as I write this, but you know – screw them. A good answer to that is that if you can’t make your art work with a limited rule set that simulates a real fight as closely as we can make it, how are you supposed to make it work when the other guy isn’t even restricted by those few rules?

San Da, boxing or MMA is a young man’s game. Old masters of whatever martial art it is should really stop trying to engage in it altogether. Putting yourself in a position where you can get knocked out cold at 69 years old is just a terribly bad idea. The implications for what remains of your life are serious. There’s a reason that Muay Thai fighters’ careers usually end in the 20s.

The whole thing was folly.

Ma was delusional for

  1. Thinking that whatever martial skills he had gained from a lifetime of pushing minions, followers, and paid performers, around while wearing silk pyjamas could actually translate into real fighting skills.
  2. Thinking that you could do this at 69 years old.

But human beings are delusional. And in normal life, we can get away with it up to a point because there are no serious consequences. I talked about this in my recent interview on the Martial Arts Studies podcast. My point was that nature is not delusional, which is why the Song Dynasty had such success economically and military thanks to the Li Movement, which aimed to get back to looking at nature for what it is, not what we think it is. That was the point I was making about studying animal methods (that I don’t think my interviewer quite picked up on) that a snake does what a snake does regardless of what human beings think about it, or even better, with no human beings around at all.

Similarly, MMA or San Da or challenge matches bring martial artists into direct contact with nature, or reality, if you like. And sometimes that can be a painful act of recognition.

It should be celebrated, not turned away from. Look it full in the face and learn. As the old martial arts saying goes:

“In martial arts you either win or you learn.”

It’s probably not a good idea to wait until you’re 69 to start learning.