Review: Possible Origins, Scott Park Phillips – Part 1

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I’ve been meaning to review Scott Phillips’ book on the origins of Chinese Martial Arts for some time now, but there always seemed to be something else for me  to read, or to do… Ok, I admit it, I’m just a terribly slow reader. However, the recent uproar over the fight between Tai Chi “Master” Wei Lei and MMA coach Xu Xiaodong that has dominated the Chinese Martial Arts scene has made me pick up Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theatre and Religion, and give it the attention it deserves.

A bit of background to the current situation: Xu (who had to go into hiding after the fight once the government got involved) had started to make a name for himself as the debunker of Kung Fu masters who he claimed lacked the skills required for actually fighting while charging students large sums of money to learn these (nonexistent) skills. He wasn’t particularly respectful in his debunking either – in fact, his profanity filled rants were uncomfortable to watch and hard to follow, but his point was simple.

Wei, the subject of a documentary on Chinese television about his Tai Chi powers,  took umbrage to the implied insult and challenged Xu in an effort to defend the honour of traditional martial arts. It sounds like the plot of every kung fu movie, but it actually happened. Anybody who has seen the fight (which lasts about 10 seconds ending with Wei’s face being ruthlessly pummeled on the ground by Xu) will have realised that Wei was utterly delusional about his fighting abilities. Even after his beating, in his post fight interview, Wei still seemed to be delusional about his fighting ability, proclaiming that he was only hit after he “tripped’ and fell”. In reality he was knocked to the ground by a punch which revealed him to be a bumbling amateur in the realms of pugilism.

You can easily make the argument that Wei was never a proper Tai Chi Master anyway, so his poor performance is irrelevant, but a lot of people obviously did think he was a legit martial artists. What’s interesting to me is how we got here.  How did we end up with a generation of Kung Fu (especially Tai Chi) masters who think they can fight, but can’t? If you went to a boxing coach in Glasgow to learn how to box, he’d teach you how to box, and regardless of how good or bad you were, you’ll at least end up with some fighting skills. But if you go to a Tai Chi master in Taiwan, asking to learn to fight, he’ll teach you a lot of fancy arm-waving stuff, mystical qigong and forms, but after several years you might actually be no different from an untrained person in your fighting ability. In fact, you’ll probably be worse.

Nothing ushers in a period of self reflection like a catastrophic failure, so it’s at this point that we should turn to Possible Origins to see how we got here.

Scott’s book at least proposes some answers to this curious situation that Chinese Martial Arts finds itself in – which is to embrace it. His basic premise is that once upon a time in China, martial arts, theatre and religion were all one thing. Over time, and due to various political and cultural shifts they became separated out, but never truly lost their connection to each other, even if the arts lived on as a pale reflection. The book examines how that process happened, why it happened and what we can do about it. In a way it’s a call to arms for the reader to embrace parts of their practice that have hitherto remained untapped and to restore these connections.

I know plenty of people amongst the martial arts that I know who just laugh at Scott’s theories. (“Oh, no, not that guy…”)*. They tend to be practical people who are more interested in how something works than why it is the way it is in the first place. That’s fine, and there’s no reason to go ‘backwards’ in martial arts. I think it’s equally valid to not worry about any of this, and just focus on what you can do with what we’ve had handed down to us. But the book does open a door to a fascinating world of demons, spirits and ancestors that we’ve left behind. You’d also be surprised by how much evidence there is for his interpretations. He can’t be conclusive about anything (hence the title) but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t present a wealth of information to support his case.

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Martial arts originated so long ago that almost everything about that time is lost to us, and survives only in fragments. I think the strongest ‘evidence’ Scott has for his theories is the Boxer Rebellion of 1899, which happened relatively recently, and was a kind of a last gasp of the old world where martial arts, religion, theatre and ritual were all tied up together. There are documented cases in the Boxer Rebellion of martial arts practitioners combining martial arts techniques with spirit possession and mediumship to help overthrow foreign powers. Unfortunately it turns out that invoking the spirits of demons to give you fighting ability doesn’t, in fact, stop bullets and the Boxers were wiped out, and many of the ‘old ways’ and knowledge with them. Further cultural, political, and repressive regimes buried them deeper and deeper until today we’ve lost all concept of why we do what we do in Chinese Martial Arts.

Besides all this, Possible Origins is a damn good read, and an entertaining, book in its own right. It’s not an academic tomb, it’s an easy to devour. I’m halfway through and loving it. Even if you don’t agree with Scott’s theories, you’ll learn a lot about things you never even knew existed from Possible Origins.

Everybody who practices a Chinese Martial Art should read it.  I’ll post a ‘part 2’ follow up when I’m finished.
Links: Scott’s blog. Scott’s video

* In case you were wondering, Scott’s martial arts lineage is actually legit, and explained in the book.

A blast from the past – Yongquan demo 2003

 

This video is a blast from the past (for me, at least). It was filmed in 2003 and I’m in it!

It’s the film of a demonstration the Yongquan Chinese Martial Arts group did in London. There are lots of the arts I was training at the time shown off here – Choy Lee Fut, Northern Shaolin, Tai Chi, Push Hands, then some breaking demonstrations. I’m doing a broadsword form in the demo that I can’t even remember anymore! There’s some Iron palm (a granite pebble broken with a chop) from Donald and a kerb stone gets broken over Doug’s head with a sledge hammer!

Since I was actually in this demo I know that none of these materials are faked – they’re all the genuine article. Real bricks, etc..

At the end of the demonstration there are some clips of us practicing for the demo. These are more enjoyable for me to watch as they bring back some good memories of training with my teacher and the rest of the guys back in the day.

What I like most in the video is the very last clip, where Doug is practising the Press (Ji) technique from Tai Chi on a line of people. Done right it’s meant to be very minimal physical effort with a big results (using Jin not Li) – the power should penetrate through the line of people so that the people at the back of the line fly away first. He does a ‘not very good’ version of it (too much Li – physical force) so it all looks very physical. Donald comes over to tell him off and show him how it should be done, and without any set up does a perfect Ji – really minimal effort and the guy at the end of the line flies off – then Doug has another go and gets it right. I’m glad that got captured on video.

 

 

 

Full contact Tai Chi. A painful lesson in reality.

A video clip has been doing the rounds on the Internet recently about a “Tai Chi master” called Lei Gong who accepted the challenge of a Chinese MMA fighter/coach called Xu Xiaodong to an actual fight. Here’s what happened:

As you can see the Tai Chi master had his bell rung very quickly and very convincingly. The whole video lasts 47 seconds. It’s clear from the first few seconds of the actual fight that Lei Gong is way out of his depth and shouldn’t be in there with Xu. He had no idea how to deal with an opponent who was actually attacking him, not just dancing around making strange shapes in the air, like his student presumably do for him.

(The stoppage by the ref was a bit late for me, and Lei Gong ended up taking more punishment than he should have. The effects of head trauma are all too real, but it seems that this is the price he had to pay to be woken from his dream of magic fighting ability).

Generally, I think that this fight was a good thing for Tai Chi as a whole. Let me explain.

The challenge arose after Lei Gong appeared on a Chinese Television programme called “Experiencing Real Kung Fu” claiming to have sparring and fighting ability with Tai Chi. He spared one of the hosts of the show in the programme. See below at 9.30:

Xu’s beef with the show was that people claiming these sorts of abilities better be able to back it up.

The sad truth is that most things in China are fake, including their TV shows! I’ve seen so many of these types of shows now where Tai Chi masters go up against Muay Thai or Karate people, or wrestlers. They’re all fake. Does that mean Tai Chi is fake too? I don’t think so, but I think it exposes the complete lack of realism that is prevalent in the Tai Chi culture. It’s not rocket science: if you want to be able to actually fight with any art, then you have to practice actually fighting with it.

Xu seems to have a particular problem with the big dogs of Chen village who charge a lot of money for people to become disciples to learn their special skills. I can see where he’s coming from – if you look at what you learn in a typical seminar from a big name in the Chen style, then none of this is going to prepare you for an encounter like the one Lei Gong was in.

Xu’s argument, which I think is logically valid, is that if you’re going to charge all that money for something you better be able to prove it works. He’s now challenged the son of Wang Xi’an, one of the “4 tigers of Chen village”, but Wang’s son will only send his student, who has also been trained in SanDa (Chinese kickboxing with throws as well) to fight Xu. Xu, understandably says this will not do, because he wants to test Chen style Tai Chi. This will probably rumble on a bit and lead nowhere.

I was chatting with a friend about the whole thing and he said something like “I think that all martial arts, once they actually spar end up looking like some version of MMA”.

I think he’s probably right. I’ve written before about the delusion of grace under pressure and how so many people’s idea of what Tai Chi should look like in a fight is so way off.

MMA is what martial arts look like when stripped down to pure functionality. When all the cultural trappings have been removed. Chinese Martial Arts does contain its own bad-ass martial artists, but still, those arts contain things that are not purely about fighting. And for a good reason – they perform a useful social function. MMA also performs a useful social function, but more in the same way that Western boxing does, not in the way that Chinese Martial Art does.

Perhaps we’re all missing something. There are special skills you can only get from Tai Chi, and I think people have a right to teach these things without having to fight MMA to prove it works. I also don’t believe that all the people who are paying lots of money to become indoor disciples of Chen style masters think they are being given a kind of ‘master-key’ to martial arts that will mean they will be able to fight 21-year old athletes without ever having to spar first. It’s more like they are buying into a tradition. Once they buy in they’ll (hopefully) get the skills the tradition is famous for*, and be able to set themselves up as teachers. The problem comes when they get delusional and start to see themselves as bad-ass fighters when they don’t have a right to. This situation is made worse by the acceptance of fakeness, or cheating, in Chinese culture and TV shows.

It’s a messy situation, but it is what it is. Welcome to the world of Tai Chi. What matters is you and your training. Use your own reasoning to asses what you’re doing and what skills it is actually giving you, and don’t start to claim you can do things you can’t, otherwise you might suffer a painful wake-up call, like Lei Gong did.

*Of course, whether somebody who is not Chinese and not even from Chen village would ever really be taught the real skills of the family is open for debate anyway.

Life Hack: Brush your teeth in a Horse Stance

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We brush our teeth twice a day, morning and night. It’s a ritual that we don’t really think about, we just do it. But how about this for a little life hack? Stand in a Horse stance while you brush your teeth.

If you brush your teeth for 2 minutes a session, then switching to a Horse Stance will mean that’s 4 minutes of Horse Stance a day you’re now doing. That’s 28 minutes a week, 112 minutes a month and 1,460 minutes (or over a whole day) of standing in Horse stance a year.

So, why do this?

Firstly, why not? It’s dead time that you aren’t doing anything else, so you might as well get a bit of training in.

Secondly, training a Horse stance is really good for your health. It makes your legs stronger. I’ve heard it said that the Chinese believe we die from the ground up. If you look at old men they generally have skinny legs. By working the muscles in your legs in a Horse stance you stop them withering away. It’s a bit like the benefits you get from squats, but more evenly distributed over all of the muscles in the legs, not just the big ones in your thighs. Having well muscles legs helps your heart pump blood around your body – the calf muscle (specifically the Gastrocnemius/Soleus) is often described as a ‘second heart‘ because it helps to return blood from the lower leg.

And for the more superficial amongst us, you’re also working your butt muscles 😉

Thirdly, as your muscles complain and tighten you need to consciously relax them, smile through the pain and after a while it starts to feel enjoyable. You might not be able to do a full 2 minutes to start with, but after a few days, you will. You can feel the gains you make very quickly.

This ability to relax through the tension is essential for any sport or martial activity. You’re programming your responses to change from their habitual reaction of tensing to relaxing.

How to do a Horse stance.

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All you need is an old Chinese master to help you.

There are many varied and contrasting opinions on what a Horse Stance is, but I’m going to show you how to do the one I do, which I feel is the most doable, and has the added bonus of being mechanically sound.

  1. Stand with your feet one and a half times your shoulder width distance apart.
  2. Keep the outside edges of your feet parallel with each other.
  3. Sink down until your thighs are at 45 degrees.
  4. The weight is evenly distributed between right and left feet.

That’s it! If you look down you should see your big toe on the inside of your knee. If you can’t then you might be letting your knees collapse inwards, so just gently push them out a bit.

To stand in this position you keep your lower back relaxed (watch out for tension here) and keep your shoulders aligned vertically over the top of your hips (no leaning forward!) Keep your head aligned as if pulled up by a thread from the crown point (your neck should lengthen at the back and your chin tucks in slightly). The spine is lengthening upwards. Remember, don’t lean forwards. Stay upright so you can work with gravity, not against it.

If you do need to bend forward to pick up your toothbrush, etc, then try and hinge your body from your hips. Keep your spine lengthened and your head in the same alignment with your neck and shoulders. N.B. Don’t curve your spine to reach forward – keep it extended.

There are more extreme versions of the horse stance with the thighs parallel with the ground. Leave that for the young and foolish for now.

Here are some pictures of Tai Chi masters showing the type of Horse Stance I’m talking about:

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Sun Lu Tang

 

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Chen Xiaowang

 

And here’s a picture I found on Pinterest that demonstrates the technicalities:

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and another:

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Taking it further. 

You don’t have to stop at just brushing your teeth in a Horse Stance. I like to also wash my face in the stance as well. I would shave there too, but I can’t see myself in my bathroom mirror when I sink down into a Horse stance, so that’s currently a no go for me. Perhaps I’ll get myself a second shaving mirror…

 

I’m now a writer for Jetli.com

So, a while back I mentioned that I’d been contacted by a major martial arts website about writing some articles for its launch. Well, today that website launched!

Please check out Jetli.com

Yes, that’s the famous martial artists and film star Jet Li!

At Jetli.com we strive to bring you content that is exciting and inspiring. We are drawn to stories that highlight people all over the world that chase their dreams no matter what. From the boxing gyms of London to the favelas of Brazil, we have found heroes who live with the values of martial arts at the center of their lifestyle. You’ll see dedication, courage, humility, and generosity. Amazing stories await you at Jetli.com!

I’ve written quite a few articles for Jet already – it looks like two have been published, so here they are:

Coming Full Circle: How Movement Culture is Taking Martial Arts Back to its Roots

 

How to Avoid Being Attacked

 

Look out for more from me coming soon here:

 

Tai Chi: Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Forget the snake and the crane, Tai Chi is stuck between a rock and a hard place in the modern martial arts world, and it’s hard to see how it’s going to get out

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Tai Chi, it is said, was created by the immortal Taoist Chang Sanfeng after watching a fight between a snake and a crane. Seeing the way the snake coiled and retreated to avoid the strikes of the bird’s beak he invented a martial art that relied on the ancient Taoist idea of softness overcoming hardness, and thus Tai Chi Chuan (‘Supreme Ultimate Boxing’) was born. Or so the story goes…

Obviously, you need to take all these origin stories with a hefty pinch of salt. I’ve talked about Chang Sanfeng before, and I’d like to do again at some point, because I think there’s more to say on the subject, but for now let me just point you to a couple of ideas that show the Yin and the Yang extremes of people’s views about him.

On the one hand there the pragmatic, logical, view, that Chang Sanfeng was a sort of Robin Hood-style character and his whole mythology was just a nice little story that people made up as a “made-to-order counterpoint to Bodhidharma” as the founder of Chinese martial arts, and later to hide and ostracise the true creators of Tai Chi, the Chen family of Chenjiagou village. This view is best expressed by Stanley Henning in his classic essay Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan.

In these more enlightened times, the people who actually believe in the whole Chang Sangfeng story seem to be few and far between, but on the flip side of the coin you’ve got this intriguing point of view from Scott Park Phillips, expressed in his blog post on, Channelling Zhang Sanfeng. Phillips offers a fresh (or should that be old?) perspective on what the Chang Sang Feng connection with Tai Chi was really all about:

“Zhang Sanfeng was a ubiquitous figure in the late 1800s, not just because he was a popular trickster of the theater but because he was the subject of widespread spirit writing cults. Groups of literati would gather together and do a kind of ritual séance, in which they would write in the voice of Zhang Sanfeng.”

Sanfeng therefore becomes a part of the richer cultural world view you need to adopt to understand Tai Chi’s place in history.

Whatever the motives for bringing Chang Sanfeng’s name into the story of Tai Chi Chuan – whether to hide its humble origins amongst simple peasant folk, or as an esoteric way of connecting to a spirit cult, it’s pretty clear that he didn’t exist as a real person, all of which doesn’t bode well for selling Tai Chi as a serious marital art. To make matters worse, the Tai Chi world is full of lunatics and fakes. I’ve written about Tai Chi fakery before, and on the cult of the Tai Chi Magician who can fling his followers around with magic Qi blasts. Sadly, this is all par for the course for the Tai Chi world, and sadly for martial arts in general. It seems that the environment of the martial arts class is the perfect breeding ground for cult masters to recruit their willing followers. They’re everywhere in marital arts, and frequently exposed on YouTube.

I’m not going to talk about these sort of fringe behaviours this time. Instead I’m addressing the meat and potatoes of the Tai Chi world – those teachers who do their best to present an old martial tradition as a living, breathing martial art, and the problems that inevitably throws up in a world where MMA is starting to supplant boxing as the most exciting contact sport in the mainstream’s consciousness.

Where martial Tai Chi now stands

The dominant format for expressing martial arts in modern times, MMA, is generally composed of striking, grappling (with throws and takedowns) and ground work. If you want to look at where Karate fits into this then it’s easy – it occupies the striking segment of the venn diagram of MMA. Similarly, JiuJitsu can be found in both the grappling and ground work section. Tai Chi? It’s not so easy. It doesn’t fit neatly into the formulae. Tai Chi is a mix of standing grappling, locking, throwing and striking. The techniques flow interchangeably between the different stand-up mediums, but never in a way that makes sense to MMA.

As a training device Tai Chi uses Push Hands – a kind of limited rules stand-up grappling that is either done fixed step, or free step within an area. The rules for competition push hands are very, very restrictive. For fixed step, if you move your foot you’re ‘out’, and in free step, you just need to push your opponent out of the area. No strikes or locks are allowed, and there are various other rules restricting grabbing.

This is a typical example of a push hands competition. I’ve got to be honest, if an outsider saw that they’d wonder what on earth it was all about. To somebody with experienced of typical grappling competitions it also looks bizarre. The phrase “Well if you’re going to that then why not just learn proper BJJ/Judo/Wresting (delete as appropriate) instead?” springs to mind…

The problem is that compared to a grappling tournament under Judo, BJJ or Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) rules the whole thing is slightly on the ludicrous side, but the real problem is that this competition push hands doesn’t really have anything to do with what real Tai Chi push hands, and Tai Chi itself, is supposed to be about.

It’s contentious to say what is ‘real’ and what is not when it comes to Tai Chi, so I’m just going to go with my gut. There are basically two types of training in Tai Chi – training for self defence and training for developing the sorts of skills you need for Tai Chi. Let’s call these “Jin skills”. It turns out that ‘real’ push hands is supposed to be an exercise in learning Jin skills and not a sort of contest to find out who is the best at pushing somebody over (which is on the self defence side). Jin skills involve learning how to deal with an opponent’s incoming force using your Qi and Jin (I’ve blogged about what these terms means in martial arts before). To do this in a Tai Chi way requires you to repattern your body’s habitual way of moving, and not fall back on the way you usually move. The problem is that once you try to push somebody over and they resist, or you add a bit of competitiveness into the mix, that’s invariably what’s going to happen.

One notable teacher of internal arts once remarked to me in conversation that “So far I have never seen a video in which the westerner had even a remote clue how to do push-hands”… which brings me onto this video of Chen Ziqiang, which I think exemplifies the problem that Tai Chi is going to have if it’s going to make any impact on the modern martial arts scene.

 

Chen Ziqiang is the oldest son of Chen style master Chen Xiaoxing, and he is the nephew of Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang – therefore I think it’s safe to say that he knows what he’s doing. I’m not sure if the video is meant to be push hands, wrestling, or just freestyle playing around, but either way, he’s at a considerable size and weight disadvantage to his opponent, and suffers for it. So, does this mean that Tai Chi doesn’t work? Hardly.

 

The Chen-style of Tai Chi is famous for its ability to do damage by releasing power suddenly and for its joint-locks … but in a ‘push hands’ format where he can’t use either of his main weapons, Chen is going to be at a big disadvantage. I’m sort of surprised that he keeps allowing people to video his “push hands” matches, which always turns out to be some westerner trying his grappling skills against him. And I’m not sure how this format is going to persuade others that there is some martial skill that is worth perusing Tai Chi for? Why not just do western wrestling?

In short, I’m glad that Chen Ziquang isn’t adopting the usual unassailable mantle of a Tai Chi master who won’t actually get hands-on with students, but the downside of that is he’s going to be made to look very human against bigger people who have wrestling skills. If it is to convince people of the value of its Jin skills,and their use in martial arts, then I don’t know what the answer is, but this isn’t it. Tai Chi remains stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Your kung fu demo doesn’t look like fighting, and I don’t care

Very rarely does a kung fu demo look like real fighting, but so what?

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Chinese martial arts have a strong connection to what we (by which I mean people in Europe and America) would call ‘theatre’. All kung fu styles have some sort of performance element built into them. Historically a lot of kung fu styles were practiced by Chinese Opera performers, or have links to religious rituals, which became hidden inside Kung Fu styles. I’ve written about this before with respect to Tai Chi and its strange preoccupation with the Taoist Chang Sang Feng.

From the modern view point it’s easy to laugh at this idea, sine we tend to think that martial arts have one purpose – for kicking butt! But I think it’s valid to ask why do almost all Chinese Martial Arts contain so many solo forms if they’re not meant to be performed and appreciated as a performance? Compare it to something like Brazilian JiuJitsu or Wrestling – these arts don’t contain any solo kata or forms anymore, because they’re really just focussed on fighting techniques and conditioning. Sure, forms build up stamina, which is conditioning, and train techniques, and the flow of movements, but a lot of this could easily be done more effectively by repeating individual techniques over and over. Instead, in Chinese Marital Arts, they get put together into a (often highly stylised) form.

It’s no surprise to me that the kung fu film industry is so big, and has also crossed over into Western cinema, first with Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon, and recently with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix. It’s because kung fu has always been designed to be performed partly as theatre, making cinema its natural medium.

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Kung Fu teachers back in the 1970s when kung fu started to take-off were well aware of this ‘for show’ element to the arts, and didn’t think it was anything to be concerned about.  Some techniques were ‘good for show’ and some were ‘good for real use’, and your teacher knew the difference. Of course these days we’re in the era of the YouTube generation, so when a Kung Fu demonstration, with its flashy techniques done against minimal resistance, crops up for discussion there’s an immediate cry of ‘foul!’.

Take this video of a Choy Lee Fut demonstration, which got posted on RSF recently:

The teacher moves well, and clearly has a grasp of using the big swinging techniques of Choy Lee Fut, and demonstrates them with speed and efficiency, which is presumably the point of the demo, but it was instantly greeted with cries of “That was awful”, and “I liked how the camera shakes at some points. Real dragonball effect. Only one question …. why is it none of the “attackers” have their hands covering their heads? Ok one more. Why can they throw 2+ punches or kicks like he does?”

Because of the huge interest in MMA, which is probably as close to actual fighting for entertainment as we can get and still be relatively safe for the participants, everybody has at least some idea of what a fight actually looks like, so we’ve now got people looking at Kung Fu demonstrations questioning why it looks nothing like a fight. This is a good thing, because I get the impression that back in the 1970s and 1980s people thought this was what real fighting should look like. Then the UFC came along in 1993 with a healthy dose of reality that blew everybody’s perceptions out of the water. Sure there’s the usual ‘but that’s not the reality of the street’ and ‘but what about knives?’ objections, but I think they’re missing the point. Fighting looks like fighting. It’s scrappy and messy, and always will be.

These days I’m finding it harder to care that the polished, perfect kung fu demos we’re used to seeing don’t look like real fighting, and I’m just happier to accept them for what they are. Kung fu has evolved over many generations into an art that contains performance related elements, and that’s just the way it is. I’d rather just enjoy the performance and not worry about it being too ‘real’, because that’s what you’re meant to do.

I’m writing this on International Women’s day, so I’m going to end this post with a clip demonstrating that women have a long history in kung fu films, and were violently kicking mens’ butts years before things like ‘trigger warnings’ existed. Let’s not forget that. Here’s to the ladies of kung fu!