Don’t put power into the form, let it naturally arise from the form

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I don’t know if this is a famous quote from a master of old, or if it’s just something that Wayne Hansen thought of himself, but he uses it in his signature, and I was musing on this phase recently:

Don’t put power into the form let it naturally arise from the form

It’s such a great quote, because it’s absolutely true!

I was reviewing somebody’s form recently and the big thing I noticed was that they were trying to put power into the movements, rather than just accepting that the movements on their own are powerful, and don’t need anything extra to make them work. In fact, when you try and make Tai Chi movements powerful, it just messes them up, because you inevitably revert to tense, isolated muscle use, instead of a smooth flow of connected power, like a river.

(I think I should mention here that I’m not talking about the explosive bursts of power you typically see in Chen style forms. These are different. Instead, I’m talking about the general movements found in Tai Chi, typified by Yang style and it’s variations, which opt for a smooth form with an even pace throughout).

What that quote doesn’t do however is explain how it’s done. Tai Chi is full of these mysterious sayings, with very little explanation, so let’s break this one down and see where we get.

Fang song

Firstly, in Tai Chi we are frequently admonished to Fang Song or “relax” as we would say in English. We all instinctively know that a relaxed body can be a powerful body.  Think of how heavy a small child can make themselves if they don’t want to be picked up by going all floppy. Similarly, a baby’s grip is surprisingly powerful, but not tense.

Being too tense results in a kind of rigid and brittle strength. It’s strong, but it’s not deep. It tends to lie on the surface, like ice on a lake, but break through the surface and it’s nothing but water underneath. Relaxation can be more like thick sea ice all the way down.

But to be powerful a relaxed body needs to be a coordinated body. On a purely mechanical level that means moving so that the coordinated power of the body arrives at the right place at the right time. There’s no point punching with just the arm, but if you can coordinate your body so the legs, hips, torso, and arm are all working – arriving – together it creates a kind whole body power that doesn’t rely much on tension at all. But that’s still not the whole story.

That sinking feeling

This sort of whole body power on its own is not enough. The next stage is to get used to sinking into the movements. This sinking – dropping the weight of the body down into the ground through relaxing – paradoxically, enables power from the ground to come up into the hands. It generally moves in an upward and outwards manner, which is the Peng Jin that Tai Chi is famous for. All the movements of Tai Chi need to contain this Peng Jin.

I often read people who critique this method, thinking that “pushing from the legs” will just be too slow, but frankly, they just don’t know what they’re talking about 🙂

True, the legs are very much involved, but when you effectively sink – drop the weight down – it’s not a physical movement. It’s an internal movement. And the power of the ground arrives in your hands instantaneously, so there’s no delay. It’s not too slow to use.

Once you get used to doing this sinking you can feel it. It requires practice, probably daily practice to get it. But that’s why you do the form every day. Every day you are practicing movements where you drop the weight and put the power of the ground in your hands.

Remember, the movements themselves are powerful – you don’t need to add power in. Instead you need to learn to relax, coordinate and sink your ‘energy’.

Just look at that picture of Yang Cheng Fu above.

He’s got it.

 

 

 

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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)!

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Photo by Saeid Anvar on Pexels.com

 

 

Henan Village Chang family Xiao Luohan

I was reading through this excellent interview with Matthew Polly, author of American Shaolin, (a book which has somehow has escaped my bookshelf – a situation I should rectify promptly), when I came across this video of a man performing Chang family Xiao Luohan in a rural village in Henan.

It’s a great little video for a number of reasons. The first is that this is something old and precious that is in danger of dying out as people lose interest in WuShu in modern life. The second is the authenticity of the presentation – it really does look like a rural villiage where he has lived all his life. The third is – it’s a really good performance!

These are the sorts of “old school” martial arts skills that are in danger of dying out in China. To quote from the Matthew Polly interview above:

“As I mentioned in American Shaolin, the idea of chī kǔ (吃苦 ), eating bitterness, is central to the Chinese understanding of learning martial arts, and the value of suffering. And the way in which that contrasts with the western idea of trying to avoid pain in any way. We have an entire society built around the idea of alleviation of pain. We have an opioid crisis because we’re trying to avoid all sorts of pain. I admire progress and evolution in the way mixed martial artists do, but I have a nostalgia and sentimentality for tradition and the way that old man practised the same form for 60 years. There’s something beautiful about that and a sadness in seeing that wiped away as MMA goes like a bulldozer through the traditional kung fu and karate world.”

Chang family boxing is one of the precursors to Taijiquan, at least in terms of martial arts theory, although there are several similar postures to Chen Taijiquan found in its boxing sets, so the connection may be more literal than just in terms of theory.

I think research into Chang family boxing would reveal more about the origins of Taijiquan than wondering if it was Taoist. Luckily this research has already been done by Marnix Wells in his book ‘Scholar Boxer: Cháng Nâizhou’s Theory of Internal Martial Arts and the Evolution of Taijiquan‘. Again, another shocking omission from my bookshelf, but by all accounts, this is a very deep piece of research. According to Jess O’Brian (author of Nei Jia Quan: Internal Martial Arts) – “For those interested in the theory, history and practice of the internal martial arts, this book is going to blow your mind.”

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An irrational fear of dance

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One thing I notice is that the majority of “martial artists” seem to have an irrational fear of the dance or entertainment roots of their arts. While we all like to believe that Kung fu originated in the Shaolin temple under the austere eye and strict tutelage of a high-ranking Zen monk, I think we all know that most of these stories are bunk now.

In fact, it seems that most Kung Fu masters were earning a living as street performers. It’s not as glamourous, is it? If you search back in the lineage of Wing Chun, for example, you soon end up at an Opera company – these were traveling entertainers. In Europe we’d call them a circus. A lot of other Kung Fu styles can trace their origins back to particular rituals and festivals where a martial group put on a demonstration. You still see these sorts of things today with Lion dances at festivals. They are always run by a Kung Fu school.

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And even today, what do most martial arts groups do to attract new students? They put on a stunning demonstration, usually involving breaking something, again another form of entertainment. The martial arts lend themselves to ‘putting on a show’ so very, very easily.

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And don’t forget, these days the most popular martial arts is MMA, which is, after all, a sport done for entertaining large crowds in an arena, in a way that’s very similar to the Roman Gladiator experience.

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How different is this really to the Roman amphitheater?

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But let’s turn it around and look at Europe’s past, not its present. I’m thinking about that killer martial art known as Ballet 🙂

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Our aristocracy’s preferred movement art form came out of its martial art of choice – fencing. The aristocracy was obsessed with fencing, especially to settle disputes. (Is it any wonder our leaders lead us into World War I when this was their preferred method of conflict resolution for centuries?)

But anyway, Ballet, with it’s turned out legs, has clear origins in fencing. As this video shows you:

 

The connection between movement arts like dance and martial arts is deep, and shouldn’t be dismissed because dance is seen as a more feminine expression these days. In 14th century France, Ballet was a very manly occupation.

Remember, Bruce Lee was a dance champion in Hong Kong 🙂 And don’t forget David Branch, a middleweight and light heavyweight champion of the world, swore by ballet classes.

“The first day I went, it was harder than any workout I’ve ever done,” Branch told wsof.com. “I feel it in my balance. I feel it in my overall physical strength. I feel it everywhere. Just in my posture and I feel like when I get into scrambles in a fight or anything fighting wise that involves entanglement and striking, I feel so strong. It’s natural strength, you know?”

Just ask Kate Winslet – she knows:

 

Cobra Kai and the TRUTH about the Karate Kid

I really need (do I really?) to write something about this new Cobra Kai film coming out on YouTube Red (whatever that is – I think it’s just another way of saying, er, “YouTube you have to pay for”).

Here’s the trailer:

 

I’m picking up unusual levels of intelligence and self-awareness here. There has been a long-running fan theory that everybody got Karate Kid wrong – that Ralph Macchio’s character, Danny, the Karate Kid himself, wasn’t the hero of the film at all – he was the villain!

Check out the fan theory here:

It’s a good example of how you can view the same events from a different perspective and come up with a different version of “the truth”.

From watching the trailer, Cobra Kai seems well aware of this fan theory and is playing on it nicely. It seems that Daniel has grown up to be a bit of an asshole, his ego has become uncontrollable from his victory, while Johnny has kept it real, but fallen on hard times, his ego deflated by the ass-kicking he received in that infamous competition.

It looks like the two are heading for an inevitable rematch, but whose side do you feel like you belong on? There are 10 episodes planned, and I really hope there’s a schmaltzy ending where a digitally reconstructed hologram of Pat Morita comes back as some sort of Jedi force-ghost and whispers “Trust your feelings! Do the Crane kick!” in Danny’s ear.

Wing Chun (Ding Hao) vs MMA (Xu Xiao Dong), in China

After his fight with the “Tai Chi master” Wei Lei, which rocked the contemporary martial arts scene in China, Xu Xiao Dong, the MMA fighter on a mission to expose “fake masters” is back on the scene this time showing his skills against a Wing Chun fighter.

China doesn’t have the sort of government regime which tolerates people who rock the boat, so I’m pleased to see that Xu is no longer under detention, as I feared we may never have seen him again after what happened last time.

Here’s the fight:

 

It’s a pretty ugly fight. Here are my takeaways:

  • Ding Hao clearly lacks realistic sparring experience, as he falls apart pretty quickly. His grappling was non-existent.
  • Xu Xiao Dong is pretty much a ‘stand and bang’ type fighter. Or maybe he felt so unthreatened by Ding that he didn’t feel the need to do much of anything else.
  • The ref makes some daring saves!
  • Why are they wearing such different clothing? Ding has shoes on! Only Xu is wearing gloves. Xu is grabbing Ding’s clothing to throw and control him. It’s a mess.
  • Why are they fighting on what looks like a red carpet used for movie premieres or award shows?
  • If you watch Ding throughout the fight you can see him try to adapt as he realises what he is doing isn’t working. He starts off looking very much like classical Wing Chun and ends up looking more like Jeet Kune Do. It’s like watching the evolution of Bruce Lee in microcosm!

Here’s some background about Xu Xiao Dong and his fights and detention by police in China:

 

Fight against Wei Lei:

 

 

 

Martial arts in video games: New Batman fight choreography

Things have been getting a bit ‘academic’ lately on the blog, so let’s just have some fun. I just saw this fight choreography for Batman vs Bane in an upcoming computer game called Batman the Enemy Within. Check it out:

It’s interesting for a number of reasons – firstly, it’s really good! People putting this much work into fight sequences for a game surprised me. This isn’t motion capture – the sequence is a “visual reference for animators”. It would be really interesting to see how the final sequence looks when fully animated. You can see some examples of their animated work below:

Secondly, they’re using a woman as the Batman character. Partly I think this is to create a size difference between the two characters. Bane is meant to be bigger, and he can inject venom to “Hulk up” a bit when he needs to.

Finally, the fighting style used looks very jiu jitsu-based, of the “flying armbar” variety. At one stage in the movie franchise Batman moved towards a fighting style that was based more around Filipino arts.

Great work.

 

Are forms any use for fighting?

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The question above is my one-line distillation of the abstract provided by Douglas Farrier for his article called “Captivation, false connection and secret societies in Singapore“, which appears in the journal Martial Arts Studies. You can download the PDF of the article from that link.

The simple question, “are forms any use for fighting?” is one that will plague Chinese Martial Arts until the end of time. In true academic style, this article “adds to the conversation”, plus it’s got some great stories in there of traditional Choy Lee Fut training. In fact, the one time I met D. Farrier he was telling the exact story that is in this article. I asked him at the time what “the face” was. He gave me a serious look and said “I’ll have to show you later”. Our group split in different directions and he didn’t in the end. After reading the article I’m kind of glad about that…

(Don’t be put off that it’s in an academic journal as it’s not written in academic language, and is quite readable 🙂 )

 

Review: Mythologies of Martial Arts By Paul Bowman

 

Are you a scholar boxer? Then I’ve got just the book for you.

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While origin myths and lineages do feature from time to time in Mythologies of Martial Arts, the “Mythologies” in the title here relates instead to Roland Barthes 1957 book, Mythologies, which starts with an essay on wrestling – not the sportif, Olympic or college style of wrestling, but the entertainment-based, scripted type, which was popular in Paris at the time, and later found its way onto Saturday morning television in the UK throughout the 80s and is still hugely popular in the US. Essentially, Barthes was undertaking a high-brow analysis of low-brow entertainment – taking seriously what was not meant to be taken seriously; comparing the scripted wrestling dramas to the themes found in mythic tales of the Gods or Greek tragedies. That gives you an inkling of what this book is about. Using Barthes ideas on wrestling as a springboard, Bowman goes on to look at how Eastern martial arts are treated in popular culture, and why. It’s a fascinating discourse across a diverse range of subjects, which somehow all follow on from one another, yet all build towards returning to the central premise of the mythologies of today’s martial arts.

Perhaps unusually for an academic, Bowman is not talking from some lofty perch, looking down upon the martial arts, but rather as a lifelong martial arts enthusiast and practitioner he’s down in the trenches doing it with the rest of us, and asking the question, what exactly is happening here?

The chapter headings reveal the eclectic brew on offer:

  1. Wrestling myth
  2. The status of martial arts in the west: From the Kung Fu craze to Master Ken
  3. Cross-cultural desire in the Western Eastern martial arts
  4. The circulation of Qi (in media and culture)
  5. Myths of martial arts history, authority and authenticity
  6. On kicking, Kung Fu and knowing your lineage
  7. Enter the ethnicity
  8. The gender of martial arts studies
  9. Everybody was action film fighting
  10. From weird to wonderful and back again
  11. Martial arts myth today

I’ll be honest, your average martial artists will not have even thought about half of these topics before. I hadn’t. In that sense, this book is mind expanding. Most martial artists just get on with doing it without really thinking about why we’re doing it, or what is actually happening when they do it. As such this book will shine some lights on the unexamined parts of your psyche, your unacknowledged assumptions about martial arts and your own blind spots.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the aesthetic appeal of kicking, the similarity of ground fighting to the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien, and the “delicious aural quality” of the sound of the words “Kung Fu” and “Gong Fu” in English. I also enjoyed the way he tackled his own real life critic in Chapter 5, combining the critic’s furious reactions into his research. (The critic remains nameless, but anybody involved in discussions of Chinese Martial Arts on Internet discussion forums will recognise him instantly). But frankly, a lot of this book is beyond me. When Bowman drifts into quoting Derrida (as he does often) and discussing ideas of deconstructionism I find myself drifting off and wanting to skip pages, but then he’ll talk about how Alien’s Facehugger bears striking similarities to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu ground fighting technique, or how Kung Fu technique keeps him awake at night and I’m right back in the room with him, enjoying his unique perspective.

Bowman’s focus is often on Eastern martial arts (or martial artists) that have been transplanted to the West and the cultural ramifications thereof, Bruce Lee being a perfect example. It should also be noted that Bowman is an authority on Bruce Lee, having written several books about him, and Chapter 7 here is dedicated to understanding this key figure to modern martial arts in more detail.

Bowman uses his own experience of training in these Eastern martial arts in the West as his fieldwork, which is fine, but has some downsides. So much of cultural significance seems to be going on with the incredible popularity of Mixed Martial Arts at the moment that it seems like a missed opportunity that it only gets the briefest of mentions here, mainly because it has not featured as heavily in the lived experience of the author as the Eastern arts of Taekwondo, Kung Fu and Tai Chi have.

Having been to an academic conference (only once in my life, so far though) it strikes me that the key to delivering a good academic paper is to present lots of ideas, backed up by evidence, but to never come to any definitive conclusion about any of them. Academics naturally see their work as contributing to a larger conversation. Whereas most of us presented with the task of writing a book, an article, or a blog post would reduce it to a point we were trying to convey, to move towards, to solidify on, academics seem more interested in asking questions, which in turn spark more questions, which in turn keeps the conversation moving and developing. They are worker ants contributing to the overall health of the colony, not brave explorers conquering and claiming new lands and while it would be a disservice to accuse Mythologies of Martial Arts as lacking coherence, or building to good final act, I’m left with the impression that this book, hailing from the world of academia, holds true to the same ideals.

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Full Disclaimer: A long time ago (possibly in a galaxy far, far away) I taught the author of this book Tai Chi and Kung Fu, and while I’m not mentioned by name I find my ghost wandering the pages of several chapters, where I am mentioned as the “instructor”, noted for knowing my martial arts lineage by heart, or as the person who introduced him to what he’d been searching for: Chinese Kung Fu, for the first time.