Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, April 29, 2022

The Influence of Karate on Judo

Below is an excerpt from a post at Ryukyu Bugei, about a kata developed by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo. It is one of ten kata recognized by the Kodokan.

The development of the kata may some influences of karate upon the development of judo. The full article may be read here.

The “Seiryoku Zen’yo Kokumin Taiiku no Kata” (in the following SZKTK) is a collection of combative movement exercises, created under inclusion of concepts from the field of physical education. It translates to “Form of national physical education of maximum efficiency”. It was officially released by the founder of Jūdō, Kanō Jigorō, in 1930 and today is one of the ten kata that are recognized by the Kōdōkan.

The SZKTK consists of two categories: The first category consists of 29 individual movements (tandoku-undō), performed by a single person. The second category consists of 20 partner exercises, performed by two persons (aitai-undō). Its salient characteristic is the almost exclusive use of atemi (impact) techniques. These atemi techniques particularly seem to indicate that Kanō incorporated results of his exploration of karate into this form.
In a lecture read on April 18th, 1888, Kanō explained towards the Asiatic Society of Japan that
“In some of the schools [of jūjutsu] special exercises, called Atemi and Kuatsu, are taught. Atemi is the art of striking or kicking some of the parts of the body in order to kill or injure the opponent.”
In his 1888 lecture Kanō strongly opposed any clams that jūjutsu originated in Chinese martial arts of any kind, while some of the major schools employing the concept of atemi clearly referred to it (See Chin Genpin, Akiyama and others), wich probably rendered it some sort of ideological no-go for Kanō at the time, or at least to be treated with great care.

As regards a possible influence from karate: Kanō grew interest in karate – with Okinawa being Japanese – in 1908, when pupils of the Okinawan 1st Middle School of Shuri presented karate at the youth tournament held by the Butokukai in Kyōto, which “Doctor Kanō attentively observed with bated breath”.

In Kanō’s “Imitative physical exercises” (Gidō taisō) published in 1909 we find movements such as
  • “polishing a long board (tate itamigaki)”,
  • “kicks in four directions (shihō-geri)”,
  • “strikes in four directions (shihō-ate)”
and others. These are considered to be the prototypes of techniques incorporated in the SZKTK, namely the techniques called
  • “polishing a metal mirror (kagami-togi)”,
  • “kicks in five directions (gohō-geri)”, and
  • “strikes in five directions (gohō-ate)”.
When in 1911 six members of the Karate Club of the Okinawa Teachers College of Shuri made a trip to Tōkyō, Kanō invited them for a karate demonstration at his Kōdōkan Jūdō Institute. There they demonstrated kata as well as tameshiwari (smashing boards). As regards Kanō’s reception of this performance, it is said that “The Jūdō founder, Master Kanō, could not contain himself from expressing his high praise.”

Further references to atemi techniques made by Kanō next appeared in his “Overview of Jūdō” (Jūdō kaisetsu, 1913).

In May 1922 Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) came to Tōkyō to present Karate at the 1st Exhibition of Physical Education, sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Education. In June the same year Kanō invited Funakoshi for a demonstration of karate at his Kōdōkan Jūdō Institute. At that time Funakoshi was provided both a jūdō practice uniform and a black belt to wear during his demonstration. This fashion soon reached Okinawa. Initially, in jūdō practice the traditional keikogi (practice uniform) of jūjutsu was worn. Later the current practice uniform of jūdō with its longer sleeves and trousers was created and used during practice.  As the training content in jūdō and karate was quite different, other functionalities of the practice uniform were necessary. The practice uniform of jūdō gradually adapted to its own necessities, as did the practice uniform of karate. In this way the current practice uniforms were born.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Interview with Yang Jwing Ming

Yang Jwing Ming has had an impact on the transmission of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts in North America. Below is an excerpt from an interview with Dr Yang that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. The full interview may be read here.


Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming generously sat down with Kung Fu Tea for a lengthy and wide ranging discussion of his martial arts experiences in both Taiwan and the United States. A major topic of conversation was the creation of YMAA Publications which remains one of the most important martial arts publishing houses. Also intriguing were Dr. Yang’s thoughts on the future direction of the Chinese martial arts and the role that they might play as modern societies continue to grapple with the disruption of labor markets by the rapid development of artificial intelligence and automation. The notes from that interview have been edited for length and clarity.

By way of introduction, Dr. Yang started his martial arts training at the age of fifteen under white crane Master Cheng Gin Gsao (曾金灶). The following year Dr. Yang began the study of Yang style taijiquan with Master Kao, Tao (高濤). He studied physics at Tamkang College in Taipei Xian and also began to practice Shaolin long fist with Master Li, Mao-Ching at the Tamkang College Guoshu Club (1964-1968). In 1971 Dr. Yang completed his M.S. degree in Physics at the National Taiwan University before serving in the Chinese Air Force from 1971 to 1972. In 1978 he completed his Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering at Perdue University in the United States. In 1984, Dr. Yang retired from his engineering career and undertook his life-long dream of teaching and researching the Chinese arts and introducing them to the West through his numerous books and publications.

Kung Fu Tea (KFT): I understand that as a youth in Taiwan you studied white crane, taijiquan and then Shaolin long fist while at university.  What do you think inspired your interest in the martial arts as a teenager?  Why, in your opinion, are we generally seeing less interest among young people in the traditional Chinese martial arts today?

Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming (YJM): First off, you have to understand what it was like in Taiwan in the 1960s. Military education was compulsory. When you became a teenager, they took you out and taught you how to shoot an M1 rifle and everyone was getting ready to fight the Chinese Communist army in a continuation of the civil war. And to actually fight the Chinese Communists was to die! As a result, many young people were trying to build up their inner courage, or just process their own mortality. They wanted to prove that they were brave. This led some people to fight or join gangs, and others studied martial arts.

When I first asked my parents about studying the martial arts, I was surprised that my father quickly said yes because some people used martial arts in gang activities.  When I asked my grandmother about this she explained that we were from a martial arts village.  In Yang village, before the war, everyone studied martial arts.  It was a simple family style for farmers. The number of techniques was limited but people really perfected them.

Everything is different today. We haven’t had society wide wars in a long time.  Young people are not scared or thinking about their own mortality. It was after the Vietnam War that martial arts really became popular in the United States.  There was such an explosion of interest in the early 1970s.  I remember watching Kung Fu with David Carradine and thinking that the martial arts choreography was not great, but at least people were really trying to explore a philosophy, which was good.  

All of that changed in the 1980s. There came to be so much violence in all of the media about martial arts. There was also an increasing emphasis on how things looked rather than actual technique or application.  The Chinese martial arts became like plastic flowers, a societal fashion rather than a pursuit of serious self-cultivation. “Gongfu” means time and energy, but most people have so little patience today.


Saturday, April 23, 2022

A Brief Biography of Sun Lu Tang

Over at Kung Fu Tea was a series on Sun Lu Tang, who some give credit for inventing how we view martial arts today. Below is an excerpt. The first of the three part series may be found here.


I am currently working on a paper that has me thinking about Sun Lutang again.  To my mind he has always been one of the quintessential pioneers of the modern Chinese martial arts.  So here is Part One of a three part biographical sketch.  Also see Part Two and Part Three.  Enjoy!

Introduction: Why Sun Lutang?

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

To counter this trend I have been compiling a series of short biographies on important and interesting martial artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.  So far we have seen the martial arts used as a revolutionary philosophy by a cross-dressing political terrorist, as a means of economic and political advancement for a poor boy from the country, and as an natural outgrowth of southern China’s intensely commercial marketplaces.  All of our previous martial artists have pursued very concrete economic, social and political goals.  With the exception of Qui Jin’s use of martial imagery in some of her revolutionary poetry, none of them have viewed the martial arts as an overly philosophical or spiritual endeavor.

I believe that this accurately represents the life experience of the vast majority of China’s 19th century martial artists.  Most of these individuals were relatively uneducated youth from the countryside.  They sought out the martial arts either as a means to better paying employment (perhaps as a caravan guard) or as a source of entertainment and personal cultivation during slack periods of the agricultural year.

Yet this is not how most western martial artists view the Chinese styles today.  Discussions of the “traditional” martial arts (in both China and America) are prefaced with the assumption that these practices are “really” about health, weight loss, qi cultivation or mental peace.  I think that these often heard assertions would come as something of a revelation to most of China’s 19th century boxers.  It is not that they did not value the health benefits of regular exercise.  In an age without modern medical care they certainly did, and “Qigong-esque” exercises have been around for a long time.  But that was never why they braved social condemnation to practice these arts in the first place.

Still, since the late Ming dynasty there has been a small minority of individuals who did practice and advocate the study of boxing as a form of “self-cultivation.”  Meir Shahar, in his masterful study of the evolution of the fighting arts of Shaolin, has demonstrated that in the late 1500s at least one group of monks at the temple started to abandon the study of battlefield weapons in favor of unarmed boxing mixed with Daoist longevity practices and traditional medical philosophy.

It is not a mystery that small groups of monks might find the mixture of strenuous physical training and philosophical mysticism intoxicating.  These individuals were, after all, monks.  Self-cultivation and the attainment of altered states of consciousness through strenuous esoteric activities was their day-job.  This was just a new technology to accomplish the goals that monks in many religious traditions have always sought.

What was surprising was Shahar’s finding that the growing popularity of this strange brew was not confined to the nation’s Temples, but that it was spreading quite rapidly throughout the lettered classes in the late Ming and early Qing period.  At exactly the point in time when one might have expected elites to be the most interested in serious military study, they were instead turning their attention to more mystical pursuits.

So we know that this interest in Daoist philosophy, medicine and longevity practices has been an undercurrent in certain corners of the Chinese martial arts world for some time.  Probably over 400 years.  Depending on how you interpret the story of the Maiden of Yue (a Bronze Age fencing master who showed a keen interest in philosophy) maybe a lot longer.  But we lack the literary evidence to say much about the pre-Ming period.

Still, this view remained a minority one.  It was the sort of thing that was mostly taken up by the few educated elites who had any interest in Boxing, and it did not have a huge impact on the goals and military aspirations of ordinary martial artists.

This basic social pattern started to undergo a fundamental shift in the wake of the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901).  In the modern era (dominated by firearms) the original military applications of the martial arts started to look outdated to a number of educated social elites.  Actual military and police personnel had reasons to continue to be interested in unarmed defense, but these sorts of concerns rarely bothered arm-chair reformers or “May 4th” radicals.  In fact, many of these reformers and modernizers wanted to do away with traditional hand combat.  To them boxing was an embarrassing relic of China’s feudal and superstitious past.

For the martial arts to succeed in the 20th century they would need to transition.  They had to be made appealing to increasingly educated and modern middle-class individuals living in urban areas.  It would be hard to imagine a group more different from the rural farm youths that had traditionally practiced these arts.  But this is the task that the early martial reformers of the 20th century dedicated themselves too.

We have already briefly discussed the Jingwu Association (created in Shanghai in 1909) and their pioneering efforts to reform and save the Chinese martial arts (as well as the nation).  However, there were a number of other reformers in the same era.  And while the traditional martial arts did survive, the systems that we have today are in many ways quite different from what the Jingwu, and later Guoshu, reformers envisioned.

Sun Lutang is a seminal figure in the history of the early 20th century Chinese martial arts.  While best known in Neijia and Taijiquan circles (where he is credited with the creation of Sun style Taiji), his vision of what the Chinese martial arts should be is still being perpetuated today.  In fact, he did more to promote the idea that the martial arts are fundamentally about health and self-cultivation than any other single figure.  Through his ground breaking publications in the 1910s and 1920s he codified a set of ideas about the nature of the Chinese martial arts that we continue to carry with us.

In some senses I am hesitant to write on Sun Lutang.  I do not practice Sun style Taiji, Xingyi Quan or Bagua.  For that matter I am not particularly sympathetic to the view that the Chinese martial arts should be about health and self-cultivation.  I am much more familiar with the local histories of southern China and Cantonese culture.  I come to this question as an outsider.

Yet the influence of Sun Lutang’s ideas and reforms have stretched far beyond his homeland in the “central plains.”  His theories continue to influence popular perceptions, in both the east and west, about what the Chinese martial arts are and what they should be.  With his triple dedication to hand combat, Daoist longevity and classical Chinese philosophy, he has become the perfect “little old Chinese man” that all other martial arts teachers are subsequently judged against.  In short, it is necessary for the field of Chinese martial studies to address the contributions of this dynamic writer and thinker on a more fundamental level than any specific contributions that he may have made to popular lineages of Taiji or Xingyi Quan.

The next three posts comprise a brief discussion of Sun Lutang and his contributions to the traditional Chinese martial arts.  The remainder of this post provides an overview and timeline of his life.  The information in this review is based on the introductory essay (by Tim Cartmell, 2003) in A Study of Taijiquan (1921) by Sun Lutang.  Cartmell drew on a variety of sources when assembling his biographical sketch, including extensive interviews with Sun Lutang’s surviving daughter Sun Jianyun.  A skilled martial arts teacher who worked with her father, Sun Jianyun was able to fill in many of the gaps and paint a more accurate picture of her father’s day to day life.

The second post in this series will focus on Sun Lutang’s association with other martial artists and hand combat institutions.  In fact, one of the most interesting elements of Sun Lutang’s life is the window that it opens onto the transformation of late Qing hand combat traditions and the development of modern martial arts culture in Northern China.  While the brief biographical sketches that we present below cannot always flesh out the social importance of events in his life, we hope to be able to expand on some of this material in the second post.

With a better understanding of the factual and social foundations of Sun Lutang’s life, the third post will turn to a discussion of his lasting impact on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While Sun Lutang lived most of his life in Northern China, his ideas have spread around the country, and even around the globe.  What impact did his synthesis of philosophy, medicine and hand combat have on the development of the southern Chinese martial arts?  To what extent did he provide the intellectual and philosophical foundations that allowed the Chinese martial arts to become a middle class phenomenon outgrowing, in large part, their origins in rural poverty?  Do we see his hand in the emergence of the Qigong craze on the 1990s, and the subsequent “medicalization” of the Chinese martial arts?  Lastly, when I deal with students who want me to tell them that Wing Chun is really an “internal” art, to what extent are they responding to ideas and hierarchies that were first developed by Sun and promoted by his students?

Kennedy and Guo have called Sun Lutang the most important Chinese martial artists of the modern era (2005 p.182).  I don’t think that this assertion is an overstatement.  Of course saying that someone has had a huge impact on the development is not the same as saying that they were the most talented practitioner to ever live.  If nothing else his books have clearly had a transformative impact on all the literature that has come after them.  Still, it seems that relatively few modern martial artists (outside the Neijia community) really have much of an idea of who Sun actually was or what he accomplished.  He is lionized by members of his Taiji lineage and ignored by pretty much everyone else.

My review of Sun Lutang’s life will have little to say about his specific martial teachings or contributions to Taiji.  Instead I hope to promote a broader appreciation of this figure in the field of Chinese martial studies.  His life is a fascinating case study that illustrates a key era in the transition of the Chinese martial arts.  Further, the ideas that he authored or popularized continue to shape how many people approach these fighting styles to this day.  Even the practice of people who will profess to have never studied Sun is often profoundly marked by his writing.

Childhood: Overcoming Injustice with the Brush and the Sword.

The early years of Sun Lutang’s life are interesting enough to be the subject of a number of movies.  Originally named Sun Fu Quan, there is some debate as to when exactly he was born.  His daughter says that he was born in 1862 on a small farm outside of Baoding (south west of Beijing) in Hebei Province.  Sun’s father had never been very prosperous and did not marry until middle age.

Recognizing the intelligence of his son he sent him to study the Confucian classics with a local teacher when he was seven years old.  For the next two years Sun memorized and copied basic texts.  Despite his obvious intelligence his formal education came to an unceremonious end when his father’s crops failed and the family was forced to sell the farm to pay off debts or taxes.  A short while later Sun’s father fell ill and died, leaving the young boy fatherless and with no means of support.

Sun’s mother felt that she was unable to care for her child so she placed him in the home of a wealthy (but apparently sadistic) landlord as a servant.  Sun was never actually paid for his work but he was fed.  It seems that virtual slavery did not suit the young child’s personality and while he suffered through many beatings he started plotting a means of emancipation, at least to the degree that an eight year old child can imagine such things.

His first big break came in 1872.  While in a field tending sheep Sun came across an old man of about 70 leading an outdoor martial arts class.  The next day he returned and begged to be taught the martial arts.  When asked why he wanted to study boxing the naïve 11 year old bluntly told the teacher (surname Wu) about his situation and desire to take revenge on his employer and his equally abusive family.  Aghast at the tale of the young child life’s the older martial artist took him on as a student, but only after warning him that “The martial arts are not just for fighting, these principals are very deep.”

I hope to explore Wu’s background and his influence on the young Sun in my next post.  While a good mentor for the boy his influence on him only lasted a couple of years.  On New Year’s Day of 1875 Sun got in a confrontation with the son and nephew of his employer.  After successfully defending himself from an unprovoked attack, his boss threatened to beat him to death and Sun’s term of “employment” as a household servant came to an end.

With no means of supporting himself, and no plans for the future, Sun fell into deep depression.  His only interest now lay in the martial arts, but even that was soured by the taunts of local villagers.  They felt that Sun was sure to grow up to become a bandit and a blight on the countryside and delighted in telling him so.  Statistically speaking they may have been correct.  Most “bandits” were young men without prospects or land who suffered an economic setback that forced them out of village life.

Not wishing to be a burden on his mother the young Sun resolved to hang himself.  Fortunately his suicide attempt failed and the boy was cut down by a passing traveler who took the boy home.  After assessing the situation he gave the family some money that they used to leave the hamlet and travel to Baoding proper where Sun had an uncle who ran a shop selling calligraphy brushes.  The uncle took in the struggling family and gave the young Sun a job as a clerk.  This was an immense step up in life from what he had known in the countryside and the Uncle proved to be a kind employer.  Further, his job in town put him in touch with the literary elements of society and gave him a chance to practice his calligraphy on scraps of paper.

It was through his Uncle that Sun would meet two men who would change his life forever.  The first of these individuals was a scholar named Zhang.  Zhang immediately recognized the young boy’s talents and invited him into his home to study calligraphy and literature.  He in turn introduced Sun to a friend of his named Li Kui Yuan.  Li Kui Yuan was a talented Xing Yi Quan student and the owner of the Tai An armed escort service.  He was delighted to find a student and resumed Sun’s formal instruction in the martial arts.

When he was 18 years old, Sun and Li went to visit Zhang on his 50th birthday.  Zhang took the opportunity to suggest that Li accept Sun as his formal disciple, and Li suggested that Sun should be engaged to Zhang’s 16 year old daughter.  Both ideas were heartily accepted and Sun place in society was now secure.  But he did not marry immediately.  Instead he and Li traveled to Beijing to study with Guo Yun Shen, Li’s original Xingyi Quan teacher.


Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Firearms and the Development of Southern Chinese Martial Afts

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea that described how the arrival of widespread western firearms affected the development of martial arts in China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The full post may be read here.

 Giving Up the Gun: Revisiting a Classic Argument.

In 1979 a Dartmouth English Professor named Neol Perrin wrote one of the more popular and more widely read books on the history of the martial arts.  It was titled Giving Up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879.  While a non-specialist, and more interested in Japanese literature than military history, the book gained quite a following.  I first encountered it in high school after I developed a fascination with the Japanese sword arts.  While so many of my classmates were delving into the dark secrets of Ninjitsu, I was more interested in understanding why there was an entire island full of warriors who carried swords rather than guns until the second half of the 19th century.  Apparently students of martial studies are born rather than made.

Professor Perrin shared my curiosity on the subject.  Or maybe not.  To the great chagrin of historians everywhere, sometimes people with very little interest in their stated subject matter write historical books anyway.  Perrin was actually interested in something much more contemporary.  The true focus of his slim volume, published at the absolute nadir of the Cold War, was nuclear disarmament.  Could the developed states of the world dismantle their high-tech arsenals and slow the pace of proliferation?  At the time it seemed to be the only question worth asking.

The Japanese were an interesting test-case for Perrin.  The establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate had been a long, bloody and uncertain process.  Further, it was an affair that swords played relatively little role in.  They had not really dominated the Japanese battlefield for hundreds of years.  As the size and technical sophistication of the Japanese feudal armies increased the sword and bow were replaced with the spear (yari) and the matchlock.  Firearms, both in the guise of matchlock rifles and cannons (some of them quite large) were the key to the ultimate establishment of the new government.

Much of this technology was quite sophisticated. The Japanese got so good at copying western weapons that they were able to modify the designs and even begin to export these arms to other, less technically advanced, buyers.  They developed devices to allow groups of gunners to engage in accurate mass fire at night (an important skill before the invention of the heavy machine gun), and they learned all sorts of lessons about how gunpowder changed the battlefield.

Then everything changed.  Once in power the new government closed the doors to social mobility and fossilized the class system.  The peasants were systematically disarmed, which was an important event as networks of religiously motivated peasant revolutionaries had been one of the groups to most successfully employ guns on the battlefield.  Even the samurai ceased to carry firearms in public.  For that matter the three meter spear, which had dominated the battlefield for hundreds of years, slipped into obscurity and was nearly forgotten by all but the most esoteric martial arts schools.  Instead there was renewed interest in the cult of the sword.

It was only in this late period that the sword became the “soul of the samurai.”  Prior to that top honors had gone to the bow, the spear and, very briefly, the gun.  Even contemporary sword masters realized that their weapon was obsolete on the “modern” battlefield of the 17th century.  At best it was a weapon of personal defense if you were unhorsed or your spear was lost.  Yet it is the sword that dominates the last era of Japanese feudal history.

Nor was this seeming loss of military technology mirrored in other areas of Japanese society.  While isolated from much of the world the Japanese did attempt to keep up on medical and scientific developments through their limited contacts with the west.  I have always been under the impression that standards of living were pretty high in Japan compared to some of the more marginal areas of southern China that I have studied, though I would need to look at some actual economic data to know for sure.

For Perrin this was the crux of the issue.  The Japanese were not forced to give up the gun by foreign domination, or social and technological decay.  It is easy to understand the loss of technology through these sorts of processes.  Instead they (meaning the political and cultural elite) made a choice to take one sort of military technology and put it back on the shelf.

This was an unprecedented moment in human history and Perrin wanted to know whether it could act as a model of nuclear disarmament.  Many of the critics of his work have fundamentally misunderstood his project.  He was not an English professor pretending to be a historian, and hence writing bad history.  He was actually an English professor pretending to be a social scientist.  Perrin’s real aim was to talk about causality.  He wanted to develop a covering law that explained disarmament, and he did so through a single, highly detailed, case study.

Japanese historians quickly pointed out that the Samurai never actually gave up the gun in any definitive sense.  They continued to maintain some coastal batteries and individual Lords maintained stockpiles of these weapons.  There were even periodic reminders by the Shogunate that all Lords were required by law to maintain large number of muskets and insure that their troops were drilled in using them, should the need should ever arise.  Pretty much the only group in Japanese society that lost its connection with firearms was the peasantry, but this relationship was not so much “given up” as “forcibly severed” as part of the maintenance of an absolutely brutal class based feudal system.

Many historians have been quick to dismiss Perrin.  He wants to talk about variables like “culture” and “choice,” where as they turn to “realist” political analysis.  The Japanese turned away from the gun because after the establishment of the new government the state entered a period of peace that lasted for 200 years.  Weapons development is expensive and socially disruptive.  No one does it just because it is fun.  Countries do it because they are forced to over the course of certain types of conflicts.

The development of firearms exploded in Europe between 1650 and 1850 not because the west was more rational, more scientific or more technologically advanced.  The real reasons were purely political.  This was a period of almost continual warfare and violent conflict.

According to this realpolitik view, weapons development happens only when it is rational to do so.  War accelerates this process.  During times of peace there are other spending priorities that will better insure your hold on power, such as public works or infrastructure spending, so this is where rulers will spend their gold. (For any international relations scholars out there that are keeping score, what I have just described is a “classical realist” theory rather than a stricter “neo-realist” account).

China: The Dragon and the Gun.

It is interesting to consider what happens when we bring China into this discussion.  China has a somewhat schizophrenic reputation on this point.  On the one hand it is credited with the invention of gun powder and the rocket, two of the more important destructive technologies of all time.  On the other hand it is burdened with images of peasant soldiers, armed only with spears, running into the face of machine gun-fire as late as the Korean War.

Rather than these being treated as isolated incidents that were the result of process failures in society’s military/industrial complex, these instances are often taken as being indicative of something about Chinese culture and its values.  It is often said that the Chinese do not value “human life.”  I have even had some of my own Chinese graduate students tell me this when trying to explain some of the more puzzling points of state policy.  Yet I cannot help but notice that all of the Chinese individuals who I associate with do value human life.  It is always some other mysterious person, who no one can quite identify, that lacks any humanity.  This should be a warning flag to those seeking to advance historical arguments based on cultural difference.  I am not saying that culture is never important, but this is a variable that needs to be employed with great caution.  Desperation makes people do “desperate” things, but that is not really the same as proving that they have fundamentally different values.

The 19th century European view was, if anything, more reductionist.  They explained their world in terms of racial categories.  In their view the Chinese lacked the mental or moral capacity to master the modern arts of warfare.  And yet these arguments always rang hollow, even to the individuals who advanced them.  The fact that it was the Chinese who initially created this entire class of weapons could not be forgotten.  Nor could the Europeans afford to overlook the furious pace of Chinese military advance.

In the 1850s Guangzhou found itself badly outgunned against the British.  By 1911 everything was different.  China was awash in modern European weapons and highly trained military specialists.  The state was militarily just as advanced as most European states.  Its defeats in the early 20th century had more to do with political divisions and a lack of unity than any actual military factors.  This means that in only 50 years China was able to radically transform not just their military arms, but the entire social and military structure that produced and supported them.  It had taken all of Europe nearly 200 years to complete this same transformation.  Clearly the Chinese reformers were quite talented.  One of the problems with the “victimization” narrative promoted by the Chinese state today is that causes individuals, in both the east and west, to systematically overlook these accomplishments.

I suspect that the success of the traditional Chinese martial arts may actually account for much of the historical misunderstanding that goes on.  For better or worse, Kung Fu has become a critical part of China’s public diplomacy.  These unarmed fighting systems seem philosophically rich and purely defensive.  I suspect that this perception has helped to ease tensions about China’s growing influence in the world.  But on the other hand, the same whiff of ancient mysticism makes these arts appear to be fundamentally incompatible with the modern world.

The supremacy of the gun over the more physical disciplines of combat is too firmly entrenched in the western mind to be easily dismissed.  It is a message that our media has reinforced repeatedly throughout the 20th century.  From cowboys exterminating Indians, to Indian Jones carelessly blowing away a Middle Eastern swordsman, we are confident in our ability to negotiate a hostile world.  The superiority of the gun seems to reinforce our broader faith in technology.

Nor is the American media alone in this assessment.  If anything Chinese story tellers have been even more enthusiastic in linking the gun to the “modern” world.  In western science fiction we can at least find a place for hand combat, whether it is Luke’s transformation into a disciplined Jedi knight, or Captain Kirk forgoing the niceties of the phaser for the simple pleasures of beating down a malicious alien with his own bare hands.

I have never run across anything quite like a Jedi knight in the Kung Fu genera.  Instead the vast majority of Kung Fu stories tend to be backwards looking.  They look back to a simpler time before the coming of the gun, when more “civilized” methods of defense still held sway.  They paint a picture of a reassuring world where ultimate power went to the individual who worked the hardest, who developed the best Kung Fu, rather than to gangster who could buy the most guns.  In the popular imagination Kung Fu is as much about justice as it is anything else.

I literally cannot count the number of martial arts films that I have seen which revolve around the introduction of firearms and how they destroy the “old order” of things.  Inevitably the hero beats the bad guy with the gun one last time, but the writing is on the wall.  The age of hand combat is drawing to a close.  In the “age of the gun” there is simply no way to defend yourself with your hands.  In fact, there is no way for the individual to defend himself against the industrialized aspect of society.

I despise this narrative.  It is not just that it gets the actual history of Chinese martial arts wrong, but it creates a vision of an unreal past.  Once you have internalized this vision it becomes impossible to understand the true history of Kung Fu even if someone stops to explain it to you.

It is a powerful narrative because it speaks to a lost “golden age” that has just slipped out of our grasp.  It captures the sorts of struggles that individuals feel in their own lives.  This is the story of a world that is passing you by.  Unfortunately it is now the only version of 19th century history that most individuals in China are familiar with.  If you ask them about the martial arts they will all tell, first we used traditional hand combat, then guns came and we modernized.

Historically speaking, this is totally backwards.  First the guns came, and then the modern martial arts developed.  What we see in China is quite similar to the puzzle that made life difficult for Perrin when he discussed Japan.

Firearms have been a fact of life in China since the 1300s.  At first they were difficult and expensive to manufacture, but the government employed large numbers of hand cannons, field artillery pieces and even massive rocket launchers from an early period.  If you are curious about what early military gunnery looked like you should check out the Fire Dragon Manual.  At the start of the Ming dynasty Chinese firearms were probably the most advanced in the world.  So what happened?




Sunday, April 17, 2022

Spectator or Participant in Martial Arts Study

At Thoughts on Tai Chi, there was a thought provoking post on the difference of being a spectator or participant in one's martial arts training. The full post may be read here.

If you want to go far in Tai Chi Chuan you sincerely need to stop being a spectator and take command over your own development and progress. You cannot let any teacher dictate over how far you have come, or when and how you should progress. First you need to reach a point where you can be able to understand this by yourself.

What is a Spectator?

The Spectator is the student who attends classes more to enjoy the show than anything else. The spectator puts himself or herself in the position of being a passive listener. The Spectator is satisfied by merely enjoying the show put up by the teacher. The Spectator might listen to the instructions and practice the exercises, but do very little thinking. This passive, non-critical attitude does also have a long-term effect on the student’s progress, as the teacher can decide how fast or slow the students will progress without any kind of objections or active initiative from them.

I wrote this on a discussion board not a long time ago:

“It’s mostly commercial teachers who earn a living on teaching who use old abstract, obscure words. It’s more to attract new students than to explain. Explaining things clearly with modern, western terminology is boring. People don’t want to listen to it. They want things they don’t understand, so they can try to understand them. But they don’t want them to be explained.  Like a David Lynch movie. People love the mystery, things that cannot be explained. The simple answers? Nah, people want to keep the mystery. That’s the important thing. The same with martial arts. People … want to experience the mystery.”

Sadly, this describes the most common type of teacher as well as student. My friend who is also a teacher and a long time practitioner, Michael. cited the quote above on his blog. I am happy that he found it interesting enough to write something about, but what he didn’t know is that he is one of the reasons why I started to think more in these terms and tried to verbalise my thoughts further. In a private conversation, he made the observation that many successful teachers have some kind of background in entertainment.

When I thought more about what he wrote to me, I found what he said true and obvious. Amongst the most successful public teachers you can find musicians, actors, dancers and even people who have earned a living as a psychic and on fortunetelling. These teachers clearly know how to get people’s attention and how to keep it. They understand the value of entertainment often more than they have the ability to actually teach something. They keep their students entertained and the students keep on going to the class. Some of them are very charismatic and good manipulators. Yes, they really know how to manipulate people.

Sadly, this kind of teacher is not only the most successful type of teacher in Tai Chi and in the world of Chinese martial arts in general. They are also the most detrimental for a student’s development. Though they keep up the student’s interest and fascination of the art, they are mostly not interested in teaching their students in order to help them reach any higher level. Many teachers prefer that the students remain perpetual beginners as long as possible.

Entertainment or teaching?

This kind of teacher attracts many different kinds of students, some very serious who wants to dig deep in the art, and others who might just want to practice an exercise for health and mind. And yet others might seek out the teacher, or “master,” just to find a social group. Even if they don’t believe that they go there just to experience the mystery and to enjoy a show, this is still the situation many students put themselves in.

I believe that the relationship between student and teacher often becomes fixated already as the teacher presents something to the student that represents a new experience for the student, something that is hard to grasp and to understand. When the students enter the school of this kind of entertainer teacher, they enter a new world with strange new words and concepts and stories about old masters.

Some of these teachers have practiced for a long time and have gained some decent skill, thus they will move and use their body in a different way that a common person is used to do. These qualities are indeed hard to replicate for most of people and demand some decent amount of practice. So here, in this situation, the student depends on the teacher for guidance. But in many Tai Chi schools and in Chinese martial arts in general, the relationships are not really the same as a healthy student-teacher relationship seen in most other disciplines and in common schools.


Monday, April 11, 2022

A Brief History of Japanese Armor

At Japanese History and Culture, there was an article that gave a brief history of Japanese Armor. Below is an excerpt. The full article may be read here.

The earliest Japanese armour were solid metal cuirasses made up of several sections of plate — often roughly triangular in form — which were tightly laced together and usually lacquered against rust. It is not clear what they were originally called; some suggest the term kawara — which means “tile” — and others suggest it was simply yoroi, meaning “armour.” This style of armour has come to be called a tankô, which means “short armour.” It was hinged on one side or even hingeless and sprung closed, opening up the center front. The heyday of the tankô was the fourth through sixth centuries. Various additions came and went, including lame-constructed skirt plates and shoulder guards.

The tankô was slowly phased out and replaced by a new form of armour which seems to have been inspired by continental models. This new form of armour eclipsed the tankô and set the pattern for the next millennium. The construction was of scale. Since the solid tankô rested on the hips and the new scale armour hung from the shoulders, the historiographical term given to these armours is keikô (“hanging armour”).

The general silhouette is hourglass-shaped. Keikô usually opened up the front, but models resembling ponchos were also known. Despite its early date (sixth through ninth centuries), the keikô was actually a more complex armour than later models, as there could be as many as six or more different types and sizes of scales used in one armour.

Most of what we know about the actual appearance and construction of tankô and keikô is due to the considerable efforts of the late Professor Suenaga Masao, an eminent archaeologist and historian, who painstakingly replicated dozens of different suits of armours after studying the remains excavated from Japanese mound tombs.

The introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the sixth century led to a phase-out of the old burial traditions and the subsequent loss of a great deal of archaeological material. From the last tombs of the eighth and ninth centuries until the oldest extant armour of the eleventh, we have a gap in which we can only surmise — based on what came before and what followed — the forms of armour worn in Japan. One form of keikô, the uchikake-shiki keikô, was clearly the last development of the keikô, and an obvious precursor to the next form of armour.

The Early Middle Ages

The classic Japanese armour, the heavy, square, boxy suit, is now called ô-yoroi (“great armour”) although it was originally just called yoroi. The oldest extant ô-yoroi is today just boards made of scales laced together. In other words, it is no longer a solid, wearable piece of armour. We can still tell what it is, and from the wisps of lace remaining in all the suspensory holes, we can also tell that it was a very ornate armour, with six different colors of lacing in a pyramidal pattern. The armour, now in Ôyamazumi Jinja, was made in the first two decades of the tenth century. This armour shows one last remnant of keikô construction: the lacing ran straight down in vertical lines. This vertical lacing also appears in a miniature armourer’s model of an ô-yoroi now in the Imperial collection. Armours of only a few decades later developed the down, diagonal, and up again lacing pattern now regarded as standard.

A significant feature of the ô-yoroi is that in cross-section viewed from above, the body forms a letter C, as it is completely open on the right side. Three large, heavy sets of skirt plates of kozane boards hang from it — one in front, one in back, and one on the left. The right side is protected by a solid metal plate called a waidate, from which hangs the fourth set of skirt plates. Two large square or rectangular shoulder protectors called ô-sode that were the size of LP album covers (remember those?) are attached at the shoulder straps. Small rounded flanges stick up from the shoulder straps to give added protection to the side of the neck.

Hanging in the front of the armour and ostensibly protecting the armpits that way were two plates called the sendan-no-ita and kyûbi-no-ita. The sendan resembles a miniature sode, and is worn on the right; the kyûbi is a solid plate, long and narrow, and worn on the left. These are both tied to the shoulder straps at the front of the suit.

Earliest ô-yoroi apparently had one fewer row of lames in the front and back of the skirt-plates; no doubt making them more comfortable when riding. Later models, starting around the twelfth century, had a full complement of skirt-plates, but the bottom-most lame in both the front and back was split in the middle to afford the same comfort.

Around the fourteenth century, an armpit plate was added to the left side. Previously, a strip of leather was just folded over the scale heads under the arm, but now a solid plate similar in shape to the munaita (“breastboard”) was laced into place. This served both to give added protection under the armpit and to lend strength to that part of the armour.

The second lame on the back, instead of being laced in the normal manner, is laced“inside out” — that is, the lacing for the next plate emerges from behind it rather than in front, so that it overlaps both the plate above and below instead of just the one above. Central on this plate, aptly called the sakaita (”reversed plate”), is a large, ornate fitting with a ring. This ring is the agemaki-no-kan, from which hangs a huge butterfly-shaped knot (agemaki). Cords coming from the rear of the sode are attached to the“wings” of this knot to help anchor the sode in place.

The entire front of the torso is covered with a printed or patterned leather apron called tsurubashiri (”bowstring-running”). The purpose of this covering is to keep the bowstring from catching on the heads of any of the scales as the warrior fired his primary weapon. Since armoured samurai often shot arrows with their hand along the breast rather than by their ear as was normal (the large helmets typically prevented usual firing methods), this was a logical development. This same leather pattern is used all over the armour: on the shoulder straps, the breast-board, the helmet turnbacks, the sode tops, the visor, etc.

Earliest warriors only wore one armoured sleeve (kote), and that on the left arm. The sleeve’s primary purpose was to keep the bulky armour-robe sleeves out of the way of the bow, however, not for protection per se. It wasn’t until the thirteenth century or so that matching pairs of armoured sleeves came to be common. The kote was donned before the armour, and tied across the body with long leather straps. The next piece worn was the separate side plate for the right side (waidate). Warriors typically wore these two items, the throat guard (nodowa) and their armoured greaves (suneate) around camp as a sort of “half-dress” armour. These items together are referred to as “kogusoku” or“small armour.”

The ô-yoroi is obviously a bulky and heavy armour. It was also expensive. For retainers and lesser warriors, the dô maru and haramaki were developed. These armours had more skirt plates and fitted closer to the body, omitting the need for a waidate. The dô-maru opens under the right arm; the haramaki opens at the back.


Friday, April 08, 2022

Multiple Attacker Defense in Yip Man's Wing Chun

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea, regarding the emphasis Yip Man put on his Wing Chun regarding multiple attackers and defense against an ambush attack. The full post may be read here

Introduction and Review

This is the second part of an extended article on Ip Man’s career in law enforcement, and the subsequent emphasis on “ambush” and “multiple attacker” scenarios that later developed in his lineage of Wing Chun.  See here for the first part of this post.  As always the best way to approach these multi-section posts would be to print them out and read them as a single extended article.

I also hope that this series of posts inspires readers to think more carefully about the nexus between the traditional Chinese martial arts and the government in Republican China.  The state was a major sponsor of the traditional martial arts.  This relationship was channeled through a variety of official organizations including the the Central Guoshu Institute, the educational system and numerous military and police academies.  While a valuable source of economic sponsorship these interaction also had an affect on the development and evolution of hand combat.  In some cases arts were applied to new and novel tactical problems, in others they were subjected to the regulation or corruption of the Nationalist party (GMD).  Students of Chinese martial studies should think carefully about the many ways that the state has impacted the martial arts.  Reviewing the development of Ip Man’s Wing Chun suggests one possible avenue for what that sort of interaction might look like.

Hand Combat as Conversation: Context, Nuance and Emphasis in the Chinese Martial Arts.

One way of looking at the various styles of hand combat that developed in China is to see them as part of a larger, ongoing conversation. Producing effective fighters was clearly important, but you do not really need a “martial art” to do that.  Militaries do it all the time.

No matter how tough you were when you were young, everyone grows old, and even martial artists suffer the ravages of time. Of course people continue to be interested in hand combat long after they are no longer 22 years old and in peak physical condition. But from that point forward studying principles and promoting a given fighting “style” takes on much more importance. It is this socially transmitted aspect that makes the “martial arts” distinct.  This makes them a community or a “social movement” in a way that Marine Corps “combatives” can never be.

Much of the meta-conversation that happens between the various martial styles is actually a disagreement about how you think a certain kind of fight is likely to unfold. Almost all styles, modern and traditional, have the same catalog of basic movements. There are strikes with the hands and feet, locks, throws and grappling. Weapons basically come in a limited number of sizes and configurations. At the end of the day there are really only so many ways in which the human body can move, and anyone who is in this business long enough will see all of them.

Any “complete martial art” has a variety of techniques to deal with each of these situations. Do not be fooled by the rhetoric. Taiji players can box, Wing Chun students can master long-range entry and even the most ardent jujitsu student knows how to throw a kick or two. It is not really the techniques that make these arts different so much as it is their basic assumptions about how they think a fight is likely to start, how they want to guide its progression, and what they believe will give them the best chances of winning. These are the fundamental questions that really differentiate the styles. It is differences of emphasis and opinion that give each art its unique visual aesthetic.

This is the actual reason why Wing Chun prefers to generate force through “leverage” whereas Taiji seems more interested in “angular momentum.”  Contrary to the assertions of many so-called experts that you find on the internet, it is not that one style is incapable of doing what the other does. Experienced Taiji players know all about leverage and can use it.  Advanced Wing Chun training shows you how to generate force with “angular momentum” in Biu Jee and the dummy. Where these arts actually differ is on what they believe the “entry” phase of a fight will look like, and the sorts of counter-attacks that will be needed.  This in turn dictates that both styles accentuate different ways of generating energy. What beginning students often take as statements of gospel truth (“Wing Chun is always…….”) are almost always matters of emphasis. When examined in broad social terms the Chinese martial arts are basically an ongoing conversation about hand-combat training.

One thing that the “Ip Man” branch of Wing Chun emphasizes is the possibility of multiple attackers scenarios. When modern teachers in this lineage discuss self-defense and the sorts of scenarios that concern them, an ambush by multiple attackers is always at the top of their list.  A great visual example of this can be found in the 2011 series Fight Quest.  In the second season of this show the hosts traveled to Hong Kong to shoot a documentary about modern Wing Chun training.

In an attempt to better explain and illustrate what Wing Chun was all about (and to create some good TV) one of the local instructors who served as their host for the crew staged a mock street ambush involving a dozen attackers trapping the star of the show in an alley.  His larger point was to demonstrate the sorts of tactical problems that are central to this style.  Much of modern Hong Kong style Wing Chun is actually built around these concerns, often in ways that are so subtle that they can easily be missed.

For instance, the art’s narrow footwork, backwards leaning stance and emphasis on maintaining a wide field of vision are all things that originate from its concern with the idea that one might have to face more than one attacker. Its strategy of quickly disabling opponents, dislike of submission holds and emphasis on staying off the ground (even when it would be to your immediate advantage to take a weaker opponent down) all revolve around a single fear. The worry is that while you hold an opponent, or grapple with them on the ground, it will be impossible to see their compatriots who are about to smack you upside the head with a bar-stool.

At first glance this all makes good sense. Pretty much the only time that you are actually assured that there will not be multiple attackers is when you are in a boxing ring, and that is not actually the same sort of thing as “self-defense.” The very concept of “self-defense” implies ambush and the idea that one will most likely be fighting at a tactical disadvantage.  Your attacker will be larger than you, better armed, or there will simply be more of them.  Anyone who is serious about doing you harm is not going to stage a “fair fight.”

It is also critical to realize that most fights do not happen between isolated individuals in dark alleys. Instead they tend to happen in public places. Why? Because that is where the people are. And when fights break out they often involve entire groups of people. While any trained martial artist should be comfortable defending himself against a drunken idiot, one drunken idiot and half a dozen of his friends in the middle of a parking lot is a less pleasant scenario to contemplate. And it is disturbingly common. When teaching I have never really encountered anyone who did not think that planning for multiple attackers was a bad idea when I brought this up.

Still, there is something a little odd about Wing Chun’s emphasis on this subject. To begin with all sorts of traditional fighting styles from southern China care about self-defense and are equally aware of this possibility.  They certainly warn their students about it. But in general they did not think it was necessary to fundamentally restructure their art to meet this threat.

A typical Hung Gar, or even western boxing stance, with head forward and hands high might cost you some visibility, but it is probably a safer stance if you are sure that you are only facing a single opponent. As a Wing Chun guy it pains me to admit it, but its true. Under certain circumstances what other arts prefer to do really is effective. These guys are aware of the possibility of multiple attackers, but they have decided it is probably foolish to assume that every fight will go down this way. In fact, even other branches of Wing Chun do not share Ip Man’s interest in multiple attacker scenarios.

In some respects Jee Shim Wing Chun seems to have a lot more in common with Guangdong’s various schools of “Village Hung Gar” than it does Ip Man’s Wing Chun (and I mean that as a compliment).  Of course there are some problems that occur when we try to make detailed comparisons between styles.  Ip Man’s approach to Wing Chun has become so widespread that it probably has had an inevitable impact on these other lineages.  Some schools seem to have borrowed at least a few of his innovations and philosophy, while others are clearly reacting against him in their quest to find a more “authentic” branch of Wing Chun.


Saturday, April 02, 2022

The Striking Techniques of Judo

It is often overlooked that Judo has an arsenal of striking techniques. Below is a vintage video which demonstrates them.