The pivotal moments in the history of Chinese martial arts

15 Feb

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of Chinese martial arts is that perhaps the most pivotal moments in its history and development are not to be found in the thousands of years of Chinese history but rather in the rather short period of less than three decades between the Boxer Rebellion and the War with Japan. The Chinese martial artist was almost univerally rejected by society, while confronted by foreign methods (Japanese Judo and western boxing) and modern approaches to physical training (the so called military gymnastics and the modern physical education movement).

Practical application was still a consideration; in urban areas, in the training of military and police, and ultimately on the battlefields of the War with Japan and the civil war. Of course, the context of application had changed. Some chose not to abandon practical application, while others exited the period having all but abandoned the idea.

Men such as Chang Dong Sheng (常東昇) and Chan Tai San (陳泰山) camed of age in this period, trained by those who had trained in a period before these considerations. They fought “for real”, pursued careers in branches of the military, and also embraced “sport” or “competition” which had been introduced by the Guoshu movement and it’s sponsored events. Chan Tai San certainly spent time in the modern sports apparatus of the Communist mainland, but he was a link to a period before it and largely disconnected from it. Chang Dong Sheng transplanted to Taiwan, which provided a different context for the development of his methods.

In my estimation, these are the “missing links”. They are the small cracks of light in the larger malaise of those who abandoned practical application, embraced the fantastical (ironically re-embracing the nonsese of the Yi He Quan!), or want to obscure.


A tangled web indeed

17 Jan

Sometimes, if you look closely in the background, you see things, like me at a major Chinese martial arts event from the past.

According to records Chan Tai San kept, which were surprisingly meticulous, he taught over 5000 people after arriving in the United States. He was friendly with the heads of four of the major schools in new York’s Chinatown and in the beginning he taught out of those schools. So he taught a lot of people with various martial arts affiliations. That is also why he did not initially set up a school, most of those training with him were not technically his students.

That people who trained with Chan Tai San, both as direct and indirect students, are still around and active in the martial arts world should really come as no surprise. Nor should it come as a surprise that many people came to train with his direct students when they began teaching.

But yet, I think some people would be shocked to learn that many of the people active in the NY area either trained with me at some point, or were trained by someone who trained with me. Those people probably don’t realize that the martial arts world has always been a tangled web, incestuous and complicated.

I’ve been filming stuff more than a decade now; a new “thing” in the martial arts world. So another thing you might notice if you look in the background is that “critics” often strangely (not so strangely really) appear in the background of those training sessions, seminars, tournaments and fight venues. Or, to borrow a quote…..

And all I can say is….

Conditioning and heart

16 Jan

I’ve posted this before, a “survival round” I do at testing for my intermediate students. Some carry on about how it’s sloppy, etc. But if you haven’t done it, you really don’t know how hard it is. Also, to quote a famous Chinese general, the practical is not pretty and the pretty is not practical.

A more technical explanation of this sort of training;

The secret is not secret; sweat, pain, blood and repetition

15 Jan

Over the past few years, I have divided my efforts so to speak between the “modern and practical” and the “traditional”. I have posted a lot of the application and explanation of traditional moves (often directly from hand sets) in their traditional context.

In some cases, I see the application as “1 to 1”: The movement in application is not that much different than it looks in form. Of course, there are so many experts on the internet that everything gets debated. But sometimes a long hook is just a long hook and an overhand is just an overhand.

When I was training a lot of active fighters and competing in a lot of fighting events, there was a lot less of this kind of posting and drilling. Many times, traditional is actually CONCEPTUAL. And it is based upon the presumption that you have strong basics and know how to take a punch! Yes, sad but true. Much traditional is based as much upon attributes, i.e. being a “tough guy” as it was upon application of form.

So when I was training fighters, we focused upon the basic; which also meant the increasing familiarity with sweat, pain, and blood. Another way of looking at it; you have a fight in 6 weeks, let us focus upon what we know you can learn to use in 4 to 5 weeks.

If you are looking to study ongoing, as a “way of life”, there is time to do it all (in theory). But if you want to be able to really use it, you are still going to have to do a lot of the repetition and conditioning, and sparring, with sweat, pain and blood

More on forms

29 Dec

There are few topics in traditional martial arts that get more discussion than forms / sets. I even have several blogs about the issue. Today, let’s begin with two easy ones:

FIRST: You do not need forms to learn to fight. Boxers, Savate stylists, Kickboxers, Nak Muay, Wrestlers, Jiujitsu stylists, etc etc etc more than prove that point. Furthermore, we can state pretty quickly that one thing forms definitely do NOT do is teach us how to fight.

SECOND: Some people will say “there is more to martial arts than fighting”! TRUE. Some will say there is physical education and fitness. Are forms the best (or even “good”) way to get in shape? I’d say, compare the average student in a traditional martial arts program against someone in a boxing, kickboxing or Muay Thai gym and it’s hard to go down that line of inquiry seriously.

Martial arts may not be “only” about fighting, but without some awareness of the fighting, it is not “martial arts”.

Today, most people think of “form” as the choreographed sets of moderate to longer length. But a quick look around and you will see that many traditions have “forms” that are just simple repetitions of basic techniques (concepts) in lines up and down the floor. This mimics (and thus probably originated in) the military training of the Imperial period. We see this in Shuai Jiao, Xing Yi Quan and even southern external styles. So our third question, if we need “forms” what sort of “forms” do we really need?

As if this isn’t already quite a mess, let’s just proceed with the idea that we want to train the forms we are most familiar with and get benefit out of them. So what are we looking for? If you are just looking to do something “cool”, looking to “get some culture” and/or engaging in ANTIQUARIANISM then frankly you will be fine. BUT WHAT IF YOU WANT TO DO MARTIAL ARTS?

Martial arts, particularly Chinese martial arts, do not exist in isolation. They exist in both a cultural and historical context. If you want to go beyond this blog, buy my book “Chinese martial arts: A historical outline”. But in summary, what we have today was once tied to the performance tradition of the “JiangHu” and also was filtered through various political agendas in the earaly 20th Century. How much of your “form” is nothing more than performance to get the attention of the uneducated and to draw them in for a sale?

Even in methods that remained unadulterated fighting traditions, not all movements have direct combat application. Some are designed to condition and for the development of attributes meant for fighting.

Finally, for those who have actually learned the combat applications of movements in traditional forms, follow along with me now….

“Is this a strike”?

“Or, is this a block”?

“Or, is this a joint lock”?

“Or, perhaps it is a throw”?

Perhaps, if you have trained in a traditional method, you already know the answer to the above. The answer to the above question is “YES“.

Now go practice 🙂

What is “bad martial arts”?

28 Dec

NOTE: This may come across as a very negative, even insulting blog. But it is not intended to be that way. It is NOT personal. It is Truth, and Truth is always the most important thing.

I have approached this with light hearted amusement in previous blogs, but the “danger” of running a public martial arts school is the people who come in and prior to taking your class tell you about all the training they have had. Some have only been in the basic class without contact. Others have talked their way into my intermediate class with contact. I would never put someone I have never seen practice into free sparring, though some might have deserved it. But my intermediate class has plenty of contact in it.

I have watched people who told me they had ten (10) years of boxing training not be able to throw the most basic combination; jab, cross and left hook. I usually write that off to just pure LIES; watching boxing on TV and having a heavy bag in your basement is NOT “boxing training”.

I had a person who really, really, REALLY wanted to do my intermediate contact class. They said they had trained for eight years. They had trained in something (they said boxing, Muay Thai and “martial arts”) because they could throw some basic punches and some basic kicks. But other than that they were completely lost. They were bounced around by people who had far less training under my program.

Do I feel bad for this person? Of course I do. I am not attacking them. What I am attacking is the increasing evidence that what is being taught as “martial arts” these days IS NOT. I don’t really know what to call it.

Traditional Okinawa Karate may not actually have a “roundhouse kick” depending upon who you talk to, but those schools that do; it is different than the Japanese Karate way of execution. The various Korean “kwan” taught roundhouse / round kicks differently. Seven Star Mantis has a “door shutting kick” which is like a snap round kick. Many northern styles have a swinging kick similar to the Muay Thai style. What they all have in common is that they are martial arts techniques capable of inflicting some damage.

In my estimation (which is more than “opinion”) real, “GOOD” martial arts are NOT about “technique”. There should be certain things EVERYONE who does martial arts should manifest

1. Body awareness
2. Awareness of distance
3. Ability to issue power

I was tempted to make a longer list, but NO. These are the first three things everyone should learn, regardless of their goals in studying, regardless of the method they practice. So why do so few people learn these things in so called “martial arts training”

Dissecting forms and trying to find application (?)

27 Dec

In the Chinese martial arts, people are constantly looking at their empty hand sets / forms and breaking them down to find practical application. There is indeed merit in this with one major caveat; you have to understand what forms are and what they are not… and there is more to that than most ever imagine.

Forms are NOT going to teach you to fight. At best they are catalogues of techniques and concepts for you to remember important points. They are the product of a illiterate to semi-literate population. They will NEVER replace drilling with partners in context with realistic conditions.

Another factor to consider is that not all movements in a form are techniques with application. Many are for conditioning. Many are for attribute development. At best, they have application with severe modification; but really they were never meant to be combat techniques. The problem is that many never learned this distinction. Many never learned which parts were for which purpose.

Finally, it is impossible to ignore the role of the traveling martial artist in China. Performance was an essential part of survival for these martial artists. So some of what they did was pure performance to draw in the uninitiated and the ignorant. And yet again, many today do not understand this distinction.

The bigger picture….

26 Dec

Just prior to the holiday, I took my staff out to eat in NYC’s Chinatown. They are more than my staff, they are my students. Some might say they are my disciples. They are also my friends and many are like my children to me. In my life, the “lines” are usually not so clear… at least from the outside.

I suppose I confuse a lot of people; I was once this guy associated with “traditional Chinese martial arts”.

Then I was training Sanshou fighters and my team was winning the national tournaments.

I suppose the “transition” to Muay Thai wasn’t that much of a “big step” from sanshou?

Then there were the days of Mixed Martial Arts, amateur and professional.

And now I’m a guy doing “fitness kickboxing”, which appears to many a huge change

But if you follow me at all, you know that one weekend I can be training with a Muay Thai coach, the next with a Xing Yi Quan teacher from Taiwan. In my school I can go from teaching Muay Thai/kickboxing to teaching Chan Tai-San’s “traditional” Lama Pai.

Am I teaching traditional or modern? Am I training fighters or people who just want fitness. The answer is YES. It has always been yes, it will always be yes. To me, I do not see them as different “projects”. I see them all as parts of a much larger picture.

Jin / Ging (勁) in practical application

20 Dec

In Chinese martial arts circles, much is made of the term “Fa Jin” (發勁). Much like the term “Dim Mak” (Dian Mai), which is infamously mistranslated by many, it means simply to issue power / force. There is NOT in any way anything supernatural or “special” implied in the term.

Go beyond the surface, and in Chinese martial arts they talk about different forms of “Jin” or “Ging” (勁); short power, whipping power, breaking power, sinking power, rising power, etc. Certainly, certain methods are more known for certain methods than others.

But is too much made of these apparent differences? How often do debates turn into arguments and people become zealots in decrying the differences between “internal” and external”?

The southern short hand styles certainly have their characteristic “short power”. But how different, or more precisely, how similar is it to so-called “internal”?

Tibetan White Crane (Pak Hok Pai as opposed to Fujian Bai He) is often thought of as “Long Fist” style, but others suggest it should be considered more closely related to Baji, Tongbei and/or Pigua. Baji, Tongbei and Pigua are in some circles considered, and mixed, with more “internal” methods.

In the south, where Pigua was transplanted and known in Guangdonghua as “Pek Gwa”, many feel it has acquired the “ging” of southern systems like Hung Ga and Choy Lay Fut? Has it?

Perhaps performance in certain methods of certain types of “Ging” or power is for developmental purposes but never intended to be the be-all or certainly the end-all. Certainly different tasks require different power methods; a jab is different than a snap down. But was any “fighting art” meant to be limited in its scope, tools and options?

HINT: I know many martial artists, especially Chinese, who have done what many consider radically “different” methods and do them all pretty well.

Early history of sanshou

14 Nov

1st World Wushu Championship
In an attempt to foster a uniquely Chinese international sport, the Beijing based International Wushu Federation (IWUF) offers the first world wushu championship in Beijing. San Shou is offered for the first time as an open competition with no military ties. Jason Yee of the United States wins a Bronze medal, being the first American to medal. China, of course, has a strong showing, 4 of its 5 team members win. Only one Chinese team member does not place

Newly exposed to the sport, the North American Chinese matial Arts Federation (NACMAF) under Tai Yim and Anthony Goh invite a Russian team to fight an American team in Baltimore MD. Russia sends it’s “C Team”. It’s A team is in Beijing (where they KO all five of their Chinese opponents) and their B Team is in LA fighting Benny The Jet’s Team of kickboxers. Despite warnings from Daniel Weng and David Ross that the US team is inadequately prepared to counter the Russian team’s strong wrestling, the organizers move forward. In an embarrassing display, all the US team loses.

NYCMAC All Chinese tournament
NY based promoters David A Ross and Steve Ventura introduce San Shou to the Northeast by offering San Shou as part of their yearly tournament. Future San Shou champion and san Da coach Mike Altman appears for the first time in San Shou at this event.

NYCMAC Full Contact Kung Fu Championships
In an attempt to promote San Shou before the 3 World Wushu Championships are to be held in Baltimore MD, New York promoters David A Ross and Steve Ventura offer 15 pre set matches like a boxing card. This event was the first pre-set card of San Shou fights ever in any country and at the time. The Chinese leadership of the new USA WKF felt it was a “silly idea” but now “super fights” are the most important driving force in the sport.

3rd World Wushu Championships
The first world San Shou championship to be held outside of Asia has great fights, particularly between Brazil and Russia, but the event is so grossly mismanaged by the Chinese leadership of the new USA WKF that they have to file bankrupcy and the Beijing based International Wushu Federation (IWUF) claims they will never again allow a non-Asian country to host a world championship!

Jason Yee vs Cung Le PPV
The Chinese led USA WKF offers San Shou’s first and only PPV. They borrow the idea of a card (what an original idea!) and do in fact field some great San Shou fighters. The main event is of epic proportions. But once again poor organization kills the event. The Lei Tai platform proves unsuitable for a PPV. The fighters are also asked to fight with no equipment but not paid. Worst of all, the idea of painting a pretty dragon on the canvas turns out to kill the whole event because it makes the mat so slippery that people are literally falling over just trying to punch and kick.

4th World Wushu Championships
Italy is successful in convincing China to give a Western country a chance to host a world championship. Event is very well run and Cung Le win’s his second Bronze Medal

NY promoters David Ross and Steve Ventura move forward with their vision for the sport. On this card are Al Lourieux (the first American to ever win a silver medal at the world championships) and Rudi Ott (current IKF world San Da champion).

1998 FULL CONTACT ACTION 2 Sunday, March 15, 1998
Another first for NY promoters David Ross and Steve Ventura. For the first time anywhere, San Shou is done in a boxing ring. Again, people said it couldn’t be done, now it is standard practice. On this card are Max Chen, Elan Schwarz, and Sid Berman

Battle for the Belts Sunday, June 14, 1998
NY promoters David Ross and Steve Ventura oofer the first ever official professional San Shou match (ie both sanctioned and both fighters are paid). Billy Maysonet (Ortiz Chinese Boxing) DEF. Keith Youngs (AFC Kickboxing) by judges’ decision. SIMPLY AN AWESOME FIGHT!!!!!!

While non-Chinese promoters are moving the sport forward (and the Russian are about to make a huge step forward) teh Chinese led USA WKF if floundering. It’s “national championships” have less than 25 San Shou athletes.

Draka PPV Septemer 25, 1998
San Shou by any other name? Former members of Russia’s San Shou governing body introduce their version of professional San Shou fighting and get enough sponsors to puton a pay per veiw. The event highlights US fighter Cung Le and gets organizations like the ISKA interested in the sport

Chinese business man begins “San Da Wang” or “King of San Da” in China as a professional circuit. It is carded matches in a ring, and they allow knee strikes. This is a change, actually reverting to the old pre 1991 military San Shou rules

June 1999: David Ross and Steve Ventura introduce the “New York Showdown” series of events which feature both amateur and professional San Shou.

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