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.

The importance of the process in martial arts training

13 Nov

Often labelled a “hater” for making comments on obstacles inherent in martial arts training, I have often responded that I have no inherent bias. It is not WHAT you do, it is HOW you do it!

I can tell you without any doubt, I am CERTAIN of it; Chinese martial arts have a great depth of martial arts techniques and strategies.

I can tell you without any doubt, I am CERTAIN of it; Chinese martial arts can be used effectively in real fights against those trained in other traditions.

Finally, I can also tell you, without any doubt, that fighting skill does not come from only doing stationary basics, line basics and forms. Again, it is not so much WHAT you train as HOW you train it. Leading to my frequent re-posting of my now famous blog “Guidelines for Functional Training”.

But today’s blog is inspired by more recent observations. This Saturday we were training the “advanced students” here. As with most things in the martial arts, there is quite some irony here. My “advanced students” are those who have done what most would consider “kickboxing”. They have learned to shadow box, to work partner drills with gloves, to hit bags and kick shields.

In my “advanced class” they do stationary “basics”; wheeling body and “basic” fists. They do the various footwork pattern walkings. They do the techniques with walking. These are the things most beginners start off with in most “traditional” schools.

I am teaching them these things because while they APPEAR “basic” they actually contain many important, foundational elements. Often, and I increasingly believe this as time passes, they were not in application meant to appear just as they do in these practices. Rather they are there to teach vectors, how to produce force. They contain elements to reinforce things such as core use, waist power, angles, etc. They have hidden within them what might even be considered “advanced strategies”.

Teaching all these things last Saturday, I noted how few people I know who actually teach their students in this manner. I will not (can not?) say they do not know these things, but I can definitely say that people learning these kinds of drills are not learning them in this manner. Thus, yet again, it is not WHAT they are practicing. It is HOW they are practicing.

Sun Sing Movie Theater. A very, very long time ago. Yes, this is the incident my father has in his book, but this is the Unedited version. It’s the version I learned about at home and I really do remember everything, always. Peter Urban at a Chinatown Brawl.

13 Nov

Read this today, and having had a few fights myself in those theaters, thought it was funny and worth reposting

Tiffany F.N. Chen


This photo is on my parents’ honeymoon. This Sun Sing Theater incident happened just before.

I am one of those people who never forgets a detail.

Ironically, I never forget a detail, but I am very bad with names and faces, I need to talk, connect and really establish a feeling for you.  Once I establish this feeling, I will never forget a detail.  I don’t forget a single nuance. I remember the good you said to me.  I remember the bad you said to me.  I listen, trying to hear what it is your really intending to say and then I either reach that point where I trust you for life, or I ban you from my life.  It’s very simple.  I just let people flow because people always tell who they really are eventually, it’s human nature, it’s natural… We are meant to be individuals and make our…

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More observations on “internal” and Chinese martial arts in general

26 Sep

Please note: Unless I explicitly state otherwise, the opinions presented here are my own.

It probably isn’t much of a secret that I have been interested in Hsing Yi / Xing Yi for a long time. My interest has been both technical and historical, and I discuss it at some length in my book “Chinese martial arts: A historical outline”. It is not only the oldest of the so called “internal arts” it raises a lot of questions about that very term. It links back to a demobilized Ming military man who was disarmed (they took away his spear) who adopted his battlefield methods to a personal method. Even its legendary history is full of references to generals and Shaolin, not much about Daoists and such. Hsing Yi / Xing Yi was well represented in the fighting events of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, while the famous Taiji Quan players were just “honored quests” sitting in the stands.

I first became aware of Luo Dexiu (羅德修) from Mike Patterson. The Chinese martial arts community being what it is, it then took me some time to find an opportunity to train with him. I was impressed with his attitudes; power was already in the body and “standing work” only made you more aware of your body and that power, the “Qi” in martial arts was NOT the “Qi” in Daoism and Chinese medicine, the ideas and concepts are more important than the initial outward appearances, etc.

I was even more impressed with Luo’s skills. The first time I trained with him we did applications of the first three of the five fists and then the “Tai bird”. Honestly, it went over the heads of a lot of the participants, sadly so. It would have also blown the minds of many “Mixed Martial Arts” MMA types.

This year, we worked material from the “linear Bagua” of the Gao school. Shihfu Luo was quick to buck the idea that Bagua is “just” walking in a circle, and instead stressed angles and ways to “cut in half” the opponent. Among the many things we worked (training with Shihfu Luo is always a day FULL of variations and follow ups!) was the Bagua punch no one seems to talk about; Beng Quan. It was remarkably like the Lama Pai approach I learned from Chan Tai-San. And Luo commented on how it was utilizing the “seven star stepping” which is the same thing Lama Pai says.

Another observation I made was how inter-related the techniques were to the Xing Yi Quan we had done the previous year. Shihfu Luo responded that no matter what martial art you do, humans only have two arms and two legs. My own thoughts, related to Shihfu Luo and inter-related were how Bagua had long already been associated with Xing Yi and how at heart, all the Chinese martial arts that were effective seemed to all be built upon very similar bases. I saw things that were not only similar to Lama Pai but also to the Bak Mei or “white eyebrow” I had also learned from Chan Tai San. Once again I came away convinced that much of the marketing and mysticism of the Chinese martial arts has done it a great disservice and made learning how to really use them even harder.


The NSFW blog: in today’s news F–K YOU…

21 Sep

Did the title of today’s blog get your attention? Good! Now read at your own risk.

Today, people do martial arts for a lot of reasons but today’s blog is for a very specific group. There are TONS of people who claim they want to train “to fight” and/or want to step onto a mat, into a ring or into a cage. First fact: most of them will never do it. It’s all talk.

If you think regular classes are hard, if you shy away from sparring, especially full contact sparring, if you aren’t ready to puke a few times or get knocked out in a training session, being “fighter” is not meant for you. Now that is 100% fine, but only if you don’t talk about “fighting” and if you don’t pretend to be a fighter. That makes you a wannbe.

If you are in a class and you complain “jab, cross and hook again”? F–K YOU. My next response is “again? and you are STILL NOT DOING IT RIGHT“! Related: how many people who CLAIM they do “Chinese martial arts” talk a huge game yet seem to forget the tradition of doing the same basics THOUSANDS OF TIMES? Remember “iron palm in 100 days”? That did NOT mean 100 days of two hours a day; it meant 2400 hours of practice!

Also, if you are in a facility with a coach who has produced many fighters, many champions, and you still have an “opinion”; F–K YOU. Opinions are like a–holes, everyone has one and they are all full of sh-t. Successful fighters shut up and listen to their coaches. At least until they get a little down the road and start thinking they got there all by themselves; but that is another blog.

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