Recently the subject of “advanced techniques” has been debated on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums.
I think it is self-evident that there are some techniques or forms are much harder to learn - not just because they require mere athleticism, but because they require subtler kinaesthetics and the ability to execute them depends on years upon years of “precursor” training.
They might be more effective, but frequently they won’t; simple is often the best.1
I happen to call such “hard to learn” techniques “advanced”. Why? Because I think beginners should start with things that are easier to learn.
Advanced techniques vs. advanced practitioners
My comments above are at odds with the views of those who would argue that “there are no advanced techniques, only advanced practitioners”. On this analysis, the techniques themselves are relatively simple. All that changes is the complexity of the combinations of these simple techniques.
Indeed there is something to be said for that philosophy. Most techniques are really quite simple: punch, kick, lock, etc. What differentiates one practitioner from another is usually not the advancement of the skillset, but the advancement of the performance of (basic) skills.
And yet recently I was reminded that this is not entirely accurate; that there really are techniques that are “hard to learn” - techniques that are best taught on the foundations of other, simpler, techniques or movements. Indeed, these simpler techniques are often essential (or at least highly desirable) precursors to the “advanced” ones, allowing the student to isolate and perfect the underpinning coordination and other necessary kinaesthetic skills.
Consider that all classical musicians will point you to pieces (for example, this one by Rachmaninoff) that are advanced; ones that require a level of skill that is beyond mere speed and physical agility. These are what I would call “advanced pieces”. Yes, you could say that what is different is that the playing is more advanced. But I’m saying that in order to play it properly you need to be sufficiently advanced - terms of technique, speed, phrasing and expression generally.
Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor - one of the most challenging pieces in the classical repertoire. Wait till about the 3:00 mark!
Beethoven’s Fur Elise can be played exquisitely by a master pianist. The Rachmaninoff piece can too. But while beginners can play Fur Elise (it is one of the first pieces they are taught) they can scarcely attempt the Rachmaninoff piece. It is clearly a more advanced piece. The master’s performance of the Rachmaninoff piece isn’t a case of an “advanced performance of standard/basic skills” - that would be the master’s exquisite performance of Fur Elise.
A recent reminder of “advanced” martial art techniques
Last Saturday I was teaching a couple of northern shaolin forms to a small group of students. The forms are of a fairly high complexity and have a fairly long sequence (double or triple that of most karate kata). The group comprised a couple of brown belts and a few relative beginners.
I demonstrate the first of the northern shaolin forms we covered last Saturday
I demonstrate the second of the northern shaolin forms we covered last Saturday
In just over one hour the group managed to learn both forms - to a fairly high degree of skill. The form was near perfect with the brown belts - despite the fact that they are karateka, not Chinese martial arts stylists, and despite the fact that one of the brown belts had only ever seen the first form, and only once or twice before at that. The beginners didn’t look too shabby either.
So far you might be excused for saying “so what?” Indeed, this doesn’t show anything about the nature or meaning of “advanced”. It’s the next bit that provides the relevant contrast.
Because after the northern forms, I tried to get the same students to learn the little xingyi sequence below - and then to apply it in a 2 person setting...
The destructive cycle of xingyi - the 5 elements arranged into a sequence that can be applied in a 2 person setting. It might look familiar enough to karateka and other traditional martial artists, but it is surprisingly hard for students to perform correctly.
The result was, quite simply, unsatisfactory. The form was no where near right. I’m not saying this to be critical. It is just a fact. The movement looks easy and familiar. But it is far from that. In order to do this sequence and its techniques properly, you need years and years of training in more “foundational” xingyi (namely the “basics” known as the 5 elements) and, generally, martial movement.
Only once the form of the 5 elements is attained (at least to a reasonable extent) is it practicable to move to this little form. That is because this form assumes that you are familiar with the 5 elements; familiar enough to apply them in a more dynamic environment.2 The footwork alone is surprisingly difficult. It is next to impossible for a student to focus on, and perfect, the footwork if he or she can’t even do the macro movements of the 5 elements. There are simply too many things happening at once. It’s a bit like trying to learn to run before you can even walk.
By all means, try this sequence yourselves. Even some xingyi practitioners can’t do the footwork properly. I remember struggling with it for many years, so I understand why.
So there’s a good reason I haven’t yet filmed the 2 person version of this drill: as yet I don’t have any associates/students here in Perth who can do the techniques (especially the footwork) comprising this drill at least as well as I can.
At the very least, last Saturday made me realise the importance of doing the xingyi basics (the 5 elements) for significantly longer before we return to this 2 person drill. My students really aren’t ready. Their building blocks are all wrong - so the “house” is totally unstable. The drill is, quite simply, too advanced for them at this stage.
The relative complexity of xingyi
I think there is a tendency in karate and shaolin, for example, to make assumptions about the nature of “advanced” because karate and shaolin have relatively few building blocks and they don’t vary much from beginner kata/xing to the so-called “highest” ones. The building blocks of karate and shaolin are fairly common, making the lesson I taught more about learning a new sequence - not about learning new concepts.
The same is not necessarily true for the internal arts which are generally “harder to master” (even on a macro level) than karate and shaolin. This is particularly so in the case of xingyi.
My last observation might seem strange to some, as xingyi is sequentially so much simpler than its “cousin” arts of bagua and taiji. Many of my karate colleagues have said that it looks very much “like karate”. And on some levels it is - but on others it isn’t.
Is xingyi “more advanced” than taiji or bagua? I’m not sure about that. Bagua and taiji have their own complexities and subtleties. I suspect that while they are easier to perform on a macro level, they are a lot harder to master completely - and apply in combat. But either way, xingyi is, in my opinion, an art that is very difficult to learn.
When we do xingyi with my instructor, Chen Yun Ching, it is common to hear groans amongst the students. And Master Chen will “tsk tsk” and shake his head through the entire lesson. Master Chen has even expressed concern that xingyi might well die out one day because there are too few people who want to learn it.
It is important to note that while the training with Master Chen frequently involves time constraints and the attendant frustrations, in respect of xingyi this is rarely the issue. Year after year I see the same basic 5 elements being covered - because we still haven’t come close to looking good while doing it. It’s just hard stuff. I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain it much better than that, but I’ll try to give at least some sort of outline of the issues.3
Complexity in combinations vs. complexity in form
The xingyi drill to which I refer is analogous to “combinations” of musical notes comprising an “advanced piece” (as per the Rachmaninoff example). But from the preceding discussion it should be clear that it is not just the combination that makes such a piece difficult. Rather it is the form of the piece - ie. the manner and context in which the individual “notes” are executed - that determines its “complexity” and hence its “advanced” nature.
Consider that each of the 5 elements is short - a block and counter. Why is it so hard for students to learn them? We’re not talking a complex sequence - we’re talking 2 movements (block and counter) for each element. The combination of 5 elements (ie. 5 different block/counter sequences) in this drill just adds another layer of difficulty for them. But the first hurdle they can’t overcome is the correct performance of the individual elements. Following the musical analogy, there are only a few “notes” to be played - yet the way in which they must be played requires a much higher level of technical skill in order for the playing to be “correct” or “effective”.
In the case of the xingyi drill, students initially can’t do a proper pi quan (the first element which occurs as the opening move of the drill at 0:14, 0:21, 0:25, 0:29 and 0:34 - wherever I’m heard to say “one, two”). So it shouldn’t be a surprise that they can’t perform a pi quan in combination with zuan quan, beng quan, pao quan and heng quan (the other elements) - together with the correct “shifting” footwork required by the drill.2
So what is it about the xingyi drill and the Rachmaninoff piece that makes their form “complex” and hence “advanced” (relative to, say, karate and Fur Elise respectively)? The answer lies in the concepts being introduced.
Let us consider for a moment some of the concepts introduced by xingyi and their comparison to an art like karate. One might be forgiven for assuming that the principles are very similar if not identical.
Pi quan, for example, is a chopping action. Yes, it is executed with the palm rather than the heel of the palm (as per a karate “shuto” or knife hand chop). But surely that isn’t really a major distinction? And to the extent that one might argue that there are very particular details about its execution, aren’t these simply “formal” requirements that exist in all traditional techniques, including in karate? As my friend Quint says:
- “A parallel example might be the exacting features of a proper seiken (basic punch) - drawing the hikite (pullback/chamber), the turning of the hand, elbow downward, shoulders down, tightening the lats, first two knuckles, hip girdle square with shoulders and firmly set, front knee dropping and back leg settling/squaring to brace and support (among a number of other factors).”
Yes, I can tell Quint that pi quan’s “pull-back hand” must create an arc in the shoulders, that the lead hand descends with the index knuckle closest to the palm being in prominence etc. I can tell him that the hand and foot must finish at exactly the same moment and that your back foot shuffles up and stamps a millisecond later. None of this sounds very difficult or remarkable when explained on paper.
But in the end I can only explain the pi quan details with the help of multiple essays - or by teaching someone the technique and demonstrating applications (and how the details are important to effecting the applications). One can only feel how much harder it is to get pi quan right than a basic punch by trying it.
Fidelity to form vs. fidelity to concept
Clearly one can teach formal techniques with such myriad fine technical details - but how do we know that those details aren’t just formal, “artificial” constructs that don’t really affect the technique’s application? As Quint put it:
- “You could sing Nessun dorma or play a Rachmaninoff or Bach fugue and do it more or less correctly but without a certain arguably necessary element, and to the extent that some would say you were not doing it, but that also becomes an artificial qualification rather than a natural one. Just the same, you could do a technique and have it “work,” but not fulfill the basic movement principles of your art...
You might be doing the pi quan and succeeding by a natural evaluation (did it strike home and do damage) but not the artificial one (was it a fully correctly executed pi quan according to the principles of xing yi). I would agree that no, you are not doing a seiken if you are not fulfilling the rigid categories which are defined by the elements we’ve been describing. These artificial assessments are based on prescriptive rules, though those rules come out of an exacting look into the nature of the body. While you can succeed at the technique in broad objective terms, you might fail by highly valid subjective terms.
I get occasional flak from those who my friend Martin Watts has described as “infernal internals”. They say things like: “Your jins are corrupted with karate” etc. I think this is because they perceive my movement not to have sufficient fidelity in appearance and minor detail to their teachers’. I’m not troubled by this lack of formal fidelity; I’m more interested in the successful application of the technique. Hence my xingyi looks (to their eyes) “unauthentic”. My focus is however on whether the technique works, not on whether it “looks the part”.4
There is no question that someone could sing Nessun dorma, do it badly and still be singing Nessun dorma. That’s what last Saturday’s xingyi was like. But if you asked me whether it was being done to a remotely satisfactory standard, I’d say “no”. Ditto with a karaoke singer trying Nessun dorma. You need to have a tenor voice and you need to have considerable control to do a “passable” job.
Because martial arts are more goal directed, the “passable” element becomes more critical. If you attempt a xingyi move and you don’t do it “passably” it will collapse. The techniques rely on very, very fine angles and tangents of both deflection and counter. You might attack those angles and tangents with another, similar, move from karate etc. but you won’t be doing xingyi. It will invoke a different concept.
Consider “heng quan” (crossing fist) from the previous video at 0:18, 0:24, 0:28, 0:32 (wherever I’m heard to say “six, seven”). This technique is the hardest of the 5 elements. Karateka who attempt it invariably default to a crossing block (ie. soto uke) followed by a chudan uke or chest block. This is what I did for many years. This is completely at odds with the intended application of heng quan. You might still succeed in blocking and countering the relevant attack, but you won’t be doing so using the xingyi concept - you’ll be doing a completely different (karate) concept.
It’s as if you slid from Nessun dorma to the The Last Post mid song. Yes, The Last Post is a moving tune and some notes are similar to Nessun dorma. But it is clearly a totally different piece.
It is also apposite to note that soto/chudan uke is not an ideal response in the circumstances in which heng quan is used: Heng quan contains a counter strike as well as being a deflection all in one - however it is a risky tactic that only works with certain safeguards that are commonly left out in a bad performance). You can see the problem of heng quan at 1:39 below (although I’m not sure if the “safeguard” is entirely obvious in this video because of how “chopped up” the performance is). 5
A video in which I expand upon the use of xingyi’s 5 elements against each other in what is known as the “destructive cycle”.
So I don’t think it is a good analogy to say that you’re ended up with a “half-formed seiken (punch)”. I think a more apt analogy is that you’ve been asked to do a seiken, but you’ve ended up with a half-formed uraken (backfist).
Building on past knowledge
In my view, more experienced traditional martial arts students have a much higher likelihood of learning xingyi properly. Brand new beginners or even intermediate students just make a total hash of it and keep doing so for much longer than those who have years of solid traditional martial arts behind them. It’s true that the experienced students might have to “unlearn” a few things - but the bulk of what they know is still used.
I think xingyi movements rely upon having the common building blocks of traditional martial arts “down-pat” - and then taking the movement in another (subtle) direction entirely. I’ve previously likened this to “rewiring the brain” - except that much of the existing wiring can and should be used.6
In the absence of previous experience, a beginner will simply have to spend a great deal more time executing the basics of xingyi before he or she is ready to apply them effectively. As I’ve previously noted, it is common in the internal arts to speak in terms of years (if not decades) before you can “leave the training hall” (ie. actually use your techniques effectively).
It is for this reason that in our school, the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts (in Perth Western Australia) we have adopted a “sequentially relativistic” syllabus - one where you start with “external” skills that are easier to learn and progress to the more “advanced” “internal” ones.
It seems to me that there is something to the concept of “advanced” if by that we mean “movement that is harder to learn” or “learning that relies on what has already been learned”.
Xingyi is just the first example of this that came to mind because of last Saturday’s training: there have been many other times in my career where I have encountered techniques or concepts that relied upon earlier ones being truly “cemented” before the new ones could be absorbed. Not only has my study of the internal arts been rich with such experiences, but it is safe to say that I have felt this in every discipline - within karate, arnis/escrima/kali, grappling... you name it.
I hold it to be self-evident that “advanced” techniques exist. Is it necessary to learn such “advanced” techniques? Arguably, no.1 But just as a musician might want to attempt an advanced piece for any number of reasons - the expansion of skill for its own sake being just one - most martial artists will one day reach a point where practising the same basic material becomes boring and produces diminishing returns.
And I practise martial arts for a variety of reasons - civilian defence being just one. I want to continue to be challenged - and not just by advancing age.
I have found arts like xingyi have not only expanded my repertoire, they have expanded my mind.
But irrespective of your goals, it is still true to say that certain techniques require greater technical expertise to effect - particularly in a dynamic, resistant environment. They are, by their very nature, therefore “advanced” and should not be bothered with by someone who wants “quick results" but still has a long way to go with more “basic” material (which might be all they will ever need anyway).
On the other hand, those who are in it “for the long run” can take their time acquiring the requisite “advanced” skill, being sure to approach it by isolating that skill in its most basic context (eg. the 5 elements of xingyi) before moving to a more complex, dynamic context (eg. the destructive cycle drill to which I refer in this article).
If that sounds like common sense, maybe it is. But it should nonetheless serve as a useful guide to those who might feel the urge to “skip the basics and get to the ‘good stuff’”. It’s all good stuff - in its own good time.
1. Are “advanced techniques” better than “basic” ones? Almost certainly the answer is no. Let’s just say that the pragmatic nature of fighting means that simple is often the best. And if you can do something simple very well, then something complex is often unnecessary. I see “advanced” as something you move to when you’ve reached a point of diminishing returns in practising foundational stuff over and over again. This is true in music too. The Rachmaninoff concerto to which I refer above is not “better” than Fur Elise. It is however more challenging; it is a more advanced piece.
2. Note that the particular sequence might be my own creation, but the individual movements and footwork are not - they are entirely xingyi as taught by my first teacher Bob Davies and my current teacher Chen Yun Ching, albeit that the footwork is an extrapolation of that found in other contexts.
3. I can tell you more or less exactly what it is that makes xingyi hard for beginners (I’ve previously discussed just one of the “lesser” elements - timing the front foot landing and the punch during stepping. But you need to experience the movement yourself and try to get it right. Only then can you understand what is so “hard” about it. Then you need to get the movement more or less right.
So I can tell you about the xingyi - I can go into exhaustive detail about timing the footwork with the arm movements, the nuance of the stance, the control of hip movement during stepping etc. I will almost certainly do this in my blog in future articles. But this is unlikely to add clarity to this debate in the absence of a shared experience. And the information won’t help in understanding other examples.
4. I’m very fortunate that while my teacher Chen Yun Ching is very pedantic about form, he is more concerned with correct application of principle. Hence even though I might not have “classical form” he has granted me an instructor’s licence in his system (and I’m one of only a dozen or so who presently share this honour).
5. In heng quan the body withdraws in a “ribbon-like” fashion as you execute the first part (a deflection), then “whips back” with the second with a curving strike. This avoids the pitfalls inherent when you are on the inside facing a second or third attack.
6. For example, a good, experienced karateka can “reuse” all of his or her knowledge. And should. Some “infernal internals” are likely to disagree with me here, but then again, I’m equally likely to think they live in a fantasy world of “jins” and “qi power”.
Copyright © 2011 Dejan Djurdjevic