Thursday, January 19, 2012

Legend and the martial arts

A long history of tall tales...

Chinese martial arts – in particular the Daoist internal arts1 of taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan – have long been associated with mythological tales invoking superhuman feats; acts that defy the laws of physics. Such myths are not only incidental to the traditional histories and lineages; sometimes they are deeply wedded to them. It seems that virtually no tale of the exploits of old masters is complete without such supernatural elements.

Accordingly it should come as no surprise that the Chinese movie industry is built squarely on “wire fu” – green wires that suspend the actors and stunt men and women so that they can appear to “fly”. Modern examples include films such as “House of Flying Daggers” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.

A trailer from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” – note the taijiquan technique “ji” by Michelle Yeoh at about 1:22.

The role of legend in the martial arts

My first introduction to Hong Kong cinema was of this ilk. My parents used to take me down to the local Chinese cinema in Kavieng, New Ireland. There I marvelled at people seemingly leaping onto roof tops.

I didn’t know that they were using wires and trampolines or alternatively jumping down and then reversing the footage. The myth was further compounded when family friend and frequent house guest, the part-Chinese Julius Chan (who would go on to be knighted by the Queen and become prime minister of Papua New Guinea), would regale me with stories of how gong fu practitioners developed their gravity-defying skills: He told me they would jump up and down with lead weights around their ankles until they could reach as high as they normally could without the weights. Then the weights were removed – and presto, they could “jump as high as telephone poles”.

I quite fancied the idea of being able to jump as high as a telephone pole, so when I heard this story I resolved that I simply had to develop this skill one day. Absurd as it now sounds, it is no exaggeration to say that it was this goal that initially led me to want to study martial arts. Then there was of course Bruce Lee’s “Fist of Fury” (I still recall how moved I was by the opening scene where Bruce is grieving the death of his teacher and throws himself onto the coffin in the ground, scraping away at the sand in a futile gesture to bring back his master).

So I can now appreciate the importance of legend to martial arts; in the pre-information age it was a huge (albeit wildly inaccurate) motivator and source of inspiration. It did so by providing awe and wonder. It was to martial arts what Bruce Lee was in the 70s, what ninjas were in the 80s, what BJJ was in the 90s and what MMA is today. People love a good story – especially one that has an ordinary person acquiring extraordinary skills. And the fact that these skills were said to be within the reach of everyone – provided one was sufficiently dedicated and industrious – was the deciding factor.

The extremely far-fetched nature of these legends was not enough to act against them. It seems people are capable of suspending disbelief in favor of what they wish to be true; the greater the wish, the greater the suspension. It seems to me that these variables are in direct proportion.

Is there any factual basis to legend?

That Chinese martial arts, particularly the internal variety, should become associated with things “mystical” and “supernatural” is not surprising to me. Martial arts practitioners who are highly efficient in movement can appear to the uninitiated, to be defying the laws of physics. Over time, small examples of how, say, an old master managed to best a younger, stronger man (even in push hands or some other controlled environment) are magnified and exaggerated until the story bears no resemblance to the truth.

An impressive display of push hands skill by an older man against a younger partner. If you watch carefully you’ll see the younger man attempting to apply a lock or a push, being thwarted (through the sensitivity of the older man) and being thrown as a consequence. It is this sort of subtle skill that might well have been exaggerated into legend over time.

An allegorical example of how advanced skill might be misinterpreted as “supernatural”

Imagine for a moment if an older master of the game of golf – say Jack Nicklaus – were to be transported to China in the pre-modern era, complete with his golf kit. Imagine if he were to assert that he could drive a ball much further than any fit, strong young man. He might accept challengers from all over the country; young men might line up for a chance to knock the ball as far as they could. He could offer them any choice of club, any choice of terrain, any conditions. In every case Nicklaus would drive the ball much, much farther, and with far greater accuracy than any of these young men. Imagine now, if you will, that Jack was abruptly removed from this world and returned to the present times. What would be his legacy?

Within a decade or so his feats would become legendary. Driving the length of a hole would be doubled, tripled or quadrupled. After a lifetime legend would have him striking birds out of the sky with unerring accuracy. After a couple of hundred years, his prowess would, no doubt, extend to many, many other things besides hitting a ball with a club.

If, during Jack’s hypothetical tenure in the ancient China, he had accepted a number of students, they might have continued his tradition. They would certainly have come to understand that the “secret” to Jack’s ability wasn’t some supernatural skill – it was entirely good technique: technique that was efficient enough to drive a small ball much farther than others in that era might have thought possible. As Arthur C Clarke put it: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”2 Others deprived of his teaching would labour, mostly fruitlessly, through trial and error at driving the ball a respectable distance. Eventually this trial and error would produce, via convergent evolution, a similar skill set and teaching method. But, doubtlessly, the original feats of Mr Nicklaus in this alternate universe would have become the stuff of myth and legend.

Back to martial arts...

By now the reader will be readily aware that I am firmly of the view that “advanced ” martial arts have two qualities –
  1. they comprise skills in technique that are to fighting what a good drive, chip or putt is to golf; and
  2. these skills are likely to have benefitted some individuals in ways that gave rise to stories of mythical proportions.
Indeed, I think this is very much the case.

We’ll never know if any of the stories in Chinese folklore about the great masters are even remotely based on fact. I can however say that in my own experience the traditional Chinese fighting systems (including the internal arts) as we know them today are generally founded on sound, efficient and highly effective (albeit “advanced ”) techniques. I can readily see how they can confer an advantage to one martial artist against an otherwise evenly-matched opponent – provided the techniques have been sufficiently mastered.

While I think the stories of supernatural powers are manifestly false, it’s at least possible that, at some point, they were prompted by a (perhaps small) demonstration of skill that seemed to defy conventional expectation and wisdom in its day. Why this should have happened so often in martial arts but not other disciplines (eg. sports) is not immediately apparent, however I think the nature of the activity in question has something to do with it.

Why fighting skill is particularly susceptible to legend-making

When comparing with fighting methods with sports (including golf) and other activities (such as dance etc.) two things should become immediately apparent:
  • First, in fighting simple brute strength matters! Indeed, brute strength can eclipse everything. I just finished re-watching the Swedish film versions of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Series. In them, the character of Ronald Niederman is said by boxer Roberto Paolo (playing himself) to have clearly had some formal fight training, but that it was as if he hadn’t bothered paying much attention during class - because he simply hadn’t needed to.3

    While Niedermann is a fictional character, his example does illustrate the truism that in fighting size and strength really matter. We all know this to be true. The same cannot be said of golf or tennis. We know that size and strength matter in these activities, else we would not have separate women’s and men’s competitions. But we still know that they don’t matter nearly as much as they would in fighting. Skill in golf or tennis is far more important. The reverse is true in fighting.

  • Second, comparisons in skill between two competitors are easily made in sports. Sports events such as golf tournaments can be conducted routinely without risk to the competitors. Accordingly the skills will be tested regularly and the performances open to great scrutiny.

    By contrast, fighting skill is not, and has never been, so amenable to mainstream “testing”. Opponents in a real, no-holds barred, fight face severe injury, disablement or even death. For this reason “real” fighting has generally not been tolerated in the community – certainly not in the way other sports are. Yes, some fighting has been moved into sports such as wrestling and boxing. Today we have MMA style contests which feature a fair amount of realism. But this wasn’t always the case.

    And as realistic as these fights are (for they are very dangerous and it would be sheer nonsense to describe MMA competitors as anything but highly effective fighters) they cannot be representative of truly “no-rules” civilian and military defence encounters. In civilian defence, even the smallest rules change the dynamics; perhaps subtly, but always significantly. This is not to say that MMA fights aren’t “real” (the punches, kicks, locks etc. are very real!) – just that they are (thankfully) controlled environments with some element of “fairness” (one on one, no weapons, certain techniques disallowed etc.) where the same would not apply to a vicious, calculated civilian or military attack.
The net effect of the above 2 points is that the testing of “fighting skill” has necessarily had a more indirect and less voluminous platform than any mainstream sport or other discipline. Some element of hypothesis has always intruded into the testing of fighting skill (eg. “If fighter X could have used his chosen skill, he might have won, but the rules precluded it.”). But, more than anything, skill isn’t easily separated from size and strength (where in a sport like golf or tennis, it usually is).

Accordingly in fighting arts/systems there is generally going to be more guesswork about the role of skill and correspondingly fewer occasions for "real" testing of that skill. It is the scarcity of those occasions that makes them susceptible to legend-making. Imagine for a moment how the exploits of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg might have been amplified if full tennis matches between their era and today had been a rarity!

Do legends matter any more?

Today fantastical martial legends can be seen as part of the cultural backdrop of the traditional Chinese martial arts. To some extent the same applies to Okinawan and Japanese arts. These stories can be entertaining and even humorous. Indirectly (and unintentionally) they might give us important clues as to when and how the art was formed (eg. references to gunpowder might date the legend at least to a particular period, if not the events themselves). Some legends might even have a kernel of truth.

Regardless, I’m not particularly interested in the veracity of such legends. As I’ve indicated, when I speak of the usefulness of traditional Chinese martial knowledge (including that of the internal arts) I’m not talking of some sort of supernatural “qi/chi power” supposedly demonstrated by some master in the distant past (or in the present!). I’m talking about particular (and clearly identifiable) set of body mechanics that manifest in the here and now – simple, yet profound, mechanics that I believe are, in my view, demonstrably geared at increasing your efficiency in applying force to your target (see my forthcoming article "How the internal arts work").

What stops people from applying these mechanics more frequently (be it in civilian defence or in sport)? Part of the answer lies in the fact that they are “hard to learn”. Like a good golf swing, they take a great deal of isolation training and practice – something fighters are often reluctant to undertake, especially when the benefits are not immediately apparent. For more on this topic I invite you to read my article “Advanced techniques”.


1. The film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” frequently connects the internal arts with supernatural skill. For example, the character played by Michelle Yeoh says to the young masked fighter she is fighting on a rooftop: “You have been trained at Wudang” (the Wudang mountains are the traditional birthplace of the Chinese internal arts). Both Michelle's and Chow Yun Fat's characters are said to have trained there. Later, Michelle's character and the young masked fighter are seen performing footwork that appears to be from baguazhang. Michelle Yeoh’s "power blow" (see the adjacent image) is also clearly the taiji technique known as "ji".

2. Arthur C. Clarke, “Profiles of The Future”, 1961 (Clarke’s third law).

3. In addition to being a giant of a man with enormous strength, Larsson’s Ronald Niederman also suffers from a condition known as Congenital insensitivity to pain, making him doubly challenging in a fight.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The internal arts and Daoism

I came to the internal arts through both the study of physical martial arts training and philosophical reading.

It was in the mid-80s while watching the BBC television series “The Way of the Warrior” (in particular the episode on Hong Yi Xiang and the internal arts - see the full episode embedded below) that I first learned that the earliest of the internal arts – xingyiquan – is said to be a physical manifestation of the the Chinese classic known as the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) – “The Way and its Virtue/Power”. I was familiar with this and other Daoist texts and commentaries from the many hours I spent poring over them in the university library (while was meant to be studying other things!). Coincidentally, my teacher Bob Davies was studying xingyiquan with Hong Yi Xiang at around that time.

Internal arts such as xingyiquan are a physical embodiment of Daoist principles such as "wu-wei" - the way of least resistance (hence the title of this blog). They use use "natural" action by "going with the flow" and in so doing exploit all the available natural forces (including the opponent's force) against the opponent (the latter is similar in philosophy, but not execution, to that of aikido). I remember being fascinated by that episode of The Way of the Warrior - not only by the brutal technical brilliance and sophistication of the internal arts, but also by the fact that they were part of an unbroken philosophical tradition that stemmed from one of the earliest civilizations on Earth.

The Dao De Jing is just one of many Daoist texts, although it is generally regarded as the "cornerstone" of this philosophical tradition. Broadly speaking, this text (one of the first books ever written) deals with "man in nature". It is very “elemental” and relatively “straightforward”, yet as profound a piece of philosophical writing as you’ll ever find.

It is still, to my eye, the archetypal “ancient wisdom” that humans seem to crave and search for (in vain) in religious texts which variously contain copious amounts of irrelevant, irrational and sometimes abhorrent dogma, passed off as some sort of esoteric “wisdom”.

Even after all these years, I still am in awe of the author (Laozi or Lao tzu) or, rather, authors (because there were probably many contributors over the millennia) of this little book of wisdom. This is doubly so because he/she/they wrote it so many years ago (the earliest copy dates from more than 2000 years ago). It does not impose any moral codes nor mention any deity. Its basic, straightforward and common sense (if often seemingly counter-intuitive1) advice is still starkly pertinent today. I discuss some of the lessons of this book (and my application of them in daily life) in my articles “Bar stools and mosquitoes: more about wu-wei”, “The sight of 2 hands clapping: wu-wei and the threshold for aggression” and “Wu-wei vs. Pacifism and appeasement”.

The full episode of the BBC series "The Way of the Warrior" relating to the internal arts and Hong Yi Xiang

There are of course many other Daoist texts including the Zhuangzi or Chuang tzu (a largely pragmatic, common sense text that also contains one of the earliest theories of what we would today describe as the “law of conservation of energy/matter”2 and some meditations on the origin and nature of matter that are startlingly in keeping with our latest scientific theories3) and the Liezi or Lieh tzu (a less pragmatic text with greater “pacifist” or “quietist” leanings). All of them are fallible and very human documents. That is what makes them so special. They don’t purport to be some sort of dogma or “word of God”. Like the words of Socrates, they don’t depend on the historicity of their purported author (in this case, enigmatic philosophers called “Laozi”, “Zhuangzi” or “Liezi”). That is because the lessons they contain are undeniably the product of considered reason over a great period of time.

I think it is hardly surprising that these ancient texts should contain useful and sage advice: They are the product of a sophisticated culture – one that was literate and advanced in its philosophical traditions.

These ancient people didn’t just whittle sticks in their spare time. They had the same brain power we have today. Yet, being closer to elemental nature, and uncluttered with the information overload today, it seems entirely reasonable that they might have ruminated on matters that we often fail to consider in our modern lives – and that over a period of thousands of years of consideration, commentary and evolution, reached some conclusions that are useful to this day. They had more time to spend on such “basic” philosophical issues, where in today’s world we are clouded by a thousand different competing paradigms. In some ways, our lives are far too complex to ponder the simplest things. For that we would have to “go back to nature” – which is precisely what the early Daoist writers could do (and are reputed to have done). They were writing at a time when man was just emerging from a hunter-gatherer world. That a writing system existed at this time in China is fortuitous as it enabled profound insights into man’s place in the natural universe to be recorded.

The art of baguazhang is, by contrast, more a neo-Confucian work, marrying Daoism ("man in nature") with Confucianism ("man in society"). Without abandoning the elemental roots of xingyiquan and the Dao De Jing, it succeeds in reconciling these with the myriad social rules of dealing with what in the West is described as the social contract. It is associated with the classic known as the Yi Jing (I Ching) - “The Book of Changes”. Baguazhang is said to be a physical embodiment of this book, with its 8 trigrams and 64 hexagrams. Bagua, on one view, is like xingyi with all the mathematical permutations extrapolated in the form of a matrix.

Taijiquan is, of course, a combination of both xingyiquan and baguazhang and embodies the most recent interpretation of Daoist thought in a physical and philosophical sense. It is, at once, far more sophisticated in its combinations, yet far easier to perform (on a macro level). My suspicion is that it is much harder to master at its most subtle levels, truly making it the pinnacle of understanding human movement in the dynamic context that is fighting.


1. I often think of Daoist advice as running exactly opposite to that which you would normally do!

2. See this quote from the Zhuangzi Chapter 18:
    “When she just died, how could I not feel grief? But I looked deeply into it and saw that she was lifeless before she was born. She was also formless and there was not any energy. Somewhere in the vast imperceptible universe there was a change, an infusion of energy, and then she was born into form, and into life. Now the form has changed again, and she is dead.”
3. See this quote from the Zhuangzi Chapter 23:
    “All things sprang from Non-Existence. Existence could not make existence existence. It must have proceeded from Non-Existence. And Non-Existence and Nothing are One.”

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Bridging the gulf between karate and the internal arts: Part 2

Introduction: isolating the essential “yi” (concepts)

In Part 1 of this article I discussed the interest many karateka have in the Chinese martial arts, particularly the internal arts of xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan. I also discussed how many karateka are dissuaded from pursuing a study of the internal arts (or any other Chinese forms) because of their perceived complexity and “overly ritualistic” nature.

Accordingly I suggested that it might be possible to create a “plug-in” for karate that teaches some of the essential concepts of the Chinese internal arts (what is known as the “yi”) without requiring a lengthy, laborious study of the exact (and complex) forms (the “xing”).1

Would some information be lost? Undoubtedly. It is not possible for a “plug-in” to teach all of the subtleties and intricacies of the concepts of the internal arts. For that you have to study the full systems themselves. But I believe it is possible to extract certain pivotal concepts (“yi”) and translate these to physical forms (“xing”) that are more familiar to the karateka and therefore present less of an obstacle to “taking ownership” of these concepts.

Starting with an appropriate “platform”

Experiments in fusion are really not that uncommon in martial arts; I hold it to be self-evident that every teacher ultimately teaches his or her own “style”, regardless of how hard the instructor attempts to keep a particular historical art “pure”.

Mostly changes or adaptations to suit an instructor are confined to small, unconscious ones.2 But occasionally there is an overt attempt to create a hybrid, and I thought I’d look to the best ones I’ve seen as inspiration for my own attempted fusion.

Chen Pan Ling personally designed 2 forms that blended shaolin, xingyiquan, baguazhang and taijiquan. He called these forms “feng quan” (mountain top boxing) using his nickname “Feng” (meaning “mountain top”) as inspiration. These comprise some of my favourite forms. They were kept secret until fairly recently, when his son (my teacher) Chen Yun Ching started teaching them publicly. I am fortunate to be among the first Westerners to learn these forms. Chen Yun Ching has invented a third feng quan form, comprising his own research and I look forward to learning this one day too.

Feng quan 1: the first of the hybrid external/internal forms developed by Chen Pan Ling

So how are these forms designed? The first thing a researcher will note is that they are built on an “external arts” platform or floorplan – in this case longfist (taizuquan). The reasoning behind this is simple: it is hard to graft external arts movements onto an internal floorplan.3 Not only are the 3 internal arts quite different from the external arts, they are also quite different from each other. And none of these has a recognisable “floorplan” of the kind one associates with shaolin or karate. The concept underlying solo practise of the internal arts is really quite different to that found in most “form/kata-based” systems.4 Had the floorplan (such as it is) of one of the internal arts been chosen as the platform for the fusion, the form would have irrevocably become more a subset of that art rather than any true hybrid.

By contrast, the external arts of China (and by extension, arts such as karate) do have a “floorplan” onto which practically anything can be grafted. They are generally purpose-built, with an eye on pragmatic issues such as the size of your practice area, the number of turns, balancing the use of left and right sides, etc. In short, the external floorplan is a superior “all-purpose” platform.

Feng quan 2: the second of the hybrid external/internal forms developed by Chen Pan Ling

As wonderful as the feng quan forms are, they can’t fulfil the brief I have set in this article: for a start, longfist (taizuquan) will be almost as alien to the karateka as any of the internal arts.5

Another example of hybrid forms is Hong Yi Xiang’s tang shou dao bridging forms, which I have discussed previously. Again, these use a longfist platform (with southern influences). The strong xingyi flavour means that they are quite linear and require a great deal more room for practice. While I am very fond of these forms, they are, once again, far too alien to serve as a platform for my proposed hybrid.

Da peng zhan chi – a hybrid form designed by Hong Yi Xiang

The platform for a karate-internal hybrid

By now the reader should be aware that the most relevant platform for my hybrid would have to be one used in a karate kata. But which one? Karate has myriad kata which use multiple “floorplan” designs, ranging from the popular “H” (eg. pinan) and “X” (shisochin/seiunchin) formations to the more linear ones (naihanchi, sanchin) to everything in between.

In the end, I am once again guided by the experience of others. In creating the gekisai kata, Chojun Miygai used an elegantly simple “+” floorplan. The usefulness of this floorplan has been amply demonstrated: Over the last 50 years multiple successive martial artists have used it for their own elaborations or experiments. Seikichi Toguchi used it as the platform for his gekiha and kakuha kata. More recently, Patrick McCarthy has used it for his “chokyu” form. Accordingly I think I could do a lot worse than avail myself of this platform as well.

Moreover, the gekisai platform is particularly useful for this project precisely because it will permit comparisons - not only with the original gekisai kata, but also the newer external creations (eg. the chokyugata of Patrick McCarthy). Such comparisons will assist in highlighting (and explaining the reasons for) the differences occasioned by the incorporation of internal arts concepts.

Gekisai dai ni which provides the floorplan for my experimental kata

Features common to karate and the internal arts

Before I start discussing the differences between karate and the internal arts, it is useful to set out the common ground (and there is a lot). These elements are as follows:

The corkscrew punch and palm heel strike

Purists will already howl in protest at this assertion! They will point out that none of the internal arts features a full corkscrew punch. And they are right. There is no full corkscrew. But there are many partial corkscrew punches (ie. to vertical fist). As I discuss in my article “Why corkscrew your punch” the full turn-over is merely a function of a full range (the fist turns from vertical fist to palm down only in the last few inches of full extension).

Apart from that, it is worth noting that taiji, bagua and xingyi all use a palm heel strike, which is simply the open handed version of a full-range punch (both finish with the palm down – what is known as “yin quan” or “yin fist”).

The preference for the internal arts to use a vertical fist really reflects their preference for mid-range fist punching. Once a full-extension thrust is required, they default to palm heel strikes. Why? With the greater force generated with full-range strikes comes a greater risk of injury to your hands. This was something Richard Norton reminded me of recently when he was in town; one of the most frequent injuries one sees among one’s martial friends is broken fingers resulting from a committed, full range punch. If you don’t have conditioned fists, it is wise to substitute a palm heel thrust in those circumstances. This is something else I will incorporate into my hybrid form.

Waist chambers

All of the internal and external arts of China, as well as karate, chamber punches and other techniques at the waist/hip. Accordingly I propose to include this in my hybrid form. I discuss the reasons for such chambers in my article “Chambering punches”.

The front snap kick

As I've discussed in my article "Enter the front snap kick" I regard the front snap kick to be the most useful kick of all and accordingly I propose to insert it into my hybrid form. It occurs (in slightly different guises) in karate and all the internal arts.

Whether you choose to use your ball of foot or heel is something I will leave to the individual practitioner; I will mostly perform the hybrid form with the ball of foot, but I'm increasingly comfortable with using the heel in a snap kick.

I don't propose to put too many kicks into my hybrid form: two will suffice - a front snap kick on the left and a front snap kick on the right. In my view this reflects the fundamental nature and usefulness of the front kick relative to other kicks.

Circular deflection

Both karate and the internal arts use (extensively) the power of the circle to deflect attacks (what I have previously termed "soft" blocks as opposed to "hard" ones). While internal arts deflections are often more subtly expressed, they follow more or less identical principles; they use either an arc inscribed by the forearm or they use the rotation or spiral of the forearm to redirect attacks.

They also both utilise a secondary or “back-up” smaller circle (what some call the “crossing hand” – a term that is actually used in xingyiquan).

The rising block

All 3 internal arts use the deflection known in karate as “age/jodan uke” (the rising block).

What differentiates their use is that the forearm is usually kept “in place” as the strike is landing (ie. a “simultaneous” block and strike) – eg. pao quan from xingyi

As I discuss in my article “Raising your shoulder girdle in the rising block: fact and fallacy”, even the raising of the shoulder girdle is a non-issue; in both the internal arts and karate this can and should happen naturally, safely and effectively after the deflection is effected and as the body is angled into the attack. So in this respect, internal and external roads lead to precisely the same destination.

Chest-level deflections

Contrary to karate, internal arts “chest level” deflections tend to be “formless” – ie. they do not have any particular defined shape, but rather arise in the context of general movement. However, conceptually they work in much the same way.

So for example, the opening corkscrew movement of the forearm in xingyi’s pi quan can be used to deflect. The curving arc of the forearm in heng quan’s strike can also be used to deflect. The final move in each bagua palm change can deflect attacks using both an arc and the reverse spiral of the forearm. Similar moves of all these kinds are found in taijiquan.

While most “chest level” deflections in the internal arts seem to combine both arc and forearm spiral, I don’t propose to complicate the form by using both at the same time. This is consistent with Chen Pan Ling’s design of the feng quan forms where he uses a deflection that is, to all intents and purposes, identical to the hiki/kake uke of karate (and which is used at least once in karate). This deflection uses the arc, but not the spiral.

Lower deflections

As I discussed in my article “Low “blocks” against kicks: are they ridiculous?” lower deflections are very useful. They are not “ridiculous” as some might think. They occur in all the Chinese external and internal arts as well as karate.

In the internal arts, lower deflections tend to be open palm and sweep around in an arc (eg. brush knee from taiji), or cut downwards (eg. bagua in the first 2 palm changes). In xingyi the downward deflection is performed using the fist in a circular fashion (eg. after the turn in beng quan).

I propose to use both the taiji open hand and xingyi closed fist circular downward deflections in my hybrid form. In respect of the latter I shall fuse it with the goju gedan barai, which also doubles as a low strike.

Offline evasion

Both karate and the internal arts utilise offline evasion; in other words, the body shifts offline at the same time as a deflection is employed. The offline movement does more than assist in evasion; it allows you to set up a counter, and enables you to utilise your whole body momentum as you do so.

Typically the movement in the internal arts is very subtly offline to the point where it is barely discernible, but nonetheless the concept remains the same. In bagua offline movements are frequently worked into turns. Karate kata turns also contain important lessons about offline movement as I have discussed previously.

There are however important differences in turning in the internal arts – differences that allow one to harness forward momentum more efficiently, which I shall discuss below. Within the constraints of the differences however there is a general consensus that my hybrid form will combine.

Both simultaneous initiative and late initiative

As I’ve recently discussed, karate and the internal arts all utilise both “simultaneous initiative” (ie. a block and counter executed more or less simultaneously) and “late initiative” (where you block/evade first, then counter).

As I discussed in my previous article, simultaneous initiative is superior to late initiative. So why bother including late initiative in my hybrid form? I would do so for the simple reason that it is essential to surviving surprise attacks.

It would be very tempting to say: “Simultaneous initiative is superior, therefore my hybrid form is going to feature only this superior method”. But that would be, in my view, pure folly. There is a good reason that arts I consider to be the most "advanced" have always featured equal doses of both simultaneous and late initiative. Accordingly I propose that my hybrid form should do the same - with one small proviso:

All the late initiative moves must bear the “rolling” or “connected” form of the flowing “block then counter” sequences found in the internal arts (and, I believe, in all but the most basic karate kata). In other words, the block and counter won’t be split into two disjointed/disconnected movements. The momentum from the block will feed seamlessly into the counter so that they flow into one another and become part of one continuous stream of movement.

In my view this “connectedness” is essential to make the (often unavoidable) tactic of late initiative actually work in a civilian defence scenario. I believe that the reason so many people today think block, then counter “cannot work” is because they are used to seeing the block and counter separated into two distinct moves by artificial pauses, perhaps as a consequence of karate’s focus on “kime” (ie. “focus” - providing the ability of a single punch or blow to be determinative due to it’s “power”).

The “disjointedness” of many karate schools’ block and counter sequences is further exacerbated by the modern “power” trends, including the addition of extraneous artificial hip movements or some sort of bouncing “sine wave”. In my view it is self-evident that these trends deviate further and further away from the ability to apply these techniques in a dynamic, resistant context. “Power” (or more correctly, force) and kime are important. But these concepts are not incompatible with flow - nor is flow (or what I call the dynamic context) any less important.

A difference that is too problematic to incorporate into a “fusion” – zhan bu, the “battle stance”

With those similarities in mind, let me enunciate one of the key differences that I won’t be incorporating into the hybrid form precisely because it is too different and will require an inordinate amount of “relearning” in order to be absorbed by the karateka.

Learning a new stance can be the most problematic part of assimilating new martial skill. For an experienced martial artist this requires considerable “unlearning”, particularly when the movement is similar to, but significantly different from, their base art.

The basic stance of xingyi (seen in the “san ti” posture and used in bagua stepping) is a stance I call “zhan bu”. I propose to cover this stance in some detail at another time. For now it is sufficient to note that the stance is, at first appearance, not dissimilar to karate’s kokutsu dachi (back stance) except that it is slightly wider, shorter, not so back weighted and the hips are squarer. After karateka make these adjustments I’ve found that they start to move into something resembling a neko ashi dachi (cat stance). In short, the stance is simply too alien to absorb in a short space of time. I’ve seen karateka labour for the better part of a year and not look “right”. Even if they can adopt the stance statically, they simply “lose the plot” when they start to move quickly. Inevitably their feet drop into more familiar foot patterns.

Now this battle stance is really quite critical for xingyi and bagua. I will explain why this is so when I write my article on this stance. For the time being you’ll have to take my word for that fact and that karateka don’t really cope with it. Accordingly this is the first, and most obvious, feature of the internal arts that I propose to dispense with in my “hybrid” form.

What shall we use instead? I adhere to the view that karate’s sanchin stance is used for similar purposes. It doesn’t confer all of the advantages of the battle stance, but karateka (particularly those of the Naha te tradition) will find its familiarity reassuring. At least they won’t be caught on the first obstacle, like a Dalek at the bottom of a stairwell.

Apart from the battle stance, taijiquan makes use of a variety of other stances familiar to karateka, including gong bu (zenkutsu dachi), chi bu (cat stance or neko ashi dachi) etc. All of these can be incorporated without difficulty into the hybrid form.

Conclusion: other differences that are to be incorporated

By now it should be apparent that the other differences will, to a lesser or greater extent, be incorporated into the hybrid form. This is because it precisely the purpose of the form; to build onto a karate-like platform the "advanced" features of the internal arts.

But before I go into my hybrid form, I need to dedicate at least one further article to describing some of the unique "advanced" mechanics of the internal arts. So that is precisely what I propose to do next time.


1. You will note that the characters for “yi” (concept) and “xing” (form) are the characters used in the art of xingyiquan (ie. “form/concept fist”), the oldest of the 3 internal arts. The movements used in xingyi to teach these concepts were inspired by broader concepts in nature (eg. the 5 elements of water, wood, fire, earth and metal) or by the specific movement of animals (the 12 animals of xingyi).

The forms of xingyi are however not literal representations of the elements/animals upon which they are based. Nor do they teach you literal fighting form. Rather the “xing” (forms) of xingyi comprise movements that teach you essential concepts for fighting.

2. Wang Shujin and Yang Chen Fu were both large men, and it is said that their internal arts were adapted to suit their expanded girth. I happen to know more than a few students of Wang Shujin do their Chen Pan Ling taijiquan in a manner almost identical to mine – except that their arms move further from their bodies to accommodate a phantom waistline!

3. Xingyi moves almost exclusively backwards and forwards, leading to forms that require a lot of room for practice. Bagua solves the space issue by practising moves in a circle, however this is inherently impractical for moves other than those designed for use in a circular context. And taijquan’s meandering floorplan is almost featureless.

4. I think that the internal arts are not really “forms based” arts. I know this might sound odd, but hear me out:

Xingyi is not about forms – rather it comprises what is essentially a selection of short defence/attack sequences (“block/counter” combinations, if you will). These are practised in a line, repeated endlessly. There is no “form” or “pattern” beyond these basic sequences. Even the 12 animal forms are really just variations on the 5 basic defence/attack sequences.

Bagua has 8 “palm changes”. Again, these are short “defence/attack” sequences. They are not “forms”. The 8 palm changes can be practised sequentially, but they don’t have to be.

Taijiquan is a series of “qi gong” exercises. Again, these are really just short defence/attack sequences. The “long form” is really just a way of practising, and remembering the variations of, the dozen or so principal sequences of taijiquan. So when choosing a floorplan for a “pattern” or “form” (xing) it is pointless looking at an art that essentially does not have any!

5. I have heard it said that northern longfist (taizuquan) is the progenitor of taijiquan, and there are indeed quite marked similarities in certain respects. Certainly the building blocks for the techniques are often startlingly similar. However the concepts of momentum conservation unique to taijiquan are absent. And it is these that are most critical in differentiating taijiquan. It is also these concepts that make taijiquan far more difficult for an external artist to “internalise” than taizu – which, while quite different in physical form, is really not conceptually very different from an art like karate. I have found teaching taizu forms to karateka much, much easier than any of the internal arts.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Surviving the surprise attack


I have been asked recently by email what it is I have against "simultaneous initiative".

For those who have come in late, "simultaneous initiative" is where you effect a simultaneous block/deflect and counter - or alternatively strike in a manner that negates the need for any block1 or deflection.

By contrast, "late initiative" is where you are forced to evade or block/deflect, then effect a counter. The common criticism is that this separates the defence and counter into two movements. Simultaneous initiative, by contrast, comprises just one movement.

Now I must make this point: I have absolutely nothing against simultaneous initiative. I don’t prefer late initiative – in fact the reverse is true. I hold it to be self evident that one should never do two movements where one is possible. Correspondingly you should never "wait" for an attack where you can simply strike your attacker.

I remember learning the latter lesson well while playing goalkeeper in soccer. When I first started, I tried to wait in the goals while a striker approached. I was, of course, a sitting duck: the striker passed me easily. I quickly learned that when you are facing a lone striker advancing to your goal, you have no option but to "take the fight to him/her". It makes no sense "waiting for the attack". You have to be assertive and "seize initiative" as soon as possible.

Accordingly simultaneous initiative is manifestly a better tactic than late initiative. But this is still subject to a big “if”, and that is as follows:
    Simultaneous initiative is a better tactic only if you have the option in the first place.
I’ve previously gone through a case study to show that simultaneous initiative isn’t always available, but here I thought I’d go through the simple physics of exactly how and why this is the case.

Occurrence of simultaneous and late initiative

First off I’d like to go back to simultaneous initiative. As I’ve said, it is a common tactic in most far eastern martial arts. It can be found in karate as well as in the internal arts of taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan. In the case of the latter, this is exemplified by a variety of movements, the most obvious being the “pao quan” movement of xingyi which has almost identical counterparts in taiji and bagua (see the first picture in this article).

Now for late initiative: It is common in karate, where it does often manifest as two distinct, separated movements, namely a block and a counter.

"Block and counter" also occurs in the Chinese arts, including the internal ones, but with this important difference: The block and counter are connected so that one technique “rolls” into the other: ie. they flow into one another and become part of one continuous stream of movement.

Examples of the “rolling” (as opposed to “simultaneous”) block and counter sequences can be found in each of the internal arts. So in xingyi you need only look at pi quan, zuan quan and heng quan.

For taiji look at "peng", "ji", "single whip" and "repulse monkey" as just four of many, many "rolling" block and counter techniques.

In bagua there are more “rolling” block and counter combinations than I care to mention. Take a look at the video below, for examples.

A video showing bagua applications. Note the number of applications that correspond to “rolling” block and counter combinations.

It is important to note that in my view all “block and counter” combinations should be “rolling” ones – connected to form one continuous stream.

The separate “block, then counter”, performed as two movements in karate, is a very basic construct for teaching beginners by isolating the individual components. I believe its continued presence in anything but basic karate kata (eg. gekisai, fukyugata and the pinan/heian series) is evidence of dilution as well as a lack of understanding of how these movements are to be applied in a dynamic, resistant context (see my articles “Why blocks are not strikes strikes in disguise” and “Low “blocks” against kicks: are they ridiculous?”).

Surprise, reaction times and distancing: the pivotal elements

Which brings me back to late initiative. Why would it be important to a civilian defence system? Why can't it be replaced by simultaneous initiative? Surely the latter is preferable to any version of the former (albeit "rolling" or "connected")?

The primary reason late initiative remains of vital importance to civilian defence comes down to the element of surprise.

As I have previously discussed, you will often be surprised by an attack - surprised to the point where you have no option but to deflect first, and counter second. But this still raises the question “Why would that be that be the case?” The answer lies in understanding human reaction times and distancing.

I discuss reaction times in the video below, particularly from about 0:54 (the video is set to start at this point):

A video in which I discuss the realities of reaction times against attacks in the melee range and why your forearm is going to be particularly useful as a method of defence.

As you will see from this video, by the time you react to a surprise attack, the attack is likely to be about 80% of its way towards you - ie. it will be about 15 cm or so from landing on your face or other body part. I hold it to be self-evident that in the bulk of civilian defence scenarios the first attack will have some element of surprise.

This potential increases exponentially the more serious the attacker is. As Rory Miller will tell you, attackers who really want to “take you out” tend to stack the odds in their favour: they don’t leave things to chance. They are likely to be armed, they are likely to be in company. But more than anything, they are likely to give you little to no warning.

Let’s put it this way: in all my years as a prosecutor I can’t recall a case where someone announced their attention and “squared off”. Many assaults I saw on surveillance footage involved the accused and his friends approaching the victim to ask for the time or a light – and then suddenly launching into an unprovoked assault.

Other cases involved “king hits” outside nightclubs. The “king hit” is of course where the victim is hit either from behind or as he or she was starting to turn away. Sometimes the person would tap the victim on the shoulder then punch him or her as the victim turned around (so as to preserve some modicum of “honour” – as if the turn-around made any real difference to the “fairness”!).

The “king hit” as a typical example

So let us assume for a second that you’ve been attacked by a “king hit”. I think we can assume that your arms will be down (which is where they typically will be if you are unguarded).

When you turn around, the attack will be perhaps 15 cm from your face. What options do you have? You might:
  1. evade; or
  2. block/deflect; or
  3. evade and block/deflect.
If it is at all possible, I favour the last option (ie. evade and block/deflect) as you have two means of defence at your disposal, both of which provide a safeguard for the other. That is what civilian defence systems are all about - protecting you, first and foremost.

Besides - your basic flinch reflex is already primed for that sort of approach, since it involves both (a) a withdrawal of your body; and (b) an outward movement of your arms. All civilian defence arts try to do is shape that flinch reflex into a productive and effective response (rather than rely on an untrained, generic hazard-avoidance instinct).

Now we have to be clear on one thing: a truly “simultaneous” block and counter does not involve any “evasion” (ie. withdrawal or other movement away from the attack - be it backwards or “offline”. In order to function as both a deflection and counter, a movement must be directed into your target. In other words, simultaneous initiative requires you to move straight towards your attack. As we shall see, this has a significant impact on the likelihood of using simultaneous initiative against a “king hit” or other surprise attack.

How possible is simultaneous initiative against a “king hit”?

So let us go back to our example of turning around to find a blow headed towards your face: how possible is “simultaneous initiative” in this instance? I discuss the problem in the video below (set to start at about 8:13 when I commence my discussion):

You’ll note that I demonstrate both simultaneous initiative at about 8:20 and the problem of applying it against a surprise rear attack at about 8:46 onwards. Essentially that problem is this:

Let us assume your hands are down (as they probably will be when you’re not expecting a blow) and you turn around to see punch heading towards your face. Let us assume that your reaction time is about 0.2 s (which is about right for an adult in his or her 20s). In those circumstances the following will be true:
  1. You will start to react when the punch is 15 cm from your face.
  2. Your arms will be more than 50 cm away from intercepting the attack.
  3. Your arms will be even further from your attacker.
In short, you have very little chance of intercepting the attack before it hits you; you simply won’t have enough time to move your arm into position to deflect the attack - particularly from a “standing start” (note that your opponent is already at maximum velocity - you have yet to begin acceleration, and you have more than 3 times the distance to move!). Furthermore, your chances of "beating your opponent to the punch" are, for all practical purposes, zero (you have at least 10 times the distance to move - from a standing start!) .

Now imagine for a moment trying a simultaneous deflection and counter. As we’ve noted, this requires you to move into the attack. And this means that you will decrease even further the distance between the attack and your face, and hence decrease even further your chance of intercepting and deflecting the attack in time. Indeed, your velocity moving into your attack, and the velocity of the attack will be added. In short, you will accelerate the certainty of walking right into your opponent’s fist.

In these circumstances I think it is self-evident that you don’t have any time to do a “simultaneous” block and counter. Your only option is to increase the distance between you and your attack – in other words, evade. You can do this by bobbing, weaving, ducking, otherwise moving offline - forwards at an angle or to the side - or just withdrawing. Whatever method you use, you must increase the distance between yourself and the attack by moving the target (usually your head). This buys you more time so as hopefully to “turn the tables” and “seize the initiative” - time within which you might be able to get your arm into position defensively as well. In other words, by using evasion, you might also be able to block/deflect.

Accordingly I think it is clear that in a surprise situation, you simply don’t have time to use “attack as a defence”. You have more pressing concerns: the enemy is at your gates. You have to negate that threat before doing anything else. Conversely, attempting "attack as defence" will mean walking into your attacker’s blow.

It’s a simple matter of reaction speed, time and space.


So against surprise attacks, I really doubt you’ll have any option of simultaneous initiative. You’ll be left with late initiative. And when you execute this “late initiative” you should do so in the form of both (a) an evasion with a block/deflection; and (b) a counter. Most importantly, the two need to be connected as a rolling, continuous flow: a single sequence but with two components. They must not be separated into two distinct moves by artificial pauses – whether by extraneous, artificial hip movements, some sort of bouncing “sine wave” or any other theory designed to add “power”.

Of course, none of this detracts from the desirability of “simultaneous initiative”. It will come into its own immediately once you’ve gotten over the initial surprise factor. Once it is available, you can and should use simultaneous techniques in preference to any “late initiative”. As Bruce Lee famously said: “If someone grabs you, hit him!” There is no reason to wait for an attack once it is obviously inevitable.

But in order to get to use simultaneous initiative, you need to get to a point where it is possible. You need to survive the opening attack. Accordingly, from a civilian defence perspective, nothing is more critical than learning to cope with that first, surprise, blow. It is for this reason that I believe traditional Far Eastern martial arts have their fair share of “late initiative” moves – particularly in the form of block plus counter – in addition to any “simultaneous initiative” tactics.

Ignoring the former is plain folly and buys into the “Attack, attack attack” mindset I have previously discussed. It also ignores the fact that “Boards don’t hit back”. In civilian defence the premium on surviving that surprise attack is the highest. After all, if you survive, your counter might well determine the fight then and there. If it doesn’t you can go on to use more “simultaneous” tactics. But if you don’t train for that surprise attack, then all your other grand theories of “attack-centric” methodologies might very possibly come to nothing.

No "target-focused" theory or "blitzkrieg-style" attack methodology changes this simple fact.


1. My more long-term readers will be familiar with the fact that I don’t really use “block” to refer to a “stopping” of a blow – ie. literally a “hard block”. Rather, I mostly use the term out of habit to refer to a “soft” deflection or parry, with the occasional use of hardness or stopping/jamming where necessary – see “Why blocks DO work” and “Why block with the forearm rather than the palm”.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic