Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My jians

Following my recent revelations about the jian, I have finally “bitten the bullet” and purchased two “real” jians.

The first of them is my lovely Hanwei cutting jian designed by noted Chinese sword authority Scott Rodell. This jian is the one I plan to use for cutting practice. Scott designed this after having handled over 3000 antique jians; it is not a plaything, nor a display piece, nor a brute “cutter”. It is finely balanced jian, that is both historically accurate and specifically designed for cutting.

A video showing me unpacking my Scott Rodell cutting jian.

I chose the Rodell cutting jian very carefully, as other “jians” are often:
  • purely for display (ie. they are “sword-like objects”, not true swords, and should not even be swung around, never mind used for cutting); or

    A video showing the dangers of swinging, never mind cutting with, sword-like objects.

  • designed for wushu competition (ie. they have blades of highly flexible and thin spring steel); or

  • intended for taiji and other forms practice only (meaning they can be swung around and are stiffer and heavier than a wushu sword, but they are historically inaccurate and cannot be used for cutting); or

  • designed as “brute cutters” with little or no thought to the manner in which a jian was intended to be handled (in particular, failing to ensure a correct point of balance).

In order to use it for cutting practice, I’ve had to construct a special cutting stand to accommodate plastic bottles and other objects. I'm no handyman, but I think you'll agree from the adjacent picture that it worked out okay - especially for a job that took me about an hour all up.

I’ve purchased the wood for a second stand dedicated to cutting tatami omote (rice bundles) but the construction of it can wait. My current stand is more than enough for now.

Why is it important to practice cutting? Very simply, cutting is essential for correct form and technique. Let me give you an example:

After more than 3 decades of weapons training I thought I'd be just fine with cutting. I couldn't imagine not having it pretty much "down pat". After all, I'd spent years doing bokken, arnis/escrima/kali and Okinawan kobudo. A lot of my practice involved hitting targets - at which I've become reasonably adept: I can impart a lot of force with my blows. Cutting had to be similar - right?

Not exactly. I found my backhand was pretty good, straight off. But my forehand was rubbish. Out of the first 20 or so forehand cuts, only 4 were really clean and accurate (thankfully, 3 of these were the last 3, so I know I'm on the road to improvement).

What had happened? Quite clearly my form was not as good as I'd assumed. I had enough momentum and focus all right; what was lacking was my wrist angle and the consistency of that angle during the cut. I found my wrist was wavering a little mid-flight. This caused the water bottles to fly off the stand (even though they were cut in half). With the backhand I was able to cut them cleanly in half without the bottle shifting off the stand at all.

So in order to refine your technique and ensure your movement is correct, you simply must do cutting. There is no substitute. Air cutting can only take you so far.

The second jian I’ve recently purchased is an antique. I have named it 金龍 or "Golden Dragon".

I think it is probably a Qing dynasty sword and I estimate its age at about 200 years. It bears the upturned guard of the earlier Ming dynasty jian, however this style did survive for some time into the Qing dynasty, especially in the northern rural areas.

The sword is a slightly "up market" village jian: it is really quite unadorned and utilitarian in its design, however it makes one important concession to aesthetics, ie. the scabbard and handle which are made of bamboo, painted black and sprinkled with what appears to be gold dust, then covered with clear lacquer. This detail tells me that the sword was some family's heirloom as well as being a pragmatic tool of civilian defence. I intend to honour that family by keeping the sword in good condition.

Since receiving the sword I've removed some surface rust from the fittings using oil and light rubbing and it has come up a treat. From now on it will be easy to maintain.

A video showing my antique jian - “Golden Dragon”.

The sword otherwise bears the hallmarks of a village kiln, with pitting due to impurities in the metal. The sword is typical of functional swords of years gone by in that its blade is noticeably wider and heavier than most ceremonial or dress swords today.

The swordsmith did a fairly good job apart from this, and the blade shows signs of differential hardening, including a just discernible "hamon". It is also clear to me that the sword did, at some stage, see action. Damage from that action might account for the slight shortening of the sword from what appears to be its original length. At 27" the blade is still long enough to be within traditional jian parameters.

Typical of many antique village jian, the sword is not perfectly balanced by any means, however it is still relatively easy to handle (the point of balance being an inch or two further towards the tip of the blade than I'd prefer) and I think the sword is quite usable in forms practice (although I don't plan to use it for cutting!).

Purchasing the antique jian has certainly made me appreciate the historical accuracy of the Rodell cutting jian.

In the end, both are works of art: one old, one new. And both are the "real deal".

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My unlikely relationship with the jian - sword of civilian defence

I must confess that my relationship with bladed weapons has been through some rocky periods. There have been times where I was highly enamored of them, and times when they have seemed so contrary to my philosophical leanings that they have repulsed me.

Specifically, in relation to the straight-edged Chinese sword called the “jian” I can say it was far from “love at first sight”. What started as an uneasy truce somehow developed into a kind of friendship. It has taken almost a decade for it to blossom into a full-blown infatuation. Let me explain by going back to the beginning:

As a young boy I had (as many young boys do) a fascination with blades of any kind. I was seven when my father bought me my first hunting knife. The memory of this event is probably one of my most treasured.

I was walking with my father through the old part of Belgrade on a cold winter’s morning. It was December 1973, Tito’s regime was in full swing and government borrowing had given the old Yugoslavia a temporary sense of wealth. Still, the creaking edifice of communism conspired to give the (relative) affluence of that country a tacky, government-orchestrated quality. It was “faux Westernism” and even as a child I could tell it suffered badly by comparison. The modern apartment buildings that had mushroomed out of the former swampland in what became known as “New Belgrade” had a uniform, de-humanizing dreariness, imposed on the ancient landscape with all the subtlety of a “Workers Unite!” poster. But at least the shops were stocked and society ran (at least on the surface) in an apparently orderly, if utilitarian and clunky, manner (a bit like a Jugo car!).

But here in the old part of town, time seemed to have stood still. The modern concrete monoliths were out of sight and mind. Breathing in the coal-dust lingering in the morning air we took care to avoid slipping on the icy cobbled footpaths and squinted as sharp light crept in between the stately, if decaying, buildings. I wasn’t sure where we were going or why. My father was a man of few words, often lost in his own mysterious thoughts. I remember it was a Saturday and everything was largely closed, yet he seemed to be making a bee-line for a particular shop in a side-street. There, sheltered between two grimy, skeletal plane trees, was one of those little pre-war businesses that somehow survived communism by keeping a low profile under a fading cursive sign. It sold, sharpened, repaired and serviced knives and other bladed implements. An elderly man was opening up as we arrived. He nodded curtly to my father and ushered us into the stale, smoky warmth.

How my knife might look today
It took all of a couple of minutes and we emerged - me holding in my hands a most-prized new possession: an exquisitely crafted, classical hunting knife, complete with a stag antler handle. I remember it being large, but it was almost certainly on the smallish side - just right for my child-sized hands.

By today’s standards it was not exactly a “politically correct” gift for a young child. For one thing, it was razor sharp. But it was exactly what I wanted - even though the thought of having my own knife had never occurred to me. My father was adept at reading my mind (even though his remained inscrutable to me).

Fast-forward a couple of decades and you see a very different picture. Gone was that wide-eyed young boy, and gone (in fact, stolen - only 2 months after my father bought it for me) was the treasured hunting knife. I was an experienced weapons artist - but one who eschewed anything with a blade.

Yes, I studied Japanese kenjutsu (Japanese sword arts) with my instructor, Bob Davies. But I stuck with my trusty bokken (wooden sword). It would never have occurred to me to buy a full-blown katana (nor even a replica). Ditto with my study of the kama (sickle, from Okinawan kobudo). And it is fair to say that while I studied Filipino knife fighting from arnis/escrima/kali, I did so under sufferance. I found the whole idea of slicing bicep tendons and burying a knife up to its hilt into kidneys disconcerting, to say the least (in fact, I made a conscious effort not to record the details of those particular techniques and drills).

Part of the reason for my distaste for blades had arisen from my work as a prosecutor. Many of the grievous bodily harm and murder cases I helped prosecute involved knife wounds. Australia does not have a gun culture and I can’t recall having anything to do with a single gun-related case. But knife woundings and killings were commonplace; not “dime a dozen” but there were certainly many.

Inevitably in my professional life I would have to survey photographs from the crime scenes showing the injuries sustained through knife attacks. There is something at once surreal and deeply humbling about seeing the human body cut up; the sliced skin wrinkling at the edges, the surprisingly yellow and deep layer of fat underneath and the innards exposed to the world. You see the vulnerability of the human body - and the true extent of our mortality. It is enough to make anyone feel a certain existential angst. I remember watching Braveheart at around that time and wanting to walk out for most of the film (I didn’t). It seemed to me that there was something particularly immediate, confronting and distasteful about cutting someone with a blade, never mind killing them with it, whatever the circumstances.

So while I’d always been a strong proponent of civilian defence, bladed weapons had lost whatever mysterious appeal they had held for me. I respected friends and colleagues who purchased swords and knives. I even admired the workmanship and beauty of these implements. But I didn’t feel any desire to own one myself. They had an element that was to me, quite frankly, off-putting.

Then in 2005 I made my first trip to train with my teacher, Chen Yun Ching. I was told we would be studying the taiji jian during part of the course. Happily my brother-in-law had two practice jians (both made of unsharpened metal) which I loaded into an empty guitar case, and off I went. In 2009 I purchased a collapsible practice jian which went with me to Taiwan (and which I’ve used ever since).

It is fair to say that until this year, the thought of buying my own real sword never entered my mind. After all, I had studied the jian with some degree of resistance. It was almost out of obligation to Master Chen that I had persevered: I’d promised to learn and preserve the Chen Pan Ling system and accordingly I was going to do it, swords and all.

In particular I remember studying the Chung Yang form in 2009 (a form that is said to be the “mother of all jian sword forms”) and thinking alternately that:
  • it was, in some respects, like a very complicated dance (it was the last item of an exhausting 8 day training visit, and trying to commit the sequence to memory felt, at the time, overwhelming); and
  • when it wasn’t like a dance, it was, well, nasty.
But I persevered. I got used to the idea that studying the sword would be part and parcel of my martial background. Just as I had studied the bokken, I would purchase and use a wooden jian - one that couldn’t be used to slice people open.

Then, just this year, things started to change. In preparation for my visit to Wu-Lin, I decided to revise the Chung Yang form. Nagging at the back of my mind was the feeling that, as the “least favourite” item of my study, it had been wrongfully neglected. Indeed, I had felt embarrassed when called upon to demonstrate this form in previous visits to Master Chen, hoping my uncertainty and lack of practice was at least to some extent disguised by the fact that I was demonstrating it as part of a group (I doubt that it was!).

So out came the collapsible sword. After a shaky start, I was surprised by how much of the detail came back - and how quickly. Soon I was teaching my own students. The more I practised, the more confident I became.

And then an amazing thing happened: I started to see the beauty of the jian. I’m not talking about the physical beauty of the weapon itself; it’s symmetry and elegant simplicity. Nor am I talking the lithe, flowing movement associated with jian forms. Rather I abruptly became aware how, when used with the appropriate skill, the jian seems to become part of the body - a mere extension of the hand.

I became aware how the traditional forms explored this feature while simultaneously mapping and addressing attacks on every plane/dimension. And it did so with a profound grace and economy that I’d never fully appreciated.

So the beauty of the jian has nothing to do with a “dance”. Yes, this beauty does relate to form; but, more importantly it also relates to function. In short, the jian is the meeting point of style and substance. The movements might appear to be “dance-like” at times, but this arises from efficiency and “whole body” utilization of the weapon.

The jian, I had finally realized, was an almost perfect fusion of:
  • my beloved jo (4' staff) - with its flowing, graceful, sophisticated dynamics; and
  • the Filipino arnis/escrima/kali baston - with its intricate wrist flicks, fast conversions and simple, brutal efficacy.
“But,” I hear you ask, “it still has a blade! What about your philosophical aversion to cutting people?” Am I not being hypocritical - like a vegetarian guiltily sneaking a bite of a barbecued sausage?

The answer to these questions is two-fold:

First, there is no denying that any bladed weapon, when used against a person, is going to cause some rather horrifying injuries. But, to some extent, all fighting is like that - ugly. The sword just happens to be the “king” of all melee weapons. Understanding the power of this weapon does not undermine its beauty. Rather its power defines its beauty as well as its ugliness. They are two sides to the same coin.

In much the same way, we humans all have to come to grips with our potential “darkness”. We can try to ignore it, but it won’t go away. In order to learn to manage conflict, we must truly understand it. And to do that, we must embrace our own violent nature and accept it for what it is.

In this respect, I’m arguing something much the same as I argued in my essay “Yin and yang: vulnerability, worry and the martial arts”. Just as in order to find security you must, paradoxically, embrace your own vulnerability, in order to find peace you must embrace the full extent of your own violent potential. And violence doesn’t get more personal, immediate and elemental than fighting with a blade.

In short, making an art form out of the worst, most ghastly, means of fighting can be a means of ensuring peace in your own life.

By contrast, ignoring your violent potential is not going to make it go away. And we all have that potential, even if it only ever manifests with cutting words (pun intended). Saying “I am not a violent person” is either misguided or a pretence. We are all, by nature, violent. Understanding how and why we are violent brings one step closer to understanding (and preventing) violence in others - whether this is through predicting their actions or minimizing our own involvement in a cycle of escalation.

I always find it profound to think that martial arts like taiji (which involve some of the most brutal applications I’ve seen) are used as a means of achieving inner peace and health. There is both a philosophical and poetic beauty in the “paradox of the martial arts”.

Accordingly, logic should tell us that a study of the most violent personal act of all - cutting someone with a blade - is not incompatible with the goal of peace and goodwill, provided the study occurs with the right motivation and in the right context.

The second point I wish to make is rather more of a recent revelation to me, and that is this:

The jian is first and foremost not a weapon of war! Instead, it is regarded as a “gentleman’s” (and “lady’s”!) weapon of civilian defence. It has not been a military weapon in China since just after the end of the Bronze Age. Why?

Put simply, it is light and small - too light and small to be of any use on a battlefield against bigger, heavier weapons.

But there is more to the suitability of the jian for civilian defence than the mere reduction in length and mass. Rather, the jian’s design is also optimized for this purpose. Consider:

Unlike the Chinese dao (single-handed saber) and dadao (two-handed saber) (both used by the Chinese military) or the Japanese equivalent, the katana (also a military weapon), the jian is straight and double-edged. This means it is not optimized for cutting, but for thrusting. Optimization for cutting requires a curve. And a curve often (though not always) 1 leads to single-edged weapons.

This distinction is significant:

The sword is a melee weapon. In other words, it is designed to be used in relatively close quarters. And in the melee range, swords can be put to two main uses (leaving aside hitting with the pommel):
  1. cutting/slashing with the edge; and
  2. thrusting with the point.
It should come as no surprise that on the battlefield, melee range weapons are best employed in terms of the former, ie. cutting/slashing with an edge. Being able to thrust with the point is, at best, an adjunct use. What makes me say this?

First, in order to maximize force from a weapon, you need to ensure it has sufficient length and mass to ensure practicability (while taking care not to increase either length or mass too much so as to compromise your mobility). As I’ve discussed, a jian is too small and light to be used against other battlefield weapons.

Second, once you are dealing with swords of sufficient length and mass for battlefield use, thrusts/stabs will necessarily apply much less force and have far less injury potential than cuts. This is exacerbated if your opponent has any kind of protective gear (never mind armour). If you doubt me, contrast a stab using a katana with a diagonal cut using a katana.

The larger and heavier the weapon, the more the relative importance of cutting increases. By contrast, if you are fighting with small bladed weapons, eg. knives, the balance shifts towards thrusts/stabs: cuts and slashes are really not the mainstay of knife fighting.3 I know this from my own training in the Filipino martial arts and also from my prosecutorial experience. Stabs are the mainstay of knife fighting, as these are what inflict the greatest injury. Knife cuts/slashes are principally used to set up, and as an adjunct.

By contrast, on the battlefield, where you would be wielding a large blade, the balance shifts squarely back to cutting/slashing.

In this context, one can see how the dao/dadao/katana with its curved, single edge became the preferred military sword in China.2, 3 The straight sword wasn’t effective enough. If you wanted to stab or thrust, you would use a longer range straight weapon - ie. the spear. Or you might use arrows (another “straight” weapon). In battle, these longer range weapons (ie. spears and arrows) are straight; melee weapons are curved for cutting.

But this leaves unanswered the following question: why would straight weapons be better for civilian defence? Why not use a curved dao/dadao/katana for civilian defence as well? The answer lies in your primary motivation and goes right back to the heart of this essay:

In battle your primary motivation is to injure. Everything is optimized for that task.

In civilian defence your primary motivation is to not be injured. Everything is optimized for that task.

Accordingly, for soldiers (who are expected to focus on attack and who are individually largely expendable) the use of a sword that yields maximum force and damage in the melee is going to be preferred.

Civilians who want to defend themselves are going to adopt more conservative tactics - tactics aimed at preventing them from being injured rather than causing injury. Yes, the end result might well be the use of deadly force. But that is not the primary motivation. And, as I’ve discussed previously, this change in primary motivation subtly, but significantly affects the dynamics of the fighting.

How is the jian used? As a straight, double-edged sword, it is employed primarily for thrusts/stabs. As noted, these do not apply as much force as cuts and slashes in a weapon as long as a sword. But against another civilian who is unlikely to be wearing any form of armor or other protective gear, how much force do you need? And if your goal is not to get injured, you will want to use conservative counters - ones that leave fewer openings even if it means not dealing a killing blow.

I have previously argued, at length, that it is this philosophy that underlies the straight punches of traditional civilian defence arts like karate and Chinese gong fu. Yes, they don’t impart as much force as a boxer’s punch; but they also don’t leave as many openings. They simply aren’t designed for the a sports arena or military mindset.

So what do you get with a jian? A fairly short blade (27" to 31" long) that is straight and that is double-edged. This allows you to thrust out at a civilian attackers and keep them at bay. It also allows you to stab them if you need to. And it allows you to cut them: just because the jian isn’t optimized for cutting doesn’t mean it can’t be used for this purpose. But remember - your goal isn’t to cut your attacker “to death”. Your goal is to not get hurt. What you do in defence should be whatever is necessary and no more. If you can disable an attacker without killing, that is preferable from a civilian defence perspective. Accordingly many of the cuts of the jian are aimed at disabling the opponent’s limbs, not imparting deadly force.

Last, but not least, there is the important matter of the jian’s suitability for defence:

The jian is traditionally made so that the bottom third is fairly blunt. The middle third is a bit sharper and only the top third is very sharp. What this means is that the lower half of the jian is designed for deflection/parrying/blocking. Indeed, my analysis of traditional jian techniques reveals sophisticated deflections and parries (which double as drawing cuts using the top third) that set up disabling counters comprising thrusts and cuts (often aimed at major tendons). The fact that approximately half the jian is, in a sense, physically dedicated to defence and the other half is dedicated to offence speaks volumes of its intended use as a weapon of civilian defence - not war.

Accordingly the jian is a bladed weapon that accords entirely with my general aversion to bloodshed - precisely because that is not what the jian is all about. It is not about war. It is about peace. It is about self-protection. It is about ensuring your safety while doing only as much harm as is necessary in the circumstances.

So here I am, after all these years, finally satisfied that there is ample reason to study the jian and, on a broader level, happy once again to own a bladed weapon or two (see my next article for a run down on my swords, one of which - my antique - is pictured at the start and end of this essay!).

No amount of horror at the gore of actual sword-fighting militates against this. Jian practice is an exercise in the study of peace - paradoxically by using a weapon that is highly dangerous. And even if you never have to use one in civilian defence (for I think it is unlikely for that circumstance to arise except in a home invasion where you happen to have the sword right next to you), the very nature of studying the most violent personal weapon (aside from the firearm) is an exercise in studying conflict.

After all, most of us don’t train only out of an expectation that we might need to use our skills. We also train for a wider purpose: art, fitness, health - or perhaps just “gong fu” (skill attained through diligent effort). Furthermore I believe we should train to understand our own inherent violence as human beings so as both to manage our own role in conflict and diffuse violence in others.

Have I overcome my uneasiness about swords? Not entirely. Let’s just say that I’ve converted it into a healthy respect - a kind of reverence. Blades are not “evil” - they are just tools. In particular, the jian is very clearly designed as a tool of civilian defence, not war. Accordingly it is “right up my alley”. While I might remain squeamish about the (largely abstract) thought of actually having to use swords in fighting, I don’t have any lingering philosophical or emotional antipathy towards them - especially the jian.

Going right back to my memory of my father’s gift of that first hunting knife in Belgrade all those years ago, I’m reminded of a saying in my native Serbian:

“The fastest swords are never drawn.”

That is the true spirit of the jian.


1. Notable exceptions to the double-edged blades being straight include the Greek hoplite sword, which was leaf-shaped. This design improved the cutting potential of the sword while retaining the double edge. The cutting potential was still not as effective as, say, a katana (which represents the pinnacle in cutting design) but it was nonetheless a good compromise. It should come as no surprise that similar curves exist on double-edged battle axes.

2. And yes, I know that the European broadsword was also a straight, double-edged sword, but its double edge seems to have been, at least in part, a product of fighting the armoured fighting environment of the middle ages. It was optimized for something other than pure cutting and in no way establishes a case for the superiority of double-edged straight swords for cutting.

I'm told by aficionados of the medieval European long/great swords that they are very good cutters and that they are much maligned when compared to the katana (which has its own drawbacks). However saying that the European straight swords are reasonably good cutters is like saying that the jian is a good cutter. They all are. They just aren't optimized for cutting. If they were, they would have a curved blade. Every sword has to make concessions based on the environment in, and purposes for which, it is likely to be used. In the case of the broadsword and jian, some of the cutting ability was sacrificed for other purposes (having two edges for alternative cuts while simultaneously optimizing thrusts). The dao/dadao and katana not optimized for these purposes. As a colleague of mine on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums reminds me, there is no such thing as a "perfect sword".

3. Other straight swords, such as the Roman sword, were very short weapons, used only if a phalanx broke down. As I note above, the shorter the bladed weapon (eg. a knife) the more the balance shifts to using it for thrusting/stabbing and the more the premium shifts to having a straight, double-edged blade. Accordingly the Roman sword was essentially a compromise, “jack of all trades” weapon, comparable to early Chinese double-edged battle swords, developed before sword technology had advanced greatly. In particular it is worth noting that the Roman sword predates by at least 7 centuries the technology of controlled re-heating and rapid cooling of swords during the forging process (which makes the blade much stronger and permits increased length and mass).

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Yin and yang: vulnerability, worry and martial arts

I’m told that there is an old Chinese saying that goes: “A storm never lasts all day.” I first heard this back in the early ’80s when I commenced training and it has stuck with me ever since.

Clearly, storms can and do last longer then 24 hours; this is meteorological fact. So what is the old proverb trying to say? Well I have always understood “day” to mean “a relatively short time”. For example, storms clearly don’t go on for weeks or months. They mostly last for much shorter periods. And these come and go. They are part of a natural cycle.

So, in times of great stress or difficulty I’ve always drawn comfort from the knowledge that, in a relatively short time, things would change. Indeed, change is the one “constant”. As my first teacher, Bob Davies, used to say: “Things have a habit of happening.” You can’t stop them.

When you apply this realization to your worries and troubles at a particular point, you will (in most cases anyway) notice that the issues underlying those particular worries and troubles will soon be determined - one way or another. A new status quo will be established and life will go on. Or not. Either way, the worries and troubles are a product of that particular point in time. They are like a storm. They won’t be directly relevant to another time before or after that point. Even if they leave consequences behind, the events that caused them will be gone. You will have come to grips with a new status quo and will (no doubt) start worrying about other things that may or may not occur. Yes, you may well dwell on the past. But you won’t worry about it. The worries of yesterday will be part of the backdrop of your life - not something looming in front.

I had all this in the back of my mind on Saturday when talking to some students after class. I mentioned how, almost exactly 29 years ago to the very day, I had suffered a particularly nasty knee injury during sparring in a grading. I threw a roundhouse kick to my opponent and he managed to catch my foot on its retraction. He then proceeded to twist my knee inwards by levering my captured ankle up and around. I tried to ride the force but, quite obviously, my body could not move as fast as the forceful circular twist he employed to my knee. The result was nothing short of catastrophic; the knee was so badly twisted that I limped for months and did not have full use of the knee for a year.

Then in 1988 during a lengthy sparring session in my black belt (shodan) grading, I went to block a kick and fractured the bones in my hand (an attempted application of the kata jion which, needless to say, doesn’t work!). As a result, I still have a sharp lump of bone sticking out the back of my wrist, courtesy of the break that healed crookedly.

And I’ve previously written about how I fractured my spine (among other injuries) in the infamous “Decadal Gashuku” in 1990.

I’ve also written about other injuries, particularly those resulting from contact, whether accidental or from deliberate “thumpings”.

In each of these cases I suffered the relevant injuries without medical assistance or even advice. This seems a rather odd thing to do from my present perspective but, looking back, I used to think that seeing a doctor was only necessary if you were at death’s door. Back then we’d bandage up the damaged body part and carry on. When you’re young you assume everything will heal (and very often it does, if somewhat imperfectly; a young body has a remarkable capacity for healing that is often taken for granted).

Going back to the subject of “worry”, discussions like this of injuries past have a tendency to produce in my present-day students a note of consternation: might they expect me to go all “old school” on them? Or, as one student asked me on Saturday, is training today not nearly so “hard”?

The answer to these questions is that while attitudes have changed, there will be times when you will be faced with challenges in your training that you would rather avoid. This is true whatever your level of commitment to training and whatever your goals and motivation might be. Training in serious fighting arts will always have elements of both hardness and hardship. What do I mean by this?

By “hardness” I mean that you will face tests that have an element of danger (ie. injury potential). Fighting is like that, even if it is “just pretend fighting”.

My instructor used to speak about levels of sparring as “soft and slow”, “soft and fast” and “hard and fast”. It is the last level that is required of black belts. It involves not only speed, but a level of commitment and penetration in your techniques (not to mention, contact). By black belt you should have a measure of control which helps to offset the danger, but the risk of something going wrong is still ever-present. This is what I mean by “hardness”. You’re not playing with something benign. It is serious business.

Even if you’re not into “fighting” drills, martial arts can still be dangerous. The next time you pick up a wooden sword or staff and start swinging it around, imagine for a moment what might happen if you miscalculate the distance between you and your fellow students and your stick catches someone in the eye...1

Imagine that you are asked to do a fairly simple trip or footsweep to a partner and (as happened recently to a good friend of mine) your partner falls unexpectedly and awkwardly with his foot jammed between yours, resulting in his knee being dislocated...

Just because you’re not doing “hard and fast” sparring doesn’t mean you’re not doing something that is potentially dangerous.

There is another meaning of “hardness” that I must also address, and that is: difficulty in learning whatever you’re trying to learn. Martial arts techniques require skill; the kind of skill that takes years and years of dedicated practice and concentration. You have to study and you have to do so earnestly and diligently. You can’t simply turn up at the dojo and “check your brain in at the front counter”.

This sort of study can be hard. Darned hard. Try concentrating on a complex sword form on the eighth hour of training on the eighth straight day of a martial arts camp. It can mess with your mind not to mention your emotions.

So now we come to “hardship”. Not everyone trains for “fighting” but, if you do, you need to be conditioned appropriately; you need to undergo some rigorous training. There have been many times in my “career” where I’ve trained to the point of vomiting; where I’ve exceeded my VO2 max so much that I can barely breathe; where my muscles were so fatigued that my legs shook uncontrollably when my knees bent or I could barely lift my arms; where I’ve sweated so much that my whole body has gone into cramps

Even if you don’t do martial arts for fighting and you have no intention to “condition” yourself for it, you will still face the inertia that (for most people) accompanies any exercise or other effort. As I’ve mentioned in my article “Why we train”, we humans seem to have two competing instincts which Sigmund Freud called “Eros” (“life” - a desire to get out and do something) and “Thanatos” (“death” - where we just want to lie down and do nothing). These instincts are always in constant conflict. We are both inherently restless and inherently lazy. The latter is always something we have to overcome to make it to the next class. This is made harder if we know we’re going to raise a sweat, or that we’ll have to concentrate on learning new material, but sometimes the inertia presents itself in the mere challenge of making it out the door.

So “hardship” in martial arts might well be relative - but we all face it. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your level of intensity in training is. Just getting to the dojo/kwoon/studio/gym can be darned hard. That is why the Chinese often refer to martial arts as “gong fu” (kung fu) - skill that is acquired through diligent effort. The term has no "martial" connotation whatsoever.

Exacerbating both “hardness” and “hardship” are myriad psychological issues: Will I pass my next grading? Will everyone else be promoted ahead of me? Will I forget my kata while performing it before the class or in a public demonstration or competition? Will I make a mistake and hurt someone in a paired exercise? Will my body stand up to this or that? Do I have what it takes to do/learn this movement? Am I too old, too fat, too lacking in talent or intellect, etc. etc.?

These are insecurities (real or, more likely, imagined or certainly exaggerated) that we all suffer. Yet our shared experience doesn’t make it easier. Somehow we all plod along in our own isolated worlds of worry about the future.

Which brings me back to my discussion at the start of this essay: We martial artists worry about “hardness”. We worry about “hardship”. We worry about a million incidental psychological issues. How do we reconcile this worry with something that is meant to “make us happy” and be “good for us”?

The answer is somewhat startling when you first come across it. Consider this address by social worker and academic researcher Brené Brown:

If you watch no other video this month on the internet, make it this one. Brené describes her own study of people who are happy and contented and finds one common thread: their ability to embrace their vulnerability. They know they can’t control every variable in their world. And more importantly, they seem to know intuitively that it is their very vulnerability that makes life worth living.

As Brené notes, most people today spend their time trying to numb their sense of vulnerability. They medicate or otherwise distract themselves so as to avoid experience “hardness”, “hardship” and the attendant worry.1

But to do this necessarily means that you numb yourself to pleasure as well.

If you spend all your time in a state of numbness, you experience neither “ups” nor “downs”. And if life is really like a sine wave (ie. always alternating between ups and downs - which I think it self-evidently is) and you're constantly numbed to this fact, you’ve effectively flat-lined: you aren’t really “living”.

Is it possible to live life on a constant “up” and somehow avoid the “down” periods? Anecdotally and intuitively I’d have to say “no”. Brené’s research confirms this. In order to have happiness you must have some unhappiness. In order to feel secure you must accept your vulnerability. To quote Bob Davies again: “You won’t appreciate light until you’ve experienced darkness”. It is contrast that gives meaning to terms such as “happiness” and “sadness”. Without contrast, terms that are largely relative lose their meaning. If you always ate the finest foods and enjoyed the finest entertainment you would soon tire of them. The finest foods would taste not much better than cardboard. The entertainment would be as riveting as watching the proverbial paint dry.

You can try to engage in a “war of escalation” - ever increasing the levels of "perfection" in your life. Indeed, this is the psychology that underlies drug abuse; people start with small doses, then find they have to “up” them to get the same effect. And so on, and so on. Such a pursuit of happiness ends up being an exponential escalation. It becomes a fruitless search for that which cannot be found.

I’ve noted before:
    "Happiness, it seems, is found not in the presence of “happy thoughts”. Rather it is found in the absence of unhappy ones."
And this is all predicated on the basis that you actually have some unhappy thoughts from time to time. Without them you have no point of reference.

So the next time you find yourself worrying about something in your training (whether it is about “hardness” or “hardship” or some other related psychological issue) accept that this is part and parcel of a bigger package; a package that can ultimately add value to your life by bringing you happiness.

As author Robert A Heinlein famously said: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” This is much the same as saying: “Find me a drug with no side effects and I’ll show you a drug with no effects.” You never get something for nothing. Life is like that. So is martial arts training; a mix of what the Chinese call “yin and yang”. Embrace your vulnerability and you’ll embrace the fruits of your labours. Try to numb it or run away from it, and you will end up with nothing.

Remember that every time you back away from a challenge you emerge weaker than you were before.2 Marital arts training is nothing if not a challenge. Face it head-on. And be comforted by the fact that individual challenges are temporary. In the grand scheme of things, they are really quite ephemeral. A storm never lasts all day. But achievement lasts a lifetime.


1. Bob Davies was a great one for storytelling. I'm still "dining out" on the many anecdotes he told me over the years. One of these concerned a young chap who used to train with us and got to a relatively high level (just before black belt, from memory).

It seems he was training in the dojo one day when someone carelessly swung a bokken (wooden sword) back and into his face so that the tip went into his eye. He sustained a serious injury and was rushed to hospital. Thankfully he didn't lose his eye - it was saved and all was well in the end (although things were touch and go at one point).

However the student (fuelled by his mother's panicked reaction) gave up martial arts training completely as a consequence of this episode.

This anecdote illustrates that the danger in martial arts training is very real - even when one is not engaged in a contact activity. However it also illustrates two more important things:
  • The student (and his mother) had both failed to embrace his patent vulnerability; they chose to deny it.
  • The failure of the student to resume training was not a direct consequence of the danger of the activity. Nor was it due to the level of danger suddenly increasing or becoming apparent (when before it was "hidden"). Rather, the risks were always what they were. The student's abandoment of his training was occasioned entirely by the fact that the student (and his mother) could no longer engage in a denial of the dangers; the accident had made this impossible.
Rather than embrace vulnerability and take measures to prevent a recurrence of such an accident, the student chose to give up altogether. I can't help but feel he was poorer for this decision.

2. Bob told me many other stories that illustrated the vagaries of backing away from a challenge. He told me how he once had a student who was an accomplished trumpeter. He was forever panicked by the thought that he might get hit in the lips and be unable to play. It consumed him so much that he quit training. The truth is that I can count on one hand the number of times over the past 30 years that I've seen punches to the mouth sufficient to prevent the playing of a trumpet. His response was totally disproportionate to the risk; it got the better of him and he ended up giving up a hobby he otherwise greatly enjoyed. He emerged weaker for giving in to his fears.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

How the internal arts work: Part 1

Introduction: demystifying the internal arts

I was prompted to write this (long overdue) article because I’m aware of the scarcity (if not almost complete absence) of decent material analysing the internal arts of China, namely ie. taijiquan (t’ai chi ch’uan), baguazhang (pa kua chang) and xingyiquan (hsing i quan).

What analysis exists is invariably couched in esoteric language (qi/chi, jins, meridians, etc.) that is at once inaccessible and unhelpful (except, perhaps, to those knowledgeable in traditional Chinese medicine theory, for whom it might have some contextual significance). Such accounts avoid almost entirely any Western scientific deconstruction of the mechanics of these arts.

It’s not small wonder then that the internal arts are virtually ignored by so many pragmatic martial artists today. Such analysis can only serve to feed misimpressions of the internal arts as either delusional or “old people’s dancing”.

Yet my own experience in the internal arts over the last 22 years has revealed them to be sophisticated fighting systems. Readers might recall that in my article “Advanced techniques” I ventured to say the internal arts were “advanced”. By this I meant “movement that is harder to learn” or “learning that relies on what has already been learned”.

And they are “advanced” within this meaning of the term. In my experience, the internal arts are manifestly harder to learn correctly than “external” arts such as shaolin, karate, taekwondo, etc. Because they rely so heavily on correctness and exactness of technique in generating and applying force to a target, you need to have their movements more or less perfect in order for them to be useful. What this means, in practice, is that if you want to learn to fight quickly, you shouldn’t bother with the internal arts.

On the other hand, if –
  1. you already have a solid base in external fighting forms and you’ve reached a point of diminishing returns in your training, whether through technical dead-ends, age, or other physical limiting factors (see my article “Attack, attack, attack”); or
  2. perhaps you don’t particularly care about fighting and just train for health, well-being or just to develop a skill in an art (ie. “gong fu”),
then internal arts practice might be for you.

What the internal arts are not

There are many who share my view that the internal arts are “advanced”. However I’m fairly certain that the majority of these people have a completely different idea of what constitutes “advanced”.

In particular, I am referring to the fact that the internal arts have long been associated with almost mystical powers. Even today there are many practitioners (of the kind my friend Martin Watts describes as “infernal internals”) who adhere to the belief that the function of the internal arts are essentially supernatural – that they defy the known laws of physics. I discuss some of the laughable examples of these schools in my article “Understanding the internal arts”, but here is yet another:

A laughable example of “mystical” internal arts. Compare this video to real push hands in the video below.

The video starts off promisingly enough: some not-too-bad push hands, some fairly compliant, but not objectionable aikido-esque locks and projections. But then it morphs into the stuff of comedy and delusion. If any “power” is being demonstrated here, it is the power of the “sifu’s” auto-suggestion and mentalism. If any “energies”1 are being expended, then it is by the students in their ridiculous leaps and hops. It is clear to me that none of the energy driving those leaps and hops originates from the “sifu”.2

I can’t see that anyone interested in pragmatic civilian defence, law enforcement, military hand-to-hand combat or ring fighting would be remotely interested in the fraudulent farce that comprises “the wondrous world of chi power”. Nor would anyone seeking "gong fu" (the acquisition, through effort and perseverance, of real skill in an art or discipline) want any part of it. I know that if this was my introduction to the internal arts, I would not want a bar of them.

Thankfully I did not come to the internal arts by way of such blatant nonsense. My introduction to the martial arts in general was in a “hard knocks” school of karate way back in 1981. My subsequent introduction to the internal arts was in 1990 via the same karate instructor who in turn trained with another “hard knocks” school, in this case that of Hong Yi Xiang in Taipei, Taiwan (a predominantly internal arts school which spawned many top-ranked full-contact san shou fighters in its day).3 In commencing internal arts training, my whole focus was on developing a more sophisticated, practical set of skills to advance my existing skills – not on mystical powers or “old people’s dancing”.

Internal arts sensitivity: one of the mainstays of subtle internal arts skill that is hard to explain, yet relies on simple physics and many, many hours of dedicated practice in formal, traditional training platforms like push hands.

In short I had some idea of the advanced body mechanics that the internal arts taught, and I wanted to learn them. I knew from way back when that those mechanics could be, and often were, couched in terms used in traditional Chinese medicine (qi/chi, meridians etc.). That this has never been necessary in martial arts has only become clearer to me as the years have progressed. So here is my attempt to couch those mechanics in terms of simple scientific terms.

It’s about physics, stupid!

I noted in my article “Hitting harder: physics made easy” that martial arts is largely about transferring momentum. Forget the word “power”, which I think is the most overused and misunderstood term in martial arts today. Ultimately it comes down to force applied to your target. And that force is equal to your transferred momentum (impulse) over time (ie. applied force = transferred momentum (impulse) / time).

Different martial arts stress slightly different body mechanics to achieve the objective of transferring momentum within in their preferred tactics.

In my recent article “Internal arts fact and fallacy: double weighting” I briefly touched on some of the body mechanics that are unique to the internal arts. What these arts stress, above all else, is efficiency and economy in transferring momentum. Put another way, the internal arts are about reducing the gap between the force you expend and the force you apply. In so doing, they aim to permit even a fairly small and weak person “hit hard” because more of his or her body mass is being applied to the blow in an efficient and economic manner.

How do they do this? The answer lies largely in a principle I call “preservation of momentum” which forms the foundation of all internal arts methodology.

Preservation of momentum: the main principle behind the internal arts

Each of the internal arts prefers a separate, unique method to “preserve momentum” – ie. keep it flowing.4,9 Why? Very simply, the flow of your momentum is what helps you utilise your whole body mass (and not just the mass of your limb or other body part) in effecting both attack and defence. In so doing you maximise the result of the equation p = mv (ie. your applied momentum = mass x velocity). This in turn maximises the result of the equation f = i/t (ie. your applied force = transferred momentum (impulse) / time).

At first glance you might think this is easy to keep your momentum flowing. And indeed it is easy – when you are mid-movement. In that case, all you have to do is “not stop”! However the real challenge to “preserving momentum” comes at the end of movement, ie the point of:
  1. furthest extension/expansion; and
  2. furthest retraction/contraction.
How should one ensure that momentum is maintained in those circumstances – or at least, maintained in a way that is going to work for you and not against you?

I discuss the concept of "preservation of momentum" in the context of an experimental kata (kenkyugata) fusing external and internal arts methods.

The problem with over-commitment

It is at the points of furthest extension and retraction that you are –
  1. most vulnerable to attack; and
  2. weakest – ie. least able to “hit hard”.
Why? Because your momentum has just reached the end of its movement; in order to keep moving you either “restart” moving in the same direction you were previously moving or you reverse direction. Either way, you face a “standing start”.6, 7

The most obvious example I can give of this dilemma is where you are at your point of fullest extension with a punch. Imagine for a moment that you’ve thrown a massive cross and you’ve missed. You are now over-committed/extended. To abruptly stop your momentum will simply leave you flat-footed, waiting to be hit. So you need to continue your momentum.

Natural stepping: a less than desirable default response to over-committment

To continue your momentum in the conventional/untrained way you need to take a step with your back leg.

For example, in the adjacent picture of Frazier and Ali, you'll note Frazier's back leg is off the heel; his momentum is falling forward and he is being forced to take a step forward (ie. his back foot will step up and perhaps overtake his front - called in Japanese "ayumi ashi").

There are those who would say: "So what? What's wrong with just continuing forward with a natural step?"

Physical unpreparedness

Well, for a start, stepping forward might be the very last thing you want to do when your own attack has just missed: Your opponent (having ducked/weaved/deflected etc. your attack) might be coming out of his or her evasive/deflecting movement while you are still in the process of missing and over-committing. In this case, you'll be physically unprepared for what comes next. Your opponent might be fairly sure that your momentum will continue forward, meaning he/she might be prepared (to some extent) for what comes next. [Given the commitment of your blow, the continuation of your forward momentum using natural stepping is somewhat predictable, if only because you will do it to avoid overbalancing.]

Conversely you will be doing exactly nothing about trying to address what happens next, other than trying to redirect your missed momentum towards wherever your opponent has moved, using a natural step. This can be problematic, as we'll soon see.

Mental unpreparedness

If you've ever gone to grab a milk carton assuming it to be full, you'll know too well the surprise (as you lift it sky-high!) of finding it to be empty. In fighting that sort of surprise can be deadly. Having your punch miss its target is bad enough. Having to make another step forward simply because your last technique failed is a recipe for yet another (unpleasant) surprise.

If (as in the above picture of Ali and in the adjacent photo) your opponent has done no more than evade without setting up a counter, you might well continue your forward momentum into a step and another punch (aiming for wherever your opponent has moved). But if your opponent is well set-up as a consequence of evading your first blow, then you'll simply be walking into his or her counter.

The problem of "dead time" in natural stepping

Not only are you "walking blind" by taking an unplanned natural step forward, you also face the twin evil of "dead time". What do I mean by this?

With every ayumi ashi / natural step (ie. a step where your back foot pushes off, draws level with, then eventually passes your front foot), there will be a "dead" period, where you fail to exert any real forward momentum with your body. This "dead time" occurs from the time you lift your back heel until your back foot draws level with your front.

Only once your back foot passes your front (ie. the mid-line of your body) does your bodyweight start to fall forward into your opponent. Until then you are "positioning yourself".

Now contrast the natural step with the "drop step" - ie. a lunge. This is where you simply lift the extend the front leg and drag the back leg up. You'll notice that the moment you lift your front leg, your bodyweight is falling forward; your momentum is being applied immediately and there is no "dead time".

The "drop step" is something I'll discuss in greater detail later, especially in Part 4 of this article which will relate to xingyiquan. Suffice it to say at this point that the natural step is not ideal for martial purposes. Generally the internal arts will avoid natural stepping unless you are already in motion (eg. after starting with a "drop step") and fully in control. Examples where you might use natural stepping include chasing or fleeing - ie. covering larger ground.

However in a melee exchange, a step executed simply because you have reached maximum extension and have "run out of options" means that you are being forced to go through some "dead time".

[For a more detailed account of this issue, see my article: "Dead time": pitfall of natural stepping.]

Over-commitment and "pressing your attack" are two different things

It is important to remember in all this is that pressing an attack (keeping your momentum going towards your attacker) is fine, even if it involves natural stepping. Every martial art teaches you to press your attack when you can and the internal arts are no exception. Once you are "on a roll" there is no point "backing off" (unless moral and legal restraints require it).

But from my preceding discussion it should be clear that not every situation will suit "pressing an attack". Clearly, if your opponent has evaded/deflected your attacks in a way that sets them up for an effective counter, you must address this intelligently and decisively.

As I've discussed previously, the very essence of martial arts mastery lies not in forever refining your ability to land blows, but rather your ability to deal with the situation where your blows fail. The former is a necessary ("external") foundation for good fighting skill. The latter is the apex of such skill.

A good tennis player knows how to hit a solid baseline topspin. But an excellent tennis player knows how to return one - to recover from a dangerous position and set up his or her own. Martial arts is no different. Being a "good attacker" is only sufficient if you are fighting objects that don't "fight back" - see my article “Boards don’t hit back” Part 1 and Part 2.

The internal arts recognise this. As a consequence they devote substantial time to inculcating situational reflexes for ensuring that your momentum continues to work to your advantage even as your techniques fail (which they inevitably will at some point against a skilled opponent).

Examples of the pitfalls of over-commitment and the lack of effective tactics to avoid it

It should come as no surprise that experienced fighters prefer not to use natural stepping in fighting. When they do, it is usually when they are "on a roll" - chasing their opponent or pressing an attack. [The other option is when they are fleeing!]

But sometimes fighters will take a natural step after they miss a punch while over-committing. In that case, the step is usually necessary to avoid overbalancing and falling forward. If they are forced to take such a step, and if their opponent has set him/herself up well for a counter in the meantime, the results can be disastrous.

Consider the video footage below of an exchange between Lyoto Machida (who I have chosen for his traditional - at times almost "internal" - approach) and Thiago Silva. You'll notice that at the 0:11 mark Silva throws a left cross that is evaded by Machida. Machida has set up a counter with his own right which is chambered high next to his head.

While Silva knows he has missed, you'll see from the adjacent images that he continues his forward momentum. In fact his back leg is still stepping up even as Machida lands his second counter. You can tell Silva's rear leg movement during the step up by reference to the conveniently located line on the canvas floor. The whole of the time during which that step-up is being taken is "dead time". And in the face of a strong counter like Machida's, this "dead time" is something no one can afford.

In effect, Silva has walked into both of Machida's counters - all because of a catastrophic mistake in relation to over-commitment and stepping. Note the video below (set to start at the right point):

Some of Lyoto Machida's fight highlights. I've included this footage because there are some good examples of over-commitment and the resulting consequences.

Others who over-commit and miss try to stop and/or back-pedal, meaning that they get caught flat-footed. This is not nearly as bad as walking into a counter, but it's still not a good tactic.

One of the better responses you'll see along this line is Rashad Evans' against Machida also shown in the above video (from 2:04 onwards):

Evans doesn't make the mistake of continuing his momentum. Rather he attempts to retreat, covering against Machida's most powerful, predictable counter attack - a right cross (chambered, once again, high on Machida's right) - as he does so.

But Machida sees this and counters not with his chambered right, but with his left, avoiding Evans' raised guard on the left.

Machida then follows with a right, and in fact a couple more punches, many of which land.

While Evans' reaction is much better than Silva's, his central problem remains that he is over-committed with no real situational reflex for converting his miss into something more productive.8

What distinguishes Machida (and makes some aspects of his fighting "internal-like") is that his tactics focus on sophisticated, conservative civilian defence-style strategies (for which has been criticized for not providing "satisfying" fights). He is regarded as a "counter-puncher".

Machida's fighting style (which seems to "confound" many) is bascially this: his defence sets him up, while his attack includes situational reflexes for dealing with withdrawal should the attack fail. Avoiding over-commitment is necessarily part of this style. Does it work all the time? No. But he shows that (contrary to what many people have argued) it can and does work - even if it requires some very advanced timing and even if it was never intended for the ring environment (but rather, for civilian defence where the goals are fundamentally different).

So at least one competitive MMA fighter adopts a strategy that is, in part, congruent with internal arts tactics. The majority of other fighters and external traditional martial artists do not seem to pay any specific attention to the issue of over-commitment - certainly not in the formal technical and pedagogic sense seen in the internal arts. [In the next Parts you will see that as part of their philosophy of "preservation of momentum" the internal arts focus squarely on inculcating situational reflexes to both avoid your own over-commitment and exploit any over-commitment by your opponent.]

Contrasting standard “external” approaches

The standard “external” approaches to addressing the dilemmas of over-commitment and "dead time" are as follows:
  1. “One needs to train to be faster, stronger and fitter.”

    This is a laudable sentiment. But it can only get you so far before age conspires to start limiting your ability. You can’t keep improving simple speed and strength forever. Moreover, there will always be someone bigger, stronger, faster and younger than you. While physical conditioning is vital to any fighter’s preparation, it cannot help level the playing field against an opponent who has a much greater physical advantage (particularly if that opponent is also into physical conditioning!). Put simply, size matters.

    Instead, I think it is self-evident that the only way a smaller, weaker person can hope to address this disadvantage is through the acquisition of more advanced timing and skill (while simultaneously doing what he or she can to improve physical strength and conditioning).
  2. “One needs to spar harder and more often so as to learn through experience (ie. trial and error) to avoid being in this situation in the first place.”

    Again, sparring is vital to a martial artists training. But, as I’ve argued previously, the “trial and error” method is hardly scientific. It tests your skill rather than develops it. Rather you need to start looking at intelligent strategies for converting your “failed” movement into something productive.

    As Daoist and neo-Confucian-based9 disciplines, the internal arts are, by contrast aimed squarely at understanding and harnessing the process of change (ie. how one particular situation morphs or converts into another).
Accordingly, the principles of body mechanics underpinning the internal arts arise from a deeper understanding of this process of change, both philosophically and physically. And it is to those principles that I shall now turn.

Internal arts and preservation of momentum

I’ve previously summarised the principal methods by which the internal arts “preserve momentum” as follows:
  1. taijiquan uses “continuing momentum” – converting your expanded movement into a retraction, or converting your retracted movement into an expansion, much like a trampoline uses its spring;
  2. baguazhang uses “spiralling momentum” – redirecting your expanded or contracted movement into a spiral or coil;
  3. xingyiquan uses “falling momentum” – using gravity to refuel your expanded or retracted movement.
I discuss these methods in the video below.

A video in which I discuss how the various internal arts “preserve” the flow of your momentum, ensuring that you use it productively and bring your whole body into play in each movement.

Each of the internal arts has its particular preference for momentum preservation, although to a greater or lesser extent each also uses the methods of the others. I'll examine each of them in turn in succeeding Parts to this article.

These Parts will go into specific detail about exactly how the various internal arts go about inculcating appropriate situational reflexes for avoiding over-commitment while ensuring that your momentum continues to work to your advantage - even as and when your techniques are evaded/thwarted.

It is these pragmatic specifics that are all-too-often obscured by layers of jargon and supernatural mystique. My goal in the succeeding Parts to this article will be to strip away that mystique and explain the various related and overlapping internal arts training and technical methodologies (at least, as far I understand them!) in a manner that is as clear, thorough and scientific as I can manage.

Next: Part 2 - Taijiquan


1. When someone uses the plural “energies” you can usually tell straight away that they know absolutely nothing about what energy actually is.

2. Nothing is more amusing to me than where the overacting (whether conscious or not) in this video becomes obvious. My favourite part is where the “sifu” pushes a chain of people. At about 1:43 you’ll notice the last person flings himself away prematurely while the two people in the chain before him are still in place! Wondrous chi power indeed! It seems to have passed right through 2 people to get to him!

3. My instructor, Bob Davies, studied under Hong Yi Xiang. Hong was the founder of the Tang Shou Dao fighting stable. This stable produced fighters like Luo De Xiu. Hong was a student of Chen Pan Ling – my present teacher’s father.

4. See also my article “The importance of flow”.

5. An effective, intelligent martial arts programme cannot focus simply on hitting things - see my article “Boards don’t hit back” Part 1 and Part 2.

6. People might argue with my assertion that you face a "standing start" when you've reached your point of maximum extension. They might say that this isn't true if you're in the process of stepping. However this ignores the issue of "dead time" in natural stepping - note my comments under the relevant heading above.

7. It’s a bit like bouncing on a trampoline: at the highest point and lowest point your body briefly comes to a stop. When you are “stopped” you have to accelerate back to full speed in order to generate any momentum (and hence any force) behind a blow. And, from a defence perspective, you also become a “sitting duck” target; your opponent might already moving at speed, while you are stationary. This means you have to “find time” to accelerate out of the way.

The difference, however, between a trampoline and reaching the end of your extension or retraction in a martial context is that with the trampoline you have an automatic impetus to reverse direction: At the top of your jump, gravity will pull you down. At the bottom, the elastic surface of the trampoline will start to propel you up. In the case of an extension or retraction (eg. a committed punch) there is no such “automatic” impetus. This is something the internal arts specifically seek to overcome with an appropriately grooved situational reflex – see under the heading “Taijiquan’s preferred approach: continuing momentum”.

8. Other examples of over-commitment abound in the video of Machida's fight highlights. They include the following against Couture:
  • Couture is caught flat-footed at around 0.59. Being a highly experienced, master MMA fighter, Couture can tell he is going to miss mid-punch, so he starts to withdraw it. However his body is so committed he still gets caught flat-footed.
  • At 1:10 or so; Couture is once more clearly aware that his punch is going to miss, so he pulls it. Again, his bigger problem is that while he's able to stop his punch, his body is over-committed. In this instance, as with Silva in the example I gave earlier, he is so over-committed that his back leg continues to step up (to avoid an overbalance). Not only does this incur considerable "dead time", it directly leads to him walking into Machida's punch (and a few more that follow).
9. See my article“The internal arts and Daoism”.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic