Monday, July 29, 2013

Seipai 2 person form: passing on the knowledge

Bob demonstrates the applications shown in my video.
A few years ago my friend Jim asked the following question on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums:
"I think I'm right in saying there is not 1 authentic, traditional Okinawan 'form' that has a complete 2 man Bunkai in existence?"
 Jesse Enkamp replied with this answer:
"One word: Seipai!" 
I think Jesse-san was right in this (and also about the fact that, as he said, it wasn't the only one!).

That said, I also think it is quite rare for Okinawan and Chinese kata to envisage or even permit a literal 2 person application; to my mind most forms were created entirely for single person performance - bearing in mind that such things as embusen (floor pattern), repetition of certain sequences, etc. make a literal 2 person application unlikely.

You can't see the detail, but my right arm is trapped.
However occasionally, just occasionally, you get a significant portion of a kata that clearly is meant to work as a literal 2 person form.

You'll notice I refer to a "significant portion" not "entire" - because even seipai kata doesn't appear to be designed for literal 2 person application from start to finish.  For example, certain repetitions of sequences are clearly there to "balance" the use of left and right sides - and these repetitions are really quite incompatible with the notion of a literal 2 person form.

But certainly, the opening sequence up to approximately the mid point of seipai is consistent with a literal 2 person application.

As Jesse went on to say:
"I mean, it flows (almost) effortlessly if you try it out with a person in a grappling fashion (hint: the gedan teisho uke-chudan haishu uke-shuto combination is not against a kick and and then punch...  ) Am I the only one who does this ?!   
It looks very much like this Qin-na set in many parts:"

If you watch Jesse's version below, you'll see that it does indeed resemble the above drill in certain respects.  However, with the greatest of respect to the marvellous and thought-provoking Jesse, I cannot agree with some of the techniques used in his form - nor in many others that I have seen of a similar ilk.

I remember this kick!
As I recently discussed, I believe that any interpretation of grappling in arts like karate should follow the principles civilian defence arts - in particular that of actively addressing the risk of being tied up and taken to the ground.

This is certainly my experience of training in Chinese grappling systems (qin-na) of the kind shown in the above video.  It stands in strong contrast to the approach adopted in grappling arts proper (like jujutsu).

Unfortunately none of the 2 person seipai forms I've been shown addresses (at least entirely) the "ground-negating" issue.  Nor do any of them fit my own understanding of the individual movements of seipai - at least in the detail (although some, like Jesse's, come close).

So I recently decided to go over my own tapes of seipai instruction from my sensei Bob Davies from the 80s.  And while I'd known the demonstrated applications for more than quarter of a century, watching them in sequence made me see them in a new light: in a matter of seconds it occurred to me that they could indeed be strung together in a totally seamless way to produce a 2 person drill for at least part of the form.

(Wouldn't you know, I'm still mining the depths of that man's encyclopedic knowledge!)

Accordingly, what follows below isn't a literal drill shown to me by Bob; but it does fit together each of the applications he showed us back in 1988:

As many of you know, our school (the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts) ties a grappling drill (tuide bunkai) to most of the kata.  In most cases, these have not followed the literal sequence of the kata.  As I've previously noted, the utility of 2 person drills lies not in their fidelity to the exact sequence of the original form (which can result in matching movement for the sake of it) but rather in terms of the value they add.

Bob gets ready to apply that nasty arm bar.
Once more, to quote Hinori Otsuka, founder of Wado Ryu:
"It is obvious that these kata must be trained and practised sufficiently, but one must not be 'stuck' in them. One must withdraw from the kata to produce forms with no limits or else it becomes useless. It is important to alter the form of the trained kata without hesitation to produce countless other forms of training."

However in this case Jesse was correct - seipai can indeed be followed in its literal sequence for two person application (at least up to the throw and possibly afterwards - I know Bob Davies showed us a 2 person "striking/blocking" embu that went right to the end, although it was a bit different in the beginning to this drill).

Ooh - I remember also  what happened next.
Please note that I include the stills of Bob because I don't feel at liberty to include the actual video, which was private (however I'm sure a few blurry pictures are not in breach of our agreement all those years ago!).

I mainly include them to show that the above drill isn't really "my creation":

In fact, there is really nothing "new under the sun".  As near as I can tell, practically every bit of martial and other human knowledge is already out there somewhere on the internet.

As I discussed recently, there are no real "secrets".  There is only information.  And I feel the only challenge worth undertaking in this internet age is to make good information stand out against the din of misinformation.

Apart from Jesse, others have shown me their own drills in confidence so I can't show them to you for the purposes of making direct comparisons (noting where I think they've got things wrong).  However if I could, I'm confident you'd agree that what I've freely given here covers any of their "secrets" - and more.

It might be a poor "commercial" decision to give away hard-earned information (hard earned, that is, in monetary terms as well as in terms of literal blood, sweat and tears), but it feels "right" anyway.  After all, as Cat Stevens famously sang: "I might die tonight".  What point would there be in the accumulation of my various teachers' knowledge in me if I did not pass it on - to as many interested people as possible?  Martial knowledge of this kind is not "dangerous weapon" after all: it is an investment - one few people (statistically speaking) are willing to make.

Besides - it's not as if I'm about to run out of things to show and write about.  After 5 years of blogging and almost 300 articles, I'm still only scratching the surface of what I've been shown.  And I keep being shown new things!


Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Friday, July 19, 2013

Channan vs. pinan/heian

Gichin Funakoshi in the 1930s
The pinan or heian series of karate kata are among the most widely practised in the world today - largely thanks to the efforts of Gichin Funakoshi in popularising karate in Japan in the 1930s and onward and later that of his organisation, the Japanese Karate Association (JKA) in spreading karate (specifically, Funakoshi's shotokan style) throughout the world.

The 5 heian kata of shotokan are substantially the same as the "original" series, apart from 2 main differences:
  • they were "renamed" from the original "pinan" to "heian"; and
  • the order of the first two kata was reversed.
Other minor technical differences abound but, I would argue, no more so than as between any schools of karate in the shorin tradition today.

So who created the "original" 5 pinan?  Are they based on some traditional Chinese form?

It is commonly agreed that the author of the 5 pinan was karate master Yasutsune "Anko" Itosu (1832-1915) and that they were created in the early 1900s for teaching within the Okinawan school system.

If you look at this series of kata, you see that they contain many of the movements or principles from more "advanced" kata such as kusanku - albeit stripped down to "stem cell movements".  In other words, it seems that the 5 pinan were an attempt to create "simpler" more "elemental" kata for teaching younger students in a school setting - and that is all.

By contrast, there are many who would insist on cloaking these 5 basic kata in some sort of "mystique".  And there is no better way to create such mystique than by suggesting that these kata are based on an older, "lost" kata: perhaps some Chinese form that held innumerable secrets, many (most?) of which were stripped out in the process of simplification for teaching schoolchildren.

It is in this context that the "lost channan myth" rears its head.

"Lost channan" is like one of those rumours that starts with a half-remembered anecdote, then morphs into a well-known apocryphal tale.  Mark Bishop records a number of such tales in his book "Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques".1  One is that Itosu learned a form called "chiang nan" from a shipwrecked Chinese sailor - a form he then divided up into the 5 pinan.  There is really nothing to corroborate such a fantastical story.

Anko Itosu
Another story Bishop relates is that the kata came from someone named "Annan" - or someone who came from a Chinese location/town by that name.  Some tales (related by other commentators) go further to suggest that Itosu's teacher might even have been named "Channan".2

Again, there is nothing to corroborate the existence of any martial arts master from, or known as, "Annan" or "Channan".

So what do we know about the origin of the pinan kata?  Precious little.  But what little we do know is, I think, consistent with the observation that they were entirely Itosu's invention - not a derivation of any existing form.

One of the few scraps of information we actually have regarding pinan/channan comes from a 1934 karate research journal "Karate no Kenkyu" in which Choki Motobu is quoted as follows:
"I visited him [Itosu] one day at his home near the school, where we sat talking about the martial arts and current affairs. While I was there, 2-3 students also dropped by and sat talking with us. Itosu Sensei turned to the students and said 'show us a kata.' The kata that they performed was very similar to the Channan kata that I knew [from studying with Itosu], but there were some differences also. Upon asking the student what the kata was, he replied 'It is Pinan no Kata.' The students left shortly after that, upon which I turned to Itosu Sensei and said 'I learned a kata called Channan, but the kata that those students just performed now was different. What is going on?' Itosu Sensei replied 'Yes, the kata is slightly different, but the kata that you just saw is the kata that I have decided upon. The students all told me that the name Pinan is better, so I went along with the opinions of the young people.' These kata, which were developed by Itosu Sensei, underwent change even during his own lifetime."3
If we are to proceed on the small amount of evidence (however "hearsay" in nature), we must conclude that it points to Itosu inventing the pinans as a series of basic forms for schoolchildren.  Perhaps he used kusanku as a base and then "cut down" the pinans - perhaps not; the similarities might simply be that kusanku, like many shorin kata, features certain fundamental techniques.  When you are constructing a a series of kata principally so as to teach "stem cell movements" it is inevitable that these fundamental techniques will feature.

The name "channan" appears to be nothing more than an early "working title" for these forms: forms that eventually became known as "pinan".  There is no evidence of any kind to suggest that the latter basic kata were based on some older Chinese form taught to Itosu by a "shipwrecked sailor" or anyone else.

Funakoshi leading a class in heian kata
So what about the name?  What could "channan" have meant?

I think we get some clue by looking at the oral tradition almost all shorin karateka have inherited.  In my experience, if you ask a shorin karateka what "pinan" or "heian" means there is a good chance they will reply: "Peaceful mind."

Yet "pinan" doesn't exactly mean that.

The characters for pinan are 平安 (in Chinese: "ping2 an1") meaning "safe and sound; well; without mishap". (On their own, "pin/ping" means "flat, level, even; peaceful" while "an" means "peaceful, tranquil, quiet".)

What of "heian"?  Didn't Funakoshi "rename" the kata?  Not exactly.  "Pinan" is just the Okinawan pronunciation of the Chinese characters.  In standard Japanese these same characters are pronounced "heian".  There is no difference in the name: Funakoshi was merely using standard Japanese when referring to these kata.

So it's clear where "peaceful" comes from - but what about the reference to "mind"?  Why does this reference linger in the "cultural memory" of the name of this form?

Clearly the character "an" can refer to being "tranquil" - which is itself a "state of mind".  And read together with "pin/hei" one can understand them as a reference to a "peaceful/level state of mind".  But I think this reading of the characters also gives us a clue as to the process by which the name came to be chosen - and the likely meaning of Itosu's "working title" of "channan".

I think it is reasonable to conclude that the "an" in "channan" is the same character as in pinan/heian - ie. 安.  But what about "chan"?  Some have suggested it might be an Okinawan shortening of the Chinese "chang" - ie. 長 meaning "long" (as in changquan 長拳 or "long fist") however I see nothing to support this other than a superficial resemblance between all of shorin karate and longfist gongfu.4

So what other meanings could "chan/chang" might be relevant?  Personally, I can think of only one - and that is the Chinese character for meditation or contemplation - 禪 (chan2).  In standard Japanese this character is pronounced "zen".  The latter automatically gives rise to impressions of Zen Buddhism - but of course, the character has a broader meaning than that - one that is qualified by its context.5

Read together 禪安 (chan2 an1) would mean something like "meditative tranquillity" - or just "peaceful mind"!

Accordingly I think the available evidence, and the principle of Occam's razor, leads us to the rather simple conclusion that channan kata was just a working title for a series of forms that became the 5 pinan kata.  These kata were named after a mindset highly esteemed in all Okinawan/Japanese arts - namely a state of relaxed alertness known as 残心 or "zanshin" in Japanese.6

An artwork of mine of the character
"An" titled "Tranquillity"
That Itosu would name his fundamental forms after a mental state critical to the success of a warrior is not surprising - especially given the recognition of this mental state in Okinawan and Japanese fighting arts.

That he would try out a "working title" which referred to "meditation" or "contemplation" is, I think, also not far-fetched in this context.  In fact, I think it makes for a "best guess"; a far better guess than some story about shipwrecked Chinese sailor who just happened to be martial arts master prepared to teach  a foreign stranger!

The story becomes even more incredible when you consider that this Chinese master purportedly taught to Itosu a form comprising rather basic/fundamental movements - movements that are by and large already found in karate kata.7

Accordingly it seems to me that the notion of a "lost" channan kata comprises a highly unlikely proposition.  Channan was never "lost" because it has continued to exist from its inception up to the present day - in the form of the various pinan/heian kata so many of karateka practise right around the world.


1. Bishop, M. (1999) Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques, 2nd Edition. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, Co.

2. I refer you to the excellent article by Joe Swift titled "Channan: the lost kata of Itosu?" in which Joe cites the following historians who suggest the "teacher named Channan" theory:
Gima S. and Fujiwara R. (1986) Taidan: Kindai Karatedo no Rekishi wo Kataru (Talks on the History of Modern Karatedo). Tokyo: Baseball Magazine.
Iwai T. (1992). Koden Ryukyu Karatejutsu (Old-Style Ryukyu Karatejutsu). Tokyo: Airyudo.
Kinjo A. (1999) Karate-den Shinroku (True Record of Karate's Transmission). Naha: Okinawa Tosho Center.

3. Again, I have taken the quote from the article by Joe Swift who cites the following reference:
Murakami K. (1991). Karate no Kokoro to Waza (The Spirit and Technique of Karate). Tokyo: Shin Jinbutsu Oraisha.

Sokon Matsumura
4. Is it possible that Itosu intended to create a form that echoed his teachers' (eg. Tode Sakugawa's or Sokon Matsumura's) impressions of changquan gained during their respective visits to Beijing? Sure. But you can see how the story is starting to stretch. Apart from the general aspects of all fighting technique, the main resemblance to changquan in pinan only really extends to the use of zenkutsu dachi and full, turned over punches. And this is something found in all shorin kata.  There is nothing peculiar to the pinan kata that suggests a link to changquan.

5.   So, for example, in Chinese a reference to Zen (as we generally refer to the concept) would be 禅宗 (chan2 zong1).

6.  The literal translation of zanshin is "remaining mind".  This fundamental mental state also encapsulated by the maxim "mizu no kokoro" which translates as "mind like water".

7.  Some karateka claim to have discovered a "lost" channan kata (featured in their books and videos).  As interesting, and possibly quite useful, as these forms might be in a technical sense, no historical evidence is offered as to the how they were "rediscovered".  Accordingly, I see no reason to assume they are anything other than modern innovations (which they almost certainly are).  Thankfully, at least some "channan" kata creators characterise their forms honestly - and they are to be commended for this.  After all, innovation is a good thing.  However marketing innovation as "rediscovered ancient knowledge" is not.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, July 15, 2013

The power of defence

We’ve all heard the refrain: “Attack is the best form of defence.”  It is so axiomatic that we almost daren’t question it.  And yet in this article that is precisely what I propose to do.  In fact, I will go further to demonstrate that the true measure of martial skill lies not in one’s skill in attack - but in one’s mastery of defence.

First let me dispose of the inevitable:

Yes there are cases where “attack is the best form of defence”.  Principally, there are two situations in which one can say this is true:
  • If you can pre-empt an attack with your own, you will obviously be in a much stronger position than if you had to negate/avoid an attack launched before yours.  This is so obvious it barely warrants a mention.  However, as I have most recently discussed, pre-emption isn’t always possible.  In fact, when it comes to most civilians facing an unprovoked attack, it is usually improbable - and perhaps inadvisable for ethical/moral, legal and logical/logistical reasons.  As I have previously argued, this observation does not reflect some sort of policy to “wait for an attack” or “let your opponent have the first shot”; rather it is simply recognition of the reality of how attacks are perpetrated against civilians and the typical reaction time and lack of situationally appropriate reflexes of those civilians.
  • The maxim “attack is the best form of defence” is often used as shorthand for a “proactive” mentality that exhorts assertiveness, vigour, confidence and aggression.  In any confrontation this sort of mindset is very important.  However it is a logical fallacy to conflate such an attitude with an action.  What you do and how you do it are two different things. Put another way, just because you are forced to effect a defence (whether in the form of some sort of interception or evasion, or a combination of both) doesn’t mean you have to do so timidly.  One can be just as aggressive and vigorous in defence as one is in attack.
Ultimately, the assertion that “attack is the best form of defence” is only as true as saying “avoidance is the best form of defence”: if you can manage either, that is fantastic.  But I wouldn’t put all my eggs in any such basket.

The safest assumption you can make is that “pre-emptive attack” and “avoidance” are both unavailable.  What then?  In that case, the “best form of defence” is, very simply... defence - ie. defence in the form of interception and/or evasion of attacks. 

Put in a more traditional way, you need to know how to receive attacks; ie. respond to them in a way that negates or minimises their harm and sets you up to counter, escape or otherwise establish control of the situation.

I’m going to go further and say that such skill in defence isn’t just necessary: it defines the very essence of martial mastery.  In other words, the very definition of a martial arts master depends not in his/her skill in attack - but in his/her skill in defence.

“How can that be!” I hear you ask.  “If this were true, we’d see more such “defence” on the battlefield, in MMA etc.!”

Well two things:

First, as I’ve noted before, combatants in the cage and battlefield are both faced with very different tasks:
  • The soldier has the primary task of defeating the enemy.
  • The cage fighter has the primary task of beating his opponent - either through knockout/submission or through points.
In neither case is the combatant’s primary task to “remain safe”.  Yet the latter is precisely the civilian defender’s primary “task”. 

On the battlefield, a soldier is expendable: if he/she dies, another will take his/her place.  A soldier’s task is to do what is ordered in the course of defeating the enemy.  Military priority doesn’t lie with an individual soldier’s safety; rather it is the victory of the entire “machine” to which the soldier belongs.  Soldiers don’t get engaged to “hide” or otherwise avoid conflict.  They are expected to go into the fray - even when it is very likely that they will be killed or at least seriously wounded.

As to combat sports fighters, even if aren’t nearly as “expendable”, it should be obvious why they too often fail to prioritise defensive skills, preferring instead to take risks in order to win a particular bout:

Combat sports fighters are under enormous pressure to provide “entertainment”: no one really wants to pay good money to watch a fight where two fighters circle each other cautiously with almost no punches, kicks or other attacks being thrown. 

Indeed, more conservative MMA fighters (eg. Lyoto Machida in his early career) have been prone to criticism by fight fans for “unsatisfying” performances.  Similarly, cautious tactics in many other combat sports have attracted their fair share of criticism, despite their utility.  An early example of "conservative" boxing is “The Method” - a style pioneered by Australian Ambrose Palmer.  This involved the almost exclusive use of the lead arm (ie. very little use of the reverse arm).1  

Such conservative tactics remain rare in combat sports.  And it is easy to understand why.  In the end, fighters get paid to fight - not “avoid” fighting.  They get paid to “take the fight to their opponent” - to take risks.  To this extent, combat sports fighters are “expendable”: ensuring their own safety isn’t their primary task/goal.

The second thing I will observe is that both on the battlefield and in the cage, defensive tactics manifestly do work.

Sure, Hitler showed how his Blitzkrieg method was initially effective against his opponents in Poland etc.  But this was analogous to an overwhelming pre-emptive strike.  He wasn’t exactly able to continue with his Blitzkrieg methodology once the Allied forces started fighting back.  Indeed, historians will observe that many of his “attack as defence” tactics (eg. the “Battle of the Bulge”) helped foreshorten the war (thankfully!).  Had Hitler adopted more cautious, defensive tactics, the war might have dragged on much, much longer.

Indeed, to understand the “power of defence” one need only look at World War I and note how both sides realised the utility of adopting the highly defensive tactic of trench warfare.  Both sides wouldn’t have adopted it were it not effective.

More relevantly, if you look at any of the most famous, decorated war veterans (whether it be on the battlefield, on the seas, or in the air) the most distinctive feature is not that they took risks.
It is that they survived.
As author Marina Lewycka famously noted, in the end the true measure of victory lies not in acts of valour but in the mere fact of survival.

Take a good look at fighter pilot aces from both World Wars and you’ll see the same theme: survival.  Yes, they racked up the most “kills”: but that is because they weren’t getting killed.  The longer they survived, the better they got at surviving (as well as killing others).  In the end, I believe it wasn’t their offensive skill that made them “aces” - it was their skill in not being shot down.

In the sports arena it is also manifestly true that defensive skill defines a true champion.2

As a younger man I was an avid fan of boxing.  I followed all the fighters, I knew all their stats.  One thing I noticed is that you could generally always fit boxers into two categories: brawlers and tacticians.  The former were aggressive, powerful fighters who “steamrolled” their opponents.  The latter were cautious and technical, relying on skill rather than brute force.  Guess who “prevailed” in the long run?

It is easy to say that the skilled fighters prevailed because they had “better attacking ability”.  Fighters like Mike Tyson have often been pressed into this mould.  But I can’t help but notice however that this sort of classification is misconceived.  To me, Tyson was effective at his peak precisely because of his defensive skill - not because he was “the most powerful” or “most aggressive”.  Yes, he was powerful and aggressive.  But so were many other fighters.  What distinguished Tyson was that he was also an excellent defender

Mike Tyson’s defensive skill

Being an excellent “striker” (eg. of inanimate objects) only gets you so far.  It might well be a prerequisite to being a top combat sports fighter - but it isn’t sufficient.  To be effective, you need to be able to land your strikes despite the fact that your opponent is doing his/her best to strike you.

If you look at any true master of a fighting system - sport combat or otherwise - I believe you find the same thing: powerful, fast and aggressive fighters are dime a dozen.  Those who are also good defence?  Not so much.

Kyuzo Mifune shows his legendary skill in defence

Consider for a moment the video above of 10th dan judo master Kyuzo Mifune.  You’ll notice that even though he is older, weaker, slower and less agile than his challengers, he defeats them - with style!  Why?  Because he has mastered defence.  He cannot be thrown.  This means he “survives” until an opportunity for his own throw is presented.

In the same way - indeed, with an even greater level of importance - defensive skill is the true measure of mastery of civilian defence.  Yes, every fighter needs to be able to attack - ie. to be able to hit hard, hit fast and with the requisite aggression / lack of hesitation. 

However I have noted before that a philosophy of "Attack, attack, attack!" only gets you so far.  It gets most people over the hurdle of their own kindness and lack of aggression.  This is necessary for anyone wishing to deal effectively with physical violence that cannot be avoided.  But it is only the very beginning.

I have previously mentioned my disdain for such things as the "target focused" schools/systems for this reason; they are peddling very basic information, packaged as something "profound" and "advanced".  It is nothing of the sort.

It is akin to World War I generals ordering their troops out of the trenches into another pointless death charge.  It is part of the blinkered, misguided belief that all that really distinguishes a "winner" from a "loser" is aggression and courage.

Yes, you need aggression and courage.  But if you want to master the martial arts, your ability to attack won’t distinguish you.  You’ll just be one of many “brawlers”.  To be a true master you also need to be able defend yourself against attacks.  You need to be able to survive the attacks of others.

Because, in the end, whatever the arena, “to survive is to win”.3


1. “The Method” was a conservative tactic that worked well for Ambrose Palmer and a few select Australian boxers, like Johnny Famechon, who followed in his footsteps.

2. I think it is precisely the defensive skill of middleweight MMA fighter Anderson Silva that kept him at the top (and undefeated) for so long.  He was so good at "not being hit" that he started taking chances - taunting opponents to attack, relying on his superb defensive ability to evade, and take advantage of the openings created by, the attack.

As good as Silva is/was, he wasn't good enough in his recent fight with Chris Weidman.  I think this shows that "letting your opponent take the first shot" is never a good idea - even if you are so good that you can usually pull it off as a tactical ploy!

3. This is actually a rewrite of an article I had scheduled for publication on this blog.  I went in to replace a photograph and make some other minor changes, then tried the “undo” function on one of these changes.  My bad: Blogger decided to erase (without trace) my entire article, just because I was happened to be using Internet Explorer (for whatever reason, Blogger and IE stopped cooperating exactly midway through my edit - and haven't "reopened dialogue" since).

Let's just say that I wasn't exactly in a "defensive" kind of mood for a while!  Oh well - I've rewritten the article now.  Yes, it is different, but probably no better or worse than it was before.  In the end, the article survived (at least, conceptually) which, according to Marina Lewycka's book "A short history of tractors in Ukrainian", means that I've "won".  Take that Microsoft and Google!

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, July 8, 2013

"Strike first, strike hard, no mercy sir!"

I've received many messages and comments on social media and privately regarding my recent article "Enter the interception".

A common response is exemplified by "Nelson's" below:
""When in doubt strike out." was the maxim under which I was trained. This I took to mean when confrontation is inevitable you must have the wherewithal to react BEFORE you get popped whether it be by a knife, gun or fist. If you insist on being a dojo lawyer and giving an opponent the first shot you'd better stay on the "good" side of town only in daylight hours." 
This is a variation on the old "I'd rather be tried by 12 than carried by 6". I have to say, it has a lot of emotional appeal and seems unimpeachable when it is raised: no one can disagree with it in principle.

However I don't feel this provides any kind of formula for conflict management. To me, it is far too simplistic to capture the myriad social circumstances we encounter in our lives.  It is so simplistic, it might as well be something recited in a "Cobra Kai" dojo:
"Strike first, strike hard, no mercy sir!"  
Yeah, right.

So a troubled teenager walks up to you in a threatening manner: do you "strike out"? If so, how hard? What kind of strike? So a man who is clearly grieving or otherwise upset by some tragedy misunderstands something you say and walks up angrily to you. Do you strike out automatically? Again, how hard and in what way?

There are so many times in my life where I could have simply "struck out" but didn't - only to have the situation resolved peacefully and far more beneficially (for me and everyone else). Please note: I didn't "wait" because of some formula of "letting him have the first shot". I simply assessed each case as it presented itself. I made a judgment call not to strike out. Did I have doubts about whether I'd got it right? You bet. But I made the best choice I could in the circumstances.

You have to take every case as it comes and judge it as best you can. Sure, you should pre-empt an impending attack when the circumstances require it. But pre-empting automatically just because you have a "doubt"? I'm sorry, but I don't subscribe to any such "formula". As comforting as it might be to espouse such a "formula", it's applicability is fraught with grey edges. Try to apply it dogmatically and you might find it actually results in grievous and needless tragedy. That's what comes of trying to apply any "formula" to our complex social interaction.

But, more than anything else, I don't ever recall saying anyone should "give your opponent the first shot". That is a common response the moment I speak of "interceptions" of attacks. However, it is a red herring. No civilian defence art I've studied envisages doing so. Yes, civilian defence proceeds on the assumption that you've been attacked - but it does not proceed on the assumption that this is because you've waited for that attack.

If you think about it, the difference is huge.

As I previously noted, in many Western countries having someone walking into your personal space in a threatening manner can constitute an assault in itself. Furthermore, if they are carrying a knife, then usually all bets are off; you might well be able to do whatever it is you need to do - including using lethal force (check your own jurisdictions laws; don't take this as legal advice!).

So the law probably authorises pre-emption in obvious cases anyway. The non-obvious ones? Well, there's a reason we can't have a formula for them, isn't there? It's precisely because they aren't obvious!

What I think Nelson and others have a problem with is acknowledging the necessity of defensive skill: skill in such things as interception and evasion.  They want to rely on the mantra that "offence is the best defence".  Consider "Tom's" comment below:
"I throw a punch. OK, now you block like a forearm say for point.  My arm can now reorbit, recover a knife you did not know of and now a dagger is now in play.  But defang the snake - take out the teeth - can the snake hit ? Just for a point of view: I have a son.  I am an 82nd AirBorne Ranger - no time for them to try to strike or wait for counter."
I can tell you something: there is no easier way for your attacker to "reorbit" his arm and "recover a knife" than if you're unconscious on the ground - all because you didn't intercept that first attack!

And of course, there is also that assumption again - that interception somehow involves "waiting"!  As I said to Tom, this is what I most like about the term "interception": it avoids any misrepresentation of civilian defence arts as "waiting" for anything.  While "block" is often misunderstood to imply some sort of "waiting", the term "interception" shouldn't (although people are still managing to surprise me - particularly when they realise that by this term I mean something other than "attack, attack, attack!").

"Block" also seems to imply "no counter" (at least, to some folks).  The idea that this is how traditional martial arts are designed to work is a myth - one that I've previously dispelled, I believe very conclusively.  Interceptions are the first part of a coordinated response to an attack: one that negates the particular attack and neutralises the potential for any follow-up ones.  Yes, "blocking with no counter" is a kind of "interception" - but it is the least preferable kind to any martial artist (traditional or otherwise).

So when I use the term "interception", I hope people will stop thinking of the least preferable option and start thinking of the most preferable one instead.  Because that is exactly what civilian defence arts teach.  This is exactly what "blocks" in civilian defence arts actually are: they are interceptions that have been mislabeled as something else.

There is no "block and wait" in traditional martial arts.  There never has been.  There is only interception.  And the one that takes the shortest, quickest route is the one you use.  And you counter either at the same time as the interception or as contemporaneously as possible.

So much for myths about interceptions.  What worries me more is this persistent impression that "all you need is attack" (sounds like something you can sing to a Beatles tune doesn't it?).  Just "strike out".  The rest will sort itself out.  Sure.

What I would like to know from all these people out there who say they "don't have time to wait for an attack" and who adopt a "strike out when in doubt" methodology is this:
How many times in your life have you actually followed your own proposed methodology?
It sounds grand - but have you actually done it?  And if so, how did it work out?

My strong suspicion is that unless you're paranoid, anti-social nutcase who goes around smacking anyone who gives you even the slightest suspicion of hostility, you've probably never "hit out when in doubt" - despite any "Cobra Kai hubris" on your part. 

(I refer you to my article on "necessary and reasonable force" by way of reminder of what your moral/ethical and legal obligations in civil society actually are.  You can feel free to ignore them.  But if you are in the habit of smacking people left right and centre, you will almost certainly have a rap sheet as long as my arm - way to go, "civilian defender"!)

I think it is more likely that if you've even been in any kind of "fight", you've been forced to react to an aggressor/attacker/initiator.  In other words, he/she got in first and you've responded.

Now if I am correct in my previous assumption, were you forced to "respond" because you had stupidly "waited for the attack"?  Or was it simply because that's just how things played out - and how they tend to play out for the best of us?

Attackers don't exactly have a vested interest in giving you "fair warning" of an impending assault, now do they?  If they are serious about attacking you, they'll do it in a way that doesn't give you a chance to "strike first".  As Rory Miller is so fond of saying, they don't want to fight you; they want to take you out.

Nelson responded to these observations by saying:
Proper discernment of intent is not a simple "formula" but comes with years of practice. On the street it can save your fanny. Some folks might call it "mind reading".
And my response was that I prefer to use whatever "discernment of intent" skills I have developed to avoid conflict altogether. So far, I've been fairly successful in this (see my story about one such occasion on a particular St Patrick's Day).

Also, my brother has just pointed out to me that if "striking first" were such a "foolproof method" of dealing with aggression, there would be virtually no instances of multiple, highly trained, alert military personnel being gunned down by one enemy operative.  How could this happen?  It's simple: the best of us get surprised by sudden aggression.  A good aggressor plans it that way.  It needn't even be a "strike from behind".  I'm talking about something catching us by surprise even when we're supposed to be "switched on" and facing potential danger.

There is only one place where a "strike first, strike hard, no mercy sir!" mentality actually belongs - and that is in a Cobra Kai dojo in a B-grade movie.  It is, as I've previously noted, just hubris; a parody of simplistic "conflict management theory".

If you're serious about defending yourself (rather than merely launching your own surprise attacks on unsuspecting victims), you'd better learn some defensive skill.  That is the heart of civilian defence.  All the Cobra Kai "tough talk" in the world won't help you.  All the zombie training, all the "target focused training", all the board/shield/bag hitting in the world will do "diddly squat".  You'll know how to attack something that doesn't hit back.  That's all.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic

Monday, July 1, 2013

The wooden man

Most traditional martial arts of the Far East involve practice against a “wooden man” (“mu ren zhuang” or “muk yan jong”) – a dummy that serves as a kind of “striking target”.
My favourite kicking tree - circa 1987
The earliest version of this “wooden man” was almost certainly just a tree or sapling, but ultimately it evolved into something with a striking surface that was a little more uniform (the bark of a tree can be a little unforgiving) and a little more convenient (finding the right tree is okay if you live near a a forest, but try finding one in a city!).

The other issue with trees is that they don’t tend to have much “give”; even a sapling is not that different to a brick wall when it comes to receiving the average punch or kick.  Hitting something with that much inertia can be quite unsatisfying (to say nothing of damaging to the body)!

Early in our careers my brother and I discovered that Australian paperbark saplings were a reasonable tree for kicking, as they had at least some “spring” (while the paperbark also offered some “cushioning”).  But, in truth, the suitability of the paperbark sapling was only “relative” to most other trees we found.  And while they were okay for kicking, they were still too stiff for punching. 

Last, I remember how one day, when we were out in the woods kicking our favourite tree, we were told off by a park ranger.  He pointed out that if we weren’t careful we could “ringbark” the tree (ie. kick away the outer bark in a ring around the tree and kill it – since the tree relies on this thin layer to circulate water and nutrients).

The makiwara
I think that it was the search for something with both “give” and an even, consistent and suitable striking surface that lead the Okinawan karateka to develop the makiwara: the flexible punching post.  This is truly a remarkable invention that helps develop “kime” in punches.  It does so by encouraging the student to develop the right “shock” punch rather than a “pushing” one (pushing a “spring” like the makiwara is very unsatisfying – while hitting it with the right force gives you an immediate “snap” as feedback of a good, destructive punch!).  In this respect the makiwara is the antithesis to the heavy bag.

Recently my friend Ryan Parker asked on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums whether there was any similar flexible striking post in China and I had to say that I couldn’t think of one. 

So what does the more typical Chinese “wooden man” look like then?

Well there are certainly ones with "give": these are known as "live" dummies and the "give" typically results from some sort of spring mounting - usually because the body is mounted on wooden slats that flex in a way similar to the makiwara.

Others are "dead" dummies - ie. they have no "give" at all.  (I've read that the "live" dummies were introduced only fairly recently by people like Yip Man (of wing chun fame): the older Chinese wooden dummies were "dead".)

A "dead" wooden dummy.
Note the branch left as an "arm".
Leaving aside the issue of "spring"/"aliveness", the most distinguishing feature of the Chinese wooden dummy versus the Okinawan makiwara is this:
The Chinese version invariably has one or or more "arms".
It is this that warrants its description as a "wooden man" - not just a "striking post" (like the makiwara).

The earliest "Chinese wooden men" were almost certainly not "sprung".  Very likely they were just logs with a branch left attached to serve as an "arm".

A sprung wing chun "wooden man"
As martial artists experimented, they found that the fixed position of the arm to be quite limiting, so a range of dummies was built to address this issue.

One approach is that of wing chun's, where the dummy was built with two arms at different heights and one leg.  This accommodated wing chun's use of interceptions and traps of the opponent's upper limbs as well as the trapping and attacking of the opponent's leg.

By inserting the arms and legs loosely as "pins", practitioners found these limbs had a bit of "give", creating a more forgiving striking surface that was also more useful and realistic in terms of resistance and feedback.  The addition of "spring mounting" added further "give" from Yip Man's time, onwards.

I believe the next innovation in "wooden man" design was to go one step further than the wing chun model and have one or more arms fitted as movable levers, either with a weight or some sort of spring to create resistance to the movement and/or return it to its original position. 

A plethora of such "wooden men" can be seen in the Chinese (and related Okinawan!) arts and I have included a sample cross-section below:

The  last of the above photographs actually depicts the wooden dummy used by Okinawan karate master Juhatsu Kyoda, founder of tou'on ryu and student of Kanryo Higaonna. 

In Okinawa this type of dummy is called "kakete biki".  It is clear that the Chinese innovation of the moveable arm is something that spread to Okinawa along with certain techniques of southern quan fa that influenced the development of karate at around that time.

This was taken in Jan 1990
in my teacher's dojo in
Durban, South Africa
But all of this raises the question: why bother with a moveable arm?  In fact, why have arms on a striking post at all?

I think the answer lies in the simple fact that these were tools designed for training in civilian defence - not in combat sport or military application.  They were designed for training interception - ie. defence, not just attack.

An arm on the wooden dummy allows the civilian defence practitioner to practise interceptions against it (eg. the deflections used in wing chun, as shown in the adjacent picture).

These interceptions can be fed into traps and other controls of your opponent's limbs as well.  Of course, the interceptions and subsequent controls can be (and usually are) accompanied by appropriate counter strikes.

So why have a moveable arm?  For the simple reason that it facilitates practising more sophisticated limb controls and attacks.  For example, it is all very well to have fixed limbs on your dummy if your controls amount to traps and other "pressure" holds - and nothing else.  But once you venture into techniques that move or manipulate the limb - eg. joint locks, particularly of the kind used in civilian defence grappling - your dummy needs to have moveable limbs, and preferably ones where that movement is subject to appropriate resistance.

If you're wondering how such practice might look, I encourage you to watch the following video from about 7:33 onwards.  It features gojuka Gary Lever who demonstrates (very impressively) kata bunkai using the lever arm.  You will instantly note that he uses the arm to simulate the interception of an attacking limb, then the application of controls and counters (including locks and other joint attacks).

Once again, you'll note that the criticism that "traditional 'blocks' are used in isolation" or that they "comprise a commercial break" is an absolute nonsense.  Every single interception shown by Gary is used as an entry to a control and counter; the dummy is meant to be hit, just as much as its "arm" is meant to be used for attaining and maintaining control over your opponent in the melee range.  The two tasks are inextricably linked.

Gary's own dummy is fitted with a flexible arm, however the function is really quite the same as that of the "lever-type" one (no pun is intended here!).  The advantage of Gary's flexible arm is that it permits a greater variety of application. I suspect its disadvantage is that it does not feature any real resistance.  Such is the reality of any form of "dummy" training: there is no "perfect wooden man"!

Makiwara and wooden man: side by side, the way
they should be
You'll also notice that, like many karateka, Gary has a makiwara right next to his "tou" (a term for bamboo striking targets sometimes applied to "wooden men") (see the adjacent image from another colleague of mine at the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums).  This is because the makiwara is still required as the primary tool for developing kime in strikes

The wooden man is, by contrast, used in training "complete responses", by which I mean interceptions, traps, controls and other set-up techniques and, of course, counter attacks.  It doesn't have the "give" of the makiwara and is not optimal as a dedicated "striking target".  It is instead a more general civilian defence training tool.

In civilian defence, both attack and defence must be trained.  I've previously highlighted the importance of defensive skill, but only after noting that the ability to counter attack is a necessary prerequisite to effectiveness. 

Accordingly, there should be room in every dojo/guan/kwoon/studio for both types of training tools: the dedicated striking target, and the "wooden man"; the tool for practising counter strikes in the context of interception.

For those who are interested, I have appended a video by Ryan Parker, describing how to make a kakete biki:

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic