Archives for posts with tag: wing chun

As a martial arts junkie, I often find myself comparing concepts between different martial arts. Whenever I can, I like to adapt what I’ve learned in one martial art to make me better at another. I like to think that my experience with prior martial arts can help me learn other martial arts by applying concepts that I already know. But when I do this, I often run into problems. Whenever you try to import a concept from one martial art to another or compare ideas across martial arts, you are likely to run into trouble. Why is this?

Right away, one thing is clear: Sometimes different martial arts conceive of similar ideas very differently. For example, Wing Chun traditionally teaches six and a half point pole techniques as if they were extensions of unarmed techniques. On the other hand, there are other martial arts which teach very similar long staff techniques without pairing it with unarmed martial arts at all. If you were to examine the reasoning behind the techniques of Wing Chun or these other martial arts, you would probably find that they are very asymmetrical and difficult to compare, despite their similar jurisdictions. Why? Some would say it’s a matter of comparing apples and oranges. That may be true, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the underlying reasons for their asymmetry.

It’s easiest to examine and compare concepts when they are deconstructed as much as possible. When we deconstruct concepts, they tend to become more specific and less inclusive(more limited in scope). For example, if I say that “spirit” is important in martial arts, I am allowing that concept to remain broad and vague. If I say that it is important for a martial artist to cultivate spiritual strength, then I am a little more clear and specific. More specifically, I could say something like “a martial artist can increase his awareness and mental acuity by engaging in meditative exercises.” This last statement is the most deconstructed, and the easiest to analyze. However, it is also relatively narrow in scope, so it may not contain all of the meaning of the original statement.

But sometimes we can’t deconstruct ideas as much as we would like. For example, the principle of Aiki is an umbrella concept which contains multiple ideas. On the physical side, Aiki involves taking the path of least resistance by using the opponent’s momentum against him. On the interpersonal side, Aiki involves taking the path of least resistance in social relationships as well. There are also ethical aspects to Aiki(e.g. if the goal is to neutralize a hostile opponent, then one should not attack if the opponent is already neutralized. Furthermore, if you do attack, the opponent may use the very same tactics to neutralize you). While we can look at each of these aspects separately, it’s clear that Aiki links these ideas together at a fundamental level. That provides an obstacle to those of us who would try to deconstruct it.

Aiki is problematic because it contains several linked concepts. When concepts are linked together, they are difficult to compare to other martial arts which have similar ideas that are not linked. This is a problem that translators encounter every day. In language, we encounter linked concepts frequently. In English, the word “house” has different connotations than the word “home,” because “home” is linked to ideas such as comfort, safety, love, and so on. If we were translating the word “house,” it would probably be easy in most languages. On the other hand, it would be difficult to translate “home” if the target language did not have a word with those same connotations. This is why many words do not have direct translations in other languages. Likewise, many martial arts concepts do not have direct translations in other martial arts. This is because when concepts are linked together, those concepts acquire certain connotations.

It’s not always a problem when concepts are linked. But when we’re comparing ideas across two different martial arts, it’s a problem when that linkage is asymmetrical. For example, martial art A believes that every stance is associated with a certain state of mind, so it links its concept of proper stance with its ideas about attitude. On the other hand, martial art B looks at stances independently, preferring to think of attitude as an unrelated concept. When comparing the stances of martial arts A and B, or when applying the stances of one martial art to another, these linked concepts will be an obstacle to the translation.


When you encounter an attack, there are only four options: Resist, yield, avoid, or submit to the attack. Let’s take a moment to examine the idea the most difficult of these four options: yielding.

Unlike dodging, when you yield to pressure, you’re not avoiding contact altogether. Yielding involves allowing the opponent to make contact with your body and letting a portion of the force pass through your body. To yield is to receive the opponent’s force, and to yield well is to receive it safely. Many times it involves redirecting the opponent’s force, but it can also involve moving the opponent’s target out of the way so that the force passes through harmlessly.

Unlike resisting, yielding does not attempt to stop the incoming force abruptly. To yield is to meet hardness with softness. However, not all softness is yielding. If a person collapses under pressure, that is not yielding. That is submission. Instead, yielding requires a base level of resistance. For example, you must have enough structural tension to maintain your balance in spite of the incoming force. Wing Chun practitioners might think of bang sao(aka bong sao), an arm position which is often used for yielding. Bang sao only works if you have enough bodily tension to keep the elbow from collapsing and keep it in its proper position. By relaxing certain muscles and tensing others, you are manipulating the path of least resistance for the force, making it easier for the force to go where you want it to go while making it more difficult for the force to go elsewhere.

Yip Man and Bruce Lee practicing Wing Chun. Bruce Lee is performing bang sao with his right arm, a technique which requires some structural resistance in order to yield.

Yielding does not necessarily neutralize the force. For example, Aikidoka often yield in order to turn an attack back against the opponent. In this case, yielding is used to redirect that force, not just to absorb it safely.

The goal of any martial encounter is to maintain control over yourself and, secondarily, to gain control over your opponent. The basic problem of yielding is that you need to stay in control while allowing the opponent to affect you. What makes yielding dangerous is that it comes close to giving that control to the opponent. This is why yielding usually requires more timing, sensitivity, and subtlety than resistance or avoidance. It’s hard enough to manipulate the path of least resistance for an unchanging force, like digging a canal for a stream of water. But when that force is actively changing direction and magnitude, then it becomes very complicated to yield.

I regret to inform you that I have decided to abandon reason altogether.

I don’t abandon it lightly. All of modernity is tied to the same anchor, and so to cut loose of it must cause one to hesitate. But cause itself is the cancer, and can therefore be surgically removed without scrutiny.

Martial arts are a little bit crazy, as you and I quietly know. Maybe it follows that martial artists are as well, and I wouldn’t be the first to volunteer evidence to the contrary. We have at once been labeled naive, paranoid, anachronistic, arrogant, dangerous, and especially delusional. Admittedly, the signal to noise ratio in our community isn’t exactly favorable. In fact, I would argue that any signal we may come across is merely a statistical anomaly, and the rare fruitful discussion is well within the margin of error.

And so we, as martial artists, begin our journey toward understanding with the deck stacked against us. The responsible martial artist does his part to impose order upon the chaos of combat, using whatever shreds of philosophy that he has at hand. He collects theories and observations, instructions and experience, and then he cuts a swath through them with his faculties of reason. But many an inquisitive martial artist has caught himself in the epistemological traps of his discipline. Martial arts, both traditional and modern, commit daily offenses to reason which cannot be overcome as easily as we would like. As students, we have no idea which elements of a martial art contribute to its success as a method of fighting or training, so we have no recourse but to empty our cups and accept the teacher’s tea. And yet, when I emptied my cup, I found it difficult to refill.

Cracks in the Foundation

When I lived in Beijing, I had a Wing Chun teacher who was prone to talking to me at length after class. During one such talk, he asserted that Westerners take the wrong approach to Chinese martial arts. Western logic and reason are limited tools, he said, and anyone who bases their beliefs solely on reason is stuck in a box. If I never leave that box, I can only reinforce the worldview that I already have.

As a dyed-in-the-wool rationalist, I was keenly aware that reason is the only path toward certainty. I was tempted to pursue the matter Socratically, to expose faults in his idea through a series of innocent questions. But each question that arose in my mind presupposed the very idea that was under attack. I couldn’t critically examine his point without betraying myself as an advocate of reason.

After listening quietly, I asked “How do we know whether we are achieving our goals?” He thought for a moment, then said “That is a very good question.” The problem, he said, is the word “know.” We cannot know, we can only have faith. It seemed that he had given up on certainty altogether.

I went home frustrated, unable to come up with a way to convince him of the importance of reason. We disagreed on such a fundamental level that it was nearly impossible to find common ground. So I asked myself: How could I justify reason to a man like him?

The Paradox of Reason

That night, I discovered a problem. Reason cannot be justified without begging the question. All justifications are based on reason, so any justification must presuppose that reason is valid. Circular reasoning is invalid logic, so reason fails on its own terms.

Well, that was easy.

David Hume (1711-1776) is usually credited with identifying the problem of induction.

There must be some other justification, I thought. Reason seems to match observation, shouldn’t that count for something? Yet sense observation is a poor basis for reason, as reason itself can undermine the senses quite easily. Take Descartes for example, who reasoned that his perceptions could all be part of a dream or deception. Fair enough, you might say, but doesn’t reason have an incredible track record of success? Cue David Hume, who famously outlined the problem of induction. Not only is it impossible to use past experiences to predict future events, but to do so is to engage in inductive reasoning. So we are left, once again, begging the question. The very notion of justification presupposes the value of reason.

Reason demands that we discard all ideas which have no justification. But if reason has no other justification, then we are left with an order to disobey all orders. It seems that all commands of reason are suspect, and that we had better learn to do without.

Living Unreasonably

It’s liberating. Without reason, there is no way to establish cause and effect. In terms of martial arts, I am free to use any solution to solve any problem, although I have no justification to expect any result. In fact, why solve problems at all? There’s no reason for it. There, I can take the rest of the day off.

My teacher was right about one thing: Once you take reason out of the picture, the only alternative is faith. Faith requires no reason whatsoever, and ceases to be of use when reason is involved. Since matters of faith require no reason, I need no reason to have faith in anything – another liberating idea. I can have faith that the world is as it seems, that I can trust my perceptions, and that my pen is now a leopard. Perhaps those ideas seem contradictory, but I have faith that they are not.

Faith has no claim to certainty. But once we give up all hope of certainty, faith becomes quite an attractive option. It is the only way to satisfy our addictions to cause and effect. For example, when I am unhappy with someone, I simply lend them my pen. I have faith that they will be very badly mauled as a result. Such feats of mental agility are beyond the grasp of reason. Faith’s reach never exceeds its grasp. No article of faith is more nor less reasonable than any other article of faith, because reason has nothing to do with it.

Best of all, faith can be as circular as it likes. When confronted with a doubt about my faith, I can simply conjure up more faith in my own beliefs. It’s really quite convenient.

But I am not willing to have faith in reason. What’s the use of faith if I have confidence in reason? If I have faith that things can and should be justified, then I may require a reasonable justification of my own faith. And then the house of cards comes tumbling down yet again.

So it seems that my teacher was right. I’m grateful, because my world has become significantly more whimsical as a result. I only wonder why he persists in teaching Wing Chun when he could just get a leopard like mine.

During my time in China, I often found myself in crowded marketplaces, walking among the tourists and flanked on either side by vendors. Tourists being what they are, the vendors kept them well-occupied with foreign trinkets. Booth after booth offered the same mass-produced items: misspelled t-shirts, tea sets, calligraphy brushes, and an endless supply of watches.

Watches have become a staple of the Chinese souvenir industry. Although the official name-brand outlets are there for those who have the money, Chinese street vendors have earned a reputation for selling counterfeits. I was interested to discover that what was once pure deceit has now become a selling point; tourists enjoy the novelty of a fake Rolex or Omega. Nevertheless, the vendors still swear by the authenticity of their name brand watches.

Those markets are not unlike the world of martial arts, as authentic martial arts are no less elusive than a genuine Rolex on the streets of Beijing.

Martial arts are consistently misrepresented, in the media and in person, intentionally and unintentionally, by students and teachers alike. This misrepresentation stems from ignorance of the fact that most martial arts have undergone drastic changes in response to modernity. Those that survived the invention of gunpowder found themselves confronted with a new form of Darwinism: the commercial market. Modern martial arts have been selected for commercial viability after being imported from another time and place, their content filtered by cherry-picking foreigners. Are they worthy of our trust? Can we be confident that every one of our predecessors has been a responsible caretaker of these martial arts? I submit that we cannot, and that the world of martial arts can claim no better track record for authenticity than the average tourist market in China.

This has been the most demoralizing realization of my martial arts career.


What Does it Mean to be Authentic?

Let’s take a moment to critically examine the concept of authenticity. An authentic martial art is one which is what it claims to be, whether that claim is explicit or implicit. A martial art need not be traditional to be authentic, but it does need to be authentic in order to be traditional. I use this definition because it doesn’t require us to agree on what is valuable in a martial art. For example, there is nothing inauthentic about a modern martial sport like Western boxing, so long as its exponents don’t claim to represent anything more than a particular fisticuffs competition.

We cannot make blanket statements like “Martial art X is/isn’t authentic” without first clarifying the question. For example, if we ask: “Is Karate an authentic representation of the way that samurai fought?” then the answer is a resounding no. However, some types of Karate are representative of the way that some Okinawan peasants fought, so in that sense, those types of Karate are authentic. Thus the very same art may be considered authentic or inauthentic depending on the claims of its teachers. And it is these claims that are the source of inauthenticity, not the arts in themselves.


The Self-Taught Instructor and the Americanized Martial Art

When I began practicing martial arts, it didn’t occur to me to question their authenticity. I spent five years practicing an ill-defined system of Western swordsmanship, my first martial art. It wasn’t until I left that I realized that the instructor had been creating his own system as he went along. To make matters worse, the weapons that we practiced with were padded and unrealistic. No doubt this was for reasons of safety and cost, but it came at the expense of technique. There was nothing authentic about that class, and a self-taught instructor cannot claim to represent any authentic lineage.

That was a case of an instructor misleading his students, but in other cases, students have their own misguided expectations to blame. My first unarmed martial was Kenpo Karate, an odd mixture of influences which came to me through Ed Parker’s lineage. The teacher was a great motivator and storyteller, regaling his students with legends of famous martial artists. We heard about masters from all times and places, from ninjas and samurai to enlightened warrior-monks and the Boxer rebels. Almost none of these people were actually practicing Kenpo, but it didn’t matter. He made us feel connected to them anyway. Some of the more impressionable students even professed to adopt their values. But despite all of this motivational talk, we weren’t really learning the skills that we were romanticizing. We were only training one hour per week in an Americanized martial art.

I used to disdain Americanized martial arts, safe in the assumption that I was immune to that criticism. Later, I realized just how Americanized my Kenpo really was. The art had been intentionally and thoroughly changed on several occasions over the past century. The Kenpo that I studied wasn’t the art of ancient warriors; it was completely modern. What we learned wasn’t necessarily incorrect, but it was not at all representative of any premodern martial art. In this case, we were not misled by our instructor so much as our own misconceptions.


Broken Lineage

And then there is the problem of lineage. Any school which claims to teach a traditional martial art cannot be authentic without the appropriate pedigree. I recently found a school in my area offering instruction in Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. The school teaches traditional martial arts using traditional teaching methods, and I came very close to enrolling. However, they traced their lineage back to Sugawara Tetsutaka, and my research gave rise to some uncomfortable questions.

A few decades ago, there was a famous split between the headmaster, Otake Risuke, and his student, Sugawara. Otake and Sugawara had a falling out, and Sugawara lost the right to teach the art. However, Sugawara continued teaching nonetheless. Sugawara is widely considered to be a qualified teacher, and was expected to receive the second of two teaching certifications from Otake. However, by losing the headmaster’s endorsement, Sugawara’s lineage lost its legitimacy. Naturally, some martial artists have accused Sugwara’s critics of splitting hairs.

Dr. Karl Friday, a historian and holder of menkyo kaiden in Kashima Shinryu, addressed the debate:

At a minimum, it’s inaccurate and just plain wrong to identify oneself as studying or having studied a koryû art, unless the ryûha headmaster would agree that this is in fact what you’ve been doing. Any other study of a ryûha’s arts needs to be called something else.

Dr. Friday’s full response is worth reading, and can be found here.

For this particular Katori Shinto Ryu class, its authenticity was dependent on Sugawara’s credentials. By itself, this would have been bad enough. But in addition to the issues with Sugawara’s lineage, the head teacher at this school wasn’t certified by anyone. Rather, he had spent seven years learning the art by training with a teacher who only came into town a few times per year.

Is this Katori Shinto Ryu? On a technical level, maybe it is. But Katori Shinto Ryu has a very clear requirement that teachers be certified and personally authorized by the headmaster. To bypass this requirement is to cherry-pick among the traditional elements of Katori Shinto Ryu, elements which have been passed down with the art for over five hundred years. It pains me to think that a student would be so presumptuous as to impose his own standards on such a relic, or so uncritical as to think that he is qualified to override the opinions of twenty generations of headmasters. In the case of koryu, authenticity is not merely a question of technique. Authenticity means abiding by all of the traditions of the art, especially those traditions regarding how the art is passed on to students.


Authenticity Among Dead Traditions

At this point, I hope that some of you have already spotted some holes in this idea of authenticity. Authenticity may be clean-cut when we’re dealing with disingenuous teachers or naive students, but some martial arts pose problems for a black and white distinction.

A plate from a 1606 Italian rapier manual by Salvator Fabris. Historical European martial arts are dependent on manuals like these.

Can dead traditions ever be considered authentic? The world of historical European martial arts grapples with this problem on a regular basis, as those arts are based on centuries-old martial arts manuals and other written records. For example, if I study a 17th century Italian rapier system, but my teacher had to teach himself using the primary sources, is that an authentic martial art? Certainly his sources are reliable, but every teacher must make his own interpretations and take liberties with the text. Furthermore, not all historical manuals train their readers to teach the system to others. Can we really say that these teachers can rightfully claim to be teaching 17th century Italian rapier?

Yet on the other hand, those manuals have been written by the masters themselves, not passed down orally over hundreds of years. Oral traditions have a tendency to distort ideas over time, whereas historical European martial arts have the rare privilege of seeing the exact words of the masters. With a careful and critical interpretation, the rapier teacher’s art could be considered more authentic than arts which lack the benefit of such a time capsule.


Conflicting Opinions

So far, we have mostly ignored the issue of technique. But in order to authentically represent a martial tradition, a martial artist cannot deviate too far from the technical norms of that tradition. However, this idea comes with its own problems.

What about those who can’t agree on proper form for their martial art? When I lived in Beijing, I studied with a Wing Chun teacher who routinely criticized other Wing Chun teachers for their improper form. He lamented that four years of his own training had been wasted on learning from just such a teacher.

In the case of Wing Chun, there is no single headmaster or organization to arbitrate these disputes. We are left to fend for ourselves, to grope in the dark for a working definition of “proper” or “correct.” At first glance, this seems to be as petty an issue as “to-may-to” and “to-mah-to,” neither possible to answer nor worth the effort to try. But though the search for correctness may be futile, it is not unimportant. When teachers of the same art declare each other’s technique to be ineffective, the seeds of doubt find a new and fertile home. No matter who I agree with, I have reason to fear that a more qualified teacher will one day tell me that my time has been wasted. And he may very well be right.


Authentic Legacies

Why does any of this matter? Is it relevant whether a martial art is authentic? If it works just as well, isn’t everything else secondary? I am actually quite sympathetic to this argument, and I would subscribe to it completely were it not for the following two problems.

First of all, we cannot make the assumption that an inauthentic martial art will not have lost some of its functionality. Let’s return for a moment to the Rolex analogy. Practical-minded buyers might say that there is no sense in demanding a real Rolex when the imitation performs the same function just as well. But, of course, on closer inspection we know that the Rolex will operate with far more precision than its doppelganger. For a wristwatch, the difference may be minute(forgive me), but for a martial art, subtle differences in technique or training may have grave consequences.

Second, we must dispense with the idea that we actually know how effective a martial art is before committing to the art in the long term. I discussed this subject in some detail in my earlier entry “Choosing a martial art: The fundamental problems. Choosing an art based on its effectiveness is akin to choosing a religion based on its likelihood of getting you into heaven. By the time you know whether your choice is right, it’s far too late to change your mind.

Since effectiveness cannot be part of our criteria, let’s turn our attention to those secondary concerns.

I want to practice the martial arts that I read about. If I take an interest in Taijiquan, I want to be able to practice that art. I don’t want to practice some New Age hybrid of Taiji, Yoga, and interpretive dance. If I learn about Katori Shinto Ryu, one of the oldest extant martial arts in the world, I don’t want to practice a modern variant or an off-brand imitation.

A fake Rolex may still tell the time, but that doesn’t make it a Rolex. I’d rather have a cheaper watch that can actually back up its claims.

You could say that I covet martial arts, perhaps just another object of desire for my modern materialism. But I want to practice the martial arts which have earned their reputations. These are the arts that have passed down fighting skills for centuries. These are the rare traditions which have not been adulterated by commercialism or modernity. While the frugal among us may choose the convenient imitation, that is not the stuff of history and legend. For the imitation is just that, a pale shadow of that which ignites our passion.