Wednesday, 22 July 2015

An unexpected turn of events

 "Let the body and limbs work themselves out in accordance with the discipline they have undergone." ~Bruce Lee

"You don't smile much, do you?"  It was the head security guard.  I'm not the only volunteer who has issues with him.  He is a persistent practical joker, and occasionally takes out his frustrations on what he considers to be the easiest targets.  It was a moment in the day when I could have done without him being there, to be honest.

His hands came up to perform a double slap on my face, just like Eric Morecambe used to do.  He has landed one of these on me before but, this time, my hands came up in a double bil sau, stopping his hands in their tracks.  He then dropped his hands and came towards my ribcage.  Both my hands dropped into a double gaan sau.  I don't have much control over my left hand, so it hit the inner part of his arm with more force than I intended.  "That's better." he said, referring to the fact that I was now smiling.

I don't have the swiftest reactions in the world.  Recently, I haven't been training wing chun as conscientiously as I should.  I had quite a lot on my mind when the slapping attempt was made.  I asked myself how I had stopped two incoming attacks which happened in quick succession, when I had previously failed to stop a double slap from the same person.  The point is that I didn't have time to think.  I just acted.  Even now, I'm hoping he doesn't realise that I have some training in a combat art.  A consequence of my actions, according to other volunteers, is that he was in a foul mood for the rest of the day.

What's going on?

This wasn't an exercise in chi sau.  That's a good thing because, although I am recently getting much better, I am not, in any way, good in chi sau.  The contact reflex came into play, but the initial double bil sau effectively plucked an attack (or two, I suppose) out of the air.  When contact with the opponent's arms was lost, enough information had been given away through the contact and subsequent loss of contact that I instinctively dropped my arms into a double lower gaan sau.

The last time I had a chance to see my wing chun working was in a sparring session with an MMA type.  I was lucky.  He had all kinds of preconceived notions about wing chun, which completely misled him regarding what to expect from me.  To cut a long story short, he had been watching YouTube videos and paying too much attention to the comments.  He underestimated me.  I love it when people underestimate me.

In wing chun class, my wing chun is poor.  In circumstances where I am trying not to use it, my wing chun is good enough.  I say it is good enough for a reason.  I've always known that the forms of wing chun, or indeed any martial art where kata, taolu, hyung, jurus, anyo or other set sequences are practised, represent ideal expressions of techniques.  Anyone who understands wing chun, for example, will know that my double bil sau/double gaan sau sequence couldn't possibly have stuck to the centreline principle.  It is unlikely that we will ever perform techniques exactly as they appear in the forms.  Instead, the forms should be regarded as a method to lock certain responses into our neural pathways, to rewire our brains.  If, in the heat of battle, these responses are enough to stop us being hit, they may not be perfect, but they are good enough.

When I am practising alone, my training is basically the forms of wing chun - sil lum tao, chum kiu and, at this stage, the beginnings of biu jee.  There is no chi sau, no sparring (those things require a training partner).

I also practise the twelve zone striking drill which is common to balintawak, kombatan and modern arnis as well.  I have found this useful in improving my coordination and hand speed.  On top of those benefits, I have a better understanding of weapons than I would otherwise.

A bit of a boost

Over the weekend, an old friend took part in a cage fight.  He won the fight quickly.  If you're interested in that kind of thing, there is a video of the fight.
During a discussion about this fight, my brother said that he believes wing chun is useless.  We were in the presence of another member of the family, who further suggested that I have never been a good fighter, and they both agreed on this point.  Leaving aside the fact that they have no evidence to support or refute such a view, it's not an insult which would usually trouble me.  Coming after a dismissal of wing chun, however, knowing that in a matter of days I will have been practising the art for five years, it didn't sit well with me.

I have a compiled version of Alan Gibson's works on wing chun.  Previously, these were published as the "wing chun works" series.  In his introduction to the series, Alan explained that most practitioners reach a stage where they question whether wing chun is truly effective, and he named the series with his answer to the question.  It's a sentiment that I echo.

After the dismissal of my chosen combat art, by people close to me, seeing it work provided a welcome boost.  Again, it seems that I am at my best when I am not consciously trying to do wing chun.  The message seems to be that we must practise, practise, and practise some more, but when we have to actually use this stuff, we just allow our limbs to act as they have been trained to act.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Karate Kid

I stumbled across a blog post which briefly compares the newer version of The Karate Kid with the classic version from 1984.  I broadly agree with what is said, but it prompted me to add my own thoughts.

The original film is one of my favourites.  Ralph Macchio is more than a little irritating, and the martial arts skills on display are laughable, but the film has a great story and a good feel to it.  The 2010 Jaden Smith vehicle, by contrast, is an insult to my intelligence.

The sequels to the original film were poor, especially the one featuring Hilary Swank.  Oh, yeah, that one was bad.  However, none of them, to my mind, reach the depths of the 2010 film.  Some of my problems with it are...

Karate does not feature, so the title makes no sense.

The mystical nonsense in the film contributes to a poor view of Chinese martial arts.

Two of the producers are Jaden Smith's parents.  I smell nepotism.

The story is terrible.

As stated in the blog post I read, basic karate is replace by unnecessarily and unrealistically flashy moves.

I'd rather watch Kung Fu Panda.  At least, with those films, you know they aren't meant to be taken seriously.  The original film is a classic, and they shouldn't have touched it.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

The steady westernisation of Asian combat arts

An old friend of mine will be fighting in an octagon tomorrow, in a mixed martial arts match against someone with whom he shares a mutual hatred.  I've just found out that another old friend is currently in a medically induced coma, because he developed a brain haemorrhage whilst training in a gym.  The two things are connected by the way our culture practically worships the ability of one human being to dominate another by physical force.

I remember seeing an argument, on one of the many comment threads I see online, about whether Brazilian jiu jitsu or Japanese jujutsu is superior.  I'll leave aside the reasons for this kind of comparison being futile.  What interested me was that one participant considered Brazilian jiu jitsu to be inferior to "good old, dump 'em on their head, British jujitsu."  My initial thought was that the jujitsu which has been practised for over one hundred years in the UK is essentially Japanese, but I almost immediately changed my mind about that.

I've always said that a combat art, or any cultural import, will be shaped according to the environment in which it finds itself.  Boxing, for example, was originally a sporting competition with very little in the way of rules.  Headlocks (referred to as "head in chancery"), kicks, throws and grappling were all allowed.  We know this because accounts of some of these bouts still exist.  The Marquess of Queensbury rules removed these from the modern sport, and added boxing gloves.  Interestingly, the addition of gloves enabled fighters to hit harder without damaging their hands, and deaths in the ring increased accordingly.

The point is that we seem to have a history of associating combat methods with sporting competition, and there being a winner and a loser.  There is no philosophical pondering, no agreed code of conduct: there is only a winner and a loser.  Whether they were originally steeped in the principles of Zen, Taoism, Confucianism or other philosophies that are not native to the UK, imported Asian martial arts eventually lose that context and become "westernised".

Cage fighting contests are, perhaps, the most visible example of the westernisation of combat sports.  Muay Thai is one of the most widely used arts which make up the striking component of MMA, but the tradition of Ram Muay (a dance used to show respect for one's trainer) is rarely seen.  Brazilian jiu jitsu is often used for the grappling component, and is derived from Japanese judo, but I have yet to witness the fighters showing respect by bowing to each other.  The rather modern tradition of trash talk is the antithesis of the traditions surrounding many martial arts.

Even in competitions featuring traditional martial arts, I see those who win their categories lifting trophies and raising an index finger to reinforce the point that they are number one.  Are those who fought bravely, but did not win a trophy, being shown their due respect?  When I see such behaviour, I can't help thinking that, on their way to winning a prize which has little real meaning, these fighters have lost something far more important.

I have no wish to hurt another person, just to win a trophy or prize.  I can't condemn those who do but, to me, it's something which is ethically suspect.  The behaviour of the crowds watching these spectacles is even more worrying for me.  They actually want to see one human being beat another to a pulp, and shout loudly that one should hit the other even harder.  The spilling of blood prompts cheering, and the brutal destruction of a fighter becomes a cause for celebration.

Maybe I have picked up more of the philosophy and less of the fighting content of the Asian combat arts.  I believe that there is no victory in hurting, possibly causing permanent damage to, another human being.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The art of fighting without fighting? Let's just call it the art of not fighting

"To fight and conquer one hundred times is not the perfection of attainment, for the supreme art is to subdue the enemy without fighting." ~Sun Tzu

One of the most quoted pieces of dialogue in Enter the Dragon happens when Bruce Lee's character is asked about his style.  He replies that his style could be called the art of fighting without fighting.  The film isn't generally renowned for its dialogue, and yet this exchange stands out.

You can imagine the effect of Bruce's reply on audiences who first saw the film in 1973.  They had paid to see a kung fu spectacular, man pitted against man in a fight to the death.  By today's standards, Enter the Dragon is not a particularly violent film, but there are numerous fights and a considerable body count.  Strange then, that such a sentiment should be expressed in a film which portrays martial artists as otherwise cruel and morally corrupt.

A number of things have led to me writing this post.  During a relatively subdued wing chun class, with a smaller than usual attendance, the instructor touched on the subject of a student's motivation for learning wing chun.  If we want to become a fighter, he said, how far down that road do we want to go?  Eventually, we would become desensitised to violence and may even feel the need to hurt people, to get that rush of adrenaline.  He has seen many people, maybe even close friends, go that way.

Added to the thoughts of the instructor are my own recent thoughts about wing chun, and combat arts in general, both ancient and modern.  If we look at the law on reasonable force, at least as it stands in the United Kingdom, our response to an attack is limited, and some of the responses which are trained, especially in the older combat arts, can not be judged as reasonable under any circumstances.

I always held the view that I was training in skills I hoped I would never have to use.  Now, I realise that at least some of what I am training can never be used.  As Ip Man is quoted as saying, it doesn't go out the door.  The question must be asked again.  Why are we training?  If we are taking part in competitions, our reasons are clear.  If we're training to keep ourselves safe, then our reasons are clear.  In both cases, however, we find that the older arts are incompatible with the modern world.

I happen to think that the older combat arts will adapt to the modern world, to the laws of reasonable force, just as they have adapted to the environment in which they have found themselves many times before.  Again, it falls on the practitioner to be responsible.  If a situation arises where we must act out an improvised version of those trained responses, we must simply do what is necessary and nothing more.

I've been in situations where I've felt threatened, where the possibility of a violent assault was very real, and no one, ultimately, was hurt.  I honestly can't remember when I last had to fight.  I've drawn a picture in my mind of what I could do to the other person, how much damage I could inflict, and it's not something I really want to do.  Fighting is horrific, bloody, and usually senseless.  After a while, it also gets boring.

Fighting without fighting?  Let's just not fight.  Someone is bound to get hurt.  I find fighting tedious.  If you want to take away my choice in the matter, I'll try to dispose of you as a threat as quickly as possible.  That's why I train in wing chun.  Like I said, I find the whole thing tedious.