Friday, August 14, 2020


                                                                    by Yang Shuangxing

     The “audience”; in this case, observers of various martial arts demonstrations, competitions, and even (Chinese) opera, and street performers, have had a rather profound impact on the evolution (or de-evolution, depending on how you look at it) of our current martial arts.  Let me explain:

      Just after WWII, interest in the martial arts in Japan suffered terribly.  The people, who were suffering unimaginable hardships because of the war laid the blame for the whole thing at the feet of bushido – the warrior's “code”, which the leaders (who had led the nation into war in the first place) had twisted and warped to suit their ambitions.  Enrollment in martial arts classes hit an all-time low, but within a few years, judo began to recover.  Many martial arts leaders of the time figured that this was due to judo's emphasis on its sporting aspect (and personally, I think they were correct).  Kendo began to emphasize a sporting front as well.  The karate leaders, fearing or the survival of their art, looked for ways to conduct competitions that would draw large crowds.

      This led to various changes being made to some of the kata – it was an attempt (and a very successful one) to make the older, traditional Okinawan kata more exciting to watch; this would lead to larger audiences and hopefully, increases in erollment.  The use of side snap kicks (which, so far as I know, do not exist in traditional Okinawan karate) replaced front kicks in many kata.  Side kicks are very infrequent in older Okinawan kata and when they are used, they utilize a side-thrust kick that rarely, if ever, travels higher than the knee.  Front kicks never go higher than the waist.

     The roundhouse kick never appears in traditional Okinawan kata.  First, it was (and still is) felt that such a movement left the groin too exposed and unprotected...and secondly, the roundhouse kick as we know it (which is correctly done with the ball of the foot) didn't exist until the late 1940's!  It was developed by a senior instructor of the Japan Karate Association for use in sparring competitions, thereby adding a new and very exciting element to the mix.  A roundhouse kick of sorts (going by various names, such as the “cutting kick”) were used in some Chinese styles (but never seen in their forms) and Muay-Thai, but it was and still is, performed differently and makes contact with the top of the instep and/or shin...and if you've ever kicked a jaw or elbow with the top of your foot, you can see why the ball of the foot was preferred by the Japanese.  Kicking with the ball of foot is also much more destructive to the target!

     When foot-pads and foam padded mitts were introduced into karate/taekwondo competitions back in the early 1970's, I warned against what would happen...cometitors quickly saw that they could easily kick with the top of the foot (or even the toes) and gain a quick point because the pad extended their reach quite a bit and before long, that's how most schools began to teach the roundhouse kick – so much so that nowadays, the original version (using the ball of the foot) has been almost completely forgotten!

     The original taekwondo forms were actually Japanese kata, since the founder and other leaders of taekwondo had studied karate in Japan (most of them did so while attending Japanese universities).  But with the passage of time the leaders of taekwondo wanted to further distinguish their art from the Japanese model and to this end, kicks in many forms became higher and higher.  This made the forms very exciting to watch; again, this was, in my opinion, done primarily to increase interest rather than improve upon the form's combative value.  And it worked!

     China is a bit of a different story.  Whereas karate, per se, is probably litle more than 400 yrs. Old and taekwondo, per se, didn't come into its own until the end of the Korean War in 1953, Chinese martial ways date back thousands of years.  To better understand all of this, we must first look into the subject of Chinese art (paintings)... 

     One type, known as gongbi (工筆,meticulous”), seeks to render a picture-perfect replica of the subject, whether it's a flower, tree, or whatever.  The other form of painting is called xieyi (寫意, freehand style) and it aims at presenting the essence or spirit of the subject; the observer must utilize his own imagination as he looks at the painting.  The art of Japanese sumi-e is a perfect example of this.  And so it is with many Chinese forms of gong-fu... 

     Numerous gong-fu styles, forms, and movements/postures are named after certain creatures, from tigers to dragons, chickens, monkeys, the praying mantis, and so on (even drunkards).  Some of them aim at imitating, as best they can, the movements of the creature for which their particular style is named.  This would be akin to the gongbi form of painting.  It is my opinion (for whatever it's worth) that such styles imitated animal movements to a lesser degree back in the day.  But people loved watching performers make some of these movements, particularly in the opera and street performances, and so – to attract more paying customers/observers – practitioners began to enhance their forms considerably.  Nowadays, there are enthusiasts who do their level best to imitate, as realistically as possible, the animal movements.  The wiser ones know better, however, and their renditions of their forms/movements are directed more towards practicality than thrilling audiences. 

     The internal style (such as taijiquan, xingyiquan, and baguazhang) are closer to the xieyi form of painting; although they name movements (and in xingyi, even whole forms) after various animals, they make no attempt to imitate the movements of the creatures.  Rather, they seek to emulate the essence of their movements...which usually are a far cry from an accurate imitation.  In fact, they regard accurate, meticulous imitations as incorrect.


1 comment:

  1. Totally understand dear Sifu, we train with the ball of the foot for all kicks of course side & back kicks use different areas but it’s all about using the strongest striking point, I’ve even seen Kick boxers drop cause they’ve smashed their instep on an opponent’s elbow
    So my question is keeping the bunkai the best way of thinking than trying to make kata “look” really sharp? I’d rather make it more functional than looking pretty, I’m never going back into competition again..