What is the purpose of martial arts: Fighting, preservation of a historical culture, or character refinement? All are viable reasons, depending on the practitioner's goals, but a small moment of training recently illuminated a wide array of controversies and concerns in the practice of modern martial arts today, including Tai Chi Chuan.
I was invited to participate in a black belt workshop in historical Japanese jujitsu.
Of the fifteen participants, five were judans (10th degree black belts), so the rest
of us got high-quality attention. At one point the most senior of these red belts was
demonstrating the finishing moves of a complex technique that, if executed effectively,
will likely destroy the neck, shoulders, knees, and hips of the opponent.
As techniques go, it is complex. The chances of completing such a move on the street
in a self-defense situation are remote; and if you did, chances are the opponent would
be killed or crippled before the final finishing moves.
At the point of the body drop that destroys the knees, which was clearly difficult even
for the most advanced guys there, I noticed that the flats of the opponent's feet were
pointed upward, completely exposed.
"Why not just punch his kidney-1 point and be done with him?" I asked the sensei.
My understanding has long been that punching kidney-1, the point in the middle of the
foot that the Chinese call yang chuan, can be a killing blow if struck just right,
but how often do we get a chance to punch the bottom of a foot? Not often. We also
know that in a fight situation, our ability to control our finer muscles is almost
non-existent. For this reason only the simplest and most direct techniques, such as
the close punch I suggested, are
likely to work. I was just curious about the reason for the complexity when a simple
and direct punch to a vital point should suffice.
"I don't know, I've just been doing this for 60 years," he said sarcastically. "I
haven't had time to learn that pressure point stuff."
Had I been less experienced I might have been shaken up by that rebuff, but the truth is that
my question, and his response, perfectly illuminate two different points of view about
why train the way we do. Neither is wrong; neither is right. It comes down to
In other words, asking that question gave me more insight into intentions than into
the technique itself.
The red belts in attendance, like most teachers top-ranked in their systems, are
dedicated to the exact preservation of their historical art-their art as it was practiced
in the days of medieval Japanese battlefield warfare, before firearms. Many techniques
on the assumptions of battlefield realities of the day, where everyone wore suits
of armor. Against armor, jujitsu and similar arts can be effective by attacking the
joints, which are vulnerable. Against such armor, striking arts such as karate are
The response I got was made in that vein. Had I thought about it a little more before
asking the question, I might have predicted it. Instead I opened my mouth and asked.
Opening my mouth has been known to get me into trouble, but it has also opened the door
for knowledge not otherwise obtainable. Like all power, advanced martial arts insights
are not given, they are seized.
I asked the question because my goal, my own reason for participating, was to get more
practice doing things that are street-effective. In my practice of martial arts, if it
doesn't work for the original martial purpose, it's a waste of time. The difference
in my point of view, and that of many of my previous senior training buddies,
is we recognize that over the centuries, circumstances have changed what it means to
fight and be fought.
Such a realization leads some to abandon certain old techniques, while sprucing up others
as the environment requires. The "environment" includes our own body types. Each of
us has a different body and body type. Any techniques learned must be adopted with an
understanding of these differences. Short, heavy guys, for instance, are tough to throw;
taller guys are easier to throw and find it harder to get low enough to throw their
opponents. Taller guys are more likely to do well with higher kicking attacks, unless
their shorter opponents can get beneath them.
Had he chosen, the sensei might have pointed out that in a battlefield situation, the
opponent would be wearing boots, not going barefooted as we practice in the training hall.
A punch to the bottom of a booted foot would be pointless, as I mentioned earlier. To
make that point, though, he would have had to concede the futility of training barefoot,
when the only time we are likely to fight barefoot is in the bedroom or on the beach
(and I don't mean Normandy or Inchon).
Barefoot training is part of the cultural preservation that some give preference to,
rather than fighting effectiveness.
Keep in mind that I am making observations, not criticisms. Our reasons for training
vary, but are always personal. Even over the course of our martial arts careers, our own
reasons and goals evolve as our bodies age and our minds mature. Every day in training,
at least at advanced levels, we hold our partners' lives in our hands with every technique
practiced. Successfully maneuvering through such a training landscape, over years and
decades, inevitably adds to our appreciation of the fragility of life, and the need to
In my primary art of taijiquan, changes are threatening to take place fast. Tai Chi
marketers are exerting pressure to abandon the martial roots and techniques, and turn
it into either a New Age or medical health practice. Most of these practices are more
accurately termed "exercise mildly influenced by a tiny fraction of Tai Chi principles".
They have a place, but they bear the same relationship to historical Tai Chi that
Velveeta bears to real cheese. Does that mean they are bad? Does that mean they have
no value? Not at all, but neither are they Tai Chi. When it comes to Tai Chi, I am
one of those red belts who want to preserve the historical authenticity of the art, which
includes its fighting effectiveness.
The technique I suggested, that the red belt scorned, was not jujitsu. In essence, that
was what was wrong with my idea. Like many advanced martial artists, I cross-train in
other disciplines in order to gain insights into and refine my primary art. I do not
train to earn an advanced rank in everything I do. I am not trying to help preserve every
system that I taste or absorb. My question was made by someone looking to incorporate a
technique into his already-existing bag of tricks, not preserve jujitsu. That's not
wrong, but without guys like the judans, these arts would not last another generation -
and then we would all lose the benefits of the art. I appreciate their role, and look
forward to future training with them.
This discussion still leaves a lot of uncovered territory, such as questions of character
refinement versus martial effectiveness. In my experience, the best fighters are often
the most uncouth; conversely, some of the most couth are among those least interested in
martiality. The individual who hones both sides to a razor point, that is a true master.
Few can claim such an accomplishment.
I ran across another problem in the practice of modern martial arts, common in every
school in which I have trained, whether Japanese, Chinese or Korean-the problem I have heard
called dojo syndrome. Let's save that for next time.