Saturday, 29 August 2015

Five years of wing chun

August the 18th went by unnoticed this year, and yet it marks an important milestone for me.  As of that date, I have officially been studying and practising wing chun for five years.

I was going to share some insights but, right now, I feel like holding back would be the wiser course of action.  I don't know whether it is a case of familiarity breeding contempt, but people I have known for years have made it clear that they don't respect what I do.  It's not just that they would question whether I have any insight or ability, in wing chun or anything else, but I have come to realise that I am underestimated, undervalued, and basically not respected for anything that I may accomplish.  I've had a lifetime of this.

It's a timely reminder that, although few people are truly evil, there are those who are so misguided that they don't realise the hurt they cause.  Would I risk sharing my acquired wisdom with such people?  No.

I've spent about fourteen years, on and off, obsessively honing my ability as a fighter.  When I started along that path, I was in a situation where I was convinced that my survival was dependent on learning the most effective combat arts, so that is what I set out to do.

I'm going to mark five years in wing chun by practising more and practising smarter.  I know where I have to improve and how to achieve my stated goal, but knowing is only a part of the battle.  It's time to practise those skills.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The reality of wing chun

When it comes to fighting, most people are cowards.  Certainly, the guy with whom you were arguing earlier in the evening is a coward.  That's why he wants to make sure the right hook he's throwing at your jaw comes as a surprise.  He probably said something which diverted your attention or made you think he was walking past you.

Of course, he's close enough that he has a good chance of landing that punch, and that means he's practically in your face.  The roundhouse kick you've practised again and again - forget it.  If you duck and try to take him down, it'll just result in him hitting you on the cheek or higher on the head.  In a fraction of a second, you're down.  Just like he wanted, it's lights out before you even have a chance to respond.  He might decide to kick you in the head while you're down.  That's the nature of anger.  He'll probably think about the consequences later.

If only you'd trained to fight at this range, where the distance has already been closed and an ambush attack is on its way.  There isn't time to think at this range, so you want a collection of valid responses, you want to have trained them to the point where they are instinctive, and ideally you won't have to think about them.

Life isn't a ring or an octagon

I apologise if the opening of this piece is more aggressive in tone than usual.  It's the only language the keyboard warriors of the internet understand.  Most of them don't actually train in a martial art, but they love watching the UFC and other mixed martial arts competitions.  They also consider themselves experts in every conceivable combat system known to man, and feel qualified to say that systems whose development time can be measured in centuries are useless.

The situation I opened with is a situation for which wing chun was designed.  An ambush attack is measured in fractions of a second, and has to be dealt with in the same time frame.  If the whole cage fighting thing has taught us anything, it's that people are surprisingly reluctant to fight, if both parties know a fight is about to happen.  Not many have the courage to step into an octagon, a ring or onto a competition mat, so instead they attack through deception and at close quarters.

There's the primary difference between competitive fighting and the type of situation for which wing chun was created - knowing that a fight is going to happen would be something of a luxury in the environment within which wing chun was created.

If you train for competitive fighting or self protection, and you think that either environment has the same rules as the other, it is better that you get a wake up call right now than when you have to test your theory.

Range (I may have to get technical here)

Wing chun is known as a close quarters combat system.  If you look at videos on the internet, though, you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise.  Watch the videos where wing chun students are sparring with karate students, for example, and you'll see them maintaining a range at which the karate practitioners are happy to fire off their arsenal of kicks.  It's the same when they are faced with muay Thai, taekwondo and other kicking arts.  So, what's going on?

Remember wing chun's focus.  From the very start, the assumption is that we are facing a surprise attack, and the distance has already been closed.  If we are to use the greater part of our training, we risk walking into a kick or another longer range attack on our way in.  Notice how most competitive fights involve the fighters moving into range of each other.

Wing chun sucks at a longer range, right?  Wrong.  We have ways of getting into range.  If we use the example of a kick coming at us as an example, the prescribed response is to cover with a block and kick the supporting leg, taking the power out of the kick and disturbing the opponent's balance long enough for us to move in and use our hands.  Why isn't it used in all those sparring and cage fighting videos?  Well, one of the targets for the standard front kick is the knee.  Another one is the hip.  Or, there's a downward kick aimed at the lower leg, designed to break the ankle.  If you can't understand why the forward thrusting kick of wing chun, aimed at these targets, might be a problem in a competitive environment, then I don't think any amount of explaining wing chun will be enough for you.

Let's also consider the level of wing chun we are seeing in these fights as well.  I've seen many videos of a Steve someone-or-other fighting in an octagon or on a competition mat.  In one fight, he was introduced as one of the top wing chun fighters in the world.  Apart from the videos, I've never heard of him.  In one particular fight in an octagon, an eastern European fighter takes him to the ground, and he offers no reply.  We have ways of dealing with attempts at taking us to the ground (shuai jiao, the predecessor of Japanese jujutsu, is a Chinese art).  I'm not going to reveal what they are, but we have them.

My point is that a lot of these fighters don't seem to have much experience.  Their form is wrong.  Some of them dance about on their toes.  Kicks don't even appear in the first form, so it's fair to say that a few years of training is needed before a wing chun practitioner will become proficient at kicking, unless we change the way we practise.  Using kicks sparingly is good wing chun; not using them at all may be a sign that someone hasn't learned much wing chun yet.

A lot of wing chun schools don't spar, and students don't test themselves.  I applaud any of the videos that represent a student's first steps in sparring or testing themselves against another combat discipline, but let's not misinterpret what's going on.  If you are going to label it as martial art X versus martial art Y, at least ensure that both fighters are experienced in what they claim to represent.

Here's a short video to illustrate my point about correct range.  Notice the strike to the eye occurs at a range which suits wing chun, when he is able to close the distance.

Here's a potentially more contentious video about fighting range in wing chun...

The gloves are off

I've heard it said many times that the gloves take away a lot of wing chun's effective techniques.  That may be true, but the problem is a lot more fundamental than that.  Gloves change the nature of a fight, because they protect the hands.

I noticed a long time ago that the wing chun forms, which are our reference to how this stuff should be used, contain no punches to head height.  The punches go out roughly at chest height, maybe as high as the neck as well (not recommended, unless you want to run the risk of killing someone).  The lineage I study has removed Ip Man's palm-up punch to the abdomen, but I have restored it in the second form for my own practice, because I consider it useful.  Anyway, the point is that open hand strikes are used to the head.

How easy is it to perform a palm strike with gloves on?  Not at all easy.  Still, a lot of videos show wing chun students punching to the head, which is going against what we are shown by the forms.  Essentially, this is changing the art to suit a different environment.

As a side note, I'm disappointed to see Samuel Kwok supporting bare knuckle boxing, as shown in the video below.  Aside from the ethical issues I have with him supporting competitive fighting, it is quite a different skill set to that which is needed when dealing with an ambush attack.


There's a lot more I could say about this issue, but it's probably an exercise in futility, and it is for the good of humanity that certain people do not understand combat arts.

You'd be right to question my own knowledge of martial arts.  I'm happy to be judged on what I write here, because it's an honest representation of my thoughts.  Am I able to put my knowledge into practice?  Well, that's another question entirely, and one I feel is answered only by fools.

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.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

I'm listening

Earlier in the week, I attended an interview.  I'd like to tell you that it was a job interview, but it was an interview for voluntary work with Samaritans, something I last did over two years ago.

Later in the week, I practised my counselling skills, as part of the counselling skills course I am currently attending.  I thought the other members of the class were very good, and they received some constructive feedback from the observer.  I wasn't confident about my own ability but, surprisingly, all the feedback I received was positive.  I was puzzled.  No criticism at all?  Surely there is always room for improvement?

During the interview at Samaritans, I was asked about my reasons for leaving the service two years ago, which is understandable.  I replied that, at the time, I had too many things going on outside of my volunteering with the organisation.  That's true.  It's not the whole story, though.

The problem

For as long as I can remember, I've been an introvert.  People would say I was a quiet child and, even now, might say I don't often contribute much to a conversation.  In reality, I listen.  I process what people say.  Only when I have something meaningful to say do I say it.  Mostly, though, I listen.  Any introverts who are reading this will know how tiring this interaction can be, and will be familiar with the need to be alone sometimes, to recover.  It can seem that others are throwing words and feelings at you, at a machine gun pace, and it can be overwhelming.

I'll admit to being flawed in one essential way.  I can forget that empathy is not a universal trait.  I'm only human.  It can seem that no one wants to listen to my concerns, or how I feel.  In the past, I've seen this as a fault with others.  My relationship with them, I reasoned, is one-sided.  I'm the one who listens intently and, when it is my turn to speak, no one wants to listen.  For a long time, I carried a lot of anger and resentment around with me, over this issue.  Unfortunately, this idea that no one wanted to listen led to me being even less vocal, withdrawing from opportunities to socialise with others, and going into a downward spiral that eventually resulted in a major depression.

To some extent, volunteering equipped me with skills which were necessary to deal with this.  Most importantly, I learned not to judge others, to accept that I could only ever see their behaviour, and never fully understand the forces driving their behaviour.  The pace at which those skills developed, however, was easily outpaced by the cumulative effect of dealing with other peoples' problems and not being kind to myself.  It was this concept of being kind to myself which would prove vital to my continued support of those who needed my support.

Winding down

It is acceptable for us to take some time out.  If you'll forgive my use of a metaphor, we have to press the reset button.  I've heard that some like to go fishing.  Others play golf.  At least one person I know likes to go to a coffee shop and read a book.  There are no rules.  There is something you enjoy, and you are more relaxed when you are doing it.  We must restore the balance, and ensure that we have some positive experiences in our life.  As I discovered, at great cost, a lack of these positive experiences leaves us ill-equipped to deal with the challenges we face in our daily lives.

I reconnected with mindfulness in the time since.  There are things I enjoy, of course, but mindfulness serves as my reset switch.  The simple realisation that I can support others, not having to carry their suffering with me, enables me to find the peace that I was previously unable to find.  Best of all, I don't have to find a river, a coffee shop or a golf course.

During the practice of my counselling skills, I had to take on the role of a client, so that another student could practise their skills.  It was noted that I am uneasy with talking about myself, and especially how I feel.  I need to work on this.  I have to accept my flaws, so that I may work around them or work to improve, but I also need to work on accepting that, in some ways, I am okay.  So, I'll take the lack of constructive criticism as a sign that I may actually be quite good at supporting those in distress.