Thursday, 8 May 2014

Kung fu and self defence

When I'm not writing or looking into history, I'm generally to be found doing something vaguely violent to other people. Over the years, I've practised a lot of different martial arts, including quite a lot that many people would consider a bit non-functional as actual fighting systems. It's something I have strong opinions on, mostly because I feel that if you're teaching a martial art in ways that don't work well, then you're potentially putting your students in danger. But I think the point here is more about the ways in which people choose to train, rather than the label they stick on it.

To illustrate this, I'd like to talk about kung fu and some modern day "combatives" or "Reality Based Self Defence" systems.

Kung fu is quite often derided in modern martial arts or self-defence circles. Start talking about straight blasts, or trapping, or doing "monkey presents peaches" in response to an attack, and you'll get some suspicious looks. There are reasons for it. In far too many classes, the students will spend far more time doing forms or two person set pieces than anything else. Or they'll talk a bunch of nonsense about chi and dim mak. Or they'll never do any fighting on the ground. Or my personal favourite, it being "too dangerous" to spar with. There's also traditionally a sense of harking back to mythical or legendary practitioners of the past, whether it's Yip Man, Chang Sang Feng, or just a general sense of Shaolin monks somewhere in the past. It's not true of every class, but it's certainly the prevailing image of the art.

I don't want to talk about my problems with this today (although I plan on coming back to it, because people still don't seem to be getting the message). What I would like to talk about is the extent to which some "self defence" classes have become everything they make fun of in Kung Fu. Some, not all. I want to make it clear that there are plenty of combatives and modern martial arts classes out there that do train hard. But...

But there are plenty of RBSD classes out there that talk about pressure points, or say that if you hit someone with their supremely vicious techniques, you will win any fight. And of course, the violence of those techniques means that it's too dangerous to spar with, so that you can only work on pads, or with a partner throwing set techniques and then freezing in place while you throw a dozen strikes back and feel good about how much you're progressing. These classes have gone from saying a perfectly sensible "get off the ground as quickly as you can" to "we're not going to train there because you don't want to be there. They don't hark back to Shaolin monks, but they are quick to talk about the special forces people who have used their techniques...

What I'm saying here is that it's not down to what you call your art when it comes to martial arts. It's not about what tradition you're from. It's how you train. Kung fu can be as effective as anything else if you train the right way. Self defence can become an absolute joke if it isn't. If you practice a martial art, ask yourself how you're training.

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