Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dilution of martial techniques: chudan uke


People are often at me to illustrate what I mean when I talk about "dilution" in karate/martial arts so I thought I'd do so by reference to the common chudan uke or chest deflection. I have chosen chudan uke because I think it provides one of the starkest examples of how a technique can be passed down from generation to generation with the same macro movement - but with all the essential details missing.

In this article I will be referencing a particular karateka of a particular school (see below) not because I wish to denigrate either, but because I am respectfully diametrically opposed to how they do their chudan uke - and their video clearly highlights our differences in approach. I'm sure that the student is an excellent all-round karateka and fighter and that the school is reputable, however in respect of their chudan uke we have a technical disagreement. I will outline why I feel I am "right" and why their performance of chudan uke (which is probably the most common variation of this technique in karate today) constitutes a dilution of functional knowledge.

The "diluted" version commonly seen today

Chudan uke as commonly executed in karate today

First let me examine the performance of the chudan uke in the video above. The version of chudan uke is what I call the "shorin" version (ie. predominantly used in the Shuri and Tomari te traditions as opposed to the Naha te traditions such as goju ryu and uechi ryu).

You will note from the adjacent images that this performance of the block begins by swinging the blocking arm to one side with the palm up. I have italicized palm up because I think this is quite critical - as you will see later.

While this is happening the other arm is being loaded for a pull back. In this regard you will see that it is thrust forward almost as a punch. Again, the use of this "supporting" arm is quite critical and I will address this issue in due course.

Finally the arm is then swung sideways in a smashing action - an issue that I feel highlights the major difference between how I feel the chudan uke should not be performed.

Both the start and finish positions are the same: the forearm is vertical, elbow well away from the body and in line with the shoulder. Again this is something I feel is critical and I will address it shortly. The angle in the elbow crease at the start and finish appears to be correct: 90 degrees.

The 2 main variations of chudan uke

As I have mentioned there are 2 main variations of chudan uke and I will proceed to describe how they should be performed. Ultimately elements of both can and should be combined in applying an effective deflection against an attack. Indeed many kata (eg. seipai from goju ryu) contain movements which combine both basic versions of chudan uke.

The "correct" way of performing the various versions of chudan uke

The Naha te chudan uke performed correctly

I'll start with the Naha te version because I feel that it is actually easier to explain. It is the classic "wax on / wax off" movement unfairly lampooned since the Karate Kid movies but utilising a closed fist instead of an open hand (the arc inscribed by the circular movement is identical in both closed fist and open hand versions).

The technique begins by shooting your primary blocking/deflecting hand outward and upward at an angle of about 45 degrees both horizontally and vertically (as if you had a platter on your chest at a 45 degree angle and you were rubbing the platter with the back of your forearm).

As with the version demonstrated at the start of this article, the primary hand is palm up (ie. big knuckles down).

However the most critical difference is that the arm does not swing sideways: it goes out to intercept the attack. At the moment it reaches the attack it does so at an angle allowing the attack to be "wedged" or "slipped".

As the deflection starts to "wedge" the attack, you further aid the redirection of the attack by continuing a circular movement at the 45 degree angle - inscribing the circle at the before-mentioned 45 degree angle.

As you can see from the images to the right, the attack is intercepted and deflected. Despite my frequent use of the term "block" (which I do out of habit - see for example my article "Why blocks DO work") the technique does not "block" or "stop" the attack; rather it uses the power of the circle to "slip" the attack.

At no point are you "smashing" the attack away either. In fact, the less "impact" you can make while still deflecting the attack, the better. You don't want to use force against force. You want to use efficient technique.

You will note from the above images that your secondary arm doesn't stay idle either. As I have discussed at length in my article "Two for the price of one: more about karate 'blocks'", the secondary arm inscribes its own circle, acting as a backup block - or perhaps even the primary one, leaving the lead hand to be used in attack.

The "secondary" arm of chudan uke

The "shorin" chudan uke performed correctly

As with the Naha te version, the "shorin" chudan uke utilizes a circle to deflect the attack. However the circle utilized in the shorin version is the rotation of the forearm (from palm down to palm up) rather than an arc inscribed by the forearm moving out to intercept the attack.

As you will note from the pictures on the left, the use of this kind of deflection is dependent partly on having your arm out to one side (although that is scarcely an issue: most basic movements rely on your arms being in a particular position - if they are not, you must opt for another, more contextual response).

You will note that unlike the version at the start of this article, the primary arm starts out palm down - not palm up. It is the turn of the forearm that "wedges" or deflects the attack. Without it, you simply do not have a deflection - you have a brute force smash.

What is so wrong with the first version?

The version of chudan uke at the start of this article (the "diluted version") is problematic in that it misses many of the details I have referred to above.

Rather than deflect an incoming attack using a circle, the diluted version utilizes a "sideways swing" to "smash" the attack out of the way. This approach has 2 major problems:

First, in order to achieve a smash your arm has to load - meaning that you have to swing it to one side in order to effect the smash. I recall as a young martial arts teacher being confronted with this issue when a rank beginner asked me: "What stops me from just hitting you as your arm goes to the side?" Of course it only occurred to me later that night that the chudan uke we predominantly use effects an interception - it doesn't swing to the side. But the student never came back, so I never got to answer his question.

Of course, as I've stated above, all deflections are "contextual" and it is true that the shorin variation requires your arm to be in a particular position for it to work. But this is different from requiring a "swing" to create momentum for a smash.

Which brings me to my second point: even if you can smash an attack out of the way, why would you? This use of brute force is a most inefficient (and painful) way of dealing with an attack. I know some people argue that their system relies on "attacking" their opponents limbs, using blocks as "strikes", however I have yet to see anyone using the diluted chudan uke in sparring.

On the other hand I use at least a portion of the chudan uke deflection in every sparring session and have for almost 3 decades of training. It is important to remember that the 2 versions of chudan uke are basics: they teach you principles of deflection and the correct angles of attack. In sparring you apply the principles you've learned from these basics - or a portion of those basics (given that they are "complete" movements of which you might only need to rely on a particular part).

The picture to the above left shows me using the "secondary portion" of the chudan uke in recent sparring (again see my article "Two for the price of one: more about karate 'blocks'"). The first, diluted version of chudan uke ignores this "secondary" aspect of the chudan uke.

The diluted version also leaves out more subtle details in the start and finish which, as I have discussed in my article "The karate 'kamae' or guard", create a "Clayton's gap" - ie. the appearance of a gap for a jab on your leading side which in fact isn't there at all.

This "Clayton's gap" is the basis of the old bareknuckle guard of old and requires your forearm to be angled so that your elbow is closer to the body. However in the diluted version there is no "Clayton's gap" - there is a real one.


The diluted version has almost certainly been passed down from instructor to student over many, many years. However when one passes down form without understanding its function there are bound to be copy errors. Over time these errors are magnified and compounded, resulting in the dilution that is now common.

Why has this dilution occurred? I believe it is almost certainly due to the lack of bunkai practised in karate once it left Okinawa. Gichin Funakoshi and others stressed the practise of basics in large groups of students, playing down the application of those basics.

Instead of applying basic technique, karate schools began to focus on sports fighting - developing the unique "ippon shobu" sparring (somewhat unfairly derided as "tag" sparring by some) that requires a small subset of techniques from karate. Blocks/deflections are rarely needed in this form of sparring.

Students doggedly continued practising their basics in the air, but sparred using the ippon shobu sports method. Nor did they practise drills or other bunkai which rely upon correct details in blocks/deflections. Slowly the copy errors began to creep in. One by one essential details were forgotten or reinterpreted until only the "macro" movement remained with none of the details that are essential to the application of the basic in real combat.

Today I see this dilution all around me - so I suppose it's no wonder that some combat sports fighters scoff at deflections/blocks.

I have had some people write to me saying "I did a year of x or a year of y and that was enough to prove to me that blocks don't work". I have typically replied: "Yes, but what kind of school was this?" Their response tends to be along the lines of: "You're such an elitist who thinks he knows everything - what makes you think your school knows how to do things properly?"

My answer to this logic: in the above examples you can see how a deflection can't possibly work and my examples show how a deflection should work in a logical framework.

I'm not "elitist" - I've just studied martial arts for 30 years, and I've done so with a critical eye. I haven't just accepted the things I've seen from different teachers. Rather, I have made up my own mind based on sorting the wheat from the chaff using logic and practical experience and by cross-referencing karate with the Chinese martial arts.

Even well-intentioned teachers can perpetuate dilutions (and goodness knows, I've been one of those at various times in relation to various techniques). With respect to the chudan uke, it is my view that unless you've been practising it with the above details in mind, you haven't really understood the essence of its function.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Memories of Taiwan: Lost in Translation

I was walking with my teacher, Chen Yun Ching, through the cluttered, stony streets of Qishan in southern Taiwan, blood-red paper and tinsel jostling with with the pushy crowds and endless market stalls.

"How do you you say 'Happy New Year'?" I asked him, and he paused, mid-stream, while people flowed around him, a rock in the rapids.

I carefully repeated his words again and again, watching his eyebrows raise higher and his eyes go wider in increasing exasperation at my mangled tones, until he finally waved his hand saying "hao" (good) - whether in satisfaction or in resignation, I wasn't sure.

With some optimism I shouted out my newly-acquired greeting to the first people I saw: a group of young men and women walking past, chatting amiably in the spirt of New Year's Eve revelry.

Almost at once they fell about laughing (literally, for one young man actually sank to the ground, hugging his belly), stamping their feet, vainly trying to stifle guffaws and holding out empty hands, while I stood there with a fading smile and an obvious question mark materializing over my head.

My teacher who was shaking his head proceeded to inform me that I, a relatively wealthy foreigner, had just shouted out to this group of poverty-stricken youths: "Give me your money!"

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Decadal Gashuku Part 4: The Aftermath

So what was the Decadal Gashuku all about? In 10 days we had run more than 150 km, performed close to 10 000 kicks and an equal number of punches, strikes and blocks. We had trained for 10 hours per day, sweated buckets of water, used up litres of sunscreen and eaten gallons of maltabela porridge. We had lifted chi shis, pressed the kongo ken, done thousands of knuckle push-ups, sit-ups, squat kicks and fireman lifts up steep hills.

Certainly the gashuku was, to a large extent, an exercise in spirit training. But there was much more to it than that, and it would be unfair to ignore these other aspects in the face of "more exciting" events like fractured vertebra, dislocated shoulders and dehydration-induced delirium.

The Decadal Gashuku is where I learned (and inculcated) some very useful (and in fact fundamental) martial material that in the pre-internet era was particularly hard to come by.

In weapons alone I learned Hamahiga no tonfa, Tsukenshitahaku sai kata (a trident form), Sakagawa no kon (an Okinawan 6 ft staff form), the 20 aiki jo suburi (4 ft staff basics), sanjuichi jo kata (31 count 4 ft staff form) and the 7 bokken suburi (basic sword cuts and thrusts).

The Decadal Gashuku is where I cemented my knowledge of the goju kata seipai and its applications, and it is where I first learned the kata seisan.

The goju kata seisan which I learned at the Decadal Gashuku (this video shows me performing it in 1993)

It is also the time where I learned Da Peng Zhan Chi or "Shaolin Peng" - one of the "bridging" internal forms of Hong Yi Xiang of Taipei (who died only a year or 2 later).

Da Peng Zhan Chi - one of the "bridging" forms I learned at the Decadal Gashuku

The Decadal Gashuku also marks the time that I first began my study of the art of taijiquan (Yang style) - every day we went through the first section until I had (at the very least) absorbed the sequence.

Add to the this the myriad fascinating 2-person drills that we practised, many of which are still rarely seen today.

Tensho kakie - a push hands exercise we practised at the Decadal Gashuku

Apart from the training, I also got the opportunity to practice at least an hour of zen breath counting meditation each day - an experience in itself.

Then there were the many people I met and friendships that I forged. I remember fondly our 2 nights of revelry (one mid-way through and the other at the end) where our teams put on humorous sketches followed by fireside sing-alongs led by a female student with a remarkable folk voice and a beat-up steel string guitar.

So what became of those people? Some of them I never heard from again and there are others whose names I no longer even recall.

There was young Brian who was taught to swim by my sister-in-law and fellow black belt Marie-Therese. I wonder what became of him?

Young Damien carried on training with Bob for another couple of years after the Decadal Gashuku, but abruptly quit. Bob told me once that he'd seen him in Johannesburg; he'd gained a lot of weight and had become a business executive. I still remember him as the little boy who slept leaning on my shoulder during the 22 hour drive across South Africa to our gashuku destination at Stilbaai in the southeastern Cape back in December 1984.

Big Rod and the ex-special forces troops are mere faces in photographs now (see the last 2 pictures in this post).

Bob recounted how Deshi Wyatt was still under his apprenticeship contract when he simply packed his bags one night and slipped off into the darkness never to be heard of again. As I recall, Wyatt was a law student like myself and had one or 2 years left to go. He sported a long scar down one cheek. When I asked how he'd got it, he said it was from a "live knife" demo with Bob. "I ducked when I should have weaved," he said simply.

Deshi Tony trained with Bob until around 1995/6, running a branch of Bob's college in a place called Pinetown. He eventually went his own way, calling his school something "Tony's Self Defence Academy". He really was a pleasant chap and I regret that we never hit it off. I won't lie; there have been times over the years when I have quietly cursed him for my aching back. But I'm fairly sure he didn't injure me maliciously and I rather suspect that if we were to meet again I'd be happy to see him.

I'm sorry that I don't remember the name of the rather generous person I've called "Mr Ho Chi". When we were packing up to leave it transpired that no one could give us a lift back to Durban. Mr Ho Chi was going the opposite way, but once again volunteered his services. This involved driving several hours out of his way to assist us. I might have forgotten his name, but I shall never forget his generosity.

Greg Seymour and Tim Hull returned with us to Australia and both carried on training for some time.

Greg (right, back) recovered from his dehydration and subsequent illness and gallantly continued with the gashuku. He trained with us on and off for many years until he moved to Japan where he realised his life's ambition of becoming a missionary. I last saw him in the late 90s but heard from him a few years ago.

Tim (centre front with shirt off) eventually moved to the town of Margaret River, having put enough money aside to go into semi-retirement at a very young age. He married a lovely girl and has a teenage boy named Oliver. I haven't spoken to him in years but believe he is in good health.

Nenad and I went back to Durban where we trained with Bob for another week or 2. During this time we were still in the "pressure cooker", acquiring more and more knowledge, for example muk yan chong or the wooden dummy form from wing chun. Unfortunately it was also the time I got my thumping as part of my nidan (second dan) assessment (fractured vertebra and all).

After that we came back to Perth and resumed our own lives and training, although it took many months for the injuries to heal. I tried to go for a run a couple of weeks after we got back, but had to give up after a few steps. Without the adrenaline the pain was simply too severe. There was probably some further damage from my last week of training in the dojo in Durban.

Against all expectations we held our own gashuku (our 3rd) in that same year at the Shannon National Park in Western Australia's southwest. It was to be an astounding success, fondly remembered by all. It marked the beginning of a love affair with that part of the State (we held 6 more gashukus at the same spot - the last being another "infamous" gashuku held by Lao shi Bob - fondly remembered as the "Pine Cone Gashuku").

We still hold an annual 6 day gashuku every year, although the venue of choice is now the Stirling Ranges in the far south. Our gashukus have their share of challenges which, in addition to all the kicks and punches, include overnight hikes up to the top of mountains, however I like to think that no one is ever overwhelmed. We strive to have everyone emerge from the gashuku with both pertinent knowledge/skill enhancement and an enormous sense of achievement. I am proud to say that Nenad (who leads the camps) manages to provide such an experience every year. We don't serve maltabela porridge, and Chinese tea has replaced rooibos tea.

I've said previously that if I were to do the Decadal Gashuku all again, I would do some things differently. In answer to my good friend Jorge's question "How?" I say the following:

First of all, I wouldn't stress about it. I've learned the lesson of the 10 blind masseuses very well since that time, having handled all manner of challenging events.

I'd not bother to do do things that I didn't need to do (like carry on running with a fractured vertebra).

I would have been pleasant, but not too "kind"; some people on the camp took my accommodating nature as a weakness. The footsweep that factured my vertebra was a case in point; I was far too accommodating and didn't really assert myself with Tony who was clearly used to a bit more "resistance". By the time I realised my mistake, it was too late. I certainly wouldn't have let myself get into a situation where he could grab my leg in sparring.

I would have prepared for the gashuku far better than I did. For starters, I'd have made sure I was as fit as possible. I would never have tagged the event onto the end of a 4 week European "relaxing" holiday. I would have done things the other way around. I would also have ensured we were properly equipped. I never again want to be looking through bins for water bottles or relying on the kindness of strangers for things that I can arrange myself.

Above all, I would have been far more protective of my wife.

And I would have done everything with a smile.

But I wouldn't have done any of this on my honeymoon. ;)

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Decadal Gashuku Part 3: Running on Empty

It was mid-afternoon half way through the second week of the Decadal gashuku. Tim Hull and I were shuffling along a dusty track somewhere in the African savannah. The group with which we’d started running had long since dispersed; the front pack having disappeared into the far distance while behind us about 20 or so stragglers were spread out over several kilometres.

We were about 16 km into what was a half marathon. As trudged along, each step sent sharp spasms up my spine (due to what I later discovered was a fractured vertebra). I reflected on how we had come to be in this position...

The morning had started out promisingly enough; we had a very short run – only 5 or so kilometres – followed by some chi sau (sticky hands drills from wing chun) and then some taiji. So far so good. We had breakfast and rested as the sun came out and the sky cleared away from the previous night’s storm. We were in for a hot, dry day.

Our mid-morning lesson was about to begin and I reluctantly picked up my aching body and sought out my team members. As I was doing so, Deshi Wyatt (one of Bob’s apprentices) came up to me with some “advice”:

“Tell your people to put on their running shoes. And make sure you each have a water bottle.” I asked where we were going but Wyatt shook his head. This was as much as he knew.

After conferring with my team, I donned my shoes and went in search of something that would suffice as water bottles for Maureen and me. Looking back now, my preparation for the camp had been woeful. I had come to the camp without any equipment whatsoever. I’d only managed to buy my running shoes in the week preceding the camp. I’d bought a hopelessly inadequate cap in a supermarket, borrowed sleeping bags and a tent from Mr Ho Chi and prised a quarter mattress from Deshi Tony. But neither Maureen nor I had a water bottle. And it seemed that no one else on the gashuku had any spares...

While looking through some bins hoping to find an old coke bottle, young Damien (a fellow I’d enjoyed training with in my old home dojo and with whom I’d shared a previous gashuku experience) ran up and suggested I ask for help from some campers who had just parked their caravan 500 metres up the shoreline of the dam. I took his suggestion and thankfully they were able to provide me with 2 (used) plastic 250 ml juice containers. I filled these with water from the tap at the ablutions block and raced down to the kitchen tent for the roll call.

We set off along the familiar gravel track for what was clearly another run, only this time we didn’t turn around at the familiar 4, 5, 7 or 8 km marks. We kept going. Eventually the 4-wheel drive track disintegrated into an indistinct nature trail meandering through the thorny African scrub. Every now and again Bob would ask my fellow Australian student, Greg Seymour, to scout what was ahead. Greg was supremely fit for running and seemed to do so with great ease, sprinting off into the distance and returning 10 or 15 minutes later with news. But as the day wore on I became increasingly concerned that he was using up too much energy. And I also knew that unlike me, Greg had not managed to find a water bottle to bring on the run...

Eventually we reached a point I conservatively estimated to be 11 km from the campsite – and turned around. The front pack, including Greg, bolted off and the rest of us continued to shuffle, spreading out into an ever thinning line under the hot African sun.

All I could think of was to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Despite careful rationing of our water, both Tim and I had exhausted our meagre 250 ml supplies. Since I knew that we were, at worst, about 6 km from the campsite I was confident that we would get back safely.

Maureen had not kept up with the group and had turned back at an early stage, so I was reasonably sure that she was already back at the camp. Looking over my shoulder I could occasionally see my brother Nenad about 500 metres behind me. He was running with Rod (a heavily built fellow who is still the only person who has ever beaten me in sanchin pushing!). I knew that Nenad could take care of himself. Moreover Rod had cleverly brought with him a purpose-built backpack filled with about 3 litres of water. If worst came to worst, we could stop and wait for Rod who would surely have some reserve to permit a sip or 2.

The dangers of dehydration were however about to become apparent: Just as Tim and I came over the crest of a hill we found Greg staggering off the track, heading for a swamp that was part of the Midmar Dam catchment.

I ran over to Greg and asked him if he was okay. His eyes were glazed and he kept repeating, in his trademark polite and proper English: “I’m fine really. Just being terribly lazy. Yes, indeed. I’m being terribly lazy.”

Tim and I guided Greg back to the track and set him down under the cover of a small thorn bush. As he lay down he kept repeating: “I’m okay really. Just being terribly lazy. I can’t think what’s come over me.”

“Listen carefully Greg,” I said, “Nenad and Rod are just behind that crest. Rod has water with him. Don’t go anywhere. Do you understand? Stay here until they arrive.”

Greg nodded. “Yes indeed. I’ll just stay here and have a little rest. Although I am being rather lazy. Perhaps a slight rest will do me good.”

Not wanting to delay our own return to the camp, Tim and I continued our shuffle, confident that Greg would be taken care of by Rod and Nenad.

We did indeed make it back to camp safely, albeit suffering from heatstroke and rather severe dehydration. I drank enough water to make my stomach swing, then lay down under the shade of the training tent, my head pounding and my ears ringing.

It was only much later that I discovered what had become of Greg. It seems that Nenad and Rod found him wandering back from the swamp off the side of the track, his face covered in mud. “It’s okay really,” Greg told them. “All you have to do is stick you head in and drink.” Nenad told me he could see Greg’s footprints leading into the marsh and an imprint in the black mud where Greg had thrust his face. The water in this area was untreated and in the following days Greg became very ill with vomiting and diarrhoea. Thankfully he didn’t also contract the bilharzia parasite which is endemic to water in that part of Zululand...

Greg and many others were in fact soon picked up by Deshi Tony who, having returned to the campsite early, drove back in a "bakkie" or ute (tray back) laden with bottles of water. Tim and I had beaten Tony's car back to camp by a matter of minutes. As I lay spreadeagled under the shade of the canvas I wondered grimly if the “achievement” had been worth it.

Next: Decadal Gashuku Part 4: The Aftermath

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic