Saturday, July 24, 2010

Northern and southern kung fu, karate and the question of range

"Southern fist, northern leg"

It was at the very beginning of my martial arts "career" that I first heard the expression: "southern fist, northern leg". The concept, as I understand it, is that southern Chinese martial arts emphasise hand techniques rather than leg techniques, while northern systems have the reverse emphasis.

This is not to say that southern systems do not use kicks or that the northern systems do not use hands; it is just a matter of degree. And more to the point, it has less to do with the use of actual body parts, and more to do with range.

What I take the saying to mean is this: southern Chinese martial systems are designed for fighting in close quarters, while northern Chinese systems are designed for fighting at a greater range.

It is important to note that by "greater range" I do not mean to imply "distance fighting". Distance fighting is commonly seen in sports combat - where fighters will predominantly launch attacks from outside what I call the "melee range" - ie. the range where you are capable of landing (and being hit by) a punch, strike or kick.

I have previously detailed my view that most, if not all, traditional martial arts systems in China and Japan/Okinawa are designed to operate exclusively within the melee range. This is inherently because these arts are civilian defence systems. Most civilian defence scenarios begin and end in the melee: they don't (or shouldn't) involve sport/prizefighting dynamics where 2 opponents circle each other looking for openings. Nor should they depend on protracted ground grappling. Civilian defence tactics focus on a quick exit strategy and assume attackers might be armed, in company or both.

So while southern and northern Chinese systems might be designed for different ranges, I don't think they are all that different; they still function within the melee. It is just that southern systems function principally in the inner part of the melee range (mid-range punches to elbows, with the occasional foray to short, low kicks) while northern systems function principally in the outer part of the melee range (full extension punches and kicks).

Examples of southern Chinese systems that are designed for close-quarter combat would include wing chun, bak mei (white eyebrow), Yong Chun baihe (white crane from the town of Yong Chun), ngo cho kun / wu zu quan (5 ancestor fist) and southern preying mantis.

Examples of northern Chinese systems designed for fully extended kicks and punches include the many forms of changquan or taizu (long fist), northern preying mantis and the internal arts of taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan.

Karate and its "parallel" divisions

Very early in my training I was also told that Okinawan karate has its own division, akin to the northern/southern paradigm in China: Karate can be classified as either Naha te (from the city of Naha) or Shuri/Tomari te (related systems from the towns of Shuri and Tomari that are often collectively called the "shorin" systems).

Naha te and the southern "Chinese connection"

Naha te comprises karate schools such as goju ryu, tou'on ryu, ryuei ryu and uechi ryu. These are what writer Mark Bishop1 called "Chinese systems" (ie. those that can trace their roots "directly" to China at around the 1870s).2 Whatever their exact origin, Naha te systems are, at least to some extent, related to their southern Chinese counterparts. And there are indeed some startling similarities between the two:

Uechi ryu in particular has a strong resemblance to Yong Chun baihe. The kata tensho from goju ryu is also reminiscent of the Yong Chun form ba fen.

Many goju/ryuei/tou'on forms have strong parallels in ngo cho kun / wu zu quan. And some have argued that goju kata such as shisochin trace their roots to southern preying mantis, while kata such as saifa are said to bear hallmarks of the Fujian lion boxing.3

More importantly, all the Naha te systems have at their core the practice of sanchin kata and the sanchin stance. This is mirrored in Fujian systems that have a similar emphasis on their own versions of sanzhan or saam chien (ie. sanchin).4

Even the Hakka systems that do not have a sanzhan form utlise a stance that is clearly related: their principle fighting stance is clearly a sanzhan variant. To my mind, even wing chun's "A" stance owes its origin to sanzhan - or at least a sanzhan ancestor. Another key indicator of Naha te's southern "Chinese connection" is the frequent use of neko ashi dachi - the cat stance. In fact, many Yong Chun and ngo cho kun / wu zu quan forms finish in neko ashi dachi with a tora guchi (tiger mouth push) - just as goju/ryuei/tou'on ryu forms do.

The shorin tradition and the northern Chinese systems

The shorin systems all trace their roots back to Matsumura Sokon, a legendary Okinawan karateka. The kata (forms) in the shorin tradition are also said to come from (or have been influenced by) Chinese systems, but arguably from a much earlier period than when the Naha te kata evolved.

When I first started training I was told that the shorin systems were derived from the northern Chinese systems and were hence designed for long range fighting (by comparison to the Naha te systems).

So in summary, I used to think that the Naha te systems were designed for close-quarters combat while the shorin systems were designed for the longer-range fighting. It seemed that the "southern fist, northern leg" principle was mirrored exactly in the little island of Okinawa.

Is there really a "north/south" paradigm in Okinawan karate?

Just how accurate is this apparent north/south dichotomy as regards Okinawan karate? We have some evidence that Naha te has links to southern Chinese martial systems, but are the shorin systems really from northern China?

Indeed the standard, full extension, corkscrew punching of shorin forms, the emphasis on zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) and shiko/kiba dachi (horse stance) are reminiscent of changquan/taizu and even taijiquan.

But then again, all these elements also feature to a greater or lesser extend in Naha te.

Moreover, many "hallmarks" of Naha te are present in the shorin systems. For example, sanchin dachi and neko ashi dachi, while not as frequently used, do appear in many shorin kata. And it seems that this not simply due to "cross-pollination". I have previously discussed the kata seisan which appears in both the Naha te and shorin traditions and which existed in Okinawa long before the travels of Higaonna Kanryo, Uechi Kanbun and Nakaima Norisato to China in the late 1800s. As Mario McKenna5 points out, there is strong evidence that karate (in all its incarnations) owes more to local innovation than any direct lineage to China.

I think it is unlikely that the northern Chinese martial systems had any impact on the evolution of the shorin schools of karate. Remember that in the 18th and 19th centuries travelling to and from China's north to Okinawa was no easy task. I very much doubt that Okinawans had the chance to meet northern Chinese martial artists - at least in any significant number.

And while is said that Matsumura studied quan fa in China 6 there detail or evidence concerning this. As a servant of the royal court in Okinawa, he might also have been exposed to official visitors from Beijing - some of whom might have been versed in the northern Chinese martial arts. But again, there is little to corroberate this.

I suspect that Matsumura's teachings were more greatly influenced by his Okinawan teacher, Sakugawa "Tode" Kanga (who is also said to have studied in Beijing - where some say he died and was buried).7

In the end, I suspect that if the northern systems had any influence on karate, this influence was, at best, slight. And whatever the impact of northern Chinese influence, this has probably been passed down to karate generally - not just the shorin school.

For example, such generalised influence might explain why Okinawan karate, as a rule, uses the fully extended corkscrew punch and not the vertical fist punch of, say, wing chun. Then again it might not. The corkscrew punch might have had a parallel evolution to that in northern China - especially if (as I have previously argued) it is just a manifestation of natural arm movement / efficient biomechanics).

Are there differences in range between shorin systems and Naha te?

Irrespective of any "northern" influence or lack thereof, it is my view (based on my own experience with various styles of karate) that the shorin systems are designed to operate at a longer range than the Naha te schools. One example of this is the use in shorin forms of the kokutsu dachi (back stance) - an elongated stance often used in Ryukyu kobudo (weapons) and suitable for fighting at a longer range. Another is the relatively greater mobililty required for shorin forms than some of the Naha te kata.

These differences are however quite slight, and vary depending on the kata being examined.

Goju kata such as seiunchin, shisochin and seipai have movement which could quite easily be found in a shorin kata. The goju/tou'on/ryuei ryu versions of sanchin, sanseiru and seisan katas - and any uechi ryu katas - are a different kettle of fish altogether. They appear to be structured for a much closer range of fighting, with little body movement (taisabaki) relative to other karate kata.

Modern karate and "distance fighting"

But to my mind, the biggest differences arising in today's karate "operating range" come not from any such historical design issues, but from modern influences.

Many karateka today are what I would call "distance fighters". Distance stylists typically don't stay within the melee range - they enter only to land a blow then move out. This means their preference is to evade attacks without deflection, not deflect them with evasion. I see this trend in modern off-shoots of the shorin school such as shotokan and taekwondo, and also in some Naha te descendants - eg. goju kai.

It is my view that such "distance karate" has evolved due to the influence of competition kumite and western boxing - disciplines where the competitors spend only a fraction of their time in the melee range - usually for a brief, furious exchange.

I'm not going to say distance fighting doesn't work as a strategy. Far from it. I've faced enough good shotokan and other "distance fighters" to know how potent their approach can be, while fighters like Lyoto Machida have shown that a distance strategy can work well even in the MMA arena.

However it is my contention that karate, as a traditional far eastern martial art, was never intended to function this way. I say this chiefly due to the preponderance of "blocks" (better called "deflections") in both karate and the Chinese martial systems. As I have previously argued, deflections are vital in the melee range - yet they are rarely, if ever, used in distance fighting.

This has resulted in the (to me, incongruous) position that "distance fighting karateka" will often practice standing blocks/deflections, yet never apply them once in sparring.

The above observation does not mean that karateka who train this way are not getting benefit from their deflections etc. I'm fairly certain that they use these basics for developing kinaesthetic awareness, kime etc. But I feel that they can (and should) be so much more. They can be applied in sparring - and in civilian defence.


I very much doubt that the maxim "southern fist, northern leg" has any real application to Okinawan karate. Karate, in all its incarnations, is most closely related to the southern Chinese martial traditions. And even then, there is a scarcity of evidence linking karate forms to anything that ever existed on the mainland. In other words, karate, while subject to the influence of (particularly southern) Chinese martial arts, appears to be principally an Okinawan innovation with no direct "lineage" to any system of Chinese quan fa.

Regardless, Naha te and the shorin tradition do appear to function in slightly different ranges, with the former having a greater number of "close-quarters" techniques and the latter having a greater number of full extension techniques.

However these differences are really quite slight when karate is examined overall. And they do not account for the more recent trend in karate towards "distance fighting".


1. Bishop, M. (1989). Okinawan Karate - Teachers, styles and secret techniques. London. A & C Black Ltd.
2. See my series of articles commencing with "The origins of goju ryu kata: Part 1".
3. See Joe Swift's article "The Kempo of Kume Village" in Meibukan Magazine No. 6.
4. See my article "Sanchin in Chinese martial arts".
5. See Mario McKenna’s article “So what did you think you were doing”.
6. See Mark Bishop's book at footnote 1 and also the wikipedia entry on Matsumura Sokon.
7. See this site for a history of Sakugawa Kanga.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, July 22, 2010

An award for "The Way of Least Resistance"!

I'm very pleased to announce that I have made the list of "50 best karate bloggers you can learn from" on the Physical Therapy Assistance Schools site.

I'm number 18 on the list, and the first entry under "Best Martial Arts Karate Bloggers" (as opposed to "Teacher Karate Bloggers", "Student Karate Bloggers" etc.).

I'd like to thank the Physical Therapy Assistants Schools for this recognition. It certainly makes a change from the feedback I've had via certain merchant bankers!

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, July 15, 2010

More about the "Clayton's gap"

Recently a fellow sent me an email concerning my article "The karate "kamae" or guard".

My original video relating to the karate kamae in which I discuss the "Clayton's gap"

In that article I discuss how the old bareknuckle guard and the karate kamae (guard) are basically the same, and for good reason: if you are fighting ungloved, it makes little sense to hold your clenched fists close to your face as having them rammed into can be almost as bad as taking a punch full-on. Rather, with the fists held out at a distance you can not only avoid this problem, but you are also in a position to use what are called "blocks" (better termed "deflections") to intercept an attack closer to its source (rather than when it has almost reached full extension and is travelling at its full speed).

I also described how one of the benefits of the bareknuckle guard is that it incorporates a subtle gem I call the "Clayton's gap". For those who don't know, "Claytons" is a non-alcoholic drink that looks like whiskey and that was marketed extensively in Australia and New Zealand in previous decades as "the drink you have when you're not having a drink". The term has now entered the Australasian lexicon as a general descriptor of something that is fake or flawed.

I use the term "Clayton's gap" in the context of the bareknuckle guard to describe an apparent gap in your defence: a gap that appears to allow your opponent to jab directly at your face with his/her leading arm. In fact, there is no gap. If your opponent tries to throw a straight jab through that gap he/she finds himself redirected at the very last moment.

The illusion of a gap is created because the jab will brush against your leading arm as it heads towards your face, resulting in a slight angle of deflection. Even though the angle is slight, the further the deflected punch travels, the more it is displaced from its original target. In this case, the slight deflection can (and does) result in a sufficient displacement by the time your opponent's jab reaches the distance of your face. In fact, it is only in the last few centimetres that the punch starts to miss, as shown in the video below:

I discuss the "Clayton's gap" and clarify my earlier video

My correspondent expressed grave skepticism about my argument, the whole concept of the karate kamae and my suggested relationship to the bareknuckle boxing guard.

First, he ridiculed my original video by saying that it proves nothing: I had clearly prearranged the attacks and they were being delivered by a very compliant student. Furthermore, the attacks were not realistic. In this context, he lampooned my "continual instruction" of the student about how to punch me. He also noted that the guard was easily overcome by a hook on the outside.

These points would be all well and fine if the purpose of that video was to show a "fighting technique". It was not. I was attempting to show the angle of deflection inherent in the guard and the "Clayton's gap" - not how I would apply the guard in free fighting. In free fighting I would not stand around stiffly, holding my arms out like a statue. I would not expect certain punches nor instruct my opponent how he/she should punch me. But I had to do so in the first video for the purposes of illustrating the vectors and trajectories in a "snapshot" of time. Period.

Which brings me to the next point made by my correspondent: He states that I have completely misunderstood the old bareknuckle guard. As he (rightly) says, old Victorian-era bareknuckle fighters used to circle their arms to confuse their opponents. They didn't stand around stiffly like statues. Accordingly he maintains that in making my argument I have relied upon incorrect assumptions based on static photographs and without regard to how those fighters moved about.

Again, this argument would be valid if I had actually assumed that these old fighters did stand around like statues. I have never assumed that. I was well aware that many moved their arms in a circular fashion. In other words, I never sought to argue that they fought with stiff, unmoving guards, in much the same way as I have never advocated using the karate guard in this fashion. As I've said: my original video was intended to discuss fine angles - not how the guard can/should be applied.

The salient point is this: While some bareknuckle fighters of old did employ a circular motion with their arms, their arms were continually moving through the bareknuckle guard posture - with all the attendant benefits of not having their knuckles rammed into their faces, having the ability to intercept punches early and being able to rely on the "Clayton's gap".

In a similar same way, karateka should not fight with stiff guards. Rather, they should continually move their arms through the guard posture - not in the circular fashion of the old bareknuckle boxers, but naturally in the context of the dynamic melee range environment in which one is punching, deflecting, trapping, grappling etc. And always with an eye on factors such as the "Clayton's gap".

It is important to note that factors such as the "Clayton's gap" are no panacea: they do not provide any kind of guarantee of success. They are just little factors that you might as well use to your advantage. For example, why create a real gap, when you can create an apparent, but non-existent one?

So, with respect to my correspondent, to suggest that my first video purported to advocate standing stiffly like a statue with the arms in the bareknuckle guard misapprehends my point - and sets up a straw man. My correspondent is ultimately guilty of the very thing of which he accused me: he looked at my discussion of a "snapshot" in time and made flawed assumptions based on that. Perhaps this is understandable in the context of my first video, which did not go into detail about the application of the guard in a dynamic environment. If so, I hope this article (and my second video) corrects any such misimpression.

[Thanks to my friend Magpie for the photos of the old-time boxers above.]

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Youtube, the web and merchant bankers

I get lots of comments on the web, some good, some bad, but rarely are they so full of vitriol that they make me react. Mostly I just brush the bad ones off.

A particular "merchant banker" (rhymes with...?) calling himself "12THEANVIL1" decided to post needlessly nasty comments on my bagua montage, and then went over to (of all things) my video about the striking surface of the uraken, voicing his "disgust" at my "lack of internal power" and saying that I "should not be teaching".

Ironically he speaks of "internal power", which I suspect he envisages as some kind of mystical force that is the centerpiece of his delusional belief system. That I wasn't trying to demonstrate power (of any kind) in either of the videos he watched seems to have escaped his pea-brain.

Granted, my technique is not ideal (especially considering my arthritis which had flared up very badly just before this seminar, making me feel like I was walking on broken glass), but it is honest and I don't claim any mastery.

What really gets to me is that people like this are sniveling cowards who hide behind anonymity to hurl insults and abuse.

By contrast I post videos and comments under my real name. And I never say anything I wouldn't say to someone's face. I wonder if he would be prepared to say the same things to my face? I doubt it. And if he were prepared to walk up to a total stranger and hurl abuse, I suspect he would be a very antisocial person unsuited to living in a community.

Some days I can't help but feel despondent with the calibre of many Youtube viewers. Where is their basic civility or human decency? Or does anonymity allow one to behave like a total prick?

I allowed his comment, but I've since banned him and should he find another alter-ego to post under, I'll delete any future comments as I don't think there is any reason to pursue a pointless "debate" with a coward of his ilk.

How does one know that debate will be pointless?

As a Daoist (philosophically speaking) I was quite taken by my colleague Michael's suggestion at the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums as follows:

"I would ask the poster to clarify his criticism in a non-insulting way. Sometimes crassness hides a hidden wisdom. Maybe not in this case, but give him the benefit of the doubt before banning him. Anyway, by asking him questions about his opinions rather then reacting, he will defeat himself (if he is a simple fool) or he will reveal his inner yoda (if he truly has something to say)."
I can see there is a lot of wisdom to this approach. I have refrained from being negative in some cases despite my instinct to do so. I'm glad I didn't respond emotively in those instances, as the poster actually had something to say: I was able to answer him, and the whole thing ended up amicably. Have a look at the comments of Carl Nikolaj on this video:

Carl starts off commenting with what I perceived to be a snide tone, probably because he assumed my video purported things it did not. Initially I was quite perturbed by the tone, but when I stood back and surveyed the situation from his perspective, I could see that the video on its own didn't adequately explain the purpose of the drill depcited. In that situation, it was open for someone like Carl to get the wrong impression of the drill's purpose/function. When I corrected that impression, we were left with a mutually respectful "agree to disagree" position. I'm glad I didn't respond angrily to Carl. Had his assumptions been correct, he would have had a valid point.

On the other hand, some people are clearly itching for a fight and don't have any intention of engaging in a rational debate. I think "12THEANVIL1" is one such person. If someone starts a conversation with vitriolic and petty insults, there is very little chance, in my view, that they have an "inner Yoda" - unless you can see something that might have provoked the person to behave in that way and you can accept that the response was understandable. In the latter case, one should try to diffuse the situation by addressing the intial point of provocation, rather than inflame things further.

In this case "anvil" might as well have randomly started throwing stones at my window and hurling insults about my wife and kids. There was no underlying provocation or misimpression - nothing to explain this behaviour. I'm not going to respond to such unprovoked and random abuse with a question such as: "Please tell me - why do you think my wife and kids are ugly?"

On this subject, there is a saying in Serbian that goes "on piški pod moj prozor" which means "he is pissing beneath my window". Such behaviour is not amenable to rational debate - and should not be dignified by an attempt at rational debate.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Bullshit martial arts": it's time to come out of my corner

In my previous post I referred to an episode of Penn's and Teller's television show in which they concluded that "martial arts are bullshit". In that post I mention the comments of Marc MacYoung to the effect that we martial artists should not "wilfully ignore" that which is flagrant nonsense but which passes (in some quarters anyway) for effective martial arts.

I normally don't do this kind of thing, but I though I'd highlight some examples of such nonsense - partly to deflect any suggestion that I am "wilfully ignoring" bad martial arts, but principally to distinguish martial arts that are not imbued with such nonsense.

Consider the video below (click on the picture to view).

George Dillman stops a kick using a kiai or "spirited shout"

It is my view that this sort of parlour trick is precisely the sort of thing that gives martial arts a bad name. Dillman uses a highly compliant student (who is completely out of range anyway) to effect "magic"; he stops the student's kick with a kiai (shout). This is nothing short of poor theater. If he were facing me, he could kiai for a month of Sundays and I would still land my kick. The only thing that would stop me is human decency (we could test it with Dillman holding a kick shield however).

Dillman initially made a name for himself by teaching "dim mak" or "pressure points" (known as "kyusho" in Japanese arts). There is something (not a whole lot, but something) to pressure points, just as there is something to kiais. Pressure points and kiais are a useful and important part of any martial arts arsenal, but I certainly wouldn't try to base an entire fighting method on either.

Where Dillman has completely lost me (and many others) is his more recent foray into "no touch knockouts". And that is blatant baloney - the "voodoo of the 20th century". We should be past such superstition, particularly when it can be (and often has been) so easily demonstrated to be total and unmitigated nonsense. If it did work, we'd have to throw out every physics textbook ever written and start again. Except it doesn't work.

A sceptic demonstrates how the "no touch knockout" just doesn't (and cannot) work.

So why take your martial arts in such a direction? Is it a commercial tactic? Or do people like Dillman really believe in something so blatantly silly? And, if you are a 10th degree black belt in karate, why would you resort to marketing such "supernatural" techniques?

I don't suppose we'll ever know the answers to those questions. However, a clue might be found by examining the "non-supernatural" techniques of people who make outlandish claims.

A person who has made a big (and notorious) name for himself in the martial arts is Radford W Davis, aka "Ashida Kim". One of the first people to publish books on ninjutsu (in the 80s), he has made all sorts of outlandish and downright ridiculous claims about himself and his abilities.

Phil Elmore "decloaks" Ashida Kim, aka Radford W Davis

But is Mr Davis all bad? Could it be that he actually "knows stuff" - or is Phil Elmore correct that Davis has somehow managed to see 3 decades in the martial arts without actually "getting good at it"?

The answer to that question should be immediately apparent to any genuinely experienced martial arts teacher. Not only is Davis' technique floppy and lacking in any kind of focus (kime) or finish, it is also incorrect in respect of many crucial details. Consider Davis teaching the age uke or rising block in the video below:

Davis aka "Ashida Kim" teaching a dreadful rising block

What should be immediately apparent to an experienced martial artist, apart from the sloppy delivery, the incorrect distancing from his forehead, the incorrect turn in his forearm etc., is that he is only doing half the movement. Davis is clearly completely oblivious to what I have called the "secondary" part of the age uke - a back up movement that is part of the block (see my article "Two for the price of one: more about karate "blocks"" and the video below).

A video showing the secondary part of the age uke or rising block - totally absent from Davis' version

If I were to assess Davis' performance and decide what level of experience he had in the martial arts, I would assume that he might have passed one, at most 2, gradings in traditional karate. This equates to about 6 months of karate training. And it is karate - there is no mistaking his technique as poor karate (as opposed to good ninjutsu). If further proof is needed, one need only look at his kata performances on the net: they are clearly karate (specifically shotokan) forms.

Davis aka "Ashida Kim" performing the shotokan karate kata "tekki shodan"

So is Davis the inheritor of a secret ninja system? No. His marital arts experience (judging by his techniques on Youtube) appears to consist of a very brief study of shotokan karate, possibly as a child or teenager.

But as I have said elsewhere, it seems highly unlikely that anyone sensible is going to be fooled by the likes of Davis. He has received far more attention than he deserves and I really shouldn't be adding to it.

Which brings me back to Dillman. He does command some respect and status in the martial arts world. Is he much better than Davis? Surely his "non-supernatural" techniques, at least, comprise solid, straightforward, functional karate?

Unfortunately, in my opinion the answer to that is (at least in part): "No."

Consider the video below of Dillman performing the karate kata "sanchin" - a cornerstone of Naha te karate (click on the picture to view).

George Dillman performs sanchin kata

I've used this kata to illustrate my point, but you can examine any of his forms online and see similar fundamental issues to the ones I'm about to highlight.

It would take all day to list the basic biomechanical problems I see in the techniques of his forms, so I'll confine myself to just one example in his sanchin kata, and that is this: Look at his "morote chudan uke" (double chest deflection) depicted in the above still taken from his kata.

The first problem is that he doesn't effect a morote chudan uke at all. He just places his arms into the finishing position.

And the "finishing position" in his case contravenes the basic concept of having your elbows about a fist distance from your floating rib, with your arms angled slightly outwards (as illustrated by me in the image to the above right).

The chudan uke: sanchin kata features a double chudan uke at the start

This is not only the finishing position of an efficient chudan deflection (of which sanchin uses a double movement and which is entirely absent in Dillman's version), but it is also important to create I have called the "Clayton's gap" which gives the impression to your opponent that you are open to a leading straight jab when in fact you are covered against this. [See my latest article "More on the "Clayton's gap"" for a detailed analysis of this issue.] These little subtleties are very important. They make the difference between being hit and a near miss. And a near miss is as good as a mile.

A video where I discuss the karate guard and the "Clayton's gap" built into that guard as well as basic blocks like chudan uke

Dillman's kata show no awareness of details such as this. And there are hundreds of such issues in each of his movements, both in this sanchin kata performance and in others. This prompts me to conclude that his knowledge of karate is either extremely diluted or just plain lacking. And this is why I can compare him to Radford Davis. Yes, he is clearly nowhere near as "junior" in terms of his karate experience, but there are glaring gaps in knowledge.

I am strongly of the view that it is these little details that make karate work. Perhaps it is to make up for the lack of this detailed (and necessary) knowledge, that Dillman has strayed into "magic". Who knows?

Penn and Teller would have a field day with Dillman and Davis - and rightfully so. They, and others like them, are the ones who give a bad name to karate, traditional martial arts and martial arts in general.

So what to do? Should I write all my blog articles "exposing" techniques that don't work and those who promote such techniques?

I think I'll follow my friend Quint's advice and continue to use this blog "to promote and expose the positive and the benefits" in and of the martial arts, at least as I see them. But I suppose that won't stop me from making the odd criticism here or there...

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, July 3, 2010

"Bullshit martial arts": frauds, exposers and conjurers

I recently came across the video below on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums:

The first segment of Penn and Teller's episode on martial arts

In this episode of their "Bullshit" series, Messrs Penn and Teller examine martial arts and conclude that they are all "bullshit".

I must confess that the show angered me: not because I felt personally insulted - but because I felt that my intelligence (and every other viewer's) was insulted.

First: why assume that everyone who does martial arts does it for "fighting"? Most people I know in the martial arts do it as a form of exercise and/or as an artform or means of physical expression. What's wrong with that? Penn and Teller start their show by arguing that giving money to criminals is cheaper than taking karate lessons. Sure. But I and many others don't do karate expecting to "save money". We pay money for lessons because we enjoy the activity, not because we expect to "get our money's worth" when (or if) we are mugged. What nonsense.

Second: why assume that just because you do "reality-based" training, you should expect to become invincible (and that anything less means you've been the victim of a fraud)? Even the best form of training cannot provide a guarantee. You might be better off (in self-defence terms) with reality-based training, but you'll by no means be able to "best" every attacker. As my friend Zach points out, the only fight you're guaranteed to win is the one you don't get into. And very few people I know in the martial arts are under any illusions as to their own ability. Yes, there are many instructors out there who make ridiculous claims to boost their business, and they are fair game for this sort of criticism. But even most of their students will, as Mas Oyama once said, know deep down inside what their true worth is (in terms of their ability to defend themselves). These students will persist in their training not out of delusion, but because it is their chosen hobby/sport/activity/recreation (see point one above).

Third: why assume that people who are martial artists have some sort of obligation to become vigilantes (to thwart attacks, etc.)? Most people know the difference between their civilian responsibilities and the responsibility of our law enforcement agencies. And given that most students never really acquire a high level of fighting skill (because it is, for most, just a hobby - again, see point one), why expect them to demonstrate powers that you might expect of a top MMA fighter - on a lucky day (ie. where he isn't facing a gun or other overwhelming odds)?

Penn and Teller observe that the "murderous" types of martial art (their categorisation of what I would call "reality-based" schools) sometimes advise people to use tactics that might land them in court on charges of manslaughter or even murder. While it is undoubtedly true that some schools/instructors step outside bounds of responsible instruction, is it fair to take one example and label every "reality-based" school as "murderous"? And isn't it contradictory to expect martial artists to be "law enforcers" on one hand, yet condemn those who purport provide a more realistic form of self-defence tuition on the other?

Fourth: why belittle these ordinary people who choose to do their particular physical activity just because they don't acquire the "fighting prowess" that Penn and Teller simultaneously expect and denounce? For example, why belittle the poor little old lady who is enjoying her exercise? Sure, she might not have "cured" her osteoporosis, but she is probably helping her condition (ask any doctor and he will advise that part of an osteoporosis treatment plan is exercise). Let her talk in terms of qi etc. - she's not harming anyone by suggesting mild exercise for health and wellbeing. Unlike, say, homeopathic "substances" which are nothing more than distilled water (and thus have no health benefit - the amount is insufficient even for hydration), mild exercise has indisputable health benefits, however slight.

This show angered me because it takes a bunch of snapshots of ordinary Joes (the guy in the mall, the old lady etc.) and extrapolates to the huge spectrum that is the martial arts. Penn and Teller assume one common set of objectives for training (ie. "fighting ability") and then demonstrate that those objectives are unlikely to be met by martial arts training by ordinary folk in dojos, community centres and parks (or, if they are, will attract the long arm of the law). Their first premise (the common objective being "fighting prowess") is fundamentally flawed and so, ergo, their conclusions are rubbish. And, like any conjurers, Penn and Teller hope that by distracting us with "smoke and mirrors" we won't see their leaps in logic.

All this episode does is attempt to debunk the myth that martial arts make ordinary people invincible. Yet I don't know many who actually think so in this information age. Sure, there are some out there who make such claims, but most people laugh at them - regardless of their martial training or lack thereof.

I can't help but feel that in some respects the whole "martial mythbusting" industry exists to wage war against a straw man. Most folks who take their kids to the local mall dojo don't seriously expect any real proficiency in self-defence. Truth be told, many use such classes as a type of child-minding. And people who are genuinely fooled by the likes of Ashida Kim are also likely to believe the world is flat, that the moon landings were fake and the British royal family are shape-shifting lizards. We can't spend all our time obsessing about stupid beliefs - or worse, imputing them to the average person.

Phil Elmore's intelligent treatment of martial frauds

If you want to attack stupid beliefs, do it in a reasoned manner, arguing against specific ideas/methodologies (in the way that, say, Phil Elmore does on his "Martialist" site). Don't make a sensationalist, deeply flawed "reality television" show and try to mask this by purporting to argue from some kind of "higher moral ground" (ie. that you are exposing frauds).

In my view there is a good reason that many Chinese refer to martial arts as "gong fu" (kung fu). Gong fu (功夫) refers to one's expertise in any skill achieved through hard work and practice. It does not necessarily have a martial connotation. If you look at someone like Jet Li, there is little doubt that he has "gong fu". His skill is exemplary and there is nothing "fraudulent" or "bullshit" about it - even if he has never used it to thwart a bank robbery or win the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I wonder why Penn and Teller fail to recognise this and appreciate that attaining "gong fu" can be both the means and the end. Yes, we aren't all as skilled as Jet Li - but does this mean we shouldn't engage in the activity and strive to better our skill? If it does, we'd better stop most kids playing soccer because they can't (and won't) all be Maradonna or David Beckham.

I recently interviewed a capoeira teacher, Prof. Leo Santos on radio and when I asked whether they ever did "combat sparring" (as opposed to the ritualised dance sparring that occurs in the roda) he looked at me quite blankly. It was a stupid question: the activity is what it is. It is a centuries old art form that is deeply tied up with tradition, culture and expression. Yes, it has martial roots and some capoeristas make good fighters. But the activity known as capoeira does not exist to teach "fighting" and any attempt to condense it to this objective (never mind judge it accordingly) is fundamentally flawed. I might as well have asked a Morris dancer whether he ever dons boxing gloves.

In the end, most of us martial artists do what we do for a variety of complex reasons. But whatever our particular mix of reasons, we all do it to attain "gong fu" - a level of skill in our chosen discipline. This amorphous goal might be hard to understand from a modern, western materialist perspective. But if you lampoon it, you might as well lampoon all the Japanese koryu arts such as chado (the art of tea ceremony) and shodo (calligraphy). You might also lampoon practically any endeavour that does not generate a vocational or pragmatic outcome - social sport, dance, kite flying, model making etc. And such a mindset would be both narrow and tragic.

I'll finish with a quote my good friend Quint pointed me to:

"Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that queer and cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities – all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness. They mark the men unfit to bear their part painfully in the stern strife of living, who seek, in the affection of contempt for the achievements of others, to hide from others and from themselves in their own weakness. The râle is easy; there is none easier, save only the râle of the man who sneers alike at both criticism and performance."
- Theodore Roosevelt.


My correspondent Diego has pointed me to this thread at Martial Arts Planet, where Marc MacYoung gives his opinion on the Penn and Teller episode discussed above.

I decided I'd add my response to Diego as part of this article:

Marc MacYoung makes a lot of sense and I agree with most of what he says in his post. However I will add the following gloss:

The tenor of MacYoung's comments appears to be that, while flawed, the program did expose the "ugly underbelly" of martial arts instruction. Penn and Teller certainly did this.

And, MacYoung's comment that we ought to look into our own practices rather than point out Penn's and Teller's flaws is true: we should all look to our practices, and the industry as a whole has a lot to answer for. But as a response to the show, this comment does not address my main objection, ie. that it was unevenly (and unfairly) presented.

As a martial arts teacher I have always been sincere and done the best that I can. Clearly, I haven't been perfect, and some of my teaching and techniques have adjusted (and will keep being adjusted) over time. But I don't accept any responsibility for "wilfully ignoring" fraudulent/nutcase/irresponsible martial arts teachers.

I have always taught a traditional art (which might not be MacYoung's cup of tea) and I've always said "it is what it is". I don't promise my students any particular skill; I can only teach them what I know. I try to inject as much practicality into the classes as I can, but I still teach traditional forms and will continue to do so unashamedly.

So, in summary, I don't care for being splattered by the brush of Messrs Penn and Teller.

Their expose might have had some merit had they gone to a judo school or a capoeira one (to name just 2 very different traditional arts) and found that they have honest and sincere practitioners - and that such activities have merit in themselves (without having to resort to any calculus of their "effectiveness" in self-defence terms). They might have gone to an MMA studio or a kickboxing/Muay Thai gym for another perspective. They did none of these things.

This episode of their show was as commercial and sensationalist as they people they denigrate. It was, quite frankly, bullshit.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic