Sunday, November 30, 2014

Asking the wrong questions

Following my last article "The woo way of taijiquan" I have received a lot of feedback in various places (Facebook, forums, etc.) .  Most of it has been overwhelmingly supportive and positive.  This is heartening.

Some of it has been very negative.  I suppose that is to be expected when your write polemics as I do.  In relation to the latter, I've had a number of consistent questions and I thought I'd address them here:

"How can you say you're being 'scientific' when you haven't done any kind of proper study?"

This argument suggests that I haven't really done enough to claim that "science backs me up".

Well it's true that I haven't done a scientific study.  What I have done is point out that basic physics doesn't support the woo merchants - ie. that their claims are extraordinary.

And, despite any initial sophist protestations, I think they would have to agree:

If basic physics did support their claims, they wouldn't be explaining them using terms like "jin" and "qi".

No one would be "amazed" at Chen Man Ching's pushing power, etc.

Yet people are.

As much as some "woo" merchants might profess otherwise, their claims that "there's nothing magical/mystical" are just a kind of "doublespeak". They know only too well they are implying some sort of "power" beyond our "current understanding".  It wouldn't be "impressive" otherwise. But they don't care to admit that. It's easier to assert something "safe" - if clearly inconsistent.

This is just a game of semantics.

So I've done no scientific study - that's true.  But I have observed what is basic common sense:
  • You wouldn't expect to push people with enough force to move them 4 metres or more without knocking them over.
  • You wouldn't expect to push people so hard that both feet lift off the ground, yet have them land on their feet in a balanced way.
  • You wouldn't expect to "bounce" people with nothing more than a little shrug.
These observations don't require a university-level study - they are common sense and everyday experience, based on fairly straightforward Newtonian physics.  If this wasn't the case, no one would be "amazed" at the "power" of the "masters of woo".

Yet people are.

In other words, extra-ordinary claims being made.  And as Carl Sagan famously said:
"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Accordingly it isn't up to me to do some sort of grand scientific study to disprove "special power" taiji pushing.  The onus is on those who maintain they are doing something extraordinary to prove that it isn't bogus.

So far they haven't.

If you're one of those people who criticises my (fairly detailed) analysis, here's a challenge: you don't have to provide me with any kind of "study" (although that would be nice).  How about just a cogent argument with some kind of evidence other than a bunch of compliant students well-accustomed to "teacher chi"?

"Why are you doing this?"

I've heard this a number of times.  It amounts to "What is your motive behind questioning our martial methodology?  It must be because you have some agenda!"

To me, that sounds an awful lot like "I hear you don't believe in my god.  Why do you hate him/her?"

The question is all wrong.

You shouldn't be asking why I am questioning your martial methodology.

You should be asking yourselves why you aren't doing so.

"You started in karate - how can you possibly expect to see 'internal things' clearly like we do?"

Sorry, but having the experience of an additional, quite different, perspective actually helps clarity - it doesn't impede it.

You need to start asking the right questions - not the wrong ones...

[I've included pictures of my student Rob competing at a full-contact (modified kyokushin rules) tournament last night - using some of the "throwing" or "projection" principles of taijiquan in against real resistance - not some compliant fellow students in a studio (there was lots of striking too).]

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The "woo way" of taijiquan

Okay after I got home after Wednesday's taijiquan training I posted this YouTube video, taken during the class.  It is simply me teaching (as are all my videos): there is nothing rehearsed and nothing contrived.  What you see is what happened spontaneously on the night.

I also posted it on a Facebook page called "The Fajin Project" - an excellent group (created by my friend Stuart Shaw) that is "dedicated to advancing the empirical and practical investigation of Fajin within the Chinese Martial Arts" (Fā Jìn, 發勁, is translated as "launching power").  I did so with the following comment:
"I think my video from last night's class illustrates the need for good basics. And also the need not to deify a teacher. If you look closely you'll see that when my basic technique is off, the application doesn't work. When my basic technique is on, it does work. In other words, my students aren't giving me a free pass."
Chen Man Ching's "fajin". Note his student's jack-knife.*
Of course inevitably The Fajin Project nets at least some "woo woo" internal arts practitioners (a group Martin Watts calls "infernal internals"): people who believe the internal arts give them some sort of "magic power".

One such person - a fellow named Julian - watched the video and commented:
"Beginner intermediate - keep exploring"
I couldn't help but wonder why someone, with no obvious credentials as a master (his own Facebook page shows some rather banal qi gong and forms practise) would be so condescending and negative about a simple and honest training video.

Then it occurred to me: he wasn't commenting on my applications.  He was almost certainly commenting on the "lack of fajin".  Because I know only too well that people like him measure "fajin" by how far people get pushed in demonstrations.

You know the kind: where the master does a push and the student flies away, landing on their feet, then running backwards.  Typically they cover at least 10-15 metres with this "backwards running" (although I've seen it carry on for the length of a sports oval in some cases).

Assuming it is even desirable for "fajin" to manifest as a mere "push" (as opposed to deformative force that doesn't cause displacement), how realistic are these "backwards running" demonstrations?

Most "woo woo" practitioners don't even pause to consider the physics of it all.  If they did, they'd realise it was absolutely impossible.

Imagine for a moment the sort of force and momentum that will project you across a room (never mind a field) and consider its likely effect on your body mass.

I think a good example is someone who comes off a motorcycle.  You see it routinely in races.  What you'll notice is that the rider is flung by the momentum onto the ground.  The idea that someone will be flung straight onto his/her feet and start running is, frankly, absurd.  Yes, it's true that some riders have rolled out of a fall and onto their feet.  But to my knowledge it has never happened the other way around (ie. flung onto their feet, hopping madly, then finally succumbing to a fall).

The same applies to a push: if you've received enough force to push you 10 metres away, then I can tell you now: you're going to be on your backside after one or two metres.  You won't be flung so that you can "hit the ground running".  Especially not if you're going to be running backwards - where you are least able to recover your balance (I suppose it's possible to be flung forwards and stay balanced enough to "hit the ground running" - but even that would be tough).

So what does all this mean?
The demonstrations where someone is pushed, gets "lifted off" and then runs backwards for 10-20 metres are all fake.
You heard me - fake.  It can't happen.

A momentum sufficient to move you that distance backwards will have you on your ass within 1 or 2 metres - maximum.  The master isn't "projecting" the student 10 metres or more.  Rather, the student is jumping, then running backwards - whether by being deliberately complicit in the fakery or by being overly suggestible (susceptible to mentalism).

Don't believe me?  Let's see what real "fajin" - force that is sufficient to push a great distance - actually looks like.

Whatever people think of Bruce Lee as a "real fighter" there is no question that he knew how to apply an incredible amount of force for his (small) bodyweight.  In the above clip Lee demonstrates a side kick that throws his partner across the length of about 4 metres.  This clearly isn't movie fakery; the kick is the real deal. (The only cinematic effect is the old Hong Kong trick of adding talcum powder to the kick shield.)

Note how his body responds - no jack-knife* here!
What you'll notice is that the partner has lost his balance from the get-go: with that sort of force - force sufficient to make him "fly away" - he didn't even have the slightest, and I mean the slightest, chance of landing on his feet and "running backwards".

And it doesn't matter whether the force has some "impact" (like Lee's kick) or is a simple "push".  Because displacement due to force is just that.  Think of being flung by catapult by the same force: no "impact" but same displacement.  Your ability to stay upright in the face of such force (particularly when projected backwards or sideways) is plainly nonsensical.  So all that hopping, backward running "stuff" is pure baloney.

It's as simple as this:
If the "fajin" is strong enough to push you backwards 4 metres or more, it'll knock you over - quickly.
Which brings me to the "short power" demonstrations, where the student typically "hops" away because of a slight "fajin nudge" from his/her teacher.  Here's a particularly egregious example:

Okay, I know some people say this is just a "skit" (despite the humorous element, I think it retains a degree of sincerity and seriousness).  But even if it is a skit, why is this instructor's other "stuff" equally implausible?  Consider this:

Ignore the slippery floor and the supposed "immovability" (I've done it better - without slippery floors - and never claimed it was anything other than solid stances and simple physics).

Rather, let's focus on the occasional "fajin" - at places like 3:09.

As in the jalapeños video, the implication is that the student is "bounced" - ie. projected upwards and backwards by some alleged "short power".  Ostensibly it isn't enough to push the student across the room; it's just enough to lift him into the air - ie. uproot him so that both feet lift off - then come back down again a metre or so away.

So what's happening here?  I'll tell you:
The student is jumping.  
Both feet off the ground but nary a push. Note jack-knife.*
This is the sole reason both the student's feet lift off the ground.  It has nothing to do with some sort of "fajin" or "qi" etc.

Whether the student is doing it deliberately or as a result of mentalism, I can't say.  I suspect it is susceptibility to the latter.  But the result is the same: fakery.

How do I know this?

Take a look at the video at the start of this article.  Freeze the frames where both feet are lifted up during an "uprooting".

What you'll notice is that anything that uproots both your feet inevitably makes you fall on your ass.  Sure, you might not fly "far" (ie. more than a metre or two) - but you'll be flat on your back anyway. Why?  Because any force that is sufficient to pick you up is going to be substantial.  In other words:
Uprooting both your opponent's feet will cause him or her to fall to the ground!
The opportunity to "rebalance" and land on your feet is not available with such an explosive burst of uprooting force - ie. "fajin".

Both feet lift - but note the head falling back first
Remember: my students featured here don't give me an inch, nor do they take what I tell them as gospel.  One in this video is a long time practitioner of MMA.  Another is competing in a full-contact tournament soon and is cross-training extensively - including in MMA.  Another recently stood in for one of them at the last minute in a full contact bout - and won against an opponent 15 kg heavier and a foot taller.  Another is a 4th dan with 25 years of hard knocks karate.  Another is a former long-term jujutsu student.

None of them buy into "teacher chi".  I have to make things work properly.  And I wouldn't have it any other way.  If you don't believe me, watch the opening video closely: you'll see that a number of times I go to do something and my technique is off, so nothing happens.

After a technique fails in the video I inevitably say something like: "You see - if I don't do it right, this is what happens.  What should I do now?"  But regardless of my nonchalance, the teacher (and performer) in me is frustrated because the truth of the matter is that I was actually trying to throw them - and was off in my timing or distancing by a fraction so it didn't work.  (I never said I was infallible.  Only mentalists imply that.)

Note how my head is falling behind the legs
Anyway, in this video it's mostly not me doing the throwing but my students throwing each other (I just do a lot of talking and a few detailed examinations).

In one case a student is throwing me.  Much to my surprise, I got lifted clean off the ground and landed quite hard on my back (which is still affected by two herniated discs - so I'd rather not be flung around!).

Regardless, watch each case where there is some uprooting of both feet cleanly off the ground.  What's the net effect?  The person being uprooted falls.  Hard.  He might not "fly" very far, but he can't "rebalance" so as to land with both feet using a kind of "hop".  Why would that be the case?  It's simple really:
An "upward" force is almost as detrimental to your balance as a mostly horizontal force (of the kind that pushes you 10 metres away).
This is especially so when you are being uprooted so that you fall slightly backwards (ie. you're not just being pulled up on the spot).  It is arguably only slightly better if you're being uprooted and pulled slightly forwards.  Either way, you can't recover enough to do a little "hop".

Note the "jack-knife" posture of the person being "uprooted"
In other words, any "bouncing" demonstration you see is also fake.  The student is jumping.  It's as simple as that.

If you have any lingering doubts, observe the typical "jack-knife" posture of the jumper's body: this is a dead giveaway.*  People who get uprooted don't "jack-knife" their bodies in this way.  And if they are being compromised that much by force applied to their hips/mid section (ie. a force enough to "bend them in half") then they certainly won't recover to land on their feet!

Okay, so what about the argument that the "hop" is "deliberate": that students who are being pushed "hop" to avoid being "thrown" by the fajin?  All I can say is:
Give me a break!  
I demonstrate the undesirability (indeed, impossibility) of this supposed "tactic" in the video below:

As an addendum, a student of mine, Rob, fought in a contact, modified kyokushin rules competition just last night and used a principle of taiji/sumo/judo that basically totally invalidates the idea of "hopping backwards" as a remotely plausible tactic.

You'll note in the photos below how Rob rushes his (heavier) opponent when he feels his weight is raised.  This lets him pick up his opponent and throw him out of the ring.

Now imagine deliberately setting yourself up for this sort of charge by "hopping" when pushed.  Madness.

In conclusion, I think I can see why the commentator Julian regarded my demonstrations as "beginner to intermediate": no one was being flung great distances by a "fajin" that causes backward running momentum.  No one was "bounced" with just a small shrug of "qi" that uproots both feet, jack-knives the body and causes a double-legged hop.

But then again, this sort of stuff is just fantasy.

Footnote: the "jack-knife"

Cf. Chen Man Ching's student above...
* Basically a "jack-knife" shape in your partner's body is a clear indication of fakery.  I know this because my brother-in-law Trevor and I experimented with this issue back in 2009.  The only way we could reproduce the "jack-knife effect" was when Trevor jumped.
This might be a bit of fun and make for a fancy photograph but it's not real.

We discovered that any kind of honest, "both feet off the ground" projection didn't result in the body "bending" like this at the waist - ie. with the head in line with the knees and the bum sticking out the back.

Rather, this sort of bend results only when the person being "thrown" pushes off the ground with his or her feet (ie. jumps).  The greater the jack-knife effect, the greater the jump.

Real projections cause the head and torso to be thrown back (at least behind the line of the knees) by the time of any "double foot lift off".  That's partly because most projections result from force applied to the upper body (as opposed to a tackle around the legs).  The upper body is going to respond to the force by being pushed away.

So if your partner's bum manages to "lead" both head and legs (ie. do a jack-knife), that's because there was no real force behind your "projection" to begin with: your partner has simply pushed off with their legs, thrusting their bum back.

This also means they are in total control - and can land on their feet.  When you think about it, that's why male ballet dancers "jack-knife" so many leaps - for control (just like in the above picture).

Ah, how obvious it is now eh?

[Read my answers to responses to this article here.]


It's not often that an example of everything I've just said comes along so expressly and plainly, but here is a video that is exactly that.

It has it all: hopping, jack-knifing, running backwards... from the word go.

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bruce Tegner: another Western pioneer of martial arts

Oh boy - if you thought Ed Parker was just a little "unorthodox" in his technique, you haven't seen anything.

Along with Ed Parker's "Secrets of Chinese Karate" my brother's and my martial bookshelf was also home to a couple of other books that were "cornerstones" of martial information in their day.  One of these books was Bruce Tegner's "Complete Book of Karate".

Straight off, we could pretty much tell it was very, very basic: lots of stepping in zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) with single, rather awkward looking, rising blocks or simple lunge punches.

The "kata" were really endless reconfigurations of the same basic patterns - sometimes a step to the left, sometimes a step to the right, sometimes a kick, sometimes a punch, sometimes a rising block, sometimes a rather awful chest level block.  Sometimes a chop.

Looking back, I can see that someone must have shown Tegner some shorin ryu (I am reminded that it was Tani-ha shukokai) karate kihon (basics) in the most rudimentary fashion.  He then seems to have gone away and constructed some of his own basic kata based on this brief experience, capping it off with something that looked like pinan (the way it would look if you learned it from a book - which was precisely what we were trying to do with Tegner's book!).

But back then it was pretty much the only information anyone had on karate.  And Tegner provided what was essentially a "complete" course.  It had to be good - right?

What continued to draw me in was the cover: Bruce Tegner's side kick just looked plain awesome!  I'd never seen anything so... straight!  He looked like he had great form.

The only problem was, the interior photos showed something altogether more awkward - although with still images you couldn't really tell whether it might look less awkward in motion.  I mean, there was still that great side kick - right?

In the end, after dissecting and replicating each of the kata, we pretty much decided that the book wasn't a functional karate text and gave up on it.

But every now and again we'd come across another Tegner tome - and invariably buy it.  He wrote books on kung fu and tai chi, savate, jujutsu, self-defence...  You name it, this guy seemed to know it and write a book about it.  Some are actually still quite decent introductory texts (eg. his book on judo).

Not only was all this writing inspiring in itself, in each case there would be something so physically impressive that you had to take another look - just like his side kick in karate book.

His treatise on savate was a case in point: the cover featured him jumping with a double leg kick; the interior depicted him striking a heavy bag with the same technique.  Kicking a heavy bag with a both legs simultaneously?  And not falling on your ass?  Seriously?

Clearly, Tegner was no slouch when it came to physicality.

But looking through the books on the more esoteric arts we started to notice a familiar pattern: the same basic, movements were being repackaged under a different guise.  The solo techniques were stilted and ungainly in execution.  The defences were either totally improbable "one step" affairs with a lengthy set-up or preposterous counters (like his ubiquitous "karate chops").  Or they were essentially the same judo he had employed elsewhere (functional and well-executed, but not "karate" or "kung fu" etc.).

If anything, that seemed to be something that Tegner could do convincingly: judo.  His athleticism was congruent with that.  I suppose this is hardly surprising because judo was Tegner's only real qualification in martial arts.  Apparently he won a California state title in the early 1950s.

Whatever his judo career, he obviously went on to capitalize on the blossoming public interest in the exotic Oriental martial arts, writing his many books and taking on many celebrity students including 1960s teen idol, Ricky Nelson, Superman actor George Reeves and, of course, actor James Coburn (who didn't Coburn train with?).

Sadly for Tegner, he never managed to leave the sort of imprint on martial arts that Parker did.  I suspect Parker was a lot better at the marketing himself.

But leaving that aside, what did Bruce Tegner's karate actually look like?  Was it all that bad?  Surely it must have been better than Parker's... I mean, Tegner at least had some decent athleticism; I can't imagine him doing a spinning kick and almost falling over (like Parker).  Maybe the still photos just didn't do him justice...

Luckily my mate Rick has just alerted me to this classic footage of Tegner teaching Ricky Nelson some karate in the The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet TV show.  Check it out:

It's really quite stunning in its oddness, matching and exceeding the awkward, book-learned movements hinted in the photos.  Yet there is also something irresistibly admirable about it at the same time.  I can't help but feel sincere respect for Tegner.  He might not have known a lot about karate, but there is a sort of "alpha male", pugnacious authenticity, toughness and diligence to his movement that makes you want to meet him, shake his hand and say: "Well done mate."

While Tegner's commercial success as a instructor, and influence on martial arts direction, might not have been the same as Parker's, I note that he did go on to choreograph many fight scenes in movies, including the fight scene between Frank Sinatra and Henry Silva in The Manchurian Candidate.

In it, you'll notice Tegner's trademark "karate chop" - a technique that became synonymous with karate in the public eye for decades to come.  While the "judo chop" had been seen before, notably in Peter Lorre's "Mr Moto" movies series, it seems to have become de rigueur for action movies only after Tegner's fight choreography above.

So I think that if Tegner had any lasting influence on Western culture it is this: the impression that karate (and oriental martial arts generally) make extensive use of chopping actions.  And that those actions are lethal.   This perception continued in practically every movie/TV fight scene until the mid-70s when the other Bruce - Bruce Lee - retired the whole concept.  But up to that point, the "karate chop" was a movie fighter's weapon of choice.  And Tegner was its main proponent.

His influence is now largely forgotten.  But every time you see an old movie or TV episode with an action sequence featuring a chop - whether it's William Shatner in "Star Trek", Robert Culp in "I Spy" or James Coburn in "Our Man Flint" - give a nod to one of the original pioneers of Oriental martial arts in the West - Bruce Tegner.  He's the one who started it all.

And apart from that, don't forget that Tegner was one of the first people to introduce arts like
judo and karate to the West, providing the only information available at the time.  He is the reason many of us sought out proper instruction.

So here's to you Mr Tegner.  Well done mate.

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What did Ed Parker study?

Ed Parker is today one of the legends of martial arts.  He is the father of "American kenpo" and is regarded as one of the original pioneers of traditional eastern martial arts in the US.

It is widely accepted that Parker developed most of what became his own martial art.   And some of it, as practised today, is very good indeed.  But just how "good" was Ed Parker himself?  What did he study - and what did he originally teach?

We know that Parker was a student of William KS Chow in Hawaii.  Chow was himself a student of the infamous James Mitose.  While Chow might have evolved the system a little, it appears that at the time he taught Parker it was essentially still Mitose's: shorin ryu karate, as passed down from the likes of Matsumura, through Itosu and people like Funakoshi and Choki Motobu.

So it's hardly surprising to see that Parker's first book, "Kenpo Karate" (published in 1961) shows what Wikipedia describes as the "hard linear movements" typified by shorin karate.

However this isn't how I came to know Ed Parker.  My brother and I bought his second book "Secrets of Chinese Karate" in 1975 while visiting the Philippines.  At the time we were, like everyone, "kung fu fighting" and neither of us was terribly interested in karate.  But the "Chinese" title caught our respective attentions.

We pored over that cheaply-printed paperback until it fell apart from yellowed, brittle age.  My brother recently found a replacement in a local bookstore.  The copy was in very good condition and now occupies the same special place on his bookshelf that its predecessor did.

I wasn't to know back then, but "Secrets of Chinese Karate" was a landmark departure from Parker's first book, "Kenpo Karate".  It was distinctly Chinese in technique, rich in detail about both technique and history/custom.  It seemed to have been written by someone who had an intimate knowledge of Chinese culture - both martial and otherwise.

But that book was published in 1963 - just two years after Parker's first book.  What had happened in two years for Parker to go from "basic karate" to "complex southern Chinese gong fu" (with such elaborate, authentic technical detail)?

Were the drawings at all based on Parker and his students?

I'm pretty sure most of the kenpo world now knows about the infamous post "The Terrible Truth about Ed Parker".  The original has been taken offline but it survives in "cache" mode as well as in other places.  Without repeating its contents, I can summarise it as alleging that Ed Parker was refused further karate-style tuition by Chow and others in Hawaii.  Being relatively junior (according to the post, a brown belt) he needed more knowledge.  Fortunately he met a man named James Wing Woo* who taught his own fusion of Chinese arts, including hung gar.  Parker and Woo ended up living in the same house and writing a book together - with Woo providing the technical detail and Parker providing the necessary English language skills.  The drawings to be found throughout the book are said to be based on Woo as a young man.

The gist of the article is that Parker ultimately published the book - but failed to credit Woo.  At all.

So how true is all this?  We can't be certain.  One of Woo's students wrote in answer to the original post:

I started training with Sifu James Wing Woo in 1977 and he is like a second father to me. That story of Parker and Sifu is essentially true regarding the book, but he went on to build a successful practice and a dedicated group of students. He always teaches the classes himself, 363 days a year. Sifu Woo just celebrated his 90th birthday Sept 2012, and he is still teaching Kung Fu and Tai Chi daily from his gym in Hollywood CA (and the workouts are still tough!).
Some good links for more info: recent book from Sifu Woo is filled with wisdom and his experience;jsessionid=19D29DC82FA08E35DAAB43E3EE41569CGive yourself a gift and stop by the gym and take some classes from Sifu.
Best, Bill Nadal

But one post on the internet is really not enough to tell us anything.  We can however get some idea from analysing footage from this time.  Consider Ed Parker's appearance on "The Lucy Show" in 1963:

What does it tell us?  As an instructor of over 30 years I can assure you that it tells us a lot.  In 1963, when Parker wrote his landmark second book and when he was in his physical prime (32), he was, even by the standards of his day, a relative beginner in the martial arts.

He simply doesn't have any of the fundamentals of good martial arts movement (I don't count breaking through some tiles because this doesn't require "martial" knowledge - it's something you can teach any beginner).  Again, I say this with due regard to comparisons with other martial footage from the '50s and '60s.

Consider his kicks:

In his front kick, he doesn't lift his knee as he chambers.  His hips are held back from the force of the kick (a technical issue which I cover in this article).  His arms flail about wildly and without any control.

His spinning back kick is similarly indicative of a deficiency in basic motor skill and conditioning.

As you can see, he is unbalanced in the turn.  His kick is aimed totally off course.  It lacks sufficient force or snap because it mostly just swings out with the knee staying bent.

The same applies to many of his other techniques.  At times in his jumping kicks he doesn't even snap out at all; he just lifts both bent knees (a double hop).

Accordingly it is my view that at 32 Ed Parker was a relative beginner in martial movement. He was certainly not a master.

He knew roughly how to do, say, a front snap kick.  But he couldn't do it properly.  It might even be said that he was scarcely better than someone who might have walked in off the street; his muscles showed little memory of corrected repetition.  Yes, his technique evidences some repetition of non-standard traditional martial movement - but not even much of that, as is evidenced by his general lack of balance and motor control. [It's worth noting that due to selection pressure even the most unorthodox movements will still develop one's balance and kinaesthetic awareness after sufficient repetition.]

Compare Parker's performance above to this JKA footage from the same era (or earlier):

Nor do I think Parker is "faking" his lack of skill. The consistency of his movements is telling enough. And "playing silly" would be at odds with the tile breaking (which was clearly meant to impress).

Consider for example Hirokazu Kanazawa's brief appearance on one of my favourite childhood shows, The Saint (starring Roger Moore).  Like Ed Parker, Kanazawa was intended to play the role of an impressive expert - not a fool.  He might not do much (more breaking) and what isn't breaking might be contrived, but the techniques are still passable as not offensive to traditional technique.

But more than anything, you just couldn't do things as badly as Parker did in "The Lucy Show" if you were actually skilled. I think we all know: once you've attained a certain ability it might be possible to look plain silly, but it is impossible to look like a true beginner. My daughter tries to copy me copying her ballet. She either looks like she's still dancing or she looks like she's jumping on the spot like a pogo stick. There isn't any resemblance to my real "ballet awkwardness"!

And I wouldn't call this "something different" that I "might not understand" (ie "kenpo").  The human body can only move so many ways, and the movements here are fairly fundamental (eg. front kick).  The fact that Parker does them in a karate way (ie. ball of foot, snapping action) just narrows the scope: he was clearly showing karate (ie. Mitose's shorin-derived version).  There is no "modification" that could possibly accommodate this bad technique - no "evolution", no "improvement".  Besides, it is clear that Parker simply cannot do the relevant technique properly: every karate and taekwondo instructor of any experience will note unmistakable beginner movement with the attendant lack of balance, core strength, etc.

Parker looks better with a partner, doing preset exercises in the 16 mm footage below, taken from around the same time as "The Lucy Show" episode.  As my brother has pointed out to me, his bunkai (applications) are in many ways streets ahead of other traditional martial artists of his day in terms of practicality.

In particular, his applications are, in some cases, far more convincing than the JKA shotokan ones featured above (some of the latter are really quite stilted and improbable).  Clearly, like Chow and Mitose before him, Parker seems to have been what my friend Zach calls an "application-focused" martial artist rather than one who focused on technique.

But don't forget: the applications, as relatively practical as they were in their day, are still fairly basic.

And the rehearsed nature of them hides the fact that they are still executed with poor motor control - in Parker's case, the same poor motor control seen on "The Lucy Show" episode, albeit hidden by the choreography and the fact that Parker does not perform solo routines.  You can get by with choreographing an elbow strike against a "one step" opponent and still look good.  A spinning back kick?  Not so much.

Accordingly it should come as no surprise that if you look closely you'll see the same fundamental errors and bad habits in technique that you saw on "The Lucy Show".  Just one example is kicking with his hip held back.

And it's clear from this film that he had already passed on these bad habits (or lack of knowledge) to his (otherwise clearly talented) student.  Consider the adjacent still taken from the film and you'll see what I mean.

So the end result is the same: basic (though not entirely impractical) karate, done with fairly poor form.

But let's go back to James Wing Woo.  Was he a co-author of "Secrets of Chinese Karate"?  If so, how much of it was his material?

Aside from the obvious - that Ed Parker and his student don't exhibit the skills of Chinese gong fu practitioners - I think the following is salient to note:

The above video opens with a quote that is found at the start of Parker's "Secrets of Chinese Karate".  I always found this quote almost impossible to reconcile with the Chinese technical content: it relies on a translation of "kara te" as "empty hand" when the characters for that name (空手)  were only used in Okinawa and Japan to denote martial arts from the 1930s.  Before that, "kara te" was written using homophone characters meaning "Chinese hand" or "Tang hand" (唐手).  The change was made for pre-war nationalistic reasons ("Tang"was used to mean "China").

In other words, if a Chinese fighting art was ever going to use the characters for "kara te" ("tang shou") those characters would never be the ones meaning "empty hand".  For example that Hong Yi Xiang of Taipei - part of my own martial lineage - called his school "Tang Shou Dao" meaning "The way of the hands of Tang".  He did not, and would never have, used a term associated with Japanese nationalism in the 1930s - ie. "kara" (空).  In any event while the two characters for "kara" are homophones in Japanese, this is not the case in Chinese dialects (eg. tang/kong in Mandarin, tong/hung in Cantonese).

There is generally a fairly large disconnect between the introductory text and the technical and historical information.  Almost as if someone else had come along and added a "Westernised karate" layer to what was a Chinese boxing manual.

I am now getting an idea how the strange fusion in his book came about.

And if one needed any more confirmation that Parker really wasn't terribly good at Chinese gong fu at around the time his second book was published, the video below removes all doubt.  It clearly shows a gong fu two-person form and the beginning of a tiger/crane form. The former appeared in "Secrets of Chinese Karate" and seems to have been taken from, or at least inspired by, Woo or perhaps some other practitioner in Woo's circle.

Notice the way Parker and his student get their distancing all wrong when performing the two-person form: it's clearly something they haven't really internalised. The technique is awful.

If I were to suggest a summary of what Parker's system comprised in 1963, I would say that a handful of Woo's (or "Woo/other gong fu inspired") forms (eg. the two-person and the tiger/crane form) had been inexpertly grafted onto Parker's fairly basic karate knowledge.  And when Woo and Parker fell out, the latter's brief access to traditional Chinese knowledge also terminated.

From then on Parker's system seems to have become largely, if not entirely, his own creation.

In conclusion, in 1963 Ed Parker was a relative beginner in what seems to have been a very diluted form of shorin karate.  If we accept that karate standards were generally lower back then, we might give him a brown belt in karate (which some claimed is what he actually had).  But he was very far from being a master.

He was even more of a beginner in James Wing Woo's gong fu.

Whether it is karate or gong fu, Parker's movements in these videos show he lacked sufficient skill in traditional martial arts to claim any real mastery of them.  His idiosyncratic form can't be explained away by reference to "improvement" on what he had been taught; one can only "improve" arts once one has mastered them.

From a technical perspective, his second book "Secrets of Chinese Karate" seems to have resulted from the uncredited Woo; I can't see any substantial connection between the material in that book and Parker's martial art - at, or subsequent to, the time of these videos - other than the persistence of a few forms (performed by Parker and his student in the above videos in a rather disjointed, basic karate-style fashion).

I have seen nothing in later demonstrations by Parker to conclude that he ever really attained a higher level of performance or knowledge of either the Japanese/Okinawan or Chinese martial arts than what is shown in the above videos.  Rather he seems to have developed his own martial art, almost from scratch, using what karate he knew as a base (with a mere nod to James Woo's material).

I note that in subsequent years he continued to perform the same "hurticane-type" demonstrations that he did in the above video and in "The Lucy Show" episode.  But from a traditional eastern martial arts perspective (karate or gong fu), his movement became even less technically correct/precise.  For example, take a look at this footage of Parker:

Ed Parker was certainly a pioneer of martial arts in the West.  But based on the available footage, by both today's and yesterday's standards, it seems apparent to me that his skill and personal knowledge of traditional Japanese/Okinawan and Chinese arts was at a relatively low level when he was in his prime.  I suspect it did not increase much after that: such skill and knowledge he developed in later years seems only marginally related to the traditional arts he initially studied.

Parker might have been an innovator, perhaps an important one; I'll leave that for another time (see the end of this article).  He might have been very tough physically.  But he certainly wasn't a good traditional technician.  And some of his concepts (eg. his lack of hip use in kicking) seem to have been just plain wrong, whether viewed from a traditional or modern/eclectic perspective.

* James Wing Woo passed away on 27 August 2014 at the age of 92.


I was reminded on Facebook to:
"[B]e careful of too much focus on subjects 'what isn't there' and instead focus on subjects of what IS there. Focusing on the negative too much makes a person cynical to the point of questioning their own art in a nonproductive way."
I think this is absolutely correct.

Simultaneously, my brother called me and said that he felt I was way too harsh on Parker.  He said (probably correctly) that if he and I had seen the 16 mm footage in the 70s or 80s we would have thought Parker was the bee's knees.  He might not have been a good technician, but at least he was focused on applications - something it took many others decades to come to.

So in other words, one needs to focus on what is there, not simply on what is isn't.  Point taken.

See also my follow up articles: "Why good basics matter", "Cross-stepping: power and pitfall" and "Parker's hand postures".

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Will I ever switch from "external" to "internal"?

I have lately become quite disenchanted with using the term "internal" or "external" in describing myself as a martial artist.

For 25 years I've practised the internal Chinese martial arts (and some external Chinese systems) along with my karate. Yes, I've tended to move more towards the internal arts in my own weekly practice. That's because it's a lot easier on my body. But I've never "switched" from one to the other.

Apart from the obvious references to the 3 main arts of China that comprise the neiji (internal) family of boxing (xingyi, bagua and taiji) I suppose I have also used the term "internal" to refer to a gradual "softening" in my training so that it was "smarter" - ie. more efficient, more economical, less reliant on simple force and more on timing and placement.

However judging by comments I get via email, Twitter, G+, YouTube and Facebook, a very large percentage (dare I suggest a majority?) of "internal" martial artists out there appear to be mere dreamers and fantasists - people who believe that they have some sort of "magical power" (they refuse to call it that, but this is nonetheless what they are really saying when it all boils down).  The sad truth is those who adhere to this view of "internal arts" couldn't punch their way out of a wet paper bag (and deep down they know it).

When I offer what I consider to be a pragmatic account of the "internal" (neijia) school of Chinese martial arts, I get laughed at by these people. "Corrupted with karate jins" is the kindest thing they say. Other examples include:
"You know nothing and I feel sorry for your students!"
"You should not be teaching!"
"This is a crime against taijiquan."
"Ha ha!"
"You have no root!"
"You don't understand the 6 harmonies at all."
"You have zero fajin."
"You should be ashamed."
But if "internal" meant being like these people (something I wouldn't accept for a moment) then I know what I'd choose to be - or not to be. As a senior of mine in both karate and the internal arts once said (when asked by some "infernal internals" why he didn't just "switch over completely" to the "good stuff"):
"Karateka actually know something about fighting."
This is not to say that there aren't any internal martial artists who are effective fighters.  I know more than a few.  But, as I've said, there are many, many more who, judging by their rhetoric, if not their images and videos, don't seem to have an ounce of practicality in their training.

Lack of "practicality" is, in itself, unobjectionable: as I explained in my article "Why do you train? An interview with Dan" fighting isn't the main reason most people do martial arts.  The problem I'm having only arises when ludicrous claims are made about system A or system B and its "street effectiveness" or "fighting superiority".  And in the internal arts world such claims are still routinely made - with absolutely no basis in evidence.

I was certainly "raised" on a very different impression of the Chinese arts of xingyi, bagua and taiji than the currently popular "new age" one. There was no reliance on "qi" to make things work when they clearly couldn't; no need for confusing, archaic terminology (words like "jin"); and no other obfuscation of basic physics.

And there was genuine appreciation and respect for the skill, speed and power of an "external" (waijia) fighter - be he/she a boxer, Muay Thai fighter or hard karateka; none of the scathing, arrogant dismissal you see from overweight, middle-aged men who have neither dealt a hard blow, nor received one.

My teacher Chen Yun Ching focuses on technique with absolutely no "value judgement" based on whether it is "external" or "internal".
All he says is: "This is a bagua move, this is a shaolin move" etc.  He looks genuinely puzzled when I try to draw any other, more nebulous, distinction.  They are different styles using different methods.  That is it.

He is equally at home with shaolin (waijia) as he is with taiji, bagua and xingyi (neijia).  They are all kuo shu - the national martial arts of China.

So I continue to train in the internal arts. But I confess to being jaded with the label "internal" - as well as tainted by association with those dreamers and fantasists who would claim to engage in my chosen art(s).

Will I ever "switch"? That question does not make sense to me. I practice a variety of martial arts - each with hard and soft elements.  To some extent I probably always will.

As my teacher's father Chen Pan Ling said (paraphrased):
"It should be the goal of every hard artist to become softer. And the goal of every soft artist to become harder. What you want in the end is an optimum mix of soft and hard strokes." 
A day may come when I exclusively practise the "softer" techniques of taiji etc. instead of karate - simply because I'm not able to practice the latter properly due to age and health issues. But even that won't be a "switch": it will be a modification of my practice to suit my physical condition.

I will be choosing certain techniques over others - not one label ("internal") over another ("external").

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Side thrust kick knockout in MMA?

My second-most popular article is "King of cool: the side thrust kick".  Even though I love the kick myself, I'm not a huge fan of using it in civilian defence.  And I honestly never thought I'd see it turn up in MMA.

Yet here it is:

On 7 November 2014 Louis Smolka knocked out Richie "Vas" Vaculik in their third round of UFC Fight Night Sydney when he was well on the way to losing on the fight cards.  Impressive!

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why do you train? An interview with Dan

I had a university student interview me today for the purposes of a paper he was writing.  These were my responses:

1. How long have you been practicing martial arts?
I have been training for 33 years (just coming up to 34!).
2. What has your experience in practicing martial arts been like?
Mostly my experience of martial arts has been a very positive one.  Occasionally it has involved some rather unsavoury characters, some bruises, bleeding and broken bones, some disappointment, some lack of enthusiasm and sense of resentment and some feelings of inadequacy.  But for the majority of the time I’ve been training, martial arts practice has given me a great deal of satisfaction, sense of achievement and focus.
3. Describe what happens during each of the classes you teach (What is the basic structure)?
Each class begins with what the Okinawans call “junbi undo” – warm up and conditioning exercises.  I go through my set almost religiously.  In fact, if I ever vary from this set, I always have the sense I’ll get injured (and often have an niggling pain here or there from not having done my warm up correctly and in the right order!).  This takes about 15 minutes.  
From there I usually start formal training with isolated basic movement that everyone can do irrespective of experience.  That takes about 15 minutes.  This is followed by forms which are then applied with partner practice (about 30 – 45 minutes).  This takes place in smaller study groups comprising people of similar experience.  Sometimes the forms/partner practice takes the form of free sparring only.  Sometimes it involves weapons.  It depends on what we are covering at the time.
4. What is the most important thing to consider before you enter the dojo and start training?
The most important thing to consider before training is your health and overall conditioning.  All training must be undertaken with this in mind.
5. a) What is the main reason people come to study/practice martial arts? 
While they might not say so, I think the main reason people come to study/practice martial arts with me is “gong fu” – acquiring a skill through diligent effort.  When asked why they train, people will often answer “self-defence” or “exercise” or give some other reason.  But I feel these answers do not reflect the their true, subconscious motivations.
Sure, they might want to do some exercise, but this doesn’t answer why they have chosen to do martial  arts: why they don’t go for a run or ride a bike or play soccer etc. instead.  
Sure, they might feel they need self-defence training, but I don’t know anyone who realistically feels they will achieve any sense of “peace of mind” in this regard just by going to martial arts classes a couple of times per week.  
In the end, I suspect the true motivation for most people’s martial arts training comes down to something that isn’t quite so easy to explain.  And it happens to be the same reason some folks do chado (tea ceremony) or shodo (calligraphy), while others like to draw, paint, write, sculpt, carve, make pottery, dance, forge swords, work with wood, paint toy soldiers etc.  It’s all about acquiring a skill.  And with martial arts, there’s the attraction that it’s a whole body skill.
    b) Why did you choose to do it?
I chose to start martial arts because I wanted to be able to “fight”.  But I chose to stay (ie. after my first lesson) because I (subconsciously) realised that it wasn’t about fighting.  I saw that I couldn’t do what the others were doing and I wanted to be able to do it.  When I could do it (after a fashion), I wanted to be able to do it better.  And so on.
6. From your understanding, how can martial arts affect a person's life? 
Martial arts can give you a sense of achievement.  Many people who do martial arts are really not the “sporty” types you see winning swimming or tennis tournaments, winning cycling or running races or top scoring in football/basketball etc.  They are ordinary folks who probably never felt they would be particularly good at any physical activity.  Martial arts gives them a sense of improvement and achievement that isn’t measured against others but against their own progress.  They acquire physical skills that are often considerable relative to other things they have done.  Even those who are naturally athletic find the activity so radically different to sports that it gives them a sense of achievement of a kind they’ve never had.  
Related to this is the fact that martial arts are inherently creative: they involve movement that is perfected in much the same way as dance, music or other performance art is perfected.  Again, you needn’t be particularly artistic to have a sense of creative achievement in martial arts; your “art” is not meant to be judged by reference to others but rather by reference to your own scale. 
Apart from the above, martial arts can give you focus – something positive to do; a hobby that is both diverting and stimulating.  I think we tend to overlook the basic need humans have to be occupied.  “Occupation” needn’t be constantly exciting or filled with elation/passion.  It can be gardening or Sudoku.  Martial arts comprises an activity that is both physically and mentally demanding.
7. Anything else that you feel might be relevant to add, please feel free to do so :)
People often ask me why I “bother with traditional martial arts”.  The assumption is that (a) “You can’t beat a gun/knife, so what’s the point?” or (b) “MMA is so much better!” or (c) “Traditional martial arts just involves tragic people dressing up in pyjamas and pretending to be ninjas.”  The fact is, traditional martial arts have existed for a long time as activities that defy our modern expectations and labels.   I very much doubt anyone ever really practised, say, karate primarily for “self-defence”.  
The notion that Okinawa was a dangerous place where you needed karate to fend off brigands has been revealed to be manifestly untrue.  When the French landed in Okinawa in the Napoleonic era they reported it was a peaceful island nation with almost no crime – “a society governed by a code of polite manners and good behaviour among all classes” where “the art of war was unknown”.*  So much for the old legends of people needing to develop karate to deal with ever-present threats because their weapons were taken away (King Sho Hashi’s weapons ban in 1477 and the Satsuma clan’s continuation of that ban after their invasion in 1609)!
* Okinawa: The History of an Island People, George Kerr, Tuttle Publishing, 2000
Nor were Okinawans particularly interested in our modern concepts of “fitness”: their work lives provided more than enough exercise.  So it seems that karate existed as a cultural phenomenon to fill a very different niche from what we might expect.  When it comes to fundamental drives, humans haven’t changed a great deal in recorded history – if at all.  The notion that we would be very differently motivated in our needs today than we were a few hundred years ago defies logic and common sense.  
Accordingly I hold it to be self-evident that traditional martial arts were only ever done for “gong fu” – the need to acquire some sort of skill through effort.  Yes, some of us might already do this vocationally.  But what if our daily work involves a factory, fishing, filing papers, entering data, serving customers etc.?  What outlets exist for creativity, skill and absorption?  Obviously there are many - and martial arts is one.
In China martial arts are often called “gong fu” even though the latter term has no connection with anything martial.  Instead it refers to the acquisition of a particular skill generally.  Why are martial arts called by this name?  I believe it is because the primary motivator for training in them was never really to develop a skill in “fighting”.  Rather, traditional martial arts – with their emphasis on perfection of technique and development of character/wisdom - were and are about something deeper in our human psyche: the need to be occupied, to be creative, to grow and be better than we were yesterday.  

Copyright © 2014 Dejan Djurdjevic