For the modern preppers and survivalists interested in self-defense training, attempting to separate mythical images and actual attributes of Asian martial arts fighting systems can become an exercise in frustration.
There are at least 400 known “styles” of Chinese Kung Fu alone, along with several dozen types of Okinawan and Japanese Karate. From Korea, come several versions of the indigenous art, Tae Kwon Do, along with Tang Soo Do, Hapkido, and the ancient warrior art of Hwarang do.
In Indonesia, there are reputedly 150 versions of Pentjak Silat, a fighting art peculiar to those islands. In addition, the past 100 years have seen the introduction of sport martial arts like karate and judo, along with the development of the strictly spiritual disciplines of Aikido and Shorinji Kemper.
Add to these the numerous “hybrid” styles created since the introduction of Asian martial arts in the West, and the list of styles becomes virtually endless.
Because most of the history and philosophy of Asian martial arts systems have been passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, it is not so simple for the westerner to research the subject to better determine which style or school fit his particular needs.
Many schools, particularly those in China, were based on secrecy, and it was not until the past few decades that many Kung Fu schools opened their doors to the “Barbarians” of the West. Written histories of the styles and their origins are few, and those that do exist are often full of mythology and contradiction.
Martial Arts or Survival Arts?
Contrary to popular opinion, just “taking some Karate” may not fulfill the personal needs which drive the modern survivalist to consider martial arts to begin with. Each brings a different background, temperament, and physiology into a dojo or kwoon (training hall), along with differing expectations. This source will show which body targets to exploit in self-defense, but martial arts teaches you much more.
Some of us wish to learn no-nonsense street defense. It would be pointless, therefore, to enroll in a Chinese Wu Shu school, which emphasizes acrobatics and beauty of form. Others may be more interested in the spiritual aspects of the martial arts. Thus taking an American “hybrid” system devoted to sports competition essentially would be a waste of time.
Physical limitations also must be considered: if you have a bad leg, considering Tae Kwon Do would be foolish because this system is composed of almost 80 percent kicking technique. A bad back would rule out Judo or Jujutsu, and perhaps even Aikido, because of the numerous falling and throwing methods these martial arts styles emphasize.
If a “one-size-fits-all” method were extant today, the Asians would not have bothered to develop the almost 1,000 styles currently documented.
Each style or system has its own concepts, goals, advantages, and disadvantages, and discovering what these require a bit of research.
Even if you have decided on Kung Fu over Karate for some reason, there are still numerous differences from one style of Kung Fu to another. And, when you do a quick online search, you are further confused by ads from martial arts schools that claim to teach “Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, Hapkido and Yoga,” as if these were all the same thing or hardly different from one another.
Such martial arts schools often claim to also teach self-defense, confidence building, breaking techniques (boards and bricks), tournament sparring, children’s self-defense, and meditation. If one believed such commercial ads, then Karate and Kung Fu schools would be like martial arts department stores, but, alas, such ads are usually intended to just get you in the door with these one-size-fits-all claims.
Certainly, there are astute martial arts instructors in this country who can be frank and objective with a potential student about the goals and applications of the system he teaches. But, for the most part, instructors like to believe that their particular system is the best, no matter what you, the student, view your foremost needs to be.
Much of this attitude evolves from the Neo-Confucianism philosophy which permeates many of the Asian fighting arts: to be loyal to one’s Master or teacher and to defend the integrity of one’s style in the face of criticism.
Some black belts find themselves owing a sort of “allegiance” to their system, much akin to loyalty within a political party, or military unit. Even when the party’s candidate or company’s lieutenant isn’t qualified for the job, they support him anyway.
Just because an instructor is a high-ranking black belt does not mean that the information he gives you is beyond reproach or contention.
He will obviously have some vested interest in promoting hit own style, not necessarily in the commercial sense, and will attempt to portray his art in the best possible light.
This does not mean that he will lie to you. The advice he gives might be just plain wrong for you street-oriented combat training is a good case in point: just about any black belt you’ll talk with is convinced that his particular system is effective in self-defense situations, even though it was originally designed for spiritual development, sport competition, or gymnastic performance.
It is an unconscious bias that many instructors inadvertently pass down to their students, thereby perpetuating the sometimes-petty bickering that goes on between styles and instructors from different martial arts systems. Asking any martial arts instructor whether or not his system will “work” in an actual attack situation is somewhat like asking a used car dealer whether or not he sells “god cars. Of course, he does. They’re his, aren’t they?
Unless you have some background in Western fighting arts or are somewhat familiar with Asian cultures, it can be very difficult to evaluate a given fighting system or school without first having studied within it. It can, however, be done.
Many people bounce around for years as “dojo bums,” moving from style to style before finding the “right” one by the laborious process of trial and error. As an example, a good friend of mine wallowed for over 6 years in a variety of systems before learning enough about martial arts to distinguish the real deal from scams.
Most people, however, cannot spend 8 to 10 years learning the “hard way,” and who can blame them?
Regardless of what motivates you to wish to learn Asian martial arts, it befits you to gain a little background information about the major systems being taught at the present time, so that you will have at least some criteria for determining what sort of style or school to seek.
Kung Fu History
While there remains a great deal of speculation over the historical “origins” of systematic fighting arts, there is little doubt that they reached their highest level of sophistication in China, and that the influence of Chinese “Kung Fu” spread throughout the rest of Asia.
In Okinawa, Indonesia, and Korea, numerous Chinese influences were incorporated Into met hosts indigenous to the area, eventually becoming separate styles in their own right.
There is no clear evidence to determine whether systematic fighting arts like Kung Fu were “invented” by the Chinese per se, or imported into China from India or elsewhere. The Indians do practice a martial art called “Kalaripayit” (“battlefield training” in Tamil), which may very well have traveled with the merchant caravans into China during the Warring States Period.
Some also contend that the Greek art “Pankration” (“all powers”) was brought into India and Persia by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C. and that it formed the foundation of Kalaripayit and Kung Fu. But regardless of where it came from originally, it was the Chinese who provided hand-to-hand combat with its “Golden Age.”
To better understand the Chinese mind as it applies to the fighting martial arts, a brief word about Chinese philosophy is in order. Clearly, such a subject cannot be reviewed in any real detail, but there is sufficient written material available on Eastern thought these says for the interested individual to study.
It is possible to view the three major philosophies of China before 1949 as a sort of ascending ladder that bridges the gamut from the ethical to the metaphysical.
This has always been and probably continues to be the most influential school of thought in China. It is, in essence, a moral, ethical philosophy, concerned not with spiritual liberation, but with maintaining an orderly society through the medium of good conduct, practical wisdom, and proper social relationships.
The founder of this school of thought, Confucius (551.479 B.C.), was more concerned with maintaining order and harmony in Chinese society than in speculating about the source of the universe or the origins of human nature. Righteousness, propriety, and especially reverence for one’s parents and ancestors are characteristics of Confucianism that can be found in the decorum observed at many martial art schools across Min.
Chinese thought, like its Kung Fu, eventually spread throughout the Asian Continent, and to Japan, Korea, Indochina, and Indonesia. The gist of the original Confucian philosophy can be found in his Analects, and his version of the ancient classic or divination, the I Ching or Book of Changes.
China’s second major philosophy, Taoism, is best exemplified by Lao-tzu, its alleged founder (664-531 B.C.?), who may have been a contemporary of Confucius. His only known work, the Tao Te Ching, serves as the major text of this philosophy/religion, along with the Writings of Chuang Tzu, who may well have been a disciple of Lao-tzu.
Broadly speaking, the essence of this philosophy is the “Tao,” which is the source of all things and which cannot be described. It is not a deity in the western sense. It may be likened more to a Universal Principle or “Big Bang,” if you wish. Lao-tzu referred to it merely as “The Way,” because the profundity of it defies explanation.
Within the total unity of the Tao itself, there are two opposing fosses at work: the Yin (male) and the Yang (female), which are most often represented in a circular black-and-white symbol. All things and actions are the result of the interaction between these opposing though complementary, forces, which derive their source from the nameless Tao.
The Taoist, therefore, strives for moderation in all pursuits, because the relative balance between the Yin and Yang provides the wise man with a harmonious relationship to nature. The active “energy” of the Tao is called “chi,” and it is through the dynamic transformations of the “chi” that all dualities (light and dark, hard and soft, near and far) come into existence and form the world.
Taoism is essentially intuitive In nature. One does not reach an understanding of it directly, especially through words. As Lao-tzu puts it:
“The Tao which can be named is not the enduring the unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
Conceived of as having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; conceived of as having a name, it is the Mother of all things.”
It might be said, then, that the Taoist strives to gain an intuitive understanding of the law of the Tao, or nature so that he can then use these laws to govern his own life and thereby attain harmony. To do this, both men and women often become recluses or monks and nuns, taking residence in the mountains away from society.
Because they were often preyed upon by bandits while living in such a way, some spent their time developing martial arts fighting systems based upon the tenets of Taoism. These are referred to as “soft” or “internal” styles of Kung Fu, based not upon power or strength, but upon the harnessing and utilization of “chi,” which the Taoist views as the very essence of the life force within all beings.
The last of the three major religions to gain a foothold in China, and it is with Buddhism that Kung Fu has perhaps its strongest link. It is alleged that during the 5th Century A.D., a monk named Bodhidharma came from India to China and took up residence in a place called the Shaolin Monastery (Sil Lum in Cantonese), where he began teaching the monks his Buddhist meditation methods.
The monks, unused to sitting in meditation for so many hours, began to fall asleep during practices, so Bodhidharma required them to perform certain nemeses to strengthen their bodies for such ordeals. Eventually, these exercises were convened into fighting methods by the Shaolin monks, who were often victimized by bandits during pilgrimages and persecuted for their beliefs by many of the intolerant Confucianist and Taoist sects.
In this way, whether factually substantiated or not, the introduction of Buddhism into China is directly related to the origins of Shaolin Temple Boxing and all the styles that evolved from it. Because all the monastery records burned in a 1928 fire, the true origins of Shaolin Kung Fu will never be known.
Eventually, the ever-practical Chinese merged the Buddhist teachings of Bodhidharma into their own Taoist philosophy, creating a unique philosophical system called Cha’n Buddhism. And by the 1600s, many of the strict Confucianists had adopted many of the spiritual tenets of Buddhism and Taoism, thereby creating what is now called Neo-Confucianism.
Chinese philosophy and martial arts have always been in the process of synthesis.
With this basic eat-line of Chinese (and Japanese, Korean, and Indonesian) thought in mind, you can more clearly examine the roots of the various martial arts. Although the concepts of the Tao and the energy called “chi” go back into Chinese antiquity, it is not until the writings of Hua To in the 2nd century A.D. that these ideas are found applied to combat.
In his work, the Five Animal Frolic, the physician Hua To illustrated a series of fighting movements based on the action of animals such as the bear, crane, and snake.
In time, these animal movements were incorporated into what are called the “internal” or “soft” systems of Hsing-I, Pakua, and T’ai-chi ch’uan, although forms of these arts were probably being practiced long before Hua To wrote about them.
In these internal systems, the primary goal of the practitioner is to harness “chi.” the lift energy which permeates all things. This is done through the strict regulation of breathing by the practitioner, who moves very slowly and deliberately through the postures and movements or the style he practices.
In Chinese medical theory, the life force, or “chi,” moves through the human body along invisible “meridians” or paths. It is on this theory that Chinese acupuncture is based. Insertion of needles in specific areas can either block or stimulate the movement of “chi” to vital organs.
For the internal martial art stylist, the close regulation of breathing through circular, harmonious movement helps to ”sink” and concentrate the “chi” in an area just below the navel, called the “tan tien.” For this reason, the soft or internal systems stress a method of breathing which fills up the lower abdomen, much like the breathing techniques used in Yoga.
Because of this concentration on breathing, internal styles take far longer to learn than most “external,” or “hard” styles, and the majority of people who practice these internal methods do so primarily for reasons of health and for spiritual development, not self-defense.
There are some very clear contrasts between the “hard” external styles that originated with the Buddhist influence of Shaolin and the soft, internal styles that evolved from Taoism in southern China.
The internal styles prefer circular, fluid movements. The external styles concentrate on linear, direct movements. In the internal, the force of an opponent’s attack is not met with counter-force. Instead, it is redirected and used against the attacker.
External styles are often characterized by blows of the hands and feet. Internal styles employ throws, takedowns, and joint locks. In most external styles, fighting occurs at “long-hand” range, where blows of the hands or legs will extend fully. In the internal methods, fighting is at “short-hand” range, up close at infighting distance.
In a somewhat simplistic way, one might say that the internal or soft systems concentrate on training just the mind, while external styles concentrate on hardening the body.
While dualities of internal/external, short/long, circular/linear can help to describe various forms of Kung Fu, it must be remembered that most of the systems prevalent today have combined many of these dualities into one style.
It is, for example, almost impossible to find a totally hard system without some soft facets to it, and vice versa. One expert asserts: “there is . . . no such thing as a solely hardstyle” in Chinese martial arts.
“All hard styles have incorporated soft techniques from other schools, and a few hard techniques can be found even in the softest of all martial arts, T’ai-chi ch’uan.”
Movements in Hsing-I are based upon the actions of 12 animals, most notably the horse, monkey, and tiger. The basic postures used correspond to the Taoist “elements”: earth, water, tire, wood, and metal. Though the movements of Hsing-I are less circular than those of Pakua or T’ai-chi, it is nonetheless almost entirely a soft art.
The dynamic basis of Hsing-I resolves around the concepts of form and meaning. At first, the student duplicates the form of animal movement, and through diligent practice, eventually comes to understand the meaning or “idea” behind the movements of an opponent in advance, making defense quite simple end reflexive. At such a point, the practitioner is essentially “one with nature.”
A sort of companion system to Hsing-I is Pakua. It is common for a master to require that a student learn Hsing-I before moving into Pakua, which is far more circular in its methodology.
Pakua means “eight diagrams,” a reference to the foundation of the ancient Book of Changes, which dates back to around 800 B.C. or so. In Pakua, upright stances are preferred, and the practitioner is constantly moving in a circle, although the direction of circling may change at any moment. Says one master:
“In Pakua, the emphasis is on tricks and subtle evasion. Unlike Hsing-I, it does not require one to face the opponent directly…In Pakua, one tries to move in circles to avoid direct confrontation, thereby permitting one to deflect and overturn 1,000 kilos of strength with only 100 grams. Hsing-I is direct and linear; Pakua is indirect and circular. T’ai-chi works in all directions ‘
Without a doubt, T’ai-chi ch’uan is the “granddaddy” of the internal systems, possibly dating back 5,000 years. The Taoist concept of the interaction of Yin and Yang form the foundation of this art, which is still very popular in Asia. It is practiced primarily as a form of healthful exercise today, although individuals who train in Tai-chi for many years do develop actual fighting ability.
While many of the graceful movements have flowery names and do not appear combative to the untrained eye, its looks are deceiving. Many of the greatest boxers in China were practitioners of T’ai-chi ch’uan (Grand Ultimate Boxing). Usually, a student of the internal arts begins by studying Hsing-I and Pakua before moving up to the more complex T’ai-chi.
Yielding is one of the key principles of T’ai-chi. By moving in circles, the practitioner develops an ability to injure an opponent by striking or locking vital points of his anatomy while simultaneously deflecting his incoming attack.
Adherence is another important concept: once an attack is deflected, the defender is grasped so that locks, pins, or pressure to vital areas can be applied to end the fight. This skill is developed through the “trapping” or “sticking” hands exercise, a form of close-quarter grappling that is also found in some of the external styles.
Expulsion is the final principle; once the attacker is neutralized, he is hurled away. This is where the skillful release of the carefully cultivated “chi” comes into play.
In all of the internal arts, slow, deliberate movements are emphasized In the practice forms. Relaxation is the primary objective because an excited mind blocks the harnessing of “chi.” For the internal stylist, developing “chi” is everything.
In contrast to the soft, Taoist systems from the South of China, those developed in the North tended to be hard and direct, with a greater emphasis on blows than on throws and holds. Many scholars point to the differences of terrain and the character of the Northern and Southern Chinese to explain these different preferences.
Northern people tended to be taller, more robust in build and were accustomed to long journeys by foot or on horseback. Southerners, on the other hand, were of shorter stature and did much of their traveling by boat. Some say these distinctions led to an emphasis on feet in the North, and arms in the South, which may, in fact, be true.
Although the movement of animals also played a great part in the development of Northern Shaolin styles, the Buddhists did not make the same distinction between mind and body as did their Taoist counterparts, so the development of a strong body and powerful techniques became a Shaolin hallmark.
In the North, techniques tended to be linear and long-range, because kicking required more space between combatants. Breathing techniques were also radically different from those of the Taoists. Instead of breathing into the tower abdomen to stabilize “chi,” the Northern boxer breathed through the nose, keeping his tongue on the roof of the mouth and concentrating the air in the upper chest.
This allegedly creates a buoyancy of sorts and provides a more explosive, short term form of power than does the Taoist method. It also does not take years to learn.
Eventually, the methods of the Buddhists at Shaolin began to expand, and various spin-off styles emerged. Some new styles might be bawd upon philosophical concepts, or perhaps a specialty technique such as the “tiger claw” or “crane’s beak” would be expanded into a sub-system all its own. Make sure to read this article to aknoweldge the vital head points to exploit when practicing martial arts.
After the Manchus conquered China, these systems went underground and were only taught to close family or within the confines of secret societies dedicated to the overthrow of the invaders. As such, the Shaolin monks and their boxing methods came to be a rallying point for Chinese nationalism during the oppressive reign of the Manchus.
As many of the Shaolin monks fled to other lands and as the influence of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism spread to neighboring countries, so too did the influence of the hard Shaolin styles. Tae Kwon Do in Korea, Karate in Okinawa, and Silat in Indonesia were all profoundly affected by the hard Northern styles.
Even the internal styles had an effect on both the Ju-jitsu of Japan and the warrior art of Hwarang do in Korea. And in Southern China, a new branch of Shaolin developed, with sonic interesting new concepts of its own.
Combinations of the hard and soft styles of Kung Fu are most prevalent in what are termed the Southern Shaolin or Sit Lum (Cantonese) styles. These systems use both linear and circular movements but prefer short-hand infighting to the long-hand techniques of the North. Also, they are characterized by low kicks to the legs, as opposed to the high kicks used in the North.
Unlike the soft styles, however, the Sil Lum systems stress speed and power, often striking and blocking with both arms at the same lime. This is called the “simultaneous attack and defense,” and one might say that these Southern Shaolin styles are more aggressive and attack-oriented than the soft styles.
Because these are infighting systems, most place emphasis on “sticking” or “trapping” hands, a method whereby an attacker’s arms are pinned or immobilized against his torso so that unobstructed blows can be delivered to his head and body.
In this practice, the student tries to “read” his opponent’s intent through the pressure generated by contact between their forearms and wrists. The most popular of these Southern styles are Wing Chun, Hung Gar, and Choy Li Fut.
Many of these Southern Sil Lum styles use the vertical fist punch as opposed to the corkscrew or “reverse” punch so favored in the North and in Karate. The internal styles, on the other hand, use primarily open hand blows, and seldom resort to the fist. Although the corkscrewing punch adds a certain “snap” at full extension, it is slower to deliver than the vertical list punch, which may explain why the speed-oriented Sil Lum styles prefer the latter.
In the North, a great deal of emphasis was also placed on “forms” practice (kata in Japanese). This consisted of a pre-rehearsed set of moves against an imaginary opponent, which required the practitioner to visualize actual combat and to apply appropriate techniques against imaginary attackers.
While Southern schools still utilize forms, there are fewer of them, and the more acrobatic movements, such as leaping and flying kicks, are omitted in most systems. Many of the more acrobatic systems are now referred to as “Wu shu,” implying that they are intended as performances of gymnastic skill, rather than as actual combat training. Chinese Wu shu troupes have been touring the world for quite some time now, but the martial arts you see them performing have, for the most part, ceased to be combat-effective.
Just as the major religions and philosophies of China came to dominate much of Asia, so too did many of the concepts and methods of Chinese Kung Fu come to influence the fighting arts that developed elsewhere.
One can see in the leaping kicks of Korean Tae Kwon Do the remnants of the leg-oriented, long-hand methods of Northern Shaolin. In Japanese, Ju-jutsu and Judo remain the concepts of yielding and softness so much a part of the internal Taoist styles of Southern China.
Okinawan Karate (originally translated as “China hand”) was imported from Fukien Province in China, while weapons were banned in Okinawa. Japanese Karate, as it is known today, was brought to that country from Okinawa only a short time after 1900, making Japanese Karate a relatively “new” martial art.
Even the relatively new “hybrid” systems for spiritual development, Aikido, and Shorinji Kempo, are based on esoteric Taoist and Zen (Cha’n) Buddhist concepts, which can be traced back to China.
Philippine “Eskrima” and Indonesian “Silat” were clearly influenced by Chinese Kung-Fu when both island nations were part of the Majapahit Empire, during the 13th to 16th Centuries.
It would certainly be untrue to imply that these other nations did not practice martial arts, but most of the fighting forms found in these areas emphasize weapons and not empty-hand fighting. This is particularly true of Japan, where training in the use of weapons was considered far more important than unarmed combat.
In Indonesia, the knife or “kris” was much favored, while in the Philippines, both knives and rattan sticks were the weapons of choice.
It may be reasonable to assume that many of these cultures simply borrowed what they needed from empty-hand Chinese martial systems to supplement their already sophisticated weapon arts.
By having a basic understanding of the Chinese “roots” of most of the Asian fighting martial arts, the interested survivalist or prepper will find himself better equipped to determine what sort of instruction to seek, and where to look for it, instead of having to just “take some Karate” and hope for the best.