Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Decline of the Internal Arts

Sun Lu Tang was a giant in the martial arts world, respected by the government, fellow martial artists, and people in general.  He contributed many great ideas and practices to the Internal martial arts, like the Sun style Tai Chi and Sun Bagua.  He was one of the first teachers able to write and explain high level ideas and practices, leaving his mark forever in the Chinese martial art community.  Sadly though, Sun Lu Tang was almost the death of the Internal martial arts of Xingyi, Tai Chi, and Bagua.

 Got your attention??

 Not through any fault of his own, but by the gross misunderstanding of the generations to follow and the human need to advance as fast as possible, his words were taken out of context, and novice students adopted his practices for their own without the foundational training needed to excell in Kung Fu.  They felt that if Laoshi Sun had written about it, then they had to immediately do it.  And the generations of poorly trained students became poorly trained teachers, passing on the fragmented knowledge they had recieved to their students and so on.  His daughter also taught many students, but by her own admission, she didn't know how to fight with her fathers arts, she knew the purely internal side focused on building health and longevity.  Now please don't take any of this as a condemnation of Sun Lu Tang, his legacy, or his daughter, I hold them in the highest regard.  But the point still stands that many of his martial descendants haven't followed in his footsteops.  They have taken the advanced practices of a great master, and thought that they could imitate him with the same success he had.  They don't realize that when Master Sun wrote his books, he wrote what he was focused on, which was the highest level of training, not the nuts and bolts of a fighting art.

This misunderstanding has lead to a rapid decline of the fighting abilities of the Internal arts over the past 70 years, and taken a once fearsome group of fighting styles, and stolen their fangs and claws.  This is not to say that there aren't still good teachers out there, but we are in the vast minority, and our ideas and practices are largely ignored, since they aren't the common methods practiced by the Kung Fu dilettantes, who claim superior knowledge because of who their grandmaster was, rather than their abilities to fight with their art.  They hide behind lineage and close their minds to ideas that have long been practiced by great masters of Kung Fu and are proven to create powerful and strong fighters.  The reason why they do this is because the best methods aren't easy, they require dedication and hard work.

What is to be done?  Is there anything that can change this downhill slide?  I believe there is a sure path back to a martial reputation that would make our ancestors proud and back to the skills recently lost.  But the hard question is how to do this?  First, we must understand the arts we practice and what their history is, then we can discover what they were truely meant to be.

Let's use the art of Xingyiquan for an example.  Xingyi has a long and proud history, and was the art of choice for bodyguards and convoy escorts, since it could turn a guard into a great fighter relatively quickly compared to some other arts.  The techniques were simple but were very versatile and contained a deep understanding of natural movement, increasing the striking power of fighters who spent time learning and practicing.  Xingyi fighters were very feared during the height of its popularity.  Master Guo Yu Shen is known to have killed a man with one strike during a match.  He was sentenced to prison, but through the unbreakable willpower developed through training, he improvised and continued to grow as a fighter, even while in shackles.  Wong Jack Man, the fighter who reportedly beat Bruce Lee in a challenge match, was an adept in Xingyi as well.  Wang Shu Jin, the late, great Internal master was a well known champion, and he used a lot of Xingyi in his practices.  So clearly Xingyi was a fighting art for most of its history.
But the situation today is very different in most martial arts schools in America and China.  Xingyi is taught as a small, incomplete art and many masters only have a remedial level of understanding of the practices, and have never pressure tested their art, to see if they are training correctly.  They see the 5 elements as singular techniques, and feel that standing practices are where a Xingyi fighter becomes great.  They don't apply their art to punching bags, much less an un-cooperative opponent in practice.  They don't see the value in strength and power development, thinking that they can punch through walls with pure "Qi" power.  This is absurb when put to paper, but if you take a look around, that is exactly what most Internal schools do these days.  They view Xingyi as an easy black belt to obtain which is a terrible insult to the practitioners who dedicate their time to perfecting this art.

So how should Xingyi be trained?  The answer is simple, the same as it was trained before by the great masters.  They started with footwork and body strengthening exercises.  The footwork was very important because that is where all martial ability starts and where all power comes from.  The ability to move and change direction is what separates an average fighter from a great one.  And the body must grow strong to be able to deliver the full power available in Xingyi.  A strong body is also a healthy body and can help students overcome health issues  and lead better lives.  Then after the student has learned to become agile and strong, then the elements, animals and other forms are taught.  They teach the student raw power, and require years of training to perfect.  But they are just movements and ideas, they teach how to deliver power along the 5 basic angles of attack and are not limited to any one strike.  A good Xingyi fighter can take any one of the elements, and replace the hand with an elbow or even a shoulder, and still deliver a solid strike.  As soon as the student has learned the correct form with the various techniques, and has no more difficulty remembering the correct details, they should be placed in front of a punching bag and practice how to land those strikes against more than just air.  The stage after that is applications and light sparring with the techniques, then on to full contact and an opponent who resists.  Only after a high level of fighting skill is developed should the student worry about internal development and practices since these are used to refine and perfect fighting skills, not supplant them.

This is only a cursory view of training, and only represents my opinions and practices as an imperfect student and teacher, but I know they are well grounded in logic and application, and that this method of training creates a traditional fighter with skills to compete against any other style.  I hope that others share my views, and want to work together to restore the pride and power to our chosen arts.

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This is a blog devoted to the Chinese Internal martial arts. Our school is located in Vancouver, WA and currently accepting students for group classes, and limited private sessions.