Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Mixing Hard With The Soft

I just finished reading an article in the February 4th issue of "The New Yorker" magazine, detailing the Chinese Olympic boxing team. In it, Boxing star Zou Shiming (who trained in classical Wushu Kung Fu) comments on his successful and elusive style:
(Zou): "I think I've combined martial arts and boxing". "Martial arts have a soft and flexible side, and boxing is more direct. Putting them together is a specialty of Chinese boxing".
-- This is something I have been giving a lot of thought to lately, and it is surely not without controversy in orthodox circles.
I no longer focus on the long-range fighting of my old Tae Kwon Do training, and my Kenpo has softened due to the influence of my passion for Tai Chi Chuan. Our hitting drills mostly stem from western boxing, with some open-hand variations. At the pre-clinch distance the sticking and coiling arm feeling comes from Chi Sao of Wing Chun and tactile softness of push hands. These naturally lead to some great joint locking action.
We have, in the course of learning these various systems, practiced them seperately and moved from one drill to another. Recently however, we have started doing something that is likely to horrify traditionalists; we are trying to combine it all into one unified practice.
Now, this blending of hard/soft is not a new idea. Think about Goju Ryu Karate. The problem is, That system is still way more "Go" (hard) than "Ju" (soft). Our persuit of Tai Chi Chuan has forced us to shift gears into a far more yielding approach to dealing with the incoming force of an opponent.
Using push hands as a foundation (both Yang style and Chen four-hands) we first added the occasional straight punch, which is neutralized and we return to the pattern. This works much better with the Chen pattern, which allows for a wider variety of movement. If we fall out of the pattern, chi sao sticky arms are maintained until we find the pattern again. This also allows for finger, wrist and elbow/shoulder locking, again returning to the pattern. For now, we have been alternating who does the technique back and forth -- push, hit, pattern, push, lock, pattern. Rollback is used to set up locks, with knees and elbows in the clinch. This is not necessarily done in a static motionless stance, we try to float around with a little natural movement, always returning to the pattern.
Critics may suggest that we are dabbling in drills that have distinctly different energies, and I suppose we may be distancing ourselves from the purity of any one art. A Tai Chi person might say "You're not doing Tai Chi" A Wing Chun guy might not like the softer push hands pattern, a striker might not recognize the value of sticking hands. A stand-up Small-Circle Jujitsu (or Chin Na) practitioner however, will see the value of this linking of systems.
We will be ready soon to put out a short video clip of what we are working on. In the mean time, I am curious what others think about this.
Am I "cheapening" an element of purity in my systemic drilling practice? Could it compromise the possibility of a truely deep understanding of any one art or system?
Or is this the natural evolution of years of training in seperate techniques and arts?
Isn't this how a broader understanding of dealing with an opponent is developed?


Hand2Hand said...

I think it is a natural evolution of one's martial training.

Believe me, I can relate to everything you've written. I like your addition of the Wing Chun straight punch to t'ui shou.

I think Wing Chun and Tai Chi are very closely related arts and they go great together. My first Wing Chun instructor was my Chen Tai Chi sifu.

In 2000, I visited John Kang, an Oakland, CA. Wing Chun sifu. I stuck hands with all his students and one of his kung fu brothers.

The guy who challenged me the most was new to Wing Chun but had seven years of Chen. When he got in trouble with his chi sao, he switched to Chen push hands patterns. It really kept me sharp to have to go back and forth between the two.

I never studied Goju Ryu, but I was surprised when Lucjan Shila, who taught me Yang and Sun Taiji and Tibetan Lion's Roar, said he really liked Goju. He said that Goju has a lot of good internal training, but that A) It's not made available to the student until he becomes a black belt and B) Fewer Goju senseis are passing it on.

Lastly, true Taiji, when practiced as a martial art, is not the gentle, senior citizen exercise it is here in the U.S. I watched a great DVD documentary, "Journey to Chen Village." Those guys can fight and they fight hard. They can and will break bones in a fight.

As one Chen sifu told me, "If you go to Chen village thinking you're going to get some gentle exercise, you'll probably come back needing knee or shoulder surgery."

Dojo Rat said...

Where is that DVD available? Netflicks??

Bob Patterson said...

I think it's a very good approach. Especially after you have at least one black belt in a foundation style. I sort of came at it ass-backwards and dabbled. Anyhow, once my cho dan is confirmed it's looking like I'll be studying Chin Na at the very least. I may also continue to train with my TKD instructor as she works for her next dan rank. So this gives me the chance to continue teaching her boxing, some wing chun, and maybe even some chin na.

I'll be very interested to see your video. I think once you have a foundation in something, cross-training and experimenting is one of the best ways to learn!


Hand2Hand said...

Hey D.R.,

My copy was a gift from my boss, who is coincidentally, a Chen taiji sifu.

As far as he knows, it's out of print. You might want to check eBay.

It's a very inspiring documentary. I really depicts taiji as a powerful martial art. And it shows that taiji is as physically demanding as any other martial art.

Formosa Neijia said...

There’s no problem with mixing the hard with the soft to some extent. I’m fairly open to eventually mixing in strikes, kicks, and throws into two person practices but then this evolves into sanshou, not tuishou.

Sanshou is obviously a valid practice.

The main problem that I see (even in myself) is that trying to incorporate harder elements into the practice is often a way to cover up our lack of understanding the softer more internal aspects of the arts.

When I want to play rougher, it’s almost always out of frustration that I can’t make something more internal work. But rather than surrender my desire to win in order to gain an understanding of a softer way, I try to “ramp it up” a bit. Or I want to use more martial techniques because that’s my background and I feel more comfortable using those techniques.

In the past, I scoffed at people that didn’t include obvious martial arts techniques in their push hands. It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t really understand taiji and the practice of push hands. Using to much of the hard can eradicate the acquisition of soft power.

So long as incorporating harder elements isn’t a mask for lack of softer abilities, I think it’s a good thing.

Hand2Hand said...

Hey FN,

I like that last graph. It makes perfect sense to me.