I left out some parts I wanted to write yesterday. These are more of the technical parts.
One thing that is frustrating about learning Chinese martial arts is that teachers either don’t address the applications or they teach applications that are not that practical once you really try them out against a partner.
A long time ago I learned my first pole form. My training partner was my physical education teacher from school. We wondered whether we can actually use the pole if someone were to rush us with a parang (since this is a common weapon back then). So we tried it out and let’s just say that we can fantasize about our prowess but don’t ever try it for real.
Of course, after so many years I have a much better idea, much better reflexes and much better power on the pole so my chances of getting away with it has increased. But still you won’t find soldiers in ancient China (for those who love to brag about being traditional, battlefield arts, blah, blah) using pole.
If anything, when I thought of soldiers in ancient China I thought they used broadsword and spear. Then one day I read a book on martial arts in ancient China and the writer said that troops actually used axes for a long time before they changed to broadsword and spear.
I can’t verify the writer’s claim but this would make sense. Nowadays we know that it takes years to be good in any art but if you are a general or village head tasked with the training of soldiers this wouldn’t be very practical. You would be overrun and long killed before your soldiers are competent enough to fight.
But using a pair of axes or even a single one makes sense. Much easier to train in terms of technique, power and deadliness. And broadsword and spear techniques can be made up of singular movements which when stringed together can give rise to combinations and multitude of changes.
The collective knowledge and experience can be recorded and stored away by writing or by compiling them into training forms. The forms can be broken down back into individual techniques for training when required. So there is much more to training a weapon than just playing a form. Even with a common weapon such as the pole we have partner reflex drills, power drills, accuracy drills and so on.
One power drill is using the tree to practice our strikes. In Singapore unless you have your own backyard, ideally sound proof, you will have a problem doing this type of practice cause the sound made by a pole striking a tree is loud. Same with striking a tyre. I did it a long time ago when I lived in a house in Malaysia. The sound bounced right off the walls of houses across the road.
Yeah, so there’s a lot of knowledge and practices in Chinese martial arts that’s slowly forgotten unless teachers continue to teach and make students practice them instead of obssesing with being traditional, lineage wars, demonstrations strength and conditioning feats, etc.
For those of us who are interested in the combative parts learning can be like a treasure hunt. You either keep looking for teachers or you do your own research and from trial and error figure out what makes it tick. For example, there is a turn and stab technique in Tai Chi broadsword after what seems like a block with broadsword and palm strike with the other hand.
I have seen teachers demonstrate the broadsword block and palm strike pose and it always seem to be that they are doing exactly that. Until one day I wonder why we would use a palm strike when we have a broadsword in hand. Granted, if you are really close you would do a palm strike or maybe its a pushing action. But then why would we turn 360 degrees right to left and do a stabbing action? Is the follow up movement a new technique or a continuation of the earlier technique.
I suspect many would do these two movements without ever wondering how to use them and in the process end up performing just a beautiful weapon dance. After looking into them I have some ideas of how I can use these two movements. This takes time and effort to do the research. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just learn them in the first place from my teacher? Or at least have an alternate source to turn to for research.
The late Bob Orlando wrote something about how if a technique is workable chances are other styles from other cultures, or words to that effect, would end up with a similar if not the same solution. Its like the old Ed Parker experiment to prove that a punch is a punch despite arguments of stylistic differences once you ask a blindfolded person to feel the punch and see if they can tell which style’s punch they had just felt.
As I mentioned when I was looking at FMA (Filipino martial arts) I was looking into the use of a knife. However, Tuhon Apolo changed my focus when he said that the stick is a representation of a blade and went on to explain about this. One example is when he explained why we cradled the sticks the way we do rather than hold them in a manner that I have seen some practitioners hold them. Interestingly, that’s how we hold a broadsword too in Tai Chi and this can be seen not just at the beginning of the form but in a few other techniques in the form. Bob Orlando must be grinning in Kuntao heaven……
In my research into the broadsword techniques of an old famous Northern Chinese style the master showed a technique which was a feint with the top part of the blade being used to give a quick tap to the opponent’s weapon from the bottom before suddenly circling to the top and descending into a cut. We have the same two movements in the long pole and these two are but part of a series of three core techniques that we practice all the time.
It took me time to find out about such things. But this information is there in the iKali courses. I could have saved a lot of time if I had this information earlier. One could argue that if I had learned FMA earlier I might have learned about it. Maybe. But I have looked into FMA over the years and didn’t see this information.
I have a course from a master who is the direct descendant of a very important figure in the history of FMA. Whichever style of FMA you belonged too this person is always mentioned at the dawn of the art. Knowing what I know of FMA I saw parts that looked like feints but it was not taught the way it is taught clearly and explicitly and part of a body of knowledge in iKali.
A friend sent me some info to other sources of information. I know there is a lot of information out there. Even in China alone you can spend three lifetimes and never finish researching what they have. On the internet you have just as much information. Sifting through them requires not just reading but time to practice and apply the techniques to see how they hold up.
When you are young you have a lot of time. When you are older you will find that you have very little time. For example, the time I spent writing this is the time I could have spent practicing or even doing work (yes, we do have to work to earn a living and pay off loans). Since time is limited we have to make wise choices to use the time wisely. I could keep on doing what I do or I could change my perspective by looking outside the box.
Growing old, being old also means that you are no longer as fit, no longer as strong. As Tuhon Apolo mentioned this during our Zoom training a blade, a weapon is an equalizer. Forget that Hollywood fantasy of one old guy taking on 10 young able bodied guys by trading blows or even going through a series of impressive choreographed moves. There is an old saying about fearing the fists of a young man and fearing the pole of an old man (or words to that effect) in Chinese martial arts.
What do you think this means? I can give you an example – when I learned from Grandmaster Cheong Fook he was nearing his 90s. There is no way he could trade blows at that age with a younger person and win. If you are willing to stand on the spot and not move away then he can win because his hands then were just as swift and they could find the soft targets naturally.
But if his opponent were moving? Then it would be a case of young fists beating old fists. But give the grandmaster a pole and the moment you launch an attack you will eat his pole. So yes, a weapon is an equalizer. That’s why you don’t send troops into battle with their bare hands. Look at the history of battles. Can you name a battle in which bare handed soldiers fought armed soldiers and won? Let me know if you find one.
Learning iKali also confirmed another thing for me. There is a movement in the long pole in which we hold the pole vertically upwards as if holding a flag. Now why would we hold the pole this way? Wouldn’t it make more sense to hold the pole forward? This makes an interesting question. Does this have a practical application?
My teacher said that this pole is for big fight, meaning fighting against multiple opponents when I asked him what is the difference between this pole form and another form. Ah, of course, against multiple opponents you must be able to deal with them quickly whichever direction they are coming from even if its from behind (assuming you can see, or at least, sense them coming).
In Wing Chun my friend who is very good in the knives taught me an exercise in which I can turn to any direction quickly. The question is does it make practical sense to have to turn to face the incoming opponent especially if its against multiple opponents. Wouldn’t this slow down the reaction time?
So the way we hold the long pole in the vertical position is to allow us to quickly hit behind without having to turn the entire body first. In this way, we can hit someone in front, hit to the rear, hit to the right, left or any of the eight directions very quickly.
In a way this is similar to the broadsword technique above of turning the body 360 degrees from right to left. Just as we turn the broadsword drops down towards our shoulder, slow down and then we launch the attack. So why did we not launch the attack right away? Better still, why not turn left instead of to the right? When you consider some of these factors then the movement made sense.
In iKali we learn how to strike out then bring back the stick. Simple movement. Then we are told how to bring back the stick to the shoulder loading position. What does this mean, how to bring back the stick?
Then Tuhon Apolo delivered the explanation and a light bulb lightsed up. Familiar territory. If I had learned this earlier it could save me a lot of time when researching broadsword and pole applications. So its little things like this that makes me appreciate iKali and how nicely laid out the training is. Sure, the research can have its advantages in adding and expanding how I view certain things.
But time is a cost nowadays in a fast paced society. I started writing this around 8.36 am and now its 11.57 am. In between I had to answer calls, had a quick meeting with a customer, made coffee and now I am going to cook lunch.
OK, that’s it for me. The kitchen calls.