Rise from the Ruins
An Essay on my Early Years in Chinese Boxing Dance
Throughout my martial arts career, I have had many opinions on forms. These viewpoints have shifted like the swirling tides along the rock-strewn coastline of Maine. Early on, when I began my training I was heavily invested in these sets. They were, after all, the primary method of transmission for the art that I chose to study - Tángláng Quán (Praying Mantis Boxing 螳螂拳).
This martial art was handed down to me by my early teachers, and their teacher’s before them, as a primary method of transmission. Sadly, completely absent of the mechanical inner workings that made these moves function with real opponents in actual hand-to-hand combat. In all fairness to the first mantis coach I had, he was up front with me from the beginning about this.
Martial arts forms (kata, tào lù) are more plentiful today than in any time in history. They are widely disseminated in a variety of martial arts schools/styles across the United States, and around the world. A majority of ‘traditional martial arts’ competitions today, are centered around stylists competing with their form of choice. One is hard pressed to enter a school of karate, kung fu; kempo, tae kwon do; or tang soo do, etc. that isn’t consumed by a curricula filled with form after form. Once you complete one form, you’ve earned the ‘privilege’ to learn another...and another...and another.
Years into my training, I went on to scorn these empty shells. For quite some time actually. One reason I held such admonishment toward ‘forms’, was having learned over fifty of them in my first seven years dedicated to wu shu (martial arts) training.
As soon as I would finish one form, I would be handed another; whether by my request for some shiny new toy I was enthralled by, or a suggestion by the instructor(s). It became impossible to remember all of these sets, and far too time consuming to practice them all. Little did I know why at the time.
When it came to fighting and sparring in the martial arts schools I attended, the combative was entirely disembodied from the forms; like a warrior’s sword detached from it’s handle. Once upon a time a dangerous weapon to be feared, now - a toothless tiger.
Crossover from form to fighting never existed in the schools that I trained in. We would warm-up, practice movements, shadow box, and spar the last few minutes. When it came time to spar with classmates, it usually manifested as ‘bad kickboxing’. To be fair to these coaches, their passion lied with what they were teaching - forms.
I became increasingly frustrated by this over time. I would ask myself - “wasn’t the point of martial arts to learn how to defend yourself? Wasn’t the ultimate goal to become empowered? To know secret ways to disable attackers, fend off bullies, submit miscreants that wish harm upon us, or our family?” I was profoundly confused by the training practices I was experiencing, versus what I had envisioned martial arts being meant for.
Having been in the military for a short period of my life, I was used to an environment built on training for ‘combat’. We certainly didn’t pretend to drive tanks, or fly invisible helicopters, fire imaginary bullets downrange, or use toy weapons. Lessons on my martial path were not adding up. Why was a bulk of my time training martial arts, pretending to fight opponents in the air???
While I was stationed in Texas, I briefly undertook the study of taekwondo, until my military units’ training schedule was ramped up and I could no longer juggle it in. It was enjoyable at the time, but certainly wasn’t my favorite martial art style. I had a good teacher, and I enjoyed my time there (however brief), but the art was too simple, and too linear for my taste. However, to the instructors credit, in those classes we spent a bulk of our time sparring.
Years later, as I was well into my Chinese martial arts training, I knew something was amiss with the way I was being trained. I tried taking moves from some of the forms I had learned, and experimented with them while sparring in class. This was often met with punishment being doled out by my opponent’s barrage during my risky ventures. Still, I tried to pull them off, but rarely finding success.
Instead of introducing something new into my game, it became increasingly easier to rely on a few well-timed tricks, and speed/power to overcome my opponents. Sticking to the attacks/counters I was already good at. Reinforcing my current skills rather than growing as a fighter/boxer/martial artist.
Along the way I had decided, with the encouragement, and support of those around me, to become a martial arts teacher for a living. I was instructing at another school while this metamorphosis was taking place, and I opened a school with a friend of mine (2004). Off we went. Things did not improve; quite the opposite actually.
Now that I was teaching others full-time, the disconnect became crystal clear. I no longer had only myself to worry about, but my reflection staring back at me day in and day out, within my students. This was less than encouraging. They would learn to move, perform cool looking forms, win competitions, but their fighting skills were no match for other martial artists such as boxers, wrestlers, judoka, etc.
I would ask myself - “Why someone taking western boxing for 6 months, could decimate a practitioner from kung fu, karate, kempo, tae kwon do, etc.?” In many cases, the latter had been training for years, or in some case decades.
I was thoroughly frustrated. I could suffer this no longer. We can be either part of the problem, or part of the solution. So I began to change the way I was teaching. I turned the focus of my classes more heavily on qín ná (the Chinese submission art of bone/joint locking and seizing).
In my early training, I had spent 4 years studying this discipline in tandem to my forms regimen. Dedicating multiple hours each week with partners in my first mantis school, and training with friends on the side. I felt better. It wasn’t perfect, but at least this was drilling with live people, and I was giving my students something that felt like martial arts/self-defense, rather than dance.
I incorporated more ‘2-person’ hand-to-hand, and weapon sets from kung fu. Again, thinking that at least these had combative moves that involved a live partner to test against. All the while, I was still voraciously searching for answers.
I made it my mission to figure out how these forms worked in fighting; continuing my research; sparring as much as I could with friends that were traditional martial artists, and who were also frustrated by the norm. I turned the pages of tome after tome, reading historical accounts, watching videos. Any sources I could find. I turned my attention and focus to seeking out the core/roots of each system. Then…something enlightening happened.
A pattern began to emerge. I noticed a common theme while traversing my archaeological quest. How these styles began…
Tángláng Quán - two forms.
Yīng Zhuǎ - two forms and one partner set.
Tàijíquán - zero forms.
Hóng Jiā (Hung Gar 洪家) - one form.
Bāguà quán (8 Trigrams Boxing 八卦拳) - zero forms.
Xínyìquán (Intent Boxing 形意拳) - zero forms.
The writing was on the wall. In giant print. None of these styles started out with…so...many...forms. It was now obvious to me what I needed to do. Purge!
I embraced the ‘less is more’ philosophy. Even though, and unbeknownst to me at the time, I was still clinging to too much material. I discarded a bulk of the forms I had learned over the previous seven years. I no longer practiced, or taught them.
I sought out the core forms of the arts that I really enjoyed - Praying Mantis Boxing, Eagle Claw, Tai Chi, and Xing Yi. My intent being to ‘mine’ these forms for applications. To see what the original methods, movements were, so I could reconstruct these arts. Lofty goals to be sure, but I was not to be deterred. I was too invested at this point.
After repeated polite inquiries with various mantis boxing teachers around the country, I was rebuffed by taciturn ‘masters’ unwilling to share their art. They behaved as if these forms were valuable magical secrets. As if I was asking for their priceless gems.
These teachers clearly coveted their core forms, like a mage who possessively guards their spellbook. I truly failed to comprehend why teachers were so disinterested in...teaching. I was ready and willing to learn! Why were they not helping me?
I had been learning forms a dime a dozen over the years, why were these such prized antiquities? Instead of welcoming an interested student, people were possessive; greedy, condescending, and cold. Again, rebuffing my ideals of what a martial artist is about.
During my journey, I learned that one “Grand Master” went so far as to try and sue people for stealing his forms. His organization actually attempted to copyright them. Other’s demarcated forms with fake moves so they would know when someone ‘stole’ it from a video, demonstration, or tournament. Marring the art, and further tainting it from its original intent and true purpose. This was chaos incarnate, and I simply did not understand it.
Martial arts in general, and forms specifically, are not something one can ‘steal’. One can copy someone’s form, but if the ‘thief’ does not do the work, or fails to comprehend the intent of the moves within, they have no score.
If the purported burglar does the work - learns it, trains it, tries to perfect it; studies it thoroughly, then they have been taught. Perhaps, without them knowing they’ve been taught. As a teacher, or even a practitioner that wants their art to survive, is that not our ultimate goal and purpose?
I continued on. I was teaching Tai Chi, and finding it difficult to find any sort of consistency from one person to the next when it came to the movements. Additionally, I could find no one that knew what these moves did, so there was no litmus test to know if a movement was ‘right’, or ‘wrong’. Every reason someone had, seemed esoteric, and subjective. Like judging dance, or art.
Xingyiquan was another focus of mine during this time. I enjoyed the premise behind it. I was told it was highly destructive, energetic, explosive, and aggressive. That it was a badass style of Chinese boxing. I was into that! A coach that introduced me to it, thought it would be a good fit for my…temperament.
Again, it seemed like the standards for success in xingyi, were completely arbitrary. The only ‘depth’ I was finding, was “sit in your san ti (3 dimensional shape) stance for 30 minutes a day.” Aside from that, I wasn’t told how to fix anything, or how to get better at xingyi. Later I realized - because you need to HIT things to really get it!!!
I sought out more coaches in these arts. I was successful in finding a tàijíquán/xingyiquan ‘master’; or so I thought. I attended one of his New England workshops and saw a glimpse of some power generation techniques in his Xing Yi that was of interest to me. I was told “he knows his stuff.” I thought there was something there, so I delved deeper.
I cobbled together some money and traveled to NYC to train with him. I hosted him for a few days at my house and school to help him share his art with my students. To hopefully glean greater technical knowledge from him on how these two arts functioned in combat.
It turned out to be forms, and hocus pocus. The tàijíquán was more incessant drumming of the most mundane minutiae. Where the hands should be aligned to maximize the ‘chi’. How one’s thumb position next to the quadricep was somehow important for mystical energy alignment. No accompanying demonstration of combat application to show why this mattered; nevermind how it was relevant in a real fight.
The renowned xingyiquan, a style known for its destructive capacity, and reputation for general badassery, was also more ‘air-fu’ (martial arts done in the air). Never hitting a punching bag, or pad. Never sparring. Never blocking and hitting. Just more chi (cheese). More pseudo-science. More nonsense. I left it behind.
In addition to the aforementioned individuals foul bathroom habits, and erratic/obnoxious behaviors, this arrangement was not working out to my satisfaction. Could ‘anyone’ in Chinese martial arts actually fight? Using Chinese martial arts techniques? I was growing more and more disenchanted.
I returned to my research and training. Buying any books I could find. I read over 100 books on Tàijíquán, most of them a complete waste of time. It’s amazing how many words have been written about nothing.
I found the other arts lacking in content altogether. At least to my favor, tàijíquán is well documented. The most widely proliferated Chinese martial art in existence. Unfortunately, much of this is without practical meaning, and comprised mostly of esoteric beliefs, or lacking clarity of purpose. Whether this is intentional, or through innocent ignorance is certainly a matter of debate.
I took to searching for videos of the core forms of the styles I had chosen. For mantis boxing, I was able to find one of Bēng Bù (Crushing Step), but had no such luck with Lán Jié (to Intercept 拦截) , or Bā Zhǒu (8 Elbows 八肘). I ordered videos from China, familiarizing myself with the Chinese characters enough that I could search for books and VCD’s containing these sets, or anything close to them. I signed up for a Chinese class to assist in my quest.
My language venture did not last long. It turned out to be the same misguided approach to teaching language that is rampant in public, private, and even collegiate school systems across America even to this day. Grammar first. Years go by, and one is still unable to speak fluently, or converse with a native speaker. It is odd, that this failure of a student to speak, is not a measure of success for a language arts curriculum, or a teacher’s capabilities...
I digress. It so happened that in my research, I had come across an excellent resource of knowledge - an online forum for mantis boxers. Rich, and fascinating conversations took place in this venue, people seemed to be sharing knowledge and communicating their ‘secrets’ without reservation. I visited it from time to time, never saying much as they seemed far more knowledgeable than I; and there existed an hierarchy of lineage holders that I was not part of.
One day, I read a thread where an individual was chastising and insulting anyone who learned from a video. This individual was particularly demeaning, condescending, and harsh in their criticism. Stating matter of factly, that “anyone interested in learning mantis should only be doing so from qualified teachers; certainly not from video!!!”
This infuriated me. Who was this person to dismiss one of the three ‘primary methods of human learning’ (verbal, kinesthetic, and visual)? What position of expertise did they hold in life to stand up and blatantly proclaim that personal instruction (which I had experienced plenty of), was the ONLY way someone should, or could, properly learn. I balked at this notion. I broke my silence and chimed in.
My response was snarky; full of contempt. I no longer cared who held what position, or however ‘exalted’ they seemed to be. I had too many years of feeling like I had been duped. I rose up upon my soapbox and fired back my reply - “blah, blah, blah, - insert stuff about learning types and video being a modern tool to assist people, - blah, blah, blah”. Then (I paraphrase here) - “perhaps if you mantis masters were not so rude and possessive with your forms, those of us whom you shun, would study from you, rather than be forced to pick scraps from videos.”
Shortly thereafter, I had a reply to my post in the thread. I opened it, adrenaline coursing through my veins. I awaited the inevitable online battle that was sure to ensue. Knowing, full well, some virtual vitriolic response from the original author of the post was there unopened in my inbox. Instead, I was greeted with - “Come to San Diego. I’ll show you the core forms of mantis.”
What!?!?!?! I was stunned. Stopped dead in my tracks. This was not at all what I expected. Who was this person? What did they know? Why were they so quick to offer and share what everyone else tried to hide?
I looked at the member profile. They were a member for years, yet barely posted a thing. I found a name. I Googled it. Nothing (Google was in it’s infancy then). I searched further; looking deeper. I finally found some grainy black and white videos of this Mantis Boxer doing the form Bā Zhǒu (8 Elbows 八肘), and another of one of his black belts doing Tōu Táo (Monkey Steals the Peach 猴子偷桃).
I could tell from the way they moved that they knew how to fight. I replied. “I’m interested. Let’s discuss.” Phone numbers were exchanged. A time set to talk. After an hour or so long phone call, and a lengthy discussion on his background, methods of teaching, and why he only works the core forms of Mantis, I booked a flight and hotel to San Diego, CA. Off I went.
I never looked back. In my first 15 minutes of meeting with this mantis boxer, I learned more about ‘fighting’ than I had in 7 years of kung fu training.
“Where do you look when you fight?”, he asked. I thought about it, and replied with “I look off to the side of my opponent.” He paused, a quizzical look on his face. Apparently he hadn’t expected that response. Then came his reply - “Not at them?” I said, “No, but I’ve been told all things of the sort - look in their eyes. Watch their head…” He asked me why I look off to the side. “It’s just something I do.” I replied. “It seems to work better for blocking.” He grinned.
“You’ve figured something out”, was his response. This made me feel good. I was eager to hear more. He proceeded to explain the reason behind why I was doing this, why it worked, and drills to prove it. Beyond that, he offered up the name of a ‘principle’ to go along with it. I was ecstatic. This was amazing! I had never experienced such a thing in martial arts; neither kung fu, nor tae kwon do. A ‘principle’ to teach fighting!?!?!
We then proceeded outside to work on Bēng Bù, a form from mantis boxing, and the one I was already familiar with. I was more interested in Lán Jié, since I had been unable to find anything solid on this form. However, being one of the core forms of Mantis that I already knew, it was a good launch point and gave us a way to see what one another knew.
We spent the next couple hours training in the parking lot of my hotel in the middle of the night, and well into the next morning. He left for home, and I spent the next hour scrambling notes and trying to calm down enough to sleep.
The next day we met for training around 9 a.m. We spent hours in the park, going over mantis boxing’s Lán Jié (to intercept 拦截) - as well as an application for each move. I was ecstatic and soaking it up like a sponge. We broke for lunch in the early afternoon and then met up with some of his students at his house. Training went well into the night again.
He asked - “How did you learn to block punches?” I stood there for a moment, realizing how little I had been taught on this. Most of my experience with blocking had been from taekwondo. I replied with something that I can no longer recall, but surely it was meek.
He had me pair up with one of his students to show him how I block. I was not allowed to move, and his student was to throw slow, controlled punches while I demonstrate my blocking skills. He destroyed me.
I blocked one or two shots, and then I was lucky to block one of every five after that. His student, had only been training 1.5 years. I was on my 7th year of training. Countless trophies under my belt, and a National 2x Gold, 1x Silver Medalist. I was running my own martial arts school, with a cadre of dedicated students looking to me to teach them how to defend themselves. This was humiliating, demoralizing, and excruciatingly raw. I felt like a novice. I felt as if I had wasted all my efforts. Years of training had been for nothing.
Right then and there, I had a choice to make. I could leave. Throw my hands up in defeat and walk away; quitting martial arts altogether. Or…I could do something less extreme - go home. Go home and lie to myself that I did fine. That he cheated, or that he did something nefarious to trick me. Pretend I was better than I was.
I looked at his student. Then turned my gaze upon the teacher as he stood there quietly gauging my reaction. My brow furrowed, I looked him in the eye with all my will behind me, and said - “teach me.”
To be fair, and honest, this was a bit of a rigged game. I wasn’t allowed to counter-strike, move, kick, clinch, or takedown. Real fighting, does not subsist with such a ruleset. Just blocking for any length of time is a failed strategy. One should be delivering parry/counter, block/counter, move/counter, etc. But the lesson hit home nonetheless.
I revisited everything I thought I knew, from the ground up. Asking him to go over stances, footwork, punching; anything I had already learned, or thought I learned. I wanted to know what was missing. The rest of the weekend turned to working on everything but, a form. He had to keep asking me - “Don’t you want to learn this form you came for?” [With a grin on his face of course.]
I spent the next few years going to San Diego twice/year, flying this coach to my school once/year. I met up with him at other people’s schools just to squeeze in whatever training I could get with him. Here was someone that knew how to fight, and did Chinese martial arts. I was all aboard.
As far as forms go, I learned Lán Jié, Bēng Bù (again), Báiyuán Tōu Táo (White Ape Steals Peach), 5th Son Staff, Saber, Da Dao (Military Saber), and a couple of 8-Step Mantis forms. I also learned how to block, punch, kick, and move; as well as throws, joint locks, and his core fighting principles to diagnose problems we have when sparring.
He helped me fix some forms I still held onto such as liánbùquán, and gongliquan, and my tai chi knowledge grew deeper and richer. As time went on, I had so much practical knowledge to work, the forms seemed superfluous, and nothing more than distractions.
I progressed, and my students became more and more in need of real skills. I went on to scorn forms in full force. Thinking them unnecessary, archaic, and highly corrupted distractions. Time-sucks that stole focus away from the more important aspects of martial arts - application, combat techniques, and self-defense skills.
Regardless of my disappointment and waning interest in forms, throughout it all, some part deep inside of me always held on to the notion that they are significant, important, and central to the art. Not in the possessive covetous way other teachers hold on to them, but in some more intrinsically valuable way.
Afterall, why were these core sets so important as to be handed down no matter what line of Mantis one studied? Why did the same set, with variations of course, exist across multiple lines in the family tree of Mantis Boxing? Why did almost every style of Chinese boxing have a ‘set’, or ‘sets’?
Ultimately I came to the realization that forms are treasure troves of knowledge. Ancient vehicles designed to carry the knowledge of a fighter’s system. Without the techniques, principles, and applications to go along with it however, or the work ethic to practice them tirelessly, they are worthless shells of long forgotten arts. The form, cannot exist without the function.
Without function, martial arts forms are merely martial dance. A non-practical artistic representation of a bygone mode of combat, and self-defense. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with people wanting to participate in the practice of this ‘dance’. It is only problematic when they believe, or are allowed to believe, that this practice of shadow boxing, will lead to the attainment of ‘real’ fighting skills.
In today’s world of video, books, a literate populace due to mass education, and the accessibility of martial arts schools and resources, forms are no longer necessary for a teacher to carry on an art of hand-to-hand, or weapons combat. As evidenced by judo, jiu-jitsu, muay thai, wrestling, filipino stick/knife arts, boxing, and more. All existing without the need for forms to muddy up the waters, or distract students from the true goal of martial arts - the dedicated practice of methods of violence to empower, embolden, and strengthen themselves out of immediate necessity, or the potential threat of such.
What is sorely needed for Chinese boxing to regain its rightful place on the mantle of formidable martial arts in the world of today is - less forms. More techniques. More application, and definitely more sparring.