Today there are two completely separated worlds of martial arts. World of so called traditional martial arts and world of competitive sports. It seem that these two worlds have nothing in common and it is pretty much obvious that they never meet in any aspect of training approach, philosophy, goals and anything else. The only thing they have in common is that both sides claim they have superior fighting skills.
This “great divide” happen recently, although the separate path of two different training approaches started around 150 years ago. A century and half ago there was no “traditional” , “internal” , “sports” or whatever martial ARTS , there were just fighting styles, mostly weapon oriented and people fought with those styles , they fought for survival , they fought to save theirs and lives of their families. The big change came after the Taiping rebellion when fire arms made old fighting styles absolute. Taiping rebellion brought another change , social structure of the society changed under the influence of the western culture and rich merchant cast formed and separated from the rest of the society. One of the things they do, they started to practice martial arts as sign of social status, something like having sports car now days, and being rich and without the need for real fighting they took kung fu training to another direction. Around that time a concept of what is today known as “internal” skills emerged and several new arts appeared (of course claiming to be much older) based on these concepts like Tai Chi , Ba Gua ,Xing Yi, several styles of White Crane ect. Of course, on the other side there were people who practiced kung fu for fighting, like professional body guards, caravan escort, bounty hunters, soldiers and others. Of course these people put much more faith in fire arms than in fists and spears so slowly much of the real fighting techniques and serious fighting training was lost.
This trend continued in republican period when government supported spreading of kung fu as form of activity that served several purposes. Kung fu already stopped to be exclusively set of fighting skills, but during republican period it got social, political, economical, religious, health and philosophical attributes. Fighting component in this period started to be disappear completely and many styles were practiced for a lot of different reasons while fighting was neglected and sometimes almost forgotten. Kung fu as we know it today got its final shape in republican period. There were only few people who insisted on fighting and realistic training, like Tang Hao, and this the period when western boxing as introduced to China and many masters studied it deeply and included it in their own fighting systems. It is also a time when Chinese army adopted boxing as a part of hand to hand combat training. There is one more significant thing that happened in this period which will change the shape and the path of kung fu forever. Famous master Sun Lu Tang connected his arts, Tai Chi, Ba Gua and Xing Yi to Taoist teachings and Qi gong which were never part of kung fu before. This new fashion spread like forest fire among kung fu practitioners pushed fighting even further from kung fu practice.
After WWII Japanese and Korean martial arts found their way to the west while Chinese styles stayed fairly unknown until the middle of 70’s when death of young Hong Kong actor, Bruce Lee brought something that is today known as “kung fu” craze. Many teachers from Hong Kong and Taiwan spread all over the world teaching kung fu. Hong Kong movies were (and still are , even for Asian people) the main source of information about Chinese martial arts. Everyone expected to learn what was shown in those movies so “teachers” in order to meet the market demand adjusted their styles and made them visually attractive without any regard to efficiency.
Neglected combat practice was covered with other content. All kung fu styles without exceptions have some famous ancestor who had if not powers of the gods then at least had such a level of skill that can be freely regarded as superhuman. All styles have ‘histories’ with at least one , but usually generations of tremendous fighters with hundreds or thousands of fights and no one ever lost. All styles insist on important historical role of the style’s founder in some important historical events that involve war, rebellion, secret societies ect. They all stress the importance to preserve the style’s content as it is because that is original , superior , often secret , deadly style of fighting and nothing else on the world can compare with it. All styles claim only they have the “true” knowledge while all others waste time practicing worthless techniques. Some styles even kept hard body conditioning and out much effort in developing raw physical strength. What they don’t do is fighting or even sparring . People simply believe their arts will work without any proof. When asked why they don’t spar or fight ,the usual answer is that they have nothing to prove or it is unnecessary . Instead they do a lot of sticky\push hands practice , a lot of “dead drills”( fighting simulation with complying opponent) , “techniques”( prearranged set of movements with complying opponent) ect. In essence they do anything to avoid been hit. They of course achieve high level of proficiency in what they do and use that as a proof ( to them selfs) to have high level of fighting skills. Of course they have cult like mentality and anyone who point out the flaws in that kind of training approach will be attacked on personal level and marked as ignorant , stupid , aggressive or worse.
Now days, a new fashion emerged in the world of “traditional” martial arts. It is called “internal” martial arts. Word ‘internal” in not so distant past was referring only to qi gong training but today it means something else. Today that word is used to separate one art from all others in terms of “efficiency” ,”effectiveness” , “originality” , exclusiveness” , “knowledge” ect. While proponents of these styles fail to explain what “internal” actually is , they insists that they are the only one who have true knowledge. Mix of different theories borrowed from all kinds of sources , forgeries , and newly invented terms make a confusing and hard to follow explanations. These new theories are changing quickly , every time when someone point out the inconsistencies in them . They “cultivate” “internal” power which is according to them a mix of some esoteric energies and particular body mechanics. They sometimes go so far that claim internal training is totally opposite from “external” training, where by external they consider everything else outside their style. So, they cultivate skills and measure the level of someone’s skill by undetermined standards known only to them. The more attractive, effortless , relaxed someone looks the more praise he gets. They never fight, never spar only practice with in a closed circle of people by strictly set rules. Every time they encounter any real resistance their “high internal skills” fail.
On the other hand we have competitive sports like boxing , MMA, Kick boxing ect. In these sports complete training revolve around fighting. Basically, training is going in direction of developing necessary skills and attributes for fighting like
- Distance - How to control the distance between you and your partner.
- Rhythm - How to break your opponents rhythm.
- Timing - How to judge the timing of your opponent and know when to hit.
- Combinations - How to land combinations whilst your partner moves forwards, backwards and tries to counter.
- Footwork - How to move in, out and to the sides to strike or evade a punch.
- Speed - You will learn how to use your speed to hit your opponent before they can block, as well as move quickly out the way of a strike.
- Balance - You will learn to control your balance and center of gravity whilst in a fighting motion.
- Reaction - You will improve your reaction times.
- Focus - You will be forced to keep focus and concentrate on the fight without distractions. The second you switch off you will know about tit!
- Cardiovascular - Your fitness levels will have to adapt and will improve.
- Muscular endurance - Your endurance and stamina will have to adapt and will improve.
- Conditioning - You will learn to get hit and fake that it doesn't hurt so you can carry on.
All this is put to the test in sparring which helps practitioner to combine all these skills and attributes together and push them on a higher level. Sparring is the closest we can get to a real fighting situation and is probably the most important training exercise there is. Sparring requires you to use every one of your attributes - forcing you to sharpen your skills and practice things like the controlling distance, timing, speed, agility and focus as well as cardiovascular and muscle endurance to name just a few. Sparring is the nearest thing to a real fight, without actually fighting.
People don't like sparring because they aren't confident with their abilities and are worried about getting hurt. That is why those who want to practice martial arts but are afraid and not confident turn to some esoteric arts that promise high fighting skills without any real effort , most importantly without pain and sweat. These people often characterize those who practice contact sports as aggressive, stupid, competitive ect , not realizing that the vast majority of those people ( including the author) simply enjoy in physically and emotionally challenging training without any desire for fight , violence or urge to prove anything.
At the end there are two important questions we have to ask our self. Are “traditional”, “internal” arts can be even called martial , and if they can , is it possible to fight with those skills? The answer on both questions is yes , but only with proper understanding what “internal” actually is and proper training approach