"In depth" knowledge is term frequently often used in Chinese martial arts . What is interesting, it is not easy to define this and “in depth” knowledge really means. I asked a question on some Kung Fu internet groups and interesting answers appeared. According to some kung fu practitioners, ‘in depth” knowledge is :
- A very detailed or complete study of something...
- unconscious competence
- In depth knowledge means a thorough study of any subject to the finest of detail, also covering all aspects through experience
- A very detailed knowledge about everything that's related to Kung fu
- A solid knowledge base of “on paper” facts and factors and some fundamental understanding of the subject,
As we can see, answers are rather positive, if fact this is an impression that people who supposedly possess “in depth” knowledge are trying to leave. But what really does that term means. To understand it correctly first we have to understand what martial arts are, or what they should be. Chinese martial arts are, or at least they were before Taiping rebellion, systems of fighting concentrated on weapon usage with rudimentary empty hand techniques, if any. But no matter what martial art we are talking about they, weapons oriented or empty hands systems, even modern fire arms training, all of them are based in same basic principles. In order for any martial art to be efficient three conditions must be met: timing, distance and power. These tree basic conditions include more sub conditions but they are not important for this article. Note, power in fire arms training comes from the weapon, but essentially doesn’t change the requirement of sufficient power to stop the opponent, small caliber weapons with not enough power to penetrate body armor or to cause enough damage can have dire consequences for the user of such a weapon. There is only one way to gain sufficient skill in any martial art, and that is hard training and real combat experience. In order to be effectively trained and applied martial arts systems have to be simple. Over complicated movements not only that are not easy to learned but because of the complexity they can never be used in real situation because two reasons, first- timing will be off because complex movements require more time to be executed than simple movements, best example in Kung Fu is two or more block on one punch followed by a counter punch, basically three techniques in response to one attacking technique, which means that the person who is using such a defensive approach must be more than a three times faster than attacking opponent which is physically impossible. Second, conflict situations cause surge of adrenalin, on the other hand adrenalin effectively suppresses fine motor skills in which complex movements are based, simply under the stress of combat only the simplest movements can be executed, complex techniques simply fall apart. There are numerous studies that show effect of the adrenaline on the fine motor skills and there numerous full contact competitions that proved what kind of movements can and can’t be applied in combat.
Having this in mind it is obvious that martial arts are not based in complex knowledge, but rather in hard training that develops physical and psychological attributes necessary for fighting. Of course everything can be explained with various levels of complexity, one simple movement can be explained through a volume of books from pure physics of the motion the can be explained through complex mathematics and physics and also through biochemistry and medicine. On the other hand there is a question in usefulness of such knowledge for an average practitioner who wants to learn self-defense of to compete in contact sports. Truth is vast majority of practitioners do not have sufficient knowledge and education to understand such a complex approach in explanation, and even those who can, will not benefit from it because it is useless for the purposes of self-defense or competition. Of course vast majority of teachers do use modern science to explain their arts, simply because they don’t know it nor understand it well.
So the questions are, what is and why do we have “in depth’ knowledge in traditional martial arts?
Answer first question, what is in depth’ knowledge in traditional martial arts, is not easy to answer. Every style has its own standards in the “depth” of ‘knowledge”. In my experience “in depth” knowledge is a mix of pseudo- science, Taoist theories and often esoteric concepts picked from other religious systems. For example we have a Wing Chun system that uses terms like “time\space\energy” which are modern physics terms and not only did not exist before recent times but those concepts in such form are impossible to be expressed in old Cantonese language, mixed with theories for traditional Chinese “medicine” and Taoism to explain their fighting concepts. Not to mention that there no real “depth” in those theories, terms like time\space\energy are just used in order to give serious and scientific appearance to the people who do not really know science, esoteric part is aiming towards people who already believe in such things. Another example is “teacher” who explains that in order to execute a proper movement practitioner must use specific part of the brain, taught properly only ( what a surprise) in his system, while all other are using different part of the brain, thus their movements and entire arts are not correct. Of course, this particular teacher is also using concepts like “qi” and “internal” energy\force. I wonder where is the documented research that proves what part of the brain is used by him and his students while practicing their art compared to the brain scans of the people who are doing “incorrect” movements? Most of the teachers do not use pseudo-science because they are aware that it easy to debunk those theories. On the other hand, “Qi” and “internal” power are perfect for “in depth” presentation of the art. It is impossible to debunk those theories simply because no one knows what “Qi’ is, there is no clear definition of it and it can mean whatever a teacher wants in particular moment. It is important to mention that every try to measure the effect of “Qi” in controlled condition failed, same as any other kind of magic or esoteric arts. Accompanied with pseudo-science and religion, “in depth” knowledge is consisted of one more important element, growing complexity of the movements, drills and “what if” scenarios. I have personally witnessed different teachers showing that knowledge, Sometimes teacher will “correct” the position of the body part by few millimeters with an explanation that a “proper” position will open ‘qi” channels or be connected properly to the body structure and provide better “force flow”. Sometimes teachers will show complicated set of movements usually called “drill” that, although completely unrealistic and without any combat value “suppose” to develop some necessary fighting attribute. People pay a lot of money for this nonsense and what is worse they pass that nonsense to others. There are many other examples of “in depth” knowledge so many that they are actually prevalent way of teaching kung fu these days.
The question why “in depth” knowledge in this form even exist is much easier to answer. First it is the financial moment involved in kung fu. Chinese Martial Arts are big business and they attract a large number of people. In order to draw as much money as possible from those people, over complicated systems in theory and practice are invented and they are still growing in complexity. During Ching dynasty period, for which we have the most historical evidence, kung fu training lasted for no more than a few years, and later people trained in kung fu sought jobs in military, police or as a private security. Training was harsh, similar to training of the special military and police forces today, and those people had to learn their arts properly because their lives depended on them. How and why form simple and effective combat systems Chinese martial arts came to what we have today was a subject of one of the previous articles. This also brings the second reason for “in depth” knowledge existence. Vast majority of kung fu teacher have no fighting experience what so ever. So, how can a person who doesn’t know how to fight teach other fighting skills. It is impossible, just like a person who doesn’t know how to swim can’t teach swimming to others. But those teachers are teaching kung fu, martial arts, so they have to offer something, and they offer arts that are based in imagination and assumption, based in Hong Kong action movies and developed with completely compliant training partners with zero resistance or simulated resistance in training. On top of that , those teachers are also selling the “tradition” , some famous, often mythical ancestor had superhuman powers and fought usually hundreds if not thousands of fights, he never lost any, and his fighting abilities somehow magically transferred through generations of successors ( who never had a fight) to the current teacher. Best example is revered Wing Chun master Yip Chun, a son of most famous Wing Chun figure today Yip Man. Although we have no evidence what so ever that Yip Man had any fight he is considered by his followers to be tremendous fighter and there are numerous legends about his fighting skills which grow in number over time. Yip Chun proudly states that he never had a fight in his life, and even if his father was a good fighter how that makes him competent to teach others martial art?
At the end, it is important to say that “in depth” knowledge can be very dangerous for the practitioners, not only it will drain their pockets but giving them false confidence in their fighting ability may cause them to act irrationally in potentially dangerous situation and that may cause serious physical injury of death. Those things did happened in the past, so I urge to all martial arts practitioners to test their skills in controlled conditions in order to get a realistic assessment of their fighting abilities.