So, You Want to Learn Martial Arts: What Is Your Goal?

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By: Matthew Lee

Written April 29th, 2018

“There are 4 kinds of kung fu.  The first kind is the one you learn to fight.  Free fighting, kicking the sand bags.  Running.  Not much to learn.  This is the first kind.  The second kind is for strengthening your body.  Tai Chi.  It strengthens your ‘Chi’.  The third kind is for exhibition.  Showing off, so even people far away can see it.  The fourth kind is my kind.  I learn it to fight in movies!” —Lau Kar-leung

Abstract: When a person decides to take up martial arts, it can be for many reasons.  However, without a serious goal or focus in mind, the practice of martial arts may not necessarily lead to great benefits to a practitioner.  If one is to take martial arts practice seriously, one must decide what they want out of training.  The purpose of this write-up is to distinguish three different goals of martial arts training: 1. Fighting, 2. Health, and 3. Performance and entertainment, and some of the most direct and effective ways to achieve them.

Last year, Justine Agaloos shared a post on my Facebook wall, a video titled “Guy Can Pull Cars With His Balls” by UNILAD Fitness.  Upon seeing this, I commented that I could easily include this as an example of a write-up I could title, “One Trick Ponies: Why?”  But then, after a bit of thinking, this got me into a more serious question that could be discussed: “What is the goal of training martial arts?”  It goes without saying that the answers to this question are numerous and varied.  There is of course, no one true answer to this question for everybody, and I of course can’t speak for everyone.  But I can try to boil it down.

Because I come from a background of, and am most familiar with Chinese Wushu, or Chinese martial arts, I will focus my discussion to practices under this general category.  From a semantical perspective, Chinese martial arts has also been called “kungfu”, or “gongfu” (功夫; gōngfu) in Chinese.  “Gōngfu” actually means the idea of “skill” developed over a long time of effort and hard work, whereas Wushu (武术; wǔshù, literally “martial art”) is the more literal and accurate term for Chinese martial arts.  However, the two terms have been used to define and distinguish different types and practices of Chinese martial arts, which we will get into later.  Over five years ago, I wrote a comparatively short write-up, simply titled “What is Wushu?”, where I briefly scratched the surface of how Wushu has influence and relevance into three simplified, yet clear aspects of Chinese culture, including martial/combat and sport/entertainment, but I did not elaborate beyond that.  This time around, I will attempt to talk about how specific practices under the umbrella of Wushu or Chinese martial arts, as well as other forms of martial arts, can help to achieve specific goals of training martial arts.

The late Lau Kar-leung, director of such famed Shaw Brothers studio kung fu movies as Challenge of the Masters (陆阿采与黄飞鸿; Lùācǎiyǔhuángfēihóng, Luk Ah Choy And Wong Fei-hung) and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (少林三十六房; Shàolínsānshíliùfáng, also known as Master Killer or Shaolin Master Killer) starring Gordon Liu, and Drunken Master II (醉拳二; zuìquánèr, Drunken Fist 2) starring Jackie Chan, said in an interview that, “There are 4 kinds of kung fu.  The first kind is the one you learn to fight.  Free fighting, kicking the sand bags.  Running.  Not much to learn.  This is the first kind.  The second kind is for strengthening your body.  Tai Chi.  It strengthens your ‘Chi’.  The third kind is for exhibition.  Showing off, so even people far away can see it.  The fourth kind is my kind.  I learn it to fight in movies!”  Based on this, I can set up the general goals for training martial arts into the four categories that Lau Kar-leung presented.  However, for the sake of conciseness, I will combine the last two, and categorize them into 1. Fighting, 2. Health, and 3. Performance and entertainment, and boil it down to just three (how convenient that I can condense my content into numbered parts more easily absorbable to the human brain).  And with that, we begin to simplify and break down the goals of training martial arts.

I should also preface this by stating that, coming from a background predominantly in diverse experiences of Chinese martial arts, I know that this write-up may seem paradoxical.  The practice of Chinese martial arts, which in and of itself is a broad umbrella of different kinds of practices, not to mention the many different styles, undoubtedly touches all three of these goals; yet from a traditional martial arts perspective, all these goals were facets of a holistic system that could encompass all these simultaneously, especially in the way that Chinese martial arts are portrayed and interpreted from traditional Chinese culture.  Thus, the paradox of the idea of sorting the practice of something so vast and complex as the practice of martial arts, into simple and straightforward goals, is not lost on me.  However, in the real world, especially in the modern day, the ability to achieve specific goals lies in buckling down and focusing on the most relevant skills that most directly apply to said goals.  And now more than ever, I feel we need to talk about distilling the practice of martial arts into training for these specific goals if the practice of martial arts wants to stay relevant to modern society.

The first and most obvious goal, is for the purposes of fighting, which conventionally, people consider means getting into a physical altercation and exchange(s) with another individual(s).  The realm of fighting as it is perceived in martial arts today can be divided into combat sports, also called “sport fighting”, and self-defense, which I will cover both here.  My overall statement for either of these, where there is undeniably physical contact, is that the most effective methods for learning how to fight, almost always employ some form of learning how to physically (and psychologically) manipulate and affect another human body.  In the words of Rory Miller, a former corrections officer and judoka, from his DVD “InFighting”, “…until you can go out and play with another body, you can’t [fight].  Probably can’t fight at all.  You need to do it that way.”


From there, the most conventional methods of learning how to manipulate and affect another human body, include but are not limited to, combat sports.  Examples of these are boxing, kickboxing, including Muay Thai and Wushu Sanshou (散手; sànshǒu, free hand), also known as Sanda (散打; sàndǎ, free fighting), styles of wrestling including Chinese Shuai Jiao (摔角; shuāijiǎo, traditional Chinese folk wrestling), and grappling styles such as jujutsu, judo and BJJ (Brazilian jujutsu), hybrid MMA (mixed martial arts) programs that have some combination of all these, as well as Chinese qinna (擒拿; qínná, grappling).  From a Wushu and Chinese martial arts perspective, Sanda is seen as the benchmark practice and method of freestyle sparring and scientific martial applications.  It is also worth noting that most, if not all these methods, fall under the category of full-contact, where there is intentional application of force on others; this allows one to have a physical understanding of how to manipulate and affect another human body, with full force, as well experience the same done to themselves, to have a physical understanding of live pressure as well.  The effectiveness of all these methods for learning fighting, are because they employ some form of fight training, meaning that there is some method of live drilling, or applying techniques, with or against a resisting opponent.

One of the major fallacies of martial arts training, especially from traditional martial arts styles, for fighting, is the assumption or belief that forms training, or the practice of routines of choreographed or preset movements, called Taolu (套路; tàolù, forms) in Chinese martial arts, which is ironically observed as the most popular market of appeal for the martial arts industry, alone will make one a fighter.  I would like to cite my interview “From A Platform Judge’s Point of View: An Interview with Mark Lorenzo About Sanda”, where I interviewed Mark Lorenzo, a former Guoshu (国术; guóshù, traditional Chinese martial arts, literally “national art”) lei tai (擂台; lèitái, traditional Chinese martial arts full-contact fighting, literally “raised platform”) champion, and nationally and internationally certified Sanda judge under the USAWKF (United States of America Wushu Kungfu Federation) and IWuF (International Wushu Federation), respectively.  In the interview, Mark states, “I don’t think forms translates to fighting directly, but I did do forms throughout my kung fu time, and then that was my introduction to kung fu…But it’s just in the same way that I think that that can be one tool, to train, it’s just like a boxer using a speed bag.  If all you know how to do is use a speed bag and strike like this (does an impression of rhythmic strikes on an imaginary speed bag)—you don’t strike like you normally would in fighting, the speed bag—but, if that’s all you can do, you probably can’t fight very well.  I don’t care that you’re amazing on a speed bag and know tricks and can hit it with your elbow or whatever.  Because do you actually spar?  Do you actually punch?  Do you do drills?  Do you do mitts?  Do you do the whole thing?  And so, I think it’s the same with anything. If all you do is forms every day, okay.  Then you’re good at forms.  You might be okay, you might be able to defend yourself because you’re physically fit, know how to throw a punch or kick.  But you’re not a fighter.”  In other words, as I stated previously in my write-up, “Is Wushu a Dance: Defining Wushu as a Practice”, skill in forms work and forms or Taolu training has no correlation to actual fighting or sparring ability.  This goes back to Lau Kar-leung’s quote of, “There are 4 kinds of kung fu.  The first kind is the one you learn to fight.  Free fighting, kicking the sand bags.  Running.  Not much to learn.  This is the first kind.”

To be clear, I am not saying that forms or Taolu are completely useless.  As I have said in one of my first write-ups, “Forms vs. Fighting: A Critique on the Dichotomy of Wushu”, as well as many others, I have stated multiple times that although forms or Taolu are not the same as fighting, this does not necessarily mean that there isn’t a relationship between forms work or Taolu and fighting in complete martial arts training.  Ideally, forms or Taolu are training tools for various techniques that should be extracted and connected to fighting with sparring.  This goes back to my earlier statement of the holistic of view of Chinese martial arts, where practices can have overarching focuses and benefits towards multiple goals, including fighting.  However, without an actual focus on fight training, the utility of this holistic attitude of martial arts training for fighting, becomes nonexistent.

As for the realm of self-defense, this is generally considered a separate market and focus from combat sports and sparring practices.  From this self-defense perspective, there are those critics of combat sports training and sparring, traditional martial artists and street fighting “experts” alike, who argue that combat sports and sparring are not “real fighting” since they have rules and limitations in the training environment.  These include the restricting or prohibiting certain areas of attack, such as the groin (mainly for males), certain areas of the head, and joints, for safety reasons.  There is also the restriction of certain techniques, which varies depending on the style.  And of course, there is the structure of separating training and competition into “rounds” or separate sessions, which also vary based on styles and competition formats, as well as the fact that two opponents will generally start squaring off from a certain distance.

In my write-up “Sparring vs. Self-Defense: A Look at ‘Real’ Fight Training”, I concede that these criticisms are right.  Sparring is NOT real fighting.  There are no rules in the street; anything can happen, and anything can be used, there will be no ref to save you, and a fight between two or more people in social settings can start without having the chance to square off, instantaneously and without warning, nonstop and with constant pressure until the opposing party is completely incapacitated.  However, the general fallacy in these arguments is that it assumes that trained fighters will automatically not be able, which is not necessarily true.

In response to this criticism, Mark Lorenzo says, “Many styles I think, make the mistake of assuming through very controlled situations, that they’re doing something that would devastate everybody.  For instance, your eye gouge, ‘Oh, eye gouging.’  It’s like, ‘Well are you drilling on eye gouging each other every day?’  I mean, because short of maybe putting on goggles on then protecting your eyes, I don’t see know how else you’d do that.  So, we all know, yes, you can put a finger in the eye.  We all know that’s effective!  You see it in MMA, if you get eye poked, but again, I’d say, ‘Let’s grab like Anderson Silva, or Muslim [Salikhov, Sanda champion and MMA fighter]’, and say, ‘Okay, ready?  All bets are off, you can do anything, go ahead and poke him in the eye.’  You know, he’s probably gonna knock you out faster because he has replicated that so many times, and if you aim at his eye with a finger poke and you hit his forehead, you did no damage.  If he punches you in the forehead instead of the jaw, you’re still taking a lot.”  In a similar vein, near the end of the write-up “Sparring vs. Self-Defense: A Look at ‘Real’ Fight Training”, I argued that sparring, while not real fighting, is still a training tool that has great benefits for fight training.  Specifically, these benefits include the progressive development of a participant’s skills, whatever they may be depending on the style and training environment, and more importantly and universally, the elimination of psychologically “freezing up”, or the physical “panic” a person can experience when dealing with physical pressure of an oncoming attack or assault.  But, this can apply to any form of live training with a resisting opponent that mimics the fighting situations one is training for, which is ultimately the key for effective fight training, including sparring.  It is this sense of live training with and against physical pressure, or some form of drilling against a resisting opponent to simulate the sense of a physical exchange or conflict, that is the cornerstone of any effective martial arts training for the purposes of directly fighting.

There is also the issue of knife and gun defense.  To address these situations, I once again defer to what I said in “Sparring vs. Self-Defense: A Look at ‘Real’ Fight Training”, where I stated that when it comes to learning or employing knife or gun defense, it is best to consult the expertise of those who are actually trained to deal with such situations, such as military or police personnel, and NOT the opinion of other martial artists or “fighters” that offer “theoretical” methods, but with no real experience or proof to back up the validity of the method (this is where personal research to determine the best kind of knowledge comes in, but this is ultimately up to the individual).  I would also humbly encourage martial arts instructors that specialize in either the combat sports and “self-defense” markets alike, to follow the same mentality.  If we really care about offering effective self-defense techniques for this situations, we need to be honest about how a real attacker with these weapons would actually assault someone in a confrontation, and simulate and mimic those situations with as close a balance of reality and safety as possible, rather than make assumptions and delude ourselves into only training in controlled situations as Mark previously mentioned, and casual classroom environments with no real live drilling with or against physical pressure (again, this goes back to live training with a resisting opponent—kind of funny how that works, isn’t it?).  To think or do otherwise, is in my humble opinion, not only running the risk of appearing fraudulent in the martial arts industry, but more importantly for the rest of society, is doing a disservice to martial arts students and practitioners, by promoting practices and techniques that could result in one’s permanent injury, or even death in a real conflict.

The second goal, for the purposes of health, has a utility that ranges from rehabilitation from injuries, to simple regular exercise.  This harkens back to Lau Kar-leung’s quote of, “strengthening your body.  Tai Chi.  It strengthens your ‘Chi’.”  Already, this gives away the obvious direction of where I’m going with this.  Examples of these training styles are the most apparent and popular Taijiquan (太极拳; tàijíquán, Grand Ultimate Fist), also known as “Tai Chi”, as well as other similar styles of Xingyiquan (形意拳; xíngquán, literally “shape-will fist”), Baguazhang (八卦掌; bāguàzhǎng, Eight Trigrams Palm), Yiquan (意拳; yìquán, literally “will/intention fist”), also known as Dachengquan (大成拳; dàchéngquán, Big/Large/Great Accomplishment/Achievement Fist), and the overarching practices that are embedded throughout all of these other practices, of qigong (气功; qìgōng) and zhanzhuang (站桩; zhànzhuāng, literally “standing post/pole”).


It is interesting that most of these forms of martial arts, or martial arts-related examples of exercises listed here, are uniquely Chinese in root culture.  In Chinese martial arts, all of these fall into the category of “internal” (内家; nèijiā, literally “internal family”) category of Chinese martial arts, as opposed to “external” (外家; wàijiā, literally “external family”), where “external” refers to the training focused on purely physical techniques, and “internal” refers to the training of qi (气; qì, vital energy), intent, spirituality, deeper skeletal musculature and tendons closer to the bones over the larger muscle bellies, and literal internal organ health.  This is also where the holistic view of Chinese martial arts arguably has the most utility.  Taiji and qigong practices have begun to reach recognition as great forms of physical activity and health exercises.

On a short aside, I am aware that this primary focus on health with these practices will easily overlook the martial roots of these styles, at least for the sake of this write-up.  Going back to my statement at the beginning of the write-up, I said that with something as holistic as the systems of Chinese martial arts, the paradoxical idea of compartmentalizing the practice of martial arts in general into specific goals is not lost on me.  Today, Taiji experts distinguish the practice of “Tai Chi” for health and exercise, and Taijiquan as a form of martial arts with the context of the Chinese character 拳 (quán, fist/boxing), which in Chinese culture carries a clearly martial meaning in the training or use for fighting purposes.  While I do not deny the fact that internal styles of Chinese martial arts such as Taijiquan are indeed legitimate martial arts, there is a good reason why these styles are primarily marketed as health exercises, as opposed to exclusively fighting arts.  This is because they have historically yielded the most utility towards these goals in contemporary times.  And as for the training of these styles for the purposes of fighting today, I will refer back to my first statement that fight training must employ some form of learning how to physically (and psychologically) manipulate and affect another human body, especially with live training or drilling with and against a resisting opponent or physical pressure, not solely on the training of forms, Taolu or routine practice, and theoretical martial applications and fighting ideas without these values, which most practitioners of these styles do indeed do (case in point, Xu Xiaodong vs. Wei Lei, and the various “Tai Chi vs. MMA” fights that would follow).  It is worth noting that most traditional Chinese martial arts styles employ Sanda as a form of sparring and fight training, outside of their own pure traditional systems.  Thus, my focus and mention of internal Chinese martial arts in this write-up, will be on health.

The health benefits of internal martial arts can be embodied in the idea and practice of qigong.  As established, qigong is a broad and overarching term and practice, which refers to the coordination of physical movements and postures with “internal” elements of the body such as breathing and mental “intent” or “focus” on specific body parts, depending on the movement or posture being executed, and is within virtually all internal styles of Chinese martial arts.  The traditional styles of Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, Baguazhang, and Yiquan, all have some form or layer of qigong within their practice, as well as zhanzhuang, which is the practice of holding stationary postures for extended periods of time and is something I will personally get more into detail shortly.  First and most obvious is the psychological benefit; the ideal of focusing on “relaxing” with “stillness in motion” in the internal Chinese martial arts, while still being able to do some form of physical activity, is crucial to maintaining martial arts training and an active lifestyle in general, without the hard intensity of an otherwise athletic workout, that could break the body and mind down over time.  Even Mark Lorenzo, a Chinese martial arts stylist whose primary focus is on fighting, recognizes the benefits of Taijiquan as a health practice, where he relates a personal anecdote, saying, “…you know, I had a back injury, and being able to come to my school and still do an activity, it [Taiji] helped me recover.  And I knew it was difficult, I hadn’t done a lot, and it opened my eyes, especially with my back recovery, it was so difficult.  And it was great, because I was getting a little depressed, I was unable to do a lot of the stuff that I wanna do, you know, I could still teach but not train or demonstrate or anything.  And being able to come in and have something that was low-impact and good for you…I think that approach is great.”  However, this gives way to the most primary and broadest benefit of these kind of practices, as with all forms, Taolu or routine practice, is body awareness; knowing and physically understanding how to efficiently move your body is of course one of the most foremost and basic things to get from martial arts practice.  Although the idea of one’s own body awareness in and of itself appears to be too broad to focus on specific health benefits, this idea can be compartmentalized into a more detail-oriented level, correcting one’s physical body mechanics that can otherwise be harmful or already cause health problems.

As an example, at the risk of sounding condescending, I would like to use my own personal journey and experience with zhanzhuang, which itself extends from my initial experience in qigong and Taijiquan.  I first began to feel, or at least have the awareness of feeling, qi, or at least what was described to be qi, in my body, through learning qigong exercises at the old Wushu school I used to go to.  The Kung Fu Magazine article “Taiji Quan Fundamentals & Qigong” by Violet Li states, “According to Grandmaster Chen, there are five levels of qi cultivation in Taiji.  The first three levels are easy to understand and obtain.  When level one occurs, a practitioner should feel warmth in the hands and puffiness in the fingers.”  It was this feeling I began to experience after being exposed to qigong.  Later, in addition to this feeling, I would also feel heat/warmth, and a prickling sensation/electrical signals flowing through my back, and eventually limbs, from my ring and pinky/little fingers all the way through my arms.  As a result, I would literally feel “warmed up”, as though blood circulation and increased throughout my body and helped me to physically “wake up” and feel more naturally loose and explosive.  In one of my older write-ups “Is Qi Real: The (Kind Of) Big Question”, I attempted to define qi in a tangible sense, wherein it seemed to correlate with body heat and blood flow, or even bioelectricity within the body.  Whether or not there is a relationship between qi and these things, or if all these are facets of the same thing, that holistic “life energy” that drives our minds and bodies, remains unknown.  Eventually, this feeling would creep its way into every “soft” form of physical activity I did, from my warm-up routines for Wushu, which included active stretching exercises taken from yoga, and “neck nods”, a form of nerve gliding, also called nerve flossing, to practicing Chen Style Taijiquan, and eventually zhanzhuang.

I first learned zhanzhuang from my college’s Wushu club’s traditional Chen Style Taijiquan instructor, Mac Colestock of Wulin Institute, where I began to get a sense of the physical posture of “hanxiong babei” (含胸拔背; hánxiōngbábèi, “hollow the chest, round the back”); this consists of “rounding out” one’s physical posture, namely by “hollowing”/concaving the chest and shoulders inwards towards the body, and includes the rounding out of the shoulder blades as a result.  This forms the basis of peng (掤; ward-off), the most fundamental and crucial structure of traditional Taijiquan, and as I discovered later, would also be apparent in all forms of internal Chinese martial arts I learned, including Xingyiquan and Baguazhang.  Years later, in December of the 2016, I would meet Taiji teacher Dr. Tim Lee at the behest of my current Wushu coach Ching-Yin “Bee” Lee, at a forest behind Brookside Nature Center, where Dr. Tim adjusted and corrected to my physical posture.  In the most general explanation without going into too much detail, this consisted of imagining “hugging a thin paper balloon” for a relatively long period of time, with a general focus of learning to physically relax and let go of unnecessary muscular tension (part of this is mental, again going back to the psychological ideal of “relaxing”).  However, the biggest benefit I experienced would come in the later instructions of imagining “sitting on the edge of a tall stool”, thereby “sitting the butt back”, and getting rid of unnecessary pressure on the knees and ankles.  This particular focus would carry over into holding mabu (马步; mǎbù, horse stance), which my Wushu coach would make me do one minute of, along with ten minutes of zhanzhuang almost every day, as part of an experimental training program designed for me, which proved to be only partially useful.  Over the next seven months, I thought, “This is cool for martial arts, but what’s the point of this?”  And then, after those seven months, my knees and ankles felt the healthiest they’ve ever been in a long time, finally free from the tightness of the prior left ankle sprain and knee aches I suffered, because of hard force generated from the impact of jumping and landing hard and heavy on the ground.  Though there were of course other practices employed for the sake of safety and health in my training program, I can say that I gained the most utility out of zhanzhuang and mabu, all because of this benefit I experienced.  Other things I have experienced are working parts of activated muscles closer to the bone, which happens when the muscle bellies are tired from holding the posture for so long, that they transfer the resultant force onto the deeper parts of the muscles to maintain the posture.  Specifically, I have felt the working of the quad muscles also felt the stretching of the shoulder muscles under the collar bones, which feels like carrying a very heavy backpack weighing down on my shoulders.  On another level, there is also the activation of the lower spine, as well as the suspension at the baihui (百会; bǎihuì) point at the of the top of the head (as though you were being pulled up from a string at that point), to work on good upper body posture.  It is said that zhanzhuang serves as a self-healing mechanism or “system reset” for the body, where the tensions and discomforts that come out in the muscles and areas between joints (read: NOT the joints themselves—as Dr. Tim says, if there is pain in the joints experienced, it is recommended that the exercise be stopped, as this can be unhealthy, detrimental and dangerous to the body), are either old injuries or ailments of the body working themselves out.  Based on my personal experience, I have found this to be true.

It is important to state that this is only my personal experience as I tried to relay to the best of my ability, and not simply something the reader should take as pure scientific fact.  At the end of “Is Qi Real: The (Kind Of) Big Question”, I state that my explanations and personal experiences are ultimately just a secondhand account to you, the reader, and that to discover the answer for yourself, it is best to explore and experience this for yourself and draw your own conclusions.  That said, it is important to understand these are not immediate or fast fixes that automatically make you feel better.  These will take consistent effort and dedication over a long amount of time, which is crucial for any of this to work.  This goes into what Hao Li, Wushu practitioner and master’s thesis writer on Wushu, says is “the process of [traditional] kungfu, the patient process of honing skills without some goal of winning at an infeasible time frame.”  This is where the idea of gongfu is best exemplified in Chinese martial arts in general, and it is here that I have the holistic side of internal Chinese martial arts to be most beneficial for my health.

Of course, this write-up would not be complete without addressing the type of gongfu mentioned at the beginning, which falls into the “weird” category of qigong forms.  Many of these practices seem oddly specific in their focus and aims, from throwing a needle onto a piece of glass to pop a balloon on the other side, to Shaolin demonstrations where qi is “concentrated” at different parts of body, thus making them seemingly invulnerable to any external harm such as the “iron shirt” (铁衫; tiěshān) skill, and breaking iron to being able to take the physical force of spearheads without a scratch, to of course, genital-oriented training.  These oddly specific practices are often used in public and street demonstrations and are perceived to be no more than mere parlor tricks or again, one trick ponies as previously mentioned, with oddly specific benefits.  The Facebook video mentioned at the beginning stated, “Apparently this helps tackle premature ejaculation.”  Yet another video on this “iron penis” training, which explains how this qigong works, also shows brief clips of a couple kissing on the ground, a picture of a man in a suit standing in front of a lectern at a seemingly public event, and a car, which infers that these can (indirectly?) be attained through this kind of training.  The popular YouTube channel JustKiddingNews, an extension of JustKiddingFilms which focuses on crew members’ reactions to and discussions on various news and topics, featured a video “WEEKEND SCRAMBLE – Legend of the Iron Crotch ft. DavidSoComedy”, that eponymously had a section showcasing another brand of “iron crotch kung fu.”  One of the founders and primary crew members, Bart Kwan, reacted stating, “This is like the most useless martial art though, because it’s all about defense.  There’s no offense.”  JustKiddingNews also featured a reaction to the Shaolin monk Shi Liliang “running on water (over thin wooden boards)” a couple years ago, where I recall Geovanna “Geo” Antoinette Kwan asking, “What’s the point?” (strangely, although I found this video to be hilarious as well, I couldn’t find it again shortly after it was uploaded, leading to believe the video was taken down, as the channel has a history of doing this to videos that are received negatively).  First, in all seriousness, while I do have my opinion about these kinds of practices, I don’t like to be someone who publicly shames or decries a practice, simply because I don’t like or don’t agree with it.  I also don’t have the informed perspective to say that these practices are completely useless.  However, I will say this: personally, I don’t have really have any incentive to want to learn these kinds of practices, because they simply don’t satisfy what I want to achieve or what I want to work towards—so, I won’t.  And if you don’t really have any incentive to engage in such practices for the sake of these oddly specific benefits, I personally would not recommend doing so.

To cap off this section, I will state this—qi, qigong, Taijiquan and everything falls into the realm of internal Chinese martial arts, are ultimately best for focusing on and affecting oneself, NOT affecting others.  Even if I were to entertain the strange forms of qigong mentioned above, and even the extreme possibilities of “no-touch knockouts” and “dim mak” (点脉; diǎnmài, also known as 点穴; diǎnxué, “death touch”) using qi, these do not seem as proven to work as effectively as direct fight training, which I have already elaborated upon.  It is important to not misconstrue internal Chinese martial arts training as ways to automatically control or affect another person.  When I focus on internal Chinese martial arts, it is purely focus on myself as an individual, not on anyone else.  Again, this goes back to the primary focus of health.

And finally, last but certainly not least, we have the training of martial arts for the purposes of performance and entertainment.  This goes back to Lau Kar-leung’s quote of “The third kind [of kung fu] is for exhibition.  Showing off, so even people far away can see it.  The fourth kind is my kind.  I learn it to fight in movies!”  As I established at the beginning of this write-up, I am combining Lau Kar-leung’s “third” and “fourth kind” for the sake of conciseness.  This will include both sport forms of martial arts, as well as those training directly for movies and TV shows.  Examples of these are modern Wushu Taolu, also known as contemporary Wushu Taolu or sport Wushu Taolu, Xtreme Martial Arts and tricking.  Indeed, there are actors and stuntmen who have martial arts backgrounds in each of these examples, which lend themselves well to various popular action movies and TV shows.  Due to the highly physical, and sometimes extraneous nature of these kinds of martial arts practices, which includes but is not limited to their most defining aspect of acrobatic jumps, the values of aestheticism often go together with the values of athleticism, especially for competition.


As I mentioned above, I come from a background of Wushu, specifically modern Wushu, and because I am most familiar with modern Wushu, this will be my primary example of discussion in this section.  It is worth pointing out that the practice of modern Wushu today is separated into Taolu and Sanda, especially in competition; however, Sanda has already been covered in the first section, and for this section, we will focus exclusively on modern Wushu Taolu, which was designed primarily for performance purposes.  Modern Wushu can be defined as a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport.  Taolu in modern Wushu in particular, generally takes place on a large carpet, like gymnastics floor routines, where practitioners demonstrate or perform their forms or routines, namely in competition.  Lau Kar-leung’s quote of the third king of kung fu being for exhibition, so even people far away can see it, seems to embody modern Wushu Taolu very well.  Over the past few years, I have come to realize that modern Wushu Taolu works best in a stage-like setting, with a wide open space to project to a big audience, as exemplified in modern Wushu Taolu performance at the 2017 CCTV (China Central Television) Spring Festival Gala (央视春晚; Yāngshìchūnwǎn), also known as the New Year’s Gala, which featured various national Chinese Wushu Taolu champions at the time, and was very well-received.

There are those traditionalists and critics of sport martial arts who would say that it is not “authentic” or “traditional” martial arts.  Modern Wushu is no exception in the Chinese martial arts community.  And to this, like my response to traditionalists’ criticisms of sparring in “Sparring vs. Self-Defense: A Look at ‘Real’ Fight Training”, I will concede that they are right.  But in all fairness, it’s not supposed to be.  Again, I will refer to my definition of modern Wushu as a standardization of Chinese martial arts for sport, emphasis on the word sport.  Wushu legend and champion, as well as Jet Li’s competitive rival Zhao Changjun, who was also raised in traditional Wushu, has been quoted as saying in his interview with Kung Fu Magazine “Where Wushu Went Wrong”, “Competitive martial arts can never represent the whole picture of Chinese martial arts.”  And again, it’s not supposed to.  This is because it allows Chinese martial arts to be seen internationally by a potentially large audience, but ultimately and understandably, cannot educate them on the deeper levels.  Although this first goal of promotion and spreading awareness is nonetheless important and foremost, which is perhaps understandable why Wushu organizations are continuously vying for Wushu to become an Olympic sport, as karate has recently achieved (though I have my own opinions about the goal of Olympic Wushu, which I have already written at length about in “No Medal for You: Why (I Feel) Olympic Wushu is No Longer worth It”, and there are various underlying reasons why Japan succeeded where China failed, but this is another topic of discussion, perhaps for another time).  My longstanding thesis for most of my write-ups, has been that even though modern Wushu is not on the same level as traditional gongfu, it should at least retain some of the depth of its traditional counterpart, to maintain legitimacy as a martial arts practice and portray some level of content of actual Chinese martial arts.  The Kung Fu Magazine article “Salute to Wushu” by Herb Borkland lists three misconceptions or “clichés” of Wushu, where “The first Wushu cliché is: ‘You can’t fight with it.’  But that’s like standing in front of a movie poster and then complaining that the story went nowhere, there was no action, and the characters were one-dimensional.  You’re mistaking the advertising for the product.  (And if you really want to fight, full-contact sanshou was officially added to wushu competitions in 1979.)”  The analogy of something so condensed and simple as a movie poster advertising a much larger and deeper product, is an apt one.  Modern Wushu Taolu’s identity as a simplified and watered-down interpretation of Chinese martial arts, reveals itself from its own historic development from the most popular and widespread traditional Chinese martial arts styles within mainland China at the time.  However, due to the resultant separation of modern and traditional Wushu into two clearly defined realms, traditionalists also criticize modern Wushu, believing it threatens the promotion of traditional Chinese martial arts.  The article also covers this by addressing its third cliché of Wushu, where “The third cliché is: ‘Wushu threatens to replace traditional Chinese martial arts.’  On the contrary, says Nick Gracenin, ‘wushu was created specifically to generate interest in Chinese martial arts.’”

The greatest example of this is perhaps Jet Li, perhaps Wushu’s most famous champion and exponent.  Although I have openly criticized Jet Li multiple times in my write-ups, I will also admit that he has served as a childhood hero of not only myself, but others I personally know who have taken up either modern Wushu or some other style of Chinese martial arts.  Historically, it was his debut film The Shaolin Temple (少林寺; Shàolínsì), that was the catalyst for reinvigorating the real Shaolin and its Shaolin Wushu, as well as inspire an entire generation of not only modern Wushu athletes, but Chinese martial arts practitioners of all kinds in China.  Particularly, it was this film that inspired Shi Dejian to learn traditional Shaolin Xinyiba (心意吧; xīnyìbā, literally “heart-will handle”) gongfu.  Thus, the potential of modern Wushu to help promote the practice of traditional Chinese martial arts cannot be denied.  Arguably, martial arts have gained their greatest promotion and awareness through their various portrayals in the media.

This brings me to the second kind of martial arts for performance and entertainment, those styles that have been altered and exaggerated for the sake of camerawork and a large audience to see.  It should come as no surprise that these popular styles, such as Taijiquan, Hung Gar (洪家; hóngjiā) and Wing Chun (永春; Yǒngchūn, literally “eternal spring”) have been embellished upon in their popular portrayals, where the big audience could see them, to make it more attractive and enjoyable to watch.  In fact, it could even be debated that other actors such as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, who were Beijing opera (京剧; jīngjù) performers that picked up various forms of Chinese martial arts, were not pure “traditional” martial artists by a long shot.  However, their contributions to the promotion and spreading of awareness of martial arts cannot be denied, and it is through these various platforms that they have done so.  Thus, it is here that the greatest utility of sport and performance martial arts lies.

When taking up martial arts, as well as continue practicing martial arts seriously, it is important to understand what exactly we hope to get out of it; without this understanding, someone can end up wasting their time or delude themselves and become discouraged when these delusions are shattered by reality and end up abandoning the practice of martial arts altogether, which is ultimately unfortunate.  As Mark Lorenzo says, “…I think there’s room for all of it.  But let’s just be honest with ourselves, about what we know, about what we are confident we can do, and be humble too.”  Both practitioners and instructors of martial arts should be honest about what their martial arts practice is, and more importantly, what it is not right from the get-go.  Again, doing otherwise runs the risk of appearing fraudulent, and will only stunt the healthy, realistic development and promotion of martial arts, and its relevance for modern society in the long run.


Matt began practicing Wushu at the age of 7 under US Wushu Academy, and is a coach of the UMBC Wushu Club. He has held positions in national, international, and local modern Wushu competitions, and is currently training in Sanshou/Sanda, traditional Chen Style Taijiquan and zhanzhuang. He is a former four-time consecutive US Wushu Team member, former Pan American Champion and multiple times Pan American Championships medalist, and is continually trying to improve himself both as a competitive athlete and as a real martial artist. If you have any questions you would like to ask Matt, please email him at