Chinese Martial Arts Training

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Chinese martial arts training consists of the following components: basics, forms, applications and weapons. Each style has its own unique training system with varying emphasis on each of those components. In addition, philosophy, ethics and even medical practise are highly regarded by most Chinese martial arts. A complete training system should also provide insight into Chinese attitudes and culture.

Basics: Basics (基本功) are a vital part of the training, as a student cannot progress to the more advanced stages without them; without strong and flexible muscles including the management of the “Chi” (breath, or energy), many movements of Chinese martial arts are simply impossible to perform correctly.

Basics training involves a simple series of simple movements that are performed repeatedly over a short interval . Examples of basics training includes stretching, stances, meditation and special techniques.

Stretching: Chinese martial arts pay considerable attention to stretching. Speed, power, and the reduction of injuries may be achieved by increasing the range of motion. Common stretching exercises include general joint rotations, static stretching, and dynamic stretching.

These exercises are performed individually, but may also be practiced in pairs. Different styles have different approaches to increase the student’s flexibility, but those approaches should be consistent with the fundamentals of sports medicine.

Stances: Stances (steps or 步法) are special postures employed in Chinese martial arts training. They represent the individual elements of a form. Each style has different names and variations for each stance. Stances may be differentiated by feet position, body weighting, body alignment, and other such factors. Stance training can be practiced statically, the goal of which is to maintain the structure of the stance through a set time period. Stance training can also be practiced dynamically, in which case, a series of movements is performed repeatedly. The horse riding stance or a bow stance is a representative example of a stance found in many styles of Chinese martial arts.

Meditation: In many styles, meditation is considered to be an important component of basic martial arts training. Meditation can be used to develop focus, clarity of thought and as a basis for qigong training. Meditation when practiced in this context does not require a religious component. As an example, one of the three major components of Shaolin kung fu practice is Zen Meditation, the other two being medicine and martial arts.

Special techniques: Special techniques are basic exercises that are unique to a particular martial arts style. Special techniques are developed based on the experience and understanding of a particular style. For example, many styles have training to increase the ability to withstand a direct hit through methods such as the “Golden Bell Cover” (金钟罩) or “Iron Shirt” (铁布衫). In Wing Chun, basic training includes the use of a wooden dummy (“Mook Jung” in Cantonese and “Moo Juang” in Mandarin) to develop striking power and some hand trapping techniques. There are also types of training that can be characterized as being fictional rather than real. For example, the ability to move lightly without leaving footprints or the ability to climb walls.

Forms: Forms or taolu (Chinese: 套路; pinyin: tào lù) in Chinese are series of techniques defined by their stances combined so they can be practiced as one whole set of movements. Some say that forms resemble a choreographed dance, though martial artists often argue that a general difference is the speed and explosiveness seen in most external styles, and that the movements are actual fighting techniques. This confusion often results from modern practitioners not understanding the combat applications of such forms, however this is a key aspect to training and should never be ignored.

These forms sought to incorporate both the internal and external aspects of Chinese martial arts. A kung fu form needs to be both practical, usable, and applicable as well as promoting flow, meditation, flexibility, balance and coordination. Often kung fu teachers are heard to say “train your form as if you were sparring and spar as if it were a form.”

Types of forms: There are two types of forms in Chinese martial arts. Most common are the solo forms, performed alone by one person, but there are also “sparring” forms, which is a combined fighting sets performed by two or more people. There is another meditative component on kung-fu that is very useful to put the student on an imaginative real fight situation and also to literally “defeat” the fear factor. Many styles consider forms as one of the most important practices, as they gradually build up the practitioner’s strength and flexibility, internal power, speed and stamina, and teach balance and coordination. They also function as a tool for both the students and the teacher to remember the many techniques taught by the style, and sort them into various groups.

A style can have many compartments, both empty-handed and with weapons. In most styles, empty-handed techniques are the most common, but many styles also contain forms using a wide range of weapons of various length and type, utilizing one or two hands. There are also styles that only practice a certain weapon, containing only forms with the specific weapon.

Forms are meant to work the body. Once a basic structure is able to be maintained in the body, forms are then used to work that structure. Forms develop a sensibility of moving from position to position. This teaches the body to react.

Some forms focus specifically on punching and kicking, while others focus on joint manipulation, grappling, jump kicking, or weapons. Still other forms focus on different styles of movement, or on using specific configurations. Often, forms will combine several of these attributes.

Appearance of forms: Even though forms in Chinese martial arts are based on martial techniques, the movements might not always be identical to how the techniques they symbolize would work when applied in actual combat. This is due to the way many forms have been elaborated: on the one hand to provide better combat preparedness, and on the other hand, to look more aesthetic. One easily understood manifestation of this tendency toward elaborations that go beyond what most often might be used in combat is the inclusion of lower stances and higher kicks. The regular practice of techniques while using lower stances both adds strength to the same techniques when used with higher stances, and also facilitates using the same techniques in the lower stances when the realities of combat make doing so the most appropriate choice.

In recent years, as the perceived need for self-defense has decreased, many modern schools have replaced practical defense or offense movements with acrobatic feats that are more spectacular to watch, thereby gaining favor during exhibitions and competitions. The mainland Chinese government has especially been criticized by traditionalists for “watering down” the wushu competition training it promotes. Appearances have been important in many traditional forms as well, seen as a sign of balance, but may not be the most important requirements of successful training, from the martial perspective. Some martial artists have looked for supplementary income by performing on the streets or in theaters, although in the most traditional schools, such performance is forbidden.

Another reason why the martial techniques might look different in forms is thought by some to come from a need to “disguise” the actual functions of the techniques from outsiders, namely rival schools or the authorities, since China has been ruled by foreign powers in the past. The intention was to leave the forms in such a state that they could be performed in front of others without revealing their actual martial functions, while retaining their original functionality in a less obvious form. However some forms were created for reasons other than combat and martial application: some were created to help martial artists develop certain qualities. For example, in addition to aesthetic reasons, acrobatics blended into martial arts help martial practitioners develop strength, balance and flexibility.

Modern forms: As forms have grown in complexity and quantity over the years, and many forms alone could be practiced for a lifetime, styles of modern Chinese martial arts have developed that concentrate solely on forms, and do not practice application at all. These styles are primarily aimed at exhibition and competition, and often include more acrobatic jumps and movements added for enhanced visual effect compared to the traditional styles. Those who generally prefer to practice traditional styles, focused less on exhibition, are often referred to as traditionalists. Many traditionalists consider the evolution of today’s Chinese martial arts as undesirable, saying that much of its original value is lost.

Application: Application training refers to the training of putting the martial techniques to use. Chinese martial arts usually contain a large arsenal of techniques and make use of the whole body; efficiency and effectiveness is what the techniques are based on. However, many Chinese martial arts appear to be flowery and ‘fancier’ than other arts but the movements are very meaningful in terms of application. When and how applications are taught varies from style to style, but in the beginning, most styles focus on certain drills where each person knows what technique is being practiced and what attack to expect.

Gradually, fewer and fewer rules are applied, and the students learn how to react and feel what technique to use, depending on the situation and the type of opponent. ‘Sparring’ refers to one aspect of application training that simulates fighting situations but still with rules and regulations to reduce the chance of serious injury to the student.

The subject of application training is controversial and is part of a raging debate between the practice of martial arts and sports based on the martial arts. In the traditionalist view, martial arts training should eventually lead to and be proven by actual combat as well as being govern by a moral philosophy. In comparison, the sports view suggests that the training does not require such extreme methods or such deep contemplation.

The traditionalist view is shaped by the history of Chinese martial arts where the techniques were developed as a means of self-preservation. Because of its importance, application training was kept secret and was given only to those that were considered ‘worthy.’ From the vantage point of martial arts as a sport, the issues of life and death is no longer decided by martial arts. As a result, the goal of the training should re-focus towards health and friendly competition.

Competitive sparring is one approach to satisfy the difference between the two viewpoints. In this approach, opponents can use their combat techniques but subject to a set of pre-defined rules and regulations which are designed to limit serious injuries. An example of this approach in the Chinese martial arts is the tradition of Lei tai (擂臺/擂台, raised platform fighting) and Sanda (散打) or sǎnshǒu (散手). Lèitái represents public challenged matches that first appeared in the Song Dynasty. The objective for those contests was to knock the opponent from a raised platform by any means necessary.

San Shou represents the modern development of Lei Tai contests but without the raised platform and having rules in place to reduce the chance of serious injuries. Many Chinese martial arts schools teach sanshou and work to incorporate their movements, characteristics, and theory into sanshou’s modern context. Sanshou is popular as a competition event and allows martial practitioners to both practice and put their skill to use in a friendly, non-hostile environment.

It is similar to Muay Thai and is a type of sparring competition where the competitors wear protection and gloves and get points when scoring a hit on the opponent or performing a successful throw. Sanshou involves both stand-up striking and grappling, and as a modern competition is limited for safety reasons, in turn limiting technique and other components of the martial arts. However, many of these skills and techniques are still practiced among many sanshou practitioners, such as chin na and ground fighting.

Weapons training: Most Chinese styles also make use of training the broad arsenal of Chinese weapons for conditioning the body as well as coordination and strategy drills. Weapons training (qìxiè 器械) are generally carried out after the student is proficient in the basics, forms and applications training. The basic theory for weapons training is to consider the weapon as an extension of your body. The same requirements for footwork and body coordination is required. The process of weapon training proceed with forms, forms with partners and then applications. Most systems have training methods for each of the Eighteen Arms of Wushu (shíbābānbīngqì 十八般兵器) in addition to specialized instruments specific to the system.