It seems there’s still a large contingent of people out there who will believe you can use car keys to turn yourself into Wolverine.
The set-up is simple and there’s a certain elegance to it. The theory is this: you usually have car keys handy, so why not turn them into a weapon? While I applaud the idea of using common items as improvised weapons, putting your keys between your fingers and punching someone with them is going to have less than stellar results.
(Actually, when you get right down to it, both of these examples are bad ideas for self-defense, but for different reasons.)
When I was a kid and reading “authentic” “ninja” training manuals, these things would have looked great. In fact, the first time I heard about putting keys between my fingers and slashing at an opponent, it seemed like a great idea. I mean, why not? Keys are quite pointy in parts and slashing at an opponent seemed guaranteed to shred their face, at which point I could take their wallet.
The problem is it only looks good on paper. There are a couple problems with holding your keys this way and assuming you’ve reached the pinnacle of self-defense. First: your attacker is likely to be covered up and keys aren’t terribly effective against clothes. Truthfully, they’re not great against skin, either. Your dreams of going full Weapon X on a guy in a parking lot with nothing more than the keys in your hand are going to come crashing down quickly when you slash at him and wind up doing almost as much damage to your own hand as you do to his face.
If you do any damange to him at all.
The problem is, none of the keys are stable. Try it. Put your keys in your hands like in the above picture and wiggle them. Not too secure, are they? As soon as you make contact with something, those keys are going to press into the webbing between your fingers with an enormous amount of force. Possibly even enough to make you drop them.
Next thing you know, you’ve got a pissed off attacker, a damaged hand, and you’ve lost your keys.
Which leads to the next problem. In any self-defense situation your primary goal should be survival. The best way to make that happen is to get away and the best way to get away is to get in your car and make tracks. If your car is locked and your keys are tangled up in your hands, it’s going to take extra time to find the right key to unlock your car and skedaddle. It may seem easy when you’re in your living room, but remember when you’re attacked it’s a high-stress situation. In any high-stress situation, adrenaline is going to be pumping into your body to stimulate the fight or flight response. Adrenaline’s good stuff, don’t get me wrong, but fine motor skills disappear when it’s pumping. In other words, your brain turns to mush.
So, how about a better solution? Hold one key – the one to your car or your door – securely between your thumb and forefinger. Make sure you’ve got a tight grip and the tip isn’t sticking out too far – that cuts down on the force that’s coming back into your hand and gives you a better chance of holding onto your keys. Now, you’ve got a secure weapon to slash with and you’ve got your key ready to go, so when adrenaline hits you, you don’t have to think about which key is which.
Of course, you still have to deal with the pesky “getting a key past your attacker’s defenses” part, but if you do it right, you’ll have surprise on your side. Slash at the eyes or throat and get the heck out of there.
Just a quick note on the ring up there, too. Most people don’t know how to punch. It actually takes some time and a lot of practice to get good at punching something. If you slash at someone with that ring, it’s just going to turn on your finger and not do much to your attacker. If you punch someone with that ring on, you’re really going to be in trouble.
The thing about punching is the hand is very good for punching if you punch correctly, namely striking with the big two knuckles on your fist. That ring will put an enormous amount of pressure on the long bone of your middle finger. If you hit a hard enough target – anything on the head, for instance – you’ll break your own finger.
If you want some things to carry for self-defense that aren’t obtrusive, look for a kubotan or something similar. Heck, even a monkey’s fist made from paracord and a big ball bearing would work better.
Don’t believe me? Check these sites for more info:
Most martial arts books aim to teach you martial arts by showing you pictures of people doing things. Some do it really well, others do it exceedingly poorly. Some of the books out there that purport to teach a martial art through pictures are trying to teach a shitty martial art poorly. In those cases, you’ve got the double whammy of suck.
I have a huge library of martial arts books ranging from obscure treatises on Savate to modern explanations of Krav Maga and everything in between. Some are good, some not so good, but most of them can be counted on to have a gem or two ferreted away between the covers.
Whether or not you can learn a martial art from a book is debatable. I would argue that it’s really not possible to understand motion from static images, but once you’ve got a solid grasp of a martial art, you can start to pick things up from books and videos. The caveat, of course, is what you learn will be tainted by your understanding of whatever art you’ve been studying. In other words, you’d be doing Jeet Kun Do as a Kenpo practitioner, not as a Jeet Kun Do practitioner.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure. I’m of the opinion that if you can make it work, it’s all good. Others would likely disagree.
But, I digress. Lee Wedlake’s The Kenpo Karate Compendium: The Forms and Sets of American Kenpo isn’t one of those books that aims to teach you a martial art. It’s written for people who are already proficient at Kenpo and shows some extra details and notes that may or may not have been picked up during live training.
Kenpo’s a fractured system. It started out in Hawaii, moved to Utah, and exploded after that. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), that explosion has lead to a lot of different schools doing a lot of different things. My school broke from Ed Parker’s school at some point in the distant past, but we still use a lot of his techniques and forms. In fact, the bulk of the first forms from Parker Kenpo are still extant in AKKA Kenpo. There’s more divergence as the belts go higher, but especially the early ones are almost exactly the same as what Lee Wedlake wrote his book about.
That kind of fracturing isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s nice sometimes to go back to the source and see that it hasn’t changed as much as we sometimes like to think it. It’s also nice to get some insight from someone else. Not knocking my own Kenpo instructors here, but it can be a great thing to break out of the norm and see what someone else has to say.
The bottom line for a book like this is it isn’t a great book for beginners. This is for people who want to dig into the original forms and pick up what’s changed here and there over the years or catch those little details that get lost from time to time. It’s also nice to have a different take on something.
My Kenpo school in Albuquerque is closing down. Our head instructor wants to be able to spend more time with his family and, after decades of running a school six days a week, probably wants to be able to sleep from time to time, too. So, my seventeen years at AKKA on Montgomery came to an end today.
It’s a melancholy time, but I wish Mr. Gilbert the best. He’s certainly earned it. On the plus side, my son got a personal lesson from a man with something like forty plus years of experience today. I’ve had plenty of one-on-one time with Mr. Gilbert over the years, but this was my son’s first chance to get some insight directly from a Grand Master of Kenpo and that’s a pretty special thing.
I’ve seen Mr. Gilbert, who is in his sixties now, punch so quickly I could barely see his hands move. That’s what a lifetime of practice looks like. But, for all his training and stories about people walking into his school trying to cause problems, it’s his reactions that will always stick with me. Bear in mind, this is the same man that once taught me “luck is the intersection of skill and opportunity”. If you’ve ever wondered where I got that phrase from, it would be from Mr. Gilbert.
People sometimes wonder what the Martial Arts is. What does it entail? What do you have to do? What does it all mean? Pure and simple, no bullshit here; the Martial Arts (all of them) are about learning to inflict the maximum amount of damage on opponent in the smallest amount of time without getting hurt yourself. In other words, once you boil away all uniforms and mottos and rigamorale, learning the martial arts is about learning to beat the snot out of someone.
Of course, the best martial artists don’t have to rely on their fists to win the fight. One of Mr. Gilbert’s many stories that stuck with me was one I heard for the first time this morning. It’s an apt story, especially given the caustic environment in this country right now.
It would appear, back when Mr. Gilbert was running a school on Central in Albuquerque, that a guy came in looking for trouble. “I’m gonna kick your ass!” he screamed.
This wasn’t an entirely uncommon event. We even had a loon wander in off the street during a pretest and try to cause some problems. A couple guys and I escorted him out and convinced him this wasn’t the best place to cause problems. No one got hurt, so it was all good.
Anyway, the guy on Central was probably one of the run-of-the-mill nutters down there that lives to look for trouble. Mr. Gilbert looked up from whatever paperwork he was working on and calmly asked, “What’s your name?”
This threw the bad guy for a loop. Here he was trying to look tough and this Karate dude just asked for his name. “Why do you need my name?” he asked.
“Well, I need to make sure you’re on the schedule. If you’re not on the list you’re going to have to come back later.”
Talk about defusing the situation. The underlying statement was there were so many guys looking to kick Mr. Gilbert’s ass that he needed a list and a schedule to keep up with them. In the end, the angry guy wound up walking out of the school with a brochure about learning Kenpo and all of Mr. Gilbert’s contact information.
I gather he never took a class, but no fight broke out and no one got hurt, so it was all good.
Those are the kinds of stories that will stick with me. Punching is punching and kicking is kicking, but learning how to avoid the fight entirely is priceless.
Now, since the school is going away, I finally got around to taking some pictures. These are paintings of the animals (Tiger, Crane, Leopard, Dragon, Snake, and Monkey) of the style. Each of the animals represents are certain movement forward in Kenpo understanding. The paintings were made directly on the walls of the school sometime in the 80s by a former student.
Mr. Gilbert will still be around, so it’s not like AKKA is losing him forever. And also, as he pointed out, Bill Packer died and the system kept going. Thomas Connor died and the system kept going. Ed Parker died and Kenpo lived on. It’s not an easy change to swallow since I left the system once before and came back primarily for Mr. Gilbert.
Happy New Year, everyone. It’s a time for change and renewal. You can either approach the problem head-on and beat your fists against the wall or you can use a bit of trickery to turn the problem to an advantage.
As was common with martial arts books back in the seventies, Tegner’s treatise on nerve centers and pressure points had a mouthful of a full title: Self-Defense: Nerve Centers & Pressure Points for Karate, Jujitsu and Atemi-Waza. It’s a bit lengthy for a blog title, but an interesting book nonetheless.
I have an extensive collection of martial arts books I’ve picked up over the years, everything ranging from the in-depth examinations of Donn Draeger to a bunch of introductions to various arts. Nerve Centers and Pressure Points is the first Tegner book I’ve come across in the wild.
With any book on martial arts, the author is of key importance. Unlike fiction, non-fiction books aim to provide facts and reading a book on fighting from someone who claims to be an expert is a good way to get yourself in trouble. There are dozens of Ninja books out there that purport to explain Ninjutsu, but are written by people whose sole experience with the art was watching Sho Kosugi movies on Saturday morning. Not that Sho Kosugi didn’t know his arts, but learning from a movie is a dicey proposition at best.
A bit of research on Bruce Tegner reveals he was ahead of his time. In the sixties and seventies, the world of Asian martial arts was still steeped in tradition and it was expected that practitioners would learn those arts exactly as they were taught and that should be good enough. Tegner respectfully disagreed and, decades before “reality based martial arts” became a thing, he was stripping out the parts of traditional Asian arts that simply didn’t fit the bill for realistic defense. This attitude of discarding things that had been taught for decades or centuries earned him no amount of scorn from the traditionalists.
In the final analysis, Tegner created his own martial art – Jukado – which combined what he felt were the best elements from the multitude of styles he studied over the years (Karate, Jiu Jitsu, Savate, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, etc) and rolled them into something effective and easy to learn.
He was quite the iconoclast during his life and it shows in his books. Nerve Centers and Pressure Points paints a very different picture of self-defense than was readily available at the time. He starts by analyzing the need for varying levels of combativeness depending on the situation, rather than saying “go hard all the time”, which is something the martial arts world desperately needed at the time. Tegner then proceeds to tear apart the results from attacking various nerve centers and pressure points. For instance, it’s a commonly held belief that a sharp, upward strike to the nose will push bits of bone into the opponent’s brain and kill immediately. Any study of physiology will reveal this simply cannot happen. At a time when things like death touches were still talked about as realistic, Tegner pointed out the flaws in the logic.
Nerve Centers and Pressure Points is a simple examination of what can happen when a particular point on the body is struck. It’s meant as kind of a layman’s book, but still requires a degree of understanding about how to strike. As a guy with twenty plus years of experience, the strikes made sense to me. For someone with less experience, the text might not be as useful.
Don’t expect a detailed examination of exactly how to poke someone in the ribs and have them fall dead five steps later; this is a simple look at what happens when various parts of the body are struck.
If you’re looking to learn how to defend yourself, this isn’t the place to start. Go find a decent school and do some studying. If you’re a martial artist, this is a good book to read if you can find a cheap copy of it.
What do Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl, and Paul Dehn have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re all writers and/or screenwriters, Fleming, Dahl, and Dehn attended a little known World War II camp known today as Camp X. It was located on the Northwestern shore of Lake Ontario and was put together in early World War II for the sole purpose of training people to go deep into enemy territory and cause as much havoc as possible.
Camp X trained spies, assassins, and saboteurs: people with the necessary skills to drop monkey wrenches into the machineries of wartime Germany. Since not only was an individual’s life on the line, the whole war was on the line, training at Camp X was as realistic as possible. Among other things, live explosives were used with and on trainees.
While the idea of people being taught to drop into Nazi Germany and really mess things up is fascinating in and of itself, it was the hand-to-hand combat training that I find most fascinating. You have to realize the modern United States military has only recently undertaken a serious martial arts program. During World War II, the hand-to-hand combat largely consisted of simple punching, stabbing with bayonets, and some easy to learn and use throws. MACP (Modern Army Combatives Program) and MCMAP (Marine Corp Martial Arts Program) were still a long way off in the 1940s. Krav Magawas still a twinkle in Imi Lichtenfeld’s eyes, even if he was field testing what would become his system using Nazis as test subjects.
But if you’re going to drop people in Nazi Germany for nefarious purposes, simple punching isn’t going to help them. You need to take all the concepts of fair fighting and throw them away. As Kelly McCann is fond of saying, the fair fight is the one you lose.
So, who was going to teach this new collection of bad asses? That would be a British gentleman by the name of William Fairbairn. If you’ve ever heard of the Sykes-Fairbairn commando knife, he’s that Fairbairn.
William Fairbairn was a scary dude. He learned his trade as a cop in Singapore in the 1930s, fighting Chinese gangsters with a Colt 1911 and his fists. At one point he was stabbed nearly 40 times and left to die in a gutter. He survived and went on to learn as much about fighting as he possibly could. He took the best of what he found and discarded the rest. If he learned something but couldn’t make it work in a fight, it was tossed by the wayside. When he was done, William Fairbairn made Chuck Norris look like a child who had found a copy of Enter the Dragon and tried to imitate Bruce Lee.
Fairbairn was a natural choice to train the new spies and miscreants that were going to be dropped into Nazi Germany. He taught what he called “Gutter Fighting”, a system of relatively easy-to-learn moves that were designed to debilitate or kill an opponent with a minimum of fuss and muss. The techniques were mean, but effective. At a time when most people were looking to boxing and Judo or Jiu-Jitsu, Fairbairn advocated fingers in eyes, punches to the throat, knees to the groin, and so on.
In other words, William Fairbairn advocated fighting dirty. Long before Kelly McCann advised us that the fair fight is the one you lose, Fairbairn was upping the ante on Western hand-to-hand combat by saying, “You either kill or get killed.” And when Fairbairn said it, it wasn’t the tagline for a Charles Bronson movie.
Now, the funny thing is, if you look at what Fairbairn actually taught – and we have a lot of records of it, there are videos of him and he wrote books on the subject – a lot of his techniques are straight out of traditional Japanese and Chinese martial arts.
What makes Fairbairn’s interpretation of the techniques he chose different from what we’re doing today in the martial arts is intent. A lot of modern martial arts students have the sole intent of getting to the next belt. Fairbairn’s intent was to cause maximum damage in a minimum amount of time. Which, coincidentally, is exactly what the traditional martial arts were created to do.
Somewhere along the line a lot of martial artists and martial arts schools forgot what they were doing and decided to focus more on memorizing movements and less on the intent behind those movements. Personally, I blame lawyers. Learning a physical act like fighting is going to result in some damage. I’ve been popped in the nose, kicked in the knee, kneed in the groin, and given myself a wicked huge gash with a katana. Unfortunately, there are people out there who cannot stomach getting hurt and run to a lawyer when it happens. Lawsuits are expensive and have driven many a school out of business.
The end result? Watered down traditional martial arts or straight-up crap. In the martial arts world, we call it Bullshido.
So, what’s the solution? Unfortunately that will probably rest with the student as the schools are too worried about being sued out of existence. If you’re planning on taking up a study of fighting, that’s great. Keep at it. Just realize the effectiveness of what you’re learning rests with you. The school can teach you how to do it, but you’re the one that has to actually make it work. That means you have to cultivate a mindset that’s capable of putting your thumb in someone’s eye, punching someone in the throat, or breaking the odd bone here and there..
At Camp X they understood that intent was paramount and trained students to understand that their life could quite literally be on the line in a fight. Once students got to that mindset, everything else flowed naturally into seriously messing the opponent up. Without that intent, everything they were taught would have been useless, which is why I titled this post “absolute violence”. In a fight situation there is no room for holding back. Holding back is what gets people killed.
William Fairbairn understood that and he taught the students at Camp X that same philosophy. And that may have saved more than a few lives.
Most people don’t write martial arts into books. The details of how and why things work in martial systems is difficult to distill into simple words. I wrote a post sometime back about how to translate the physical aspects into something that was a bit more entertaining than “A hammer-fist to the back of the head followed by a palm strike to the nose and claw to the face.” Whether or not it helped anyone out, I don’t know, but it was a good exercise for me.
The basic gist of that post was you need to have an understanding of how and why things work and the ability to turn it into fiction without sounding like a pompous ass or ITG. Today I’d like to take a slight turn and look at the macro world of the martial arts instead of the individual movements of the martial arts.
Many years ago I was reading one of Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake books when I stumbled across something peculiar. Hamilton was probably my first exposure to the world of urban fantasy and I still generally enjoy her work even if a lot of it has become an excuse to lurch from one kinky sex scene to another. Or maybe because her work lurches from one kinky sex scene to another. Hamilton was doing the vampire human werewolf thing long before Meyer dropped onto the scene and, to be frank, Hamilton did it better.
At any rate, there was a line in one of the books where Anita Blake tells the reader she’s been studying Kenpo. I thought “Aha! I know that one.” At that point I’d been studying Kenpo for a few years and had a fairly good grasp on what the system was really like. Then Anita drops a bomb on us when she says Kenpo is basically like Tae Kwon Do.
That’s probably not the exact quote, but it’s the general gist of the narrative. Now, as someone who has studied both Kenpo and Tae Kwon Do, let me tell you something: they’re nowhere near the same.
So, with that firmly in mind, I decided to put together a little bit about some of the more popular martial systems out there to (hopefully) give authors a decent idea of what each system does. Bear in mind, I’ve only studied a handful of these, so I may be a bit off on some of them, but this should be sufficient to give a decent introduction. At the very least, you won’t be stuck with the old Judo chop meme.
Since we’ve already brought up Kenpo and Tae Kwon Do, we’ll start with those and then move into some others.
Tae Kwon Do
Tae Kwon Do is a Korean martial art renowned for its kicks. The whole system – from what I’ve seen of it – isn’t exclusively kicking, but there are a lot of different types of kicks in TKD. and they do them all very well. All TKD schools follow the same curriculum, which is pretty convenient. It’s one of the few really well codified systems out there. If you have a character who excels at kicking, TKD is a good art for them to know.
Fun Fact: There are an estimated 70 million people world-wide practicing Tae Kwon Do.
Other common Korean martial systems include Hapkido and Hwa Rang Do
Kenpo, American Kenpo anyway, is an American system. It was born in Hawaii in the 1940s and moved into the mainland in the 60s and 70s under the guidance of Ed Parker. It has since dispersed across a number of masters and bits of it have been changed or added to over the years. Kenpo is primarily a hand art that focuses on rapid-fire strikes to multiple targets. There are kicks in Kenpo, but they’re not as prevalent as, say, Tae Kwon Do.. Kenpo is not a sport system; as such, strikes to the knees, throat, groin, and eyes are all encouraged.
Fun Fact: Elvis Presley was a Kenpo black belt. The picture above is Elvis and Ed Parker.
One of the more popular striking arts in MMA is Muay Thai. It’s also known as Thai boxing, Thai kickboxing, and the Science of Eight Limbs. Muay Thai is the sportified version of the traditional Thai martial arts and it’s extremely popular in Thailand. It’s known for its use of fists, elbows, knees, and feet, hence the name: The Science of Eight Limbs.
Muay Thai fighters are famous for being able to do things like kick down banana trees with their shins.
Fun fact: the non-sport versions of Muay Thai are collectively referred to as Muay Boran.
Kung Fu isn’t a totally accurate term for the fighting arts of China – Wushu is a bit more accurate. But even then, Wushu is a blanket term for a country that’s probably done more for the martial arts than any other place on the planet. Wushu covers dozens of distinct styles including things like Wing Chun, Mantis, Hun Gar, White Crane, Fighting Crane, Drunken Boxing, and so on. Calling a character a Kung Fu master is a bit misleading since there are so many styles native to China. Wing Chun is a common style that, among other things, makes excellent use of blasting – rapid fire strikes to a target.
Fun fact: It has been argued that Okinawan Karate (and thus Japanese Karate) was based on Chinese White Crane Wushu.
Jeet Kune Do
Jeet Kune Do is less a system of fighting than a philosophy of fighting. When Bruce Lee developed Jeet Kune Do, he did so as a response to what he felt were too many strict rules in Wing Chun. Jeet Kune Do fighters make use of a lot of Wing Chun, but the system is more stripped down and has added elements of fencing and Western boxing. The focus in Jeet Kune Do is to be able to fluidly move and react in a fight situation without relying on traditional methods.
Contrary to the Judo Chop meme, Judo is primarily a grappling and throwing system that relies less on striking and more on tossing opponents around. It was originally developed as a less-lethal and easier to learn version of Jiu-Jitsu. While strikes exist in Judo, they are only part of kata and are disallowed in competition. So much for the vaunted Judo chop.
Fun fact: Vladimir Putin is a world-class Judo practitioner and has even delivered classes at the Kodokan.
Jiu Jitsu was developed by Samurai who realized punching or kicking an armored opponent would have little effect, but throwing worked quite nicely. No matter how much armor a person is wearing, a good throw can be devastating. It has since traveled the globe and morphed into many forms including Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu primarily focuses on throws and joint locks and relies less on strikes.
Fun fact: The women’s suffrage movement owes a lot to Jiu Jitsu; suffragettes used it to defend themselves against an aggressive police force. Also, Anthony Bourdain (the famous chef) is a practitioner and recently won his first match.
Another system that I’ve studied, albeit very briefly. Aikido was primarily developed in the 1920s and 1930s by Morihei Ueshiba. While Aikido makes extensive use of throws and joint locks like Judo and Jiu Jitsu, Aikido’s goal was to create a self-defense system that not only protected the practitioner, but also the assailant. It focuses less on grappling than either Judo or Jiu Jitsu and instead relies on quick throws and joint locks.
Fun fact: Aikido is the system Steven Segal practices.
Krav Maga (literally “contact combat”) is an Israeli system that was originally developed for the Israeli Defense Forces. It’s primarily a striking art, but is unique for the amount of time it spends teaching students how to deal with armed opponents. Krav Maga is a no-frills, all-out system of fighting.
Fun fact: the IDF still uses Krav Maga and is continually updating and refining the system.
Much like Wushu, Karate covers quite a lot of ground in various Japanese and Okinawan systems. It runs the gamut from hard style to soft style and everything in between. I’ve studied Okinawan karate in the distant past. Karate practitioners tend to rely on fists, but kicking is definitely not out of the question. Common Karate schools include Shotokan, Kojosho, and Kyokushin.
Fun fact: One of the great tests in Kyokushin Karate is the 100-man kumite where one person will fight 100 others.
Western Boxing is a hands-only fighting system common in America and Europe. While some martial systems look down on boxing for failing to use kicks, it’s an extremely effective fighting style. Sometime back in the 70s or 80s, Kenpo set up some show-off matches against boxers. The Kenpo fighters won the first set hands-down, but as the boxers learned how to deal with kicks the tables turned pretty quickly.
Fun fact: In its early history, boxing was a bare-knuckles affair. Bare knuckle fighting tends to get bloody, so to reduce the blood (and attract more women to matches) gloves were introduced to the sport.
The final entry on this list is a lesser-known system: Capoeira. Capoeira is South American system developed by slaves. At the time the slaves weren’t allowed to learn to fight or practice fighting, so they hid their movements in techniques that looked like dance.
Fun fact: Capoeira fights often contain music and are referred to as games
These are just a few of the hundreds of martial arts systems out there. They all have their own philosophies and ways of doing things. Just like any other process – driving a car, shooting a gun, hacking a computer – it behooves authors to read up on and learn about what kind of fighting their characters may be doing. It could be codified like Savate, or just a straight-up bar room brawl. If you have someone who’s supposedly an Aikido expert punching and kicking, it’s going to look strange. If you say Tae Kwon Do and Kenpo are basically the same, you’re gonna get some raised eyebrows.
Questions? Comments? Drop me a line! I’m always happy to talk martial arts.
I grew up watching Kung Fu Theater back in the day, marveling at the majestic feats of those fighters as they battled their way through all manner of evils. These tales weren’t the martial arts tales you see so often nowadays, they were fantasy – pure and simple. But they were so amazing. This was the golden age of wire work and acrobatics.
In a sense, all those movies were classic fantasy stories where the protagonists used their fists instead of swords and sorcery. They were porn where people fought instead of having sex. They were, in a word, incredible. The bad guys were the worst, the good guys were the best. The good guy always lost initially but through training and hard work was able to overcome the incredibly powerful bad guy.
The story lines may have been trite and rehashed over and over again, but the action and the cinematography were the stuff of legends. This where people like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Gordon Liu got their starts. And, well, to a lesser extent Chuck Norris.
The thing about all those movies, and the martial arts in general in the 1970s, is they really were fantasy. Sure, there are some people out there who can do some absolutely amazing things, but flying through the air simply isn’t one of them. Movies are movies. Arnold can’t get shot and walk away from it like nothing happened. Sylvester can’t avoid mortar rounds by simply running around them. And Lo Pan can’t shoot lightning bolts out of his fingers.
Well, maybe Lo Pan can do that; he was a sorcerer after all.
The world of the martial arts in the 70s and 80s embraced that fantasy some people honestly felt (some still do) that the more fantastic elements of the martial arts were real. Extended testing has not born out that theory. The actual, factual world of the martial arts is repetition and practice, not flying through the air or killing people with the vibrating hand of death.
So I grew up with all of these and the newer movies that came long in the 80s and 90s. I came to see the martial arts as a way to solve a problem and took away the idea that with enough training and dedication you could do anything. Now my joints are sore and my knees make lovely cracking noises, but I’m relatively confident I can handle most situations, even if I can’t do the acrobatics.
But those classic movies are still so much fun. Even if Jet Li, Donny Yen and Tony Jaa aren’t using the old wire work and sorcery of the classics, they’re still amazing to watch, but the fantastical elements of the classics are gone. And that’s kind of sad. Granted, recent movies like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and – even though it’s a comedy – Kung Fu Hustle have brought back some of the magic, but the heyday of movies like Master of the Flying Guillotine are long gone.
My homage to the martial arts classics of the 70s is Chan. He’s a character in a couple stories in The Clock Man (including the main story) and will likely be one of the primary characters in an upcoming Aluna novel. There are parts in The Protectors and The Clock Man that hint at Chan’s capabilities, but since those stories weren’t really about him, they’ll remain hints until he gets more developed.
In the interim, go watch some classics. Or even the new classics. Kung Fu Hustle is great place to start.