HEMA, Ringeck & Kung-fu

Chinese martial arts have not been taken very seriously by much of the rest of the martial arts world since at least the 90s.  The rise of UFC and MMA as well and the dominance of Brazilian Jiu Jutsu and Muay Thai in these, the primary competitive martial arts and martial sports of North America, and much of the rest of world as far as I can tell, made it difficult to take seriously the persistence of Chinese martial arts in their specialties.  Chinese martial arts took a turn toward personal fitness and internal cultivation in the 19th century and stopped being quite so “combative”.  The so-called “internal arts,” especially the internationally popular Tai Chi, make few if any attempts to be applicable to conventional martial situations.  The history of Chinese martial arts is quite a bit more complicated than most of their practitioners understand, and their history from before the modern period and early modern periods is of deadly, refined arts of war and self-defense which changed with their society as the centuries wore on.  Nevertheless, it is an undeniable fact that most Chinese martial arts are at the very least two or three steps away from their original purpose and intent.

It may then surprise my readers that I studied a branch of Gao style Baguazhang under Robert Jay Arnold of the Tian Wu Dao, and he approved me to instruct a sword style, what he called the “Stealth Tiger” Dao style, I prefer the “Crouching Tiger” or “Hunting Tiger” for its name, the idea in the original Chinese is that there is a tiger hunting prey stealthily and your opponent is the prey.  It is this terrifying idea that gives the style its name.  I did so long after I found my passion for historical European martial arts and Ringeck’s longsword specifically. I chose to learn their style partially because I had a dearth of training partners when I was going to school up at WSU, but also because I wanted to learn a sword art from a surviving martial art and it was available.  I was frank and open with my teacher about my reasons and intentions for training and he observed my practice as I trained in Ringeck’s style a couple of times.

I learned two very important things about the sword style I embarked on learning.  First, the context for the applications of the techniques I had been almost completely lost, and was not necessarily a formal part of the curriculum.  It was left to the initiative of the individual student and teacher to figure out how these movements could or should be applied in a real combat situation.  Fortunately, Robert felt eager to do so with me.  We spent many a frigid morning up at 4:00 am practicing our forms and isolating effective techniques within them.  After nearly two years of work he gave me my instructor’s certificate for the most basic such level before he left for Taiwan.  He and I still keep in touch over Facebook where he often posts videos of his training.

The second thing I learned about Chinese martial arts was that what has survived of their arts, and I maintain that they do not survive particularly intact, at least not from the late Ming era on, includes a number of useful techniques and principles, and that some of their lessons not only can be applied well in HEMA, but I believe that the evidence is quite strong that some of the knowledge they used was also known and utilized in Europe during contemporary periods.  I will show you three examples of interpretations I use where I was able to draw on this training to improve my results dramatically, the back weighted stances, actions that generate a great deal of power with a very small motion, and evasion tactics for effective Nachreissen.

The back weighted stance does not feature strongly in modern HEMA practice even though we see it frequently in the ancient manuals across a range of periods and styles.  Ringeck, Fiore, Talhoffer, Fabris, Mair, Giganti, Dobringer, and others show back weighted stances in their illustrations in their manuals, both in the onset preparatory to fighting and during the engagement.  The back weighted stance actually comes in two chief varieties, a defensive and an offensive variety.  A defensive back weighted stance sets you up to send your body away from your opponent and the threat they pose while the offensive variety coils your body so that you can unleash a powerful attack at your opponent, usually a thrust.  This stance features prominently in the Liechtenauer tradition in the depictions of the Ochs guard and in the Tear it Down technique where you hook you opponnent’s arm(s) with the pommel of your weapon and you execute a cut with the weight of your body so that you wrench their arms down and hit them in the head.  Fiore’s Queen’s Guard, Window Guard, Boar’s Tooth (in MS Ludwig XV 13 24v-d), and whenever any kicks are done.  Few modern martial arts styles make extensive use of the back weighted stance, but it provides both tremendous offensive options, and the capacity to leverage the weight of your body into your attacks, as well as giving you a stable platform on which to fight when done properly.

This brings us to our next point the capacity to generate lots of power with small motions.  This is a particular specialty of Chinese martial arts.  I have never seen power generating techniques so compact as what we find in the various forms of wushu and kung-fu.  People occasionally tell me how they marvel at Bruce Lee’s famous one-inch punch.  First, let me lay to rest the myth around the technique A) it does in fact generate a tremendous amount of power capable of knocking a man off his feet. B) It’s dramatic results depend on an opponent’s stance and achieving a strong position of advantage before execution, which you can set up perfectly during demonstrations. C) It is not done with the strength of the arms and hands alone.  The entire body must be marshaled and coordinated to do it properly.  You aren’t really punching with your hand, you’re punching with your legs, hips, shoulders, and core. D) The one-inch punch may not be a very viable combat technique, but it is an excellent test for mastery of body coordination and power generation capability, and yes, I can do it.  Now that we’re done with the hype compact power generation is incredibly useful in martial arts.  The smaller the motion the faster the execution of a technique, and if it is of sufficient power then it will be effective.  Learning how to generate power with more compact actions and body coordination will make your grappling, cuts, thrusts, and slices, far more effective.  This can turn some of the more obscure actions like the unusual throw in the Verkeher depicted in the Glasgow manuscript, and Tear it Down from inconveniences to devastating combat choices.  It makes kicking more viable, and slicing actions capable of stopping the blows that they are used against.  It’s all about lining your body up correctly and using it in perfect synchronization.

Third, Chinese martial arts prioritize and prize the capacity to strike the opponent without engaging with them.  This does rely on the opponent making a mistake with their range and requires the exponent to get a good read on them, but it was considered the highest kind of victory to defeat the opponent without taking hurt or even engaging their weapon.  Chinese martial arts have the widest variety of dodging and the greatest number of applications for the use of such techniques in all the martial arts I’ve studied.  Most of their techniques can be broken down into side-stepping, ducking, half-kneeling, slipping the lead leg, leaping, and quick retreat to a coiled back-weighted stance and lunge.  Incidentally, the most extreme range techniques I’ve ever seen came from Chinese martial arts combining single leg stances, long body extension with balancing actions of the opposite limbs, twisted body positions, and unique balancing positions.  These two tactics combined helped my Nachreissen become much more effective, not because I use many of the unusual and less stable positions, but because the training helped me see how and when to use more stable positions and with a lot more training how to execute the long range cuts and thrusts to the greatest effect.