The effectiveness of traditional Chinese martial arts

The effectiveness of traditional Chinese martial arts has been questioned a lot, ever since it rose to prominence in the 1970’s when Bruce Lee splashed onto the big screen. We’ve come a long way since then and martial arts/self-defense today are not what they were back then. Many techniques and training methods that were the norm back then are nowadays discarded and considered ineffective. In a larger sense, this is true for many other martial arts and fighting systems as well.

Some teachers have taken it upon themselves to dig into those traditional arts and bring out their value in today’s environment. One of them is Iain Abernathy, who I met a while ago and is a great guy. He teaches a practical approach to Karate. On his website, there was a discussion about teaching traditional Chinese martial arts (in particular forms) in a practical way. You can read up about it here. Iain said some kind words about me (thanks Iain!) so I decided to write this blog post and share some thoughts.

As always, this is nothing but my personal opinion. It isn’t gospel, so feel free to discard it.


The current state of traditional Chinese martial arts

As mentioned in the forum discussion, karate gets a lot of bad press for not being effective in a “real fight” and one of the commenters claimed that this isn’t a big issue in Chinese arts. I beg to differ. There is loads and loads of crap out there (there is a lot of good too, but I’m going to focus on the bad in this article.) There are way too many people who really shouldn’t be teaching at all, because they both haven’t done the time to own their art and/or don’t understand it. That may be because their teachers didn’t understand it enough to pass it along correctly or perhaps information got lost along the way, I don’t know. Regardless, I’ve seen more practitioners doing ineffective traditional Chinese martial arts than effective ones.

This seems to be a particular problem in Western countries. You can often see schools teaching what they consider is a traditional style, but without the things that make it effective. Meaning, the things that were originally included in that style before it came to the West. An understanding of the purpose and methodology of practicing forms is a big part of that. Some of the explanations regarding forms and the practical applications they’re supposed to teach you see those teachers demonstrate are nothing more than best guesses or complete falsehoods to avoid exposing their lack of knowledge.

To be clear: maintaining the effectiveness of traditional Chinese martial arts is not just a problem in the West. It is now very hard to find good teachers of traditional styles in China. Young people don’t really feel like going through that kind of harsh training any more, so those teachers have trouble finding students. As a result, those arts are dying out.

All in all, given the number of practitioners out there, I’d say the percentage of them having the “real thing” is pretty low. This isn’t necessarily their fault, but it still leaves them coming up short.

effectiveness of traditional Chinese Martial arts - Shaolin

Me, in Shaolin in 1991

 What happened?

A lot of factors came together to create the current situation and I’ll only touch on some of them here below:

  • The art wasn’t taught correctly by accident. People learned parts of the traditional art, but not everything.  Pieces were missing and the system doesn’t function as it should anymore: a car can drive with a flat tire, but it doesn’t do so very well. The same goes for traditional Chinese martial arts. They lose effectiveness if you lose some of the components.
  • The art wasn’t taught correctly on purpose. I have seen this one many times and some teachers even admitted to it: A Chinese teacher takes on students but doesn’t teach them the right way or leaves parts out on purpose. Those students then end up teaching too (with or without permission of their teacher) and perpetuate the style, which is as of then a broken system. They don’t know that though, they think they have the goods.
  • People filled in the blanks. Some Western teachers realized their training was lacking and then went out in search of ways to fill up that hole. Sometimes that worked out well, other times not so much. The problem with filling in the gaps is that you don’t know how the new material will affect the original system. It might look like a good idea, but it may not be. You’ll only know that after a long, long time. You might even miss it completely.
  • Misunderstanding how traditional Chinese arts work. They gain their effectiveness from a combination of different factors. Training drills, partner work, forms, etc. are all a part of that. Each style has its own take on how these elements are taught, at which times, when to add complexity, etc. If you get this wrong, it tends to backfire.
  • The Cultural Revolution happened. Mao didn’t want the Chinese people ready to kick him out of power and made huge changes to the Chinese society in the 1960’s. One of them was banning traditional martial arts, so the teachers and practitioners were forced underground or fled the country. China is a pretty big place though and Mao didn’t succeed in rooting out all martial arts. But he sure didn’t help by transforming it into a national sport that emphasized physical training and health while taking out pretty much everything that made a martial art effective.
  • Cultural baggage. Chinese culture is very different from Western culture and a lot of it doesn’t really make sense to us. There are also concepts and traditions that simply don’t translate. Many Westerners (and Chinese) saw an opportunity to make good money with Chinese martial arts and created styles out of thin air. The really smart ones included a bunch of mysticism, esoteric nonsense or pseudo-Eastern philosophy to their creations and Western audiences ate it up, simply because they didn’t know any better. There were no other Chinese martial arts to compare it to, so how could they? At the same time, it’s easy for students to misunderstand what even a good teacher would tell them, simply because of language and cultural barriers. It’s no surprise that things get lost then.
  • Chinese propaganda and lies. The Chinese government officials aren’t stupid. Unlike our politicians, they plan decades ahead. When they noticed a rising interest in martial arts in the 1980’s (in part due to the movie “Shaolin” featuring a young Jet Li) they re-wrote history and basically started up the Shaolin temple again after it had pretty much been in ruins for ages. They pulled an elderly monk out of their hat, supposedly the last one, and wouldn’t you know? That monk still knew all the dozens of styles, weapons, drills, techniques, etc. you see taught at Shaolin today! How ’bout them apples! I visited Shaolin in 1991 and saw the hundreds of kids training outside, basically doing a version of Wushu they were told was traditional Shaolin style. We asked to see the “real” monks and our interpreter told us it would cost 45$ per person to get a 15-min demonstration. We declined. Fun fact: when my teacher was there in the early 1980’s, there were no monks at all. As in, zero.  Restoration of the temple had just begun…

The point about Shaolin is this: It’s bullshit, but everybody buys into it because it’s such a great myth to buy into. I sure did when I was younger. It’s simply a tourist trap where locals and Westerners spend their money thinking they are learning something authentic. Not happy with that, the government kicked it up another notch and started exporting Shaolin by sending the “monks” on tour all over the world. About 25 years ago, they came to Belgium and my teacher was asked to demo along with them on the tour dates in Belgium. I was a part of that demo team, attended a seminar the monks taught and demoed for them when we invited them to our school. They were impressive athletes alright, but that doesn’t change the fact that their curriculum is not as traditional as they claim. Now multiply those tours with many different teams that were sent out (for several years) and you have tons of people thinking they are learning traditional Chinese martial arts. They aren’t, but they think they are. It says so right there on that shiny piece of paper they got from that Chinese man who can do all those nifty moves…

effectiveness of traditional Chinese Martial arts - Shaolin monks

Me, far left, with the “Shaolin monks” right before doing a demo at the Belgium-China Association in Brussels in the early 1990’s.

For the record, the same has happened in the Wudang Mountains with Tai Chi Chuan. My teacher was there in the 1980’s and there was precious little martial arts to be found. Now, you see boatloads of “monks” and the government tore down ancient temples to make way for hotels and other accommodations. Lots of Westerners are now certain they are learning traditional Tai Chi Chuan by going there… From what I’ve heard, the same is now happening at Emei Mountain. So be on the look out for all those Buddhist monks from Emei with amazing “traditional” martial arts skills. Any day now…

When you combine all that, is it any wonder that the effectiveness of traditional Chinese martial arts is questioned?


What about the forms?

On Iain’s forum, the issue of forms was specifically raised. His thing is exploring the applications in Karate forms and showing how you can use these in today’s combative environment. Somebody asked if anybody is doing the same for Chinese styles and Iain pointed towards me. In part, this is accurate. I mostly trained in those arts and the practical applications are a key component of what I train and teach. The most work I already did on that front is my Combat Sanshou DVD series, which borrows a lot from traditional styles. I also teach a traditional Tai Chi Chuan style with a heavy emphasis on self-defense. For that style, things are a bit different though: there was never a need to patch the holes in the system as each movement in our forms has specific applications and they are well documented. So I just teach as I was taught: no holding back information.

That said, I know not everybody is in the same boat and there are people making an honest effort to revive the effectiveness of traditional Chinese martial arts by digging deeper into the meaning of their forms.  If that’s you, here are some thoughts that may or may not help you out. I am far from the ultimate authority on Chinese styles, so take everything with a grain of salt and feel free to conclude I’m wrong.


That said, here are some thoughts on Chinese forms:

  • Melodrama. The Chinese have a thing for melodrama and (in our Western view) “in your face” presentations. They tend to overstate things, to put it mildly. You see this often in two-man drills and demos, but also in many forms: things are seemingly much larger than they need to be. The Chinese have long had traveling shows and acts that featured martial arts and perhaps that’s where it comes from, but it’s easy to see, especially when compared to for instance Karate.
  • Aesthetics. Sometimes, techniques are altered in a form so they are prettier than when you do them as the application they actually are, which ties into the previous point about putting on a performance. The consequence is that you can’t always assume you should apply a technique against an attacker exactly as it is done in the form.
  • Hide the meaning. Sometimes, movements are changed on purpose to hide their meaning. They are deliberately altered so you don’t know what they are for unless a teacher explains it to you. Back in the day, when your life depended on how well you could fight, some teachers kept their cards close to their chest and rarely taught everything they knew or as in this case, they hid what they were doing.
  • The opposite way. Sometimes, you go forward in the form, but in the application you need to step backward to make it work. Sometimes the movement needs to be done in reverse from how you do it in the form.

Case in point, watch this video of a Tongbei Quan form:

It isn’t as flowery or dramatic as some other styles, but it is a far cry from the staccato, explosive movements you see in a typical karate form. As a result, many laypeople and practitioners of non-Chinese styles doubt the effectiveness of these forms. Understandably so. However, take a look at some of the applications for this style:

Yes, he’s doing it against a static partner. Yes it’s not a real fight, I know all that. That’s not the point. The point is that you really don’t want to get hit by him and that the style is a lot more vicious and effective than the forms suggests.

What you can also see is that he was trained in the traditional way and “owns” the style. His “Shen Fa” (body method or body mechanics) is excellent and manifests itself consistently in every move he does (which is one aspect of a style’s internal logic, see below.)

This is just one example, but there are many more.


Some more thoughts about Chinese forms:

  • Folklore and myths. Sometimes, the names of techniques in the form are less than helpful from a Western perspective. E.g.: there is a technique in the sabre form I teach called “Taking of the boots while drunk” which refers to a mythical Chinese hero called Li Bai. Sometimes the names are a pun, like “Cloud hands” or “Waving hands in clouds”, which has absolutely nothing to do with clouds. If you focus too much on the names without proper cultural/historical context, you can get lost in your search for answers.
  • Anachronistic techniques. There is a technique in the form I do called “Draw the bow to shoot the tiger”, which is typically shown as a defense against a double-hand attack. This technique used to be commonly used in the past and I actually learned it in the first Chinese style I practiced. However, nowadays, you rarely see it. In all the fights I have been in, have seen, saw videos of or heard of, it was never used. So in many ways, that attack is a relic of the past, especially for us here in the West. You can adapt it to work against other attacks, but that original one seems to be no longer relevant.
  • Options. Each movement in a form can have many meanings. It can be a striking technique, a throw or take down, a joint lock or a multiple attacker scenario. It can even be all of those at the same time. All these options are possible

These are some general thoughts about Chinese forms that may or may not apply to whatever style you practice. There are so many different styles and sub-styles, it’s impossible to say which is the case and that’s why I kept things general. The main point I want to stress is this:

You need a teacher to guide you.

I don’t believe it is possible to discover the original meaning of techniques out of thin air. Or worse, just pick things at random from other styles because they look similar to what you do in your form. I simply don’t believe this is an effective way of proceeding towards becoming skillful at any given art. Because you can actually break your style if you fiddle around with it too much by mixing and matching it with foreign components. Traditional styles tend to have an internal logic, one you often only see when you are at the end of your training and become a “finished” student. That’s why I don’t believe cross-training is necessarily a great idea for everybody. It all depends on where you are in the learning process.

In short, for me there is no question about the effectiveness of traditional Chinese martial arts and the forms they contain. But actually becoming effective with them can be more difficult than you might think.



Just read this report on the Shaolin abbot, Shi Yongxin in which he is quoted as saying:

“If China can import Disney resorts, why can’t other countries import the Shaolin Monastery?” he said in March. “Cultural promotion is a very dignified undertaking.”

I rest my case…


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  1. Is there a word TCMA that is the equivalent of bunkai?

    Or is it the same kanji / hanzi characters?

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