New focus mitts from Piranha Gear.  I love them.

Defining Your Space

In addition to researching the martial arts, I also practice Wing Chun (Ip Man/Ip Ching lineage for those who are interested).  I recently started to teach a couple of people and things have been going well enough that I purchased a few pieces of training equipment to make it a bit easier.  Of course you don’t need much to teach Wing Chun.  A set of focus mitts, a kicking shield, a rice bag and some sensible shoes and you are good to go.

That’s one of the things I really like about the martial arts.  It is impossible to “buy” success.  So often in modern life we substitute dollars for efforts, but you just cannot do that here.  After all, how many pairs of sneakers can you actually wear at the same time?  If you are a careful shopper you can find everything you need to teach a bunch of people for under $100.  If you want to do things on a much larger scale you should still be able to outfit a 4000 square foot gym with everything you need for every class you could teach (including the wooden dummy and weapons) for 3-4 grand.  What other major sport can you say that about?  I heard a story on NPR recently about how middle class kids were getting priced out of team sports like baseball or hockey because it was becoming too expensive for their parents to keep up with.  I can totally believe that.

Of course my academic side makes it impossible for me to just buy my new focus mitts and enjoy them.  I have to analyze things, and the process of purchasing them got me thinking.  We don’t use many pieces of training equipment in the average martial arts class on a day to day basis, but most of the things that we do use seem to be made out of high density foam.  High density foam didn’t exist in China traditionally, or even in the early 20th century.

So if you walked into a traditional kwoon (training hall) in Foshan, Guangzhou of Hong Kong, what would you have seen?  How did people train?  Is it possible that the training equipment that we have determines how we practice and experience the martial arts?  Is my experience of Wing Chun (or any art) vastly different from what it would have been in the past simply because I have this nifty kicking shield? I get to spend a lot of time hitting people I like at just about full force, but that probably wasn’t the case in the 1880s.

I think the first thing that one would notice walking into most 19th century training spaces, in either Japan or China, was how empty these rooms were.  Rice straw mats were certainly available, but for the most part people in southern China trained on either wood or stone floors.  In Guangdong, where space was at a premium, classes would often be held in an alley or a temple court yard.  Again, these were open spaces with stone or dirt “floors.”

Yang Style Taiji Students In Shanghai, 2005.

Today public parks seem to fill the same role that temple courtyards once did.  Adam D. Frank is particularly sensitive to the question of physical space and how it shapes both bodily practice and all of the social interactions that surround the martial arts.  He provides wonderful accounts of Taiji training in public parks, private schools and semi-private streets and alleys in this monograph, Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man. (Palgrave 2006).  Obviously if you are working out in a public space the sort of training equipment you can use is limited to what you can carry.  Training here seems to focus on exercises like forms practice and controlled sparing, either “sticky hands” for something like Wing Chun or “pushing hands” in Taiji.  In fact, for martial arts like Taiji a public park might be an ideal training environment.

But lets assume that our 19th century martial artists were a little bit better off and could afford a permanent indoor space.  What would we have seen then?  It seems that many, perhaps most, spaces had a place to burn incense and honor the creators of the art at the front of the hall.  It is important to recognize that there is nothing uniquely religious, mystical or martial about this.  Similar shrines would have been seen in homes, guildhalls, workshops and places of business across China, Korea and Japan.  These were cultural markers as much as anything else.

The most obvious sign that one was in a martial space would have been the racks of weapons on the walls.  Most of China’s martial arts employ weapons, and they have an important place in traditional training.  The practical advantages of fighting with a weapon (compared to being unarmed) are too obvious to warrant discussion.  But because they have weight and heft, weapon training routines could also be used as means of building both physical strength and cardiovascular endurance.  This was certainly clear to the warlord Feng Yuxiang when he said in 1927:

“I don’t oppose playing ball in the least, but I do oppose this feverish consumption of foreigners’ goods.  This is exercise, but it is the exercise of the gents and ladies of the leisured classes.  If you want to exercise your body, is a blade not enough? Is a sword routine not enough? Are wrestling or boxing not enough?  Of China’s eighteen types of martial arts, not one is incapable of drenching our entire bodies is sweat, stimulating all the body’s blood, tendons, and bones.”   (see Andrew D. Morris. Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China. Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2004. pp. 195-196.)

This quote brings us back to General Qi Jiguang’s (1528-1588) initial insight into the value of hand combat training.  He believed that it should be the basis of all military training but not because anyone was really going to “box” with the enemy.  And let’s face it.  If the enemy gets close enough to your infantry to actually use swords then the battle has gone badly on a deep strategic level.  Rather, the value of martial arts training was that it would make the weak “strong,” both physically and psychologically.  As someone who spent a lot of time training troops in a boot-camp like setting, this notion appealed to Qi Jiguang.  From his time onward this basic idea has been part of the Chinese martial arts, and weapons training has been part of that process.

Legacy of the Long Pole

Pole fighting plays a role in the novel “Water Margins,” a foundation text of modern Chinese martial culture.

The most common weapons (and training tools) seen in a 19th century Chinese martial arts schools would have been different length poles.  These hard but flexible poles might be tapered on one or two ends and could range in length from 1.3-3.5 meters.  Two and three meter poles were probably the most common.  While poles were usually made of wood, metal examples were also occasionally seen.  Prior to Qi Jiguang’s time the standard assumption throughout China (and Japan as well) was that the long three meter pole was the basic weapon that all new soldiers and many martial artists would be taught first.

Cheung Lai Chuen, the founder of Pak Mei (White Eyebrow), passing on the southern long pole fighting tradition.

Long-pole instruction became the basic training regime for three reasons.  First, it was similar in size and feel to the spears, pikes and halberds that were quickly dominating the battlefield in not just China, but Europe and Japan as well.  After learning to fight with the pole it was relatively easy to teach students to fight with other “pole arms.” And while one would be a fool to consider a 3 meter long pole moving at speed a “safe” weapon, it was still probably less dangerous than a three meter long pole with a blade on the end of it.  Best of all poles were cheap and easy to make, allowing generals to direct more of their resources to the front, and not to training areas.

A nine foot wooden pole is also heavy.  And it gets a lot heavier if you try and hold it just from one end.  During drill this weight can be an advantage.  There are entire routines of strength training exercises that can be performed using just the pole.  These exercises gave the soldier the physical strength in their legs, core and arms that they needed on the battlefield.  Giving every soldier a pole was the sort of like assigning each one of them to a Bowflex.  Best of all, they could do all of this physical training while increasing their familiarity and dexterity with their most basic weapon.

In short, the humble long pole is the most ingenious pieces of martial arts training equipment ever devised.  I can’t speak for all areas of China but I know that poles dominated the martial imaginations of individuals who lived in Guangdong.  Local lore and newspaper articles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are full of accounts of pole competitions, tournaments and challenge fights.   In fact, prior to the 1911 revolution the pole and pole fighting even became something of a Han ethnic marker.

There are many ways to classify the Chinese martial arts, but the one favored by the ruling Manchu elite was to sort these various pursuits into “Boxing and Pole” (Quanbang) favored by Han civilians (and of limited military value to the state), and the Manchu arts, which focused on horsemanship and archery (of much greater value to the state).  This ethnic distinction actually got written into the 19th century vocabulary of the martial arts.  In that way the pole was tied to a whole complex of symbols associated with Han ethnic resistance and possibly even nascent revolutionary stirrings.

It’s a shame that long poles (sometimes referred to as “dragon poles” in English) seem to be slipping into obscurity in the current era.  Obviously it is difficult to put a 3 meter pole in the back of your car.  Nor can one easily imagine moving them via public transportation.

Pole fighting seems to be the antithesis of the “real world practical defense” ideology that dominates much of the marketing for the traditional martial arts.  Still, the strength, speed, subtlety and understanding of geometry that come from working the pole are priceless.  It deserves so much more respect than it usually receives in modern martial circles.  I think this move away from the pole towards “scientific” strength training and an exclusive emphasis on boxing is one of the places where a change in our training equipment has led to a diminished experience of the martial arts, and an increasingly warped view of their past.

Striking Targets-Beans, Rice and Pots

The other sort of training equipment one would likely see in a 19th century gym would be striking targets.  These were hit to either practice delivering power or to build up a student’s conditioning.  The most commonly used indoor striking target in the traditional southern Chinese kwoon would have to be the rice bag.  This was simply a sack of rice or beans that a practitioner would punch or strike.  Large bags could be suspended from the ceiling and might be used like a smaller version of a western heavy bag.  Chu Shong Tin (an early Wing Chun student of Ip Man) is known to have used one of these in his school in Hong Kong.  Smaller bags could be either hung on a wall (to simulate a straight punch) or they could be placed on a small table (about two feet tall) and used for downward strikes or iron palm training.

Master Ho Ngau and a slightly exotic rice bag striking dummy. Choy Li Fut seems to have favored some of the more complicated training devices seen in southern China.

In the current era the rice bag is an iconic piece to traditional training equipment.  Of course by their very nature these are fragile artifacts and it is not really clear how far back we can date their use.  I suspect (and I state up front that I have no solid evidence to back this up) that their popularity might be more recent than we think.  In Asia rice was not always sold or shipped in bags.  It was often shipped in baskets or bales.  Why? You have got to be able to cheaply mass produce tough, tight woven, cloth before you have a lot of extra bags just laying around to put rice in.  And you need a bunch of extra rice bags before it is going to start to seem like a good idea to use them as training equipment.  After all, these things wear out.  Sometimes pretty quickly depending on what they are made out of and how much use they get.

I suspect that the current rice-bag usage patterns probably date back to the increased industrialization and trade of the 1860s and 1870s.  Prior to that bags could have been made of leather, silk, or (most likely) homespun cotton.  While bags were certainly available they would have been more expensive and more fragile, and probably not as disposable.

Prior to bags, rice and beans were stored in barrels, pots, earthenware jars and baskets.  Interestingly enough we also see all of these items being used as traditional training equipment.  A pot or barrel of either dried grains or rainwater could also be used as a striking surface for downward blows.  In fact, they are still used this way today in traditional iron palm training.

Iron palm training using a bean pot or barrel.

Lifting stones was a traditional strength training exercise that martial artists employed and it was also part of the state military service exam.  It has the added virtue that stones are available everywhere and are almost always free for the taking.  The fingers could also be strengthened and conditioned by lifting heavy earthenware jars by their lips.  Carrying heavy jars by just the finger tips is a strength training technique used by martial artists throughout southern China and as far east as Okinawa, where it is still seen in some traditional karate dojos today.

My tradition does not use this particular training method…and that makes me happy.

And then of course there are seasonal and regional products that can be used as a training aid.  For instance, cotton was an important trade good in parts of China.  If packed densely it could be used as padding for striking surfaces (allowing greater penetration than a rice bag).  Unfortunately this would not have been available everywhere.  Where it was not available rolled rice straw mats could also be used as a striking surface.

Of course hand woven rice mats were either more expensive to buy or time consuming to make than modern mass produced foam padding.  It seems at least possible the lack of ready-made padded material might be at least partially responsible for the absence of full force, full contact sparing observed in so many traditional Chinese martial art schools.  Or put slightly differently, it is unlikely that any of us would have thought smacking things as hard as we possibly could was a good idea prior to the advent of modern training aids.

Weapons (particularly the pole), rice bags and various containers and weights drawn from the local agricultural routine were probably the most common sorts of equipment that one might have seen in a 19th century kwoon.  Of course sometimes more elaborate aids were created, such as the various types of wooden dummies seen throughout southern China.  I will be addressing these in a separate post.  But I am genuinely curious to hear what other pieces of traditional training equipment people might have encountered?  Alternatively, has a new piece of gear ever changed your training regime?