The first manual I ever encountered on this topic was a paperback book by a man named Bruce Tegner. He was a Frenchman and had developed a composite style which drew largely from judo and from savate. The latter is a style using the feet as the primary weapons. My book was chock-full of pictures and diagrams and I studied it diligently when I was a little boy in Louisiana.
Many years later, when I saw the movie Billy Jack it reminded me of this pedal pugnacity. The actor had been speed trained in aikido and his character preferred to fight barefooted. Probably because his character wore cowboy boots but the effect was electrifying at the time to the western audiences. There was a scene in the movie where Billy jack was surrounded by bad guys in a park. Among the opponents was a corrupt sheriff. Billy took off his Tony Lamas and slowly removed his white cotton socks.
One of the characters muttered to his mate,”Watch them feet. He can kill you with them feet.”
At the culmination of the fight, when only the sheriff and Billy remained in the fray, Billy stood nose to nose with the big man.
He said, “I tell you what I'm going to do, Sheriff. I'm going to kick you up-side your head right about here and you know what? There ain't nothing you can do about it.”
The sheriff snorted in disbelief just before sprawling onto his butt in the grass holding his cheek. For a year after the screening of the film, all the boys where I lived threatened each other by stooping down as if to remove their shoes. It became part of the male ritual supremacy dance.
When I was in my twenties, I lived in a rented house. The basement had an extra room I let out to a friend, while I and my sister lived upstairs. There was aloft apartment built on top of the house where the owner lived. He was a young, handsome Chinese physical fitness instructor. He bench pressed more than his own weight. We shared the laundry downstairs and another part of the basement he had set up for his personal training room. I'll call him Tom.
In there was a heavy bag, mirrored walls and judo mats on the concrete floor. The first time I heard him doing his katas and working the heavy bag, I felt the whole house shake and the sound of his ki-ais was blood curdling. I went down the stairs to see what the hell was going on. He was intensely focused on his routine and did not notice me. It was the first time I saw a heavy bag actually bend.
It turned out Tom was the holder of a seventh dan black belt in go-ju ryu style karate. When he wasn't home I tried the bag and injured my fists. I tried my feet and nearly broke a toe. I tried my head and scored off a patch of epidermis. After that I only went down to visit my friend in the extra room or to do laundry.
One day after I had washed my clothes I found the dryer was full with the Tom's clothes and so I folded them up just like I would have my own. Later that night there was a knock on my door. I was surprised to see Tom there and I invited him in. He asked if I had folded his clothes. I told him the truth.
He took on a very serious tone and shook my hand. He said that no Caucasian had ever done such a kindness to him and that it really meant a lot. He said his father had been treated like dirt in his early days in Canada and he himself had had a very rough time at the hands of the Caucasian populations present in the little mill town where he had been raised. He offered to teach myself, my friend and my little sister some karate. It would be a regular class just like the ones he was paid to teach.
I got a big grin and accepted immediately. We also took in three Ecuadorian brothers I had befriended into the classes. By class three and hundreds of three-fingered push-ups later, the class was down to my sister and myself. The Ecuadorians said it was too brutal, my Danish friend cited his hemorrhoids as prohibitive of him continuing. All that inhuman grunting and yelling, you know.
Sis and I held fast. I had a three week trip planned for hitch-hiking all the Japanese islands and when I took the trip, I conducted my routine everyday of the journey whether I slept indoors or out. I realized that one doesn't get an opportunity such as I had been given very often. I did draw some stares in Japan.
When I returned, the class never got going again due to everyone's schedules but bits of the teaching stuck to me and grew roots. My next opportunity to study the arts was also extended to me by Tom. He took me in his Corvette down to Chinatown and said we were going to sit in on a class of pa-kua style kung-fu being taught by a sifu recently arrived from Costa Rica.
The class was fascinating and we stayed after. The sifu was a pleasant middle-aged gentleman who was just under what I would call plump. He was no body builder. His last gig had been training the national police of Costa Rica. He asked Tom to do a few katas. I waited to see the teacher stand in awe of this hard/soft style.
The sifu smiled and told Tom to grab his arm and hold it fast. Tom's arm was easily bigger in girth than the sifu's legs. I was worried that the old fellow would be embarrassed or even hurt. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. Not only was Tom unable to maintain a grip, when the reverse was tried, the sifu was not to be dislodged from a young man three times his size. The veins stood out on my landlord's neck and it was evident he was getting angry.
He left and said I could stay there if I wanted to learn. He said he wasn't acting and that although he respected the different style of this man, it wasn't his cup of tea. I stayed. The sifu assured me what I had seen was real and that in time I would come to know it. I joined the class.
We did pa-kua twice a week and a friend of the sifu taught us some shing-i once a week. The two men thought that these two styles complemented each other as one was circular and practiced clockwise as well as anti-clockwise and the latter was linear. All the class agreed. It was in this school I met the first Texan I had encountered since moving to Canada. His name was also Mike.
One evening at shing-i Mike got caught taking notes on paper of the various moves. The shing-i sifu, the pa-kua sifu and two other men pulled him aside and there were heated words. Mike had to explain himself and give over the book with the notes. It wasn't allowed. There was some discussion amongst the sifus if he should be allowed to remain. They decided to let him stay.
I remember giving him my grandma's gumbo recipe the following week when we had time to chat about Texas after our class. After a month he quit coming to classes. I stayed on and one day I asked my sifu if I should hit the gym and pump up my biceps.
He took me outside to a young tree. He asked me to look at the trunk and to imagine the roots. I complied. He pulled a wispy branch back and let it slap into my face. It stung like hell. He said to try to knock it down. I saw the lesson. We returned to class. The only other time I spoke one on one with him was at a time I was growing very bored of walking in a circle with my arms upraised and doing little rooster kicks with my feet. This went on for an hour or more every practice. The months dragged on. Finally I had enough.
I motioned him over and said that I was willing to follow his teaching but that I had to see something martial in the art. I didn't want to become a Chinese folk dancer like my girlfriend I joked. Sifu went and got a sword he kept in the corner. He told me to do the hated procedure. As I commenced my rounds he pranced around and attacked my legs and head with the weapon, calling for me to change my direction of rotation at appropriate junctures. I nearly exclaimed, “Ah So!” A picture is worth many words.
The class kept changing locations and schedules and I grew increasingly bound up in a new romance. After some time I dropped the classes. Sifu was disappointed and held out an offer of authorizing me to teach after two more years. I had made up my mind though and we parted as friend's. Life went on and bits of this learning also took root.
Some time later, I was privileged to observe the best Chinese dance teacher in my town. My girlfriend who later became my second wife was a student. I was enthralled after seeing the folk dances and stayed on to watch each class with the permission of the teacher. After some months I began to bring books to read or paper to write on during the hours of the classes.
One day, the teacher had gotten a large oak desk and allowed me to use it while I waited. I wrote my first longer pieces at this desk. At one location that the dance classes were held, my girlfriend's teacher's husband was holding aikido classes and the woman asked me to look in on them. I was interested to see this obscure form of aikido called shin-shin toitsudo or aikido with ki.
After an amazing demonstration of seemingly impossible feats of wonder, I began to attend classes. Eventually we got an Iranian sensei and really went to town. This art utilized tumbling and taught us how to fall without injury and to come up fast like German soccer players used to do. We learned to concentrate our own ki and to harness and channel that of our opponents.
In effect, it was like dancing rather than fighting but you were leading and the opponent was always unwittingly following. There were four cardinal rules to be observed in this art and I can say they are still with me today although I quit those classes decades ago. The four rules apply to any endeavour one may undertake. They are pure physics as well as being spiritual if you ponder them to any depth.
From this miniscule sampling of martial arts, I began to put together a gumbo. I asked myself what they all had in common and what was different. I pondered their times and places of origin. I questioned their usefulness in the daily life of the average person. This process is long from finished but here is some of what I came up with.
All the legitimate old school martial arts are grounded in respect for life. That of oneself and of others. All of them require the student to be humble and to work toward self mastery – the most difficult fight in any person's life. All of them agree that all life forms will fight to protect their life, thus one must never underestimate an opponent nor judge their strength by outward appearances alone.
I discovered that most sifus and senseis had never been in “real” fights since boyhood or early teens as is the case with the vast majority of well adjusted humans. None of them promoted any real fighting outside of competition or training except as a last resort in order to protect oneself or another from real physical injury or death. All walked paths of peace.
As to their origins. In most of the world there were and are different classes of people. The ones on top usually have the choicest weapons of their day, while those on the bottom have none or only obsolete ones. Those on the bottom get maltreated and sometimes murdered. Ways were developed in which to fight back in a defensive manner against better armed opponents.
Farmers and labourers developed ways to utilize their tools as weapons and lacking these to fight back empty handed or using any object that lay within reach. The range of motion of the human limbs was studied carefully as was the range of possible strikes with all the known weapons at any given time. The blocking responses to these were categorized and named according to each system.
The human physiology was studied and the weak points shared by all men were mapped and taught. Necessity is the mother of invention and in my opinion in the times and places that the martial art schools developed there was much necessity. The gentry of any given time engage in swordplay against their peers in academies and on the battlefield while the peasants are practicing methods of empty handed combat.
While some schools of martial arts appear to be for show and sport only, this is not their genesis. They were born as self defense methods not as offensive tactics. As defensive measures they were not allowed the frills and baroque window dressings found in other military drill. The point of all of them was to render your attacker harmless in the minimum amount of time with the minimum amount of effort. Most methods had to assume a bigger, stronger and more well armed foe.
There is much science, physics and much I Ching in martial arts. I believe they developed organically side by side with civilization and bureaucratic city life. In a different more natural environment, I conjecture that men, as is the case with most mammals, would sort 98% of their differences by traditionally agreed upon ceremonial posturing and gesticulating. These dances would vary from place to place but the purpose and effect of them would be the same.
This is contingent upon one of the requirements of any life form, that is the need for adequate space. With the waves of psychopathic conquerors from Nimrod to Napoleon this has put unnatural pressure on groups of humans who ceased to act normal so long ago that we have forgotten what that normal was and have replaced it with something else.
In those instances when the dance did not suffice, whom do you think would win the day, Big Arm or Quick Mind? Remember, when you watch old movies of the Roman Empire, the body builders are chained to their oars and a guy that looks like Mr. Rogers is wearing the purple robes and calling the shots.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.