What got you into swords and sword fighting in the first place? And how did you become “Samantha Swords?”
I’ve always loved European swords, from a really young age. I wasn’t interested in other culture’s weapons, or satisfied with what I saw in movies or the reenactment world. When I discovered in 2006 that there was a rich martial tradition around medieval swordsmanship, I felt it was confirmation of something I had always known deep down, and I could focus my passion into research and training.
In 2012, I had a big break after we wrapped on ‘The Hobbit’ and I decided to prioritise my work as an artist. I started new social media accounts for sharing my illustration and my activities, and used the nickname I’d sometimes been called when people were saving my number in their phones- it was how some of my friends thought of me. So when I started to get noticed the next year, everyone used the name I had on my accounts. It stuck! I’ve always been clear that it’s a nom-de-plume, but it’s easy to remember, and a great description of what I do.
What was it like and what was your role in the famous Weta Workshop?
It was wonderful working with the team at Weta. The workshop gathers such amazing, world-class artisans, and the level of skill and creative potential under one roof is phenomenal. It’s full of contrasts though, because you have the boundless creativity of the people and resources, but it’s all constrained by the limitations of a practical film production. No project is ever the same, and the team have to adapt constantly to new challenges. It’s not exactly restful! I think that’s what makes it so truly great, though, is being able to thrive under that constant pressure.
My role was ever-changing. Weta have dozens of fabrication departments and when I first got started, I didn’t have a particular specialised background. So I went wherever there was need for a technician. Over the years I got to work with props, costumes, armour, prosthetics, metal, wood-work, the leather room, sculpting and 3D modelling, the miniatures department, painting, molding… I can’t quickly name all the jobs I did, but I had exposure to most of the areas of Weta. Learning under all those top artists in their fields was an extraordinary experience.
Also, being in an environment of shared excellence teaches you that once you hand over what you make to someone else, it’s no longer yours. That’s a really important lesson to learn as an artist, to value the skill over the object, and to not take what happens to your work personally.
From the looks of your social media, you engage yourself in many different martial art experiences. Some people fear “jack of all trades, master of none.” What’s your opinion?
Well, I’m definitely a Jack! I think there’s no problem with increasing your knowledge and skills in all areas as long as you know what is most important and can commit to doing it professionally when that skill is needed. As a freelancer working in a competitive, highly-creative and also punishing industry, being able to adapt and upskill fast is vital in order to thrive. That behaviour might be damaging in a more stable career, and I can see how the idea of being a Jack could be threatening to many people. It’s uncertain and risky, and requires a lot of energy to be able to constantly adjust to new challenges. Ultimately, if you are a Jack, I think it’s important to be able to know yourself and to be aware of whether the kind of growth you’re doing is about avoidance of a difficult challenge, or exploration of an exciting new area that could bring knowledge and perspective to what you do.
In 2013, you entered and won the Longsword division in the Harcourt Park Jousting Tournament. What was that tournament like? And was that different from any of the other events you’ve done in the past?
The tournament was part of a much larger, established sports event which centred around jousting, and brought competitors from maybe ten different countries. In previous years the longsword and other ground martial arts had drawn a large pool of fighters, but for several different reasons it was much smaller in 2013. I wasn’t thinking about winning at all, just wanted an opportunity to test my training and so I was very relaxed about the whole thing. It was very different from my other competitions, which had felt much more stressful, and each time I’d really cared about the results. My tension always worked against me, of course, so not fretting about the event was the best thing I could do.
The judges running the 2013 event were testing a new rule set as well. It favoured defensive fighting to avoid the constant mutual strikes that plague many weapons-based tournaments. In my year, we all started with hit points and had to defend them, rather than the usual method of claiming points from an uncooperative opponant. It emphasised caution, self-defense and was completely suited to how I had been training.
The story of me winning that event has really got a life of its own. Even though I’m proud of how I fought that day, it’s been extremely odd to have so many people focus on only that, especially when there is so much more going on in my life and in the HEMA community.
Since that winning the longsword tournament, have you ever considered continuing and competing in HEMA competitions? If not, how come?
I’m not huge into competition at the moment. When I was actively competing, I was much younger as a martial artist and all I wanted to do was fight! That was fun for a few years, but once I understood how hard it is to actually judge competitions, my interest shifted into learning good self-defense rather than being good in the ring. They’re quite different ways of fighting and training. Much of the dominant HEMA scene is centred around large, impressive competitions, which is terrific for expanding the community! It’s so exciting to see how large we have grown in such a short time. I feel bad that I’m not interested in going to them right now, but even before I’d gotten well-known, I’d decided to take a break and focus on other areas of improvement. Currently I really enjoy smaller events where people can share their training and spar informally, and test things out. There’s so much I want to learn.
What style/method of longsword do you study (or have you studied)? What made you gravitate to this style and/or stick with this style?
I love Fiore Dei Liberi’s tradition, and the Getty Manuscript. The wealth of anatomical information that ‘The Flower of Battle’s artist included is extraordinary, and I feel it’s still largely untapped. Also, it shows an efficient and practical system that’s more about the fighter than the weapon they’re using. That approach really appeals to me now. That’s such a turnaround from when I was young, where all I wanted was to learn about the sword. Now, I want to understand everything around the sword as well.
Being in the film industry as well, what parts have you played and what part was your favorite so far?
In the film industry, for every movie that gets made, there are at least five that don’t. Most of my favourite acting parts have been for productions that have fallen over. And, because of the high level of confidentiality, you can never talk about them or take photos or anything. Not including theatre, all my favourite roles have been for films that were put on the shelf. Sorry! All I can say is that they have been action-adventure characters who have a bit of depth to them, and I loved that.
How do you juggle your life – with acting, sword-making, writing, traveling and instructing?
Juggle is a good description! Some times of my year are busier than others, and I have to work very hard to stay on top of different commitments. I put a lot of hours into everything, and cut out the things I think are a waste of my time so I can focus more on what’s important. Sometimes I don’t mean to cut things out, but they just drop off the side anyway. For the most part, my work is project-based so I have a clear start and end, and can fit my different activities around that in block periods. Having seasonal interruptions does get frustrating when I want to build on something over a long period, though. And it makes it really hard to train. I have to be flexible about how and where I practice, and be disciplined enough to keep it up when I’m away from traditional training places. It’s not easy, but I love that I get to do so many things.
For anyone wanting to get into historical fencing for the first time, what would be your advice?
Find someone or something to get you started, and make time in your week to practice. Having a clear inspiration is important, as well as a space you can go to learn. You don’t need a club, but it does help. Most swordsmanship clubs are warm and welcoming, but if you feel like it’s not a good fit it’s okay to look elsewhere. If you’re nowhere near a club, you’re in good HEMA company: so many groups begin really modestly, with a few people figuring out how to fence together in the middle of nowhere. As long as you have clear safety practices, there’s no reason you can’t set something up yourself. There is so much support online- the HEMA Alliance will guide you to good resources.
Get the best tools and equipment you can, within reason. You can always sell it if you find you don’t want to commit to swordsmanship long-term. Having good tools will help your education more than anything other than a good teacher. If it’s your first time using weapons, practice control and coordination before applying speed and power. Accuracy is much more subtle in sword arts, and an inch of contact with a sword is much more lethal than the same with a kick or a punch! As much as you can, always reevaluate and test what you’re learning. HEMA grows from individuals taking on research and challenging what they find. That’s part of the excitement, too- we all have a chance to contribute to genuine exploration of something nearly lost in the past.
Apart from your profession, what else does Samantha like to do in her free time?
Anyone following my Instagram knows that I have a great love of animals, as well as getting out and about. When I’m at home I’ll read or draw or play video games or watch Netflix, often covered with several of my rats. They’re really loving and intelligent and bring me a lot of joy. I like fixing things, or making new things from broken ones. I also adore going hiking or snowboarding, and when I can I go into the mountains for a week. My responsibilities make that hard at the moment, though.
What is your favorite fictional character and why?
My favourite character of literature is Lisbeth Salander, from the Millennium trilogy. She’s extremely strong, fierce, wildly intelligent, free of doing what people expect of her, and wants to be left alone. She’s an androgenous anti-hero and I never get tired of reading those books, even though they cover very difficult subject matter. I don’t feel as attached to the movies, although I like the casting choices in both the Swedish and American versions. My next favourite character is Hobbes, of Calvin and Hobbes. I feel I don’t need to explain him, though.
We’d like to thank Samantha for providing answers to these questions and if you have any additional questions, please comment below and perhaps we can have her answer them in the near future. If you want to learn more about her, you can find her on Facebook and Tumbler.
How did you come to find I-Liq Chuan and why did you choose ILC over other martial arts?
It was in the beginning of 2004 when I met my teacher Alex Skalozub. I believe I am a lucky person because of the opportunities I have had in my life. I visited the KANON gym in Moscow with my friend and Sifu Alex was there training some students. The process caught my eye. So I started to come very often, talked with Sifu Alex, watching his way of teaching, his approach to students, his point of view of daily life. I felt that this interesting person can improve me, and bring me to a very high level in martial art and esoteric philosophy. After few months I decided to become his disciple and I was accepted as his student. He is a very intelligent teacher and always gives new students the chance to start properly. I was very happy with being accepted as a disciple of Iliqchuan style.
In the martial world, master Alexander Skalozub is my Sifu. His teacher, grandmaster Sam Chin (Chin Fan Siong) – is my Sigong. I met my Sigong after my first week of Iliqchuan training. He comes to Russia twice a year. I met him at the May workshop that he led. I was a pretty new student with only one week experience, so I asked if I could help out during the workshop. I recorded everything he showed, 8-10 hours each day. So I saw all the information and demonstrations through the small “eye” of the videocamera. I remember my feeling very clearly: I could not understand even one word of the grandmaster! But… after 5 months when he came back to Moscow in November I was already European Taichi Push Hands Champion. That was my first step on the way of competition life. And in November I could already asked questions about Iliqchuan and was able to listen and understand some things.
Iliqchuan has a very interesting approach to mind and body work. Everything is through recognizing and seeing the natural and looking deeply into the fundamentals of the processes. From the first lessons I learned how to direct my attention, how to unify myself, and to use myself, like a tool, for any task. My first wish was to be able to fight. But I “learned how to learn” first. Then I was able to fight. Then I was able to talk and listen to people and the environment. Then I was able to work better. When you can control your mind, you can control your body. When you practice martial arts as a way of investigation of your abilities and seeing Nature, then you can apply it to every moment of your life. Iliqchuan is called a Human art. This is way of life for me. No aggressive. Powerful. Soft. Relaxed. Very precise.
You have been in several competitive fights (against Sanda and Muay Thai fighters). Do you see a difference between a traditional MA training approach and training for competition? If so, how did you bridge the two training approaches?
In the olden days traditional martial artists very often tested their skills on the street but now, fortunately, the situation is different. You cannot just go to the street and fight with people – this is illegal in most countries. Instead you can go to competitions and meet strong opponents who want to kick your ass 🙂 So you can test your skills a little.
To be able to fight under different competitions you need to know yourself very well and have the right mental approach to the training process. Also you need to choose the competition with rules that are compatible with your training process and allow you to manifest the skills of your style. It depends. If you have a choice, it is better to have experience fighting in competition. It doesn’t matter what kind of competition. Full contact fight or wrestling or doing the form of your style. For me (and for Iliqchuan students) going to compete is a part of the training of our mind. We go to see how our mind works in different stages of this process: when you make the decision to fight, then may be how your concentration changes during competition training, what kind of bull shit inside yourself will pop up before you go into the ring to fight, then during fighting, then what is in your mind if you won or what is in your mind if you lost – and what is in your mind during “post-fight party”. So for me, competitions create the conditions for me to see my own mind better.
For me, the approach of training will be the same as for traditional martial artist but with adjustments for different rules. More wrestling or more sparring under competition rules, increasing stamina a little because I may need to fight a few rounds. And more meditation…
After having studied ILC long enough to establish yourself as a respected instructor, what advice would she give to your younger self?
Thank you for this question. Thinking about this, I don’t have any advice for this girl. She has taken action in her life and I am just grateful to her for this.
What is it like training under her teachers Alex Skalozub and Sam F.S. Chin?
Any interesting/fun anecdotes that offer a glimpse into the training experience under these sifus?
Actually I wrote a lot of interesting short stories during my first few years of learning Iliqchuan under my Sifu Alex Skalozub. They are on our web-sites and had more than 1 million viewers 🙂 . May be I need to publish a small book of funny stories from this period of my life.
Ok…I call myself “Lucky Jar.” I eat from two plates. I drink from two sources. My jar has no bottom. When my Sigong or my Sifu teach or talk to me – my two eyes watch, my two ears listen. Becoming a reciever- that’s my job. To be “hungry-for-everything” – that’s my state of mind. To be “changeable-for-everything” – that’s the state of my body. To be “clear-of-no-doubts” – that’s the state of my heart. I try my best with these things. I am a stupid student mostly, but good enough for something :).
“First Zen” – story with my Sigong Sam Chin:
The first time I met grandmaster I asked him:
How many hours a day do you training?
I was very interested to hear his answer and concentrated hard.
I do not train. At all! – Grandmaster Sam Chin looked very serious. He make a long pause. My mind raced. I didn’t know how to respond to him so I just stayed still and silent like a stone.
Immediately grandmaster slapped me hard on the back and laughed loudly.
I train 25 hours a day. Every minute. – He says very quietly to my ear.
Later he taught me how to do it using my mind control with the breathing.
“Beyond The Words” – story with my Sifu Alex Skalozub:
Would you like a cup of tea, Sifu?
Yes, please. Use my small cup.
I walked to the kitchen and remembered that we had a coffee and milk too and decided to return and give my teacher the choice. I turned back to the room and before I open my mouth to say something:
Excuse me, we…
Yes, please, coffee with milk.
Later he taught me how to receive information through other forms of contact than verbal expression.
I-Liq Chuan is called the “Martial Art of Awareness.” How does one train awareness in the context of martial arts?
Awareness is the key to all doors. Seeing cleary. No reflexes or weakness which your opponent could use against you. No surprise from your opponent. All your movements will be born from direct knowing from the Present. In Iliqchuan we use 15 special basic exercises to recognize the 5 qualities of the Body Movement to Unify our Body and Mind. We use Iliqchuan Spinning and Sticky Hands to unify with our opponent and be able to apply Chinna and Sanda. All training should follow the right philosophy, concepts and principles. We have 6 physical points and 3 mental factors which we must maintain in all our practice, to achieve the “One Suchness Feel.”
Some people say that it looks like Tai Chi. What similarities do they share and what makes them different?
We should not confuse the art of Taijiquan with the principles of Taiji. Taijiquan and Iliqchuan are both based on the principles of Taiji. Both style use principles of “no-resisting and no backing off”, Yin and Yang. Both styles involve practicing relaxation, harmony and balance, using Chi energy flow and are very good for health.
I am not going to talk about other styles, I will just list a few examples from Iliqchuan then you can easily compare:
Absorb/Project, Condense/Expend, Concave/Convex, Open/Close, 3 Dimensions as a mechanism of body movement.
no reflex, no techniques
no “Push Hands” (but we can participate in “Taiji Push Hands” competition, in Sanda or Muay Thai rules, and so on)
Approach: Zhongxindao – the way of neutral.
What makes I Liq Chuan’s version of push hands different from Tai Chi’s version?
We do not have push hands in Iliqchuan. The Iliqchuan system consists of 3 parts. The first part is philosophy, principles and concepts with meditation of awareness. The second part is unifying mental and physical. That is the 15 basic exercises, the Iliqchuan 21 Form and the Iliqchuan Butterfly Form. The Third part is Unifying with the Opponent and Environment. That is Spinning hands, Sticky Hands, Chinna and Sanda.
Do you practice any weapons forms and if so, what’s your favorite and why?
I don’t do much with weapons forms. Instead, I prefer to take a stick or something and do some sparring exercises.
What do you enjoy doing outside of the martial arts?
There is no “inside” or “outside” of the martial arts – Iliqchuan Zhongxindao for me. Iliqchuan Zhongxindao is my way of life and shows me how to enjoy the life.
What is your future goals in martial arts? (for example: will you be building an Academy in Russia)
I am going to conquer the world!!!
My inner world of course. 🙂
We already did a lot to build the Iliqchuan school in Russia and Russian-speaking countries. Of course we will keep going and I will do my best as a disciple of my teachers to help to promote Iliqchuan all over the world.
Every year we do a lot of international events open to everybody, for example the International Iliqchuan Summer Camp in Russia. For 2 weeks, around 9 hours a day, anyone who wants to study martial arts in depth can come and train under master Alex Skalozub and me – together with iliqchuan students from around the world. And we run this every year.
I am very open to try new projects which will help us to share our skills with others, and show the beauty and uniqueness of Iliqchuan Zhongxindao. I have a lot of ideas in mind.
Bonus Quesion: As a student that enjoys the art of combat, and who has personal experience in the ring and competition, who is your favorite fighter/athlete and why?
I like a fighters/athlete with both martial art skills and martial morality. For me this is important. If somebody has a skill but only behaves well “for show”, I don’t admire them. If somebody has a less skill but high level of martial morality, I will respect them much more. And I really love meeting people with a good balance of body and mind. And not necessarily in the martial world. The term “Kungfu Master” is applicable to any kind of skills. 🙂
But ok…when it comes to well-known sports fighters/athletes I like: Fedor Emelyanenko (spirit, calmness), Roy Jones (relaxation, free mind), Buakaw Por Pramuk (timing and spacing), Miesha Tate (persistance) and others.
Thank you for the questions, thank you for listening,and my best wishes to everyone!
Daria (Dasha) Sergeeva
Thanks for Eric Ling for editing
CombativeCorner contributing author Master William Kwok was interviewed over the holidays (Dec.11th & 18th, of 2016) on Radio Free Asia (a sister radio station to Voice of America). Since the interview was in Cantonese, Sifu Kwok enlisted the help of his student, Ji Chen so that we may benefit as well. The topic of the interview is on martial virtue and martial arts education.
[Presenter] But your footwork differs from the kicks of kickboxing or Muay Thai, doesn’t it? It’s a different type of kicking techniques, isn’t it? I have never seen it, or perhaps I haven’t noticed it. Of course I don’t know the first thing about martial arts, especially Wing Chun, so I’m not in a position to pass any comment. Judging by what I have seen, I haven’t noticed Wing Chun’s kicking techniques, at least it’s not like how a boxer moves even if you do have kicks. Am I right?
[Master Kwok] Obviously our kicking techniques are different from that of boxing. If you have been following the movie franchise of Ip Man, you may have noticed a lot of Wing Chun kicking techniques in Ip Man 3.
[Presenter] You mean there’s authentic Wing Chun kicking techniques, the real stuff, in that movie?
[Master Kwok] Yes indeed. Both Donnie Yen and Zhang Jin are good with their legs. That’s why they were able to put on display some good footwork and kicks in the movie. The Wing Chun kicking techniques, unlike the aggressive, offensive type you see with the likes of Muay Thai, involves a lot of clever, even cunning moves.
[Presenter] You said there’s a fixed set of techniques, but the Wing Chun system… how shall I put it… you know I am an outsider when it comes to Wing Chun, so you have to excuse me if I use the wrong terminology. I want to know how things come together, how the whole system works. When the student progresses from one level to the next, does he learn a few more techniques? Is it like when you teach the multiplication table, you ask the students to learn more and practice more, going from three times three to nine times nine, for example?
[Master Kwok] Earlier I was talking about combinations, like combinations of letters in the alphabet. At the end of the first form, you may not have mastered, as it were, all the 26 letters in the alphabet. You’ve covered part of it. But by mastering a partial alphabet, you can spell some of the words in the English vocabulary, can’t you? You then move on to the second form, Chum Kiu. When you’ve done that, you have more letters in your bag, which you can mix and match into more interesting combinations. When you’ve completed the third form, Biu Tze, you can say you’ve learned all the 26 letters in the English alphabet. After you have mastered all three forms, you must go on to learn change, that is, combinations to form different words and phrases. That takes accumulation through repeated practice over time. Another analogy we can draw between Wing Chun practice and English learning is that you can’t complete the learning process in one giant leap. It’s an incremental process whereby you stay engaged in it every day, with dedicated time slots. That’s how you slowly build up your knowledge and skills.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, what are the milestones in Wing Chun practice? How do you assess the readiness of a student to progress to the next level after he’s completed a certain level? Are there examinations? You know Taekwondo has colored belts to rank different levels. Does Wing Chun have similar incentives?
[Master Kwok] My school does have a system of progression. Take Siu Lim Tao for example. The first part of this form has a clearly defined program. A student who has completed this part is eligible to progress to the second part of the same form, called Level 2, which has another clearly defined program. Westerners are used to stepped learning…
[Presenter] Step by step, that’s true.
[Master Kwok] Yes, progressing step by step, so they know exactly what they are doing and what to expect at the next level. Westerners are not used to an unstructured system. This is one of the first things I learned after I started teaching in America, namely, I must have a very clear, well crafted curriculum to offer them, so they know roughly how much time they need to invest before they can reach a certain level.
[Presenter] In the real world, one person against 10 people – is there such kung fu at all? It doesn’t exist, does it?
[Master Kwok] One against 10… It depends on who those 10 people are and who this one person is.
[Presenter] (Giggles) Okay, I see.
[Master Kwok] (Laughs) I think we can treat it as a fun topic to talk about and laugh off. What is truly important is that the Ip Man movies at least introduce people…
[Presenter] They offer a chance, yes.
[Master Kwok] Yes, a chance. Also they convey some traditional martial arts ideology. There’s a pedagogical element in them. When people see a movie, they tend to focus on the action. Some movies carry a message and try to communicate that message to the audience, a positive message about martial arts. You were asking earlier about the truthfulness of the story in this movie franchise. But these are movies designed to entertain, not documentaries.
[Presenter] Yes, true.
[Master Kwok] So you don’t go, ‘But that’s not true. Ip Man did not do this at this time. This does not stand up to the facts.’ But I don’t think it’s reasonable to criticize a movie like this. What matters is what you take home after you’ve watched the movie. Other than being entertained by its visual impact, has the audience taken onboard the messages about martial arts that the movie is trying to convey? This is quite crucial. There are movies which flaunt gratuitous violence, there are also ones that promote chivalrous righteousness, like the Once Upon a Time in China series and Jet Li’s 2006 Fearless. The latter category not only tells martial arts stories, but also communicates messages and philosophy about the essence of martial arts. These movies are more welcome and also perform better at the box office. I believe many people subscribe to such moral imperatives deep down in their hearts. They feel inspired by those who step forward in the name of justice or those who may have erred in the past, but decide to mend their ways after practicing martial arts and enhancing their physical integrity and moral character. To me, these movies are commendable exactly for this reason.
[Presenter] You are saying that apart from the external stuff, the combat techniques, there is also a spiritual dimension that needs nurturing. Regarding the latter, in today’s society of fast food culture, fast-tracking and quick results, how should one go about it?
[Master Kwok] Each martial arts school has its own modus operandi. Mine is blessed with a group of great students. A pervasive atmosphere of traditional culture prevails in my school and sets boundaries with new students. For example, you may wonder why we greet each other with a hand salute? Why do my students address their teacher as sifu,sifu<’s wife as simo, their seniors as sihing or sije and their juniors as sidai or simui. There is a lot of respect for one another in my school. No one goes around and curtly picks a partner that they think is good to practice with. We are family and you don’t do that in a family. So this culture has this effect on them. Secondly, when I teach – nowadays, as you said, we are in an age of fast-food culture – I would explain why the punch is thrown this way and how a certain technique is executed, but I say to them, ‘You must practice.’ I ask them to practice. But coming from the culture that places a premium on quick results, students tend to assume that once they’ve learned something, they’ve mastered it, they’ve got it, just like that.
[Presenter] That’s true.
[Master Kwok] I ask them, ‘You got it?’ They say, ‘Yes, I got it.’ Then they move on to something new. ‘You want fast food? Here’s more. Tell me when you’ve had enough.’ Wing Chun does have a lot of different food to offer.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, if you keep feeding them new stuff, can they keep up? Do they ask you, ‘Why are you doing this? I’m full.’
[Master Kwok] That’s exactly my point. ‘Are you full up now? You wanted fast food, so I fed you till you had had enough.’ I let them experience it and realize that they have bitten off more than they can chew. They can’t keep up at all. Or they may come to see the light: ‘Oh my God, more is not necessarily better.’ My teacher has a mantra that he keeps repeating: ‘If your moves are good, you don’t need a large repertoire of them.’ You don’t need a glut of good stuff. A simple example is boxing. Once you’ve learned the footwork, you practice straights, hooks and uppercuts – three techniques. You practice the three techniques over and over again. Wing Chun gives you so many options. What do you do with them? If you have too much of it, if you can’t eat any more, you would stop and think, ‘Man, I do need to slow down, instead of asking for more and more.’
[Presenter] That’s why it’s called fast-food culture.
[Master Kwok] They want fast food, and fast food they will have. Having too much is as good as having nothing. If you want the essence, you don’t stuff yourself to the gills. If you only master one or two techniques, know how they work, and can apply them, you actually have a greater sense of achievement. This is an educational process. There’s a proverb in English: ‘Jack of all trades, master of none.’ You don’t have to dabble in too many things all at once. Develop one or two techniques to the expert level first. Through these two techniques, you can have a thorough understanding of the principles underlying the broader system, which would make it easier for you to pick up other techniques, because you have an in-depth knowledge of the culture.
[Presenter] Have you had students who really can’t get it? Those who find Wing Chun elusive no matter how they try? If so, they are free to go, are they not?
[Master Kwok] To begin with, you may come up to check it out and have a trial session. The trial session gives us an opportunity to get to know each other. I don’t rush them to sign up with us. I invite them to check it out and try it out first. I explain to them that learning kung fu is comparable to making friends. To become friends, people have to gel with each other. You take up something only when you are convinced that it’s the right thing for you. Let’s leave aside other styles of kung fu for the time being and take Wing Chun for example: You check out a few Wing Chun schools and decide to come to ours only if you think it suits you the best. I prefer not to have a student for a month only and then lose him because he doesn’t think it’s the right thing for him, which would have wasted me a month’s time as his teacher. I’d much rather teach a student who wants to invest six months or a longer time here. That would be better than having a student who practices for a month, then loses interest and leaves. That’s why the trial session is a good opportunity for both me and the prospective student, because he can find out, through first-hand experience, what it’s like to learn Wing Chun at this school.
[Presenter] When I first contacted you, I did tell you that I was also interested in learning Wing Chun, but the very first question you threw at me was ‘Why do you want to learn Wing Chun?’ I was very honest with you. I said, ‘As a lady, I don’t have too much of an ambition. I certainly don’t aim to become a kung fu actress. Through this, I want to renew my connection with the Chinese cultural heritage, in addition to keeping myself fit. If I had told you that I wanted to become a kung fu actress, to kick ass or to show off how awesome I am, would you have said to me point-blank, ‘Forget Wing Chun, don’t even bother – Wing Chun is not for you’?
[Master Kwok] I would not have told you Wing Chun is not for you. I would have said you are not cut out for martial arts, period. Every style of kung fu has its strengths. As we see it, kung fu is the art of hurting people, pure and simple. It’s different from swimming or playing basketball. Those sports are not designed to hurt people. But by learning kung fu, you can protect yourself. There are many ways of protecting yourself. You don’t have to resort to punches and kicks. This is the first thing I tell my students in my teaching. When the need does arise for you to protect yourself with punches and kicks, you should apply moral principles and assess the situation accordingly. You ask yourself if fighting it out is the only solution to the imminent confrontation. Is there an alternative? These are the questions you should ask yourself. In the process of training, especially in the context of Wing Chun, there are plenty of opportunities for sparring or paired practice. If you don’t know how to control your moves during such training, it’s very easy for you to hurt your partners. I teach my students not to focus on their striking skills only. The first thing they learn is respect for others. Then and only then do they earn the licence to access and acquire the quintessential part of kung fu. Some students come to my school with the dream to become the next Ip Man, taking on 10 opponents all at the same time. It all comes down to attitude at the end of the day. Some people strike me as having a propensity for violence.
[Presenter] I want to take us back to the fast-food culture. 2016 seems to have been a year of violence and volatility. In the absence of self-control, self-restraint or spiritual awareness, kung fu, from the perspective of testosterone-surging youth, is just something they can use to kick ass, to overpower others, is it not? Working on their inner self, the spiritual discipline that comes with kung fu is relegated to the backburner as far as they are concerned. Is that not the case?
[Master Kwok] It’s the duty of a master to teach that to the students. You need to build something into your teaching process to influence your students. People need educating. They may want to learn to hit people, but it’s up to you to educate them. That’s why as I said just now, you should observe them and establish if they do have a violent streak in them or it’s just a case of hot-blooded young men…
[Presenter] Trying to show off…
[Master Kwok] Yes, showing off. Having these impulses is not the problem. The question is if you know how to control yourself. Do you go up to people and provoke a fight? These are two different things. Typically, those who are into kung fu are prone to fighting. You encourage them to consider the consequences. Through training, they will develop this awareness over time. In my school, I ask them to consider if fighting is the only way out, so they learn to stop and think first. Otherwise they just turn into mindless brutes for whom the only solution to problems is violence. But that’s not true. The challenge here is to impart this culture to different people using different approaches.
[Presenter] Does it mean it’s very important to restore the traditional Chinese way of martial arts training guided by ethical principles?
[Master Kwok] Yes, indeed. Education in martial ethics is very important. As I said earlier, it’s a very slippery road if you teach kung fu without teaching martial ethics. Kung fu is an art of hurting people, as I said. You need judgment and ethical awareness to balance it. In a fight, you either hurt or get hurt. You can’t call that a good thing, whichever way you look at it. Consider the world we live in today, there are large stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Let’s say you have them and you tell others: ‘I have more nukes than you. It only takes a push of a button to annihilate you.’ Only crazy people would do that. You arm yourself with a weapon, but do you have to use it? There are other ways to defuse the situation, like diplomatic means. People can talk. They can work together.
[Presenter] That’s right. You don’t get into a fight at the slightest provocation.
[Master Kwok] Correct. But does it mean it’s not necessary for countries to do R&D on armaments? No, the research can continue, but do you feel compelled to use these armaments just because you have them?
[Presenter] Is there a complete self-defense system for petite ladies? Is Wing Chun a good system for this purpose?
[Master Kwok] Yes it is. It is very suitable for people of small build, especially petite ladies. A lot of the training involves short-range drills, because Wing Chun is at its most effective in close combat. It at least trains you to react faster. Say you stand there and someone comes to attack you. If you react only when he’s already in the process of attacking you, it would be too late. Wing Chun is particularly suitable for petite ladies because you don’t just use your muscular power. Instead, you mobilise the power from your entire body structure. I have already said that structure matters the most.
[Presenter] Let’s picture this scenario: When I turn a corner, someone appears all of a sudden and grab me by the wrist. If I’ve learned Wing Chun, I wouldn’t try to wrest my hand from his hold clumsily with all my might. I would know a more clever way to free my hand, wouldn’t I?
[Master Kwok] Yes, that’s how it works.
[Presenter] No need to use brute force to free my hand and get away, I guess?
[Master Kwok] Yes, you may be able to get away before that person tightens his grip. When I teach my female disciples, I put a special emphasis on early reaction. You don’t wait for your attacker to get to you. I teach the ladies to become more vigilant. As you know, people tend to walk with a cellphone in hand…
[Presenter] And with their head down… yes.
[Master Kwok] Exactly, head down, punching away on their cellphone, oblivious to the goings-on around them. It is critical to be more vigilant. When you become aware that someone wants to mug you, assault you or otherwise take advantage of you, how do you deal with it? Do you go up to them and ask, ‘Why are you following me?’ There may be other ways, like walking into a crowd and shaking off whoever is on to you. This is the awareness that I ask my students to develop, so that they don’t go away and proclaim, ‘I am a Wing Chun master now. I can fight 10 people alone.’
[Presenter] Master Kwok, thank you for your time. It has been a great interview. My last question to you is: Having talked so much about the theory and how to apply it in real situation, what’s your take on the prospects of Chinese martial arts, Wing Chun in particular, and the practice and education of martial arts as a whole in North America?
[Master Kwok] My students liked my teaching methodology so much they encouraged me to create a non-profit association, Martial Arts Studies International. It was founded last year. It is through this vehicle that I introduce my educational approach to the public. Teaching kung fu and practicing or learning kung fu are two different skill sets. We need to find a good modernized approach to promote traditional Chinese culture using modern Western pedagogical models. This is where I am headed in the coming time.
[Presenter] Thank you, once again, Master Kwok.
[Master Kwok] You are welcome.
[End of main interview]
[Presenter] Dear audience, thank you for tuning in to the Sunday program of RFA. As a follow-up to our exclusive interview, aired last Sunday, with New York-based martial arts expert, Master Kwok, you’ll be hearing the final part of the interview, in which Master Kwok talks about the benefits of martial arts in terms of self-improvement, health, and character building for children. Does Wing Chun bring about significant health benefits?
[Master Kwok] Wing Chun’s health benefits are definitely there. When you are learning the first form, Siu Lim Tao, you start off by going into a horse stand. This position alone can strengthen your legs. Let’s leave kung fu aside for the time being and just look at something very basic – the ability to balance. This ability deteriorates when one gets older. Standing still in this sit-down position as part of your kung fu practice can improve that ability. Many of our drills, including San Sau – standalone techniques – and Chi Sau – sticky hands, force you to move about. You do that on a daily basis. Dancing is different, though. There’s a rhythmic pattern to any dance. But when you practice San Sau, Chi Sau or Gwo Sau with your partner, you are in constant motion, balancing and rebalancing yourself all the time. This improves your balance, very good for elderly people. In terms of health in a broader sense, again using Siu Lim Tao as an example, the form contains a lot of breathing exercises. I therefore think Wing Chun is suitable for all age groups. My eldest student is 80 years old.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, you said your eldest student is 80 years old, but how young is the youngest?
[Master Kwok] Recently, a six and a half year-old signed up. Normally, I prefer that my students are at least eight years old, when they are more receptive to discipline and knowledge, therefore easier to teach. The six and a half year-old is an exception, because he’s very smart, or so he thinks, and has a natural aptitude. He is likely to be a fast and more patient learner. There are no rigid rules regarding age. It’s up to the teacher to assess the student’s aptitude and knowledge to see if he’s ready.
[Presenter] If I look around today’s society, especially in Hong Kong, life is comfortable, people are affluent. Many children are used to being taken care of by their elder siblings and are not good at looking after themselves. Also, they are quite poor when it comes to emotional and behavioral management. Does learning kung fu help? Does it contribute to their self-improvement, at least in terms of discipline and self-restraint? I think it’s quite good for children, isn’t it?
[Master Kwok] There is no doubt about that. As I described earlier, within our school, there’s an atmosphere of mutual respect. There’s a saying in Chinese: When you enter someone’s house, you greet the host; when you enter a temple, you show your respect for the gods. When you come into our school, you should at least greet the teacher and the seniors. This is the most basic protocol for us. What you said is true. Some kids don’t greet people. They just sit down by themselves and play with their phones. In my school, I repeatedly remind my students that you lose nothing by greeting other people. You are showing them that you are a polite person. It’s no skin off my nose if you don’t greet me, but I would see you as a bit rude. I explain to them why they should greet each other in my school. It starts with self-respect. This is not the hardest part, though. The crux of the matter is parental support. If parents have not educated their children to behave with courtesy, their children are unlikely to show respect. They may do it only because I’ve told them to, but they remain unchanged deep down. I ask them if they would greet their friend’s parents when they visit their friend. They reply, ‘No, I don’t.’ I then ask them how they would feel on the receiving end. They say they would feel a lack of respect toward them. I say, ‘Exactly. Just think about it.’ I encourage them to put themselves in other people’s shoes. What really matter is parental support for our effort.
[Presenter] You do spend a lot of time giving your students individual attention, don’t you? You at least know their background, what motivates them to learn kung fu, and take it from there. You don’t teach hordes of students en masse and call it a day when they leave school. You really put your heart and soul into your teaching.
[Master Kwok] You do need to get to know them. Those who are genuinely interested would come to school as often as they can. I naturally have more communication with these students. With more communication…
[Presenter] It’s a two-way process, I see.
[Master Kwok] Yes, two-way. With more communication, I know more about them, about their personalities, which in turn allows me to fine-tune my teaching to cater to their character traits.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, when a student is accepted by a teacher as his closed-door disciple, the student calls the teacher sifu. But there’s another title, sifoo. What’s the difference?
[Master Kwok] The foo in Sifoo is a different character. Someone with that designation is someone who is highly skilled in a given craft. You call a good plumber sifoo, for example, or a chef who prepares food to a high standard. But sifu, with the second character meaning father, is different. When new student comes to the school, he calls the teacher sifoo, a kung fu expert. But the baisi (induction) ceremony, where the teacher formally takes him under his wings, changes the relationship. The teacher is now a father figure to the student, within the context of martial arts. But out there, these two terms are often mixed up.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, one last question: Do you teach your closed-door disciples certain special things that you don’t share with the rest of your following?
[Master Kwok] I can’t speak for other teachers. I only speak for myself. Why do people get the impression that closed-door disciples learn more stuff? When you take on closed-door disciples, they must have been with you for quite a long time, during which they have built up a foundation through their practice. That’s point one. Secondly, you only take someone under your wings as a closed-door disciple if you have a good relationship with that person. For example, you would have heart-to-heart chats when you see each other. Through such communication, verbal or otherwise, it’s only natural that they can find out more about Wing Chun. There are techniques that you get exposed to only after a long period of practice. Becoming a closed-door disciple is a commitment. They are with you for so long, they are in close contact with you so often, so it stands to reason that they will learn more. Or, shall I say, they have a better chance of learning more than other students. When my students asked me why I hadn’t taught them certain things, I would ask them how much time they had invested in it. It doesn’t mean I taught others, but not you. It’s because when I was teaching that, you were absent. But that’s a minority of students, who question why I am being selective. Why? Because you don’t come to school often enough!
[Presenter] Yup, as simple as that.
[Master Kwok] Exactly, can’t be simpler. Why do some students go through the levels so fast? Because they are committed! They come for training five times a week, but you only come once a week. And you want to compare? I encourage them not to benchmark against others, but to measure their own progress. Some students say to me, ‘I keep feeling that I’m not doing so well.’ I ask them, ‘Do you think you’ve progressed since six months ago?’ ‘Yes, I have.’ ‘Could you do this move six months ago?’ ‘No, I couldn’t.’ ‘There you have it: you have made progress.’ I tell them that every day is different for kung fu practitioners. Sometimes you feel you are having a good day. Come tomorrow and you are crestfallen, because you can’t pull off certain techniques. I explain to them, ‘As long as you stay with one style of kung fu and keep working at it with commitment, and provided that your teacher is willing to continue teaching you, you’ll definitely make progress in the long run. You may feel down now and again while you practice kung fu, because of certain unhappy eventualities, like being laid off or something, but don’t just give up. As long as you practice with focus and with great interest, progress is guaranteed.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you for agreeing to this interview with RFA. Thank you very much.
[Master Kwok] Thank you.
We hope you enjoyed the interview!
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Happy Chinese New Year Everyone!
CombativeCorner contributing author Master William Kwok was interviewed over the holidays (Dec.11th & 18th, of 2016) on Radio Free Asia (a sister radio station to Voice of America). Since the interview was in Cantonese, Sifu Kwok enlisted the help of his student, Ji Chen so that we may benefit as well. The topic of the interview is on martial virtue and martial arts education. Enjoy!
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[Presenter] Dear audience, welcome to Radio Free Asia’s Sunday Special. Today’s topic is a little unusual. Those of you from the southern country, the Cantonese speaking region in particular, should have heard of Wing Chun. Today, we are delighted to have with us a Wing Chun Master William Kwok Wai Yin, who will share with us his experience in the United States, of promoting the traditional Chinese martial arts culture in general and teaching Wing Chun in particular, and the challenges he has had to grapple with in the process.
[Chirpy music plays]
[Presenter] Master Kwok, thank you very much for accepting our interview today.
[Master Kwok] The pleasure is mine.
[Presenter] I have noticed that you have quite a unique background. Nowadays you are devoted, on a full-time basis, to the promotion of Wing Chun, both the techniques and the philosophy of it, mainly in the United States. But you have a much broader background. In your past incarnations, you were a university lecturer and a corporate manager, among other things. What is it that triggered this decision you made, as if out of the blue, to pack up your career in the business world and start pursuing your dream in the martial arts universe?
[Master Kwok] I have been very fond of martial arts, of exploring them, since I was a kid, and was fortunate enough to be exposed to a great variety of kung fu back then. However, when I got to the age of 35, give or take, by which time I had been a teacher and worked in a corporate environment, I started feeling, well, especially in the context of American society, that the headroom I could grow into was rather limited. That was how I was feeling from a personal perspective. At the same time, I wished there were a goal I could strive towards in my life and I began wondering what I could do. Initially, kung fu was my part-time occupation, something I did in my spare time. That was only a short stint. Eventually, I asked myself, ‘Why don’t I just take the plunge and make it my bread-and-butter job?’ First of all, the job I had at the time was respectable, desirable in the eyes of the world. It was a personal thing. I felt unfulfilled. What really made me tick was martial arts. So, in 2007, I decided to become a full-time kung fu instructor. Me being a Chinese, teaching kung fu as a Chinese and contributing to the promotion of the Chinese culture was for me an honour. There were a lot of benefits to be had by teaching martial arts, be it physical, spiritual or otherwise. Many students found that studying martial arts at our school helped them improve their performance at work. It was such a joy to know that I was able to help people by teaching Wing Chun, which I enjoyed practising myself in the first place.
[Presenter] Speaking of Wing Chun, I actually came with a bag of questions. Could you please share with us the history of Wing Chun? I myself have watched a great many kung fu films from Hong Kong. In fact, it’s known to many that Wing Chun was created by a woman?
[Master Kwok] Let me explain. According to the books I have read since childhood and what my sifu told me, the legend has it that Wing Chun was indeed created by a lady – a Buddhist nun called Ng Mui. Ng Mui passed it on to a female disciple Yim Wing Chun. Yim’s husband, Leung Bok Chau, subsequently named this style of martial arts after his wife. This story is controversial, as a lot of people say this is not the real history. As far as I know, the history of Wing Chun became a little clearer when Grandmaster Leung Jan of Foshan came onto the scene. It was widely known that Foshan Jan’s kung fu was formidable and he made a name with his Wing Chun skills. Grandmaster Ip Man received instruction from Leung Jan’s disciple and took Wing Chun to Hong Kong, which was then a British colony, a more liberal and multicultural destination. From there, Wing Chun spread to the rest of the world. The fact of the matter is, a lot of people are spending a lot of time researching the history of Wing Chun to investigate its genesis, to find out whether Wing Chun was indeed invented by female practitioners.
[Presenter] Compared to other styles of Chinese martial arts, is Wing Chun one of the younger systems?
[Master Kwok] In fact, Wing Chun goes back two to three centuries. I don’t think it’s that young per se. What defines Wing Chun is its emphasis on scientific principles and logic. Since it’s said to have been invented by women, it’s unlikely to be one that requires such physical strength as is necessary to engage male opponents in a contest of brute force. Rather, it explores an efficient approach to the art of combat based on the center-line theory, on principles of physics, whereby a physically weaker person has a chance to take on a stronger opponent. So we have the paradox of the less powerful overpowering the more powerful – that’s the approach of Wing Chun.
[Presenter] Your teacher is Grandmaster Wan Kam Leung of Hong Kong, founder of Practical Wing Chun. Why does the word ‘practical’ feature so prominently in his style of Wing Chun?
[Master Kwok] Being practical is the aim of our lineage. Grandmaster Ip Man took Wing Chun to Hong Kong and a great many outstanding disciples emerged under his instruction. Bruce Lee was one of them and so was Grandmaster Wong Shun Leung, aka King of Talking Hands. Grandmaster Wong was a very dynamic, highly motivated martial artist, very keen to hone his techniques on an ongoing basis. He earned the nickname King of Talking Hands after he pondered over what he had learned from Ip Man and then applied it in contests against other styles, the purpose of which was to improve his Wing Chun skills. My teacher was among the early students of Wong Shun Leung and, as such, was influenced by Wong’s idea that continuous progress and enhancement was key to martial arts. So he started making incremental improvements to the kung fu skills he had acquired. He observed other styles of martial arts and analyzed Wing Chun through the prism of physics. By and by, he developed a more practical system. As a result, in the 1990s, Grandmaster Wong Shun Leung baptized my teacher’s style as ‘Practical Wing Chun’.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, most of your students are non-Chinese, am I right? Is it very different from teaching Wing Chun in Hong Kong? When non-Chinese students came to you, did they already have some rudimentary knowledge of the Chinese culture? Did they at least know what Chinese martial arts are and what Wing Chun is, which motivated them to seek your instruction in the first place? Or did the Ip Man movie franchise bring them to you, like ‘Wow, Wing Chun looks awesome, let me find out more.’
[Master Kwok] My students come from a diverse range of ethnicities. Over 70 percent of them are non-Chinese. They cited different reasons when they first came to me. Some had practiced other styles of kung fu, but were very interested in Wing Chun. Or maybe they wanted to find out more about Wing Chun, Practical Wing Chun in particular, after reading about it. That’s one category of students. There are others who had watched Ip Man the movie or some other martial arts flicks – of which we have no shortage in the cinema these days – and were motivated or intrigued by them, so they wanted to know more about it. That’s another category.
[Presenter] Back in the olden days, there were times when challenging one’s rivals by gatecrashing their schools was considered cool, to shame the rivals and destroy their reputation. Are there such things going on nowadays, like beimo (duels) or challenge matches?
[Master Kwok] In this day and age, exchanging knowledge and skills, comparing notes, taking part in some form of competition, getting to know each other – that’s something we still do. But the culture of gatecrashing challenge is an undesirable, anachronistic legacy from the past, in our opinion. I once analyzed the phenomenon of gatecrashing challenge and the motivation behind it. In some sense, what the challenger wanted was to find out what your style of kung fu was all about. This is less common nowadays, because you can access some information, like video clips, about whatever you want to investigate: ‘Ah, I see, so this is how that style of Wing Chun or Karate works.’ You get to have a basic knowledge of these things through the media, so there is no need to challenge someone just to find out about what he practices. The next question is: Does this happen to my school? Some people tell me that they want to see what I teach. I say to them, ‘You want to find out? By all means. Just come for a trial session.’
[Presenter] You were saying earlier that Practical Wing Chun places a premium on scientific principles and incorporates scientific elements into the system. What do you mean by scientific principles? Are they the same as those expounded by Bruce Lee? Does it mean you apply the notions of sport science and explain to your students how each punch should be controlled and delivered based on such principles?
[Master Kwok] Let me give you an example. It is said that power should be generated from the ground. What exactly does that mean? It’s open to interpretation, depending on your perspective. I have my own reading of it: Okay, power is generated from the ground. Let’s just look at the stance that serves as our starting position and how a punch is executed. I’ll let the student experience, first-hand, the force of his own punch, how his foothold on the ground supports the transmission of the force through his body structure. My teacher has evolved Wing Chun to what we have today, the system of Practical Wing Chun, through continuous improvements. My job, which is simpler than what he’s done, is to explain to my students how it works using the concepts of physics and body mechanics. For instance, when you are in this stance position, your body structure is straightened. That’s just an example…
[Presenter] This is how you explain it…
[Master Kwok] Indeed, I can explain it using sport science. It works because the student can feel and experience it for himself. I can’t lie about it.
[Presenter] You were saying that modern-day martial artists tend to be more inquisitive, asking teachers all the whys and wherefores. But in the olden days, when your teacher told you to stay in a stance position or to punch in a certain way, you would just do it, no questions asked. You would just do as instructed. Am I right?
[Master Kwok] Yes.
[Presenter] So today’s methodology is totally different and so is today’s mental approach.
[Master Kwok] Indeed, totally different. My teacher leaves no question unanswered. But those who are a little older than him – normally, the students wouldn’t have the guts to ask questions. This is true of other styles of kung fu. This would result in some students going off the course in their understanding of the moves their teacher had taught. ‘As our teacher taught, so we learned, period. When I have students of my own, if they ask me why this why that, I’d say: This is how it is! This is how it always has been!’ But what used to work may not necessarily work now. Take 100-meter sprint for example. I compared how sprinters ran in 1956 to how they ran in 2016, six decades apart. In the past, the sprinters leaned forward slightly, but nowadays, the world’s best sprinters keep their torsos straight without exception. This is a result of research over the years. This applies to swimming as it does sprinting. That’s how records are broken. As martial artists, we should also keep on exploring, to find out how we can perform better. This is where we are going. But the older-generation practitioners did it differently. Maybe it’s to do with their level of education or the culture of ‘shut up and just do it’ or the scarcity of resources that was holding back the development of knowledge. Martial arts follow the same trajectory of development as sport science.
[Presenter] Master Kwok, you brought up the issue of Oriental people versus Western people, saying that alongside the trend of Chinese people adopting Western values, a lot of Westerners have come to embrace the quintessential Chineseness. I know nothing about martial arts, but am interested to dabble in them and learn some techniques. Mine is not a common case in Hong Kong. But in America, most of the instructors of Chinese kung fu, including but not limited to Wing Chun, are Westerners. I stand corrected, but I, being Chinese, consider Chinese martial arts inherently linked to the Chinese culture. It follows that maybe one is better off going to a Chinese master if one is to learn Chinese kung fu. What do you think of this? Am I wrong?
[Master Kwok] In fact, many of the non-Chinese teachers of kung fu are excellent. There is now a whole legion of Westerners teaching Chinese martial arts. In my opinion, qualities do vary among them as they do among Chinese instructors of kung fu. It all comes down to the individuals, how good they are. We consider lineage quite important, too. Lineage, or the ‘family tree’, was very much emphasized by the older generations.
[Presenter] You are a Chinese living in America. What I wanted to find out through this interview is: What challenges have you encountered and what opportunities have you seen in promoting the Chinese martial arts culture there? Given the broader educational context of America and that of Hong Kong, how do you do it there? How do you run your school there? The experiences must be quite different. Could you please share with us the challenges you face?
[Master Kwok] I don’t think the difference is that big. As I said earlier, we are living in a globalized world. The difficulties one encounters in Hong Kong are similar to those in America. I say that because many places in the world are Westernized now and the Western-style competitive sports are put on a pedestal in places like Hong Kong. The traditional martial arts from the East are more focused on self-improvement. It doesn’t mean the competitive aspect falls by the wayside, but relatively speaking, there’s a predilection for self-improvement at both physical and spiritual levels. Given the prevailing trend that glorifies competition, winning, and medals and trophies, I have the difficult job of having to explain that the main aim of kung fu is not competition or winning a trophy in an open contest. We are not going that way. I need to explain to them the difference.
[Presenter] I read an interesting news story earlier today that I’d like to share with you. You tell me what you think.
[Master Kwok] Go ahead.
[Presenter] This is pretty new, came out today. It happened in the America. After an MMA match, one of the fighters, feeling good about the rounds he had fought, was confident he had won the match. But the judges named his opponent as the winner. He suddenly got very agitated, turned around and punched the ring girl. He is supposed to be a martial artist – fighting in the ring is also a form of martial arts – but how could he fly off the handle so easily and hurt someone in the process? Does he serve as an example of what martial artists shouldn’t do?
[Master Kwok] The biggest problem facing the development of martial arts is the absence of martial ethics in the martial arts curriculum. You’ve heard of Yin Yang, haven’t you?
[Presenter] Yes I have.
[Master Kwok] The unity of the opposites. Balance between Yin and Yang has to be manifested in everything. Martial arts, being martial, are arts that have the potential to hurt people. So the techniques are there to cause damage. That’s the antagonistic part. You need to balance it with ethics, to control the damage you may cause. The problem now is overemphasis on the technical part. MMA is all the rage right now. It started in the Western world. The Western ideology does place a premium on competitiveness: I must triumph, I must win, I must come first. Stories like this really upset me. When the general public hear about such an incident, they would lament the violent tendencies of ‘kung fu men’, that they show no sportsmanship, lashing out when they lose. This guy does not represent all martial artists, but such behaviour tarnishes the image of other martial artists and gives the public the impression that martial arts are violent and there is something wrong with them. These people only make a display of their technical competence, but such competence is not balanced with ethical values. Take for example a country that has a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. If they press the button at the slightest provocation, like what happens in the world of martial arts, the whole planet would go up in flames. Without balance, it’s dangerous.
[Presenter] Thank you for your analogy with nuclear weapons. Come to think of it, physical power is exalted in the American culture, in the broader global context. It finds expression in the arms race, in how military might is glorified in the likes of G.I. Joe, in the slogans of winning and being the tough guy. This is very hard to reverse. It is entrenched in the collective psyche. When you teach kung fu in America, how do you inculcate your American students with notions of martial ethics?
[Master Kwok] In class, my students pair up to spar. I teach them to respect their opponents or training partners during the spar. This is crucial. In a drill, for instance, one student throws a punch and the other student practices his countering techniques. Through this process of exchange, they come to realize that my aim is not to hurt the other person and I need to consciously exercise self control. This is how they develop the ability to control their power. I would say, ‘When you throw a punch, you do it in earnest, but you don’t want to hurt your training partner. He’s the only partner you have. If he gets hurt, he would have to stay at home resting and you would have no one to practice with.’ That’s how I explain to them sometimes, by cracking jokes like this, to remind them that they should be more careful because there’s an element of danger here. That’s how I work on them, hoping they would get it eventually. I do my best to explain. If I see a good movie that has a good message, I would encourage them to see it so they can be positively influenced. But, at the end of the day, it comes down to the receptiveness and mental attitude of individual students. Why do I stress martial ethics? Because whether or not you have martial ethics affects more than just you. As I have said, while learning martial arts, you learn to respect your training partner, respect other people, by putting yourself in their shoes, by considering the consequences of hitting and hurting them. There are many things at stake. But it’s up to the practitioner to search their heart and find out if they have a natural urge to uphold such ethics. They need to know they do have a choice. They might not be aware that they had a choice. They may have thought that when they were cornered, there was only one way out. But I want them to know this may not be the case.
[Presenter] You currently have three closed-door disciples, don’t you?
[Master Kwok] Yes I do.
[Presenter] Are they all non-Chinese, are they all Westerners?
[Master Kwok] That’s not the case. They are from a variety of ethnicities.
[Presenter] Is it because you suddenly realized that you had admitted so many Western students, so you wanted to balance the mix with a few Oriental people? Or did you go purely by their abilities and their eagerness to learn?
[Master Kwok] Balancing ethnicities doesn’t come into the equation at all, because the American society is open to all racial and ethnic backgrounds. My decision to admit a student depends on his interest, on whether his heart is in it, and on the level of rapport or emotional bond I have with him. Take for example the disciples I have right now. They include Chinese kids who grew up here, Hispanics, African Americans and white people.
[Presenter] They are all male?
[Master Kwok] Males, yes. In fact, there will be four more joining the ranks of closed-door disciples in the coming year.
[Presenter] Plus one… that would be me, if you don’t mind me recommending myself. (Giggles)
[Master Kwok] (Chuckles)
[Presenter] Rest assured that if I went to New York, I’d definitely seek an audience with you, Master Kwok.
[Master Kwok] Thank you. So this ethnicity factor is of little significance, because I have no trouble communicating with them – everybody speaks English. What really matters is the rapport we have and that the disciple is keen to learn, to carry the torch and pass on the culture. I see this as of paramount importance. We have to be compatible, on the same page; there is rapport and loyalty between us. More than a decade ago, thanks to some serendipitous circumstances, I had the pleasure of meeting one of Bruce Lee’s foremost disciples, Dan Inosanto, who is now in Los Angeles. I had a nice chat with him once and he told me something that turned a light on in my head. He said, ‘Teaching is the highest form of learning.’ I could very much relate to that myself. I once taught in a university. When I was preparing my lessons, I had to figure out ways and means to let my students understand what I wanted to impart to them. This process required a thorough grasp of the subject matter on my part in the first place. For me, Mr. Inosanto’s message was loud and clear and made so much sense. In my own martial arts school, I encourage more experienced students, senior students, to mentor and advise their junior peers, through which they can learn a lot of things as well.
[Presenter] Do they listen to you and subscribe to this idea of yours? Do they not question why they have to waste time practicing with the juniors when they have gone past their level? Don’t they see it as a waste of time and effort? Shouldn’t they be practicing with people who are at a higher level?
[Master Kwok] There may be some who think like that, but most people understand this. Because I say to them, ‘Yes, you want to learn from the seniors who are better than you, but why should they be interested to practice with you?’
[Presenter] Yes, I do realize it’s a paradox, what goes around comes around.
[Master Kwok] Exactly. In fact, most of my students are aware that you benefit as much from practicing with peers at the same level as you would from practicing with seniors or juniors. Every partner offers you something unique and you can learn something different. My job as a teacher is to remind them and to see which way each of them is going. Some of them misinterpret the word ‘teach’. I have noticed that oftentimes, when they teach new students, they tend to get very talkative, shooting off their mouth nonstop.
[Presenter] What do they talk about? Theorizing?
[Master Kwok] Theorizing, yes. They over-explain.
[Presenter] That’s what goes on in the real world, too, interestingly enough. Usually those who talk the talk can’t walk the walk. That’s true of what goes on in the real world. That’s so interesting. I wonder why.
[Master Kwok] There are many dimensions to teaching and learning. I try to set them an example to show why nonstop talking doesn’t work when you try to explain something. You must learn to listen. The person you are trying to help may already know what you are saying, but he doesn’t understand the underlying principles, so if you keep scratching the surface, he still can’t get the explanation he is looking for. Maybe you are not a good listener; maybe you try to impose a uniform approach, regardless of the fact that personal approaches may vary. On top of the learning chain is the master. Then there’s the senior students and junior students. The challenge here is to enable the students, especially those who have been with me only a short time, to understand their responsibilities when they interact with junior peers. The highest form of learning is knowing how to teach. In the case of some students, when they reach certain levels, I might say, ‘Okay, you, Level 5, pair up with this Level 2 student and practice away!’ Initially, some of them are baffled and wonder why they have to go back to Level 2 and practice the techniques associated with that level. ‘I am Level 5. If I practice with him, he stands to gain at my expense.’ What they don’t understand is that one can learn in a great many different ways. When a Level 5 student explains Level 2 techniques to a Level 2 student, he is actually recalling, marshalling and re-organizing what he remembers of the Level 2 techniques.
[Presenter] Could you share with our audience some basic moves of Wing Chun? I know nothing about Wing Chun, but I have heard of certain routines or forms, san sau, chi sau, etc. Could you tell us a little bit about its basic system?
[Master Kwok] There are three forms in Wing Chun, namely, Siu Lim Tao, Chum Kiu and Biu Tze. One starts with Siu Lim Tao. This first form contains a great many moves. One of the first hand forms is called Kau Cha Sau, crossed arms. The center-line principle is at the heart of Wing Chun and Kau Cha Sau helps locate the center-line. The other techniques that we learn subsequently are derivatives of this Kau Cha Sau. That’s why a beginner must practice the forms in earnest. After mastering the forms, you practice individual techniques taken from the forms, called san sau, standalone moves. When you become reasonably proficient with san sau, quite good at the techniques, we let you move on to chi sau practice. With chi sau, your hands and arms are in contact with those of your opponent. You sense your opponent’s force by picking up tactile signals and adapt and change accordingly. Adapt and change with what? With the techniques that you acquired through san sau practice. Put simply, the techniques that we apply in chi sau come from san sau, which in turn is derived from the forms. Therefore, although we seem to be practicing different things, they all point to the same source. Only the methods differ. Chi sau is interesting because change comes into play. The forms give structure to the techniques, but it’s change that brings the techniques to life. There is a fixed range of techniques, but the nomenclature associated with their varied combinations is extensive. Why did I bring up the topic of chi sau? Because practicing chi sau shaped my own outlook on life. I came to realize that there might be more than one fixed, exclusive solution to any given problem. When I approach a problem in a certain way and it doesn’t work, I know I have to modify my approach. In life, when we come up against some difficulty or problem, there isn’t just one way out, there are many possible solutions. You need wisdom or experience to change tack and solve the problem via an alternative route. This is what makes chi sau interesting.
[Presenter] Wing Chun relies heavily on hands. The lower limbs are stationary, locked in a stance, no kicking. Is that right?
[Master Kwok] That’s a misunderstanding. (Presenter giggles.) Where does this misconception come from? Siu Lim Tao is a static form, in which motionless stance is maintained. But when you get to the second form, Chum Kiu, there’s a lot of footwork actually. But why do people get the impression that Wing Chun is a hand combat system? That’s because when you first start, you learn the first form, Siu Lim Tao, which predominantly involves hand moves. Many people learn the form and realize that hand techniques are an important part of Wing Chun. Some people may quit before they progress to the second form, before they learn the footwork. Hence the wrong impression that Wing Chun is all about hands. But Wing Chun’s footwork is very effective.
END OF PART 1
(For more info: newyorkwingchun.com)
How did you get drawn into fencing and why classical/historic over modern/sport?
As a child, I was interested in history, and enjoyed watching historical battle reenactment shows. At around the age of 10, I joined a local karate club, and began to enjoy martial arts. At around the age of 16, I joined a historical battle reenactment society, mainly as an excuse to play with swords. However, after a little while, I lost interest in the show fighting aspect of it, and wanted a more ”correct” way of using the sword.
Then, when I was in my second year at Glasgow University, I found a club that was teaching historical European martial arts, according to historical source material. Initially, due to my previous martial arts training, I didn’t enjoy it very much: the club was still very young as a study group, and the instructors did their best to understand the source material, but I didn’t enjoy learning a random assortment of tricks that tended not to work, mainly because the interpretations were still in their infancy and were not supported by effective body mechanics.
Eventually, in 2010, I decided to start studying the longsword again, with different source material, and I was lucky enough that my first choice of source was one that described principles and how techniques fit together into a system. As a result, I could see that there WAS a system to follow, there WERE a set of guiding principles; even though I didn’t understand how to go any of the techniques, I knew that I could at least work on the gist of the system and fill in the specifics later.
That journey of research, testing, and exploration is still ongoing!
What brought you to become such a prolific author and how did you choose your projects?
Since I was trying to wrap my head around the historical source material anyway, and was taking copious notes, I thought that other people might find this work to be useful. So, once my colleague (Alex Bourdas) and I finished our initial longsword research project, we began to arrange our notes into a cohesive document, and this culminated in our first publication: the AHA German Longsword Study Guide.
By the time this was published, I had begun to enjoy the practice of a variety of other HEMA disciplines, including the Scottish basket-hilted broadsword. I decided to make another study guide, this time for the broadsword. I thought it would be useful for my students to have a published text with history and context, our principal source material, and some salient points for study. I also decided to include my research about singlestick, as this was something that I wanted to know more about myself, yet at the time, there was little by way of modern research published on the subject. And so I came to publish my second book, Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick.
All of my books have come about because I found researching a subject to be of particularly great interest. My intention with all of my books is to make available the research and information that I wish I could have had access to myself when I began my HEMA studies. This desire and intent has kept me going and has given me the motivation to publish several books, with more in the works!
Do you have a passion for one particular weapon over all the others and if so, why?
The medieval longsword is a wonderful, wonderful kind of sword. It can be found in so many shapes and sizes; and there are also so many different treatises on the use of the longsword that I simply cannot envisage a time when I will no longer have anything to learn about it.
The way of working with the longsword, of holding it and performing techniques, of moving from one action to the next, just speaks to me in a way that no other physical activity has in the past. It allows me to move and to express myself in a way that is deeply meaningful and that is impossible to achieve otherwise. It is just so much FUN to move and to fence with the longsword!
What does your sword training entail and how long do you train?
My typical weekly training involves giving two to three hours of private tuition to students, two to three times a week, and probably half an hour to an hour of assorted solo exercises on a daily basis. For the private tuition, I work on whatever skills are requested by my students, which may sometimes involve some sparring. However, I tend not to do very much sparring on a regular basis, and it’s even more rare that I have an opportunity to use sparring selfishly for my own development, instead of for coaching another person.
For my solo practice, it could be simple repetitions of cuts; it could be simple physical exercises such as push ups or squats, to build or maintain strength; it could be using my MBlades Swing1 with Indian club exercises, to develop musculature around the elbow and shoulder; or it could be stretching in various fashions, to maintain or improve flexibility, but mainly to undo the damage of spending so much time sitting at my computer!
I use my solo practice time each day to keep myself in good and healthy condition. If I begin in good condition, then I will use the time to practise fencing techniques. If I’m not in such great condition, because I have been travelling or sitting too much, then I’ll use the time to deal with these problems and bring myself closer to my usual standard of health.
On quite a regular basis, on average at least once a month, I attend and teach at a national or international HEMA event. This gives me the opportunity to meet and fence with people outwith my usual circles, which is a fantastic opportunity to learn and to increase my skills. It also gives me the chance to chat and discuss ideas with some very knowledgeable people; so many of my significant developments in understanding have come in the bar, after hours, armed with a few pints and engaged in deep discussion! These events tend to be where I receive most input from other people to improve my own fencing skills, so I believe they are a critical part of my own training and development.
I don’t tend to worry too much about competing in tournaments at these events. If I have something I want to test and validate, then sure, I’ll give it a go. But I’m not a very competitive person, and I would much rather talk with people or do some friendly sparring than participate in a tournament. Still, I know that competitions are good for me, and force me to up my game, and I also believe that I owe it to my students to test my skills and interpretations regularly, so that I’m not teaching them any ineffective nonsense. So I do participate in a few tournaments a year, but I will almost never go to an event purely to compete.
Have there been any personal changes to your method/techniques that do not “jive” with what’s written by the masters of the past? If so, can you give us an example?
Over the years, I have found myself doing things a little differently to the instructions in the historical source material. Invariably, this has led to joint pains, muscle pains, injuries, and a lower rate of success in sparring and competition.
Leading to pains and injuries have been concepts such as striking mechanics. For example, in Roworth’s broadsword treatise,2 he describes exactly how to perform a cut. I found myself not quite doing it the way he described; and sure enough, after a few months of this incorrect practice, I developed wrist pains that took the better part of six months to go away. What made the wrist pains go away? The solution was to change my striking mechanics to be exactly what Roworth described, and not to do it “wrong” anymore. That fixed the problem.
A common error with the longsword is either to overcomplicate or to oversimplify an action. The source material tends to describe techniques, principles and sequences in a relatively straightforward fashion, and it tends to make perfect sense if you just do what the book says. If you start adding extra actions, because you find it helps in slow and somewhat cooperative drills, then inevitably it will not work properly in sparring because you have made it too slow and too complicated.
By the same token, if the source says: “do this; do this other thing; then finally, do this third thing”, then there is probably a good reason for that. If you choose to simplify that series of instructions down to just: “do this thing that vaguely resembles the motion of those three instructions”, then you lose some of the important elements of the technique, and it probably won’t work anymore.
So I have found that buckling down and just doing what the sources describe, paying attention to details, but not adding anything of my own, is the best way to achieve success without compromising my joints and health.
For those people interested in learning more about historical sword fighting arts what are the top 3 books (besides your own) would you’d recommend and why?
Tough question. I have quite an extensive library, and I have read many excellent books, so there so many titles I could choose to answer this question. If someone were interested in learning just about any of the medieval or renaissance martial arts, then I would recommend the following resources:
1) B. Ann Tlusty: The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany.3 This is not a HEMA book, as such, but it sets the scene and lays out the context for the historical fencing arts in the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th to 17th centuries. I would go as far as to say that it is impossible to understand 16th century fencing systems (such as that of Joachim Meyer) without first having read this book. There are few books about which I wax lyrical, but this is one of them, and it easily earns first place on this list!
2) D.A. Kinsley: Swordsmen of the British Empire.4 Again, this book sets the scene and provides lots of valuable context, although it is not intended as a HEMA book. It is also not a book that covers medieval or renaissance martial arts; as the title suggests, it is a collection of primary sources and first hand accounts of close quarters combat experienced by men and officers in the service of (and opposed to) the British Empire, in conflicts across the world.
Since so few people today have any real or meaningful experience of violence (which is a good thing), we can fall into traps of imagining a Hollywood style of response of victims to sword actions, and we can very easily build a fantasy world of how effective techniques will be. The reality, as shown in so many of these accounts, is that people can survive the most horrendous wounds (sometimes several at one time), or they can die from the littlest wound. If we want to learn how to fight with swords, I think it is valuable to learn what swords are actually capable of doing, but also what they are not necessarily capable of doing.
3) http://www.wiktenauer.com – I know this is a website and not a book, but it is probably the most valuable resource available to anyone interested in historical European martial arts. It is a crowdsourced, collaborative research project, making available scans, transcriptions, and translations, of hundreds of historical martial arts treatises. It is hosted and sponsored by the HEMA Alliance, an umbrella organisation based in the USA, and it has managed to run some successful crowdfunding campaigns to raise money for purchasing high quality scans from museums and libraries around the world.
Again, I could wax lyrical about the Wiktenauer and how valuable it is, but I think the greatest joy would be visiting the site yourself, finding a treatise that sounds interesting, and seeing what the website has to offer!
What would be your advice to kid, teen or young adult who’s interested in historical fencing but doesn’t have a fencing salle or club nearby?
That is a remarkably common question. My advice would be to decide what it is you want to learn and why you want to learn it.
Do you want to learn to use a specific type of sword, because that kind of sword is really cool and inspires you in some fashion? Then get a book or DVD that will give you a basic understanding of that weapon and system, and start working on it in your back garden! Go through the guards of the system, attempt the cuts and thrusts, and generally just move with the sword in hand. Reach out to your local community and see if anyone would like to practise with you. You don’t need to be a master fencer, or a master teacher; you just have to have a book, arrange meetings, get people to show up, and be one lesson ahead of them so that you can keep everything moving forward.
Or do you want to learn to use a sword (any kind of sword) in general? Then see if there is a local club that does kendo, iaido, or modern fencing, and sign up to that. It might not be HEMA, but it will teach you some useful skills nonetheless. Then, when you feel a little more confident about handling a sword, follow the advice above and reach out to your local community to try and set up a HEMA club.
Another option, if you have money to spend, is to find an established HEMA school with an instructor who has an excellent reputation, and see if you can travel to that school for a week to take some deep and immersive lessons. There is a growing number of professional schools and instructors to be found in North America and Europe, so if you have the money to spend, this course of action will both support a professional HEMA person and will give you a solid grounding in the system that you would like to learn. Thereafter, once you return home, you will know what to practise, what to avoid doing because of risk of injury, and you will have someone to whom you can reach out with questions.
You can also find a Facebook discussion group such as the HEMA Alliance group, the UK HEMA group, or the HEMA International Discussion group, where you can ask questions, or post videos of your practice to ask for feedback. However, bear in mind that Facebook is what it is: a platform where people are encouraged to make fast, throwaway comments; that is not designed for finding archived material or reading discussions that have taken place previously. Although joining a Facebook discussion group can be useful, it is by no means as useful as developing a real friendship or working relationship with a well-respected professional instructor.
Who is your favorite swordsman of history and why?
My favourite swordsman from history would probably be either Donald McBane or Donald Macleod. They were both soldiers in Highland regiments of the British army, on the cusp of the 17th and 18th centuries, and they both left memoirs.
McBane wrote The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion in 1728, including his story, a treatise on artillery and gunnery, and various short treatises on fencing with a variety of weapons.5 If ever there was to be a Hollywood film made about HEMA, it should be a film about McBane’s life! He was a soldier, a thief, a pimp, a gambler, and a fencing master. He fought in several duels, in many brawls, and in a variety of pitched battles and sieges; he took many wounds, was blown up a few times, and still kept going. At the age of 63, he fought his final duel: a prizefight against a young Irish gladiator. Needless to say, McBane won this fight, and returned happily to his retirement.
William Thompson was Macleod’s biographer (as far as we can determine); and in 1791, he recorded Macleod’s reminiscences in a book with the rather long title: Memoirs of the Life and Gallant Exploits of the Old Highlander, Serjeant Donald Macleod, who, Having returned, Wounded, with the Corpse of General Wolfe, from Quebec, was Admitted an Out-Pensioner of Chelsea Hospital, in 1759; and is now in the CIII.d Year of His Age.6 Macleod was a stonemason’s apprentice, and then he ran away to become a soldier. He fought across Europe and North America. His exploits are quite fantastic, and while it is entirely possible that some of the stories are embellished, there is evidence to suggest that he was a real person, that he did indeed serve in the army, and therefore that he probably did fight in the battles in which he claims to have fought – or at least, some of them. Once Hollywood has finished making a film about McBane, I think Macleod would be an excellent choice for their second foray into the life of HEMA characters.
If you had the chance to be trained by 3 masters of the past, who would you choose and why?
I would probably choose Sigmund Ringeck, Hans Talhoffer, and either Johannes Lecküchner or Andre Lignitzer.
Ringeck was a member of the “Society of Liechtenauer”, and wrote glosses for Liechtenauer’s Zettel, the somewhat-cryptic verses that set out and recorded Liechtenauer’s system for fighting. He clearly understood Liechtenauer’s method, and was also able to add some of his own material to the system in a fashion that fits quite well and does not seem foreign or out of place at all. He was the fencing master to the Dukes of Bavaria, so clearly he was a skilled and valued instructor. He would be able to teach me about the core Liechtenauer method of fencing with the longsword, which is my principal area of study.
Talhoffer was a shady figure. He was a fencing master who taught people how to fight in preparation for judicial duels, and also provided training to some noble families. He authored several manuscripts on the subject of fighting with a variety of weapons. He was also an assassin and had more than one run-in with the law.7 He was clearly no academic studying just the theory of fighting: he dealt with the gritty details and fallouts on a day-to-day basis, and I think it would be fascinating to see the difference in his approach to fencing and violence compared with the approach (and health and safety consciousness) of modern practitioners.
Lecküchner was a priest who authored several manuscripts on fencing with the messer, the long knife that was often worn as a sidearm by civilians. Lignitzer was a fencing master who authored several treatises on wrestling, sword and buckler, fighting in armour, and fighting with the dagger. Both of these masters would be able to teach me valuable lessons about fencing with these weapons, and either would be an excellent complement to the team made up by Ringeck and Talhoffer.
We are now in the New Year. What resolutions do you have and/or goals for the year?
I spent most of the last two years not working particularly closely with the longsword source material. Instead, I tried to improve my fundamental skills, so that I would be able to perform the techniques and sequences described in these treatises. I had realised that while I knew a lot of theory, I couldn’t apply enough of it effectively when I was sparring. So instead of continuing to work on complicated things that I couldn’t make work, I decided to step back and work on the basics by improving myself as a fencer. I gave a presentation about this approach at the Iron Gate Exhibition event in 2015.8
This plan has worked well, and I am now considerably more competent than I was previously. I can apply more techniques in sparring, and I understand better what I need to do in order to make things work.
Therefore, my plan for 2017 is to return to the sources and spend more time involved with the books. I feel it is important to “touch base” with the sources, again and again, to ensure that we stay in the realm of recreating a martial art as accurately as possible, so that we do not stray into the realm of making stuff up. While some people enjoy making stuff up, in my opinion HEMA relies on source material.9 As I answered in question 5 above, disregarding the advice in the sources has led to pains and injuries, and to less effective performance in sparring and tournaments. So, why would I disregard source material and accept pain and injuries, and willingly choose a weaker and less effective performance of technical skills, if I can just follow what the sources say and avoid the pain and injury, and achieve better results in my fencing?
So, a return to the source material, spending a bit more time with the books again, letting new ideas and information percolate and then become part of my overall understanding; this would be my plan for the coming year.
If you were a video game or fantasy character what weapon, magic and special skill would you possess?
I would have a sword, probably a longsword. It’s just too much fun not to have it in this sort of setting! I would have the special skill of finding enough trouble to make the story dramatic, but of not getting myself into inextricable or irretrievable situations. That would keep my life interesting without being too worried about dying. I think that sounds pretty good, on the whole!
FOR MORE INFO ON KEITH FARRELL, VISIT HIS WEBSITE
1 A sword with an extremely short blade, yet weighted to give the correct feeling of weight and balance of a real sword – very useful for training indoors with low ceilings! http://www.mblades.com/swing/
2 Charles Roworth; Ben Kerr and Keith Farrell (eds.). The Art of Defence on Foot, 1798. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, October 2014.
3 B. Ann Tlusty. The Martial Ethic in Early Modern Germany: Civic Duty and the Right of Arms. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
4 D.A. Kinsley. Swordsmen of the British Empire. 1st ed. British Sword Fighters series, part 3. Lulu, April 2013.
5 Donald McBane; Ben Kerr (ed.). The Expert Sword-Man’s Companion, 1728. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, January 2015.
6 Keith Farrell (ed.). Memoirs of Serjeant Donald Macleod, 1791. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, May 2016.
7 “Hans Talhoffer: A Historical Martial Arts Blog by Jens P. Kleinau.” https://talhoffer.wordpress.com/category/a-life-like-that-of-talhoffer/
9 Keith Farrell. “What is HEMA to me?” Encased in Steel, 10th June 2016. http://www.encasedinsteel.co.uk/2016/06/10/what-is-hema-to-me/
What got you into the martial arts?
That is a very long story, but even as kid, I was always interested in tactics and fighting. Maybe movies and TV spurred my interest? The how-to tricks. A vehicle to learn this stuff was martial arts, which I started in 1972 with Ed Parker Kenpo. I was about 18 years old? No kids back then. But martial arts were never my end goal, just a ways to learn those tactics and tricks. I personally find martial arts themselves to be distracting. All sorts of biases and things happen in this training process that gets one off the path of clean, unarmed and mixed weapon, generic fighting.
Incoming mob/crowd, you have 30 mins to teach a complete novice how to fight. What do you teach them?
The suggestion in the question is – me and a group are about to be bombarded by a mob or group? My questions to best answer that question is who, what, where, when, how and why? The answer has to be customized for the situation. Who is the mob? What do they want? Where are we? When is this happening? How specifically will it happen? Why? If IO knew that? I could answer something. It is so, so situational.
Short times? Generally, I almost never, ever do short, self defense training classes. I have to be really be pushed, coerced or “guilted” into doing one. Fighting info is too big and too perishable as it is for people in regular training. I know some people that like to do that but I don’t for that reason, I am just not geared up to cover short segments/deals. I do have do a speech on “Who, What, Were, When, How and Why,” though. A speech, nothing physical, that is pretty important for all to know and that speech can be squeezed into all kinds of very short or longer time frames.
As a self-protection expert, what do you consider to be under-taught or under-appreciated concept in the self-protection field?
The seamless mix of hand, stick, knife and gun training is way, way and foolishly under-taught. No matter where in the world you live, no matter the laws and rules, criminals and enemy soldiers use knives, sticks and guns. You fight them, you pick up their weapons. “We live in a mixed weapons world” is one of my opening mottos.
It is commonly taught that if someone demands your wallet or purse, you should throw it to the ground and run. Is this good, universal advice? If not, are there cues as to when we should do this or not?
Many instructors just say “always run away, which is “simpleton” advise. “Simple” better advice is “run away, if you can.” Based on military and police history as in crime and war, you should pick and choose and gamble with just “turning around and running away.” Sometimes the mugger wants your watch and ring too, not just the wallet. They chase you. Then, they also chase you out of a predator instinct. The military once called it “The Caveman Chase.” And remember, you are easier to kill from behind, another long known concept that goes back as far as Alexander the Great. Easer to kill, not because you can’t see the attacker, but the attacker can’t see your face, doesn’t personalize you. Much more about this in my knife book. The goal is an “orderly retreat,” as a method to leaving, whatever that is situation-by-situation. Also, who are you leaving behind when you run? How fast and far can you run? How fast and far do you think the attacker can run? What clues do you have that you can run? Maybe the physical make-out the robber? I can’t answer that with any certainty.
A common argument in the self-defense community is that if you really want to protect yourself, buy and carry a gun. What are your personal thoughts on guns and conceal and carry?
Oh yes, on the handgun. But you just have to figure out and be trained on how and when to use it. Well, the whole who, what, where, when, how and why to use it. That goes for any weapon for that matter. But I use the breakdown for training.
- There/Not There – why are you “there” in the first place? Why can’t you leave?
- Pull/Don’t Pull – When and if do you pull the weapon out?
- Point/Don’t Point – Is the weapon out, or ready in some way and concealed in some way? Bladed body, etc. Or, do you point it at the enemy?
- Shoot/Don’t Shoot – All of these require an essay to dissect.
If you look at the entire self-defense community, the majority of people learning to defend themselves are men. Men with little or no fighting experience are often concerned (apart from being harmed) with defending themselves and getting sued, taken to court and/or arrested. What do you tell your students/clients who are concerned with this issue?
In the end, remember that for citizens in modern times and civilizations, your willingness to fight, no matter how righteous and defensive your actions might be, may often end with you going to jail, with considerable legal fees and maybe with some added doctor bills to boot. You may well be vindicated later but at a physical, emotional, and monetary loss. You can very easily be arrested and you could be sued. Violence sucks. It’s a negative experience. But you are stuck in that nasty vortex.
Regular people should fight criminals to escape (and a criminal could be your drunk Uncle Harry. Once he attacks you he is officially a criminal). So, winning for most, regular people is just fighting to escape. No over kill, no maiming, no killing unnecessarily. (My courses are called “Force Necessary”) You fight to win, but what is winning?. There are 5 ways to “win,” or to “finish” a fight, whether soldier, citizen, security or cop.
- You leave. You escape from the opponent (using the “Orderly Retreat” concept), with no physical contact.
- He leaves. No physical contact. You use threats, demands and intimidation to make the opponent desist and leave.
- He stays. Physical contact. You inflect less-than-lethal injury upon the opponent. Injure and/or diminish to a degree that the opponent stops fighting and won’t chase you.
- You and he both stay. Physical contact or verbal control. You control as in arrest, contain and restrain. You capture and, or escort the opponent. Or, you detain/capture the opponent and await the proper authorities.
- He dies. Lethal methods. We fight criminals and enemy soldiers. Sometimes we kill them.
I get concerned that so many systems teach fighting like everyone you struggle with is a Nazi commando doomed to a neck break or scooped out eye balls. The system you train in, the things you say on the web, the tattoos you have, the names of the weapons you carry, your associates, everything can be used against you in court. I can tell you story after story about this.
Many self-protection specialists say that self-defense is more of a mental game than a physical one. Is this your opinion? Why or why not?
That is one of those intellectual hair-splitters that I don’t care to hair-split. I guess you need both but to what “exact” percentage at any given time, I can’t say. 50%-50%? You could be mean as hell in your head, but gas-out in 40 second fight. Then your mean/tough mind is in a skull on the ground getting bashed because you didn’t physically train enough. It’s both sides seamlessly working in unison. Why split it? Some folks got it, some folks can get it, some folks never will.
Women and children are the most victimized individuals in any society. Should women and children be taught differently than men? Why or why not?
“It’s a mixed person’s world” is one of my mottos. In many ways everyone should be taught differently. Every person is a different size, shape, strength, age, fitness level, job, situation, etc. with weak spots, ailments and laws to work around. There is no cookie-cutter fight system for all. In the end, it is the responsibility of each person to find their favorite things they can do well, for facing the problems they most likely will face. The instructor is supposed to facilitate that process, not make cookie-cutter robots. At some point you can teach statistically high “blanket” items like “hand striking” of course, especially in the beginning, but we can’t forget the eventual, necessary customization. And customization and prioritizing shouldn’t ignore lesser, probable events. Crazy stuff has and can happen.
Another big concern and why so many people are doing jiu-jitsu now is the perpetuated line that “most often the fight will end up on the ground.” In your experience, do you find that this is true? Either way, what traits/abilities are essential in someone to adequately defend themselves?
Well, for starters, when I did jujitsu it was a different time. Lots of standing solutions and takedowns. Judo was the ground wrestling arena. Today, the Brazilians have utterly redefined the term, as well as advanced the ground chess game.
But I think that everyone should be able to up, down and fight everywhere. I don’t like to see Billy Bob’s Kick boxing school on one street corner, and “Big Ralph’s Wrasling” school on another corner. Fighting is fighting and you fight where you fight. Seamlessly. Standing, kneeling, sitting and on the ground. You fight where you fight, with and without weapons. That is the end goal for me and what I teach people to pursue. But, in order to amass an education in these subjects we must meet experts in each of these fields. Again, all sorts of biases and things happen in this training process that gets one off the path of clean, unarmed and mixed weapon, generic fighting.
A collaboration of criminal justice colleges years ago came up with the four common ways we hit the ground, as best they could from research.
- We trip and fall
- We are punched down (usually sucker punches)
- We are tackled down
- We are pulled down
The very fact that you can often land on the ground, is reason alone to worry about it. I am a big fan of generic, MMA-ish, fighting with an emphasis on ground and pound. MMA has become very clean and generic for it does. It wants to win and system borders be damned. Plus, nothing replaces ring time -to quote Joe Lewis.
We are now in the New Year. What resolutions do you have and/or goals for the year?
I am supposed to be retired, you know. HA! I hope to trim my seminar schedule down to one USA city a month, one international city a month and one Sunday a month in the Dallas/Ft Worth area where I live. Technically, this means I am home two full weeks a month, but I can already see this is stacking and packing up differently than I planned for 2017 already. But, I would like to teach way less, write way more, and just hang out with my wife most of all.
Bonus Question – What book or resource (besides your own material) have you suggested or gifted most and why?
Oh man…DON’T get me started on THIS list, as I recommend a different book in every one of newsletters every three weeks for years, but here are just a few.
- Smarter Faster Better : by Charles Duhigg. Tremendous, enlightening, myth-breaking into on performance
- The Talent Code : by Dan Coyle
- Streetlights and Shadows : Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making by Gary Klein
- Anti-Fragile : by Nassim Talib
- Bounce : by Matt Syed
For more information on Hoch Hochheim and Force Necessary please visit his website.