Thursday, January 28, 2010

Batman -- Martial Artist - 06.03 - Northern Shaolin

The word "Shaolin" is probably the most-known phrase worldwide in regards to Kung Fu. This will be a fairly brief overview of the style/school that is typically what people, whether they know it or not, are referring to when they say "Shaolin". (To read my brief summary of the Temple's historical origins, read the first post on Kung Fu.)

The Northern Shaolin Monastery is the monastery that most people refer to as Shaolin Temple. It is where Bodhidharma made his pilgrimage and introduced some yoga and Indian martial arts techniques. These teachings blended with the indigenous martial arts styles already present, and the monks practiced their martial arts as a form of moving meditation, but initially the martial arts practice was primarily done to prepare monks to defend against marauders and bandits. Gradually, the monastery became more secure, and the monks were able to focus on using the arts for more spiritual purposes.
It was not uncommon for retired soldiers to devote themselves to religion, and the Shaolin monastery became the home for many such men. These men brought with them their military training and helped augment the Shaolin martial arts, particularly when it came to weapons. It was also not uncommon for fleeing criminals to seek sanctuary, and many ruffians would eventually become monks, also bringing their own physical skills and training methods.

While a student in the Shaolin monastery could learn several individual, distinct styles weapons methods, over time the various styles also blended into what could be described as the Northern Shaolin style. This style focused on longer-ranged techniques, acrobatic attacks, flexibility, and speed. The high kicks and jumping techniques found in northern schools of Kung Fu are often attributed to the idea of taking an opponent down from their horse. The wide stances are supposed to give the martial artist a lower center of gravity and greater balance.
Most technques were passed down in illustrated manuals and taught in forms. Students would practice most forms, and when becoming ordained monks would typically chooses to master one empty-hand form and one weapon.
Because of the military influence, Northern Shaolin teaching encompassed most weapons available at the time. These include (but are not limited to) the broadsword, straight sword, staff, monk's cudgel, three-section-staff, nunchaku, dart rope, and butterfly knives.
Because students typically lived in the monastery for years, if not most of their lives, there was plenty of time to train by repetition. A student could certainly spend five hours in a stance, simply punching. Techniques would be repeated ad nauseum until they would be strung together as forms. Then, after thousands of repetitions of a single form, students would practice in two-man forms. Eventually, after years of repetitious drilling, students (usually monks) could spar so as to perfect their reflexes and hone their techniques.
Many monks would also practice various "iron body" techniques, usually focusing on a single area (some monks focused their palms, others on their groin, or head, etc.). (Read my post on Iron Fist.)

The monastery featured many training apparatuses, examples (and exaggerations) of which can be seen in kung fu movies (like "36th Chamber of Shaolin") and plenty of documentaries.

Nowadays, the Shaolin Temple is primarily a religious, cultural, and monetary institution in China. To learn "Shaolin Kung Fu", someone (especially a foreigner) would have to go to one of the hundreds of schools surrounding the actual monastery. These schools are typically run by monks or former monks looking to spread martial culture and make a decent living. While some of the older techniques and training methods can certainly still be found in those schools, the schools primarily focus on the much more profitable styles of Wushu (the modern acrobatic, demonstrational style that came about as a result of the Cultural Revolution) and Sanshou (the modern kickboxing style that also was formed and is regulated by the Chinese government).

Unfortunately, Northern Shaolin style does not exist as it once did, really. The influence of it can be seen in the Northern systems of Kung Fu, and somewhat in Wushu and Sanshou, but most teachers claiming to teach "Shaolin Kung Fu" are most likely teaching a different style (that could very well have been influenced by Shaolin, or a descendant of it) and simply capitalizing on a rich cultural tradition and household brand name.
Would Batman learn Northern Shaolin? He would certainly want to be skilled in the elements present in the style, but he could do this by studying multiple Chinese styles. Of course, Bruce Wayne is supposed to be able to find out-of-the-way masters of older, perfected styles, so he could very well find a "true" Shaolin master and study under him.

-I highly suggest the movies "36th Chamber of Shaolin" and "Shaolin Temple". I also suggest the book "American Shaolin".
-I have found it quite easy (and enjoyable) to spend hours on end looking at videos on youtube that portray Shaolin training methods. I could also suggest the "Human Weapon" and "Fight Quest" episodes about Kung Fu.
-The TV show "Kung Fu", while quite enjoyable, was almost entirely errant in its representation of the Shaolin Kung Fu an many Shaolin traditions. Nevertheless, I do love that show. RIP David Carradine, crazy sex fiend that he was.
-Always question whatever history you read or hear in regards to martial arts (including this one). I admit to not having done a truly exhaustive amount of academic research on the subject, but I especially advise you to be wary of things that sound too much like legend and over-hype. (If you meet a "master" who claims to have trained at the Shaolin Temple, either disregard him or ask what school in Dengfeng he ACTUALLY trained at, and what generation of monk his teachers were [they should know, and it should usually be between 30th generation and 33rd].)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Batman -- Martial Artist - 06.02 - Mok Gar

Mok-Gar (or Sil Lum Mok Gar Kuen) is another Southern Chinese branch of Kung Fu. Like most Southern styles of Kung Fu (including Wing Chun), Mok-Gar stresses in-fighting.

The legend of this particular style’s origin claims that it was developed by a midget monk of the Sil Lum monastery (Southern Shaolin Temple) named Mok Da Si. At the time, Mok was considered the foremost master of the Southern Shaolin Fist (Sil Lum Kuen/Shaolin Chuen). Like many great masters, he made his own adjustments here and there, developing the art into one not unlike what we know as Wing Chun. As a shorter man, it would be a poor decision for him to attempt attacks and defenses better suited for longer limbs. Thus, he taught the principle of getting in close to the opponent, using short blocks and punches, and low kicks.

Three generations later, Mok Gin Kiu learned stronger and more varied kicks from a teacher outside of his family and became a famous fighter. At this time, the style he inherited dropped the long-since erroneous name of Shaolin Fist and began to be called Mok Gar Kuen after the family.

One of the most notable Mok-Gar practitioners was Mok Kwei Lan. As a teenager, she studied under her uncle and eventually married a friend of his: the famous Hung Gar grandmaster and fairly modern Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung. Mok Kwei Lan convinced her highly skilled husband to incorporate the kicking skills taught in Mok-Gar, so that the Hung Gar style as passed down from Wong Fei Hung shares many kicking techniques with Mok-Gar.

Mok-Gar makes use of two different wooden dummies. The first type is the same found in Wing Chun. The second is called a darn gee and is typically made up of a hollow bamboo post (about 13’ tall, 4” in diameter, set into the ground by about 3’), filled with washers (or coins). It is used to practice techniques and build power, particularly for kicking. The primary goals are to increase flexibility, speed, and accuracy and to toughen the feet.

Mok-Gar encompasses most traditional Kung Fu weapons, but primarily focuses on wooden pegs (shorter sticks, mostly for jabbing vulnerable points on the body), butterfly knives (same as Wing Chun), and the siu so gee (like a nunchaku, but with one end much shorter than the other).
Would Batman learn Mok-Gar? Maybe. While it is about as effective as any other Southern Chinese style, Batman might not find it necessary to learn this art if he learns both Wing Chun and Karate. The blocks and punches taught in Mok-Gar seem to be half-way between the blocks and punches found in Wing Chun and most styles of Karate. The trapping found in Mok-Gar could also be covered by Wing Chun and Jujitsu. In Bruce’s travels in China, he would certainly come across Mok-Gar, Wing Chun, and Hung Gar, and would find something in each of them. If nothing else, he would likely find the dummies used in Mok-Gar to be effective training tools.

Additional information came from Wikipedia, of course, as well as other internet sources (like ).
A Handbook of Martial Arts by Fay Goodman

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The World of Apu

I recently had the pleasure of viewing this 1959 Indian film by writer/producer/director Satyajit Ray. It is absolutely wonderful.

The final part of "The Apu Trilogy", this film follows Apu Roy, an unemployed, educated young man who lives in Calcutta. He does his best to live life as freely as possible, but this is is threatened when (through a series of circumstances) he is married to a friend's cousin. He and his wife live happily enough for a time, though they have no money.
Without overtly spoiling anything, the third act of the film is primarily about a depressed, older Apu struggling to connect with his young son.

This is a beautiful black-and-white film that stands high above every other movie I've seen come out of India. I once had a girlfriend who loved Bollywood musicals, and she made me sit through about twenty of those god-awful things. I think it's fine if that's your personal taste, but I personally find most musicals to be terrible, and I really can't get into foreign musicals.
This film, however, is nothing like those. The director actually grew up in a very arts-oriented home, and made his living as an illustrator before going in to films. He despised the happy-go-lucky Indian films of his time (and so would despise more modern ones) and sought to introduce the Indian public to the artistry that could be found in post-war films from France and Italy. He was particularly inspired by Italian neorealism (especially the film "Bicycle Thieves").

While many people would find this film difficult to sit through because of its long, lovingly held shots and lack of action, I think anyone who loves films should take a look at it.
(A note of minor interest: "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" creator Matt Groening has always been a fan of Indian films, and named the stereotypical Indian convenience store clerk character in "The Simpsons" after the main character of "The Apu Trilogy".)

Friday, January 1, 2010

Sherlock Holmes -- Martial Artist

Having seen "Sherlock Holmes" a second time, I feel more compelled to comment on the martial arts presented in the film.

In the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Empty House" (1901), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes about Holmes's martial arts knowledge by having him refer to "baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling".
However, there is not and never has been any real martial art named "baritsu". The name is in fact based on a British martial system named Bartitsu. This style was developed at the turn of the last century by E.W. Barton-Wright. Barton-Wright had spent some time in Japan and learned a bit of Jujitsu and Judo. He was also an exponent of stick fighting, boxing, and Savate. Because of his wide knowledge base, Barton-Wright is considered to be far ahead of his time in terms of mixing martial arts styles in order to create a more effective fighting system (however, it should be remembered that there was a time before systematization ruled, and the old masters were knowledgeable in all basic martial concepts).

While in the film Downey's character does demonstrate a variety of martial capabilities, the word "baritsu" is never mentioned, and the fighting style the great detective utilizes appears to be much more akin to Wing Chun than anything else (in fact, a Wing Chun wooden dummy can be seen in the apartment at 221b Baker Street). This is most likely due to Robert Downey, Jr.'s real-life practice of the Chinese style. Downey likes to mention and demonstrate his love for the system to many interviewers, and he even gives his martial arts practice some credit for his recovery from drug addiction.

Holmes uses similar poses and the vertical fist espoused in Wing Chun. To be fair, though, he also uses some Jujitsu, boxing, stick fighting, and all-around dirty fighting. His fighting ability comes in quite handy when doing battle with the criminal element. He also likes to blow off steam and practice his technique by participating in bare-knuckle fights at a bar called the Punchbowl.

Jude Law's Dr. John Watson fights rather differently, however. While Holmes takes some time to mentally calculate his strikes and their damages, Watson just goes at it. He just hits anyone and everyone with anything in reach, including but not limited to his sword-cane. This could be because Watson is not such a calculating fellow, and is an ex-soldier (in my personal experience, military men tend to brawl rather than calculate).

The fights are interesting and fun to watch in the film. I think that they demonstrate a great blend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writings, director Guy Ritchie's love of Karate and Jujitsu, Robert Downey, Jr.'s love of Wing Chun, and just plain good characterization and visual acumen.

(Most of this stuff was from my own observation/general knowledge, but some additional info came from some interviews on Aint It Cool News and stuff from Kung Fu Magazine [and, of course, Wikipedia].)