The Artifact of Not Stepping

Warning: This post is a bit gruesome.

The emphasis on "applications" in martial arts training has long seemed contrived to me. When you are training more than five hours a day, every day, as I did in my early twenties, you quickly learn that techniques are as common as blades of grass and not very important to the overall skill set.  But also that some techniques are simpler and more important than others.

 Most Chinese martial arts use the technique of stepping on the foot. We also use foot traps and ankle sweeps. The basic technique is you step on the foot at the same time as you are taking away the opponent’s upright space. This was some of the first stuff I learned from each of my Chinese martial arts teachers. But I never saw it executed fully because the risk of maiming is too high. Maiming your students is not a good business model. I did see, and practice, ankle sweeps but we usually did it giving the opponent something to hold onto because the fully expressed technique pivots the opponent in the air at about hip height. Making for a long fall to the ground. Anyway, I never saw the fully executed technique of stepping on the opponent's foot while he falls all the way to the ground. 

This video is exactly what I'm talking about, excellent basic technique is shown, but the technique itself is never fully executed. 

After hanging out and experimenting a little with Ed Calderon, who is the only person I know with a lot of experience breaking legs, it struck me that those basic techniques are some of the most potent ones. Further reflecting on it I started to wonder if Chinese martial artists were creating huge artifacts because so few teachers had ever fully used these basic techniques?

An “artifact” in this case is something unnecessary or extrinsic to the subject but which people think belongs there. I wonder if it is possible that a huge amount of complexity was inserted into the Chinese martial arts in order to make them usable in a class setting? 

Here is another example of an artifact for comparison. I was in Berlin last Summer and was introduced to a MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter who had some success in competition. He was also smart, like he speaks ancient Greek and makes money doing some kind of mathematics two days a week from home kind of smart. And his father owned a boxing gym so he grew up with a high level of fighting skill. Anyway, he was talking to me and a couple friends over beer about his “hobby” of debunking martial arts techniques. He claimed that it is impossibly difficult to rip off someone’s ear. He claimed to know this because he had seen people grappling while holding the other guy’s ears, and because he and some guys from his milieu had done some sort of test with people who claimed to be able to do it, and they failed. We argued about it for too long. He wouldn’t concede. My only evidence at that moment was that Ed Calderon was teaching it as a technique, and said he had seen it, and that it was a popular technique among criminals in Mexico. 

A few weeks later I asked Rory Miller about it, he said, yeah, I don’t teach ear techniques because they come off too easily. Then he Googled some images for me. 

I thought about it more and remembered that when Ed was teaching he told people to be really careful, but never the less, one guy’s ear got torn just enough for blood to start pouring out, nice first-aid demo too. 

In fact, the guy in Berlin did mention that maybe there would be a little tear or a little blood but no ear removal. When he said that I didn’t catch it. It didn’t occur to me that that reason he had created this “artifact” was because in his milieu if you tear off someone’s ear no one will ever play with you again. Just a slight tear in practice, and everyone would immediately stop. Do that often enough and you might start to believe that it is impossible to keep going.

I think the same thing is happening in Chinese martial arts with foot stepping and trapping techniques. Hardly anyone has ever used this technique to maim their opponent. So they pile on complex techniques because they have to teach something other than the obvious stepping on the foot. If we ride this horse to the end of the range, most Tai Chi push-hands technique exists as an artifact of not stepping on the foot, most Baguazhang arm techniques are what you would do if you were barefoot and your opponent had sharp spikes coming out of his boots (i.e. you would avoid stepping on his foot). 

Anyone else notice this?

Okay enough about maiming. Complexity is often fun. Like solving puzzles. Taking complex movement and integrating it so deeply that it becomes simple, is fun too. Depth of body knowledge is a huge reason people practice martial arts. Spinning complexity into simplicity is also a characteristic of Daoist ritual, and a potent theatrical idea. Let’s not be anti-complexity. But complexity has a dark side and a down side. The dark side is that students get strung along indefinitely, never quite "getting it." The down side is that if you are teaching self-defense, complexity doesn't work under extreme pressure. Having too many options or too much complexity causes people to freeze.