A Brief Primer on Martial Arts for Writers
I love a good action story. Give me guns, supercharged cars, katana swords and karate chops. I eat that stuff up like Skittles. But what I don’t love is when a writer meticulously researches arcane technical details of weapons, vehicles, surveillance equipment and military hardware, yet is sloppy when it comes to depicting martial arts in his story.
How many times have you read a novel where the author relentlessly backs his hero (or heroine) into an impossible corner — only to have him (or her) bust out some amazing kung fu on the bad guys, thereby escaping certain death? In such cases, martial arts are employed as a sort of deus ex machina – an improbable plot device used to resolve a problematic situation.
But martial skill takes years to attain and it must be trained a certain way – that is, as close to an actual self-defense scenario as possible — in order to be effective. Possessing a black belt in whatever art is no guarantee of success. Size, aggression and a willingness to hurt other people are always advantages. Some days you win, and some days you lose. And even if you win, chances are you’re going to get banged up in the process.
Now, I don’t claim to be a great fighter. But I’ve practised and researched various martial arts for going on thirty years, and have written a couple of non-fiction books, as well as numerous magazine articles, on the subject. So, in the hope that some writers might find this information useful, I thought I’d offer up a few martial musings.
To begin with, there are literally hundreds of martial arts styles floating around. Some are old, some are new, some are completely, utterly, laughably bogus. But concentrating on the East Asian disciplines, and especially those which are primarily concerned with unarmed combat, we can create a quick and dirty dissection by country of origin.
Japan: The most popular styles are karate, judo and jujutsu. Karate is focused on forceful striking and kicking techniques, although it also incorporates trips, throws and grappling; Jujutsu advocates the use of indirect force against an opponent by means of joint locks and throwing techniques, but likewise includes striking and kicking; Judo is solely a grappling art, practiced mainly as a sport, and features a strong emphasis on physical and spiritual development.
Korea: The best known Korean art is Tae Kwon Do, famous for its high-flying, acrobatic kicks.
China: In the West, Chinese martial arts are collectively known as kung fu. This is a bit of a misnomer, however, because the term kung fu literally refers to any skill or art that is mastered through time and effort. In that sense, a great chef or painter or musician can be said to have good “kung fu.”
There are hundreds of martial arts styles in China, each with its own unique set of techniques and philosophy. Some are designed to promote good health and longevity, while others are just meant for fighting. There are a variety of styles that mimic the movements of animals, including Praying Mantis, White Crane, Eagle Claw, Monkey, and so on. Other styles are based on cosmological concepts such as Yin and Yang and the Eight Trigrams.
Rank: The use of ranking systems and colored belts in martial arts is a relatively new invention. In Japan, it can reliably traced back to the founder of Judo, Kano Jigoro, in the 1880s. The Chinese had no similar ranking system for their martial arts until quite recently. There is a common misperception that receiving a black belt in an art signifies mastery. In fact, a black belt means different things for different disciplines, but in general, it simply indicates that a practitioner is competent in basic techniques.
A central tenet of many Japanese and Chinese martial arts is the concept of Chi (Qi). Chi refers to the life force or intrinsic energy of living things. Some martial artists believe that Chi can be used to knock down or injure opponents – like a human laser beam. There is certainly no shortage of YouTube videos showing a teacher tossing his disciples left and right with a simple flick of his finger. Sorry to say, these videos are fake. In thirty years of training, I have yet to witness, or hear from a reliable source, of an authentic demonstration of such abilities.
Chi is also an important component of healing practices which were traditionally part and parcel of martial arts training — specifically acupuncture. Traditional Chinese medical theory holds that there are a series of channels (or meridians) running through the body, much like a nervous or circulatory system, along which Chi flows. When blockages or imbalances occur, illness is the result. Inserting a needle or massaging certain points along these channels can remove the blockage, not unlike pouring Drano down a kitchen sink to unclog a water pipe.
This brings to me to the topic of martial arts tall tales, of which there are many, but I’ll touch on just a couple.
First up is Dim Mak (Dian Xue), more popularly referred to by aficionados of 70’s kung fu flicks as “death touch.” Dim Mak is closely related to Chinese medical theory in that it entails the striking of acupuncture points to disrupt Chi flow and cause injury or death. At the highest levels of proficiency, a Dim Mak expert is supposedly able to time the death of his victim to occur hours or even weeks after the application of the technique.
While pressure points are a real, and manipulating them can result in numbness, pain, sometimes unconsciousness, and very occasionally, death, the idea that jabbing your opponent with a finger or knuckle can make him freeze in place, or expire of some unspecified cause weeks later, is pure invention.
The second fallacy is the old notion that striking an opponent’s nose with the heel of your hand can drive cartilage up into his brain, instantly killing him. While a blow to the facial area can certainly be deadly, especially if it results in damage to the brain stem or spinal cord, there has never been a documented case of a martial artist using this technique to kill someone.
So how about the idea that a ninety-two pound schoolgirl can defeat a gang of brawny thugs in a dirty back alley? Well, to be sure, this is exactly what martial arts are meant to do – allow a smaller, weaker fighter to use superior technique in order to defeat bigger, stronger opponents. Does it work? Sometimes. All things being equal, in a fair fight, size and numerical superiority make a difference. If I were that schoolgirl, I’d look around for a brick or slab of wood – anything that might even the odds. Or even better, get out of there as quickly as possible.
That’s not to say martial arts aren’t practical or effective. They are. But like a boxer, wrestler, baseball player, or any other athlete, you need a good coach, proper training, and lots of time and effort to become proficient. And even then, there is a limit to what you can hope to accomplish.
So, if you’re a writer, and you’re incorporating martial arts derring-do in your work, remember that kung fu and karate are not a magic bullet. By all means, stack the odds against your hero (or heroine), but not too steeply. And remember…if necessary, martial artists are neither afraid to fight dirty, nor too proud to run like hell.