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Heath White
Heath White's picture
Leitai as a clue to some martial arts mysteries?

This is a spitball-level idea I’ve had, and it involves subjects I don’t know a whole lot about.  I’ll just toss it out there and see what people think.

Martial arts mystery #1: the Sanchin stance.  More generally, any strongly rooted stance where your feet are screwed into the ground, maximizing stability and minimizing mobility.  As far as I know, no combat sport uses such a stance:  not wrestling, judo, boxing, karate, TKD, Muay Thai, etc.  It seems totally dysfunctional from a practical point of view.  Why does this stance exist?

Martial arts mystery #2: the shove.  Some Chinese styles include powerful shoving techniques.  For example, big shoves that send uke flying are a staple of those “internal power” demonstrations for tai chi.  Even if you do not believe the demonstration exactly, the technique exists in tai chi.  But any time you could shove someone, you could hit them, and it would hurt more.  Why would you practice a shove?

A possible clue to solving the mysteries: the lei tai.  The lei tai was the traditional location for challenge matches in China.  “The lei tai is an elevated fighting arena, without railings, where often fatal weapons and bare-knuckle martial arts tournaments were once held…. Fighters would lose if they surrendered, were incapacitated, were thrown or otherwise forced from the stage. The winner would remain on the stage (as its "owner") unless ousted by a stronger opponent. If there were no more challengers, they would become the champion.” (Wikipedia)

The final fight scene in the first Ip Man movie is on a leitai. 

So here is my speculative guess.  Suppose you are a martial arts master in old China.  You know that you or your students are going to have to fight, at some point, on a lei tai.  You win if you can knock your opponent off; you lose if you get knocked off; and some of those platforms are really high, so falling off is no joke.  In that situation, (1) powerful shoves might be preferred to strikes.  And (2) you could use a strongly rooted stance as shove defense, to prevent getting shoved off yourself.

If that were right, you could predict:

1. Shoving techniques, and rooted stances, would not be found (or die out) in places with no leitai.  Like Okinawa for example.  I think this is true: the older Matsumora lineage of karate has a lot less of the rooted stances than the newer Goju lineage, for example.  And you don’t find this in Korea.  I don’t know whether you could distinguish different regions of China in this regard.

2. You would expect shoving techniques, and rooted stances, to be found in the same systems.  I’m not sure this is true.  Does anyone know?

OK, like I said, that is just a wild guess.  What do people think?

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Interesting idea, but I don't think it's correct.

On the sanchin stance thing: Arguably, no combat spor teaches -any- Karate stances, because they typically are not taught in the same way. So this is more a result of stances being misunderstood than the stance themselves. In short, it is a result of the non-functional training method that became a part of modern Karate training. Functionally, I can verify that once you open up the possiblities of what sanchin stance is supposed to do, the basic boxing stance I learned is in fact, a combination of Sanchin and Zenkutsu dachi in terms of physical structure. This question will of course vary widely depending on what kind of Karate training a person has had. For me, Sanchin stance is very functional, but of course it does not look like a static sanchin stance when I use it. The Sanchin step is vital to how I learned to generate power moving forward in Goju Ryu, as an example. Much like Naihancin stance, we are missing the purpose almost entirely by focusing only on static posture, and not how we got there. Additionally, Sanchin stance is as much about training  the position of the spine and shoulders as the feet. In that sense, again, what I learned from it transferred quite easily to boxing, only of course in boxing you are immediately introduced to using the same concepts in a dynamic form. That shows where modern Karate training is lacking, to be sure.

Turning the lead foot in is standard in boxing, btw, as one example of part of the stance that is functional. Among other things, having the lead foot turned in slightly allows movement with the balls of the feet. Similarly, the back foot faces forward so that an extra adjustment of the hip is not needed for forward and lateral motion. Now, do most Karateka use it that way...arguably not. Still, I am convinced that what you are looking at is just knowledge being lost in Karate, not that Sanchin serves some purpose of not getting knocked off of a Leitai. Zenkutsu or Shikodachi would actually do a much better job of that.

On Taiji, that has to do quite specifically with what happened when Yang Taiji became the dominant form, and one which was taught in a mostly un-martial form to the aristocracy, as well as confusing of a training methos (push hands) with all application. The combination of those two things has made modern Taiji application into something that was likely very different from the intent of it's creators, especially Chen Taiji, which is the oldest form. That isn't to say that Taiji doesn't contain pushes, but the ridiculous number of modern Taiji application involving pushes is in my opinion the result of lost knowledge and confusion of training method etc., not function. I practice Taiji myself and one of tthe first things I noticed is that many the most effective applications are quite obvious to a functional Karate type person, but so many Taiji players have done nothing but push hands that their minds go only to a kind of unbalancing game when it comes to application. That is not what push hands was intended to be, but it is what it has become, and has clearly infleunced many practitioners views of "application" in Taiji.

So, ill add my alternative theory to yours:

There are a lot of things in traditional martial arts that seem non-functional because, at one point, a teacher asked a student to stand in a static posture and perform a given technique, stance etc. Over time, the limited training drill got confused with the dynamic or applied use of the stance, technique, etc. and so function was lost. Similarly with push hands, what was once a drill to develop some very specific body skills in Taiji got confused with literal application of the movements, and Taiji which is nothing but a pushing game came to be. In this case, we also have push hands competition driving this idea.

As far as I know Korean stances come primarily from Shotokan, so those don't need to be differentiated in particular, other than the TKD-specific "bounce" movement which I think probably just comes from TKD competitions..

One way you could look at this Sanchin question is to look at the Southern Chinese styles that Naha te partially comes from. I have never seen claims from any of these Southern Gongfu styles that Sanchin is created for Leitai battles. I imagine if that were the case, it would be explicitly stated somewhere.

As an aside, watch the Ganryujima MMA events, about half of them can be found on Youtube, they are modern Leitai events, essentially. The styles which seem to do best overall are Karate and pure grappling.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

Thanks for the input Zach.  Maybe my wild guesses have about the likelihood one would expect smiley