Adventures in kuntao

My regulars will be aware that, since the Mixed Martial Arts program we were in folded up, my wife Cathy and I have been having an interesting learning adventure checking out various schools in our area as possibilities for our next style. We’ve had some more adventures since.

We did indeed visit the Northern Shaolin school I alluded to in my last installment. But we were not impressed. The forms we saw were pretty, but the movements seemed less practical for combat than what they were doing at the first Shaolin studio we visited, in Berwyn. And I saw no evidence of contact sparring there, either.

We’ve reluctantly given up on the Systema guy. We’d love to train with him – we liked both his technique and his teaching style – but he only teaches one night a week and that night would conflict with Cathy’s Borough Council meetings half the time.

However, one of the people at the Northern Shaolin school mentioned the existence of a school of Philippine martial arts in Phoenixville, which is just within reasonable driving distance of us. This caught our interest, because (a) we’ve done a little training in Philippine stick-fighting and enjoyed it, and (b) the Philippine arts have a well-earned reputation for brutal practicality. The Phillipines was and still is an extremely violent place, between criminals and pirates and several simmering insurgencies.

What we found, in a drab concrete building in Phoenixville, was most interesting. It’s a style called kuntao (Hokkien Chinese for “way of the fist”) that blends Southern Chinese kung fu with native Filipino blade and stick techniques. Developed by emigre Chinese in the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos, it’s a rare art in the U.S. – I’d never heard of it before this – with only a handful of schools here.

Five minutes into the weapons drills I whispered to Cathy “These people are serious!” and she nodded definite agreement. Most (though not all) of the students actually moved like fighters, with real intention behind their strikes. I noticed one in particular because the quality of his movement was both forceful and amazingly fluid, almost dancelike in a way I’ve seen before from really advanced Filipino players. Analyzing his movement, I had a sudden realization.

I’ve read a fair amount of theory about Philippine arts, and one of the core concepts is most of them is what’s called “live hand”. The “live hand” is the one without the weapon, and the idea is that it’s actually supposed to be the more dangerous – trapping, blocking, and setting up kills for the weapon hand.

My realization was “This is what ‘live hand’ looks like!” Regardless of which hand he was striking with, both sides of this student’s body were fully involved in every move. The live hand was constantly searching for openings, presenting a threat, or at least moving in opposition to put more power into the “dead” hand’s strikes. When I quietly pointed this out to Cathy, she grinned and informed me that she believed I was looking at the principal instructor’s son. So indeed it proved.

The inventory of techniques we saw wasn’t too surprising given their blend of influences. The empty-hand moves are mainly from wing chun, which we’re somewhat familiar with from previous study. We saw, as expected, kali with both single and double sticks. We also saw quite a bit of knife work. Weapons handy but not lifted on this particular evening included six-foot staff and machete.

I’m by no means a bad hand with a knife, but the kuntao technique I saw made me feel like mine is crude – not ineffective, necessarily, but certainly not at their level of precision and artistry either. Perhaps not surprising since what I was trained in was based on what the military can teach in a 12-week training cycle at U.S. Marine boot camp. It would be good to learn what the kuntao people know if only so we can take it back to our sword school.

The quality of teaching looked high; I saw a lot of initiative and mutual help among the students. My only reservation was about doing stretches on that cold concrete floor…Cathy and I walked out of there with an excellent impression of the place. We’ve been invited to actually do a sample class next week, and we will.

It’s down to either Mr. Stuart’s for Israeli military kickass or this for exotic Oriental deadliness straight out of a Sax Rohmer novel. We’re leaning towards kuntao, if only because we both think stick-fighting is really cool. The final decision will probably be next week.

36 thoughts on “Adventures in kuntao

  1. “It would be good to learn what they know if only so we can take it back to our sword school.”

    You may want to consider this a significant factor. You describe their knowledge as both rare and valuable; preserving that knowledge by disseminating it through other schools may be a goal worthy of your time and effort.

  2. Can you share the specifics for this place? Address/phone/website if they have one?

    I have always intended to include stick and knife fighting in my training at some point and would like to check these folks out.

    I’m glad you and Cat are finding some good options!

  3. The “live hand” is the one without the weapon, and the idea is that it’s actually supposed to be the more dangerous – trapping, blocking, and setting up kills for the weapon hand.

    I’ve seen similar concepts in both Silver (principally through Guardant and transitioning to grappling) and Fiore (who is considered somewhat odd compared to his contemparies because his style stressed learning wrestling as a foundation for everything else, up to and including horse and lance work). Come to think of it, the little i’ve seen of Destreza has similar concepts.

  4. This sounds the most interesting of all you’ve mentioned to me so far. Phillipino stick fighting is very legit practicality wise, and what you said about the skill of the students is a deal maker all by itself.

  5. >Come to think of it, the little i’ve seen of Destreza has similar concepts.

    The connection may be genetic. I knew that there is plenty of terminological and other evidence that Philippine stick and blade work was influenced by Spanish fencing from the 1560s onward, even before I read this: “Destreza authors and masters can be documented in Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, and the Philippines. Some degree of influence on the Philippine martial arts is highly likely, although this is an area that requires further research.” (From the Wikipedia article on Destreza.)

  6. From vague recollection of conversations in the Philippines and some reading since, I think a better description of the hand task allocation would be fighting hand – the weaponless hand used to directly engage the opponent, and killing hand – usually, but not always, the hand holding the blade. Either hand can take on either task, the blade can engage the opponent while the live hand (or foot, knee … you get the idea) delivers the debilitating strike.

    Tagalog has a lot of use words from other languages (mostly spanish and english, but lots of others too), I never learned to speak it well at all (and remember virtually nothing of it these four decades later), and memory is certainly fallible, but that’s my impression of it.

  7. As mentioned in a previous discussion on this, I’ve been studying Escrima here in the middle of nowhere. The school I’ve been studying is “Doce Pares” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doce_Pares), and as I mentioned, I’m not hugely excited about it. We do spar a little, but because of the location and lifestyle here the teaching lacks focus.

    Anyway, I think that Escrima of almost any sort is a very, very good addition to the toolkit. The ambidexterity inherent in the art is good for developing one’s “off” side.

    I’ve learned two things VERY important in the year I’ve been attending class:

    (1) Don’t get in a knife fight. You can’t win a knife fight, you can only lose less than the other guy.

    (2) If you see a Filipino with a pair of machetes, go home and stick your head in a blender. It’ll hurt less.

  8. >The ambidexterity inherent in the art is good for developing one’s “off” side.

    One of the real surprises I got when I started training in Western sword was how much easier off-hand fencing was than I had expected it to be. Maybe this is just me, but I got sufficiently used to it that in any extended duel (fighting single-sword) I’m likely to change hands a few times.

  9. >(1) Don’t get in a knife fight. You can’t win a knife fight, you can only lose less than the other guy.

    The guy who taught me knife put it this way: the winner is the guy who goes to the hospital.

  10. >One of the real surprises I got when I started training in
    >Western sword was how much easier off-hand fencing
    >was than I had expected it to be. Maybe this is just me,
    >but I got sufficiently used to it that in any extended
    >duel (fighting single-sword) I’m likely to change hands
    >a few times.

    I’d say it’s just you.

    From my experiences in this class, in other arts, and in more aggressive firearms training where ambi gun handling is pushed, folks have a hard time with their left.

    Me, I’m pathologically right handed.

    >The guy who taught me knife put it this way: the winner
    >is the guy who goes to the hospital.

    There is a way to win a knife fight, but you have to take the first turn and NOT give the other guy one.

    I have this notion that there are two types of fights, duels and ambushes. Duels are fucking stupid (outside of training) because of the inherent risk. Ambushes have two sides, the attacker and the defender. Every ambush is the defender either running away, or trying to climb up that first step.

    To quote the philosopher Slade the Leveller (aka “Justin Sullivan”) “I’ve never been one to throw the first punch. I guess the more you know, the more you get scared”.

    As rational, civilized people who have lots of stuff that gets risked in an ambush (everything from blood and spirit to house and home to freedom if we are found legally liable) we tend not be willing (even if we identify it as such) to respond properly to an eminent ambush properly–which is to say run like a runny thing, or drop all pretense of civilization and punch first.

    For legal reasons we have to wait *far* past the stage when the attack is (usually) recognizable. Then we can legally resolve the dispute on the attackers terms. Tactically this is a HORRIBLE idea.

    The way to respond to someone *actually* *deliberately* threatening you is with surprise, ruthlessness and overwhelming violence.

    And of course, sometimes they won’t really be actually, deliberately threatening you. Sometimes they’ll just be posturing. But if we, as a society, were to respond to either posturing or real threats the same way the cost of that sort of posturing would go way up and people would stop doing it. Fairly quickly I would guess.

  11. Mr. Stuart’s place is clearly one where the students learn well, and love what they’re doing. My main problem with it is that, after 18 months or so of H.A.G.A.N.A.H Fight (which is what he calls the art we were most interested in) I think I’d be bored. I don’t think that’s true of the Kali/wing chun techniques they are teaching at the Kuntao place. In addition, I think both the knife fighting techniques AND the escrima techniques would give us a big leg up at the Detroit area school where we study knife and sword.

    And it should be remembered that we wouldn’t just be learning weapons fighting (though they do plenty of that, every class). Wing chun is at bottom an empty-hand art, and we would also be learning useful stuff about where to find attackable pressure points, and how to attack them.

    The only thing that sucks about the place is that it’s a 20-25 minute drive from home, over twisty dark rural roads for the most part. But it should still be doable except during the worst of winter weather, and in the summer it would even be a pretty drive.

  12. (1) Don’t get in a knife fight. You can’t win a knife fight, you can only lose less than the other guy.

    Fiore puts this as no sane combatant chooses to fight with a knife, knife combat is what happens when you’re got no other choice.

    Silver sees the knife fight as “imperfect” by reason of its lack of guards and (by extension) the lack of ability to ensure your own safety.

    Funnily enough, Destreza seems to suggest it doesn’t really matter, the same principles apply.

  13. P.S. My categorisation of Destreza is perhaps a little loose. My same principles apply but certain variables change, most importantly your offensive area decreases. This has a large effect on the details of what you need to do but fundamentally the goal remains the same, to attain a position where you can attack your opponent in fewer movements(N.B. this is a term of art within Destreza that has deeper meaning than the direct translation provides) than he can attack you.

  14. >To quote the philosopher Slade the Leveller (aka “Justin Sullivan”)
    > “I’ve never been one to throw the first punch. I guess the more
    > you know, the more you get scared”.

    Didn’t expect to find many NMA fans on here, for some reason. Then again, we do tend to pop up at unexpected places. :)

  15. @Catherine Raymond: “My main problem with it is that, after 18 months or so of H.A.G.A.N.A.H Fight (which is what he calls the art we were most interested in) I think I’d be bored.”

    Of course, that means you could go to Mr. Stuart’s, get a solid grounding in those techniques in 18 months, then switch over to the Filipino style and stick with that long-term. It comes down to whether you are willing to switch twice during a 2-year period, and whether you think that HAGANAH Fight would add significantly to your toolkit.

  16. IM: “You are clearly better than me.”
    MiB: “Then why are you smiling?”
    IM: “Because I know something you don’t know.”
    MiB: “What’s that?”
    IM: “I am not left handed!”

  17. William O. B’Livion said:
    > I’d say it’s just you.

    Based on teaching the sword styles that Eric studies, I would disagree with you. Every student we teach that gets through Intermediate class gains significant amounts of “off-side” control. Even in Basic we stress off-side skills as much as on-side.

    He also said:
    > (2) If you see a Filipino with a pair of machetes, go home and stick your head in a blender. It’ll hurt less.

    Same if you see me with my two broadswords. Ask Eric. :)

  18. Catherine Raymond said:
    > The only thing that sucks about the place is that it’s a 20-25 minute drive from home, over twisty dark rural roads for the most part.

    I moved to a small town. No other Martial arts schools within 45 minutes. Ghaaaaa……

  19. >Same if you see me with my two broadswords. Ask Eric. :)

    It is so, so true. David running at you with weapons could be the reference video for “intimidating”. He’s…big, and he looks mean when he fights.

    True story: When David was a basic (first year swordsman), the head of school beckoned me over at one point and said “Here’s something you need to see”. We quietly made our way to the knife pit. He pointed me at this huge guy with reddish hair, muscles out to here, and Celtic-knotwork tattoos on his arms.

    “Weird how those tattoos kind of glow, isn’t it?”, he murmured. I nodded, we left quietly, and I turned to him and said “So, tell me, when did the freakin’ Hound of Culain join your school?” He guffawed, looking quite pleased with himself. For those of you shamefully ignorant of Irish mythology, go look up Cú Chulainn to find out why.

  20. On that theme, do tell me that “Follow me up to Carlow” has made it into your fight-music repertoire by now.

  21. >On that theme, do tell me that “Follow me up to Carlow” has made it into your fight-music repertoire by now.

    Alas, no. Our fight music runs more to rap-metal and pirate-film soundtracks than Irish folk. This is how I learned to like rap-metal – all my associations for it are with swordfighting. :-)

  22. @Mr. Campbell:

    >>William O. B’Livion said:
    > I’d say it’s just you.

    >Based on teaching the sword styles that Eric studies,
    >I would disagree with you. Every student we teach that
    >gets through Intermediate class gains significant
    >amounts of “off-side” control.
    >Even in Basic we stress off-side skills as much as on-side

    I read Eric’s comment to mean:
    1) When *starting* the training he found off side much easier than expected, which means he either had lots of offside control from the get-go or it came easy.
    2) After training for a while he is comfortable enough to fight from either side with (apparently) little preference.

    This is direct conflict with what I have seen over 15 years of various martial arts and firearms classes. Most folks, when they are *forced* to use their offside DO gain anywhere from a bit to a lot of offside control, but they start off with very little, and even folks who have a bit of training still have trouble shifting their focus to the non-dominate hand the way Eric describes.

  23. >1) When *starting* the training he found off side much easier than expected, which means he either had lots of offside control from the get-go or it came easy.

    That is true – I’d say more “came easy” than “had it from the get-go”, but some of both. Which is especially surprising because I have mild cerebral palsy affecting my left side. Off-hand should have been more difficult for me than average, not less as it seems to be.

    >2) After training for a while he is comfortable enough to fight from either side with (apparently) little preference.

    Little preference, but not none. I’m slower on my left – less likely to win a bout that way unless I can close on my opponent, at which point my relatively strong ability at infighting becomes significant.

    My strategy for using my relative ambidexterity isn’t to win with my left hand (though that does happen occasionally) but to use my ability to switch casually to rest my right. Then I switch back to my right and can power up more than I would be able to if I had been working it continuously.

    Which means this: if you’re fighting me and see me switch right-to-left, don’t worry too hard. It’s when I switch back that you are likely to get blitzed.

  24. I think combining wing chun with really serious weapons techniques is very cool.

    Regardless of which hand he was striking with, both sides of this student’s body were fully involved in every move.

    This is also generally true of pure wing chun. When I was a member of the school, it was common to learn a new technique on the left side and then go home and learn it on the right.

    In a wing chun stance, there is a “lead” and “back” hand, although the difference is often almost trivial (fortunately). Once a technique gets under way, the question of which hand is the lead hand is often either meaningless or flickers back and forth.

  25. Re: using both hands in most techniques

    When I re-read my comment, I note that a paragraph lacks coherency –

    This is also generally true of pure wing chun. When I was a member of the school, it was common to learn a new technique on the left side and then go home and learn it on the right.

    The two statements are not causally related. In the second sentence, I was trying to make the point that because both hands are involved in most techniques, the student is expected to be able to use both hands equally well and to be able to perform the technique equally well on either side.

    I found that if I learned a technique on the “left side” (that is, mostly, where left hand is the lead hand or where the left hand is the first to make contact), I could easily transfer that learning to the other side and I would then have no real preference for either side.

  26. This isn’t going well.

    The two statements in the paragraph, above, are causally related, but I originally left out the cause, which I did describe in my second comment.

  27. We’ve been back to the kuntao place, took a class, both enjoyed it hugely, and have signed up. Sifu Yeager seems quite happy about having two students as well prepared as Cathy and myself – and well he should be.

    I don’t think we’re going to hang out at the lower levels of this art for long. Already in this first class there was a check-and-throw technique from penjak silat that I picked up enough faster than my training partner to successfully coach him on it. File under: Being a twenty-year student, advantages of…

    Heh. Eric has a nice new pair of rattan beat sticks. Eric is sooooo looking forward to using them…

  28. Heh. Eric has a nice new pair of rattan beat sticks. Eric is sooooo looking forward to using them…

    Oh and Eric, something to keep in mind should you ever fly. Airlines tend to have no problems with someone taking a walking stick onto an airline.

  29. Hmm…
    “Which means this: if you’re fighting me and see me switch right-to-left, don’t worry too hard. It’s when I switch back that you are likely to get blitzed.”

    You and I should spar sometime (you’d probably win…good bigger vs. good smaller…but). I’m the opposite. Never figured it out why – but my right has fine control – left has the power. (And, yes, I’m basically ambi – my left-hand writing is readable – right is more readable.)
    I suspect I may be a trained-right lefty, push me and my left foot goes forward. (Old Test.) But still, power-left, delicacy-right. I’ve a left-hook that’s knocked down several gents (word used loosely) over 6′ – and I’m 5′ -was involved in abuse shelters, until I couldn’t take the sexism anymore. (MEN can be abused too. Really.)

  30. My best off-hand training was breaking my right knuckles whilst punching wrong. It seems that being completely left handed for a month during your teenage years turns you ambidextrous.

  31. I googled FMA in Chester Co., PA and came upon your blog post from August, 2012. Don”t know if you are still looking but here is a link to our group’s website:
    http://malaycombatsystems.com/

    Guro Phil Matedne formed the group about 5 years ago, we train out of Dragon Gym. We train a blend of Filipino, Indonsian and Thai. Guro trained with many of the best FMA instructors from Stockton, CA as well as Pendekar Herman Suwanda in Mande Muda Pencak Silat. Best of luck in your journey!

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