Xingyi And The Myth of The Defensive Martial Art

Around a decade ago, I attended a seminar with a famous Shanxi Xingyiquan master. Aggressive and direct, Xingyi is one of the few boxing arts known to have been used in preparation for organized warfare. Its emphasis on straightforward practicality was combined with enough subtlety to earn a reputation as one of the original Chinese “internal” martial arts.

After the seminar was over, I bought a T-shirt to commemorate the occasion. According to the text on the back of my new shirt, I was now an unofficial member of “The International Association of Defensive Martial Arts”.

Nevermind that we had spent the last 6 hours eviscerating each other with spears, sabers and bayonets, metaphorically speaking. Nevermind that, according to the principles of Xingyi and all other respectable combat arts, the use of purely defensive techniques is forbidden. Despite all this, in public, we were expected to present ourselves as practitioners of self-defense. Not offense. Why?

There are two explanations for this incongruity; as usual, one is popular and the other is true. We may as well start with the popular rationale: that martial arts were designed and intended for defensive purposes.

This is primarily a modern ethical assertion, disguised as a historical thesis, and consequently there is hardly any evidence to be refuted. Karate-do and Aikido, to cite two specific examples, are often represented as defensive martial arts today. Their founders’ own words reject this characterization. It is true that the arts were not to be used for starting fights; however, this is not because they were envisioned to be “defensive martial arts”, but because they were not “martial arts” at all!

In regards to modern Xingyi, nobody carries a spear around for the purposes of individual self-defense. Nor were units of the Chinese army drilled in Xingyiquan for defensive purposes—the very idea of a defensive standing army is nonsense. And the history of other martial styles is similarly revealing.

Despite all this, the myth persists, among students and teachers alike. This is because the myth itself is a defensive tactic. First, it protects those under-qualified martial arts instructors who cannot successfully execute an attack against a savvy opponent: as the story goes, their art doesn’t work for that purpose because it was not intended to work.

Second, and more importantly, it protects the arts themselves from their most dangerous adversary. Martial artists, their organizations and their arts must identify themselves as defensive (i.e. harmless) to forestall any accusation of paramilitary or revolutionary activities. Offense is the exclusive domain of the state and its contractors, and the state does not enjoy competition.

This is not some wacko conspiracy theory. At various points during the last century, martial arts schools in China, Japan, Russia, and Cambodia were targeted as potential threats to their governments. Did these schools possess tanks and fighter planes, and other weapons of modern insurgency? No. They were assumed to be guilty of something far worse: cultivating a strong and independent spirit in their membership. In some cases, these arts were outlawed and their schools shut down; in others, the teachers and students were imprisoned or otherwise removed from society.

So all things considered, I must remain a proud and completely innocent member of the International Association of Defensive Martial Arts. Would you like to join us? We have a great T-shirt.


  1. When I studied Yoshinkan Aikido under Kushida Sensei, he said that the hostile intent of another constituted an attack.

  2. Battle field art verses martial art.
    One is about attacking and killing as quickly as possible.
    The other is about self mastery including defensive and offensive skill sets.
    One is for the warrior, the other is for the steward.
    One is for murder, the other is for protecting life.
    Which one are you?

  3. “The peaceful warrior, with his life-giving sword” is a fantasy bordering on obscenity.

  4. And yet the Life giving Sword by Yagyu Munenori is a compelling treatise upon martial ethics!

  5. Like any other weapon, the ethics of martial arts lies in the user. Xingyi, Aikido, Karate; they are all a set of skills and methodologies, often coupled with some philosophy lessons.

    It is my belief that the philosophy lessons are what makes an art “defensive” or “offensive,” similar to how both criminals and security guards carry firearms for different reasons.

  6. Criminals and security guards carry firearms for different reasons? I would love to hear the philosophical justification for that claim.

  7. Alright, I’m no philosopher, but I think there’s a pretty clear distinction between someone who carries a firearm with clear intent to take advantage of another person for self-gain, and another who wakes up in the morning not even thinking he’s going to need to draw the thing.

    You can argue that yes, they both carry the tool for the purpose of threatening other people with its violent potential, but then, we all have fists as well. We use our hands for different things, even if they have the same destructive potential. It’s the intent and use that separates socially acceptable use from criminal behavior.

  8. I agree with what you’re saying in that the Martial Arts have ALOT of offensive tactics in them. they are not PURELY defensive. But, the origin of most martial arts (karate, kung-fu, jujitsu, etc…) was based around the idea that they would be used to protect an individuals life. There are of course exceptions (arts designed for military use in their time), but for the most part protection from attack was the name of the game. If the knowledge is misused, that is another matter also. But, that is an individuals abuse, not a reflection on the training as a whole. But, with respect to the offensive nature of individual techniques…you have to end the fight somehow, right?

    Please take a look at this (explains my point a little better:

  9. Marc, if offensive technique is for ending fights, what is defensive technique for? Continuing them?

  10. Well, that is a good point, but in my limited experience, most martial arts techniques, if used solely for defense (i.e. a block is just to block), then that is pretty much what would happen. The fight would continue with you just defending, and not making any forward progress, i guess you’d say, toward ending the fight. But, even what are called “defensive” techniques, if used effectively, are most often offensive weapons of their own and will help end it. But, like I said before…the martial arts as a whole are meant for self-defense.

  11. Martial arts in general are often battlefield arts, not for self defense but for killing and maiming quickly.

    However many of them hail from temple arts employed to protect monks and temples, including their precious artifacts and art, from bandits and thieves. However in most cases the temple martial arts were hidden in dance and ritual so as to prevent their discovery.

    In the last 200 years martial arts have turned to self defense as a primary goal and concern. However many founders of common martial arts did not teach self defense: they taught soldiers and they taught them to kill.

  12. I am not an expert in all (or really any) martial art. But I am familiar with some of the history. And, at least, the more japanese (especially Karate were not originally battlefield anything. They were developed by peasants to defend themselves against bandits and the overbearing feudal lords that owned the country. Chinese arts have a different history, I know. But, if you go far enough back, you usually find the original developer’s primary intent for the martial art was to keep him safe and alive…not make someone else die. Examples: Shoalin Monks, Okinawan Peasants, Israeli Defense Force (Krav Maga…to answer the modern side of the debate)

  13. Okinawan arts have origin in White Crane type Chinese arts.
    Those in turn hail from a Shaolin influence, Shaolin was a temple art and those have a long tradition going back to the origins of Buddhism in India. In all those cases the primary goal is self preservation, but they have all been employed as attack arts for battle at times.

    Krav Maga is very much oriented at killing ones opponent quickly. It is a battlefield art. Israel is one of the most aggressive military states on the planet at the present time and if the bible is true then it has among the most violent and blood soaked history of any people. My namesake was not unlike Hitler, when he was said to have invaded Jericho and slaughtered every man, woman and child with the exception of a single prostitute. Not that Krav Maga is as old as all that, but it is very much a battlefield art and not very defense oriented. It is just irony that Israel uses the term Defense, their military policy is based on the concept of an eye for an eye, not defense at all but counter attack which is why so many Israeli soldiers have reported being ordered to shoot children in Palestine.

  14. Marc G.,
    About the Japanese martial arts. What you say about Karate is correct, but that is only one Japanese (are more specifically Okinawan) martial art. Most Japanese koryu were definetely meant to kill on the battlefield.

  15. I agree with this article in broad principle, but its use of aikido as an example doesn’t work. Aikido really is a purely defensive martial art. There are no aikido attack techniques. Ovbiously, since aikido is derived from traditional jujutsu, it cannot claim a purely defensive lineage, but modern aikido is all defense.

  16. Aikido, as defined by Morihei Ueshiba in writing, is not a defensive martial art. People continue to redefine it for their own purposes.

  17. That’s all well and good philosophically, but the fact remains that there are no attack techniques in aikido.

  18. Matt S.,

    That is simply untrue. You may practice a variant of Aikido that does not use “attack” techniques but serious practitioners of any martial art know how to strike. Although in Aikido grappling is more emphasized than striking, if you can’t strike you’re simply not a martial artist.

    Here are some quotes culled from

    “The founder, Ueshiba Sensei, said, In a real battle, atemi is seventy percent, technique is thirty percent. The training that we do in the dojo is designed to teach us various sorts of techniques, the correct way to move our body, effective ways of using our power, and how to create a relationship with the other person.” [This quote is repeated on page 19 of “Aikido Shugyo”, also by Shioda Gozo].

    “Atemi accounts for 99% of Aikido was a remark once uttered by the founder. I introduced atemi at some length in Vol. 4. Atemi is virtually omitted in Aikido training on the ground that [a] preliminary blow should not become a matter of predominant concern. However, there are quite a few cases in which the meaning of a technique becomes incomprehensible if the attendant atemi is left out. I suggest therefore that after reading through Vol. 4, study should be made as to when atemi should be delivered in the execution of a technique and cases of it’s omission.”

    “[Ueshiba] started with easy techniques using two of his students. Even for an untrained eye, it was clear that he moved very softly… However, in the meantime his students attack him with all their might and still tumble down in a shower of attacks (atemi) to their vital points.”

  19. Thanks for the link Mr. Matz. I’ll have a look when I get out of work.

  20. Attack or defense dosn’t really matter. The intention of these arts rest with their creators, but like all weapons, The way they are employed rests with the practitioner. These days they are labeled as Self defense because that is what they are primarily intended for by those who teach. Like all weapons training courses, Morality and responsability should be instilled before you learn to rend heaven and earth with Beng Quan.

  21. Wow, really enjoyed your article. I completely agree. No one wants to tell parents that you are teaching your students to attack bullies, you tell them you are teaching them to defend themselves. In the US, our military is headed by the Department of Defense, which naturally sounds better than the department of war. Martial arts are like guns, knowing them, or carrying a gun does not compel you to attack/shoot someone. Alot of people shoot for fun or collect firearms as a hobby, but no one ever argues that a gun is a weapon, and the point of a weapon is its potential to inflict harm. A martial art without that is called a philosophy.

  22. Great article!
    Counter attack is part of any defense, I think. You block, then you try to neutralize the attacker. How? That depends. On the nature of the attack, the circumstances, the weapons used and the skills of the attacker and your own. It goes from immobilisation, to dislocation, breaking a bone, or killing the oponent.
    When someone say a martial art is defensive, I feel it means that is not intendend to start a fight, but to respond to an unprovoked agression. Even Tai Chi forms are a combination of defensive AND offensive moves and postures.

Add a Comment