Bad answers to martial training queries are inconvenient, but ultimately innocuous. If every theory and technique is tested, as common sense requires, then false information will eventually be recognized and discarded.
Bad questions are more dangerous. A bad question is one with a useless answer: there is no benefit to answering it correctly. People who ask too many bad questions find themselves hamstrung, and unable to deepen their understanding. These questions are a defense mechanism of the ego, breeding complacency and conceit.
Are references to Chinese life science—qigong and TCM, specifically—a necessary component of Chinese martial arts instruction? This subject resurfaces every few months on Internet kung fu forums. Most recently, Joanna Zorya of the Martial Tai Chi Association argues against the practice. She invokes the names of famous instructors—Tim Cartmell, Chen Zhenglei, and Hong Junsheng, to name a few—in support of her claim that talk of qi is superfluous at best, and outright deceptive at worst.
Unfortunately, this is a textbook example of a bad question. The obvious answer is no, qigong and TCM are not required, but the implication of the question is false. By reframing this question, with the aim of self-improvement rather than self-satisfaction, we arrive at a more practical answer.
How could qigong and TCM awareness improve my practice of martial art? These disciplines all operate in the same domain—the human mind and body—and the knowledge and skills cultivated in one discipline are therefore highly relevant to the others. This is not an abstract theoretical point (cf. “the hidden correspondences between boxing, baseball and Christianity”); it can specifically observed in the practices of each discipline. For example:
|Medical application||Attribute||Martial application|
|Massage therapy (tui na)||Strength||Grappling, wrestling (shuai jiao)|
|Pulse reading||Sensitivity||Listening and sticking techniques|
|Chiropractic (die da)||Skeletal anatomy knowledge||Joint locks (chin na)|
|Acupuncture, acupressure||Circulatory anatomy knowledge||Point striking (dim mak)|
Throughout Chinese history, men such as Wong Fei Hung leveraged these correspondences to become both respected fighters and medical doctors.
Of course, America’s modern medical landscape is far different than that of 19th century China. For today’s average martial art instructor to open a self-certified medical clinic would be irresponsible, and probably also violate several laws. Fortunately, Chinese medicine is not just for fixing other people; it can also be used to protect and improve your own health.
In pursuit of peak performance, martial artists place a greater strain on their bodies than most people. A smart practitioner will do everything they can to avoid inflicting chronic damage on their own body. Dit da jow, a topical liniment for healing training injuries, is just one example of the benefits that medical knowledge offers to martial artists.
In contrast to the well-known link between pugilism and Parkinson’s disease, the dangers of intensive and incorrect internal martial arts training have scarcely been investigated in the West. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. An ounce of preventative insight provided by TCM may be worth a pound of medication and treatment.
Internal Strength and Other Dangerous Assumptions
Accepting the value of evidence-based TCM and qigong does not require the rejection of sports medicine or alternative approaches. Why would anyone argue against its utility?
There are many widespread misconceptions about chi in the martial arts community. Classical teachings on the correct use of chi are usually correlated with postural adjustments, and this has led some clever practitioners to conclude that chi is good posture. Such “practical explanations” are an appealing alternative to the traditional use of the term, which was anything but precise.
Accepting qigong, while simultaneously insisting that qi is merely a synonym for skeletal alignment, would result in an unpleasant cognitive dissonance. So purveyors of Internal Strength, Combat Taiji and other “demystifications” have little alternative but to reject Eastern medicine—a system in which qi plays a central role, and is decidedly not mere alignment or coordination. It is a futile attempt at saving face and avoiding the embarassment of an inevitable public rebuke.
Will medical knowledge make you a more complete martial artist? That is a bad question. Instead, ask yourself, how can it make you a better person?