Kids vs. Drunken Style


Tiger Claw’s Championship is a battleground on many levels. Symbolic warfare is intrinsic to any competition, especially a martial one. To keep it symbolic, we have rules. Rules keep everyone safe. However, in an ironically recursive way, the bloodiest conflicts are usually over rules.

The most common conflicts are petty complaints – stage parents searching for loopholes to give their kid an advantage. No matter how tiresome, I can’t fault them. Parents are part and parcel of any competition that allows kids. We all strive to give our kids every advantage. After all, those kids are our next generation. Any parent who raises a champion spends an enormous amount of time and money to get their kid to lessons and competitions and I salute them. I do my best to listen to all complaints – from the genuine and earnest to the grumpy and stress venting. If martial arts are to perpetuate, it’s all about our kids. And to raise good kids, it takes good parents and good coaches.

Like any martial artist, I enjoy a good fight too, so I actually find conflicts over rules strangely engaging, especially if they are thought provoking. I love when the martial arts makes you think. Any tournament, when looked upon from the proper perspective, can change your frame of reference. This is why you should go. For example, last year, at Tiger Claw’s Championship II, a judge raised concerns over children competing with drunken style forms during the Judge’s Meeting. Many old school practitioners feel that drunken style is inappropriate for anyone that is under legal drinking age. Ironically, I’ve never heard this from loophole-searching parents, which leaves me to wonder because personally, I agree. I don’t think kids should practice drunken style. Perhaps I’m just old school that way.

However, given the general atmosphere of the Chinese martial arts community in the San Francisco Bay Area now, I told that judge we’d both have to bite our tongues about it. There are dozens of local wushu schools that teach wushu drunken style to children now. I knew many kids were planning to compete with drunken forms, including some from my own school. It would have been unfair to disallow it the day of competition. If we were to do that, we would have had to specify so when they signed up. Imagine the fallout of parental complaints I would have endured if we switched that so late in the game. I was already taking enough heat for enforcing the traditional-swords-must-be-able-support-their-own-weight rule, and that WAS clearly stipulated in the rules ahead of time.

Later, another judge called me down on my call. It just goes to show, you can never please everyone. At every tournament, someone always has to lose. In fact, most people have to lose. But this wasn’t about winning or losing. This judge engaged me in a philosophical debate, the thought-provoking sort I enjoy. A good debate is as rewarding as a good sparring match. Win or lose, you can learn from either exercise. “Kids don’t have to be tigers to learn tiger style,” he said. “Why do they need to be drunk to do drunken style? You’re not supposed to be really drunk.” While I’ll concede the point about tigers, as a student of drunken style, I still beg to differ.

Drunk in Form But Not in Heart

Drunken style is one of the most unique, and arguably most misunderstood, forms of Chinese kung fu. It belongs in a family of styles known as xiangxingquan which literally means ‘elephant shape fist’ but is conventionally translated as “imitative boxing”. The lion’s share of imitative boxing imitates animals – tigers, leopards, monkeys, cranes, even mantids, dogs, frogs and ducks. Many animal style practitioners will say they seek emulate animal fighting strategies, but common sense brings this into question. Humans don’t bear the same natural weapons like fangs, claws, pincers or even bills, so the notion is a little preposterous if taken literally. Can you really fight like a quadruped? What about a six-legged bug? Even if you could, why bother? It’s more logical to fight like a human. The origin of animal styles is really more shamanistic in nature. The practitioner seeks to imitate the animal’s spirit. To quote John Muir, “Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.”

Now, you could argue that a drunk is an animal too – certainly humans are animal as opposed to vegetable or mineral – but that’s a horse of a different color. Drunken style is classified as imitative boxing because it imitates the spirit of being drunk, at least according to conventional wisdom. Most interpret drunken style as an elaborate feint. Feign drunkenness to set up a sucker punch. This is why it doesn’t work in the cage. The other fighter simply wouldn’t be fooled. Once that cage door closes, you are going to fight. The sucker punch – the most popular technique in real street fighting – is tossed out the cage door. What idiot would step into the cage drunk? It’s a mistake to think that if it doesn’t work in the cage then it doesn’t work because the environment is a huge factor. In the real world, that switch from posturing to fighting is often the most decisive factor. Maybe you’ll go to blows and maybe not. Maybe you’re just drunk or maybe you’re setting up that sucker punch. The art of drunken deception is tricky that way.

There’s a romantic appeal to the drunken fighter. In Daoism, the Eight Drunken Immortals are legendary pranksters. Wu Song, a hero of the Chinese classic epic novel, Outlaws of the Marsh, was a notorious drunk. The Eight Immortals and Wu Song are both cited as inspirational figures in many drunken style myths. One of Jackie Chan’s defining films was Drunken Master (1978), so much so that he made a heralded sequel to it sixteen years later. Countless kung fu films poured out of Hong Kong in the wake of Drunken Master, including Yuen Woo Ping’s recent directorial comeback True Legend. Even today, the genre ripples through Thai films with Tony Jaa’s drunken fight in Ong Bak 2 and Jeeja Yanin’s Raging Phoenix in which a new drunken style dubbed Meyraiyuth appears. While Hollywood hasn’t embraced drunken kung fu with the same fervor, drunken heroes abound. All the way back in 1934, The Thin Man was nominated for an Academy Award. In that classic film, William Powell cast the mold for witty mischievous detectives with his timeless portrayal of the drunken Nick Charles. In fact, happy drunks proliferated in comic relief roles across film and television since their invention. It’s only been recently when depictions shifted to depict toll of alcoholism more realistically, like the wasted sops in Mad Men. Happy drunk fighters are not the best role models and clearly, so much so that China blacklisted drunken wushu performers from the early international tours. This is the heart of the matter when it comes to kids competing with drunken forms – what kind of role model does drunken kung fu serve for kids?

As a drunken style practitioner, there’s a more intoxicating issue. My argument is that drunken style isn’t a spiritual thing. It’s chemical. It’s about getting drunk. Maybe the drunken fighter is feigning drunkenness or maybe he’s really drunk. The art of drunken deception is tricky that way. As great kung fu secrets go, this one is fairly obvious.

Drunk, But Not Off Balance

I’ve been privileged to interview and work with some of the greatest modern drunken masters, Philip Wong, Zhang Anji, Zhao Changjun, my personal master Shi Decheng, even Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Several of them, and I won’t say who, told me directly that the secret to drunken style is to drink liquor with practice. I’ve taken that advice to heart (or perhaps to liver) and it worked well. In all honesty, drunken style techniques flow better after you’ve had a few. This is why kids just don’t really get drunken style – or shouldn’t. But if drinking impedes perception, how can it help in a fight?

Perhaps it’s the burden of being a writer, but when it comes to combat, I tend to over-think. In fencing, for example, I would often try to score with a double-feint when I could hit with a straight thrust. Drinking reduces thinking. This is apparent in modern drunken forms too. When I tried to learn drunken style at Shaolin Temple, I just didn’t have the aerial or ground skills. I couldn’t commit to those moves; they take total commitment and my natural fear of cracking my skull inhibited that. But after a drink or two (or three) I loosened up and could ‘throw my life away,’ as the Samurai used to say. I could commit, for better or worse. The hangover the following day suggested the latter. The next morning, I woke up so bruised that I wondered if ninjas had beaten me with soap bars in pillowcases all night as a hazing for my drunken folly.

The hangover. A true drunken fighter knows how to use that to advantage too. Again, back to my fencing days (Hello, my name is Gene and I am a drunken swordsman). I was on an NCAA team that had both men and women and our women were quite charming. They would lure opposing team members up to our party room for drinks. We’d engage them in a friendly drinking game called ‘bunnies’. It was a silly game, full of body feints and misdirections, and women’s team were all masters at selling it. Of course, my teammates were masters at playing it too, as it was a regular activity for after-practice libations. So we had worked out several conspiring techniques that would bring the other team down to their knees (usually kneeling to the porcelain altar) in a very short time. The art of drunken deception is tricky that way. They would regret the next day when they had to face us again on the fencing strip. In contrast, several of my teammates and I relished the day after. We liked to fight hungover. It made us more ornery. Those that have been here know exactly what I’m talking about, but try to explain that to your kid. It’s an example of true drunken style, much truer than some aerial-kick-to-flying-break-fall wushu move.

I’ve long since abandoned my hard-earned Shaolin drunken form. I never was very good at it anyway. It reminds me of some fighters I know. There are plenty of fighters that are fantastic martial artists but can’t do forms to save their lives. Their forms are downright ugly. That was my drunken form. I confess – I’m an ugly drunk. I’m a drunken fighter, not a drunken forms man. However, my drunken applications were effective, and that’s all that counts, right?

Wrong. Some argue that drunken style is all about form now and really should remain so. What style would promote drinking as a practice? (By the way, please don’t take essay as any endorsement of overindulgence of intoxicants. It isn’t.) The issue, beyond drowsiness while operating heavy machinery, harmfulness to unborn babies and the potential to crash your car, is that if you rely on being drunk for your kung fu then you are relying on an external crutch. Ancient Daoists pursued immortality like the Philosopher’s Stone, and categorized that pursuit into two; just like kung fu, there is internal and external. Internal practices were qigong. External were pills, mostly crazy herbal concoctions. For the most part, immortality pills have been abandoned because most were toxic, and when extrapolated to drunken style, you can read whatever you like into that. For the martial artist, it becomes a Popeye-spinach problem. Popeye needed his spinach to be strong to the finach (whatever the finach was) and he always seemed to find a can when he needed one. Imagine if he didn’t. Bluto would have kicked his butt like a drunk in a cage and stolen Olive Oyl to be his personal ring girl. In the real world, you just might not have your spinach/shot ready, when the time comes. You need to draw that power from within, not from a drink.

At the same time, there’s no harm in experimenting with a little drink while practicing drunken style, if you’re of legal drinking age. Drink responsibly and in moderation. Mass consumption does not equal mas machismo. In State-Dependant Learning models, researchers have concluded that skills learned in a particular state are best recalled in a similar state. These states can be internal, such as an alcohol-drenched or caffeine-stimulated bloodstream, or external, such as the environment. Some of the early research on state dependant learning used trained subjects while underwater in scuba gear. Like any college student, I studied with caffeine. Then, when I took exams, I made sure my caffeine level was similar, factoring for the adrenaline, of course. That practice improved my grade point average. In my senior year, I stumbled upon similar research that showed the same effect for alcohol. So I swapped my cup of joe for a pint of beer. I wouldn’t drink so much to get drunk or even buzzed. Then I drank a beer before my exam. My senior year was the only year in my life when I had a perfect 4.0 GPA.

In essence, whatever you learn drunk, you’ll be able to recall better in the same state of drunkenness. It’s a model for addiction. Imagine losing your skills when you sobered up – just be a spinachless Popeye – so you keep drinking. Same goes for being sober, or caffeinated, or affected by anything that might change your state. For best test results, test in the same environment, both externally and internally. When your state changes, your recall falters. So, logically, if you studied kung fu sober and had to fight drunk, what might happen? And this begs another big question: do you think you’ll get in a fight when drunk?

According to many old school kung fu people, the failure of modern wushu, or any sport-oriented martial art, is that in its quest for the sensational crowd-pleasing action, it has lost its way. If this is so, then modern wushu has become nothing more than an empty interpretative dance and it really doesn’t matter what the kids are doing. On the flip side, perhaps training those kids in aerials and ground falls when they are young will prepare them for when they can drink. I was already in my thirties when I began training in modern drunken style, and let me tell you, that’s just a little too old to attempt a butterfly-twist-to-hook-kick-with-a-side-ground-fall, if you have no experience with it. In traditional martial arts schools, it was common to beat kids. In fact, when I was teaching kids, I had parents pull me aside to tell me that it was okay for me to beat their kids if needed (I never did apart from the occasional ‘love tap’ in sparring drills). So perhaps there is a logical reason to teach kids drunken style. Raising martial arts kids comes down to the parents and coaches, so anyone teaching kids drunken style must ask: what is the ultimate intention with this?

All this being said, we’ll still allow kids to compete with drunken style at Tiger Claw’s Championship. With Kung Fu Tai Chi, we publish many opinions that I personally disagree with, but the platform of the magazine, as well as our tournament, is meant to show diversity and encourage the perpetuation of the arts in all their permutations. I invite you to come compete, observe, enjoy, and even complain to me if you want. Tiger Claw’s Championship is a live celebration of the martial arts in downtown San Jose, where there are plenty of places to go drinking afterwards.

The study of drunken style is a personal journey for me, one that I’d only recommend for a select few. It saved my life once or twice, and continues to help me resolve occasional conflicts. I still keep a drunken trick or two tucked up my sleeve. Want to see? Buy me a drink sometime.

When you live a martial life, your practice bleeds into everything. Even your drink.

Inspire your students to be good hearted. And keep them supplied with Tiger Claw gear.

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