Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Chambered Fist

EDIT: I've changed my views on some of the things in this article... I'll probably write an update at some point in the future... and by that, I mean a long time from now.

I am writing this entry in response to a discussion currently going on at KarateForums.Com.

We've all seen the classic karate punch, where the person brings one hand "chambered" to their side while the other hand punches. Or we've seen those ridiculous kung fu movies where the bad guy waves his hands around in the air while screaming, blocking air several times, chambers his fist and then attacks. So that's going to be the subject of today's discussion.

I've often asked instructors in other styles what the purpose of this was. They would tell me "This symbolizes your empty hand and you chamber it to the side because you are signalling your intention that you do not wish to fight but are prepared to if necessary." That, or simply "It is a chamber position" or "more power" without any deeper mechanical explanation. Even if I press them harder for information, those are the most common explanations. Of course I am very polite and thank them for their answers. On the inside, I tell myself "What a load of BS." Here's a hint for all you practitioners out there. If a teacher can not give you a convincing explanation for why it is they "chamber" a technique or even what the "yoi" or starting position is for in a kata (form), the odds are they honestly don't know. That, or they buy into simple schoolchildren explanations for their karate. There's way too much pseudo-philosophy floating out there that gets in the way of combative effectiveness.

The "chambering" was basically what they told everyone it was for. Keep in mind that traditional Okinawan (and Japanese) culture was very much centered on "in group" and "out group" relations. When karate was starting to be taught to the mainstream (in the early 1900s on Okinawa), there was a fundamental shift because karate used to be taught in very small groups of well-acquainted people or recommended students, not en masse. This then became the origin of large karate classes taught in military discipline fashion...They weren't exactly going to tell everyone all the in-depth meanings of everything, especially American GI's a half-century later who just got done devestating the island of Okinawa. They didn't even tell every Japanese or Okinawan the "good stuff" either. The mass production of karate meant less individual training time and less personal trust between teacher and student. Karate was always first and foremost a combative discipline. The deeper knowledge of which was not simply handed out to whoever showed up and trained. There are exceptions to this, but suffice it to say they were not always as open as many American instructors definitely are or as some Okinawan teachers are today.

Back to the chambering part...I do not see that as the true intent of the technique. It really does depend on the situation. In many of our kata, there are places where the hands do not automatically go back into "chamber" before performing the next technique. What's more, you have to keep in mind that with all techniques, they are set up a certain way but will be performed as the situation requires.

On to the explanation...I for one believe it is meant primarily to be a grab with the retracting hand and punch with the leading hand. It is basically a grab/parry that is performed simultaneously with a strike, which I believe technically what most of us are aiming for (simultaneous techniques along the vein of more Chinese styles).

This concept is also present on many of our "blocks" where the retracting hand/arm/wrist crosses over the blocking hand/arm/wrist. This is because the real intent is to grab the opponent's attack with the retracting hand while striking either the opponent's body (i.e. face), breaking whatever he attacked with (i.e. arm) or performing a throw (i.e. arm bar) with the "blocking" arm. There are those who say the retracting hand is there to let the person "be aware" that you can pull a person while punching if you want to. I disagree. The retracting hand is there because it is saying you SHOULD pull a person like that. It forms the heart and principle of many of the techniques of good Okinawan karate.

With this in mind, bringing the retracting hand to your waist is useful because it hyperextends the opponent's appendage, causes the opponent to lose their balance, and places it in a position where it is biomechanically strong for you to hold the opponent. It also allows more momentum into the system by making your opponent move towards you as you strike into him. At the most basic level, it also forms an easier connection between the hand and waist for most beginners, although that is probably the weakest argument for the fist chambering.

This also reflects a difference in the mindset of the practitioners. The most common detraction against the chambered fist says it leaves your face open, etc. In the more traditional schools, by which I mean traditional focus, mindset and training...NOT gi, hardwood floors, military discipline, etc., these techniques were meant to end the fight quickly. Therefore, pulling the hand back was because you were pulling the opponent into you and from that position you were simultaneously striking him/breaking something and most likely taking him down instantly to end the fight. It is my opinion that traditional karate is centered around getting in close and going for the takedown. Therefore a retraction hand technique was a set up for finishing the fight, rather than having an exchange of blows. You can see this in pictures of how most of the old Okinawan masters had their regular fighting stances, which were not one hand chambered to the side.

If you blindly chamber your fist to the side without having any idea what it is for then I will agree with those detractors who say it is useless. For them, it is.

1 comment:

fluffyryu said...

Bravo, it is perhaps what you find it to be?