Techniques or Principles

(Expanded from original article, published in Karate/Kung Fu Illustrated, August 1991, pp.16-19.)

Back in March, 2001, a young man from Northern California (USA) posted the following, one star customer review of my book, Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals: The Brutal Arts of the Archipelago on

    The techniques are good, but there are only a few in this book. A person would be better off to buy Larry Hartsell's 2 books on Jeet Kune Do. They contain the information in this book and about 10 times more and you'll have some change left over!

Despite the nearly 400 photographs and illustrations, that anonymous reviewer is correct, "there are only a few [techniques]" in the book. The book is, as repeatedly stated in its introduction, about principles. Apparently, that young reader does not yet recognize the value of learning principles over techniques. Sadly, he is not alone in that regard.

Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals
Among martial artists today, there is a growing tendency to maintain lengthy lists of techniques. For example, there are martial art systems that require the students to learn and memorize more than 400 techniques as they progress from white to black belt, and that's only the beginning. The problem with that kind of thinking is that every new situation often requires the addition of another new technique. Perhaps past masters saw a similar trend because the word for kenpo (chuan fa in Chinese) actually seems to address this very problem. Chuan fa and kenpo have been translated variously as fist way, fist law, and so on, but the best translation into English is actually "fighting principles".

That's "fighting principles," not "fighting techniques." Unfortunately, most students and practitioners of the martial arts do not study fighting principles. Too often, they study (and teach) techniques rather than principles. Fighting techniques are not the same as fighting principles (actually, good techniques demonstrate sound fighting principles). Too many practitioners today believe that "the more techniques I know, the better fighter I will be." In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Most of us understand that fighting is dynamic. Despite this, many still pursue every technique that comes along believing they need to have at least one technique for every possible situation. How many of us have gone to seminars straining to learn in detail, and later recall, every technique we were shown? Even if we could recall them all, how many of us actually absorb the underlying principles behind the techniques demonstrated? Most of us could not. Most of us can only remember the smallest fraction of all the techniques to which we have been exposed, even if we practiced them. This is because we try to look at every technique with a microscope when we really should be using a telescope.

Many pursue every
technique that comes
that comes along
believing they need
to have at least one
technique for every
possible situation.

We need to stand back and see what a given technique is trying to accomplish. Instead, we try to put our hands exactly where the instructor put his, holding them exactly as he did. We do the same with our feet, the height of our stance, and on and on. We attempt a micro view of a macro process. The micro view is necessary but it must be carefully balanced with the big picture.

Beginning students need a lot of "put your foot here," "hold your hand like this," and "bring your knee up at this angle." This is a necessary part of the learning process. However, as the student moves up in knowledge and skill, the amount of time spent on details like these should diminish, and he should eventually come to a point where greater emphasis is placed on how to evaluate technique to see the underlying principle. (This assumes, of course, that the student is being taught techniques designed to demonstrate and reinforce sound principles.)

We are not saying that techniques are only for beginners. They are not. As teaching tools, techniques serve all students — beginning through advanced. The problem is that too many students today are required to learn and memorize many times more techniques than are really necessary. Techniques are not to be memorized as part of a long list. Rather, they should be used as a means to an end — a vehicle to bring the student to an understanding of the principles involved. Techniques provide hooks for the students to hang the principles on, so a certain number of them are necessary. However, considering the finite number of ways you can manipulate the human body, there is no reason for any system to maintain and perpetuate hundreds of them.

To grasp the underlying principle of any technique we have to change our thinking in two ways. First, we must realize that every technique can be broken down into basic movements. Basic movements are like the letters of the alphabet. From a knowledge of the letters and how they are used and combined, we make words. From just the 26 letters in the English language more than half a million words can be formed. Furthermore, language is dynamic; alive. Words become obsolete. New words are constantly being made. But, the underlying letters do not change.

Fighting is equally dynamic and alive. It changes with every generation. Techniques become obsolete. New techniques are constantly being developed. The underlying movements, on the other hand, rarely change. You don't think so? Consider this: Raise your right arm. That is a movement. Is that movement an upward block or a strike with the forearm and hand? My teacher would answer that, with a "yes," meaning it can be either. Its application determines what it is — or as I often say, "What it does determines what it is."

Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3 Figure 4
In Solo Practice Application Number 1 Application Number 2 Application Number 3

What a given movement does determines what it is.

Another example would be to bring your right hand to a position beside your right ear. Is this a protective maneuver or a vertical elbow strike? Are not the movements identical? Again, the application of the movement is the determining factor — again, what it does determines what it is. In an upward arm movement, like the one just described, how much difference does it make if the hand is formed in a fist or a chop? Most of the time, when learning a fighting principle, it makes very little difference. (It may make a difference in the specific technique, but usually not in the principle.)

This brings us to the next change that must occur in our thinking. Armed with the concept that a given technique is made up of basic movements, we zero in on the technique's objective. Is the goal to send your opponent flying 10 feet away? Is it to dump him at your feet? To bring him to his knees? Control him? What? Is the objective to place yourself behind him? To place him between you and someone else? To strike as a setup for another move? Here we take a broader look at the technique. We spend less time on minor intricacies (exact hand and foot placement, width of the stance, etc.) and more on the majors. (Realization of this fact alone greatly improves forms or kata appreciation and practice.)

For example, in a given form you may not like your hand formed in a fist here or there; you may not even see it as necessary or even practical. But if you can see the purpose of the basic movement (the major), then you can live with the fist (the minor) and move on to understanding the underlying principle. You can say to yourself that in the absence of an actual opponent, your hand is formed as a fist. If, however, there were an arm there, you might hold your hand open, or bent this way or that. Breaking a technique down into its basic movements, then, leads to an understanding of the technique's underlying principle.

      Figure 7       Figure 8       Figure 9      
Hand position often makes little difference in the basic movement itself.

The Attack
The same rules regarding techniques also apply to attacks. For example, how many different ways can a right hand come at you? "Hand" is emphasized because it might be a fist, a slap, or be holding a weapon. There are really only so many ways that the hand can come — crossing, straight, over the top, uppercut, whatever. Obviously, allowances are made for variances in angle, but there are still only so many ways that hand can come. Likewise, kicks can come from outside, straight in, over-the-top, up from the ground, etc. And again, there are minor variations in angle, but, like the hand, there are only so many ways that a foot can come at you. Train to recognize this smaller number of movements and quit thinking that, 'if he does this, I'll do this. If he comes with that, I'll have to ...' The problem with having too many techniques is that they clutter your thought processes. Too many choices means too many decisions.

In a computer, the toughest instructions are those which make decisions. They take the most time to execute and require most of the machine's computing resources. In this respect, the human brain is no different. Our brains may be more sophisticated than the world's fastest computers, but it is still the decision-making process that takes all the time. By learning general principles rather than specific techniques, fewer decisions are needed in reacting to a situation. Moreover, because there are far fewer principles to learn, assimilation and subsequent development of spontaneous repetition are greatly accelerated.

Mastering the Principles
When practicing self-defense techniques, focus on the basic movements and principles of defense (response to an attack). Likewise, use the technique to analyze and understand the basic movements and principles behind your opponent's attack. In other words, take the macro view. If, on the other hand, you are preparing for a belt testing or attending a seminar addressing the finer points of traditional shotokan forms, then the micro view is the goal. The "put your foot here," "hold your hand like this," and "bring your knee up at this angle" become very important. But beyond situations like these, don't fall into the trap of seeking to learn hundreds of techniques in the hope of being a better fighter or more capable martial artist. Realize that with a thorough understanding of movement and principles of movement you can create hundreds of your own techniques. There is an old Chinese proverb that says something like, "I can give you fish and feed you today, or I can teach you to fish and you can feed yourself today and tomorrow." Learn to look for basic movements in techniques and you will be well on your way to understanding fighting principles. Master the principles (i.e. learn to fish) and you master the techniques (i.e. feed yourself). If our young reviewer from Northern California learns that, then the techniques he can create on his own will fill volumes.

Translation Notes

Kanji Kenpo Characters In Japanese it is pronounced kenpo, in Mandarin Chinese, chuan fa, and in the Hokkien Chinese dialect, kuntao. Regardless of how it is pronounced, all of these words come from the same Chinese characters and all have been translated variously as fist law, fist rule, fist way, and way of the fist. Using Hepburn's Japanese and English Dictionary, a long-standing authority on the Japanese language, the word kenpo is made from two Chinese characters: ken and ho. Ken, translated literally means "a game played with the hands." Ho means "rule" or "law." When these two simple characters are combined, they change. Ken and ho become kenpo.
The literal translation of these two characters, then, is a game played with the hands, and "rule" or "law." But, as with most languages, literal translation is woefully inadequate. Take the case of the computer translating program that attempted to translate Russian technical journals into English. Since it could only translate literally, it completely missed the mark when it translated the Russian term for a "hydraulic ram" into "water goat." "Fist way" and "fist law" also miss the mark (although not as dramatically). If we move beyond the literal translation of "rules of a game played with the hands" [rearranged] we come to "boxing principles." "Fist law," "fist rule," and "fist way" are all acceptable, but "boxing principles" better captures the characters' real meaning.

One more refinement, however, will bring us still closer. Substitute the word "fighting" for "boxing." We do this because, to the Western mind, "boxing" carries a hands-only connotation, where in Asian martial arts "boxing" naturally includes both hands and feet. Substituting "fighting" for "boxing," then, removes that "hands-only" connotation, yielding "fighting principles" as the best translation of this term. [BACK to reference.]

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Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.