Film Review: Martial Arts of Shaolin

Martial Arts of Shaolin is a 1986 film about Zhi Ming, who is training at the Northern Shaolin Temple. One day, he discovers that the magistrate who killed his parents has come out of hiding…

Available on Amazon

I really enjoyed this film. It’s not heavy on plot, and the dubbing is atrocious, but the fight scenes are long, complex, and suitably entertaining. The choreography was beautiful.

Plus, the inevitable love interest was suitably violent, being a young lady whose parents were also killed by the magistrate, and who was also out for revenge. It was good to see a female who was not helpless.

Really, though, by the sounds of it the magistrate definitely had it coming!

Some highlights that I found particularly fun:

  • fighting over a paintbrush
  • “vegetable” buns served to monks
  • dressing as sheep
  • fighting on the Great Wall of China (it’s possible this is a requirement for any martial arts film set in China)
  • how to attack a beard

Plus, is feeding a bird a sin? We must preserve life, and the bird will die if we do not feed it. But the worm is also a living being…

Overall, I’d say this would be a fun film to watch with some martial-arts-inclined friends, as long as none of them were particularly fussy about historical accuracy.

Why is Shorinji Kempo like a plunger?

I know, it’s an odd question, but bear with me.

The humble sink plunger is in some ways the perfect metaphor for Shorinji Kempo.

You need to have one in the house, but you really hope you never have to use it.

Plumbing emergencies don’t usually come with a warning. When you need a plunger, you don’t want to have to go down to the shops to search one out. You want to be able to reach into the cupboard and pick one up.

Similarly, if you’re walking down the street and find yourself in a self defence situation, that is not the time to be thinking about finding a dojo and taking some lessons. You want to be able to reach into your brain and pull out the correct response, right now.

Of course, none of us want to encounter an emergency – either plumbing or self defence – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared.

It has a hard bit and a soft bit, and works best when both are present.

Have you ever had to use a plunger? Without the soft bit on the end, it’s just a stick. Without the stick, it’s hard to manipulate.

Shorinji Kempo is the same. We have goho and juho, but 99.9% of the techniques actually include elements of both, and work better when you use both principles.

Technique is more important than strength.

If you use a plunger wrong, nothing happens. Or worse, your plumbing problem deteriorates…

Similarly, plunging harder doesn’t make it work better. It only amplifies the technique you are using, whether that is good or bad.

Shorinji Kempo doesn’t rely on strength to overcome your opponent. Skill is more important. A small, “weak” girl can take down a large man using Shorinji Kempo techniques, if she knows what she is doing.

It takes practice.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune to need to use a plunger more than once, you probably found that the second time went much better than the first time. Maybe the first time you had to look up how to use one, and then you fiddled around for a while to get the angles right.

The second time, you remembered some of what you learnt before, and just got on with it.

We practice the basics of Kempo over and over again, building them into our muscle memory, so that when we need them they are there. No need to look things up or think too hard about the correct body motion to go with the block you want to do – it just happens.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you should go out, join a class, and practice using a plunger every week. Once or twice is probably enough for that. But I am suggesting that you should find a dojo and get some regular practice in Shorinji Kempo – before you need it to deal with a non-plumbing emergency!

Review: The Shaolin Kid

The Shaolin Kid (AKA A Boy in China) is a 2012 documentary about an American boy named Andre. As a young child he was diagnosed as being extremely hyperactive – the treatment prescribed was lots of exercise.

Credit: IMDB

After seeing a Jackie Chan film when he was three years old, he got interested in Kung Fu, and his parents enrolled him in classes. He thrived, and when he was eight he had the chance to go to China and study in Shaolin and later Beijing.

The documentary is about the challenges he faced on his journey.

To be honest, I found the whole thing quite disjointed and hard to follow. There were a lot of training montages interspersed with interviews with his parents and teachers, but there didn’t seem to be much in the way of structure. It just jumps in with the parents explaining how hard it was to be separated without explaining what was going on.

Another example; in Shaolin, Westerners are not usually allowed to stay in the dorms with the Chinese students and train with them – it was never explained why Andre was allowed to.

The confusion aside, the documentary has a lot of interesting points. I enjoyed the training montages, because they showed the wide range of things the children were learning – not just one style of wushu but several, and also strength, flexibility and stamina. They also spend time on academics as well as cleaning and other chores.

It was also clear that discipline was a strong driving force at the school. It looked hard work – and occasionally painful.

I was interested in the fundamental difference in attitude between Western parents and Chinese parents. In the West, parents often expect their children to be constantly progressing. In China, if you’re not good enough, you go back to the basics class; perfection is required before you can move on.

The documentary makers were at great pains to make sure we know that all this was the child’s choice – not being pushed on him by the parents, but fully supported by them.

That attitude seems to have paid off – Andre is now eighteen and still practicing various Chinese martial arts. He competes with the US National Team, and has over 200 gold medals.

You can see a recent interview with him on You Tube, which also contains some clips from the documentary. The full documentary is available on Amazon (to buy*, or free on Prime), and also to buy in various places around the internet.

*Affiliate link. If you buy it we’ll make a small commission.

Buying a dogi

You’ve been coming to class for a few weeks now.  You’re really enjoying yourself, but there’s one problem.  You feel so… underdressed.

Everyone around you has these snazzy white suits, with cool belts.  And there’s you, in your tracksuit bottoms and old t-shirt.

It’s time to level up!

So where can you get a dogi of your very own?

If you’re tight on cash, ask around at your dojo.  Perhaps someone has an older one that they’re looking to replace, and you could help them by “recycling” the old one.

If you’d rather have a new one, your choices are vast.

Most big cities have a martial arts shop or two. For example in Bristol we have Enso. This is a good choice if you want some advice, or to try on your dogi to make sure of the sizing.

Alternatively, you can buy online.

Recently I bought a dogi from Blitz, and the experience was generally a good one. Service was speedy (I ordered on a Friday, it was delivered on Monday). The dogi is a good quality, and reasonably priced for what I got, too. They have a wide variety of options, from a simple “good first dogi” to thick ones suitable for competitions and demonstrations.

My one issue is that the sizing is not great.  I’m 163cm tall, and I ordered the smallest adult size – which claims to fit people in the range 160-169cm.  When I tried it on… well, let’s just say I sent it back to be replaced with a child sized dogi.

On the one hand, this is annoying, but on the other hand it means I can report that their customer service respond quickly to questions (such as “how much should I expect this to shrink when washed?”, to which the answer is “not much” – although see below).

Also, the returns process is simple and as speedy as their sales process. You tell them you want to return it, they send you a pre-paid postage label. You send it, they refund you. Easy.

I now have two different dogi from Blitz; a “Zanshin” and a “Kokoro”. Both claim to fit 150-159cm. After shrinking in the wash, the Zanshin is on the large end of perfect fit, and the Kokoro is on the small end of perfect fit. Remember, I’m 163cm tall. The Kokoro definitely shrank more than the Zanshin, but I’m happy with both of them.

All in all, getting a dogi shouldn’t be a chore. You’ll really start to feel a part of the club once you’re dressed like the rest of us. Just good luck tying your belt!

Coming together for violence and friendship

Last weekend Shorinji Kempo kenshi from all over the UK came to Bristol to train together.

Here we are proving that no matter how many people you put in a room, somehow there is always a gap that nobody is in.

Sensei Rob Villiers (6th Dan) and Sensei Richard Jarman (5th Dan) taught sessions on topics including juho randori, dantai embu, and the ever popular kihon.

Dan grades and kyu grades trained together, and proved once again that white belts have as much to contribute to a class as black belts.

After finishing off the afternoon with some techniques from our own grades’ syllabuses, we moved on to an important post-training event: curry! Alas, I was having too much fun to remember to take a photo, so you’ll have to use your imagination for that one.

It was good to see so many people there. We’re already looking forward to the next opportunity to meet up again.

What’s the point of embu?

Before I try to answer this question, it might be useful if I first define embu.  It’s not something that a lot of people have come across before.

An embu, in essence, is a choreographed fight.  A pair of students (usually a pair, anyway) will design the fight to look as realistic as possible, and they’ll practice and practice until it’s perfect.  It’s like a cross between dancing and martial arts, I guess, but that makes it sound fluffy and non-violent.  A proper embu is anything but fluffy.

I’ve seen embu where I was genuinely afraid that one of the participants would get hurt… and somehow they never do.

You can see examples of embu here, here, or here.

So what’s the point?

There are a few things going on here.  Firstly, and most obviously, practicing techniques again and again means you get better at them.  Some of that will carry over into other techniques, which aren’t in the embu.  For example, your posture and general attitude, and the strength of your kiai will improve.

Working with a partner will improve both of you faster than either of you working alone.  Each person has different strengths, and as long as you help each other rather than competing you will learn from your partner even as they learn from you.

The process of building the embu in the first place will also teach you a lot.  You’ll learn which techniques flow on from one another, where your weight has to be in order to make a move possible, and which sequences are just never likely to happen in practice.

And, while Shorinji Kempo is not hugely competitive, we do have embu competitions.  This is an opportunity to take what you’ve been practicing and perform it under pressure.  You have a time limit (both upper and lower), you have people watching your every move, checking how good you are.  You have to push past any nerves you may have and concentrate – a useful skill in almost all walks of life!

Annual Leaders Seminar, Cyprus 2018

Several of the club’s members attended this year’s Annual Leaders Seminar in Cyprus.  We spent six days training hard, but also relaxing well and eating a lot.

Mornings in the dojo gave us the opportunity to work on some of the more difficult principles and techniques.  We were ably instructed in this by  Mizuno Sensei and Imai Sensei, both of whom regularly astound us with the depth of their knowledge and ability.


After a long lunch (it’s too hot to train at lunch time of course), we spent our afternoons on the beach.  With shakujo you need a lot of space!

Of course, there was plenty of time for swimming and socialising, building our better world one friendship at a time.

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