Q&A: Flashy Martial Arts

If melee is all about not exposing yourself and not using up all your stamina, why are eastern martial arts so flashy? Like, with spins and flips? Wouldn’t an enemy just tackle them or stab them while they’re jumping?

Most of the time, Eastern martial arts aren’t particularly flashy.

The big exceptions are things like Wushu, where it’s performance art. That’s not about getting into a fight and winning, it’s about putting on a show. The same thing is true on film; the fight is about presenting an appealing set of visuals.

Turns out, when you have performers who are in excellent physical condition, and you ask them to put on a show, they can do a pretty good job of it. It has no relation to reality, and becomes a genre convention.

Why would you ask someone to engage in acrobatics for your fight scene? Because it looks really cool.

A lot of Chinese Wushu practitioners have been training since childhood. This includes people like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. They’re fantastic entertainers. They’ve spent their entire lives dedicated to martial arts, and as a result, when asked to put on a show, the results are amazing.

Now, that’s a performance, not a fight. In live combat, movement is generally minimized, stamina is conserved, and, anyone who knows what they’re doing will aim to end the fight quickly. Most of the time, that means the flashy stuff stays at home.

There are exceptions, and there is a reason. Stuff like Taekwondo keeps some elements. Those flashy moves, where someone leaps into the air and drives a spin kick into your head will kill you.

That’s not a joke.

That’s not hyperbole.

When you get your entire body moving, driving a strike into someone’s head, if it connects properly, can kill.

It’s risky. I was going to say, “in a real fight,” but Michi tore her leg apart doing a tornado kick. This stuff is not easy, and can seriously harm the practitioner if anything goes wrong. However, it can end the fight on the spot.

Spin kicks, of any variety, are no joke. They drive a shocking amount of force into the target. Kicks in general, are fairly advanced. Even basic kicks require prior training, and the flashy stuff is not easy. However, they deliver a lot of force.

There seems to be a semi-common perception by people who’ve never trained or experienced violence, that people are far more mobile than they really are. If someone’s doing flips to get away from you, you’re not going to be able to simply walk over and shank them mid-bounce. If they’re flipping towards you, you’re going to have a hard time lining up a strike before they connect. Now, you’re exceedingly unlikely to see someone flipping around in an actual fight because, as you mentioned, that’s extremely taxing, but someone doing that isn’t as vulnerable as you might think.

There’s some other stuff that looks flashy if you don’t know what you’re doing, but is practical. Throws are a good example of this. They look flashy. You just grab your opponent and bounce them around the room. The truth is, most throws are pretty easy to execute. They don’t take much energy, and you’re often using your opponent’s momentum to carry the throw. These are also very effective as your attacker ends up on the ground. They won’t end a fight, but they can quickly shift the balance.

Weapon tricks can also look flashy, but are low energy. Things like reversing the grip on a knife can be casually done by an experienced fighter. It’ll look cool, but it’s trivial in the moment, with practical uses.

So, the short answer is, if you’re watching martial arts movies, you’re not seeing how violence actually works. You’re seeing a performance. Those performances aren’t intended to reflect the real world. They’re supposed to be high-energy, and visually engaging. It is art, but it’s not emulating life.


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