Your Guide to the Martial Arts

I was a teenager in the ’70s and one of the big crazes that caused a lot of craziness was the spike in interest in Asian martial arts. It seems like everyone was “Kung Fu fighting” (a terrible song, by the way). There was a lot of talk in the hallways of my high school over which particular discipline we should waste our parents’ money on by signing up for classes.

A lot of Kung Fu movies were hitting the cinemas, and the best fighter seemed to everyone to be Bruce Lee, but there weren’t many places to learn Kung Fu. So we’d sign up for whatever martial arts classes we could find and get into huge discussions about how whatever we were personally learning was better than whatever the other guy  was taking.

Where I grew up, physical confrontations were extremely rare (I can only remember three half-assed fights from kindergarten through grade 11) so we were not exactly the most battle-hardened crowd. In fact the person I would have least liked to anger to the point of a knuckle-oriented response was a skinny five-foot-tall (if that) girl named Rose. Her dad was from Hong Kong and he taught her Kung Fu. She also took Karate and had her Brown Belt by Grade 8.

Rose was cute looking in a non-fragile yet non-threatening sort of way — looks can be deceiving. I remember one time we went together to see a Bruce Lee movie, The Big Boss (also known as Fists of Fury). After the movie, we were standing just down the street from the theatre in front of an alley talking about all the cool fighting techniques we had just witnessed and I remarked that I hadn’t quite understood one of the sequences — Bruce Lee had executed it way too fast. Rose said, “Oh, all he did was this…”.

I think I saw her move but definitely felt something hit my chest. I realized I was now on my back on a pile of garbage bags and there was a strange guy with clenched fists standing beside Rose, asking if she needed any help. She told him that I was her friend and she was just showing me some Kung Fu. I said “Yeah, well I could use some help!” Everyone had a good laugh as I spat out rib fragments and the guy was nice enough to extend his hand for me to grab onto as I struggled to my feet.

I don’t know how she did it but that kick I didn’t even see hurled me a good three feet but didn’t hurt a minute later. It didn’t even leave a mark! I sincerely hope if I ever run into Rose again she has fond memories of our friendship.

So I’m writing this post to share my incredible knowledge on this subject with those of you who have never been booted around by an eighty-five pound girl. If you have any interest in signing up for self-defence classes, it’s truly important that you know about the different styles and what they’re all about so you can decide which one is best for you.


Our brave volunteer sat still as a succession of martial arts practitioners with progressively higher belt rankings delivered punches to his left eye. The trauma sustained illustrates the logic behind the coloured belt system. Photos courtesy of Mrs. HoaiPhai.

The Martial Arts’ Belt Skill Level Ranking System

We have all heard the term “Black Belt” and know that it refers to an expert martial artist. As one’s skill and knowledge progress from novice through expert, you are awarded different coloured belts. The progression of belt colours usually goes something like this… white, yellow, orange, blue, purple, green, brown, and finally, black.

Contrary to popular belief, this chromatic progression is not arbitrary. Nor does it have anything to do with some exotic Eastern symbolism linking colour to enlightenment. It is merely an indication of the kind of damage a holder of a particular coloured belt can do with a single straight punch to a typical opponent’s face (literally, “a belt to the eye”), as illustrated in the series of photos on the left margin of this post where a volunteer sat and was photographed after each in a succession of ever increasingly proficient martial artists clocking him one.


Judo techniques centre around tripping and throwing your opponent around. The word Judo means “the gentle way” and is an example of Feudal Japanese humour.

Have you ever slipped on the ice, some oil, or a banana peel and landed on your bum-bum? Not so gentle, eh? Now imagine a guy who for decades has been studying dozens of centuries-old techniques for tossing people around. Now remember every movie about Feudal Japan you ever saw. Everything you would be likely to land upon looks pretty hard, like the gravel gardens, rocky mountain paths, the hardwood floors. Sometimes you see mats on Japanese floors. Ever sleep on a traditional mat-on-the-floor Japanese bed? I haven’t, but I have spent some serious time on a traditional Korean mat-on-the-floor bed and they look pretty similar. I think I’d rather be thrown into a gravel garden.

But we’re living in the 21st century and when was the last time you saw a gravel garden? Modern Judo techniques have you land on pavement in front of a speeding Toyota. Very funny joke, Judo guys.


Meaning empty (kara) hand (te), this Japanese fighting system proves you don’t need a weapon to inflict life-threatening internal injuries. Karate is not to be confused with the Japanese art of repelling people without laying a hand on them, Karaoke (meaning “empty orchestra”).

This method is very linear in its strikes and movements and tends to cause linear fractures in whoever comes in second in sparring matches.

Tae Kwon Do

This is a Korean martial art very similar to Karate but with a kind of hit-and-run flavour to it (not unlike the traffic in Seoul) — you strike and then jump back out of your opponent’s range.

According to the omniscient Wikipedia, “In Korean, tae (태, 跆) means ‘to strike or break with foot’; kwon (권, 拳) means ‘to strike or break with fist’ and do (도, 道) means ‘way’, ‘method’, or ‘path’. Thus, taekwondo may be loosely translated as ‘the way of the hand and the foot.’ ” Cute.

Many of Mrs. HoaiPhai’s nieces and nephews are black belts in Tae Kwon Do so I try to be very nice to them at all times. Her nephew Sung Soo stayed with us for about six months and a gentler, meeker lad you’d never meet. One day he kicked the concrete ceiling in the garage of the apartment complex we lived in. Bits of stuff came loose from the ceiling and the sound echoed in a really cool way. After that demonstration I granted him a one-hour extension to his curfew, let him sit wherever he wanted at the dinner table, and never asked him for the remote again.


Heading back to Japan for a bit, anyone who has ever seen a Steven Seagal movie has seen Aikido in action. While there is some kicking and punching going on, most of your opponent’s pain arrives thanks to throws that are way cooler than anything found in the Judo handbook and twisting joints in directions they were never meant to go.

“Aikido” is supposed to mean “the way of unifying (with) life energy” but the first two letters, the “Ai” part, come from an ancient dialect of Japanese and the exact meaning is a little fuzzy, but is generally thought to mean the “unifying” part of the translation above. This humble scholar of cool ways other people can hurt yet other people feels that “Ai” means something different… “to wring”, resulting in a much more accurate description of The Art — “the way of wringing the life energy out of your opponent”.

Aikido is arguably among the coolest of the martial arts because it’s all about leverage, moving out of the other guy’s way, blending with the motion of the attacker, and redirecting the force of the attack without breaking into too much of a sweat. Even a non-brawny denizen of the buffet line could probably be trained in this art and it’s gracefulness is very impressive to persons of the opposite genderal persuasion. The only caveat is that you better be a pretty skilled fighter before you wear the funny Aikido pants out in public.


This is the Korean version of Aikido (both Hapkido and Aikido are written identically when using Chinese characters), brought to his homeland by a Korean dude after having lived in Japan for three decades, presumably studying Aikido because he couldn’t find a channel on Japanese TV with any decent Korean “long sleeves” epic miniseries. He “stole” the art in retaliation for the Japanese having hijacked Korea’s kim bap recipe, renaming it sushi, and making a whole whack of money on the whole thing without so much as sending a single case of wasabi to Korea in gratitude.

This is not one of your higher-profile martial arts, and is only seen in non-blockbuster low-budget movies. Perhaps the best-know of these were the Billy Jack flicks which were kind of painful to watch because of the ’70s Mother Earth, New Age, organic kelp farmer kind of philosophy of the film’s protagonists. Oddly, this is part of the film’s appeal.

You see, in the 1971 film Billy Jack, the character Billy Jack helps save a hippy-oriented school thwart attacks by rednecks. The film tries to tell us that the violence used by the rednecks is bad, so Billy Jack (played by real-life Hapkido expert Tom Laughlin who in real life owned the United States’ largest Montessori School in the early ’60s) beats the tar, and sometimes the vital life forces themselves, out of the rednecks. So the peaceful message the film is trying to deliver is violence is completely unacceptable and must be eliminated from the human experience, unless you want to snuff some bad guys with your bare hands and feet.

A couple of the Billy Jack movies’ fight scenes were choreographed by a Hapkido Grand Master, Bong Soo Han (he also did some stunt doubling for Laughlin), who taught Laughlin the art in the first place.

Master Han also appeared in an early Abrahams, Zucker, and Zucker film, The Kentucky Fried Movie in the “A Fistful of Yen” segment. Master Han played Dr. Klahn in this spoof of Bruce Lee’s movie, Enter the Dragon. If you have the chance, watch it with someone who is fluent in Korean because during the scene where Loo (the Bruce Lee-ish hero of the segment) is trying to get the attention of Ada Gronick by “discreetly” holding up signs and winking, you can hear Master Han speaking Korean. Immediately after he asks for and receives some grapes there are a couple of funny lines.

If you don’t have any friends who speak Korean, here’s the gist of what is being said. I don’t want to spoil it for any Korean speakers so I’ve typed it out in white so to read it all you have to do is select the text and it will become visible. It’s been a while since I saw the movie but I think remember what was said, so the following is not a word-for-word translation…

Spoiler Alert: Do not select the following text if you are going to watch “Fistful of Yen” with Koreans! “The director wants me to speak Korean here. It is so hard to find work here in the U.S. I had to take a job in this crummy movie just to make ends meet. I hope nobody in Korea sees this or it’ll ruin my reputation and I apologize to my fans back in Korea! 

Oh yeah, there are plenty of funny fight scenes and Master Han is awesome!

Kung Fu

This martial art is the grand-daddy of all the previously mentioned martial arts and there are various styles. Individual schools mimicked animals’ movements and gave their style appropriate names, like tiger, crane, snake, and dragon. A couple of styles are no longer practised, like the fluffy bunny and hungry panda styles, as the vast majority of their early practitioners were killed off in vicious fights. There is no shortage of movies to watch to get an idea of how graceful and non-linear the movements of this collection of fighting styles are.

One of the things that sets Kung Fu movies apart from films centred around other martial arts is that the Kung Fu guys are always eating. The only time they’re not eating is when they are fighting. Sometimes they even get attacked when they are buying food for their sweethearts (whom they’ve never kissed) at dumpling stands on lonely stretches of dirt roads. The only other film genres that even comes close to Kung Fu movies in terms of total caloric intake are mafia movies (the mafia guys eat huge meals but the Kung Fu guys are always nibbling on something, so it may be a tie) and chick flicks involving women consoling each other about some two-timing guy.

Get yourself a Kung Fu movie, order some egg foo young, and settle in for some great entertainment.


In my case, this is the fighting style that has proven to work most reliably and suits my physical and emotional disposition best. At the first sign of danger I run faster than Rose could kick. Sometimes I even walk away from a fight.

The last fight I avoided (true story!) was about eight years ago. I was walking around beautiful downtown St. Catharines, Ontario after midnight and I saw a fairly drunk guy change direction and walk in my direction. I thought that he would probably try to hit me up for some change or a cigarette or something (but I was ready in case he suddenly tried something physical) but he walked right up, clenched his fists, blocked my path, and said “You wanna go?”. I snapped into action and replied, “Yeah, I wanna go. See you later”, and I went.

Even though he was a good twenty years my junior, given his “Heineken handicap” and my having a good thirty years of pent-up rage against various former bosses, traffic cops, and telemarketers on him, I was sure I could have faced manslaughter charges that night if I hadn’t chosen to just walk away.

Bowing Out

I hope I’ve been able to shed a little light on the mysterious world of martial arts. I suggest that you run out and rent a couple of martial arts DVDs but a word of advice — if there’s a small Oriental lady nosing her way through the Bruce Lee titles in your video store, let her have first pick… it just might be Rose.

About HoaiPhai

I'm up late digging up the dirt. View all posts by HoaiPhai

8 responses to “Your Guide to the Martial Arts

  • Hippie Cahier

    If you hear from Rose, promise to update us.

  • The Hook

    My daughter is going to love this one! She takes karate three times a week.

    • HoaiPhai

      If your daughter’s name is Rose, I’m scared of her already! All kidding aside, tell your daughter about Rose. She won my respect because of her undying determination to be as good as she possibly could be at something she was interested in, and not because she could hurt me if she wanted to, which she only did a couple of times once she was comfortable enough with our friendship to know that I wouldn’t hold it against her. Rose never used her ability to hurt someone for fun or out of spite.

  • Ape No. 1

    Talk about putting your body on the line for a post. We’re you belted by A-Kiddo from your Cute category?

    • HoaiPhai

      Oh, the things I do for journalism! A word to the wise… if you plan on falling asleep on the couch and waking up when your wife is around, don’t buy her her own digital camera.

  • xeriouslywtf

    I’m very attracted to young non threatening girls that can kick my ass, I think I might have a problem.

    • HoaiPhai

      I used to think it was a problem until I limited myself to the less than 100 pound division. The problem comes if they are…
      1. Able to seriously kick your ass.
      2. Wanting to kick your ass.
      3. Out for blood.
      4. Unstoppable.

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