Sunday, November 20, 2016

Chon-Ji: Using chambers to parry attacks

One reason there's such a disconnect between forms and sparring, I think, is the problem of chambers. Karate and taekwondo blocks are performed in two motions. First we chamber, then we block, pulling the back hand into our hip. In taekwondo we also turn our torso to add hip strength. This results in blocks that are very powerful, but far too slow to be usable.

 When I began studying why we chamber, here were the first explanations I came across:

Why do we chamber? To practice the full range of motion
Why do we turn our body? To increase the power of the block by adding in hip motion
Why do we pull the back hand to our hip? To add reaction force, which also increases the power of the block.

I found these explanations unsatisfying, and it appears I'm not alone. Extra power doesn't do you a lot of good if you're too slow to block the attack. The problem is that what we call blocks were not originally blocks. They can be used as blocks, but the motions can also be used as deflections, strikes, pulls, locks, or escapes. So the reason for the two motions is that the chamber is the "block"-- or more accurately the reception -- and the block proper is the response.

This led to debates among karateka about whether "blocks" could even be used as blocks at all. One camp suggested that all blocks/uke were actually strikes in disguise. E.g. a "low block" is actually a hammerfist strike to an opponent's groin. However, this view drew some backlash, because some of the movements don't work well as strikes.

Another view is that the blocks are biphasic. The chamber motion is a block (more accurately a parry), but so is the block proper. One movement this works well for is the inner-forearm block (chudan uchi uke in karate). Although performing two blocks against the same attack might seem daft, there is a logic to it: if you step forward into the block (as we almost always do in the forms), then the second block rides further up the opponent's arm, at the elbow or higher. This pushes the opponent's arm into their body, putting you off the line of fire and preventing them from turning to punch with their other hand. 
The biphasic inner-forearm block,  using 
the chamber motion as a parry.

In fact, this use of inner-forearm block sets up a three-beat defense, a very common defense in traditional martial arts. The purpose of a three-beat defense is to "tie up" an opponent in some way before counterattacking. This is in contrast to two-beat defenses (parry then strike) or one-beat defenses (counterpunch). Three-beat defenses are a self-defense strategy: tying up your opponent makes counter-strikes safer and may also give you a window of opportunity to escape.

The Low Block

This brings me to the taekwondo version of the low block (najunde makgi). We chamber wrist-to-wrist around chest level: blocking palm faces inward and reaction palm faces outward. We also use this wrist-to-wrist setup for outer-forearm block, high block, knifehand strike, and backfist.

The low block chamber, as shown in the Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do
According to Iain Abernethy, this chamber appears in some karate schools as well, so presumably there is an application for it. We want an application that uses the whole motion: (1) the movement of the front hand into chamber, (2) the movement of the back hand into chamber, (3) the turning of the body, (4) the block proper, and (5) the pull of the back hand into the hip.

Impossible? Take a look at the gifs below.

The low block chamber in action, used by a Silat (top),
Tai-Chi (middle), and Karate (bottom) instructor.

Motion 1 is a front block (called a "side parry" in boxing), pushing the attack inward

Motion 2 is a secondary outer-forearm block which can be used to grab your opponent
Motion 3 is part of the parry, pushing the attack away
Motion 4 is not a block, but a low strike to the opponent's groin or floating rib
Motion 5 is pulling your opponent in towards your hip, increasing the power of your strike.

So the wrist-to-wrist chamber is itself a biphasic or "parry-pass" motion. That last gif is performed as an application for the karate version of low block (gedan barai), believe it or not, meaning that the two versions of the low block may not be so different after all. The only change I would make is that motions 1 and 2 should be performed more rapidly. This defense is sometimes called "brush, grab, strike", because of how you follow the parry with a grab before striking.

This also explains why the side parry -- an essential self-defense tool -- seems missing in our forms. In fact it's not missing, it's just been incorporated into the way we chamber. It's also clear why this chamber is used for some of our strikes: it's easy to conceive using a knifehand strike to the neck or a backfist to the face instead of a hammerfist to the ribs from this position.

When you put the two parry-pass applications together, you get a coherent strategy for Chon-Ji: parrying an attack inward so that you are outside your opponent's line of fire. The low block is appropriate to use if you are parrying inward while stepping out, and the inner-forearm block is appropriate to use if you are parrying inward while stepping in. 

Other Blocks

Although this post is about Chon-Ji, we can naturally ask if chambers for other blocks have applications. In Karate bunkai, the high block (also called "rising block") is sometimes used as a forearm strike to an opponent's jaw. The karate chamber for high block can be used to push down an opponent who has grabbed us, before then using the high block as a strike. ITF practitioners will be reminded of the low block - high block combination in Dan-Gun.

Karate rising block as a strike.
Taken from this article. 
But the chamber for high block in taekwondo is similar to (and in my club, exactly the same as) our low block chamber. Does that mean the chamber is useless now? No, it just means the application has changed. Remember that the back arm of the wrist-to-wrist chamber is an outer-forearm block, which by itself can be used to deflect a punch outward. This puts you in an inside fighting position, and the high block can be used as a strike to the jaw just like in karate bunkai, this time in response to a punch rather than a grab. A similar application can be used for outer-forearm block.

Using outer-forearm block as a strike after blocking with the chamber.
Against a lower punch, the high block could be used to counter-attack instead.
Chambers can also represent opening up from a short guard. When an attacker begins throwing punches, the human instinct is to bring up your hands to protect your face. Motions like the twin outer-forearm block and wedging block can represent "opening up" after blocking a punch with the chamber.

There are other techniques, however, where I don't think the setup has much relevance. The spearfinger thrusts, for example, do not have a well-defined chamber. In fact, when you get past the basic blocks, the chambers for the vast majority of hand techniques don't really matter. It's also worth noting that in practice, you will not use the full motion all the time. Low block without the chamber is just a low block; useful in its own right. The biphasic inner-forearm block works perfectly well without needing to pull anything into your hip. Also, in later forms and more advanced applications, the exact way you chamber becomes less and less relevant.


Returning to the three questions from the beginning, we have explored new answers to them:

Why do we chamber? The chamber motion parries the attack
Why do we turn our body? To push away the attack
Why do we pull the back hand to our hip? If we grab the opponent's arm during the chamber, we can pull them in to increase the force of the strike.

These aren't the only answers we could give, but they are certainly more practical than the "more power" explanations usually given.


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