Recently a reader inquired about the matter of kiai. For those who may not be familiar with the term, kiai is most frequently described as a "spirit shout" used in hard martial arts during moments of impact. Kiai is frequently used in kata as well as sparring, basics, ippon kumite, etc.
The crux of the question was as follows (paraphrasing):
"Can you comment on why some kata performances have kiai at the end of every movement? Is it appropriate to kiai that much, and if not how do you know how much to do it? Are there any tricks to sustaining your throat through that much yelling?"
The easy, judgmental answer would be to say "no,no, noooo. don't use kiai on every move. Only a few per kata! Too much kiai-ing is wrong!". But that hardly answers the question. After all, why NOT go nuts with it? If kiai juices you up, wouldn't you want to use it as much as possible?
Let's dig a little deeper!
What is Kiai?
To discuss this matter we have to fix the common interpretation of the word "kiai". Kiai is not necessarily a spirit shout. When broken down, the term "ki" refers to the internal spirit or inherent energy of a person. The term "ai" can indicate harmonizing or focusing, depending on the context.
As Forrest Morgan pointed out in his book "Living the Martial Way", kiai and aiki are two concepts closely related and frequently blended, not unlike a balanced yin and yang. Aiki (as in Aikido) is the practice of harmonizing with an opponent's force and redirecting it. Kiai is an expression of personal force directed into an opponent, disrupting their rhythm. You can see how the two concepts are symbiotically useful (but let's focus on kiai for awhile).
one of the most explicit ways to disrupt your opponent is by overloading their senses via a surprise burst of stimuli. In order to generate that kind of overload, the body's destructive energies can be brought together in an instantaneous moment of exertion. The eyes, ears, emotions, and pain receptors of the opponent can be aggressively overwhelmed. An intense shout, the most noticeable aspect of kiai, is an integral part of that process.
How To Execute a Kiai Shout
Bill Hayes Sensei tells a story of training on the beach with his instructor Shimabukuro Eizo. During that training a storm approached, and instead of packing up and heading home Shimabukuro Sensei had them continue their kata. Just as the students were getting ready to bail out they heard a sonic boom rip through the howling wind, jarring everyone around. When they looked back to see it's origin they found Shimabukuro Sensei laughing. Try as they might, they couldn't replicate their instructor's power in cutting through the maelstrom of the storm.
When listening to kiai, it's important to note that not all are created equal. Any human can scream in anger, not everyone can use kiai. A good kiai is like an auditory gun shot, fueled by intent. The length is brief but delivered quickly and intensely. The emotional fuel is not anger, fury, frustration, or rage (at least not primarily); instead, it is a focused intent to maim or kill. The other emotions may swirl momentarily as byproducts of the intensity.
As with most things in the martial arts, there is no shortcut to a great kiai. Here are some basics to get you started if you still aren't sure about the process:
- Create a solid posture. Tilt your pelvis slightly forward while keeping the spine aligned. Allow your body to relax and sink into the hara (the lower abdomen).
- Breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. Imagine yourself breathing from the bottom of your lungs. You should feel the belly moving in and out instead of the upper chest.
- When ready, push the air out of the bottom of the lungs vigorously. To do this, rely on the abdominal contraction that slightly tilts your pelvis forward.
- Create a vocalization using mostly the back of the throat. A proper kiai will inevitably come out as some sort of vowel sound, but you can guide how it sounds according to what feels natural. It's important to note that you needn't hit a hard "k" at the beginning of a kiai, as you are not actually saying "kiai" during the shout.
- Give yourself permission to be loud. You needn't scream your face off, but there is a barrier of timidity that needs to be broken through. A polite and mannerly kiai doesn't get the job done, so if you've been raised to keep quiet and not make a fuss you'll need to work through that mental block.
- Sculpt your vocalization into a pulse. The kiai is not a sustained scream, but more of an impact tool in it's own right. The hara fires the kiai up and out while the mouth directs it at the target.
More Than Just Screaming
The spirit shout itself is only one aspect of kiai. In order to use it to the fullest extent you have to involve your entire being, including the eyes, posture, and spirit.
There's a story surrounding Matsumura Bushi during one of his famous exploits. It's stated that Matsumura's reputation often preceeded him, even amongst the lower classes on Okinawa. As such, a local craftsman was quite surprised and pleased when Matsumura entered his shop to have some minor work done. Unable to contain his enthusiasm, the craftsman revealed himself as a karateka and promptly asked Matsumura for a lesson. After refusing, Matsumura was challenged to a match by the bold and impatient karateka. Eventually Matsumura acquiesed and agreed to meet the man the next morning.
Just as the sun was rising both men faced each other. At first the craftsman was confident due to his strength, size, and skill. However, as he approached Matsumura to begin the match he noticed something unusual. Matsumura stood naturally with an unflinching gaze. His posture was statuesque, his mouth pursed as if saying something while saying nothing, and his eyes fierce as an eagle. The craftsman felt ill to his stomach and had to sit down. When ready, the karateka tried again to begin an assault but was once again accosted by Matsumura's presence. Just as the craftsman steadied himself for a final attempt, Matsumura let loose a spirit shout akin to a lightning bolt strike and the man was brought to an utter standstill, forfeiting the match and asking for forgiveness.
The exact details of this story are unprovable, but the concepts are quite interesting. What happened here was nothing particularly mystical – Matsumura utilized applied psychology to overwhelm his opponent. Humans have an innate ability to detect threats and impending doom. Matsumura's skill level and confidence were refined to such a fine degree that he was able to instill in his opponent extreme sensations of dread. His kiai disrupted the opponent before a punch was thrown***.
How Much Shouting is Too Much?
As we've established, kiai manifests in subtly different ways, especially during kata performance. The focus and disruptive capabilities of kiai may be present throughout an entire kata, or it may fade in and out depending on what the performer is visualizing.
In order to explore the question of kiai frequency from all angles, here are some reasons why extended kiai might be useful:
- Repeated screaming could put a person into "hulk mode", overwhelming all comers.
- Making noise during a self defense altercation could draw attention and elicit assistance.
- Excessive kiai could make opponents fearful that the victim is crazy, abandoning their attack and running away.
- If every strike in karate is meant to be done as a "killing blow" then every strike would deserve a kiai.
The matter of drawing attention to oneself is certainly true. Screaming and struggling is a very legitimate self defense tactic especially in crowded areas. On the other hand, I wouldn't rely on an attacker concerning themselves about a victim being crazy. It may actually inspire them to do damage more quickly in order to quiet the scene.
The idea of "hulking out" is a perpetuated misunderstanding of how adrenaline works. It's true that ramping up an adrenal dump can increase strength and pain tolerance, but it also drastically reduces cognition and small motor skills. Furthermore, during a conflict, the opponent experiences a similar adrenal dump. Too much "hulk" without any sort of control will not only eliminate fine motor techniques but can also overwhelm gross motor techniques ingrained in muscle memory. The other problem with a scream induced frenzy is the amount of time available before exhaustion. Sometimes individuals get a false sense of security from the dojo. Being able to spar for 45 minutes does not mean a person can last 45 minutes in a street encounter. Even Police Officers experience extreme fatigue in a matter of seconds or minutes when faced with the real struggle of violence. Imagine now if that precious energy was wasted on excessive kiai shouting.
The concept of "killing blows" in karate is a popular one. The phrase "Ikken Hisatsu", "One Punch, One Kill" is frequently used and suggests that full force should be put behind every technique with total committment. This concept is a carryover from Japanese Kenjutsu and the idea of "Ichigo Ichie", "One time, One Meeting". The Samurai were extremely refined swordsmen and the katana was a weapon of immediate effectiveness. The slightest hesitation or uncertainty in a duel spelled certain destruction. The fist of the hard style karateka is designed to be deadly in the same manner. However, when matching the Ikken Hisatsu mindset with the realities of physical combat it's important to rely on the subtleties of kiai usage instead of raw vocalization. Intensity of purpose can be transmitted via facial expression, hard breath, a glare of the eyes, and spirit pressure. Matsumura demonstrated it best. Had he been screaming and having fits as his opponent approached the depth of his kiai might not have been as effective and he would have been exhausted quickly in the fight.
Ultimately, too much shouting goes against practicality for real combat. Consider the element of surprise. The kiai should form a sharp blast against the opponent's senses especially when combined with dehabilitating tuite or striking, never giving the opponent a chance to recover. In the matter of multiple opponents, a blasting kiai used sparcely is just as valuable. A sudden auditory impulse might stop all surrounding aggressors, much like Shimabukuro Eizo's kiai froze his students in place. Kiai may work multiple times in a conflict but if overused it will simply become white noise.
How Many Kiai Per Kata?
Most instructors will indicate a few pre-designed spots where they believe kiai belong. These spots are most often strikes that feel conclusive. As such, many kata feature 1-5 kiai.
Here's a great example from one of my favorite kata practitioners, Shimabukuro Zenpo:
I never doubted his intensity, did you? Not to mention, his throat should be in fine shape even after a full day of training kata.
A Part of the Bigger Puzzle
Throughout this article we've focused on kiai to the exclusion of other concepts. It almost feels as if kiai is the only tool available for spirit transmission, but the truth is quite to the contrary. Kiai is half of a whole with aiki. Furthermore, other concepts such as kime, zanshin, mushin, kokoro, and more add to the collective expression of the classical artist during life protection. Many deeper concepts overlap at times, but are also distinct avenues worthy of study.
Just in case you're still not clear on the matter of kiai among the pantheon of martial skills, I'd like to let Bruce Lee sum it up for me:
***This story should not be confused with other claims of using kiai to knock people out without touching them. The idea of using vocal sounds or visual colors to create knockouts is unproven at best.
Kata is very energetic. Once you get on a role, it can feel like an avalanche of focus and momentum.
In some ways, that’s good. It means that the form has been learned and you no longer need to pause, scratch your head, and try desperately to remember what comes next. Unfortunately, that same momentum can carry you away and cause you to miss some of the finer details of kata execution.
One aspect that is frequently overlooked is…looking. Often, when individuals perform a kata, they become transfixed on what their hands and feet are doing. They snap blocks, fire punches, and move crisply. However, throughout the entire performance, their head stays laser straight, looking ahead at all times.
That sounds like a good thing, right? You would want to be looking in front of you if that’s where the bad guy is. The problem occurs in the directional changes.
If we move our entire body without looking where we are going first, we’ve made a conceptual error. Although the kata dictates we go one way or the other, we need to visualize a real opponent in that place. As such, a real opponent can be unpredictable. We can’t simply shift and block and magically know where the attack is coming from and at what distance. We have to LOOK first. Once we spot the enemy, we can then act in accordance with kata.
Often looking means turning our head slightly and shifting our eyes to the new opponent. We do this before committing to a stance or response, as is advisable in a real confrontation. Therefore, during training, we can take an entire pattern and make sure our eyes and head are moving before technique execution.
Of course, as with any good rule of thumb, there are exceptions.
Even though kata tends to turn in many directions, such movements do not necessarily mean a new opponent is arriving. Sometimes it can indicate that you, the defender, have trapped your opponent and are throwing them. Your body movement is then an ample method for creating that throw. If this is the case, you wouldn’t need to be looking all around – you’ll want to focus on the opponent at hand and execute the throw to maximum efficiency. After that, you can either strike the grounded opponent again or move on.
The important factor here is knowing which method of visualization you are employing. If you are keeping your eyes straight ahead during a turn, is it because you are maximizing a throw? If not, and you intend to address a new opponent, would you be wiser to take a peek first?
GUEST AUTHOR: Michael Heveran has spent the past ten years practicing a variety of martial arts, especially European sword arts such as Girard Thibault’s rapier system and Achille Marozzo’s sword and buckler. His unarmed background includes Wing Chun, American Kenpo, Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu, and Capoeira. Michael’s writings can be found at Antitheses, a blog devoted to conceptual questions in martial arts.
Note: This article contains many Chinese characters. If your computer can’t read Chinese characters, you will probably see empty squares or question marks instead. If you want to see the Chinese characters but can’t, refer to Wikipedia’s guide to installing East Asian language support.
In the world of martial arts, China is incredibly influential. Unfortunately, few martial artists have taken the time to learn anything about the Chinese language. A surprising number of misconceptions are due to simple ignorance of the language. I believe that every martial artist should be a cosmopolitan martial artist, knowledgeable about a wide range of arts from across the world. With that in mind, I’ve put together this primer on Chinese. A little bit of knowledge about the Chinese language will go a long way to set a foundation for learning more about Chinese martial arts.
Names matter. It’s very hard to learn about a subject without a name you can assign attributes to. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion over the names of Chinese martial arts. This is very bad, because when naming systems are inconsistent, it can disrupt the way your mind stores information. Suppose I read a book about Xingyi. In my mind, I file that information under the “Xingyi” column. Then I see a video about Hsing-I, and I file that information under the “Hsing-I” column. But Xingyi and Hsing-I are exactly the same art, just written differently. If I didn’t understand that fact, I might even waste my time trying to find differences between Xingyi and Hsing-I.
With that in mind, there are three things that you need to know in order to understand the names of Chinese martial arts.
1. The Western World Doesn’t Know How to Romanize Chinese
Chinese uses a non-Roman writing system. There is no alphabet, so any attempt to represent Chinese sounds with our alphabet is necessarily an approximation. For example, the characters could be romanized as gong fu, kung fu, gung foo, and so on.
To avoid confusion, the Chinese government has adopted a standard Mandarin romanization system called Hanyu Pinyin, or “Pinyin” for short. Pinyin is a good system that is used almost universally by modern students of Mandarin, and is ubiquitous in mainland China.
However, the Western world doesn’t seem to realize that there is a standard system. Westerners continue to use older romanization systems such as the Wade-Giles system, and that’s when they use any system at all. That’s why Chinese names are so inconsistently written in the West; the writers don’t adhere to the standards.
2. Some Martial Arts Use Mandarin, Others Use Cantonese
Chinese is famously comprised of many dialects. Mandarin is the official dialect of China and by far the most useful. Both systems that I mentioned above – Hanyu Pinyin and Wade-Giles – are meant for Mandarin.
Cantonese is also important for martial artists. Cantonese is spoken primarily in southern China, especially Hong Kong and Macau. Most of us know about Cantonese because it is over-represented in the West, although it may only be the 3rd or 4th most commonly spoken dialect in China.
Because Cantonese is not the national language of any country, there is no standard way of romanizing it. Two common romanization systems are Yale and Jyutping, but there are several other systems in common use.
Cantonese is commonly used for southern Chinese martial arts such as Wing Chun and Hung Gar. However, any teacher is free to teach in whatever dialect he likes. It’s not uncommon to see the same martial art under a completely different name depending on the origins of the teacher.
3. Chinese Characters Can be Simplified or Traditional
Chinese characters are the clearest way to express a Chinese name. If you can read Chinese characters, it’s best not to translate or romanize them at all. But even then, there’s a problem. In the 1950s, the Chinese government simplified the writing system in an effort to increase public literacy. Since then, there have been two sets of Chinese characters: Simplified and traditional.
Mainland China and Singapore use simplified characters, while traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and many Chinese communities overseas. Both sets of characters are useful, depending on where you live or what you study.
Case Study: Tai Chi or Taiji?
“Tai Chi” is perhaps the best example of romanization problems. Let’s take a look at how this is supposed to be written:
Hanyu Pinyin: Taijiquan
Wade-Giles: T’ai Chi Ch’üan
The name “Tai Chi” seems to be a bastardization of the Wade-Giles form. In other words, someone saw the Wade-Giles version but didn’t understand the apostrophes or the umlaut. As a result, in the West you can see all kinds of variations: Taijiquan, Tai Chi Chuan, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Taiji Chuan, T’aichi Quan, etc.
Some writers try to get around romanization by translating the name into English. This might work for simple names, like White Crane or Northern Praying Mantis, but Taijiquan does not translate well. “Taiji” is an ancient and complex metaphysical concept. “Quan” literally means “fist,” and signifies that it is a method of fighting. Some English translations of Taijiquan include: “Supreme Ultimate Boxing,” “Fist of the Great Ultimate,” “Supreme Pole fist,” etc. These are essentially meaningless translations, so the name is best left untranslated.
If you can’t translate the name and Chinese characters aren’t an option, then you had better pick a romanization system and stick with it.
Bring on the Names
What follows is a table of names for a variety of Chinese martial arts. Each name is written in English, romanized Mandarin and Cantonese, and both simplified and traditional characters. It is meant as an extended list of examples, not anything like an exhaustive list of Chinese martial arts. Names are sorted alphabetically by their common names, which are frequently inaccurate. When there are multiple entries in succession in a single cell, that means that there are multiple valid options.
If you’d like to know more about the information in this table, please refer to the FAQ at the bottom of the page.
Frequently Asked Questions
What do all of those numbers and lines mean?
They tell you the tone of each syllable. Both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal, which means that the tone of a syllable affects its meaning. Mandarin has four tones – or five, if you count “neutral.” Cantonese essentially has six tones, but it’s a little more complicated. In Pinyin, tones are expressed with little lines above certain vowels. In the other romanization systems above, tones are expressed with numbers.
If you’re only interesting in reading small amounts of Chinese in the West, tones may not matter to you. Most of the time, Chinese is not romanized with tones.
What does Quan/Ch’üan mean?
The word Quán is the most common suffix in Chinese martial arts names. It literally means “fist,” but it’s often translated as “boxing.” In reality, it means something like “way of fighting” or “martial art.” So to fully translate the name of White Crane(bái hè quán), you would actually end up with “White Crane Martial Art.” This translation is redundant, although it’s more accurate than “White Crane Fist” or “White Crane Boxing.”
I don’t think that we should translate the word Quán. “Fist” is a literal translation, but doesn’t really make sense. “Boxing” is antiquated and inaccurate, chosen by translators who were under the false assumption that Chinese martial arts are analogous to Western boxing. If you want to preserve this part of the name, just say it in Chinese instead of English.
Are there other ways to romanize Chinese? Why did you pick these four romanization systems?
Of course, there are all sorts of romanization systems, but I picked the four that seemed most widespread. For Mandarin, this is an easy decision: Pinyin is standard in China, while Wade-Giles still clings on in the West. Cantonese isn’t nearly so standardized, but Yale and Jyutping are both relatively well-known systems.
What about dialects other than Mandarin or Cantonese?
There are many dialects of Chinese other than Mandarin and Cantonese, some of which are more widely spoken than Cantonese. But Mandarin is by far the most common, and Cantonese is disproportionately well-represented among martial artists in the Western world. Most names of Chinese martial arts that you can encounter in the West can be traced to one of these two dialects.
How do I find the equivalent pronunciation in Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese?
First, copy the traditional Chinese characters for the name you are interested in. Then paste the characters into an appropriate online dictionary. It’s important that you find a dictionary that is dedicated to that particular language, not an all-in-one dictionary like Google Translate. You’re not just looking for the English equivalent, you’re looking for how it is romanized.
Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese all have multiple writing systems, so you may be required to use a specific search field for Chinese characters. Each of the following terms refers to Chinese characters:
Vietnamese: Hán tu.
Why did you choose these particular martial arts?
Chinese martial arts can be grouped together or divided infinitely. I’ve seen “exhaustive” lists and came away no better for it. With that in mind, I couldn’t include them all.
I tried to include as many well-known arts as possible, but without too much redundancy. For example, I added Praying Mantis, but not Southern Praying Mantis, Seven Star Praying Mantis or Plum Blossom Praying Mantis. For the purposes of understanding names, I don’t think it’s necessary to include the latter three.
That said, it’s not hard to add more to the list. If there’s a name that you’re curious about, drop me a line in the comments section.
What about martial arts with variations of the names posted above? (e.g. Bagua Quan vs. Bagua Zhang)
This is common. In some cases, it’s the same martial art(or similar) under a different name, but there is no general rule. It may be helpful to know that Chinese martial arts tend to reuse a lot of the same words over and over. A lot of the time, the following words show up as suffixes:
Why didn’t you include Wushu/Gongfu/Guoshu/Quan Fa/etc?
These are generic Chinese terms and not the names of specific martial arts.
Why isn’t there an English translation for X?
It’s not useful to translate every name. For example, Shaolin is just the name of a temple. It doesn’t clarify the issue any further by explaining what Shao and Lin mean. Choy Li Fut is another example of an art which is almost impossible to translate. The first two characters are family surnames, while the last character refers to Buddha. It has been said that Choy Li Fut was a synthesis of three preexisting systems, and that each character refers to one of its predecessors. The name is therefore meaningful in Chinese, but gibberish if translated literally.
Some names contain references to complex philosophical concepts, like Taiji or Bagua. Bagua can be translated literally (Eight Trigrams), but that doesn’t express the meaning behind the concept. Taiji is even more complex, and it’s pointless to translate it.
Where do you get your translations?
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post in the comments section below.