Most English-speaking readers would be familiar with Western portrayals of martial arts. In movies, television, games and prose, fight scenes are the cornerstone of Western fiction. One commonality I’ve noticed in most Western fight scenes I’ve seen is that they are portrayed as exchanges of force. Every fight scene is presented as a contest of strength and willpower, of one fighter seeking to dominate the other, ratcheting up the excitement and energy with every blow.
Boxing is the quintessential Western empty hand art. It is the art of punching and moving, distilled to its absolute essentials. The sweet science retains significant cultural impact in the Western world, through movies, games, and combat sports. Many Western fight scenes I’ve seen in my childhood days obey the boxing paradigm, a raw struggle of kinetic power, endurance, and tolerance of punishment.
The rise of CRPGs and the LitRPG genre reinforces this paradigm. In many CRPGs and MMORPGs, there is often a character class who is the designated tank. Equipped with heavy armor and weapons, this character wades into the thick of the action. In addition to fighting enemies on the frontline, he draws attention away from the backline support characters, especially the squishy mages and the even squishier healers. The defining characteristic of the classic tank is his ability to absorb huge amounts of damage and duke it out face-to-face with powerful foes—not unlike heavyweight boxing, if you think about it. The tank has crossed media to become a literary trope.
The cultural impact of boxing extends even into weapon-based combat. Pulp grandmaster Robert E Howard writes his swordfights as though they were simply boxing matches with swords, emphasizing the speed and strength of the fighters. So many authors make the mistake of assuming that strength is the deciding factor in a sword duel—which isn’t helped by the fact that in many CRPGs, the Strength stat is used to calculate damage, even for sword-wielding characters. More realistically, integrated weapon arts like the Bobby Taboada style of Balintawak use boxing as a supplement to weapon work in close quarters, while respecting the difference between weapons and empty hands.
I use a different approach.
With the Covenant Chronicles, I highlighted the attributes a blade fighter would actually require: dexterity, ranging, timing, deception. In the Babylon universe and Singularity Sunrise, with the main characters routinely facing threats stronger and more powerful than them, I introduced yielding and softness. With Saga of the Swordbreaker, I’m taking all these attributes and interpreting them through the paradigm of the internal martial arts.
The internal martial arts focuses on developing psycho-spiritual attributes: relaxed relaxation, leverage, angles, timing, whole-body movement and power, qi. In contrast, external martial arts prioritize strength, agility, and explosive movements.
The external arts are easy to write. They would look very much like Western boxing, Chinese wushu, and other styles that emphasise speed, strength and explosive power. But Saga of the Swordbreaker is a cultivation story, set in a society inspired by China. This requires a radically different approach to martial arts than in mainstream fiction.
The main martial art of Saga of the Swordbreaker is based on xingyiquan, utilized by the protagonist Li Ming. Baguazhang, another internal art, also influences his fighting strategy. These two arts, along with taijiquan, are considered the three main internal martial arts of China.
A huge component of internal martial arts training is psychological. Practitioners spend extended period of time cultivating relaxation and stillness. By being relaxed, they can quickly sense subtle shifts in the opponent’s posture and exploit openings with powerful blows.
Motion from stillness and stillness in motion are critical concepts in IMA philosophy. IMA artists seek to develop a calm state of mind, and unnecessary physical movement agitates the mind. When moving, they seek to remain relaxed, eliminating unneeded tension to maximise speed and power.
The internal martial arts are based on Daoist principles, and among them is the concept of change. There is no fixed form or technique. The player is constantly changing, flowing from one principle to the next, adapting to meet the situation. While there are plenty of forms for training, the ultimate goal is to transcend forms altogether and simply respond with free, spontaneous and unplanned movement. To achieve this goal, the internal art of Yiquan eschews fixed forms altogether.
Hard martial arts attempt to meet force with force. IMA prefers to yield to it or evade it altogether.
Taijiquan—the martial art, not the exercise commonly seen in the West—uses subtle body mechanics and precise angles to neutralize and counter incoming attacks. Baguazhang is extremely deceptive. Its signature circle walking teaches the practitioner to dodge the enemy’s blows, move to a superior position, and land a strike from an angle that the enemy cannot defend.
Xingyiquan is the hardest and most linear-looking internal martial art, yet it is also rooted in this principle. When facing the enemy, the xingyiquan player is advised to stand in such a way that he appears to be leaning and yet not leaning, straight and yet not straight. This is a subtly bladed posture. When an enemy attempts to punch him, he can make a small turn to rotate his upper body out of the way and launch a counterpunch down the open line.
Leading the enemy into emptiness is a common IMA strategy. Instead of trying to contest force with the enemy, an IMA player will instead guide him into overcommitting himself. Once the opponent is over-extended, he can then take advantage of the openings to break down his structure and defeat him.
The concept of the Six Harmonies is common in the internal arts, and many other Chinese martial arts as well. These are: harmony of hand and foot, elbow and knee, shoulder and hip, heart and intent, intent and qi, qi and strength.
This is the defining feature of an art for a martial cultivator. It cultivates sound body mechanics and psycho-spiritual integration. It is not enough to merely have good body mechanics. Your heart, intent and energy must also be integrated with your movements. There must be no gap between your intention and action. The moment you intend to strike, your fist is already there.
In the Western boxing paradigm, if you find yourself fighting a strongman with a granite chin, you’re in for a rough time. He can absorb huge amounts of damage and keep coming at you. Chinese martial arts have other, more esoteric methods of mitigating damage. The Golden Bell and Iron Shirt enable a practitioner to use qi to harden their bodies against an incoming blow. Imagine keeping your body extremely relaxed, then tensing only the spot struck by the enemy. This allows you to absorb huge amounts of damage while still remaining in the fight.
In Western fiction, this leads to the undermatched fighter flailing away at the enemy, and eventually coming up with creative solutions to win—or else the strongman squashes him.
Internal martial arts neatly solves this problem through fajin.The art of issuing power through coordinated whole-body movement. This sends energy deep into the enemy’s body, shocking organs and shattering bones. But more than just dumping energy into him, the true goal is to unbalance and uproot him. Fajin done right sends an enormous amount of energy through a line of weakness in his body structure, sending him flying or falling. By attacking the body structure, it doesn’t matter how much punishment the enemy can take; he’s going down anyway.
The internal martial arts were originally designed for battlefield use. You can see that most clearly in their grappling techniques.
Many practitioners of Western and Eastern grappling arts, such as wrestling and judo, throw their opponents on their backs or bellies. When thrown with force, this could knock the wind out of someone, especially if thrown on concrete. It also makes for reasonably safe training, since the impact is spread out over a wide area.
In contrast, many qinna methods in the internal martial arts are designed to twist the enemy around, lock up his joints, then throw him down. By taking away his ability to arch his back and bleed off force, and by concentrating the force on his joints, the enemy will suffer immense damage on impact. It keeps the enemy from employing breakfall techniques. Such an approach requires great care. In training, practitioners need to deliberately step down their techniques, or use safer techniques. But the original battlefield applications remain.
When you combine fajin with qinna, you have something truly fearsome indeed.
At the highest level is the realm of wu wei: effortless action. Zen Buddhism has a similar concept of mushin: no mind. At that level, there is no deliberate thought. There is only intent, a slight preference for something to happen—and suddenly it happens. In such a state, your mind and body become one, allowing for incredible feats.
The unity of mind, body, spirit and qi is the defining characteristic of the internal martial arts. They are by design holistic arts.
Through standing meditation, you learn to still your mind and sense the inner dynamics of your body, which sharpens your sensitivity, reflexes and coordination. When practicing techniques, you circulate qi throughout your body, and train your mind and intent. During forms and weapons training, you express power in certain ways, and in the expression of power you also cultivate energy. Through martial movements, you massage your organs, open your joints, and align your posture, improving your overall health. By assuming a calm state of mind as you move, you release stress and learn to maintain your composure even through stressful situations.
Practicing any aspect of the art—be it qigong, meditation, or combative techniques—trains all other aspects of the art. By cultivating qi and fighting attributes simultaneously, the internal martial arts is highly efficient—and would therefore be the art of choice for a serious martial cultivator.
Previously I have said that one of the gravest mistakes Western authors make is the assumption that cultivation is a separate, disconnected activity from life. Through the portrayal of internal martial arts in Saga of the Swordbreaker, I aim to correct that and showcase the reality of cultivation.
Of course, this post is just a high-level overview of the internal arts. To see these martial arts in action, and how they link to cultivation at a deeper level, back Saga of the Swordbreaker here!