Our traditional manuscript describes the technique of Phantom Arrow (鬼箭手, guǐ jiàn shǒu, lit. ghost arrow hand) as follow:
“I, standing with right foot forward, initiate an attack with my right arm. The opponent, standing with his right foot forward, uses his right hand to ladle my right arm. He then takes a left step and attack me with his left arm from the outside line.
In this situation, I should turn my right hand inside-out, with my palm facing upward, to break away from his ladle. I then take a left step, use my left hand to push down his ladling arm, lift my right arm to push his left out of the outside line to create the space so I can thrust his face with my right.
Pushing down his left, pushing up his right, thrusting his face all the movements happen at the same time. There is no particular order, but the turning of the right hand is done earlier.”
(Ladle is a technique where one combatant attempts to hold and turn the opponent’s wrist with his thumb and the digits.)
I have problems with how this technique is applied as recorded in the manuscript, as I do not think it is a very reasonable method of application. Since it cannot be used in real time in such a way, the value of the description is limited even if we consider it to be a practice exercise.
The major problem with the description being, it does not consider the time and how many beats it takes in order to finish the whole set of movements. Regardless of which schools of martial arts from which cultures, the key to victory is whether one can strike the opponent in between his beats or tempo–inside his cycle of movements–where he would not be able to respond. The whole point of techniques is to give you discernible patterns to help you achieve that goal. Techniques are like melodies in a piece of music: the tune will not be good if you cannot hit the right beats, regardless how well it is written.
Let us take a deeper look. When the opponent initiates an attack, regardless how and with what method, the first thing I need to do is respond to that pressure and make it miss. The better response is to make it miss and counter-attack at the same time. If we follow the manuscript, when I attack with my right hand and the opponent defends and ladles my right, his left would be in the ideal position to initiate a counter at the very same time, unless he is very clumsy. To be prudent, we have to assume and practice accordingly that his counter will happen in the same beat when the ladle happens.
When my attacked is ladled by him, physically it means that the energy of that attack would be spent and/or absorbed by the opponent. In the larger scheme, it follows that I have already finished that beat of movement, and before I can initiate another move, the opponent has already countered in the gaps of my beats. This is what we call “the moment when the old force has passed and the new force has yet to generate”. This is the moment where vulnerability presents itself. That is to say, unless the opponent separates his movements into two beats, or that his counter is incredibly slow, he would have hit me in the face before I could do anything.
When the opponent has already countered in the gaps of my beats, I would not have the time to “turn my wrist”, “push down his ladle with my left”, “push up his left with my right”, and “thrust his face”. In order to do all the above, it will take at least two beats: 1. push down his right and lift my right up at the same time; 2. connect my right to his left and thrust. The speed of the thrust also depends on his reaction, and if he does not push inwards to defend his face, my thrust would be very slow, as I cannot make use of his force. Furthermore, it still does not solve the problem of a same beat fast counter.
In addition, suppose he countered with a hook punch, it would extend the distance and the time it would require for my right to reach his left, and even if I could reach it in time, the angle would not be right to perform a thrust. Suppose he turned his face with the hook, which is the correct thing to do, then my thrust would not do a lot of damage as I would only be able to hit the side of his face.
Suppose his ladle upset my balance, I would have a hard time trying to get away, let alone pushing my right to life his left. If his ladle is somewhat successful, it is better to follow his force to perform a downward punch, or by ducking his left and perform a right hook yourself. It would be even better if you attacked him with your left the moment he tried to ladle you. Why give him the chance to do what he wants? There are many ways to react to the situation, and the manuscript provides one of the clumsy ones.
In another words, the manuscript describes a scenario where both sides are clumsy, and if both sides are so slow and clumsy, all sort of moves would automatically be “reasonable”, because the gaps between the beats are so long. The whole point about the Phantom Arrow is the element of surprise of the upward thrust, and we can come up with a couple more reasonable ways to perform that:
- Initiate your moves with the Double Closure. When the opponent resists, you turn both of the palm upwards to create downward pressure. If you can make his arms sink down, proceed with the thrust with either hand.
- Begin with in a way similar to ladle-embrace punch (勾摟捶, gōu lōu chuí, lit. hook hug punch), but instead of a punch you present a thrust to his eye with your right. When he defends your thrust with his left, hold and pull his left hand towards you and thrust upwards with your left.
- To get as close to the manuscript as possible. I initiate the attack, he ladles me and I get my right away with the same method as described, only this time I also turn the palm of my left upwards. Do not wait for his counter, once your right is free, thrust his eyes or his left with it with the palm facing down; I then thrust my left upwards.
The third method is more reasonable, as if the opponent has just initiated a counter, a thrust to his eyes would be faster and more effective. If there is not enough time, your right can meet his left to intercept the attack, and that connection would turn his focus to his left. The shift of focus will create a gap on his right, and then you can follow by thrusting with your left. This method is essentially the same with the second, the only difference being the third method is used on defence and the second offence.
It is unreasonable to hold onto traditions or manuscripts just because they are passed down by the elders. Whenever we studying something systematically and critically, it becomes a science. The study of martial arts, like any other studies, has to be scientific, and it is the fluidity and the flow of application that makes it an art.