The Tao of Retreat

From the text Tao of Peace by Wang Shen translated by Ralph and Mei Chun Lee Sawyer, we have the following paradoxical excerpt…

Those who employ the military have a saying,
“I dare not act as the host but act as the guest;
I dare not  advance an inch but withdraw a foot.”

Back and forth, advance and retreat. In the early days of freestyle I often thought that most sparring was an excuse to practice dancing. It all seemed  wasteful that so little time was spent hitting and so muching jumping about but, buried in the behavior of the white belts, was an unrecognized secret.

It’s not just terrain, terrain, terrain. It’s how you use it. I remember Jay Will watching me warm up for a match against a Kajukenbo brown belt in my division, by the name of Phil Cornin as I recall. “Watch this one, he decks everyone.”

We bowed then Phil walked away from me and very deliberately placed his back foot on the far line. I was instantly baffled. If I moved against him all he had to do was back up a step to be out of bounds. If he, on the other hand, charged at me he would have the whole ring (it was really a rectangle) to drive against me. I still remember looking at his back foot and pondering this when he punched my ribs hard enough to send me down. “I told you so,” was Will’s contribution.

When I worked with some of Bruce Lee’s students we did what seemed like an incredibly contradictory regimen that also shed some light on the mysteries of retreat. We would stand in Bruce’s “adduction stance” which was about 60% weighted to the front leg and sported a distinct cant of the upper body in the direction of the opponent. Then we would shuffled backward over and over. Standing in this manner was like being a lit rocket, everything was geared to explosive forward attack potential but retreating in this position posed something of a problem. When people move backward they tend to lean away from their opponent and then lean back into the fighting stance, an action with two distinct segments. Lee’s idea was to train backing up but maintaining the forward commitment of a cocked gun. Very interesting, and surprisingly counter intuitive.

Two other quick ones on the subject. I was accustomed to sparring heavy weights when I was young, guys who out weighed by 30 to 50 pounds. I got used to their rhythm, I banked on their immobility. Then I had a chance to spar with Joe Lewis. I moved, he vanished. I knew he could have blasted me across the mat with that canon side kick of his but he just slid out of range allowing my spurts of attack to dissolve in the air. It was frustrating and scary. He not only had the magnum, he had the jeep to mount it on.

Years later I had a similar experience without even moving. Playing Push Hands against Boris Shi—a fine Kung Fu teacher who for a long time was associated with Adam Hsu— I noted that not only was he firmly rooted with preeminent Peng energy but he would  move to wherever I wanted to move him. Yet BEHIND this, though seemingly accommodating my probing actions, I never sensed a moment of strength loss or any other kind of leak. I would push, Boris would retreat, the power was still aimed in my direction.

Ah, the subtleties of space, I realize, have been some of the most interesting revelations of my martial life. Advance and retreat, ward off and roll back, jam and run; the art of meeting and leaving is something we probably never finish learning. It might be true that a “a man stands his ground” but I’m inclined to think that a general commands his.

photographs by Debbie Shayne