Recently, I received an email from someone asking me about the practicality of spinning footwork which he frequently observes in Muye Dobo Tongji (Korean manual based on Chinese martial arts). Is spinning practical in combat? Or is it just for show?
I answered him privately, but I thought I can also share it here with everyone.
Let's start with a video of a Muye Dobo Tongji demonstration. Observe how frequently you can see the demonstrators spinning around.
In modern Wushu, we can observe a lot of very acrobatic & athletic flashy moves. Many times, these moves are invented in modern times to impress the judges for winning competitions and may not serve much practical usage for combat. So we will leave modern Wushu out of this discussion
In Muye Dobo Tongji, we can observe spinning footwork as you can see in the video above. But remember, these are documented in the manuals written back at a time when these skills are used in actual combat.
However, there are also stances found in MYDBTJ which is clearly not directly practical. For example, in Scroll #2, there is a chapter called "Ye Do" (Sharp Sword). This chapter is entirely the same as the Chinese Straight Sword manual. The Koreans then added a few more stances at the end, which you can see below.
The demonstrator throws the sword into the air, then catches it back before spinning the blade around with his fingers. You can see this done in the video above, at around 40 secs.
In my opinion, this move can serve 2 purposes:
To impress the audience with some flashy moves.
To build confidence in sword handling. You will definitely need focus and accuracy in your movements if you have to throw and spin a sharp sword!
If I were the General, I may still consider asking my soldiers to practice throwing their sword and spinning the blade if it helps to build their confidence with a sharp blade, even though it is not directly practical for combat.
Below is a page from the Shaolin Staff manual, which pre-dates MYDBTJ by 100+ years. I have no doubts that the ancient Shaolin Staff manual is definitely practical for combat.
This page describes one of the "Tao Lu", or Sequence. Notice that there are several circles or loops on the page? Those are parts which you're expected to turn or spin when performing the Sequence.
If spinning is supposed to be flashy and not practical, why would it be included in a 400 years old martial arts manual, which was written at a time when people actually had to fight with weapons?
Long story short, my answer is: It builds confidence in your footwork when you have to move in various directions in combat.
Some things may not be directly applicable or practical, but they are certainly useful. Look at soccer training where the players have to dribble the ball in challenging and/or fanciful ways.
Do they really have to dribble the ball EXACTLY the same way when they play for real? No. But does it help to build their confidence and control with a ball? Yes.
In combat, you may have to move in various directions: backwards, sideways, diagonally etc... The last thing you want is to trip over yourself. Hence such fanciful spinning type of training can help to prevent that, as well as develop your fluidity when attacking/defending in various directions.
Hope this article has given you a new perspective how supposedly fancy moves can actually have hidden practical applications!
After reading some feedback that I've received, I just want to add on a little more:
If you found yourself in a street-fight or duel, then yes, you'll constantly have to watch out for anyone sneaking up and attacking you from behind.
However, if you're at war or in the battlefield, you'll most likely find yourself to be in formation with your team-mates. If you frequently have to defend yourself from attacks coming from behind, that means your formation has been broken by the enemy, and you've most likely lost the battle.
Nevertheless, whether at war or in a street-fight, it's still advisable to develop the skill and confidence in moving in various directions.
Ancient Chinese Martial Arts Manuals