Enter the interception

Most martial artists - in fact most people - alive today know of Bruce Lee.  And many of will know what he called his personal martial arts system:
Jeet Kune Do - the Way of the Intercepting Fist
 Okay - so what did he mean by that?  Lee goes some small way to explaining his system in this (famous) episode of Longstreet (set to start at the correct point):

But I suspect that you, like me, are left with a sense of dissatisfaction after watching this.  What does "interception" mean in this context?  Does he mean "stopping"? Or does he mean "preventing" by some other means?  And what exactly is he "intercepting"?  Is he intercepting a particular attack (ie. an aggressive movement)?  Is he intercepting some physical cue of the attacker's intention?  Or is he intercepting the attacker generally (assuming "interception" has any meaning in such a context)?

All of this serves to present a kind of "apparent paradox" of which many "philosophically-minded" martial artists are often fond: words so general, perhaps even ambiguous, that we can give them whatever meaning we want.  Or words we can pretty much ignore.

Well I'm going to do neither.  I'm not going to fawn over Bruce Lee's words as some kind of Buddhist-style mantra, nor am I going to dismiss what he said as merely trite or tautological.  I think he was really onto something here: something simple, yet profound - and I want to give you my thoughts on the subject.

The first thing we need to note is the actual translation of "jeet kune do".  Literally it means "intercepting fist way" (截拳道 jiéquándào in Mandarin).  It should be clear from the above video that Bruce wasn't talking about "intercepting with a fist".  It could be the foot.  Or anything else.

So why refer to "intercepting fist"?

The answer is, I believe, surprisingly simple: rather than think of the term as
"intercepting-fist way", one should think of it as "intercepting fist-way".  Note the subtle difference: I'm linking "fist" with "way", rather "intercepting" with "fist".  Why do this?

The fist is a general symbol used to denote martial arts in both China and Okinawa. (In terms of the latter, note that despite the traditional use of "ti/te" - ie. "hand" - to describe unarmed fighting in Okinawa, the fist still has an instantly recognisable association with karate: witness the number of schools that feature the fist in their school patch!)

It is for this reason that martial arts in the far east are often referred to as "quan fa" or "kempo/kenpo" (拳法). This term means "fist principles" or "the law of the fist" ("quan" means "fist" and "fa" means "law", "way" or "study").

Of course, "do" (道) means "way" and is often used instead of "fa" (法) in naming a martial system (in much the same way as we might, in English, alternately refer to a "way of doing something" or a "method of doing something").  In other words, "quan fa" and "quan do / kune do" are both terms for describing martial arts systems.  "Jeet" (intercepting) qualifies this more general martial reference.  So I think what Bruce Lee meant by "jeet kune do" was this:
"A martial system (ie. a "fist-way") characterised by interception". 
Okay, so far so good.  Why is this notable?  By "interception", surely Bruce Lee simply meant: "Just hit the guy first"?  It's simple, right?

Well I'm giving the man credit for a bit more than prescribing such a brutish and simplistic philosophy.  For a start, it should be obvious that mere "hitting first" isn't always interception.  It is more often pre-emption.  These are two very different things.  "Hitting first" might even be nothing more than unprovoked attack.

Now it is true that hitting first means being proactive rather than reactive.  And Bruce was certainly a "proactive kind of guy" in general terms.  He wasn't exactly the type to "wait around for people to hit him", was he?

But I'm not referring to any kind of "waiting around".  I'm merely talking about there actually being an attack for you to intercept.

If Lee's martial system was really based on simple pre-emption, it wouldn't have referred to "interception" at all: after all; there would be nothing to "intercept".  You'd be attacking - pure and simple.

Accordingly, you'd only need to practise hitting things - hard! (See also my articles "Boards don't hit back Parts 1 and 2.)

So I'm going to go out on a limb here to say the following:
In calling his system "Jeet Kune Do" Bruce Lee was clearly making reference to responding to aggression - not pre-empting it, and certainly not initiating it!
And why would this be so surprising?  Bruce Lee was steeped in Chinese philosophical tradition.  Whether you go by Confucian or Daoist values - or those of Eastern religions such as Buddhism - you see the same principles of "non-aggression" arising again and again, and manifesting in traditional "civilian defence" arts - right down to specific techniques.

Under these principles, any act of aggression is to be avoided unless it is a regrettable necessity.  Accordingly, traditional civilian defence arts of the Orient are not about fighting.  They are about not fighting (remember Bruce Lee's reference to "the art of fighting without fighting"?).  They are about defence, not offence.

It is worth noting that even the character "wu" or "bu" (武) meaning "martial" (eg. wushu or budo) is made up of the elements of "sword" and "never to be drawn". (The character 武 consists of two characters 戈 and 止 which mean “sword or weapon” and “stop” respectively.)

Remember Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid and how he says: "Karate is for self defence only"?  This isn't just some movie/pop culture cliché: it is a philosophy "hardwired" into almost all Eastern civilian martial traditions.  It is for this reason that we have the famous karate maxim espoused by Gichin Funakoshi:
"Karate ni sente nashi."  There is no first attack in karate.  
The same is true of "gong fu", "wushu", "quan fa", "kenpo" and, yes: even Bruce Lee's "Jeet Kune Do"!

The underlying "aggression only when necessary" nature of traditional Eastern civilian defence arts is precisely why the script writers had Mr Miyagi teach Daniel-san defensive movements first.  Okay, we can laugh at Ralph Macchio's poor technique and the rather implausible training methods.  But every karate practitioner recognises the deflections being employed in "sand the floor" (gedan barai), "wax on, wax off" (hiki/kake uke), and "paint the fence" (ko and shotei uke).  And, I dare say, every taekwondo/gongfu practitioner recognises their own systems' variations of these basic movements:

So what do we call these "defensive movements"?  Previously, I've called them "blocks" - and acknowledged that this term is woefully inadequate.  Because they aren't "blocks" - at least not always.

Rather, they each comprise a response to an attack: a response that intercepts the attack before it can do damage.  Ideally, the interception is effected as soon, and as proactively, as possible - an observation with which I am sure Bruce Lee would have wholeheartedly agreed. But an interception is rarely a pre-emption (note, I didn't say "never" - but "rarely").1

Bruce Lee "paints the fence"
Okay so what do I think Bruce Lee meant when he used the term "interception"?

In the Longstreet episode above, he demonstrates a punch or kick that he launches after his opponent's attack starts but which reaches its target before his opponent's attack is even a quarter of the way towards him.
But remember: that's just Bruce Lee showing off his incredible speed.
I think it is clear, judging from Lee's written works and picture/film demonstrations that his concept of "interception" involved all of the following:
  • Undeniably Bruce Lee's concept of interception can take the form of using your own attack to "beat your opponent to the punch" (which Lee could do quite easily, utilising his impressive athleticism).  
  • Equally it might might mean effecting an interception very close to the source of the attack - ie. jamming the attack just as it is being launched (see the example below my own taiji example of a "jamming" technique - what Marc MacYoung calls "cutting the supply line").  Indeed, the principles of trapping retained in Jeet Kune Do from wing chun involve trapping the arms so that they are tied up and prevented from launching further attacks.
  • I think it is also undeniable that Jeet Kune do envisages intercepting an attack that is already well on its way.  This is usually achieved simply by occupying the centreline.  The latter involves a movement - whether it be a dedicated traditional "block" (eg. one with which Bruce Lee would have been familiar, such as "fuk sau" from wing chun - see below) or a more typical "attack" (eg. a punch) to intercept an attack launched against you.  Your technique travels directly to intercept the attack, occupies its intended flight path, and displaces it from landing on its intended target (ie. you!).2   Lee would have understood the centreline theory (as discussed in the following video) very well from his knowledge of wing chun:
  • Last, "interception" for Bruce Lee might well have involved something done to catch the attack at the very last moment (ie. some sort of "shield") - but only if there was no other option (eg. if you face a surprise attack, given the time frames there might be little more you can do than simply "cover up").  I can't imagine Bruce Lee advocating this as a "preferred" method of "intercepting" anything.  Catching attacks late is dangerous and hardly consistent with Bruce Lee's proactive method of defence!  Nonetheless, it is within the realm of "interception" as a general concept.  After all, it is better to "intercept" in this way than with your chin!
Okay, so why call these "interceptions"?  Why not call them "blocks"?  Why not call them "parries" or "deflections".  In fact, why call them anything at all?

First, I think we need some sort of label.  There is too much science and skill underpinning these techniques to lump them with "attacks" (or just "do this" techniques).

And I've previously discussed the limitation of the term "block".  It mostly covers the last approach - the "shield".  It also covers so-called "hard blocks" - simply trying to smash your opponent's arm or otherwise place an obstacle in its path.  Both of these have little to do with the science and skill to which I refer above.

"Parry" and "deflection" are all very well for the "centreline" concept of interception.  But they hardly cover interceptions at the source (eg. jams) or at the last moment (eg. shields).  

Bruce Lee "waxes on/off" while punching
So what terms remain?

Well, karate traditionally terms such techniques as "uke": how you receive an attack.  Note Max's comment below that: "The 截 in 截拳道 also translates to "receive/catch", almost in the same way uke means "receive"."

As a term, "receive" is reasonably accurate in its scope.  But as an English translation... well basically, it sucks.  Talk to most native English speakers about a "reception" and they'll think you're referring to the party held after a wedding.  Or maybe the entrance lobby to a building.

Furthermore, I must confess, "receiving" an attack sounds much too passive for my liking.  It has all the negative connotations that MMA fighters typically attribute to traditional "blocks": ie. "waiting for someone to hit you".

This leaves me with "interception".  This is a term I can really "dig" (to use the language of Bruce's era): it accurately describes a technique which travels to the attack by the fastest, most direct/appropriate route - then "receives" it at an optimum angle and on an optimum plane in a way that displaces, thwarts or otherwise negates the attack.  It is "receiving" - but with attitude!

Moreover, as I've previously noted, the science and skill of a "block"/deflection/parry/redirection etc. is all contained in the moment of contact during the interception.  This is where the technique works or fails:  Everything has to be correct, eg:
and so on.

All the "magic" happens at precisely one moment: the point of interception.

Accordingly, from now on I propose to use this term "interception" for traditional (and non-traditional) "uke". In my opinion no other term is remotely as appropriate.  I hope you join me in this endeavour.  Let's change the way people talk - and think - about "uke".3
Enter the interception!

1. I think any traditional martial arts teacher will agree that circumstances might arise where it becomes necessary to pre-empt certain attacks with  your own - eg. if there is a sufficiently high probability that you will be attacked and if your response to that imminent attack is reasonable.

To some extent, such a response might even be permitted under your law.  However please note that it will always come down to:
  • exactly what your laws say; and 
  • the exact circumstances of your case.  
I cannot advise you in this regard; if you have any questions/concerns about this issue, you need to consult a lawyer who specialises in criminal law in your jurisdiction.

Bruce Lee uses the "bong sau" interception
2. A centreline technique can be achieved as both deflection and counter off the same arm or with one arm taking the centreline while the other launches as supporting attack at the same time (both options are often termed "simultaneous" techniques).

3.  Think about how much more difficult is it for a skeptic to "debate" traditional "blocks" once you call them what they really are - interceptions:
  • "Interceptions don't work.  They are too slow and necessarily involve big movements. Also, interceptions necessarily involve two movements - hah, checkmate."
  • "Pure evasion is much better than interception and evasion used together.  That's why boxers use bobbing and weaving and don't intercept anything."
  • "You don't see interceptions in MMA, now do you?  Anyway, even you're not showing interceptions in your own sparring like you say!"
  • "I don't accept that many thousands of repetitions of a basic movement along an angle and plain optimal for interception, has any function in enabling motor learning of interceptions along that angle and plain."
  • "The flinch reflex doesn't involve your arms going out to intercept the attack with your body shrinking away from it."
  • "Interception of attacks doesn't require any special training above what police and prison guards get in their basic self defence component.  So my video of a prison guard trying (and failing) to throw his arms out to stop an attack shows that interceptions can't work."
  • "The best interceptions are those that involve slapping punches at the last second with your palms or those where you cover your face with the "turtle defence". Accordingly, keeping my guard close to my face is best."
  • My "target focused training" sure beats your "interception focused training".  I mean, why focus on intercepting your opponent's attacks?  Don't worry about them!  Focus on your own attacks - that's all you need!  If you train right, you'll never miss! Think of each opponent as a zombie, then think of smashing that zombie into pieces - I find that's best (and look how impressive I am at smashing zombies)."
All these arguments start sounding as absurd as they actually are.

Copyright © 2013 Dejan Djurdjevic