Steampunk Martial Arts!!

Steampunk and martial arts sites are abuzz with news of the upcoming release of Tai Chi 0 – the latest martial arts feature film from the Huayi brothers, producers of the mega-hit Kung Fu Hustle. Tai Chi 0, Directed by Stephen Fung and choreographed by mastermind Sammo Hung, is the first Steampunk martial arts film ever  and will be shot completely in China. The Chinese are now the world’s largest consumers of Science Fiction and they love Steampunk. Here is a link to a blog on the subject: https://chroniclesofharriet.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/what-we-can-learn-from-the-chinese/

Here is the synopsis of Tai Chi 0:

A gifted child with a fleshy growth on his forehead travels far to learn Tai Chi and eventually becomes a master. He then faces an army of Steampunk invaders and must protect the villagers.

“Fleshy growth?” “Steampunk invaders”? I swear I did not make this up!

The release date is tentatively set for 2013. The trailer is already out and I have posted it below. It looks pretty good and I am definitely going to be at the U.S. premiere with bucket of buttery popcorn in lap.

Now, as a martial artist with a lifetime of experience and as a Steampunk and author, this film got me thinking about the state of martial arts in the Steampunk community.

Of course, nearly everyone on the planet – mainly due to films and television (and some hard working martial arts instructors in the ‘60s and ‘70s) – are familiar with the Asian martial arts. Most people have heard of – and millions have studied – some form of Kung-Fu, Karate, Judo, Jujitsu or Ninjitsu. Quite a few are also familiar with the arts of Southeast Asia, such as Muay Thai, Kali and Silat.

Steampunks, seeking to add martial arts to their literature or to their stylistic aesthetic, often incorporate methods of self-defense that were used by Europeans and North Americans during the Victorian and Edwardian Eras.

These martial arts include:

La Canne

A stylish system of lightweight stick fighting based on sabre drills. It became compulsory training with the French military in 1853 and its value in dispersing street mobs has seen the French use La Canne for over 100 years.

The canes used were made from wood or sugarcane and measured between 25mm-40mm in diameter and around 80-100cm (32-39 inches) long. The shaft was then bound in cotton webbing, and encased in leather. This guaranteed a strong pliable weapon that would take some effort to break, even if used with two hands.

The promotion of the civilian cane in London began during the 1880’s and continued through to the 1930’s. This was part of a package presenting Savate (French Kickboxing), Combat Baton and La Canne.

French Master-At-Arms, Pierre Vigny settled in London in 1900 and promoted Savate and La Canne with the support of Edward William Barton-Wright, founder of Bartitsu (see below) and Vigny’s student.

In addition to single cane there is double cane play requiring a cane in each hand.

In combat, hits are generally directed to the head, limbs, joints and vital targets. Speed, rather than power, is emphasized and posture and footwork play an important role in taking advantage of openings left by your opponent.

Bartitsu: The Martial Art of Gentlemen

Seeking to develop a system of self defense that could be used by discerning gentlemen on the mean streets of Edwardian London, Edward William Barton-Wright combined elements of boxing, jujitsu, cane fighting, and french kick boxing. He dubbed this new, mixed martial art Bartitsu. Bartitsu grew to such popularity that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes use Bartitsu in the master detective’s adventures (misspelled by Doyle as “Baritsu”).

Edward William Barton-Wright was a former English railroad engineer, whose work took him to Japan for three years.  It was there that he was introduced to Jujitsu. Barton-Wright studied the Jujitsu at the school of Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo. When he returned to England, he quit his career in engineering and opened up a martial arts school.

In 1899, Barton-Wright wrote an article in the London based publication, Pearson’s Magazine, entitled “A New Art of Self Defense.” In it, he laid out his system of self defense, which he called “Bartitsu,” a melding of his name and Jujitsu. While Bartitsu was based mainly on Jujitsu, Barton-Wright explained in his article that the system included boxing, kickboxing, and stick fighting.

Barton-Wright brought in some of the best martial arts teachers from around the world to teach at his new school. Among them were Japanese instructors K. Tani, S. Yamamoto, and Yukio Tani, as well as Pierre Vigny and Armand Cherpillod.

La Savate

La Savate (pronounced sah-VAHT) is a French kickboxing system developed from street fighting sailors in the port of Marseilles during the 19th century. Savate takes its name from the French word for “old shoe”, in reference to the footwear that is worn during fights. A male practitioner of savate is called a savateur while a female is called a savateuse.

Savate consists of kicks, punches, foot sweeps, throws and takedowns.

There are six basic kinds of kicks, and four kinds of punches:


  1. Fouetté (literally “whip”): A roundhouse kick that uses the toes as the weapon.  Targets are high (figure), medium (median) or low (bas).
  2. Chassé : A side or front thrust kick that uses the heel as the weapon. Targets are high (figure), medium (median) or low (bas)
  3. Chassé Italien: A kick aimed at the opponent’s inner thigh, with the toe pointed at the opponent’s groin.
  4. Revers: A hooking kick that uses the sole of the foot as the weapon. Targets are high (figure), medium (median), or low (bas)
  5. Coup de pied bas: a front or sweep kick to the shin that uses the inner edge of the foot as the weapon. Performed with a characteristic backwards lean. Low targets only; designed to break the shin bone.
  6. Coup de pied bas de frappe: A coup de pied bas that is used to strike the opponent’s lead leg.


  1. Direct bras avant: jab, lead hand.
  2. Direct bras arrière: cross, rear hand.
  3. Crochet: hook, bent arm with either hand.
  4. Uppercut: either hand.



Beyond Western martial arts, Steampunks – particularly those writing about characters – or cosplaying characters – in, or from, an indigenous African setting should look into the African martial arts.

The African Concept of Wrestling

Every tribe, or nation, in Africa has its own complex and complete martial arts systems.  In whatever language they speak, Africans, traditionally, refer to their martial arts simply as “wrestling”.  The African concept of wrestling, however, is quite different from the Asian or Western concept of wrestling.

In the African martial arts, to “wrestle” means to put your opponent on his back, belly, or side in order to render him more vulnerable to a finishing technique.  This goal can be achieved by any means: strikes, throws, sweeps, joint-locks, or weapon attacks.  Thus, if you hit your opponent in the head with a club and he falls from the force of the blow, you have – by African standards – wrestled him.

How did it come to pass that the martial arts throughout the continent of Africa would adopt this concept?  For the answer, let’s look at a story about the Yoruba prophet and master wrestler, Orunmila: Orunmila, who, among other things, was an undefeatable wrestler, traveled the continent of Africa, teaching and studying spiritual, sociological and martial traditions.  Everywhere Orunmila went, he wrestled with – and defeated – the greatest fighters on the continent.  Orunmila would pick up a throwing technique in one village; a weapon disarm in another.  Orunmila’s opponents would ask him to teach them the techniques he defeated them with and he would teach them, which is in accord with African customs.  Eventually, the martial arts of Africa began to possess a similar rhythm and to follow the same underlying wrestling strategy.

Another story, which teaches the tenets of African wrestling, is as follows:

There was a boy named Omobe (“rascal”, “troublesome child”) that had great physical ability and was trained to be a wrestler. As he grew older his wrestling abilities grew stronger and before long he was considered the greatest wrestler in the world. At his birth the local priest/diviner warned his parents to not allow Omobe to climb palm trees. But one day while his parents were away he decided to climb a palm tree any way. From high up he could peer into the spirit world and he noticed that several divinities had gathered for a fantastic wrestling match! Omobe immediately climbed down and made his way to the spirit world to test his own luck amongst a variety of spirits. He beat every opponent: Egungun (ancestors), Orisa (Forces of Nature) and all others lost at his hands. Finally he prepared to wrestle Olokun. While he summoned all of his physical strength, Olokun drew on her spiritual powers.

During the match Omobe attempted to throw Olokun to the ground, but instead Olokun ended up firmly attached to Omobe’s head. All attempts at removing Olokun from his head failed and Olokun declared Omobe’s head her permanent abode as a sign of Omobe’s arrogance and disrespect towards the other spirits. When Omobe returned home the local priest/diviner advised him to appease Olokun or die. So for seven days Omobe made sacrifice. On the last day Omobe was initiated as the first Olokun priest. After Omobe’s initiation into the priesthood, Olokun loosened her grip on Omobe’s life.

Amongst African traditionalists, the palm tree represents the ancestors and the elders.  Omobe climbed a palm tree even though he was not supposed to, which means he learned the higher levels of wrestling technique – and gained the ase (power) of the wrestler – through crafty means and then abandoned his teachers (he climbed down from the tree) and used what he had learned to fight those who taught him.  This act of arrogance and disrespect led him to fight against the Forces of Nature, themselves.

Finally, Olokun, the spirit of unfathomable wisdom and matron spirit of the descendants of Africans who were taken captive during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, defeated Omobe. This means, though Omobe had mastered the physical aspect of wrestling, his disrespect of – and disconnection from – the community and its spiritual support prevented him from learning the deeper wisdom found within the study and training of the martial arts.

It was not until Omobe devoted himself to the attaining of deep wisdom and respect for the African traditions as an Olokun priest, that he was able to save himself from an early death.

This story teaches us that in order to learn the depths of wisdom found in the African martial arts, reverence of one’s ancestors, respect for one’s elders and adherence to tradition is paramount.

Furthermore, the “deep wisdom” Omobe had to learn in order to redeem himself and to save his life, was the wisdom rooted in respect for, and understanding of, the “Aje”, which is the primal power of the female principle.

It was Olokun, a female Force of Nature, who defeated Omobe and threatened to take his life until Omobe became her priest.  Omobe was socialized by Olokun, which is in accord with Aje’s function as a biological, physical and spiritual force of creativity and social and political enforcement.

War, defense and anything associated with Ogun, the Warrior Spirit of the Yoruba, is also associated with Aje.

It is recognition of – and respect for – the power of the female that gives the African warrior the authority to defend and to take life.  An illustration of this is the application of martial arts technique.  In the African martial arts, we say “Footwork drives the technique”.  Footwork, or the Element of Air in African martial arts, is female.  It is the power of the female, manifested in footwork, which allows us to effectively apply our martial arts techniques.

The Five Principles

The martial arts of Africa follow Five Basic Principles, which are also the principles that govern all aspects of traditional African life:

The Four Elements

In African societies, there are four elements, which are considered the vital materials found in every living creature on Earth.  These four elements are:

Earth – The element of Earth represents the stances in the African martial arts.  Within the Earth Element are Three Foundations:

  • WoodHigh, narrow stances. Wood stances are extremely mobile and are used for fast, upright fighting and self-defense.
  • Stone – Low, wide stances. Stone stances are extremely stable and are used for grappling and for fighting with a weapon.
  • Metal – Low, narrow stances.  Metal stances are extremely malleable and are used for grappling and ground-fighting.

Air – The element of Air represents the footwork and movements in the African martial arts.  A practitioner of the African martial arts can move like a gentle breeze, a gale wind, or a whirlwind.

Fire – The element of Fire represents the masculine energy and techniques in the African martial arts.  Fire techniques are forceful, penetrating and explosive.

Water – The element of Water represents the feminine energy and techniques in the African martial arts.  Water techniques are yielding, encircling and deceptively powerful.

Polyrhythmic Application

Like the African drum, the techniques in the African martial arts are polyrhythmic; meaning a practitioner of the African martial arts seeks to touch his opponent in two or more places at once.  An offense and a defense are usually applied simultaneously, or the offense is the defense.

The Unbroken Circle

The principle of The Unbroken Circle is also referred to as “Call and Response”.  A practitioner of the African martial arts seeks to blend with, and adapt to, the actions and rhythms of his partner or opponent, creating a never ending circle.  A practitioner of the African martial arts does not meet force with force, but rather takes his opponent’s force and uses it against him.

The Wind Has One Name

The African martial arts simplify self-defense by dealing not with a specific attack, but with the angle of the attack.  The African martial arts recognize that there are only fifteen angles an opponent can attack from, so instead of being concerned with the infinite variations of attacks, the African martial arts deal with finite angles.  The African martial arts further simplify combat by teaching that every block is a strike and every strike is a block.  Thus, when an African martial artist learns an offensive technique, he has, in effect learned a defensive technique.

Waste No Part of the Animal

The African martial arts stress economy of motion.  The idea is: “If it’s there, use it.”  Thus, if you strike an assailant in the chin with an uppercut, you should continue that upward motion and hit him in the throat with an upward elbow, because after the punch, your elbow is in perfect position to strike your opponent.

Some Traditional African Martial Arts

Every African nation (“tribe”) has its own system of martial arts. While the principles are pretty much the same, weapons and tactics may differ. A few martial arts from Africa and the Diaspora include:


A spectacular and bloody martial art – practiced exclusively by the Maguzawa Hausa of Northern Nigeria – in which gallantly arrayed warriors go into battle armed with two razor sharp iron bracelets and arm-shields.

Sharo (also known as shadi) – a Fulani man-hood contest involving mutual

flogging with a long pliant stick or a short inflexible one. Those who cry out

in pain are disgraced and are not considered worthy of marriage;


The martial art practiced by the Yan Tauri – or “tough-skins” – who, due to their use of

traditional medicines, are said to be impervious to being cut by metals. The Yan Tauri shout praises to their ancestors and taunt their opponent’s while demonstrating their invulnerability by drawing swords or knives across various parts of their body, including their tongue.

Moringue (Reunion) / Morengy (Madagascar) / Mrengé (Comores)

A form of traditional boxing practiced by Creoles – Malagasy and Comorians alike. This fighting system, of mainland African origin, is a spectacular form of fighting that utilizes bare-knuckle boxing techniques, kicking and head butting.


A spectacular form of acrobatic fighting, derived from the  Angolan martial art of Sanga – used to great effect by famed Warrior-King, Nzingha (often incorrectly called “Queen” Nzingha; she was a female King).

Capoeira resembles a battle between two fighting cocks and, in practice, is accompanied by music and songs. A martial art similar to Capoeira – and sharing Sanga as their roots – is Congo, which is practiced in Panama. Congo is always trained between a male and female partner, representing the power of opposites prevalent in African society.

Practitioners of both arts try to anticipate the movements of their adversary and then break his or her rhythm. Cunning and treacherous deception (“malicia”) play an important role in the development of fighting skill and techniques include high and low kicks, foot sweeps, head-butts, elbowstrikes  and knee strikes. Practitioners of both arts also employ the use of the straight razor as a weapon.

Ag’ya or Ladjia (also known as Danmyé and Wonpwen)

A martial art of African origin that took root in the soil of the Caribbean island of Martinique. Ag’ya is practiced to rhythms produced by the tambour (drum), ti-bois (sticks) and choral response singing.

Agile fighters deliver blows with the hands, feet, elbows, knees and head similar to Capoeira. Unlike Capoeira, however, practitioners of Ag’ya also employ grappling techniques to defeat their opponent.

Northern Nguni (i.e. Zulu, Swazi and/or Ndebele) Fighting

Nguni children learn their martial art through stick-fighting from an early age with relatively harmless light reeds. Sparring is used to teach and train a comrade, rather than to defeat him.

After learning the basic rudiments of the art, the boys then begin to employ harder sticks and/or war clubs that are very lethal. Boys typically engage in stick-fighting with other herd boys while grazing their cattle or sheep. More serious competitions typically take place at weddings and/or other ritual events such as puberty celebrations. Girls continue their training in private.

Through stick-fighting, the youth learn to use the more lethal combat weapons.

Shaka is credited with introducing a new variant of the traditional weapon, discarding the long, spindly throwing spear and instituting a heavy-bladed, short-shafted stabbing spear. He is also said to have introduced a larger, heavier cowhide shield (isihlangu), and trained his forces to thus close with the enemy in more effective hand-to-hand combat. The throwing spear was not discarded, but standardized, like the stabbing implement and carried as a missile weapon, typically discharged at the foe, before close contact.

These weapons changes integrated with and facilitated an aggressive mobility and tactical organization.

As weapons, the Zulu warrior carried the iklwa stabbing spear (losing one could result in execution) and a club or cudgel fashioned from dense hardwood – known, in Zulu, as the iwisa, (usually called the knobkerrie in English) – for beating an enemy in the manner of a mace and Zulu officers often carried the Zulu Axe.

The iklwa (so named because of the sucking sound it made when withdrawn from a human body) with its long – 25cm (9.4 in.) – broad blade, was an invention of Shaka that superseded the older thrown ipapa (so named because of the “pa-pa” sound it made as it flew through the air).

All warriors carried a shield made of oxhide, which retained the hair, with a central stiffening shaft of wood. These shields, called mgobo, were the property of the king; they were stored in specialized structures, raised off the ground for protection from vermin, when not issued to the relevant regiment.

The large isihlangu shield of Shaka’s day was about five feet in length and was later partially replaced by the smaller umbumbuluzo, a shield of identical manufacture but around three and a half feet in length. Close combat relied on coordinated use of the iklwa and shield. The warrior sought to get the left edge of his shield behind the right edge of his enemy’s, so that he could pull the enemy’s shield to the side thus opening him to a thrust with the iklwa deep into the abdomen or chest.

As early as Shaka’s reign small numbers of firearms, often obsolete muskets and rifles, were obtained by the Zulu from Europeans by trade. In the aftermath of the defeat of the British at the Battle of Isandlwana many Martini-Henry rifles were captured by the Zulu, together with considerable amounts of ammunition. The possession of firearms did little to change Zulu tactics, which continued to rely on a swift approach to the enemy in order to bring him into close combat.

For more information – and for detailed illustrations of traditional African martial arts techniques, check out my book – Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within, available at: www.bossupbu.com.



About Balogun

Balogun is the author of the bestselling Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within and screenwriter / producer / director of the films, A Single Link, Rite of Passage: Initiation and Rite of Passage: The Dentist of Westminster. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at https://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of eight novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the Urban Science Fiction saga, Redeemer; the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika; a Fight Fiction, New Pulp novella, Fist of Afrika; the gritty, Urban Superhero series, A Single Link and Wrath of the Siafu; the two-fisted Dieselfunk tale, The Scythe and the “Choose-Your-Own-Destiny”-style Young Adult novel, The Keys. Balogun is also contributing co-editor of two anthologies: Ki: Khanga: The Anthology and Steamfunk. Finally, Balogun is the Director and Fight Choreographer of the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage, which he wrote based on the short story, Rite of Passage, by author Milton Davis and co-author of the award winning screenplay, Ngolo. You can reach him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Afrikan.Martial.Arts; on Twitter @Baba_Balogun and on Tumblr at www.tumblr.com/blog/blackspeculativefiction.

11 responses »

  1. Milton Davis says:

    Very informative article, Balogun. I was familiar with savate; I actually incorporated a few savate kicks into my repertoire back in the day. But la canne and baritsu are new to me. I was also exposed to African martial arts although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I sparred a brother proficient in a ‘prison style’ called Alto Rap, which emphasized blows with the elbows and knees. Good stuff, sir. Carry on!

  2. Milton Davis says:

    That outfit would have caused more fights than it prevented.

  3. info here is bananas! will be using this as a resource …i have some ideas…

  4. […] No, African martial arts are not in danger of becoming extinct in Africa. They are an intrinsic part of the traditions of […]

  5. […] Perhaps playing or game-mastering Steampunk role-playing games works for you. Maybe building a mechanical arm or making top-hats gives you relief from stress. Perhaps writing a blog, short story or novel is your form of meditation; or taking a workshop on indigenous African martial arts or Bartitsu. […]

  6. Gemma Le Fanu says:

    Do you mind if I quote a few of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your weblog? My blog site is in the exact same area of interest as yours and my users would definitely benefit from a lot of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this ok with you. Regards!Fort Worth Roofing Contractors, 5009 Brentwood Stair Rd., #112-C, Fort Worth, TX 76112 – (214) 306-8080

  7. […] and political value, so, while cosplaying, reading your favorite XYZ-Punk novel, or engaging in a Bartitsu sparring match might, indeed, be fun, we won’t dismiss, or shy away from, any controversy, we […]

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