This article is from Martial Arts of the World an Encyclopedia by Thomas A. Green a noted Anthropologist.
is a Burmese term used to classify the indigenous martial systems of ancient Burma (now Myanmar). The word thaing loosely translates as "total combat." Moreover, as the loose translation stipulates, the label encompasses the range of combatives that have been systematized in Burmese martial tradition: bando, banshay, lethwei, naban, and other ethnic or tribal fighting systems native to the region. Beyond the martial elements of thaing, practitioners are enjoined to incorporate ethical principles such as humility, patience, tolerance, integrity, loyalty, courage, knowledge, physical and spiritual strength, and love of family.
Traditional styles of thaing are associated with specific ethnic groups. Styles that have been identified in the literature include Burmese, Chin, Chinese, Kachin (or Jinghpaw), Karen, Mon, Shan, and Talaing. Forms of thaing have been reported among hill tribes such as the Wa, but little is known of their characteristics except that they have a shared worldview with the Kachin.
Traditional styles are subdivided into systems or forms named for (and adopting the mythical characteristics of) animals such as the boar or the python. Generally twelve animals are incorporated into a given style, but there are exceptions, such as the Kachin system, which uses sixteen.
Records of conflict among the various ethnic groups that have resided in the area of Myanmar (Burma) abound both in oral and written accounts. Accounts of this fierce competition for territory and resources begin with the Pyu in antiquity but start becoming historic rather than legendary during the eleventh century A.D., when King Anawrahtar organized lower Burma into a sovereignty as the Pagan Empire (after its capital at Pegu, not its religious beliefs).
In the Pagan Empire, martial arts were one of eighteen subjects mastered by aristocrats. Warfare was endemic, so ethnic groups also began to systematize the combat tactics appropriate to their environment and cultural heritage. Variation was introduced by differences in language, culture, geography, and religion. For example, some cultures were animists. So, after killing a living being, either human or animal, the head was removed to free the spirit and honored as a trophy. (This practice persisted at least into the beginning of the twentieth century among the Wa and well into the mid twentieth century among the Kachin.) Others were Buddhist, and so there were prohibitions against unnecessary killing.
Accordingly, the development of thaing needs to be viewed in the context of movements of ethnic groups such as the Shan, Mon, Karen, Arakanai, and Kachin through the mountainous area where Tibet, Yunnan, Burma, and India meet. The Kachins, for example, have a well‑developed oral tradition of migration from their ancestral home, the Majoi Shingra Bum (Naturally Flat Mountain), which was possibly located in eastern Tibet. The Karens also have a tradition that they passed through the mountains on their way to lower Burma. Meanwhile, in neighboring Manipur, India, the Meiteis (who comprise 60 percent of the population) are of Tat origin and famous for their practice of martial arts. While this may owe more to Hindu than to Tibetan influence, the primary Manipuri art thang-ta is closely tied to dance and ritual practice. Likewise, the equally Tat hill tribes of Nagaland (north of Manipur) have related martial traditions.
Traditions from Yunnan province, which is where the Tai had an empire into the thirteenth century, also may have links with thaing. For example, as recently as 1928, Miao doctors were reported as boxing, fighting with sticks and knives, and practicing q1gong (exercises for cultivating internal strength often associated with martial art training). While much more research is required into the subject, the historical connections among martial arts in the area are intriguing.
How these interconnections probably came about is that during the thirteenth century, Kublai Khan overthrew the Nanchao, or Tai, states in Yunnan. This caused Tat refugees to retreat into Manipur, Nagaland, and the Irrawaddy and Menam valleys, and over time they established a number of states, including one that later became Thailand. Moreover, the Naga who entered the Kachin state were often assimilated into jinghpaw clans. jinghpaw oral narratives suggest a natural affinity between the two groups.
Meanwhile, King Narathihapate of Pagan executed a Mongol ambassador carrying Kublai Khan's demands to Burma and even had the audacity to directly attack China. So for the next 150 years Burma and Mongol China were almost constantly at war, either with one another or with the various Tai states.
That said, Lethwei only entered the oral traditions of this struggle during the eighteenth century. Specifically, according to Thai tradition, in the 1770s a Thai prisoner of war, Nat Khanom Tom, was awarded his freedom after he defeated a dozen of his Burmese captors in boxing matches. In contrast, Burmese tradition maintains that Nat was the consummate politician, ingratiating himself at the Burmese court to such an extent that he was allowed to train in the royal fighting arts. This dedication to learning, his negotiating skills, and a perceived pro Burman attitude (which induced his captors to believe he could further their cause among the Thai) led to his release.
From 1811 to 1815, Burmese rebels hiding in British India led raids into Burma. The British did little to prevent this, so between 1819 and 1823 the Burmese sent military forces into British‑controlled Assam, Manipur, Cachar, and Bengal. In 1824, the East India Company had had enough, and responded by declaring war on Burma. Rangoon was occupied without resistance, the Burmese agreed to pay indemnities, and in 1825 the British withdrew.
However, this defeat embarrassed the Burmese government, and revolts followed. Meanwhile Anglo Burmese relations continued to deteriorate, and there was a second Anglo Burmese war in 1852-1853. During this war the British East India Company annexed Pegu province. Finally, in 1878, Burmese insurgents attacked Manipur, and this led to a third Anglo Burmese war in 1885. That in turn led to the British annexation of all Burma in 1886, followed by a decade of guerrilla warfare.
British rule over Burma lasted until World War 11; its most famous policeman was probably Eric Blair, who in 1934 published the novel Burmese Days under the pseudonym George Orwell. During their administration, the British outlawed headhunting and instituted a campaign intended to stop guerrilla warfare; this included prohibiting training with swords and spears. Thus the British occupation started a progressive decline in the Burmese fighting arts.
Ironically, however, in 1933 the British‑supervised Ghurka Rifles attempted to revive unarmed systems of Burmese traditional fighting. Forming the Military Athletic Club, nine Gurkha officers combined knowledge of the Burmese arts with what they knew of the Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, and Nepalese martial arts (i.e., the native arts of the countries from which the Ghurkas were recruited into the British army). The result was called bando
During World War II, the Japanese occupied southern Burma, but the British and Indians continued to fight in the mountains using Chinese military and American logistical assistance. (This area was home to Claire Chermault's Flying Tigers in 1941, and subsequently the famous "Burma Road.") During the war, the mountain tribes were generally loyal to the Allies, and in the process demonstrated formidable military skills. The Jinghpaw, for example, who fought with American troops during the war, in spite of retaining hostility toward the British, cooperated with them out of a greater hatred for the Japanese occupation forces.
The role played by the Jinghpaw (still known to the Allies as Kachin) is representative of that played by the hill tribes. OSS Detachment 101 worked with a force of 11,000 Kachin tribesmen who reportedly killed 10,000 Japanese at a loss of only 206 of their own. U.S. military personnel came to appreciate the Kachins as natural guerrilla fighters. So great was their skill (developed, in part, through practice of thaing), that the Kachin method of attack and ambush came to be emulated in the tactics of U.S. special forces teams such as the SEALs and Green Berets.
In 1946, nine survivors of the Military Athletic Club formed the National Band6 Association (NBA) in Burma. Their eclectic background is indicated by the ethnicity noted following their names: Abehananda (Indian), C. C. Chu (Chinese), Has. K. Khan (Pakistani), U Zaw Min (Burmese), G. Bahadur (Ghurkan), U Ba Saw (Karen), Duwa Maung (Lisu), Boji Mein His (Arakanais), and U Ba Than [Gyi] (Burmese). As the senior military officer, U Ba Than (1883‑1968) was elected president.
In 1948 the British granted independence to Burma. The new government refused to join the Commonwealth, and shortly afterwards both Karens and Communists led rebellions. Although it was at first a close contest, the central government retained power. Nevertheless student unrest in the cities and guerrilla warfare in the countryside have continued into the present. Given this ongoing turmoil, reliable information on the state of thaing in Myanmar in general and among the Kachins and Karens in particular is difficult to obtain.
Branches of Thaing
Bando, the most widely known of the various subdivisions of thaing, means "way of discipline." Practitioners train to master physical and psychological strategies that develop hardness. Physical hardness is developed by rigorous conditioning exercises, including punching lightly padded tree trunks with the intent of punching through the object rather than stopping at physical contact. Other exercises include tearing through bags of rice and rock to condition the hands for gouging. Controlled competition is encouraged because it allows the practitioner the opportunity to use techniques at full speed, to get used to the physical demands of combat, and to simulate the stress and uncertainty of real conflicts. And, while adaptable for the ring, band6's fighting tactics are based in the concept of a life‑and death struggle. Therefore, a traditional curriculum includes various aggressive techniques typically banned from sport.
Mental hardness is created through a philosophy that encourages the acceptance of death. The process of accepting and embracing the worst is said to lead to liberation from fear and to the willingness to fight for total victory. Toward this end, students are taught from the beginning that there is no substitute for physical fitness. They are further instructed that movement through or around threats and attacks is almost always the safest strategy. As a consequence, mobility skills (stepping, slipping, dodging, and rolling) are primary tactics. Blocking, parrying, and breaking are practiced as methods of defense. Offensive methods include a variety of striking and grappling methods.
Banshay, the Burmese term used to describe armed methods, is an integral element of thaing. Handheld traditional Burmese weaponry includes a variety of wooden and bamboo armaments. Examples include a small, pocket‑sized stick held in a closed hand with a portion either Jutting from the underside or top of the fist, short and midsized batons (dhot), walking staffs, clubs, spears, and shields. Also utilized are hosts of edged weapons, including knives, machetes (including the kukri, with its angled, curving, forward weighted blade), swords (dha, whose blades vary from thick, Malay style blades to sleeker versions similar to those used by other Southeast Asians), battle‑axes, and fighting spears.
Projectile weapons such as the bow and crossbow also play a role. For example in the Glass Palace Chronicle, a Prince Sawhti, who was trained in archery by a hermit bow master, rescues the kingdom of Pagan from four giant monsters (a bird, a boar, a tiger, and a squirrel) by means of his skills as an archer. Ropes, chains, belts, whips, shoes, and clothes also are included in the banshay arsenal.
Lethwei is the Burmese boxing system. Its repertoire includes all manner of unarmed techniques, and practitioners claim that it is a more complete system than the similar Muay Thai. Weapons include elbow and fist strikes; foot, leg, and knee blows; head‑butts; and trips, sweeps, throws, and ground strikes. Although Muay Thai converted to boxing gloves during the 1930s, hand wraps continue to be used in Lethwei. Tradition plays a role in this. For example, among the Kachin the fighters' hands are traditionally bound in hemp cloth wraps used to wrap deceased relatives. Lethwei contests are often associated with festivals and generally are accompanied by music. Matches are decided by a competitor's being knocked out or submitting, or by the referee stopping the match. The rules have remained very much the same since the eighteenth century. Suppressed during British rule, lethwei experienced a renaissance in the 1990s. Not simply a sport, Lethwei has practical defense applications and is used to develop a foundation for thaing.
Naban is the Burmese grappling system. It utilizes palm and foot strikes along with grappling techniques (including joint locks, pressure points, and chokes) to control and thus render an adversary unable to continue fighting. Commentators have characterized naban as practical in its tactics and strategies because it stresses compliance and eventual submission. Attacks are allowed to any part of the body, and there are no illegal targets in naban.
Thaing contests traditionally allow any strike or submission technique, with the exception of biting (this was probably because of the rate of death due to infection from bites), and matches have ended in death or disability.
Two traditional styles of thaing survive in Myanmar the Karen "School of Seven Arts" and the Mon "School of Nine Arts." With government approval, tournaments and exhibitions have been held regularly since the 1990s. National student sports festivals, along with European and Asian imports such as boxing, karate, and tae kwon do, regularly include thaing, with both men's and women's divisions. Information on the nature of these competitions is not readily available, but it is likely that the style is based in the eclectic NBA system.
In addition, lethwei was resurrected in Yang on (Rangoon) in the 1970s. Described as a "vicious combination of wrestling, boxing, jad6, karate and gymnastics with its most deadly technique being the high kick" ("Burmese Boxing . . ."), its matches are nonetheless accompanied by music. Therefore these events probably resemble Muay Thai matches, without the formalities of rounds or weight classes.
Outside Myanmar, thaing is represented by two styles: the eclectic American Band6 Association and the Kachin style.
The American Band6 Association (ABA) system, founded and currently headed by Dr. U Mauna Gym, incorporates not only traditional thaing, but also a range of Asian and Western combat systems. This eclecticism, of course, characterized the NBA, parent system of the ABA, as well. In keeping with the general practice, the NBA/ABA animal systems incorporate both striking and grappling techniques. In this style, the animal forms are said to teach the psychological (rather than exclusively the physical) attitudes of the animal after which the system is named.
The following animals with their characteristics represent the NBA/ABA style.
Name of FormCharacteristics
1. Boar courage, rushing, elbowing, kneeing, butting
2. Bull charging, tackling, power striking
3. Cobra attacking upper vital points
4. Deer alertness
5. Eagle double hand blocking and striking
6. Monkey agility, confidence
7. Paddy Bird rapid flight
8. Panther circling, leaping, tearing
9. Python crushing, strangling, gripping
10. Scorpion pinching and seizing nerve centers
11. Tiger clawing, ripping
12. Viper attacking lower vital points
(Draeger and Smith 1981, 1S7‑1S8)
Unlike the NBA/ABA style, the Kachin style, currently headed by Phil Dunlap (inherited through his grandfather, William O'Shaunessy) has not consciously sought to incorporate non-indigenous elements into its curriculum. At least initially, the relative purity of the style was because of the isolation of the Kachin (also known as the jinghpaw) territory. Moreover, the jinghpaw intensified this separation by actively refusing to accept outside domination throughout the British colonial period and into the present. Due to decades of rebellion and drug wars (the rebellions are financed in part by opium sales), the current state of Kachin martial arts is unknown.
Nevertheless, the Kachin style is best understood from the perspective of the traditional jinghpaw worldview, which includes their animistic religion. For example, the Kachin preservation of sixteen animal systems (as compared to the twelve cited by Dragger and Smith and the nine commonly taught by the NBA/ABA) is likely due to this animism.
Kachin animal systems embody both the physical and mental attributes of the animal described. Systems are further tied into human attributes as well, because it is believed that a fighting method must fit the individual's nature rather than force the individual to conform to the system. As an example, the Bull system with its "charging, tackling, [and] power striking" is for a big, strong, aggressive person who likes to deliver punishment to an opponent and does not mind receiving punishment in return. In a confrontation, the Bull will attempt, as far as possible, to remain at a distance from an opponent until the opportunity to deliver a devastating attack arises. The Boar is a smaller, quicker version of the Bull, for someone who attempts to get inside and work from clinching range. Lethwei is therefore said to be a combination of the Bull and Boar sets. Nevertheless, neither Bull nor Boar is simply a form of stand‑up striking; they incorporate ground fighting as well. However, the ground fighting in these sets seeks less to grapple than to pin the enemy to the ground to be struck at will. Thus, during a takedown, body weight drives through the opponent's legs and torso along with twisting and lifting slams.
In contrast, there are several Snake systems that are very supple, quick, and relaxed. For example, the Python subset is mostly grappling. Here the purpose of strikes is to stun so that the opponent can be taken to the ground for the finishing techniques. Python takedowns rely primarily on imposing one's body weight on an opponent.
The Kachin style also includes a Monk system, which utilizes internal martial methods. Given the qigong practice reported in the histories of related groups such as the Miao, a Chinese heritage for this system is a tempting hypothesis. Practitioners, however, with backgrounds in yoga, xingyiquan (hsing i cb'uan), acupuncture, and qigong contend that the Monk system demonstrates more affinity to Indian yoga than to the Chinese internal arts.
Each method ("animal") is a martial art in its own right, with its own techniques, specific exercises, and weapons. Before specializing, the practitioner trains for about five years in Lethwei. Upon completion of this period, the student then trains in an animal system for the rest of his career. Each animal, however, is part of a much greater whole. Non-family members learn an individual animal, but the family of the lineage holder learns an overall system that teaches the underlying concepts of each system. This makes it possible to exploit weaknesses inherent in a given animal or to fuse the combat techniques of the various subsets, ensuring that the family line of the lineage holder will be able to defeat all others in the group.
Via bando, thaing has had an impact on martial arts in North America and Europe. It is (at least as conceived by contemporary Western society) a mixed martial art. As a result, its methods adapt well to self‑defense applications (civilian, military, and law enforcement) and the no‑holds‑barred circuit.