The Gentle Art in Xi’an

Article by Anthony Westby

T hese years Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is riding the wave of the global MMA buzz, becoming the fastest growing martial art in the world. As with other global trends, BJJ is starting to take hold in China as well, with around a hundred Brazilian black belts currently living and teaching on the mainland. The majority of them live in the larger, more developed eastern cities, so Xi’an is lucky to have three committed to helping build its own jiu-jitsu culture: Igor Nunes Monteiro (Black Belt Academy), Manny Almedia (Ribeiro Jiu-jitsu), and Marcos Suel Silva (Alliance Jiu-jitsu). With over 45 years of combined experience among these masters, Xi’an is uniquely positioned to build a strong BJJ culture. However, what will this new BJJ culture with Chinese characteristics look like? Will the integrity of the traditional system be maintained? How can China advance BJJ?

As BJJ has been taken up and advanced by various individuals and cultures around the world, its face has changed. However, its underlying emphasis, structure, and integrity have remained. BJJ’s unique emphasis on leverage and control in the ground game has made it not only an essential tool for MMA but in self-defense as well. Its very nature lends itself to various styles, strategies, and techniques. As its history demonstrates, each BJJ lineage has taken the core principles set out by Helio and Carlos Gracie (mainly energy efficiency, natural movement and self defense) and woven them into their own strategic systems. A few examples of this are, Rolls Gracie incorporating more wrestling moves into the traditional system early on, the Ribeiro Team emphasizing a traditional high-pressure strategy, the De la Reva camp with their more open and sport-oriented style and the Eddie Bravo (10th Planet BJJ) system oriented solely towards MMA and No-Gi style grappling. Although, these lineages differ greatly in their overall strategies, they all are built around the three core principles laid out by Helio and Carlos Gracie, while maintaining the integrity of the traditional system and respecting its positional hierarchy.

The positional hierarchical structure of BJJ, and how points are scored in tournaments, is directly related to its roots in self-defense. The six basic positions (guard, turtle, side mount, knee on belly, full mount and rear mount) are scored according to the severity of potential attacks from your opponent. As practitioners become more familiar with this hierarchy and basic BJJ techniques, they learn how to better maintain these positions, rendering an attacker’s efforts ineffective or even counter-productive. For most students, the first year of study is mainly about learning how to respect and use this hierarchical structure—in other words, how to survive. From this knowledge, an entire self evolution begins and the integrity of the traditional BJJ belt system becomes clearer as it serves to mark your evolution.

The belt system in BJJ was established to signify a practitioner’s experience. Belts range from the novice levels of white and blue, through the intermediate level of purple to the advanced levels of brown and black, with roughly four levels of progression, indicated by stripes, for every belt. The main goal for white belts is to learn how to survive, while also becoming familiar with basic movements and techniques along the way. As a blue belt, the objective shifts toward finding your own strategy and style by experimenting with the various strategies and styles to best fit your particular attributes. Time as a purple belt is usually spent trying to fill in any gaps in your overall strategy and working on both the speed and timing of transitions. Once practitioners finally receive their brown belt, their primary goal is to fine-tune all the minute details of their game, making their movements as effective as possible. This is usually done by seeking out advice from black belts or specialized coaches. Although this belt system provides structure, it is not mathematical; it is not based on attendance or tuition fees. The overall goal of the system and of the practitioner is to build the black belt, so no matter if this takes 4 or 15 years, the black belt is the longest belt. As more Chinese practitioners achieve this level of fluency in the language of Jiu-jitsu, they will set the stage for how the new Chinese BJJ culture develops.

As China develops at its break neck speed, it assimilates new technologies and makes them its own by flavoring them with a unique mixture of its own characteristics. The assimilation of BJJ culture does not seem to be an exception to this rule. What this new face of Chinese BJJ culture will look like we can only hypothesize, but two things are certain. First, it will change, hopefully in a positive direction. Secondly, the traditional system’s emphasis, structure and integrity must remain unchanged if it is to be accepted by the global BJJ community. The most likely aspects to change will have to do with how BJJ is taught and how practitioners are promoted. In order to make it more parallel with the standard Chinese educational system, more emphasis will probably be put on memorizing a set of moves for each level, and exam performance. Although, such a change does not necessarily compromise integrity, it will be crucial to safeguard the system from falling into a “strictly business” mentality. The traditional system’s underlying integrity is heavily reliant on each professor’s respect and observance of their respective team’s customs, especially when it comes to rank promotion. Just as it has historically proven to be in the US, Russia and throughout Europe, preserving the traditional backbone of BJJ during its evolution will be critical for the new Chinese BJJ culture. At this early stage, the most effective action for China to ensure it builds a unique BJJ culture capable of advancing the entire discipline would be to hire more black belts from the different established lineages of the world, especially Brazil. With three professors from different lineages already living here, Xi’an is well on its way to setting the tone of how the new Chinese BJJ culture will evolve.