Martial arts as theatre, theatre as martial arts – meeting Scott P. Phillips

A new theory on the origins of Tai Chi

pulteney-bridge-bath

One of the benefits of posting on the Rum Soaked Fist internal martial arts discussion forum for so long now, and also working in the beautiful city of Bath, is that I’ve met up with various US Chinese internal martial artists on their travels through this fair isle. Bath is lovely and deservedly on the tourist trail for travellers from across the pond. They come to Bath and we meet up and talk through our favourite subject – martial arts – usually over lunch, then potter off to a local park to exchange techniques. It works out perfectly because they get to see some touristy culture as well as geek-out about their favourite subject – martial arts – with me. I’ve also been across to the US on a few occasions too, and managed to fit in meet ups with various people I’ve known from RSF. Meetups are usually fun and interesting because people always have different perspectives from my own, and I like that. I enjoy seeing the world from a different point of view. How else are you going to expand your horizons if you don’t meet new people?

Last year I met up with the notable Tai Chi practitioner Scott Meredith, or “Tabby Cat” as he’s known on his semi-famous Tai Chi/Astral Animal blog. We had a great time. Scott’s forte is fixed-step push hands from the Cheng Man Ching lineage via his teacher Ben Lo. Scott showed me some of his method and I shared a bit of my XingYi in return. He mentions meeting me in a post here. Scott is a great guy and very skilled at his style of push hands, and I’d really recommend hooking up with him if you get the chance. This week I met up with another Scott, who’s also a big personality on the Tai Chi scene – namely Scott P. Phillips of North Star Martial Arts in Boulder, Colorado. Scott was over here in the UK for the first ever Martial Arts Studies conference at Cardiff University, run by my good friend and erstwhile martial arts student Dr. Paul Bowman. Scott has practiced many different martial arts, including Chen style Tai Chi and XinYi Liu He Quan with George Xu (I really liked the look of his Xin Yi)and has recently become involved in teaching seminars with the Li Shi organisation on Taoist movement.

Scott Phillips performing Ba Ga Zhang.

Scott Phillips performing Ba Ga Zhang.

My experience with martial artists is that each person has their ‘thing’ – whatever that may be – that is their individual take on the whole martial arts shaboodle; its point. Why you should practice it. Or a particular method. With Scott I’d say that thing is ‘martial arts as theatre’. He’s theatrical in nature, and boy, does he love to perform! Over a local stout (which turned out to be delicious, despite the waitress describing it as ‘like Guinness, but not as good’) we discussed many martial subject – too many in fact – and while I can’t say that all of the mud he flung at my wall stuck (he blasted me with probably two decades worth of research material into martial arts, theatre and traditional dance over the course of a single hour!) the one idea of his that really struck home for me was the under-appreciated role of traditional Chinese theatre and folk religion ritual in forming today’s martial arts. Scott’s argument is that Chinese Opera needs much more credit for its role in creating and shaping Chinese martial arts styles than we give it. Much more. For an example of what he’s talking about watch this old video he made on the role of established characters in Chinese Opera, and their relation to the typical warm ups you find in a Tai Chi or Kung Fu class:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyms4lomW50

But his theory goes much deeper than this, way beyond mere warm-ups and further down the rabbit hole. You really need to see him jump up out of his seat and perform his guided walkthrough of the opening of the Chen Tai Chi form to ‘grok’ what he’s talking about. With spunk and vigour he relates each posture to a part of the story of Chang Seng Feng (Zhang Sanfeng), the legendary founder of Tai Chi. He’ll show you how some of the hand positions from Tai Chi have well-established operatic meanings – for example, the hands with the wrists crossed – a position found near the start of the Chen form – means “awaking from a dream”. His theory is that the Tai Chi form tells the story of Chang Seng Feng, and as you move through it you are performing the ritual of his canonisation. The Chen form (and hence, its derivatives like Yang, Sun and Wu) therefore is a canonisation ritual immortalised in a set of martial arts movements. Let’s take Crane Spreads Wings as an example. As the story of the form unfolds Chang Seng Feng journeys to the capital, and sees a fight between a snake and a crane on the way, which inspires him to create Tai Chi Chuan. In the form, this is the point where you do White Crane Spreads Wings, and so on and on it goes, with each posture representing another part in the story.

Zhan Sanfeng, shown in a posture that’s rather similar to Buddah’s Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar from the Chen Tai Chi form.

This theory explains the long established, yet sometimes baffling, connection between Tai Chi and Chang Seng Feng. It sounds ridiculous, but when you see him perform it (and I really mean to use the word “perform” here, with facial gestures, and dramatic pauses to boot), it’s a strangely compelling argument. Or maybe it was the stout talking, but I don’t think so – there’s definitely something to the unappreciated role of theatre and ritual in all martial arts.

Take Tai Chi Chuan, for example. People often need to be told that it’s a martial art, because it doesn’t look like one. How did we get to this place where we have a martial art that doesn’t even look like a martial art? People always point to the more fighty and vigorous Chen style (there are fast punches and kicks that make it look like a proper martial art) compared to slow, graceful pace of Yang style, yet it’s pretty obvious from watching the opening of the form that most of the movements are floaty and obscure and don’t even look martial in nature at all. Take postures like Buddha’s Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar, where you stamp your foot and strike your own palm with your fist, then make a circular, rotational motion with the hands and belly as an example. The stamp looks martial, and makes a nice noise, but what are you doing? As a martial arts technique it looks utterly unpractical. Sure I’ve seen people demonstrate a supposed martial application for the movement, but it never looks convincing. If your aim is to learn to fight, then there must be a quicker way than this… But, what if the move is really just the acting out of part of a ritual – the metaphorical mixing of two elements in a mortar and pestle? That explanation suddenly sounds a lot more feasible than this being a deadly martial arts technique!

Even the traditional start to all Tai Chi forms – the raising and lowering of the hands had a meaning related to theatre – it signalled the start of a performance in Chinese Opera.

The idea that all Chinese martial arts are based, in part at least, on theatre and ritual, also opens up new explanations for why we do things the way we do them. For example, why do we practice long solo forms, unless they are designed to be seen and performed? Why have (even secretive) Chinese martial artists always done public demonstrations of their skills? What’s all that breaking of boards and bricks really about? Why are there so many videos of ‘Chi tricks’ out there showing Tai Chi masters moving their students using nothing but the power of their Chi? Perhaps, we’re all just performers, who have forgotten we’re part of a very,very old play? What if it’s all just a variation of a magic trick? You’re not supposed to get upset that all these chi masters are not teaching real-world self defence – it’s just a magic trick after all, and you’re supposed to just enjoy it as theatre, and nothing more. And everybody knows, you’re not supposed to ask the magician how he does it, as that would spoil the magic!

It’s a fascinating idea, and an awakening from a dream, of sorts.

As I said, you need to see and hear Scott explain things himself to really do his theories justice. At best I’m probably misrepresenting them horrendously, but all I’ve got to go on are my memories from one meeting, slightly clouded by excellent stout. Scott tells me that a professionally made video of his guided Chen Tai Chi walkthrough (complete with Chinese subtitles) is on the way. Plus, Three Pines Press is expected to publish an extended academic essay about his theory with pictures in December, in a book called Daoism and the Military.

Look out for both. And do get out there and meet people – you’ll always learn something.

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17 thoughts on “Martial arts as theatre, theatre as martial arts – meeting Scott P. Phillips

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  6. Sure I can understand that, if only you actually stated it clearly in your main text, this confusion would not have happened, reading your text alone sounded like it wasn’t you who suggested the connection about the painting.

  7. And one more thing, if Chen Fake, direct great grandson of Chen Changxing said he never heard of his family art has any connection with Zhang Sanfeng, then that is that, I do not see how anyone else could say otherwise, unless ofc they actually found evidence of record regarding Zhang within the Chen records, which scholars has looked decades ago and found nothing. I do not see how there is even room for argument here.

    Its like I can’t say what is going on in your family when I’ve never been in your family, maybe I could argue some points if I spied on your family long enough, but even then what I gather from spying is circumstantial at best, it can never be more accurate than what you physically experience in your own family. The only time my observation could be more accurate is when you are intentionally covering up certain things, however in this case I do not see any reason why Chen Fake would cover up his families connection with Zhang Sanfeng, since in those days everyone want their system to be connected to some mythical figure in order to gain more popularity, the fact Chen did the exact opposite could suggest he is more honest and down to earth than usual, there was no commercialism at the time, so Chen Fake did not have the same reason to promote his own village like the current Chen village people have. And unlike the current village who shamelessly promote themselves as the founder of Taichi, Chen Fake never made such claim, he only said that he did not know and no one knows in his family.

    Maybe my next comparison is not the best, but what Scott is doing is almost like me claiming that your family has ties to Hitler, i mean no offense and ofc being related to Zhang Sanfeng is much better than Hitler, but the fact remains its me an outsider trying to force a connection onto your family to which your family does not agree to, once again unless I have physical evidence connecting Hitler to your family, anything else is circumstantial and cannot be taken seriously, imagine how you will feel if I said mu conclusion is based on a painting of your great grandfather who took the same pose as Hitler, that is the same absurdness I see in Scott’s claim.

  8. No, it’s not my beef, nor do I have the time to respond to your comments which are getting longer and longer, and more and more tedious, with more and more questions which are not for me to answer.

    I will say that in regard to the picture, I needed a picture of ZSF to go with the blog post – I found one on google and happened to casually notice that his posture was similar to a Chen Tai Chi posture – I did not intend for that to be some sort of definitive proof to anything. It’s just an observation of a similarity. Can you understand that?

  9. Inscription on who’s tomb? Zhang Sanfeng? If I’m not mistaken, you are referring to the tomb of Wang Zhengnan, which was the first evident of the use of the phrase “Neijia”, as far as I remember since I read that tomb long time ago, it did not mention anything about Zhang Sanfeng in name, also various historians has already concluded that the description on Wang Zhengnan’s tomb was a political one, the whole neijia / waijia dualism on that tomb was hinting at Han race vs foreign race, it has nothing to do with internal/ external martial art. This conclusion is further supported by the fact that there are no other evidence anywhere else during that time regarding people using neijia or waijia to classify their martial art system.

    This is one of the common problems I find with western researchers studying Chinese culture, often they do not seem to have the full background knowledge of the overall culture, its often wrong to arise at conclusions based on one evidence. Just like how when Europeans first discovered African cave painting, they naturally assumed that the native people used art to record their possession, only many years later did they realized that African’s paint what they wish to happen during a hunt, not recording the result of a hunt. And they only realized this by asking native people, this is a good example of how wrong one can be to just assume things based on your own perspective, when your perspective isn’t from that culture.

    Since you agree that the artist most likely never met Zhang. and the artist isn’t a master of Chen style, how can you accept the idea that the painting can prove Chen styles moves are linked to Zhang?

    Before one attempt to redefine something, one need to first understand it, how can anyone claim to understand Chen style if he never actually learnt Chen style from a lineage master? Anyone can watch a DVD and learnt the Chen form, but it does not mean he knows the detailed knowledge within the form, such details are only taught by proper lineage, in this case any lineage connected to Chen Fake. It is arrogant to say one could redefine something they do not yet fully understand, and after seeing Scott and his Taichi, I doubt he understand it very much, at least no where near some of the real Chen masters I know of. In which case I simply doubt he even have enough knowledge on the system to begin creating his own theory about it.

    Its good to have intellectual freedom, but last I checked historian research are not based on intellectual freedom alone, its based on finding facts that is close to the source, and in this case the source are the knowledge taught by Chen Fake, which is why in this case authority is very important, I would not stress the same notion if we were discussing say postmodern arts. Its just like how a person cannot publish a quantum physics paper without actually getting a degree in the subject, and such papers need to be reviewed by recognized quantum physic professors before publishing. In this case such professors are the various lineage holders of authentic Chen style and Chinese historians. Its good to have an open mind but like all things it is not always good, sometime one need to be confined in order to stay realistic.

    I’ve watched many videos of Scott already, and sorry to say but I believe he is very misinformed, his skill in Taichi is not that good and his theory is very skew from the truth. I’ve asked him regarding his source and the only one he could provide is George Xu, whom is not even well recognized in Chinese martial art circle, how is he even sure that he is not misinformed? I do not wish to speak ill of Xu but if he did indeed feed Scott all these information then something is seriously wrong here. Most hardcore researchers I’ve met actually lives in the area they need to research about, according to them its not possible to do research purely based on books they read at their home city, especially when its a foreign culture. Now how many years has Scott spent in China doing his research?

    I know this is not your beef, but I’ve spoke to Scott and it had no result, I’m merely posting comments here for anyone else reading this article to see, its the best I can do at the moment to protect the “facts” which I believe in.

  10. Guan, all good points, however it is me “imagining”, not Scott – he’s actually done a lot of research – good research. You should wait for his book and video to come out to get more of an idea of his theory than my meagre blog posts. It’s a complicated, multi-layered argument. Read the book when it comes out, then take up your argument with him.

    I only have one real problem with what you’re saying (although: the ZSF connection with “internal arts” did not start with Yang Cheng Fu – it started with the inscription on his tombstone hundreds of years before, and as for the artist never having met him – there’s little proof ZSF was even a real person, so I don’t find that surprising!) – You seem to have the (very Chinese) idea that it’s wrong to disagree with a “lineage holder” – I find that dismissive sort of argument (essentially – it’s wrong to argue against authority – revere your ancestors) a real barrier to intellectual freedom of thought and ideas, and one that has been proved wrong time and time again. My blog post is simply about ideas and possibilities – I’d suggest you wait for Scott’s book for more of an academic presentation.

  11. The problem here is the word “imagine”, it is not enough to simply “imagine” when it comes to proper research, one need actual facts from legit sources, not just a creative mind to connect the dots.

    Let me give you an example to illustrate my point, I’ve heard this theory that when Sir Issac Newton saw the apple falling from the tree, its actually Satan communicating with him, the same way he communicated with Adam in the garden of Eden, and it so happens that the study of Physics contradict to many teachings of the church, therefore the conclusion is that both Adam and Newton were corrupted by the devil, and the study of Physics is evil.

    I do not want to get religious for any means, but this is a good example to see how absurd things could get when people just use their imagination to connect the dots.

    Now regarding Chen Taichi, sure the knowledge was brought to Beijing by the legendary Chen Fake, who happens to be the great grandson of Chen Changxing, whom was the one to teach Yang Luchan. According to your comment, if anyone should know the connection it should be Chen Changxing and his family right? When people asked Chen Fake about the origin of his art, he said he does not know, no one in his family knows either. Now why would Chen Changxing not pass down the knowledge of the arts origin to his direct family? Instead he only shared it with an outsider?

    According to actual historical research, Yang Luchan made no official claim regarding Zhang Sanfeng to anyone. As far as we know the first time this name ever appeared in the history of Taichi was from Wu Yuxiang lineage, who according to the story found a scroll by accident while he was visiting Yankoudian, this said scroll was the famous Taichi Classic believed to be written by Wang Zongyue. According to some source there was another small chapter of text after the text of Wang Zongyue, which claims to be written by Zhang Sanfeng himself. However this part of the story has not yet been proven in history, the original scroll was nowhere to be found, so it can only serve as one of the possibilities.

    Wu Yuxiang passed his knowledge onto Li Yiyu who wrote the famous “Old three books”, which was the first ever record of Taichi principles and practice. In these books Li started by saying no one including himself knows who invented Taichi or when, clearly at least during Li Yiyu’s time, it was not certain that Zhang was the founder, if Yang Luchan really told everyone that Zhang was the origin then surely Li would simply write that in his record, or if his uncle Wu really found a piece of text written by Zhang himself, I see no reason he would not take such evidence into consideration.

    The idea of Zhang being the founder only became popular and dominant around Yang Chengfu period, one of the key event that led to this was the claim by a man named Song Shuming. Song was working as a clerk under Yuan Shikai administration, he claim to be the 17th generation descendant of Song Yuanqiao, a legendary disciple of Zhang Sanfeng himself, he also claim to be a master of Taichi. He made quite an impression on many Wu style masters including the lineage holder Wu Jianquan, and he gave them each a copy of his Song family Taichi text. Those masters that came to visit totally believed him and therefore was certain that he is living evidence that Zhang was the founder.

    Now back to Chen family, according to research by various scholars, plus the respones from Chen Fake himself during his stay in Beijing, Chen village never had any Taichi classic by Wang Zongyue, this correspond with Wu Yuxiang’s story of him discovering it at another place by accident. Chen family also never had any text written by Zhang either, that is entirely a foreign concept to them. In fact Chen Fake never had much theory on how to practice his style, all he had was exercise, drills and form. This much can be seen by texts written by various top students of Chen Fake such as Xu Yusheng, Hong Junsheng, Feng Zhiqiang etc.

    I am not here to discuss if Zhang invented Taichi or not, but it is pretty clear that Zhang had no connection to Chen village, and the later claims of Zhang also did not start from Yang Luchan, this much is pretty clear.

    As for Scott’s connection, sure his teacher George Xu is a legit martial artist, but is he an actual disciple of the late Chen Fake? or in anywhere connected to his direct lineage? I mean no offense but what Scott is trying to do here is to redefine someone else’s history, I find it a little troubling when he isn’t actually a lineage holder of that system, how does he even know his understanding to that system is correct? Like what I mentioned right in the beginning, from what I can see he is merely connecting dots according to his own imaginary mind. For example that picture of Zhang included in the above text, is a pretty weak evident to prove any point, the artist who painted it probably never met Zhang, and was never a master of Chen style, it could simply be chance that he painted him that way, if you look through old paints this is a particular common posture, to call that painting evidence that Chen styles’s Buddha warrior move is connected to Zhang is just too thin. By that same logic, I would say that the hand gesture in that painting is the same as certain Buddha statue found in India at least 1000 years before Zhang’s era, could I then say that is evidence that Zhang was actually a Buddhist practitioner? You can see how absurd it can get when one is only connecting dots based on what we wish to see.

  12. Hi,

    You make a good point, especially about ZSF not being recognised by current Chen family, however, it’s perfectly possible to imagine a reason for this. We all know that the Chen family art pretty much died out in the village, and was re-introduced from Beijing. It’s not impossible to imagine that the link the ZSF was lost when the art died in the village. Secondly, what if the link to ZSF was secret, esoteric, and only passed on by YLC’s teacher Chen Changxing, and not shared with the wider Chen community? There’s a strong link to ZSF down the YLC line. It had to come from somewhere. It’s all speculation of course. Also I don’t think Scott is ‘completely unrelated to Chen system’ – he learned it from his teacher George Xu, who is a legit Chinese martial artist. Good point, thanks for your post.

  13. People simply sees what they wish to see, this Scott guy has been obsessed with the idea that Chinese opera was the origin of martial art for many years, to a point of unhealthy obsession, which is why he tries to force a connection between the two no matter how.

    For anyone who actually read proper historical study on Chen Taichi, the idea that Chen style is a theatrical play about Zhang Sanfeng’s live is just absurd, the Chen family has never once mentioned the name Zhang Sanfeng in any record, even when Chen Fake came to Beijing, when people asked him about the origin of his art, he simply said he does not know. If the form was indeed designed to remember Zhang’s life story, surely the Chen family would remember it, not to mention they do not even recognize Zhang as the founder of Taichi.

    Sure one could argue that Chen has lost the true regarding their family system, but one has to also think about how likely it is for the Chen family to have lost it for hundreds of years but for a foreigner to just rediscover it like that. Not saying it is completely impossible, but the chance of it being true is next to nothing. Especially when the way he proves his theory is by interpreting various moves in his own way, which is not how academical research works. If this type of method is valid, I could connect Chen Taichi to all kind of stuff and come up with hundreds of possible origin theory, which is utterly absurd.

    When doing proper study, one has to get information from the original source, in this case what the various Chen masters has to say about the matter, as clearly they are the only ones related to the subject. If a theory contradict majority of the Chen masters then there are very little chance of it being true. Having someone completely unrelated to Chen system interpreting the Chen moves in his own way then calling it legit research is just wrong.

    This remind me of an event few years back where Korean authority claim that Confucious was in fact a Korean instead of Chinese, its not hard to see the kind of crazy conclusion one could reach when one does not respect information from the source of origin, personally I believe Confucous being Korean is on the same level of absurdness as Chen Taichi coming from a theatrical play.

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  15. I am fairly new to the world of Tai Chi, been doing it for almost a year now. I have found so much in this practice and I absolutely love it. I am reading Born Strong by Dr. Paul Lam, what a great book! He is such a strong force in the Tai Chi world and his story is amazing. http://taichiforhealthinstitute.org/bornstrong/ for his info and books. There are so many great things that can be done with this, loved this article and learned something which is always good!

  16. wow, the idea of Taijiquan as a ritual really resonates with me! I am fascinated by the fighting aspect and I enjoy it, but I do not expect to become a fighter! Seeing Taijiquan as a ritual also points out the spiritual part, which I think is often forgotten.

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