A new theory on the origins of Tai Chi
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.
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:
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.
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.