Your daily Tai Chi ritual – creating order out of chaos

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Scott posted some answers to various questions he gets over at Strengthness with a Twist, his blog. I thought the first one was most interesting:

What do you mean when you say martial arts are rituals?

Rituals are ways of making order out of chaos. Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order. It is a daily ritual that has deep, lasting, and profound effects on every aspect of our being. This is true of martial arts world wide, but it is particularly clear in the structure of Chinese martial arts as they were understood before the Boxer Uprising.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote since it’s pretty clear to anybody who does a daily practice of Tai Chi (or related martial/yoga/chi kung type practice) in the morning, that it soon becomes a kind of ritual, whether you like it or not. Not a ritual in the Western religious sense, but a ritual for your body (which Scott is arguing is, in fact, the true essence of religion in the Eastern sense).

I like his definition of “bringing order from chaos” even if it does sound a bit Jordan Peterson fan-boy-ish 😉

But if we can separate the phrase from the alt-right ideology it has become attached to, that phrase is what you are doing to your body when you practice Tai Chi in the morning. Having just woken up in the morning you can consider your body to be in a state of ‘chaos’ – you’re not yet functioning at 100%, your tendons will be shortened from lying down for so long and your body might ache from uncomfortable sleeping positions, and it needs to stretch. In fact, we stretch as a reflex action once we wake. Mentally you are also not yet “with it”, at least not until you’ve properly caffeinated.

A morning Tai Chi “ritual” (or “routine” if you like), can bring you back into occupying your body properly and get it ready for the demands of the day. When I think about what the main health benefit of Tai Chi is, I think it’s this. People tend to treat Tai Chi as a panacea that cures everything from a bad back to an ingrowing toenail. I take all the latest ‘scientific’ research about the miraculous healing benefits of Tai Chi with a pinch of salt. I think its best feature is simply this: it’s a way of gently ordering and strengthening the body in the morning, ready for the day.

I also like Scott’s later quote,

Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order

This one brings to mind a whirling Baguazhang practitioner spinning in circles, taming the elements he is working with, or two sword fighters caught in the midst of a leaping blow.

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It all sounds a bit fantastical, but again, I think there’s some truth buried here.

Through techniques in martial arts, we are bringing order to the chaos of the fight. This is perfectly demonstrated in a Jiujitsu match – it’s all scrambling, spinning madness, then order is established as a joint lock or choke is put in place, as one practitioner controls the limbs and body of the other through correct position, leverage and technique, and the ‘fight’ ends.

Performing the Tai Chi form is an analogy for how the whole universe was created out of chaos, and order established. When you start the Tai Chi form, in a still, standing position you are in a state of Wu Chi – the undifferentiated primordial state of emptiness, but always with the possibility of giving birth to something. Then the big bang happens and you start to move – Yin and Yang become differentiated and you are continually moving between these two opposite poles. The body opens and closes in a continuous spiral. As one part of the body is opening, another is closing until the final movement – often known as “Carry the Tiger back to the mountain”- when you return to stillness. The mountain here represents that primordial stillness. You have brought order to chaos and returned to the mountain.

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Fearing and Loving: Making Sense of the Warrior

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Why do men and women fight and go to war? This is one of the Reith Lectures by Margaret MacMillan. There is some great history on the War of the Roses, and also what it means to be a “warrior”. This will be of interest to everyone who does martial arts.

Historian Margaret MacMillan asks why both men and women go to war. “We are both fascinated and repulsed by war and those who fight,” she says. In this lecture, recorded at York University, she explores looks at the role of the warrior in history and culture and analyses how warriors are produced. And she interrogates the differences that gender plays in war. Anita Anand presents the programme recorded in front of an audience, including a question and answer session.

Link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b88hl4#play

The real heroes of Chinese martial arts

Chinese martial arts is full of genuine historical figures who become heroes. In this new blog series Will from Monkey Steals Peach blog is documenting his travels in China, discovering the places associated with the old heroes.

In his own words:

“Forget Jackie Chan & Bruce Lee, in this series I will be talking about some of the real heroes of Chinese Martial Arts, and their contributions to what we practice today. In this episode, I visit the Southern Great Wall in Taizhou to introduce the Generals Qi Ji Guang and Yu Dao You, who were massively influential figures in formulating the martial arts we practice today.”

Henan Village Chang family Xiao Luohan

I was reading through this excellent interview with Matthew Polly, author of American Shaolin, (a book which has somehow has escaped my bookshelf – a situation I should rectify promptly), when I came across this video of a man performing Chang family Xiao Luohan in a rural village in Henan.

It’s a great little video for a number of reasons. The first is that this is something old and precious that is in danger of dying out as people lose interest in WuShu in modern life. The second is the authenticity of the presentation – it really does look like a rural villiage where he has lived all his life. The third is – it’s a really good performance!

These are the sorts of “old school” martial arts skills that are in danger of dying out in China. To quote from the Matthew Polly interview above:

“As I mentioned in American Shaolin, the idea of chī kǔ (吃苦 ), eating bitterness, is central to the Chinese understanding of learning martial arts, and the value of suffering. And the way in which that contrasts with the western idea of trying to avoid pain in any way. We have an entire society built around the idea of alleviation of pain. We have an opioid crisis because we’re trying to avoid all sorts of pain. I admire progress and evolution in the way mixed martial artists do, but I have a nostalgia and sentimentality for tradition and the way that old man practised the same form for 60 years. There’s something beautiful about that and a sadness in seeing that wiped away as MMA goes like a bulldozer through the traditional kung fu and karate world.”

Chang family boxing is one of the precursors to Taijiquan, at least in terms of martial arts theory, although there are several similar postures to Chen Taijiquan found in its boxing sets, so the connection may be more literal than just in terms of theory.

I think research into Chang family boxing would reveal more about the origins of Taijiquan than wondering if it was Taoist. Luckily this research has already been done by Marnix Wells in his book ‘Scholar Boxer: Cháng Nâizhou’s Theory of Internal Martial Arts and the Evolution of Taijiquan‘. Again, another shocking omission from my bookshelf, but by all accounts, this is a very deep piece of research. According to Jess O’Brian (author of Nei Jia Quan: Internal Martial Arts) – “For those interested in the theory, history and practice of the internal martial arts, this book is going to blow your mind.”

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An irrational fear of dance

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One thing I notice is that the majority of “martial artists” seem to have an irrational fear of the dance or entertainment roots of their arts. While we all like to believe that Kung fu originated in the Shaolin temple under the austere eye and strict tutelage of a high-ranking Zen monk, I think we all know that most of these stories are bunk now.

In fact, it seems that most Kung Fu masters were earning a living as street performers. It’s not as glamourous, is it? If you search back in the lineage of Wing Chun, for example, you soon end up at an Opera company – these were traveling entertainers. In Europe we’d call them a circus. A lot of other Kung Fu styles can trace their origins back to particular rituals and festivals where a martial group put on a demonstration. You still see these sorts of things today with Lion dances at festivals. They are always run by a Kung Fu school.

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And even today, what do most martial arts groups do to attract new students? They put on a stunning demonstration, usually involving breaking something, again another form of entertainment. The martial arts lend themselves to ‘putting on a show’ so very, very easily.

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And don’t forget, these days the most popular martial arts is MMA, which is, after all, a sport done for entertaining large crowds in an arena, in a way that’s very similar to the Roman Gladiator experience.

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How different is this really to the Roman amphitheater?

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But let’s turn it around and look at Europe’s past, not its present. I’m thinking about that killer martial art known as Ballet 🙂

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Our aristocracy’s preferred movement art form came out of its martial art of choice – fencing. The aristocracy was obsessed with fencing, especially to settle disputes. (Is it any wonder our leaders lead us into World War I when this was their preferred method of conflict resolution for centuries?)

But anyway, Ballet, with it’s turned out legs, has clear origins in fencing. As this video shows you:

 

The connection between movement arts like dance and martial arts is deep, and shouldn’t be dismissed because dance is seen as a more feminine expression these days. In 14th century France, Ballet was a very manly occupation.

Remember, Bruce Lee was a dance champion in Hong Kong 🙂 And don’t forget David Branch, a middleweight and light heavyweight champion of the world, swore by ballet classes.

“The first day I went, it was harder than any workout I’ve ever done,” Branch told wsof.com. “I feel it in my balance. I feel it in my overall physical strength. I feel it everywhere. Just in my posture and I feel like when I get into scrambles in a fight or anything fighting wise that involves entanglement and striking, I feel so strong. It’s natural strength, you know?”

Just ask Kate Winslet – she knows:

 

Sand in your face and sickly children. Martial arts narratives.

At 6.28 in this BJJ promotion video from the early 1950s by Helio and Carlos Gracie, a “skinny guy” gets his girl stolen by bigger, stronger bully.  But don’t worry – he signs up for jiujitsu lessons and wins her back!

Let’s ignore the 1950’s idea of women as property and prize, which jars with modern sensibilities, and look at the marketing message. This narrative around the marketing of jiujitsu is clearly based on this classic advert for the Charles Atlas body building system “The insult that made a man out of Mac”:

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Again, a skinny scrawny guy, discovers the secret information that will turn him into a strong young bull and he has the powers to repel the sand kickers (with unlawful assault this time, but let’s forget about that at for a moment – it was a different age). He goes from being called a “little boy” by his girlfriend to being a “real man”.

In both cases we can see they’ve identified the target audience as the geeks. The skinny, scrawny men who need to gain knowledge and skills to compete with their more athletic contemporaries to win the approval of women.

So many times we hear the narrative that the founder of system x,y,z of martial arts was a sickly child or young man who overcame this using the power of his martial system to defeat not only his opponents but also his own weaknesses.

For example Chen Man Ching “An attack of tuberculosis turned Mr. Cheng’s attention to Tai Chi Chuan, which he credited with restoring his health.”

Bruce Lee “remained a sickly, skinny child throughout his early years”.

Grandmaster Huo Yan Jia (founder of Chin Woo) “frequently became ill and, as a result, was often taken advantage of by the other children”.

Notice that in the older, more conservative, Chinese narratives, there’s very rarely a women involved, unless it is the person’s mother. Sun Lu-tang was “a small and frail seeming child… When Sun’s mother heard that he was studying Kung Fu, She at first objected, afraid that he would hurt himself. Then she saw how much healthier her formerly-sickly child looked and give her blessing to him to continue his studies. ”

Do these stories bear much relation to reality? Sometimes, but often not. Here, for example, is a picture of the weak and sickly Helio Gracie who created Brazilian Jiujitsu by modifying the techniques of Jiujitsu to make them less physical, because he couldn’t use any strength in his techniques due to his frail condition.

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He “was always a very physically frail child. He would run up a flight of stairs and have fainting spells, and no one could figure out why. “

There probably is a lot of truth to sickly or weak people practicing martial arts diligently to improve their health, but the narrative is so often used and so often repeated that I can’t help but think a bit of marketing has slipped in at the same time.

And what’s the modern day equivalent? I suppose that it’s become about marketing martial arts directly to women. Women today don’t need a man to protect them – they can do it themselves!

 

 

Where will it go in the next 10-20 years, I wonder? Classes for men to learn to protect themselves from women? It’s possible….

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of these marketing trends, but I think it’s important to see them as trends. As always with martial arts – Caveat emptor “Let the buyer beware!”.

 

 

 

 

 

Tao Te Ching, chapters 8 and 61

 

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I was giving the Tao Te Ching the cursory glance I occasionally give it recently. I’ve got the copy shown above. I usually flick to a random chapter, read it three times and ponder it deeply. Well, as deeply as I am able to. I landed on chapter 61, and the next day I landed on chapter 8. These two seemed to be linked in theme, so I thought I’d say something about them.

Incidentally, I really like the Stephen Mitchell translation. I’ve no idea how accurate it is compared to the Chinese, but all translation seems to involve some interpretation, and I like the way he’s done it.

Here’s chapter 61:

61

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

 

and chapter 8:

8

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

 

So, firstly let’s look at the imagery of water, one of the classic symbols of the Yin side of the Taiji diagram. Both chapters use water as a metaphor for the correct way of acting or being in the world.  It’s a theme that repeats through the Tao Te Ching, and also throughout the history of Asian martial arts, even in modern times. I’m thinking of Bruce Lee in the infamous interview where he says “Be water, my friend!”

 

I was reading another article about Wing Chun today by Ben Judkins, which also expanded upon this idea of softness overcoming strength, and how this idea has permeated Asian martial arts:

Early reformers in martial arts like Taijiquan (Wile 1996) and Jujitsu sought to shore up their own national identities by asserting that they brought a unique form of power to the table.  Rather than relying on strength, they would find victory through flexibility, technique, and cunning (all yin traits), just as the Chinese and Japanese nations would ultimately prevail through these same characteristics.  It is no accident that so much of the early Asian martial arts material featured images of women, or small Asian men, overcoming much larger Western opponents with the aid of mysterious “oriental” arts.  These gendered characterizations of hand combat systems were fundamentally tied to larger narratives of national competition and resistance (see Wendy Rouse’s 2015 article “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam” .

but as the author notes, the situation is often muddied

Shidachi appears to have had little actual familiarity with Western wrestling.  It is clear that his discussion was driven by nationalist considerations rather than detailed ethnographic observation.  And there is something else that is a bit odd about all of this.  While technical skill is certainly an aspect of Western wrestling, gaining physical strength and endurance is also a critical component of Judo training.  Shidachi attempted to define all of this as notbeing a part of Judo. Yet a visit to the local university Judo team will reveal a group of very strong, well developed, athletes.  Nor is that a recent development.  I was recently looking at some photos of Judo players in the Japanese Navy at the start of WWII and any one those guys could have passed as a modern weight lifter.  One suspects that the Japanese Navy noticed this as well.

But while the idea of the soft overcoming the hard has already fallen to the level of a cliché, especially when it comes to martial arts, and mixed with political ideas, should we ignore it as a way of being in the world?  I’d say not. It does point to a truth.

Anyone with any familiarity in martial arts is aware of the feeling of having to ‘muscle’ a technique to make it work, as opposed to executing a clean technique based on good leverage. This points towards what I think these chapters of the Tao Te Ching are talking about.

When it comes to Tai Chi one of the hardest things to grasp about the techniques exemplified in the forms is that they shouldn’t necessarily feel powerful to you as you do them. My teacher often uses this phrase: “…if you feel it then they don’t – you want them to feel it, not you“.

If you can give up the need to control and struggle with a situation, then you can relax and access your own inner power. See what acliché that statement sounds like already? It sounds like one to me as I wrote it, but I guess all cliches were probably based on something real, otherwise, they wouldn’t be a cliché.

In Chinese martial arts that sweet spot between doing and not doing (to bastardize some more Taoist terminology) is called Jin. I’ve written a bit about that before:

The 6 directions and Jin

Rickson Gracie using Jin

Mike Sigman on basic Jin

Jin in Chinese martial arts (and tennis)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martial arts in video games: New Batman fight choreography

Things have been getting a bit ‘academic’ lately on the blog, so let’s just have some fun. I just saw this fight choreography for Batman vs Bane in an upcoming computer game called Batman the Enemy Within. Check it out:

It’s interesting for a number of reasons – firstly, it’s really good! People putting this much work into fight sequences for a game surprised me. This isn’t motion capture – the sequence is a “visual reference for animators”. It would be really interesting to see how the final sequence looks when fully animated. You can see some examples of their animated work below:

Secondly, they’re using a woman as the Batman character. Partly I think this is to create a size difference between the two characters. Bane is meant to be bigger, and he can inject venom to “Hulk up” a bit when he needs to.

Finally, the fighting style used looks very jiu jitsu-based, of the “flying armbar” variety. At one stage in the movie franchise Batman moved towards a fighting style that was based more around Filipino arts.

Great work.

 

Are forms any use for fighting?

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The question above is my one-line distillation of the abstract provided by Douglas Farrier for his article called “Captivation, false connection and secret societies in Singapore“, which appears in the journal Martial Arts Studies. You can download the PDF of the article from that link.

The simple question, “are forms any use for fighting?” is one that will plague Chinese Martial Arts until the end of time. In true academic style, this article “adds to the conversation”, plus it’s got some great stories in there of traditional Choy Lee Fut training. In fact, the one time I met D. Farrier he was telling the exact story that is in this article. I asked him at the time what “the face” was. He gave me a serious look and said “I’ll have to show you later”. Our group split in different directions and he didn’t in the end. After reading the article I’m kind of glad about that…

(Don’t be put off that it’s in an academic journal as it’s not written in academic language, and is quite readable 🙂 )

 

Review: Mythologies of Martial Arts By Paul Bowman

 

Are you a scholar boxer? Then I’ve got just the book for you.

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While origin myths and lineages do feature from time to time in Mythologies of Martial Arts, the “Mythologies” in the title here relates instead to Roland Barthes 1957 book, Mythologies, which starts with an essay on wrestling – not the sportif, Olympic or college style of wrestling, but the entertainment-based, scripted type, which was popular in Paris at the time, and later found its way onto Saturday morning television in the UK throughout the 80s and is still hugely popular in the US. Essentially, Barthes was undertaking a high-brow analysis of low-brow entertainment – taking seriously what was not meant to be taken seriously; comparing the scripted wrestling dramas to the themes found in mythic tales of the Gods or Greek tragedies. That gives you an inkling of what this book is about. Using Barthes ideas on wrestling as a springboard, Bowman goes on to look at how Eastern martial arts are treated in popular culture, and why. It’s a fascinating discourse across a diverse range of subjects, which somehow all follow on from one another, yet all build towards returning to the central premise of the mythologies of today’s martial arts.

Perhaps unusually for an academic, Bowman is not talking from some lofty perch, looking down upon the martial arts, but rather as a lifelong martial arts enthusiast and practitioner he’s down in the trenches doing it with the rest of us, and asking the question, what exactly is happening here?

The chapter headings reveal the eclectic brew on offer:

  1. Wrestling myth
  2. The status of martial arts in the west: From the Kung Fu craze to Master Ken
  3. Cross-cultural desire in the Western Eastern martial arts
  4. The circulation of Qi (in media and culture)
  5. Myths of martial arts history, authority and authenticity
  6. On kicking, Kung Fu and knowing your lineage
  7. Enter the ethnicity
  8. The gender of martial arts studies
  9. Everybody was action film fighting
  10. From weird to wonderful and back again
  11. Martial arts myth today

I’ll be honest, your average martial artists will not have even thought about half of these topics before. I hadn’t. In that sense, this book is mind expanding. Most martial artists just get on with doing it without really thinking about why we’re doing it, or what is actually happening when they do it. As such this book will shine some lights on the unexamined parts of your psyche, your unacknowledged assumptions about martial arts and your own blind spots.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the aesthetic appeal of kicking, the similarity of ground fighting to the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien, and the “delicious aural quality” of the sound of the words “Kung Fu” and “Gong Fu” in English. I also enjoyed the way he tackled his own real life critic in Chapter 5, combining the critic’s furious reactions into his research. (The critic remains nameless, but anybody involved in discussions of Chinese Martial Arts on Internet discussion forums will recognise him instantly). But frankly, a lot of this book is beyond me. When Bowman drifts into quoting Derrida (as he does often) and discussing ideas of deconstructionism I find myself drifting off and wanting to skip pages, but then he’ll talk about how Alien’s Facehugger bears striking similarities to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu ground fighting technique, or how Kung Fu technique keeps him awake at night and I’m right back in the room with him, enjoying his unique perspective.

Bowman’s focus is often on Eastern martial arts (or martial artists) that have been transplanted to the West and the cultural ramifications thereof, Bruce Lee being a perfect example. It should also be noted that Bowman is an authority on Bruce Lee, having written several books about him, and Chapter 7 here is dedicated to understanding this key figure to modern martial arts in more detail.

Bowman uses his own experience of training in these Eastern martial arts in the West as his fieldwork, which is fine, but has some downsides. So much of cultural significance seems to be going on with the incredible popularity of Mixed Martial Arts at the moment that it seems like a missed opportunity that it only gets the briefest of mentions here, mainly because it has not featured as heavily in the lived experience of the author as the Eastern arts of Taekwondo, Kung Fu and Tai Chi have.

Having been to an academic conference (only once in my life, so far though) it strikes me that the key to delivering a good academic paper is to present lots of ideas, backed up by evidence, but to never come to any definitive conclusion about any of them. Academics naturally see their work as contributing to a larger conversation. Whereas most of us presented with the task of writing a book, an article, or a blog post would reduce it to a point we were trying to convey, to move towards, to solidify on, academics seem more interested in asking questions, which in turn spark more questions, which in turn keeps the conversation moving and developing. They are worker ants contributing to the overall health of the colony, not brave explorers conquering and claiming new lands and while it would be a disservice to accuse Mythologies of Martial Arts as lacking coherence, or building to good final act, I’m left with the impression that this book, hailing from the world of academia, holds true to the same ideals.

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Full Disclaimer: A long time ago (possibly in a galaxy far, far away) I taught the author of this book Tai Chi and Kung Fu, and while I’m not mentioned by name I find my ghost wandering the pages of several chapters, where I am mentioned as the “instructor”, noted for knowing my martial arts lineage by heart, or as the person who introduced him to what he’d been searching for: Chinese Kung Fu, for the first time.