My first video interview! Scott P. Phillips and the God of War and Accounting

I’ve been thinking of doing a new series of video interviews with various people from the Tai Chi and martial arts scene, so when the opportunity to interview Scott Phillips, author of Possible Origins: A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theatre and Religion came along I jumped at the chance.

I thought the interview went pretty well, so here it is in full. Please share it!

We jumped all over the place from Chinese history, the Boxer Rebellion, martial arts as theatre, Shaolin, Wudang, the origins of Xingyiquan, dealing with real violence, Rory Miller, Mexican drug cartels, child kidnapping in ancient China and more, including the superbly named Guan Gong, who was the “God of War and Accounting”!

I’ve uploaded it to both YouTube and Vimeo. I cut things short at the 1-hour mark but had the feeling we could have kept going for another 2 hours at least, so maybe we’ll do it again, perhaps with a little more focus on a particular subject.

Hope you enjoy.

YouTube:

 

Vimeo:

 

 

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Catch as Catch Can – The British Chen Taijiquan

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I listened to the Raspberry Ape podcast this morning on the way to work. It’s a BJJ podcast by Daniel Strauss, one of the UK’s leading competitors and BJJ personalities.  The episode I was listening to was with Danny Williams, who as well as possibly being the most tattooed man in judo is also a British judo Olympian and Commonwealth gold medalist.

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Danny Williams

After taking a while to get going, the podcast gets very interesting and they discuss things like Ido Portal, Conor McGregor, fads and fashions in the Judo and BJJ world. The thing that interested me most was when Danny mentioned that he’d been teaching some no gi techniques that he picked up from Russian Sambo last night at Daniel’s club in Mill Hill, London. Danny also mentions that he found the same techniques in a video he watched of a Catch wrestling seminar. It’s entirely possible that that’s where the Sambo guys got it from.

Catch is a wrestling style from the North of England. Its name “Catch as catch can” implies it is a more open style than the local variants it grew out of, and you could apply a submission hold (a “catch”) as and when it was available. Its origins are amongst the working class of the region. Despite never being that popular amongst the rest of the population it has gained a reputation for being brutally effective at international level. It reached the United States in the late 19th Century where it has gained a foothold, spreading through carnival wrestlers. In modern times practitioners like Eric Paulson and Josh Barnett, amongst others, have achieved a level of fame using it in the MMA world.

The big difference, of course, is that the Catch seminar Danny watched was attended by “two fat men and some kids”, while the local football pitch was probably full of men running around kicking a ball. The irony here is that in Britain we’ve got a truly remarkable indigenous martial art that has some of the most effective techniques in the world, and nobody is interested in it. Catch wrestling is dying in Britain. There’s probably a handful of people left that practice it. Why is that?

The most obvious answer is that it’s not attractive to people. Let’s look at some vintage footage of the famous Catch Wrestler Billy Riley at the Snake Pit, the home of Catch wrestling in Wigan to find out why:

 

“they’d meet in the pub and arrange fights, then fight in the fields the next day, not on mats”, “a small hut” – it’s not very glamorous, is it?

One wrestling style that has become incredibly popular in the UK is Brazilian Jiujitsu – if you look at what that’s doing right then you can see why it’s successful. Generally, BJJ gyms are clean, welcoming, and friendly places. It doesn’t matter if you’re 40 years old and never done anything before, if you join a BJJ gym, you can learn without much risk of getting injured. As a business model, it suits the customers and it’s been very successful.

So, what needs to happen for Catch to catch on? I think it’s going to take a major victory on a world stage (as BJJ had in the UFC) to bring back a revival of Catch, or maybe it needs somebody to come up with a more people-friendly version – a Catch Light – perhaps, that can be more popular amongst ‘normal’ people.

I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s a shame that we’re letting something that in China would be described as a “national treasure”, like Chen Taijiquan is, die out due to neglect. Catch as Catch Can is our Chen Taijiquan, and it needs to be protected.

 

Notes:

The Snake Pit in Wigan has its own website and is doing what it can to revive Catch.

Incidentally, Billy Robinson who died in 2014, and features in that earlier film can be seen here in this film, still teaching in old age.

 

 

 

Ben Judkins on perfect practice in martial arts

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Really nice article over at Kung Fu Tea by Ben Judkins called Facing Down a Wooden Dummy, and the Myth of “Perfect Practice”.

Here’s a quote:

“Simply going through the motions is not enough. One must be self-aware, actively choose goals when practicing, and strive to improve those one or two things until you could do them “perfectly.”  In a moment of frustration Nihilus called on a student not to “be perfect,” but to make a conscious choice to put himself on a path to mastery.  At its best, this is what the challenge of “perfect practice” can be.”

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Angry Baby Gods and Lightsaber duels: A visit to the Martial Arts Studies Conference 2016

A great talk by Daniel Mroz on Tao Lu (“forms”) in Chinese Martial Arts.

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I was in the audience for this talk by Daniel Mroz at last year’s Martial Arts Studies Conference in Cardiff – (and I think I asked a question at the end). Daniel is a great orator, so if you’re looking for a good example of how to deliver an engaging and entertaining talk, then look no further. Plus, he quotes the legendary Steve Morris, so he gets some extra cool points. 🙂

I’d bumped into Daniel earlier in the conference and he instantly felt like a kindred sprit – just before his talk we were busy demonstrating Choy Li Fut moves on each other!

The full video of Daniel’s talk is available to watch for free.

Here’s a blog post about it by Plum Blossom about it with some comments from Daniel.

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Angry Baby Gods and Lightsaber duels: A visit to the Martial Arts Studies Conference 2016

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Well, hello delegate! A brief sojourn at the 2016 Martial Art Studies Conference in Cardiff…

As somebody not involved in academia or academic publishing, I’ve viewed Martial Arts Studies from afar for a while now, slightly scared of getting too close, in case I get bitten by the big words, like “phenomenological” and “liminoid”.

So, it was with some trepidation that I boarded the train to Cardiff for the Martial Arts Studies Conference 2016. Happily my fears were unfounded. This was my first time getting amongst the martial arts studies crowd, and what a lovely bunch of people they turned out to be! Academics are open minded, intelligent people looking to increase their knowledge through discourse. Contrasting views are often encouraged, treated with respect and pondered rather than rejected. It’s a refreshing change from the bitchy world of online discussion forums I’ve inhabited, which seem grumpy, trite and shallow in comparison. Or maybe it was just that meeting people in the flash is always so much more genuine.

Talking of which, the day started well, when I introduced myself to the random stranger I had sat next to for the first keynote and he said “Graham? Wait… are you THE Graham? The nice, funny guy from Rum Soaked Fist? Man, that place has gone downhill!” Ha! Ha! (By the way, yes, that genuinely did actually happen.)

I’ve been trying to think of how to define what martial arts studies is exactly, and I think one of the best ways to describe it is that these people are not interested in the practical ‘how to’ of martial arts, but rather what it means when people do martial arts. For example, what do the kata (or forms) of martial arts signify? What’s really going on when people perform a kata? And are they really performing, or practicing for their own sake? What are the participants of a sparring session actually engaged in? What are they really there for? How is the media selling this? Those sorts of questions.

Here are some of the titles for the talks given, to give you some idea:

“Embodied Enquiry: reflecting on embodied practices as ‘dynamic events’.”

“From Martial to the Art: Slow Aesthetics in Transnational Martial Art-house Cinema”

“Masculine identities and the performance of ‘awesome moves’ in capoeira class”.

Since we’re dealing with a subject that is physically practiced there’s always the opportunity for tactile engagement within the subjects, although this isn’t encouraged officially within conference itself (I can imagine the insurance nightmare this could lead to). But while there was no scheduled ‘hands on’ sessions, there was a bit of push hands outside in the rose garden before the conference started, which I sadly turned up to just as it finished, but I did manage to exchange some Choy Lee Fut techniques with Daniel Mroz who practiced the same style for a while, but through a different lineage. Indeed, I thought that the majority of participants in the seminar were also probably martial artists themselves. In short, it wasn’t all pie in the sky. 🙂

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Ben Judkins with group photo of the CLA (Central Lightsaber Academy)

This line of thoughtful enquiry into martial arts mixed with real world interaction, humour and observation was typified by the opening keynote speech of the day by Ben Judkins, the author of the excellent Kung Fu Tea” who delivered a talk entitled “Liminoid Longings and Liminal Belonging: Hyper-reality, History and the Search for Meaning in the Modern Martial Arts”, which was about a class on Jedi lightsaber fighting that had sprung up in a mall in America, a trend that is appearing in Europe too, with Ludo Sport at the forefront. How does a lightsaber class fit into a martial arts school’s syllabus? What sort of people are attracted to it? What are they identifying with? All these questions were asked.

They take this lightsaber duelling seriously, too. I’ve got to be honest and say that it looks like great fun – I want a go.

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Ludo Sport in action!

Aside from the keynotes, 4 different lectures went on at the same time, so you had to choose what you went to. So, I missed a lot of stuff I’d have like to have seen, like “Yin Yang, Five Elements and Rhymed Formulae: Traditional Chinese Concepts in the Teaching of Wing Chun”, and “Capoeira Bodies, Two Movies and Every day ‘Realities’”. I could go on – there were a lot of interesting talks I missed, but hopefully a lot of it was video taped, so I can watch it later.

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Scott Park Phillips, doing his slide show thing.

I did however get to see my old friends Scott P Phillips deliver his impossibly titled, “Baguazhang: The martial dance of an angry baby-god“. As you can tell from the name of the talk, Scott likes to hit controversy head on, but give his ideas time to percolate in your mind and they start to make sense. Using copious historical examples, photos and videos, Scott exposed the theatrical and religious roots of Baguazhang, and how they are at odds with the conventional theories of the arts development, which you’d have to agree are unsatisfying and incomplete. Linking Baguazhang to the Chinese god Nezha opens many new lines of enquiry. For instance, Nezha is often depicted holding a cosmic wheel:

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Look familiar?

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Perhaps a bit like this?

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Li Zi Ming with wind wheel swords

And those big weapons associated with Baguazhang… what do they do to the practitioner? How do they make him look?

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One of the oversized weapons associated with Baguazhang.

I can’t go into the whole thing here. Scott had 3 hours-worth of material, (which had to be crammed down to 30 minutes), so he had to leave a lot of it on the table. I’d love to watch the full 3 hour version of his talk, and I hope he gets the funding he’s looking for to get it turned into a proper film. If you’re interested in his theories or helping with the project then, drop him a line or buy the book.

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Daniel Mroz starting his keynote on taolu.

I also got to watch Daniel Mroz’s excellent keynote on “Taolu: credibility and decipherability in the practice of Chinese martial movement” which kind of took off from Scott’s ending point and looked a new perspectives from which the practice of taolu can be understood. Fascinating stuff, including a practical demonstration of how to add credibility to a taolu performance.

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Daniel shares a method for adding credibility to taolu performance.

I noticed there were a lot of talks discussing whether or not recreating martial arts from European medieval instruction manuals – “fight books” – by groups such as HEMA can be considered a sound scientific method. I caught a couple of these talks – (the short answers seems to be “no, but it’s not without merit”). The most interesting talk I saw however didn’t seem to care about the pervading academic opinion, and was all about recreating the moves described in ancient Icelandic sagas as modern day wrestling techniques. There was some great detective work going on there.

The conference actually lasted for 3 days, but I only managed to get to the middle day, which made me wish I had more time there. There was so much I missed and so much more I’d liked to have seen.

Overall, it was a refreshingly and fascinating day that will stay with me for a long time, and it was good to meet up with old friends as well as make new ones from across the seas.

Thanks to Paul Bowman for putting on a great conference. I hope to go again.