Review: Possible Origins, Scott Park Phillips – Part 1

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I’ve been meaning to review Scott Phillips’ book on the origins of Chinese Martial Arts for some time now, but there always seemed to be something else for me  to read, or to do… Ok, I admit it, I’m just a terribly slow reader. However, the recent uproar over the fight between Tai Chi “Master” Wei Lei and MMA coach Xu Xiaodong that has dominated the Chinese Martial Arts scene has made me pick up Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theatre and Religion, and give it the attention it deserves.

A bit of background to the current situation: Xu (who had to go into hiding after the fight once the government got involved) had started to make a name for himself as the debunker of Kung Fu masters who he claimed lacked the skills required for actually fighting while charging students large sums of money to learn these (nonexistent) skills. He wasn’t particularly respectful in his debunking either – in fact, his profanity filled rants were uncomfortable to watch and hard to follow, but his point was simple.

Wei, the subject of a documentary on Chinese television about his Tai Chi powers,  took umbrage to the implied insult and challenged Xu in an effort to defend the honour of traditional martial arts. It sounds like the plot of every kung fu movie, but it actually happened. Anybody who has seen the fight (which lasts about 10 seconds ending with Wei’s face being ruthlessly pummeled on the ground by Xu) will have realised that Wei was utterly delusional about his fighting abilities. Even after his beating, in his post fight interview, Wei still seemed to be delusional about his fighting ability, proclaiming that he was only hit after he “tripped’ and fell”. In reality he was knocked to the ground by a punch which revealed him to be a bumbling amateur in the realms of pugilism.

You can easily make the argument that Wei was never a proper Tai Chi Master anyway, so his poor performance is irrelevant, but a lot of people obviously did think he was a legit martial artists. What’s interesting to me is how we got here.  How did we end up with a generation of Kung Fu (especially Tai Chi) masters who think they can fight, but can’t? If you went to a boxing coach in Glasgow to learn how to box, he’d teach you how to box, and regardless of how good or bad you were, you’ll at least end up with some fighting skills. But if you go to a Tai Chi master in Taiwan, asking to learn to fight, he’ll teach you a lot of fancy arm-waving stuff, mystical qigong and forms, but after several years you might actually be no different from an untrained person in your fighting ability. In fact, you’ll probably be worse.

Nothing ushers in a period of self reflection like a catastrophic failure, so it’s at this point that we should turn to Possible Origins to see how we got here.

Scott’s book at least proposes some answers to this curious situation that Chinese Martial Arts finds itself in – which is to embrace it. His basic premise is that once upon a time in China, martial arts, theatre and religion were all one thing. Over time, and due to various political and cultural shifts they became separated out, but never truly lost their connection to each other, even if the arts lived on as a pale reflection. The book examines how that process happened, why it happened and what we can do about it. In a way it’s a call to arms for the reader to embrace parts of their practice that have hitherto remained untapped and to restore these connections.

I know plenty of people amongst the martial arts that I know who just laugh at Scott’s theories. (“Oh, no, not that guy…”)*. They tend to be practical people who are more interested in how something works than why it is the way it is in the first place. That’s fine, and there’s no reason to go ‘backwards’ in martial arts. I think it’s equally valid to not worry about any of this, and just focus on what you can do with what we’ve had handed down to us. But the book does open a door to a fascinating world of demons, spirits and ancestors that we’ve left behind. You’d also be surprised by how much evidence there is for his interpretations. He can’t be conclusive about anything (hence the title) but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t present a wealth of information to support his case.

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Martial arts originated so long ago that almost everything about that time is lost to us, and survives only in fragments. I think the strongest ‘evidence’ Scott has for his theories is the Boxer Rebellion of 1899, which happened relatively recently, and was a kind of a last gasp of the old world where martial arts, religion, theatre and ritual were all tied up together. There are documented cases in the Boxer Rebellion of martial arts practitioners combining martial arts techniques with spirit possession and mediumship to help overthrow foreign powers. Unfortunately it turns out that invoking the spirits of demons to give you fighting ability doesn’t, in fact, stop bullets and the Boxers were wiped out, and many of the ‘old ways’ and knowledge with them. Further cultural, political, and repressive regimes buried them deeper and deeper until today we’ve lost all concept of why we do what we do in Chinese Martial Arts.

Besides all this, Possible Origins is a damn good read, and an entertaining, book in its own right. It’s not an academic tomb, it’s an easy to devour. I’m halfway through and loving it. Even if you don’t agree with Scott’s theories, you’ll learn a lot about things you never even knew existed from Possible Origins.

Everybody who practices a Chinese Martial Art should read it.  I’ll post a ‘part 2’ follow up when I’m finished.
Links: Scott’s blog. Scott’s video

* In case you were wondering, Scott’s martial arts lineage is actually legit, and explained in the book.

Hands off! Stevie Nicks goes full Crane Kick

Fleetwood Mac star Stevie Nicks appeared in a women’s self defence book “Hands off!” back in the 1970s! Here she is on the cover:

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From the Openculture article:

“The book itself was written by Bob Jones, an Australian martial arts instructor who doubled as a security guard for Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Joe Cocker and other stars. And it featured what Jones called “mnemonic movements”–essentially a series of nine subconscious/reflexive self-defense moves (like a swift knee to the groin). See Jones’ website for a more complete explanation of the exercise routine that also provided, he notes, a great cardio workout.”

 

Check out the heels – no can defend!

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Fleetwood Mac’s classic track, The Chain, was featured heavily in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, a reminder that they really don’t make ’em like they used to:

 

How to practice effectively for just about anything

All martial arts tend to be big on repeating movements over and over – BJJ-ers practice hip escapes and triangles, Wing Chun-ers practice Su Lim Tao, Tai Chi-ers practice form movements over and over. We intuitively recognise the benefits that repeating a sequence of movements gives us – we become more fluid and after a while it feel like these moves could be something we could actually pull-off under pressure. Well, it turns out there is a science behind repetition, and this TED video explains what it is:

A blast from the past – Yongquan demo 2003

 

This video is a blast from the past (for me, at least). It was filmed in 2003 and I’m in it!

It’s the film of a demonstration the Yongquan Chinese Martial Arts group did in London. There are lots of the arts I was training at the time shown off here – Choy Lee Fut, Northern Shaolin, Tai Chi, Push Hands, then some breaking demonstrations. I’m doing a broadsword form in the demo that I can’t even remember anymore! There’s some Iron palm (a granite pebble broken with a chop) from Donald and a kerb stone gets broken over Doug’s head with a sledge hammer!

Since I was actually in this demo I know that none of these materials are faked – they’re all the genuine article. Real bricks, etc..

At the end of the demonstration there are some clips of us practicing for the demo. These are more enjoyable for me to watch as they bring back some good memories of training with my teacher and the rest of the guys back in the day.

What I like most in the video is the very last clip, where Doug is practising the Press (Ji) technique from Tai Chi on a line of people. Done right it’s meant to be very minimal physical effort with a big results (using Jin not Li) – the power should penetrate through the line of people so that the people at the back of the line fly away first. He does a ‘not very good’ version of it (too much Li – physical force) so it all looks very physical. Donald comes over to tell him off and show him how it should be done, and without any set up does a perfect Ji – really minimal effort and the guy at the end of the line flies off – then Doug has another go and gets it right. I’m glad that got captured on video.

 

 

 

Aikido vs MMA – real sparring

This is a follow up post to yesterdays post about Tai Chi vs MMA. As I said in the last post, I thought the Tai Chi guy took way too much damage if the point of it was to discover if Tai Chi worked in an MMA environment. Obviously, it was more of a challenge match involving a clash of egos, so it didn’t go down like that, but there are better and friendlier ways to test your traditional martial arts in a more challenging environment.

That’s why I really like this clip of a 13-year Aikido guy trying his stuff on an MMA fighter in a ring. Nobody gets hurt and the Aikido guy has the chance to let the scales fall from his eyes without suffering brain trauma in the process.

It’s a great video and well worth watching. Well done to both of them – and let’s see more of this please!

Full contact Tai Chi. A painful lesson in reality.

A video clip has been doing the rounds on the Internet recently about a “Tai Chi master” called Lei Gong who accepted the challenge of a Chinese MMA fighter/coach called Xu Xiaodong to an actual fight. Here’s what happened:

As you can see the Tai Chi master had his bell rung very quickly and very convincingly. The whole video lasts 47 seconds. It’s clear from the first few seconds of the actual fight that Lei Gong is way out of his depth and shouldn’t be in there with Xu. He had no idea how to deal with an opponent who was actually attacking him, not just dancing around making strange shapes in the air, like his student presumably do for him.

(The stoppage by the ref was a bit late for me, and Lei Gong ended up taking more punishment than he should have. The effects of head trauma are all too real, but it seems that this is the price he had to pay to be woken from his dream of magic fighting ability).

Generally, I think that this fight was a good thing for Tai Chi as a whole. Let me explain.

The challenge arose after Lei Gong appeared on a Chinese Television programme called “Experiencing Real Kung Fu” claiming to have sparring and fighting ability with Tai Chi. He spared one of the hosts of the show in the programme. See below at 9.30:

Xu’s beef with the show was that people claiming these sorts of abilities better be able to back it up.

The sad truth is that most things in China are fake, including their TV shows! I’ve seen so many of these types of shows now where Tai Chi masters go up against Muay Thai or Karate people, or wrestlers. They’re all fake. Does that mean Tai Chi is fake too? I don’t think so, but I think it exposes the complete lack of realism that is prevalent in the Tai Chi culture. It’s not rocket science: if you want to be able to actually fight with any art, then you have to practice actually fighting with it.

Xu seems to have a particular problem with the big dogs of Chen village who charge a lot of money for people to become disciples to learn their special skills. I can see where he’s coming from – if you look at what you learn in a typical seminar from a big name in the Chen style, then none of this is going to prepare you for an encounter like the one Lei Gong was in.

Xu’s argument, which I think is logically valid, is that if you’re going to charge all that money for something you better be able to prove it works. He’s now challenged the son of Wang Xi’an, one of the “4 tigers of Chen village”, but Wang’s son will only send his student, who has also been trained in SanDa (Chinese kickboxing with throws as well) to fight Xu. Xu, understandably says this will not do, because he wants to test Chen style Tai Chi. This will probably rumble on a bit and lead nowhere.

I was chatting with a friend about the whole thing and he said something like “I think that all martial arts, once they actually spar end up looking like some version of MMA”.

I think he’s probably right. I’ve written before about the delusion of grace under pressure and how so many people’s idea of what Tai Chi should look like in a fight is so way off.

MMA is what martial arts look like when stripped down to pure functionality. When all the cultural trappings have been removed. Chinese Martial Arts does contain its own bad-ass martial artists, but still, those arts contain things that are not purely about fighting. And for a good reason – they perform a useful social function. MMA also performs a useful social function, but more in the same way that Western boxing does, not in the way that Chinese Martial Art does.

Perhaps we’re all missing something. There are special skills you can only get from Tai Chi, and I think people have a right to teach these things without having to fight MMA to prove it works. I also don’t believe that all the people who are paying lots of money to become indoor disciples of Chen style masters think they are being given a kind of ‘master-key’ to martial arts that will mean they will be able to fight 21-year old athletes without ever having to spar first. It’s more like they are buying into a tradition. Once they buy in they’ll (hopefully) get the skills the tradition is famous for*, and be able to set themselves up as teachers. The problem comes when they get delusional and start to see themselves as bad-ass fighters when they don’t have a right to. This situation is made worse by the acceptance of fakeness, or cheating, in Chinese culture and TV shows.

It’s a messy situation, but it is what it is. Welcome to the world of Tai Chi. What matters is you and your training. Use your own reasoning to asses what you’re doing and what skills it is actually giving you, and don’t start to claim you can do things you can’t, otherwise you might suffer a painful wake-up call, like Lei Gong did.

*Of course, whether somebody who is not Chinese and not even from Chen village would ever really be taught the real skills of the family is open for debate anyway.

Fight Mom

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One MMA fighter I haven’t paid much attention to is Michelle Waterson, “the Karate Hottie”, who fights “Thug” Rose Namajunas in UFC211 tonight. The winner of which will presumably challenge the formidable Joanna Jędrzejczyk, who I have written about before, for the Women’s Strawweight title.

In her last outing with the UFC Michelle made short work of the UFC’s golden girl, Page VanZant, winning by rear naked choke in the first round:

What’s interesting about Michelle is that she comes from a traditional Karate background, although to look at her fight these days she looks more like a Muay Thai/Jiujitsu fighter, but in the Page fight she made frequent use of the sidekick, a staple from Karate.

In the following video she talks about the problems of adapting traditional Karate kicking techniques to the MMA world. It’s interesting on a technical level and very refreshing in its honesty about what happens when ideas meet reality:

In the brash, trash-talking, world of MMA Waterson, with her traditional ideas of martial arts respect and humility, seems like a breath of fresh air. She’s down-to-earth, possessing a natural charm.

Her journey from Karate fighter, to MMA fighter, to world Champion with Invicita then moving to the UFC, having a daughter and her supportive husband, who gave up his boxing career for her are all documented in the brilliant film Fight Mom, which you can watch in full here:

https://www.uninterrupted.com/watch/WjKdtIcH/fight-mom

Win or lose tonight, Michelle has had a hell of a ride to get to where she is today, and I look forward to every chance I get to see what she can do in the UFC.