Bringing Northern Styles South: A Brief History of the Lianguang Guoshu Institute

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Transforming Southern Martial Culture

 

How did Taijiquan, now ubiquitous, establish itself in Southern China?  What about the other northern Shaolin systems? I would think that the lion’s share of the credit must go to the Jingwu Association which introduced and popularized several systems throughout the 1920s.  Still, the institutional structure of the modernist Jingwu Association tended to absorb sets from various arts rather than presenting them as distinct, self-contained, lineages.  The other actor, frequently noted in this equation, is the Guoshu (National Arts) movement.

Guangdong province established its own branch of this national organization relatively early on. I recently heard the assertion that all of the “traditional” practices of southern China could be classified into three categories.  First, one had the local Cantonese arts (Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, etc..), next there were the Hakka styles (White Eyebrow, Dragon) and finally there are the northern arts (Taijiquan, Northern Shaolin). The argument went that it was ultimately the Central Guoshu Association, and their program to promote national unity through martial arts training, that should receive the credit for disseminating these styles to the south.

This particular assertion was made much too quickly, and the author was speedily on to other topics. Still, I think it would be worth our time to go back and parse these events more carefully. Guoshu, as both a term, idea and a historical movement, seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance at the moment.  Speculation as to why this is, and what it ultimately suggests about contemporary Chinese martial arts culture, will need to wait for a separate blog post. Yet, at least in the case of Southern China, it is interesting to note that many of the organization’s greatest contributions to martial culture are rooted in its institutional failures, rather than success.  The following meditation on these questions is based largely on research conducted for my co-authored volume (with Jon Nielson) on the social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts. If you are interested in chasing down a more complete account of Guoshu in the Pearl River Delta (or my footnotes) take a look at chapter three.

In a certain sense the prior assertion by the unnamed author is absolutely correct.  Even if the Jingwu Association whetted the public’s appetite, the Guoshu movement was directly responsible for the export of many important styles and lineages to the south. Still, if we succumb to a type of easy romanticism about this process, we risk misunderstanding both the nature of the Southern Chinese martial culture and the severity of the challenge that it posed to a program consciously designed to displace regional traditions with a more universal set of practices and identities. Yes, national reformers were able to use the martial arts to shape debates about what the “New China” should be.  Yet local society could also turn to these practices in launching their own broadsides against outside forces.

 

 

 

A group photo of organizers and athletes at the 1928 National Guoshu Examination.

 

A Governor Goes North

The first common misconception that casual readers might have is that the Guoshu organization was truly national in scope. Andrew Morris has noted that the movement’s pretensions to universality and sectoral dominance never materialized in real life.  Indeed, it would have been practically impossible for any organization to fully integrate itself into Chinese life, in both the city and the countryside, in only a few years during the turbulent 1930s. China was just too large and complex for this to happen.  Further, many of the specific challenges that Guoshu faced stemmed from the group’s unapologetically partisan nature.

Unlike the Jingwu Association, the Central Guoshu Institute was not dedicated to vague notions of Chinese nationalism.  Its goals were much more statist in orientation. While encouraging patriotism was important, the group received enthusiastic government backing as it also sought to indoctrinate its practitioners with loyalty to the KMT, and to Chiang Kai-shek in particular. This became an issue as, his victory in the Northern Campaign notwithstanding, not all of the KMT’s notoriously independent cliques and generals were equally enthusiastic about aligning themselves with Chiang and his program.  As such, many regions of China actually resisted the spread of the Guoshu.  Or, to be more precise, while they may have enthusiastically embraced the name Guoshu, and certain philosophical notions about national strengthening through the reform of the martial arts, they were not about to turn local “paramilitary” assets over to Chiang and his allies.

Morris asks us to consider the case of Shanxi Province in the 1930s.  Long a stronghold of traditional boxing, readers may be surprised to learn that it had no official Guoshu chapter.  This fact may not at first be evident.  The province actually boasted over 500 registered martial arts societies in the 1930s, and many of them using the term Guoshu in their names (evidence of the fashionable nature of the word).  Yet the entire area was administered by the independent warlord Yan Xishan who carefully avoided any contact with a program that was (quite correctly) perceived as a tool of Chaing Kai-shek’s close backers.

A very similar pattern could be seen in Fujian and Guangdong.  Both provinces were formally administered by the KMT, yet in the post-1927 era their leadership was sometimes protective of their local autonomy.  This institutional weakness within the KMT impeded the expansive vision of the Guoshu Institute.

That is not to say that the new movement didn’t have important allies.  In October of 1928, General Li Jinshen (governor of Guangdong and an important military figure at the time) visited the first national martial arts examination hosted by the newly organized Central Guoshu Institute in Nanjing. He was so impressed with what he saw that he decided to commit substantial resources to promoting the Guoshu program in Guangxi and Guangdong.  He invited Wan Lai Sheng (a Six Harmonies and Shaolin Master) and Li Xian Wu (Taijiquan and a native of Guangdong), to return with him to Guangzhou.

Li quickly drew up plans that were approved by the local government. Wan Lai Sheng was formally appointed the head of the new provincial organization by General Li’s Eighth Army. Given the ambitious nature of Li’s plans, Wan then went about recruiting a number of high-profile instructors.  These included Fu Zhensong, Li Xian Wu, Wan Laimin and Gu Ru Zhang (who many readers will already be familiar with).  Gu would go on to become the central figure in the promotion of Bak Shaolin (Northern Shaolin) in Guangdong province.  These instructors, and Wan, were known in the press as the “The Five Southbound Tigers.”

Li’s Lianguang Guoshu Institute first opened its doors in March of 1929, hosting three sets of two-hour classes a day.  The organization had an initial enrollment of 140 students, which quickly increased to close to 500.  Still, a closer examination revealed something odd. Rather than filling its ranks with local martial artists looking to get on board with the new national program, almost all of these students were low ranking civil service personal. Still, there was enough “official” demand to both expand the class structure and to begin to offer off-campus instruction at any business or office which could meet the financial requirements and guarantee at least 20 students.  Chinese sources note that, once again, it was government offices that dominated the off-campus study program.

Despite these initial struggles to penetrate the local martial arts sub-culture, or perhaps because of them, Governor Li pressed ahead with an ambitious agenda for the Lianguang Guoshu Institute.  This was aided through the efforts of the local government.  First, an ordinance was passed mandating registration and licensing of all martial arts organizations or schools in the province.  Second, the creation of any new martial arts school or organization not administered by the institute’s (mostly Northern) staff was banned. Finally, money was set aside for the creation of a regional publication dedicated to advancing the nationalist and pro-KMT “Guoshu philosophy.”

Backed by the full might of the Eighth Army, the provincial government, and an enthusiastic governor, such a set of reforms could have had stifled Southern China’s vibrant martial culture. Indeed, that seems to have been precisely the goal of their effort.  General Li Jishen was quite sincere in his desire to bring the local martial arts community to heel, effectively transforming it into a tool to be exploited by the state. While it remains unclear to me whether these sorts of orders could have been enforced in the countryside, their impact on urban Choy Li Fut or Hung Gar schools would have been disastrous.  Deep pools of local knowledge and experience were about to be sacrificed on the altars of “national unity.”

It is interesting to speculate on whether, and how successfully, the local martial arts sector would have resisted these efforts.  Fortunately, historians have no answer to that question as Li’s ambitious plans fell apart almost immediately. Indeed, the great weakness of Guoshu’s rapid expansion was that its success depended not so much on popular demand as the political calculations of often unpredictable leaders.

In May of 1929, General Li Jishen took the spectacular step of resigning as governor and traveling to Nanjing with the intention of mediating a truce between Chiang Kai-shek and the “New Guangxi Clique.”  This was, to say the least, a serious strategic miscalculation.  Negotiations went badly and Chiang (quite predictably) was furious. He had General Li arrested and held until his eventual release in 1931, after which he drifted towards the Communist Party. This left Guangdong in need of a new governor. They received one in the form of Chen Jitang, who is still remembered for his social reforms (the creation of a very basic social safety net) and building programs (he paved the streets of Guangzhou).

One of Chen’s first acts upon taking office was to disband the Guoshu Institute. It is likely that Chen saw this organization as a potential political threat. After all, he did not create it, and many of the individuals within it were loyal to his predecessor. It is also likely that Chen did not want to be that closely associated with a group that was so much under of the influence of Chiang’s most ardent supporters. Whatever the actual reason, budget concerns were cited as the precipitating factor.  With a total budget of 4,500 Yuan a month, the Institute was a notable undertaking. But that figure hardly seems outrageous given Li’s expansive vision for the organization.  All told the Lianguang Guoshu Institute closed its doors after only two months, and without making any progress towards its ambitious goals.

That is where its story ends.  The initial attempts to establish Guoshu in Guangzhou immediately fell victim to internal politics within the KMT. In retrospect it is almost too predictable.

All of which is great, because what happened next had an actual shaping effect on the development of Southern martial culture. The surprising collapse of the Lianguang Institute left a number of extremely talented Northern martial arts exponents unemployed (and more or less stranded) in Guangzhou.  This seeming setback created new opportunities that spread the Northern arts more effectively than anything that Li had envisioned.  After all, most of the instruction that had been provided in these initial months was directed at a relatively small group of government employees.  Chen’s forced dissolution of the organization allowed its instructors to enter into a much broader (and truly competitive) marketplace for martial arts instruction. It was within these smaller commercial schools that arts such as Bak Siu Lam and Taijiquan really took off and came to be accepted by the general public.

Following the breakup of the Guoshu Institute, Li Xian Wu was hired by the Guangdong branch of the Jingwu Assocation as its new director of academic affairs. He later published a well-known guide to taijiquan. Gu Ru Zhang proved to be among the most influential of the remaining staff. Attempting to capitalize on the work that was already accomplished, he sought to create the Guangzhou Guoshu Institute (formally established in June of 1929).  Gu was selected as its president, Wang Shaozhou was named its vice president and Re Shen Ku, Li Jing Chun and Yang Ting Xia (the wife of Wang), were all hired as instructors.

This new, smaller, organization enjoyed a measure of official backing and was housed in the National Athletic Association building on Hui Fu East Road in Guangzhou.  That said, the new institute never subscribed to the grandiose policy objectives of its predecessors. Rather than regulating Southern China’s martial arts sector, it essentially entered the economic marketplace as one school among many.

And as fate would have it, Gu’s new efforts found some real success. In 1936 the Guangdong Province Athletic Association sponsored a martial arts exhibition at the Guangzhou Public Stadium.  Gu’s Guangzhou Guoshu Institute performed for an enthusiastic crowd and received an award from the local government.  Still, like most of the other local martial arts organizations it was forced to shut its doors in 1938 during the Japanese occupation. Yet it was due to the more private efforts of Gu and his fellow instructors, rather than the grandiose machinations of General Li, that the Northern arts established long lasting schools and lineages in Southern China.  They did so by entering the marketplace and providing a good that consumers actually wanted.

 

An image of a now famous postcard that Gu Ruzhang sent to his students.

 

 

Martial Arts and the Weakness of “Established Churches”

It would be impossible to tell the story of China’s twentieth century martial arts without carefully reviewing the political opportunities, alliances and entanglements that presented themselves in each era.  Still, as we review this material it quickly becomes evident that political sponsorship is a double-edged sword.  More than one martial arts organization was destroyed by the capricious winds of change blowing through China’s political history.  Political alliances proved to be a pathway to rapid growth, but also rapid obsolesce.

Leaders have repeatedly sought to use the martial arts as one element of larger campaigns to shape society more to their liking.  In the short-run this creates funding and promotional opportunities. But it also creates martial arts institutions that are more responsive to the demands of political elites than the public who must actually attend classes and pay their sifu’s rent.  Such a bargain is rarely good for the martial arts in the long-run as it prevents them from establishing the type of relationship with consumers that is necessary to survive periods of rapid social change.

The story of the Lianguang Guoshu Institute offers a critical insight into the strengths and weaknesses of “established” martial arts (to borrow a term of religious studies.) As a government backed institution, the only students it seemed capable of recruiting were individuals already dependent on the governor for their paychecks. Yet when its instructors were released into the competitive marketplace, they created popular schools and practices that quickly spread the northern styles across southern China. That has had a lasting impact on Guangdong’s martial culture.

 

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If you want to delve deeper into these questions check out: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches”

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2018 Christmas Shopping List: Martial Arts Equipment and Long Reads to Get You Through the Winter Months

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Bernard the Kung Fu Elf riding Shotgun with Santa. (Source: Vintage American Postcard, authors personal collection.)

 

I am not going to lie. The annual Christmas list is my favorite post of the year. So welcome to Kung Fu Tea’s seventh annual holiday shopping list!  Not only are we going to find some cool gift ideas, but hopefully this post will inspire you to make time for martial arts practice during the festive season.  Training is a great way to deal with the various stresses that holidays always bring.  And Christmas is the perfect excuse to stock up on that gear that you have been needing all year.

This year’s shopping list is split into four categories: books, training equipment, weapons, and (for the first time) “gifts for the martial artist who has everything”. This last category will focus on experiences rather than objects. I have tried to select items at a variety of price points for each category. Some of the gift ideas are quite reasonable while others are admittedly aspirational. After all, Christmas is a time for dreams, so why not dream big!

Given the emphasis of this blog, many of these ideas pertain to the Chinese martial arts, but I do try to branch out in places. I have also put at least one Wing Chun related item in each category. Nevertheless, with a little work many of these ideas could be adapted to fit the interests of just about any martial artist.

As a disclaimer I should point out that I have no financial relationship with any of the firms listed below (except for the part where I plug my own book). This is simply a list of gift ideas that I thought were interesting. It is not an endorsement or a formal product review. Lastly, I would like to thank my friend Bernard the “Kung Fu Elf” (see above) for helping me to brainstorm this list.

 

 

 

 

Books to Feed You Head

This has been a good year for books. Nowhere is the growth of martial arts studies more evident than in the explosion of new publications.  Things have been so busy this year that I have been forced to restrict myself to new releases. Still, the first item on this list is both reasonably priced and outstanding reading….

 

Martial Arts Studies Reader. Edited by Paul Bowman ($38 USD)

The Martial Arts Studies Reader answers this need, by bringing together pioneers of the field and scholars at its cutting edges to offer authoritative and accessible insights into its key concerns and areas. Each chapter introduces and sets out an approach to and a route through a key issue in a specific area of martial arts studies. Taken together or in isolation, the chapters offer stimulating and exciting insights into this fascinating research area. In this way, The Martial Arts Studies Reader offers the first authoritative field-defining overview of the global and multidisciplinary phenomena of martial arts and martial arts studies.

 

Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts by Lu Zhouxiang ($78 USD HC Routledge)

Chinese martial arts is considered by many to symbolise the strength of the Chinese and their pride in their history, and has long been regarded as an important element of Chinese culture and national identity. Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts comprehensively examines the development of Chinese martial arts in the context of history and politics, and highlights its role in nation building and identity construction over the past two centuries. ?

This book explores how the development of Chinese martial arts was influenced by the ruling regimes’ political and military policies, as well as the social and economic environment. It also discusses the transformation of Chinese martial arts into its modern form as a competitive sport, a sport for all and a performing art, considering the effect of the rapid transformation of Chinese society in the 20th century and the influence of Western sports. The text concludes by examining the current prominence of Chinese martial arts on a global scale and the bright future of the sport as a unique cultural icon and national symbol of China in an era of globalisation.

You can find my review of this book here.  While I am a bit disappointed that the author failed to engage with the recent English language scholarship on the Chinese martial arts, this book is sure to show up in many future bibliographies.

 

 

Now for something a little lighter (err, easier to read…at 500 pages this book is actually quite heavy…)

Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly (paperback $18 USD)

The most authoritative biography—featuring dozens of rarely seen photographs—of film legend Bruce Lee, who made martial arts a global phenomenon, bridged the divide between Eastern and Western cultures, and smashed long-held stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans.

Forty-five years after Bruce Lee’s sudden death at age thirty-two, journalist and bestselling author Matthew Polly has written the definitive account of Lee’s life. It’s also one of the only accounts; incredibly, there has never been an authoritative biography of Lee. Following a decade of research that included conducting more than one hundred interviews with Lee’s family, friends, business associates, and even the actress in whose bed Lee died, Polly has constructed a complex, humane portrait of the icon.

Polly explores Lee’s early years as a child star in Hong Kong cinema; his actor father’s struggles with opium addiction and how that turned Bruce into a troublemaking teenager who was kicked out of high school and eventually sent to America to shape up; his beginnings as a martial arts teacher, eventually becoming personal instructor to movie stars like James Coburn and Steve McQueen; his struggles as an Asian-American actor in Hollywood and frustration seeing role after role he auditioned for go to a white actors in eye makeup; his eventual triumph as a leading man; his challenges juggling a sky-rocketing career with his duties as a father and husband; and his shocking end that to this day is still shrouded in mystery.

Polly breaks down the myths surrounding Bruce Lee and argues that, contrary to popular belief, he was an ambitious actor who was obsessed with the martial arts—not a kung-fu guru who just so happened to make a couple of movies. This is an honest, revealing look at an impressive yet imperfect man whose personal story was even more entertaining and inspiring than any fictional role he played onscreen.

You can find my interview with Polly where he got into a more detailed discussion about researching a book like this one here.

 

 

 

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts  by Raul Sanchez Garcia ($43 USD Kindle)

 

This is the first long-term analysis of the development of Japanese martial arts, connecting ancient martial traditions with the martial arts practised today. The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts captures the complexity of the emergence and development of martial traditions within the broader Japanese Civilising Process.

The book traces the structured process in which warriors’ practices became systematised and expanded to the Japanese population and the world. Using the theoretical framework of Norbert Elias’s process-sociology and drawing on rich empirical data, the book also compares the development of combat practices in Japan, England, France and Germany, making a new contribution to our understanding of the socio-cultural dynamics of state formation. Throughout this analysis light is shed onto a gender blind spot, taking into account the neglected role of women in martial arts.

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts is important reading for students of Socio-Cultural Perspectives in Sport, Sociology of Physical Activity, Historical Development of Sport in Society, Asian Studies, Sociology and Philosophy of Sport, and Sports History and Culture. It is also a fascinating resource for scholars, researchers and practitioners interested in the historical and socio-cultural aspects of combat sport and martial arts.

Sound interesting?  You can read the first chapter of this book here.

 

 

Embodying Brazil: An ethnography of diasporic capoeira ($ 49.95 USD Paperback) by Sara Delamont, Neil Stephens, Claudio Campos.

The practice of capoeira, the Brazilian dance-fight-game, has grown rapidly in recent years. It has become a popular leisure activity in many cultures, as well as a career for Brazilians in countries across the world including the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. This original ethnographic study draws on the latest research conducted on capoeira in the UK to understand this global phenomenon. It not only presents an in-depth investigation of the martial art, but also provides a wealth of data on masculinities, performativity, embodiment, globalisation and rites of passage.

Centred in cultural sociology, while drawing on anthropology and the sociology of sport and dance, the book explores the experiences of those learning and teaching capoeira at a variety of levels. From beginners’ first encounters with this martial art to the perspectives of more advanced students, it also sheds light on how teachers experience their own re-enculturation as they embody the exotic ‘other’.

Embodying Brazil: An Ethnography of Diasporic Capoeira is fascinating reading for all capoeira enthusiasts, as well as for anyone interested in the sociology of sport, sport and social theory, sport, race and ethnicity, or Latin-American Studies.

 

Still don’t see what you are looking for?  I have heard about this great book on the history of Wing Chun and the Southern Chinese martial arts (now out in paperback, $25 USD)….

 

 

 

 

Training Gear

Five Photos Brand Dit Da Jow ($20 for 7.5 ounces)

You don’t need very much gear to practice the Chinese martial arts.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to have a couple of things on hand, particularly when you start to get bruised up from partner work or dummy drills.  While researching the history of a prominent family of martial arts practicing pharmacists in Foshan I came across the story of this particular brand of Dit Da Jow.  I should probably dig some of that research out of my notes and turn it into an essay. But ever since then, I have kept a bottle of it around.  You can usually find this brand at your local Chinese pharmacy, or even a good sized grocery story.  Barring that, you can always just order it from Amazon.

 

 

 

Flexzion Kicking Strike Shield ($18 USD)

This style of striking pad that was popularized in Muay Thai training, but I use it all the time in my Wing Chun practice.  Honestly, I can’t think of the (striking) school that couldn’t use a few more pairs of these.  Best of all, the size is always right!  The perfect inexpensive gift for the Sifu in your life.

 

 

The perfect sword/HEMA gear bag ($150 USD)

Having the right gear is good.  But having the perfect bag to haul it all around in is (as they say) priceless.  That is particularly true if the gear you are hauling is heavy, awkwardly shaped, or likely to freak people out if you were just walk down the sidewalk with it on your shoulder. These bags can be pricey at $150.  But after having destroyed a few lower quality, non-purpose built bags over the last year, I am gaining a renewed appreciation for how easy a good gear bag can make life. Particularly when swords and lightsabers are involved.

 

 

Hayabusa T3 Kanpeki 7oz Hybrid Kickboxing MMA Gloves ($129 USD)

Everyone seems to be talking about bringing more competitive style sparring into traditional Chinese martial arts training.  And that means thinking about the right gear.  I like my Hayabusa boxing gloves, but something like this might be great for those who want a little more dexterity for grabs, laups and paks.

 

 

A set of wooden dummy arms and legs ($333 USD, but totally worth it)

And now for some “affordable” luxury.  In the last couple of years a number of my kung fu brothers have bought (or switched to) iron body training dummies. These are a lot cheaper than nicely made wooden dummies, and they can easily be stuck in the corner of room that might not otherwise accommodate a hanging dummy (which I still think is the way to go if you have a chance).  But while the quality of the Jong’s body and base is often great, I have noticed several (and I mean lots) of complaints about broken legs and rough workmanship on the arms.  Lets face it, these are the parts of the dummy that we actually come into contact with the most frequently.  So why not upgrade that part of your Jong to something a little more reliable and nicer to the touch?

 

 

 

 

 

Weapons

Hanwei Practical Tai Chi Sword ($120 USD)

At $120, is this the perfect jian for basic skills training and forms work?  I have had a couple of longtime practitioners make that argument recently, based not just on the price point but the weight of this sword.  Given my continuing exploration of Wudang Jian, I have a feeling that this is one item that might be making its way onto my personal shopping list.

 

 

 

Purpleheart Armory Dadao Trainer ($45.99 USD)

There is no denying that the dadao is hot.  I am seeing lots of interest in this weapon.  The social scientist in me thinks that we need to take a step back and ponder what this all means.  But my more practical side just wants to grab one of these trainers and work on some sword vs. bayonet drills. This particular trainer is available with either a disk or “S” guard.  Also check out Purpleheart’s nylon jian trainers.

 

 

 

Kris Cutlery Wood Training Knives ($25 USD)

Yeah, rubber is always a safer option for partner drills, but these trainers, made of ebony are really beautiful. At $25 I just can’t say no.

 

 

Antique late 19th(early 20th) century Nepalese Kukri ($99 USD)

If you would prefer a sharper (and more historically/ethnographically significant) knife at a decent price point, why not consider an antique Nepalese military kukri. I have been collecting these for years, and have always found it ironic that the originals are so cheap compared to the latter British and Indian copies that were mass produced during the World Wars.  Once you get your kukri be sure to check out this guide and discover your knife’s history.

 

 

Handmade, traditional style, butterfly sword from the Philippines. ($350 USD).

There are lots of high quality butterfly swords out there, but I have been partial to these as their slim construction is much closer to most of the antiques that have survived than the sorts of “chopping” swords which became more popular after the early 20th century. And lets be honest, nothing say’s “Christmas” to the Wing Chun student/instructor in your life more than discovering a set of these in their stocking.

 

 

 

 

 

For the Martial Artist Who Has Everything….

 

I have long believed that many people are attracted to the martial arts as a type of virtual tourism. By practicing these arts we find a way to visit, contemplate and experience aspects of a time or place that we might not otherwise be able to visit.  That is an important point to stress as survey data suggest that increasingly consumers value unique experiences more than the acquisition of objects.  As such, the last section of our holiday list provides a different take on what the martial arts have to offer.

Lets begin with a destination that one can only visit through martial arts training. Have you (or the Star Wars fan in your life) ever wanted to learn to wield an elegant weapon from a more civilized age?  If so, consider joining the Terra Prime Light Armory.  Its a free, open-source, lightsaber academy run by experienced martial artists (mostly Kung Fu/Taijiaqan guys, but you will find some other stuff in there as well).  If there is a brick and mortar club in your area they will be more than happy to point you in the right direction, and if not they offer an extensive database of on-line learning tools with individualized feedback mechanisms.  Best of all, a voyage with the “Learners in Exile Corps” will not cost you a thing as these guys are in it for the love of the game.  Sometimes the best things in life really are free!

 

 

 

No matter what aspect of the martial arts, and their interaction with popular culture, you are interested in, you are likely to find it at Combat Con.  Held annually in Las Vegas (August 1-4, 2019), this event is unique in that it brings together a wide range of armed and unarmed martial arts instructors, while also hosting a variety of tournaments, performances, workshops for writers and game developers, cosplay contests and yes, even a full contact lightsaber tournament ($15 entrance feee).  So if you are a social scientist who studies the martial arts in the modern world, the only question you have to ask yourself is why aren’t you already planning on going?

Its hard to estimate the cost of this one.  Obviously you will need to fly to Vegas in August (which, in all honesty, is not the best time of year to visit this desert oasis).  The public can visit the event for free, but if you want to do all of the workshops, tournaments and events you will probably end up paying in the $200-$300 range.

 

 

Left to Right: Doug Farrer, Scott Phillips, Paul Bowman at the Farewell Dinner of the 2015 Martial Arts Studies Conference in Cardiff.

 

 

For the more academically inclined, why not give the gift of a conference registration to the inaugural North American session of the annual Martial Arts Studies meetings?  These will be held May 23-24, 2019, at Chapman University in sunny California.  Best of all, the registration is free if you email the conference organizers in advance and ask for tickets (click the link for details).

Its not hard to find cheap plane tickets to LA, and this is the premier event of the Martial Arts Studies community.  I can’t say enough about how much I have enjoyed these meetings over the years. The sense of community is really unlike anything I have ever seen at a conference before. An advanced registration would make the perfect gift for either yourself or the erudite warrior/scholar in your life.

 

A still from Come Drink With Me. Classic martial arts cinema at its best.

 

How about visiting a martial arts film festival in a destination city in 2019?  Most major cities host one or more Asian film festivals a year. These are often a great place to see new and classic martial arts films, and if you are lucky you might find a festival dedicated just to classic Kung Fu films.  We are still a little early in the year to have confirmed dates (these events are generally announced a month or two in advance), but New York City is a great destination for these sorts of festivals.  And if you are going to be in Manhattan in June or July, there is an excellent chance you will find something you are interested in at the 2019 Asian Film Festival hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  But keep an eye out as you can often find smaller film festivals in a city near you!

 

 

Study with Master Li Quan (teaching Emei Style Southern Kung Fu and Wing Chun) in Chengdu, one of the most beautiful cities in China.

This is the part of the list where we dream big.  It goes without saying that China is full of places where you can spend a few months studying the martial art of your choice (including Wing Chun).  I selected this school as Chengdu is on my bucket list of places to stay for a few months, and one of my friends studied with Master Li for years when he lived in the area as a journalist.  This would be a very authentic/rustic experience, rather than the sort of school catering to the “glampers” out there.  And Chengdu has a great martial arts history that needs more exploration in the English language literature.

Prices for extended live-in training start at just under $1000 USD (not including airfare).  Of course the real cost of this this sort of “Kung Fu Pilgrimage” is taking a few months off from work.  But this is the stuff that dreams are made of!

That is it for this year’s Christmas shopping list.  If you have other suggestions for items that might be of interest to the Kung Fu Tea  community tell us in the comments!

 

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Need more gift recommendations?  Why not check out some of the previous lists?

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2018 Christmas Shopping List: Martial Arts Equipment and Long Reads to Get You Through the Winter Months

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Bernard the Kung Fu Elf riding Shotgun with Santa. (Source: Vintage American Postcard, authors personal collection.)

 

I am not going to lie. The annual Christmas list is my favorite post of the year. So welcome to Kung Fu Tea’s seventh annual holiday shopping list!  Not only are we going to find some cool gift ideas, but hopefully this post will inspire you to make time for martial arts practice during the festive season.  Training is a great way to deal with the various stresses that holidays always bring.  And Christmas is the perfect excuse to stock up on that gear that you have been needing all year.

This year’s shopping list is split into four categories: books, training equipment, weapons, and (for the first time) “gifts for the martial artist who has everything”. This last category will focus on experiences rather than objects. I have tried to select items at a variety of price points for each category. Some of the gift ideas are quite reasonable while others are admittedly aspirational. After all, Christmas is a time for dreams, so why not dream big!

Given the emphasis of this blog, many of these ideas pertain to the Chinese martial arts, but I do try to branch out in places. I have also put at least one Wing Chun related item in each category. Nevertheless, with a little work many of these ideas could be adapted to fit the interests of just about any martial artist.

As a disclaimer I should point out that I have no financial relationship with any of the firms listed below (except for the part where I plug my own book). This is simply a list of gift ideas that I thought were interesting. It is not an endorsement or a formal product review. Lastly, I would like to thank my friend Bernard the “Kung Fu Elf” (see above) for helping me to brainstorm this list.

 

 

 

 

Books to Feed You Head

This has been a good year for books. Nowhere is the growth of martial arts studies more evident than in the explosion of new publications.  Things have been so busy this year that I have been forced to restrict myself to new releases. Still, the first item on this list is both reasonably priced and outstanding reading….

 

Martial Arts Studies Reader. Edited by Paul Bowman ($38 USD)

The Martial Arts Studies Reader answers this need, by bringing together pioneers of the field and scholars at its cutting edges to offer authoritative and accessible insights into its key concerns and areas. Each chapter introduces and sets out an approach to and a route through a key issue in a specific area of martial arts studies. Taken together or in isolation, the chapters offer stimulating and exciting insights into this fascinating research area. In this way, The Martial Arts Studies Reader offers the first authoritative field-defining overview of the global and multidisciplinary phenomena of martial arts and martial arts studies.

 

Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts by Lu Zhouxiang ($78 USD HC Routledge)

Chinese martial arts is considered by many to symbolise the strength of the Chinese and their pride in their history, and has long been regarded as an important element of Chinese culture and national identity. Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts comprehensively examines the development of Chinese martial arts in the context of history and politics, and highlights its role in nation building and identity construction over the past two centuries. ?

This book explores how the development of Chinese martial arts was influenced by the ruling regimes’ political and military policies, as well as the social and economic environment. It also discusses the transformation of Chinese martial arts into its modern form as a competitive sport, a sport for all and a performing art, considering the effect of the rapid transformation of Chinese society in the 20th century and the influence of Western sports. The text concludes by examining the current prominence of Chinese martial arts on a global scale and the bright future of the sport as a unique cultural icon and national symbol of China in an era of globalisation.

You can find my review of this book here.  While I am a bit disappointed that the author failed to engage with the recent English language scholarship on the Chinese martial arts, this book is sure to show up in many future bibliographies.

 

 

Now for something a little lighter (err, easier to read…at 500 pages this book is actually quite heavy…)

Bruce Lee: A Life by Matthew Polly (paperback $18 USD)

The most authoritative biography—featuring dozens of rarely seen photographs—of film legend Bruce Lee, who made martial arts a global phenomenon, bridged the divide between Eastern and Western cultures, and smashed long-held stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans.

Forty-five years after Bruce Lee’s sudden death at age thirty-two, journalist and bestselling author Matthew Polly has written the definitive account of Lee’s life. It’s also one of the only accounts; incredibly, there has never been an authoritative biography of Lee. Following a decade of research that included conducting more than one hundred interviews with Lee’s family, friends, business associates, and even the actress in whose bed Lee died, Polly has constructed a complex, humane portrait of the icon.

Polly explores Lee’s early years as a child star in Hong Kong cinema; his actor father’s struggles with opium addiction and how that turned Bruce into a troublemaking teenager who was kicked out of high school and eventually sent to America to shape up; his beginnings as a martial arts teacher, eventually becoming personal instructor to movie stars like James Coburn and Steve McQueen; his struggles as an Asian-American actor in Hollywood and frustration seeing role after role he auditioned for go to a white actors in eye makeup; his eventual triumph as a leading man; his challenges juggling a sky-rocketing career with his duties as a father and husband; and his shocking end that to this day is still shrouded in mystery.

Polly breaks down the myths surrounding Bruce Lee and argues that, contrary to popular belief, he was an ambitious actor who was obsessed with the martial arts—not a kung-fu guru who just so happened to make a couple of movies. This is an honest, revealing look at an impressive yet imperfect man whose personal story was even more entertaining and inspiring than any fictional role he played onscreen.

You can find my interview with Polly where he got into a more detailed discussion about researching a book like this one here.

 

 

 

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts  by Raul Sanchez Garcia ($43 USD Kindle)

 

This is the first long-term analysis of the development of Japanese martial arts, connecting ancient martial traditions with the martial arts practised today. The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts captures the complexity of the emergence and development of martial traditions within the broader Japanese Civilising Process.

The book traces the structured process in which warriors’ practices became systematised and expanded to the Japanese population and the world. Using the theoretical framework of Norbert Elias’s process-sociology and drawing on rich empirical data, the book also compares the development of combat practices in Japan, England, France and Germany, making a new contribution to our understanding of the socio-cultural dynamics of state formation. Throughout this analysis light is shed onto a gender blind spot, taking into account the neglected role of women in martial arts.

The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts is important reading for students of Socio-Cultural Perspectives in Sport, Sociology of Physical Activity, Historical Development of Sport in Society, Asian Studies, Sociology and Philosophy of Sport, and Sports History and Culture. It is also a fascinating resource for scholars, researchers and practitioners interested in the historical and socio-cultural aspects of combat sport and martial arts.

Sound interesting?  You can read the first chapter of this book here.

 

 

Embodying Brazil: An ethnography of diasporic capoeira ($ 49.95 USD Paperback) by Sara Delamont, Neil Stephens, Claudio Campos.

The practice of capoeira, the Brazilian dance-fight-game, has grown rapidly in recent years. It has become a popular leisure activity in many cultures, as well as a career for Brazilians in countries across the world including the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. This original ethnographic study draws on the latest research conducted on capoeira in the UK to understand this global phenomenon. It not only presents an in-depth investigation of the martial art, but also provides a wealth of data on masculinities, performativity, embodiment, globalisation and rites of passage.

Centred in cultural sociology, while drawing on anthropology and the sociology of sport and dance, the book explores the experiences of those learning and teaching capoeira at a variety of levels. From beginners’ first encounters with this martial art to the perspectives of more advanced students, it also sheds light on how teachers experience their own re-enculturation as they embody the exotic ‘other’.

Embodying Brazil: An Ethnography of Diasporic Capoeira is fascinating reading for all capoeira enthusiasts, as well as for anyone interested in the sociology of sport, sport and social theory, sport, race and ethnicity, or Latin-American Studies.

 

Still don’t see what you are looking for?  I have heard about this great book on the history of Wing Chun and the Southern Chinese martial arts (now out in paperback, $25 USD)….

 

 

 

 

Training Gear

Five Photos Brand Dit Da Jow ($20 for 7.5 ounces)

You don’t need very much gear to practice the Chinese martial arts.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t nice to have a couple of things on hand, particularly when you start to get bruised up from partner work or dummy drills.  While researching the history of a prominent family of martial arts practicing pharmacists in Foshan I came across the story of this particular brand of Dit Da Jow.  I should probably dig some of that research out of my notes and turn it into an essay. But ever since then, I have kept a bottle of it around.  You can usually find this brand at your local Chinese pharmacy, or even a good sized grocery story.  Barring that, you can always just order it from Amazon.

 

 

 

Flexzion Kicking Strike Shield ($18 USD)

This style of striking pad that was popularized in Muay Thai training, but I use it all the time in my Wing Chun practice.  Honestly, I can’t think of the (striking) school that couldn’t use a few more pairs of these.  Best of all, the size is always right!  The perfect inexpensive gift for the Sifu in your life.

 

 

The perfect sword/HEMA gear bag ($150 USD)

Having the right gear is good.  But having the perfect bag to haul it all around in is (as they say) priceless.  That is particularly true if the gear you are hauling is heavy, awkwardly shaped, or likely to freak people out if you were just walk down the sidewalk with it on your shoulder. These bags can be pricey at $150.  But after having destroyed a few lower quality, non-purpose built bags over the last year, I am gaining a renewed appreciation for how easy a good gear bag can make life. Particularly when swords and lightsabers are involved.

 

 

Hayabusa T3 Kanpeki 7oz Hybrid Kickboxing MMA Gloves ($129 USD)

Everyone seems to be talking about bringing more competitive style sparring into traditional Chinese martial arts training.  And that means thinking about the right gear.  I like my Hayabusa boxing gloves, but something like this might be great for those who want a little more dexterity for grabs, laups and paks.

 

 

A set of wooden dummy arms and legs ($333 USD, but totally worth it)

And now for some “affordable” luxury.  In the last couple of years a number of my kung fu brothers have bought (or switched to) iron body training dummies. These are a lot cheaper than nicely made wooden dummies, and they can easily be stuck in the corner of room that might not otherwise accommodate a hanging dummy (which I still think is the way to go if you have a chance).  But while the quality of the Jong’s body and base is often great, I have noticed several (and I mean lots) of complaints about broken legs and rough workmanship on the arms.  Lets face it, these are the parts of the dummy that we actually come into contact with the most frequently.  So why not upgrade that part of your Jong to something a little more reliable and nicer to the touch?

 

 

 

 

 

Weapons

Hanwei Practical Tai Chi Sword ($120 USD)

At $120, is this the perfect jian for basic skills training and forms work?  I have had a couple of longtime practitioners make that argument recently, based not just on the price point but the weight of this sword.  Given my continuing exploration of Wudang Jian, I have a feeling that this is one item that might be making its way onto my personal shopping list.

 

 

 

Purpleheart Armory Dadao Trainer ($45.99 USD)

There is no denying that the dadao is hot.  I am seeing lots of interest in this weapon.  The social scientist in me thinks that we need to take a step back and ponder what this all means.  But my more practical side just wants to grab one of these trainers and work on some sword vs. bayonet drills. This particular trainer is available with either a disk or “S” guard.  Also check out Purpleheart’s nylon jian trainers.

 

 

 

Kris Cutlery Wood Training Knives ($25 USD)

Yeah, rubber is always a safer option for partner drills, but these trainers, made of ebony are really beautiful. At $25 I just can’t say no.

 

 

Antique late 19th(early 20th) century Nepalese Kukri ($99 USD)

If you would prefer a sharper (and more historically/ethnographically significant) knife at a decent price point, why not consider an antique Nepalese military kukri. I have been collecting these for years, and have always found it ironic that the originals are so cheap compared to the latter British and Indian copies that were mass produced during the World Wars.  Once you get your kukri be sure to check out this guide and discover your knife’s history.

 

 

Handmade, traditional style, butterfly sword from the Philippines. ($350 USD).

There are lots of high quality butterfly swords out there, but I have been partial to these as their slim construction is much closer to most of the antiques that have survived than the sorts of “chopping” swords which became more popular after the early 20th century. And lets be honest, nothing say’s “Christmas” to the Wing Chun student/instructor in your life more than discovering a set of these in their stocking.

 

 

 

 

 

For the Martial Artist Who Has Everything….

 

I have long believed that many people are attracted to the martial arts as a type of virtual tourism. By practicing these arts we find a way to visit, contemplate and experience aspects of a time or place that we might not otherwise be able to visit.  That is an important point to stress as survey data suggest that increasingly consumers value unique experiences more than the acquisition of objects.  As such, the last section of our holiday list provides a different take on what the martial arts have to offer.

Lets begin with a destination that one can only visit through martial arts training. Have you (or the Star Wars fan in your life) ever wanted to learn to wield an elegant weapon from a more civilized age?  If so, consider joining the Terra Prime Light Armory.  Its a free, open-source, lightsaber academy run by experienced martial artists (mostly Kung Fu/Taijiaqan guys, but you will find some other stuff in there as well).  If there is a brick and mortar club in your area they will be more than happy to point you in the right direction, and if not they offer an extensive database of on-line learning tools with individualized feedback mechanisms.  Best of all, a voyage with the “Learners in Exile Corps” will not cost you a thing as these guys are in it for the love of the game.  Sometimes the best things in life really are free!

 

 

 

No matter what aspect of the martial arts, and their interaction with popular culture, you are interested in, you are likely to find it at Combat Con.  Held annually in Las Vegas (August 1-4, 2019), this event is unique in that it brings together a wide range of armed and unarmed martial arts instructors, while also hosting a variety of tournaments, performances, workshops for writers and game developers, cosplay contests and yes, even a full contact lightsaber tournament ($15 entrance feee).  So if you are a social scientist who studies the martial arts in the modern world, the only question you have to ask yourself is why aren’t you already planning on going?

Its hard to estimate the cost of this one.  Obviously you will need to fly to Vegas in August (which, in all honesty, is not the best time of year to visit this desert oasis).  The public can visit the event for free, but if you want to do all of the workshops, tournaments and events you will probably end up paying in the $200-$300 range.

 

 

Left to Right: Doug Farrer, Scott Phillips, Paul Bowman at the Farewell Dinner of the 2015 Martial Arts Studies Conference in Cardiff.

 

 

For the more academically inclined, why not give the gift of a conference registration to the inaugural North American session of the annual Martial Arts Studies meetings?  These will be held May 23-24, 2019, at Chapman University in sunny California.  Best of all, the registration is free if you email the conference organizers in advance and ask for tickets (click the link for details).

Its not hard to find cheap plane tickets to LA, and this is the premier event of the Martial Arts Studies community.  I can’t say enough about how much I have enjoyed these meetings over the years. The sense of community is really unlike anything I have ever seen at a conference before. An advanced registration would make the perfect gift for either yourself or the erudite warrior/scholar in your life.

 

A still from Come Drink With Me. Classic martial arts cinema at its best.

 

How about visiting a martial arts film festival in a destination city in 2019?  Most major cities host one or more Asian film festivals a year. These are often a great place to see new and classic martial arts films, and if you are lucky you might find a festival dedicated just to classic Kung Fu films.  We are still a little early in the year to have confirmed dates (these events are generally announced a month or two in advance), but New York City is a great destination for these sorts of festivals.  And if you are going to be in Manhattan in June or July, there is an excellent chance you will find something you are interested in at the 2019 Asian Film Festival hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  But keep an eye out as you can often find smaller film festivals in a city near you!

 

 

Study with Master Li Quan (teaching Emei Style Southern Kung Fu and Wing Chun) in Chengdu, one of the most beautiful cities in China.

This is the part of the list where we dream big.  It goes without saying that China is full of places where you can spend a few months studying the martial art of your choice (including Wing Chun).  I selected this school as Chengdu is on my bucket list of places to stay for a few months, and one of my friends studied with Master Li for years when he lived in the area as a journalist.  This would be a very authentic/rustic experience, rather than the sort of school catering to the “glampers” out there.  And Chengdu has a great martial arts history that needs more exploration in the English language literature.

Prices for extended live-in training start at just under $1000 USD (not including airfare).  Of course the real cost of this this sort of “Kung Fu Pilgrimage” is taking a few months off from work.  But this is the stuff that dreams are made of!

That is it for this year’s Christmas shopping list.  If you have other suggestions for items that might be of interest to the Kung Fu Tea  community tell us in the comments!

 

oOo

Need more gift recommendations?  Why not check out some of the previous lists?

oOo

Chinese Martial Arts in the News: Oct. 22 2018: Archery, Kung Fu Villages and the Lives of Detective Dee

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Introduction

It has been a busy weekend, so this news update will be brief. Nevertheless, I wanted to comment on some of the more interesting stories that have been floating around. For new readers, this is a semi-regular feature here at Kung Fu Tea in which we review media stories that mention or affect the traditional fighting arts.  In addition to discussing important events, this column also considers how the Asian hand combat systems are portrayed in the mainstream media.

While we try to summarize the major stories over the last month, there is always a chance that we may have missed something.  If you are aware of an important news event relating to the TCMA, drop a link in the comments section below.  If you know of a developing story that should be covered in the future feel free to send me an email.

Its been way too long since our last update so let’s get to the news!

 

 

News From All Over

I recently published an essay on Kung Fu Tea noting the importance of examining martial culture when trying to discern what is really happening in a given art or practice. Our first big news item really drives that point home. It starts off with a brief nod to the near extinction, and then spectacular resurrection, of traditional Chinese archery all within the space of a few decades.  Of course, someone needs to be making all of the bows to supply a new generation of enthusiastic archers, and that too came very close to being lost.

In the 1950s and 60s, when the artisans of Beijing’s last seven bow-making workshops were reassigned to state collectives, a craft that had been practised for more than 3,000 years came to a sudden halt. By the mid-90s, all remaining bowyers had passed away, with the exception of Yang Wentong. Come his death, it was believed, all knowledge of traditional Han Chinese ox-horn bow making would be lost forever.

Obviously, there is a lot more to the story of the revival of China’s traditional archery.  But I was still very happy to see an article (and video segment) like this in the South China Morning Post.

 

 

I was recently reading something by Paul Bowman in which he reviewed the ways that various newspapers in the UK have discussed the martial art over the years.  I think that one of the phrases he applied to articles in the Daily Mail was “perpetual wide-eyed wonder.” That immediately popped into mind as I looked at their latest photo essay titled ‘Everybody was kung fu fighting’: Inside the Chinese village where all residents practise martial arts.

If memory serves we have heard about this village in Guangxi before.  They seem to have some sort of communal (early morning and evening) martial arts training, but sadly this article never actually states the style.  What we do get it is yet another variant of the burning of the Shaolin Temple myth, complete with a wandering survivor who takes up residence in the village, founding its current martial arts tradition.  Good stuff!

 

A Chinese Kung Fu teacher visiting a school in Africa.

 

At first glance our next article appeared to be a boilerplate account of the sort of educational exchange program that governments frequently sponsor.  Basically, a few dozen Chinese physical education instructors were sent to the USA to visit and observe how teaching was conducted in local classes.  And of course they also taught some Kung Fu to the American kids.  I was surprised that the style they introduced was Five Ancestors Fist, a very important southern school.  Suddenly I want to hear more!

 

Senior woman doing Tai Chi exercise to keep her joints flexible, isolated.

 

Taijiquan was one of the big winners of the last news cycle.  A couple of studies had come out on the practice’s ability to build strength in older students, and this unleashed a torrent of near identical articles in several outlets. My favorite was titled “Building Strength Through Tai Chi” in the Seattle Times.

Watching a group of people doing tai chi, an exercise often called “meditation in motion,” it may be hard to imagine that its slow, gentle, choreographed movements could actually make people stronger. Not only stronger mentally but stronger physically and healthier as well.

I certainly was surprised by its effects on strength, but good research — and there’s been a fair amount of it by now — doesn’t lie.

What caught my eye about this one is that the author is actually something of a skeptic.  Rather than seeing Taijiquan as a progressive exercise that can be done at many levels of intensity, the assumption seems to be that it is useful only as a sort of remedial rehabilitation program for senior citizens who are looking to build the physical capital necessary for a more “strenuous” (western style) workout. Taijiquan gets a lot of good medical press these days, but this article made me stop and wonder how common these attitudes might be in certain corners of the medical profession. Not actually understanding much about the art in question, it would be difficult for such experts to visualize what it might do for a wider range of patients.

 

 

Speaking of senior citizens doing taijiquan, Netshark had a fun video of an “Auntie” who decided to release stress during an epic two hour Golden Week traffic jam by exiting her car and practicing her solo set. Can’t find time to train?  Seriously kids, no excuses.

 

 

I wasn’t quite sure how to classify the next story.  It touches on a number of topics including contemporary film, ancient Chinese history and 20th century crime novels. It turns out that Detective Dee has had many careers through the ages.  This is a really good article to read if you are interested in the interplay between history and popular culture. And somehow it all ends up as a series of kung fu films. I personally found this to be one of the more surprising and enjoyable articles in this month’s review.

 

 

Quick, what is your favorite martial arts film?  Now what are your top 50?  If you are still working on that second question Newsweek has some suggestions.  Incidentally Ip Man (2008) comes in at 35.  If you want to find out what they chose as #1 you will need to read the article. In addition to the list, this piece also provides a capsule overview of the genre.  It should be noted that they employ a rather loose definition of what counts as a “martial arts film.”

 

Collin Chou as Seraph in Matrix Reloaded.

 

Do you remember watching the the fight with Seraph (Collin Chou) in the first Matrix sequel? I do. It might have been my favorite fight sequence in that film. And it turns out that the film’s creator originally intended for it to be carried out by Jet Li, who was very interested in the part.  But in a recent interview he went into more detail as to why he ultimately turned it down. It seems that the film’s producers were interested in capturing more than just his on screen performance.  They were looking to use motion capture technology to digitally record Jet Li’s movements and build some sort of database.

 “I realized the Americans wanted me to film for three months but be with the crew for nine,” Li recently mentioned during a Chinese talk show appearance. “And for six months, they wanted to record and copy all my moves into a digital library. By the end of the recording, the right to these moves would go to them.”

I thought this story was interesting as there are many projects (in the commercial, scholarly and non-profit sectors) that are digitally cataloging the movements of various martial arts masters. Some of these archives are used to produce films and video games, and other go into cultural institutions.  Jet Li’s story is revealing as it illustrates some issues with what happens to all of this intellectual property.  Are we simply recording for posterity something that is communally owned (an unchanging folk tradition)? Or are we instead attempting to capture a effervescent moment of performance by an individual artist who holds a unique IP claim to their own interpretation of the work.  Li seems to have decided that the situation was more the latter and, in his case, walked away from the film.  This story is all just a footnote in the history of the Matrix, but it raises interesting ethical and theoretical questions for students of martial arts studies.

 

 

So long as we are on the subject of film, I should mention that there is one upcoming movie that I very much want to see.  The central premise of the “Kung Fu League” is a fantasy team-up between some of the genera’s greatest characters, Wong Fei Hung, Huo Yuan Jia, Ip Man and Chen Zhen. Clearly its a gimmick, but I am genuinely interested to see how figures from different eras and niches within the kung fu universe are made to address each other.  This seems like the perfect time for some inter-textual comedy and reflection on the development of the genre.  It will be interesting to see what the director ultimately does with it.

 

Alexander Bennett in Kendo gear.

 

The next couple of stories step back from an exclusive focus on the Chinese martial arts.  Our first piece is a discussion in the Japan Times of Alexander Bennett’s latest book, Japan: The Ultimate Samurai Guide. Or maybe it should really be titled “an insider’s guide to surviving in the world of the Japanese martial arts.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t, at least momentarily, considered joining a martial arts club upon moving to Japan. However, comparatively few actually take the plunge. One of the biggest hurdles is that clubs can seem to be worlds unto themselves, inaccessible to non-Japanese, even those with fluency in the language. Knowing where to start, especially if you have no previous martial arts experience also puts up barriers: Which is the right martial art for you? What should you look for in a teacher? How can you hope to compete when everyone in the club already seems to have a black belt?

This is where “Japan The Ultimate Samurai Guide,” authored by longtime kendo practitioner Alexander Bennett, hopes to step in, providing answers to some of these questions from the perspective of an insider. The book is part encyclopedia of martial arts — a historical resource tracking the evolution of Japanese martial arts over the last millennium — and part present-day guide to surviving in the world of budō and, more generally, in Japan.

This all sounds very interesting.  I really enjoyed Bennett’s work on the history of Kendo, and he is well positioned to write a popular yet highly informed guide to the wider world of Japanese martial arts.  I suspect that this one will end up on my Christmas list.

 

Me leading a break out group of students through a lightsaber set at Ithaca Sabers.

 

And now for a few stories touching on one of my personal research areas which seems to be getting a lot more exposure in the news lately. First off, a local TV channel visited the lightsaber class that I run here in Ithaca. You never know how these things will go, but I thought that the final story came out quite nicely. Are you interested in what lightsaber combat might look like if approached as a traditional martial art?  If so you can check out the full story here.

Of course, that is not the only version of lightsaber combat that you will find.  Lots of people get into the practice because they are looking for a fast paced combat sport where they don’t have to invest years in martial arts training to do something that they enjoy.  This recent report on the Nerdist followed one individual’s journey to a “full contact” saber tournament held in Las Vegas (where else). Its actually quite an interesting piece as it visits a few different corners of the “combat sport” side of the lightsaber community.

 

An assortment of Chinese teas. Source: Wikimedia.

 

Kung Fu Tea on Facebook

A lot has happened on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook group over the last month.  We looked at antique weapons, pontificated about the value of seminars, and learned what happens when Capoeira meets Kung Fu! Joining the Facebook group is also a great way of keeping up with everything that is happening here at Kung Fu Tea.

If its been a while since your last visit, head on over and see what you have been missing!

Who “Killed” Kung Fu: Habermas and the Legitimization Crisis within Traditional Martial Arts

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“A Sword Fight.” 1917, magic lantern slide showing Wang Wen-lin and Wang Shhh-Ching. Source: The Digital Collections of Springfield College.

 

Zombies

The air is distinctly crisp, the end of October is upon us, and Halloween rapidly approaches. Clearly, it is time to talk about zombies.  We seem to go through periods of collective fascination with the image of empty human husks shambling across a barren landscape, neither truly alive or dead. These monsters fascinate us not because of their cunning or strength. Taken one at a time they are incapable of accomplishing any goal. Their only defining characteristic is a paradoxical immunity to death.  They just keep walking across the historical landscape.

Jurgen Habermas had a lot to say about zombies though, to the best of my knowledge he never used the term. Rather than the Walking Dead on the outskirts of Atlanta, he was more concerned with the sorts of failed states that sometimes appeared on the historical stage.  In his writing on the “Legitimization Crisis” (1973) he noted that the loss of popular support didn’t always result in revolution or state collapse.  Instead one often encountered a situation where the institutions of government continued to amble along (often for an improbable length of time), and yet found themselves unable to effectively call on society’s resources to accomplish their core political goals. The government had clearly lost its authority, yet no replacement could be seen on the horizon.

Both a social theorist and public intellectual, Habermas is one of the great thinkers of the 20thcentury.  This does not mean that his work has been universally accepted. He famously clashed with Derrida, and Habermas wrote a widely cited essay in the early 1980s taking aim at the excesses of post-modern thought.  Still, as the Western democracies approach a critical historical crossroads while gripped by social and political paralysis, it’s hard to see his work on the origin and nature of the legitimization crisis as anything other than prophetic.

To oversimplify, Habermas began by asking students to think carefully about how authority emerges and functions within a social system. Such systems are composed of the governmental institutions (both formal and informal) that wield authority, socio-cultural considerations (values, identities, norms, etc) and economic exchanges (who gets what resource).  In a well-functioning social system it may not be necessary to split out these various realms as they will tend to blend into one another, supported by overarching social discourses.  Individual values will uphold political authority, as will economic markets.

Issues arise when competing discourses emerge and the fractures between these realms become more pronounced. Or we might imagine them as being constructed or reconstructed by a new set of competitive discourses.  More specifically, a “crisis of legitimacy” erupts when citizens cease to believe that a political system reflects their socio-cultural values, or that the old values that it is based on continue to have utilitarian (political/economic) value.  In this instance their “life world” (lebenswelt) ruptures. One would hope that the political system would adapt to the new reality, but that is never the only possibility. It might rupture into competing factions (civil wars) or simply shamble along as a failed state, incapable of drawing on the creative resources of society.

That brings us back to the zombies. One does not have to watch the news for very long to realize that modern nation states are not the only institutions that can suffer this fate. Indeed, we are increasingly surrounded by all sorts of economic and cultural institutions who have been crippled by rapid social change. If I were to level a single criticism at Habermas it would be that he drew the boundaries of his discussion of the legitimization crisis much too narrowly, focusing primarily on states. Historical investigation would seem to support the hypothesis that all sorts of other social values and cultural institutions must fall into crisis before the nation-state (typically a very resilient entity) is imperiled. Thus, for the logic of Habermas to be true at the macro level (something that is hard to empirically test) it must first hold true at the at the micro level (which is more easily observed).

Admittedly, such a project would explicitly contradict Habermas’ avowed goal to re-establish “grand theory” as a valued realm distinct from the plebeian world of “empirical testing.” I personally have always been a bit suspicious of “grand theory,” probably because it is not very helpful when one is attempting to write local history. In any event, good theories should be portable, and all sorts of “life worlds” (including the martial arts) could be thought of as possessing governing structures, social/cultural values and mechanisms of economic exchange.  In fact, one would be hard pressed to come up with a more apt description of the social structure of traditional martial arts communities.

 

 

A detailed look at a pair of Shuang Gau. This is pair measures 95 cm in length and may be of a similar vintage to the swords seen in these images. Source: http://www.swordsantiqueweapons.com/s1015_full.html

 

 

Who Killed Kung Fu?

It is not difficult to perceive the signs of a legitimization crisis within the traditional martial arts. Class enrollments are down almost across the board and many schools struggle to stay open.  Traditional styles are openly derided in one-sided contests with MMA or Muay Thai stylists on social media. There even seems to be fewer martial arts movies.

Yet not all of the trends are easily interpreted.  There is more high quality popular, and even academic, publishing on these systems being produced and consumed than ever before. Judged by the quality of the information we have access to, we are living in the golden age of kung fu scholarship. Yet popular magazines are struggling.  While the potential market for information on the traditional martial arts is expanding in terms of the number of serious readers, its dollar value has radically diminished. While this trend has hurt traditional publishers and book sellers, more small scale “prosumers” are putting out content (typically on Youtube or Facebook) than ever before.

The general state of affairs might best be summed up as one of confusion. The leading traditional forces that have structured the Chinese martial arts community still exist. We still have large lineage-based schools. There are a number of stylistic and regional associations, as well as commercial producers of both books and training gear. Yet they all seem unable to lead the community toward a meaningful revitalization effort.  In the mean-time, large numbers of students adopt unorthodox modes of practices or simply leave the martial arts all together.

As with zombies, I am not aware that Habermas ever mentioned the martial arts community.  Yet if he did, I suspect that he would not be surprised by the general state of affairs.  Drawing on the more sociological aspects of his work, I he would note our situation is particularly complicated as we face a legitimization crisis on not one, but two, fronts.  Further, these two sources of tension might interact with each other in complicated ways.  All of this, in turn, stems from a change in the cost of communication, making transformative contact between people much less expensive than it had been. Yet to see how a change in one social variable (the price of communication) might lead to two slightly different types of legitimization crises, we first need to revisit the last era of major social/political realignment within the Chinese martial arts.

During the Republic period internal communication within China was relatively expensive. Even the Chinese government, which dedicated substantial resources to the project, found it practically impossible to transmit its point of view on critical diplomatic issues to citizens in Western countries.  In this sort of situation, effective communication required a sponsor with substantial resources. This forced the Chinese martial arts into alliances with various political actors.  Traditionally these had either been the Imperial military, or local social elites who needed to maintain a degree of order within their own village, marketplace or clan. As such, Chinese martial arts networks derived their legitimacy from their relationship with regional or clan based identities. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying a complicated situation, it was their tight alignment with these narrow forces that gave them access to (and legitimacy within) local communities.

None of this was particularly helpful to the wave of national reformers who came to power after 1911. Seeing the importance of budo in the creation of a cohesive and modern Japanese state, they wished to do something similar in China.  Yet that required talking and thinking about the martial arts in a fundamentally different way.  What had been particularistic and local now needed to be universal and open.  Whereas local elites had benefited from their relationship with martial arts societies, these allegiances needed to be transferred to the national level.

A variety of new institutions were created to do just that.  Formal establishments like the New Wushu and Guoshu movements sought to give the state direct control over the organization of local martial arts societies. Other reformers (such as the Jingwu movement, and much of the Taijiquan community) favored a less statist (but equally nationalist) strategy in which universal creation myths were promoted and “lineage” communities that may have once been very local were reimagined as being national in scope.

It should be remembered that this new vision of the Chinese martial arts did not emerge in a vacuum. Rather, it was the result of a sophisticated debate on what the “new China” should be.  Nor was the victory of these views immediate or even total. A full blown legitimization crisis emerged within the Chinese martial arts.  The Guoshu program looked very powerful on paper, but most of China’s local martial artists simply ignored its tournaments and directives as they did not directly address their values or local needs. Worse yet, many intellectuals within the May 4thmovement openly derided its goals and methods. The result was a long legitimization dispute which Jon Nielson and I described in our book.

Yet from this transformation arose the system of allotting “authority” within the traditional Chinese martial arts that most of us now take for granted.  A system of dual legitimization was created.  Formal political institutions (first Guoshu, and later Wushu) claimed legitimacy through their adherence to scientific and modernizing principals which placed the martial arts at the disposal of the state.  This became the dominant way in which the Chinese martial arts were legitimated within the PRC.  In this case the “political element” of the community was a set of actual formal institutions answerable to the government.  Outside of that realm, a new set of “traditions” were made available to national, and then universal, communities. Regardless of your location or country of birth, one could experience some aspect of the Chinese nation by studying in any one of these open, commercial, schools.  They reconfigured China’s traditional folk arts in such a way that they were now available to students anywhere in the world.  This social system gained dominance in Taiwan, the South East Asian diaspora and the West.

 

A “Sword Dancer” by Hadda Morrison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.

 

Recent changes within the Western social realm have created a new set of challenges for this second mode of legitimization. The rise of a renewed emphasis on empirical verification in many places in Western society during the 1970s-1990s posed a direct challenge to all sorts of “arguments by authority”. One of the places that we can see this playing out is in an erosion of public trust in all sorts of “expert” bodies. The decline of traditional religious communities might be another place (though here we must also account for the modernization and related secularization hypotheses).

Rather than allowing either the nation or “tradition” to arbitrate what techniques were effective (and therefore legitmate), a new generation of martial artists, not culturally beholden to the norms of the previous systems, advocated putting such practices to the test.  This tendency has long been present in the West.  Indeed, we can even see it in Bruce Lee’s writings in the 1970s.  Yet by the 1990s this was increasingly the dominant current of thought which would give rise to practices like the Mixed Martial Arts.

It is critical to realize that the traditional arts involved in these disputes are in crisis not simply because they often lose in Youtube challenge matches. Being repeatedly pummeled in viral videos certainly doesn’t help their cause. Yet even if they were to win there would still be an almost identical crisis of legitimacy as the older generation of Masters (who hold the keys of “tradition”) no longer have the ability to determine when violent conflict is publicly allowed and how it will be socially interpreted.  Under these circumstances even a win represents a loss of standing for the traditional faction as it suggests that young fighters training under “scientific conditions” can succeed largely without their blessing.

I was recently part of an (extended) conversation that illustrated this situation quite nicely. It began when I was chatting with a Wing Chun instructor of my own generation about the state of the art today. While others take a dim view of “kids these days,” he has a cheerful disposition and is something of an optimist. He is also an outspoken advocate of placing non-cooperative sparring (often with people from outside your style) at the center of serious Wing Chun training.

Needless to say, doing so tends to have a definite effect on one’s body structure. You can still apply Wing Chun concepts to most competitive sparring sessions, but it doesn’t look like a sticky hands drills.  Nor does it look like anything you would see in the unarmed forms (unless you really knew what you were looking for).  In fact, my own Sifu (who also engaged in some similar practices) often told me that in actual combat my fighting should not look like Wing Chun.  I shouldn’t necessarily appear to have any style at all.  My movements should just appear to be clean and effective.

As more and more Wing Chun students start to spar at local “open mat nights,” my friend was happy to note that he could see visible changes within the physical culture (perhaps the “habitus”) of the younger generation of students. At least that was his opinion.  He noted that the tactical and athletic issues facing students today are vastly different than sixty years ago when Ip Man (who, for the record, was also an innovator) began to teach in Hong Kong.  Our approach to the art needs to adapt just as his did.

This opinion was not shared by an older instructor in the same field who I had spoken with some time earlier.  Sparring, especially with random individuals from outside one’s style, was a problem in his view.  It led to students becoming “confused.”  What the younger sifu saw as an “effective defense” in a practical situation, he perceived only as sloppy and ill informed. Indeed, he proclaimed that this wasn’t kung fu at all.  Mirroring a criticism I have heard dozens of other times, he decried such sparring as “mere kickboxing,” and proclaimed that in fact no actual martial art was being practiced. In his view, if one’s Wing Chun did not look the same in a fight as in the training hall, it wasn’t Wing Chun at all. Nor was he willing to concede that modern combat sports (such as boxing, kickboxing or MMA) might be “authentic” martial arts that also required huge amounts of dedication and training.

Beyond merely being a difference of opinions, it is also worth noting that these instructors drew their personal authority from very different sources.  The more senior instructor leaned heavily (as one might guess) on tradition and lineage as a source of authority.  The younger coach based the legitimacy of his views in large part on the success of his students in many local mixed style tournaments.  In the social world of the older Sifu, only the authorized guardians of tradition were able to judge if something met the criteria of “good” Wing Chun.  But in a public boxing match, anyone can add up the points on the score card at the end of a fight.

The real threat to traditional modes of legitimization within this particular community is not that the younger Sifu’s students might be seen losing a fight on Youtube. Authorities have always found it easy to explain away “dissidents with bad attitudes” when they lose.  The actual crisis occurs when more modern interpretations of Wing Chun are seen to publicly win, providing an alternative framework for judging the legitimacy of someone’s training practice.

Beyond this we must also consider the economic basis of these arts. Who can teach, and who can profit, from the dissemination of knowledge? While related to the issue of authority, movement in this area can also trigger a distinct set of legitimization crises.

In a 2014 paper, Adam Frank looked at the issue of “family secrets” in one Taiji community regarding who was authorized to benefit from teaching or withholding this information. When this community had few contacts outside of China, and little opportunity to benefit from lucrative teaching positions in Europe and North America, there was less concern as to who taught this material.  Once the international profile of the school began to rise, a reconsolidation occurred in which some previously authorized teachers were marginalized within the community, thus reassigning the “right” to teach the complete art to a smaller number of “family members.”

Students of Martial Arts Studies are free to have a variety of opinions about this, and all sorts of values are implicated in the story that Frank lays out.  Yet from Habermas’ perspective, such an outcome was not unexpected.  One would naturally expect that the economic aspect of how benefits are apportioned within the community to match the “political” dimension of how authority is defined. In a stable social system those who are widely perceived as the legitimate teachers should be the one’s to economically benefit from the spread of the community. This would provide them with an incentive to make sure that the system perpetuates itself.

Yet these bearers of tradition are not challenged only by shifts in social/cultural values.  The radical decrease in the cost of communication has impaired their ability to monetize their authority, even in areas of the community that share their values. Selling books and magazine articles was, in the past, a critical aspect of building a strong community.  From the 1970s-1990s it allowed leaders to both profit from their teaching while ensuring that their understanding of a system’s values and techniques remained hegemonic.  Again, in a stable social system the political, economic and social discourses reinforce one another.

The rise of social media dealt a serious blow to the martial arts publishing industry. In its place we now have an explosion of Youtube channels in which the very same senior students and junior instructors (and sometimes simply random class members) who would have previously been the core consumers of centrally distributed materials, are now producing their own instructional content.

This is an important phenomenon as it reflects a shift in the values within the underlying social system. It is easy to criticize the uneven quality of much of this free material, but even a sceptic must stand back and admire the sheer volume of information that is now being produced.  While in a previous generation one might have defined their identity (at least in part) by the sorts of media that one bought and consumed, individuals now make similar judgements based on what they produce and disseminate.  In the age of the “prosumer” (or producer/consumer), broadcasting your views on Wing Chun has become a valid way of performing one’s membership in this community.  Needless to say, this explosion of free communication has made it nearly impossible for the guardians of tradition to dominate the economic exploitation of the art.

Indeed, many of the most profitable and fastest growing areas within the TCMA seem to be the most marginal. The announcement of newly discovered lineages, weapon sparring leagues, or attempts to “rediscover” lost arts through the interpretation of historical texts all elicit excitement.  And at least some of these things should.  Yet in some respects they all diminish the center’s ability to monetize its claims to traditional, lineage based, authority.

 

A photograph (probably 1930s) showing a marketplace martial arts demonstration. Note the Shuang Gau led by the man on the left. Source: The personal collection of Benjamin Judkins

 

The Stakes

So how does it all end? Within the popular press we are frequently treated to dire predictions about the death of kung fu.  I think it is worth remembering that the martial art have suffered other legitimization crises in the not so distant past and they are still very much with us today.  Indeed, a brewing crisis seems to be exactly what opens to the door to “political change” (in the sense that Habermas used the term) within a social system.

Perhaps the most obvious possibility is that the utilitarian and empirical values that are widely held by practitioners of the various arts come to be written into our collective understanding of their “traditional” identity.  Given that these notions of “tradition” were almost entirely socially constructed in the 1920s-1950s, that may be less difficult than one might at first glance suppose. Indeed, if you carefully read the front-matter of many of martial arts books produced between the 1910s and the 1940s you will discover that in point of fact the martial artists of the Republican period can provide a lot of ideological cover for today’s rationalizers and modernizers.  Alternatively, a shift in our current social values might lead Western consumers back towards a more community focused appreciation of the martial arts at some point. These sorts of trends are very difficult to predict in the long run.

A less pleasant possibility, however, is increasing schism.  The issues in these disputes are not merely ones of style or effectiveness. While those points may be debated, more fundamental questions about our core social values and identities are clearly implicated in all of this.  How do we know good kung fu when we see it, and who is allowed to make that determination? As Paul Bowman noted, the gap between traditional modes of establishing authority, and those favored by either utilitarian norms or academic training (in the case of historical debates), is unlikely to be bridged. It is when a substantial segment of the community increasingly tunes out, or simply walks away, that we see the emergence of zombie institutions.  They continue to shamble along, but with no real ability to draw on the resources of their members or to respond to their essential demands.  It remains to be seen how all of this will play out in the current era, but like the younger Sifu discussed above, I remain optimistic.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Reflections on the Long Pole: History, Technique and Embodiment

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A (Taijiquan) Mystery in Yellow

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An English language edition of Chen Yanlin’s volume. While covers might be blue, red, yellow or purple, the dust jackets were typically the same yellow design seen on the original 1947 Shanghai release.

 

 

Unanswered Questions

 

Everyone likes a good mystery. They engage, they motivate and (whether we want to admit it or not) they make the hours vanish. That certainly explains at least part of the popularity of historical studies of the Chinese martial arts. Decades of nationalist myth-making and inspired entrepreneurial marketing have helped to create the impression that it is the veneer of history that determines the value of these practices. That has never actually been true. Still, once you move past the illusions of history and begin to dig into the sources, it is disturbingly easy to lose a weekend.

Let’s begin today’s investigation by asking two simple questions.  What was the first English language book on the Chinese martial arts, and when was it published.  Of course, such questions are never really that simple.  If we were to count as a “book” rough translations of Chinese language martial arts manuals republished in an English language magazine, the answer would be sometime in the 1870s.  If we insisted on two hard covers, but relaxed the requirement of commercial sales, then we have the case of a little-known English language xingyi quan manual (produced by a famous Chinese track and field coach) in the 1920s.

Still, neither of these answers feel quite right.  While both are important in their own right, these weren’t the sort of “books” that one might find sitting on a shelf in a shop.  Perhaps we should begin by narrowing things down a bit.  What was the first commercially printed English language book on Taijiquan to be widely distributed to a mass audience? If asked that way, it would seem that the answer must be Sophia Delza’s 1961 Tai Chi Chuan: Body and Mind in Harmony, a book that I have previously discussed here and here.

At least that is what I would have thought up until recently. I will readily admit to being neither a student of taijiquan, or an expert on its history, my own interests being more focused on the Southern arts.  Still, I have tried to keep up with everything published on the martial arts in the Republic period (1911-1949).  As such I was vaguely aware of Chen Yanling’s controversial 1943 book, Taiji Compiled: Boxing, Saber, Sword, Pole and Sparring. What I had missed was that this book was translated into English and distributed by at least three different Shanghai publishers in 1947.  By the 1960s additional English language translations would be produced in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and a number of these volumes would find their way into American and British martial arts schools.

Whether Delza’s volume, or a pirated edition of Chen’s, showed up in your neighborhood book store first remains an open question.  After a week trying to piece together this volume’s publication history I can safely declare that there is still quite a bit that we don’t know.  I would go so far as to suggest that we have a minor mystery on our hands.  Still, its early date of publication and wide circulation suggests that this book may be worth considering in greater detail.  If nothing else, its existence signals a growing curiosity about the Chinese martial arts long before the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s came to fruition.

 

A typical example of the line drawn illustration in both the Chinese and English language edition of Chen, derived from earlier published photographs.

 

A Yang Family Controversy

 

Before delving into the publication history of the English language edition, it may be helpful to know a little more about Chen Yanling’s original volume. Anyone interested in checking out this work can find a copy at the Brennan Translations blog. Even a quick glance at the table of contents is enough to signal that this was a substantial work, and quite different from many of the simple technical manuals that dominated the era’s martial arts markets.  Chen’s work was appreciated as he sought to develop new philosophical concepts within the study of Taijiquan. Rather than simply rehashing the ancient myths he also looked at the art’s more recent history, particularly as it pertained to the experiences of the Yang family.  His work provided discussions of not just the solo unarmed set, but also push-hands and no fewer than three weapons. Readers could even find material from the Taiji Classics and Yang family teaching traditions in his publication. Needless to say, his book made quite a splash when it was released in 1943.

Not all of this attention was positive.  Chen’s work proved to be quite controversial within some corners of the Yang style. This was not so much a concern about the reliability of what he said, but the more complex question of whether he had the right to say it at all. Rumors started to spread that somehow Chen had swindled Yang Cheng-fu out of his family patrimony.

The story went that Chen, a diligent student, had approached Yang Cheng-fu and asked to borrow the family’s private manual for a single evening of study.  Knowing that anyone’s ability to work through such complex material in a single night was limited, Yang Cheng-fu relented.  However, he was unaware that Chen had hired seven copyists who would fully transcribe the book that night.  This material would then become the basis of this own 1943 publication, much to the displeasure of the Yang family. This would force them to eventually release their own version of these texts.

As martial arts legends go, I quite like this story. It reveals much about the values and anxieties of the individuals who passed it around.  But that is the actual intelligence value of any rumor.  They always reveal more about the motivations and fears of those who tell them, rather than their purported subjects.

While the controversy that Chen instigated was real, its actual causes were more prosaic. When discussing this book in a recent exchange with Douglas Wile, he noted that Chen Yanlin was in fact a student of Tian Zhaolin, who was a student of Yang Jianhou, the son of Yang Luchan. Chen’s manuscript was actually based on the study and transcriptions of Tian Zhaolin’s teachings.  In point of fact, the drive to systematically record this material (a common project during the Republic era) had been a collective undertaking led by several of Tian’s students.  They were enraged when Chen put his name on what had been, in their view, a collective project.  Wile related that the group was actually preparing to take Chen to court over his “theft” when Tian intervened to restore the peace between his students.

This bit of the manuscript’s history makes for a compelling story.  But the real mysteries emerge four years later, in 1947.  In many ways this was not a great era for the Chinese martial arts. The country’s long running civil war was heating up, the Guoshu Institute was in tatters and, after the initial enthusiasm for the dadao troops had subsided, the Chinese martial arts had taken a beating in the country’s newspapers over the course of the second world war. Given all of this, it might come as a surprise to learn that there was actually a small (but notable) spike in interest in the Chinese martial arts in the West during the late 1940s.

In an apparent attempt to capitalize on this interest, an English language edition of Chen’s book was released in Shanghai in 1947 by the well-known Willow Pattern Press. The edition was titled Tai-Chi Chuan: Its Effects and Practical Applications, and the author was listed as Yearning K. Chen. This latest iteration of the manuscript must have been a time consuming undertaking. Library catalogs list Kuo Shui-chang as the translator (I must rely on them as I do not own a personal copy of the Willow Patterns Press edition).  C. C. Chiu offered a new preface, specifically intended for Western audiences. It provided a health and wellness focused overview of the art, and a brief introduction to its author.

Sadly, I have not been able locate any substantive information on Kuo or Chiu.  That is an issue as even a cursory examination of the text reveals that what they provided is not a typical “translation” of Chen’s text.  Large parts of Chen’s text (including many of this more detailed discussions, and everything on Taijiquan’s history) have been left out of this volume.  In their place Western readers would find short introductions designed to get them up to speed on topics such as “Yin” and “Yang”, as well as the definition of Chinese boxing and taijiquan’s relationship to both philosophy and the martial arts.

The differences did not stop there.  These introductory notes were followed by multiple full chapters that attempted to rationalize the discussion of taijiquan and to present it to Western audiences within a scientific framework.  Topics covered included the art’s relationship with physiology, psychology and physics.  This last chapter, which featured a “proof” of the application of Newton’s laws to the martial arts, can only be described as a triumph of “scientism.” It would have made even the most diehard guoshu modernizer proud. Its pages featured rows of orderly equations and geometric diagrams.  To ask who “translated” this volume is really to inquire as to who wrote what was in many respects an independent book on taijiquan designed to cater to the (perceived) tastes of educated Western readers.

 

 

A modern (and mechanical) approach to taijiquan, featured in all of the English language editions of Chen. This specific example was printed in Hong Kong during the 1960s.

 

That said, this was not an entirely original undertaking.  The substantive discussions of both the solo form and push hands were taken directly from Chen, as were his pen and ink illustrations.  Yet even here, some subtle changes can be noted.  The Chinese language inserts that had labeled these illustrations in Chen’s original volume were deleted but not replaced in the English books.  Further, whoever wrote the new English text was familiar with, and had an appreciation for, Chen’s arguments.  While many of the discussions were new, care was taken to paraphrase quotes from the Chinese version.  These were distributed creatively throughout the English language text as its chapters and introductory discussions did not align with the underlying Chinese “original.”

In short, Kuo Shui-chang did not provide readers with a faithful translation of Chen’s work.  The entire first half of this book might be better thought of as a translation of a work that Chen did not actually write, but might have if he wished to appeal to a room full of western engineers and educators. In that sense the real value of this work is what it suggests about the growing demand for English language information in the late 1940s, and how elite Chinese martial artists perceived that cross-cultural desire.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the size of this demand would be the massive piracy campaign that this book experienced.  The original Willow Pattern Press edition was released in 1947.  Yet because of lax intellectual property rights, the book was quickly picked up by other distributors.  1947 dated editions were also produced in Shanghai by P. D. Boss and Millington.  While I assume that Willow printed the original book, it is actually hard to confirm the order in which they appeared.

Booksellers in Hong Kong also expressed enthusiasm for the volume.  Numerous, almost identical, printings were released that listed no publishing house or date. Many of these volumes listed their price as either “$10” or “H.K. $10.”  It is probably impossible to date these books with precision, but it seems that they were produced sometime in the 1960s.  I have a Hong Kong copy with a red cover, as opposed to the original Shanghai release that was blue.  Other colors can be found as well.  The version produced by the Sun Wah Printing Company may have been more legitimate than the others as they at least printed their name and the address of their offices on the title page.

By the 1960s these volumes began to find their way into circulation (and libraries) in the West, though I have not been able to determine if they had an official American distributor. I ran across one account of a student whose taiji class used this text as part of their study material during the 1960s. But that was not the end of the volume’s complex publishing history. Pan American Books in Taipei (Taiwan) released their own undated edition of the volume (probably in the 1970s).  And by the late 1970s multiple American publishing houses took advantage of the volume’s confused ownership to release their own editions.  The 1979 New Castle printing seems to be the most commonly encountered, though there are several others.

I have not had an opportunity to track down copies of all of these printings and subject them to a detailed comparison.  That would no doubt be interesting, and it might reveal more about this book’s circuitous travels through the post-war global environment. A detailed study of the similarities between Chen’s original 1943 volume and its strangely independent 1947 Shanghai translation could also be quite interesting for what it might reveal about the different intended audiences of both books.

While some details of this mystery are likely to remain unsolved, what we know about Chen’s book is quite interesting. During the course of my historical research I had basically concluded that Zhang, Chu and the other guoshu reformers had basically failed to create an image of the Chinese martial arts that would be appealing to Western readers or martial artists. In many ways Chen’s translated volume is a natural intellectual successor to their efforts, and its tortured publishing history suggests that there may have been a lot more demand than I was able to previously estimate from personal reminisces and newspaper accounts alone.  After all, no one bothers to pirate a book that doesn’t sell, and this book managed to stay in print for a very long time.

Cheng’s effort was the first English language book commercially printed on taijiquan, though Delza’s volume almost certainly arrived on the shelves of most American martial artists first. Still, Cheng has much to teach us, not only about the practice of taijiquan, but its post-war migration throughout the global system.

 

Acknowledgements: Special thanks go to two individuals who made this essay possible. First, I would like to thank Qin Qin (秦琴) from Henan Polytechnic University for sharing with me the discovery of a 1947 P. B. Boss edition of Tai-Chi-Chuan: Its Effects and Practical Applications. That was really what got me interested in looking more deeply at Chen’s contributions to the global spread of the art.  Thanks also go to Douglas Wile for providing invaluable context regarding the true origin of the controversy that surrounded the book’s 1943 publication.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Prof. Maofu Gong Discusses the State of Folk Wushu and Martial Arts Studies in China Today

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Martial Classics: The Poetry of Motion – Qi Jiguang in Verse

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General Qi Jiguang. Source: Wikimedia.

 

***I hope that the following guest post will be the first entry in a new occasional series here at Kung Fu Tea. While I am neither a linguist or historian of ancient China, I have found myself regularly attending the Cornell Chinese Classics Colloquium (CCCC) over the last couple of years. This fascinating series of workshops typically invites a visiting graduate student or junior professor to present a reading and translation of an ancient Chinese text of their choosing.  The presenter highlights some puzzles that arise out of their text, either linguistic or historical in nature. This sets the stage for what is often a lively, and always enlightening, discussion.

The only drawback of the CCCC series is that none of the various scholars have yet presented a reading of a martial or military text. This group typically looks at political, literary, religious or even medical documents.  Still, the growing interest in the reconstruction of various Chinese martial arts classics suggests that perhaps we could benefit from a similar effort. Students who are working on their own translation or reconstruction projects should feel free to submit a guest post.  Ideally their essay will introduce both a translation of a specific section of text, and discuss either the linguistic, historical or technical issues that it presents.  Hopefully this will inspire some good discussion. Given that there are very few academics who have translated these sorts of texts professionally, I would suspect that most contributions will come from amateur scholars, graduate students and individuals working on side projects.  As with the CCCC, everyone is coming here to learn, and (charitable) feedback is always welcome.  Enjoy!***

 

The poetry of motion: Qi Jiguang in verse

By Chad Eisner

 

When discussing Chinese martial arts classics it is often observed that, for a considerable period, the norm was to render technical information in verse form. Sometimes these verses are even called “songs” by modern martial artists. While this tradition has been kept by some, others have explicitly shunned the practice in favor of more straight forward instructions. Still, the fact remains that a sizable number of martial arts texts from the historical record are written in verse. 

Proponents of the verse method of recording martial arts knowledge cite their ability to communicate more than just sequences of movement, or a specific response to an action.  Properly understood they may also provide a framework for interpreting the technique in different contexts. Of course, verse also serve as a very convenient mnemonic for the memorization of traditions that may have been passed down orally. The issue with that method is that by keeping the language vague and open to interpretation, you make the act of understanding the technical information more difficult. When attempting to translate these poems to another language scholars face a large number of possible readings and reaching a consensus may be difficult.

 

Translation versus Interpretation

My background is as a (former) professional interpreter. Therefore I am coming at the act of translation from a specific place. Most people do not know the difference between interpretation and translation or that there is a difference between them at all. In the general sense, translation is the art of finding the equivalent words or phrases and interpretation is the act of discerning their meaning within their context. Professionally, “interpretation” happens live with little to no preparation or foreknowledge of what is being said. Translation is the act of transmitting information about things that are unchanging, as in being written down or recorded. 

These two process are related, of course. Translation is a part of interpretation but because interpretation happens live, there are certain methods one must follow in order to ensure that the information and intent of the speaker are being communicated. In translation, since the text exists in a static form, the translator has access to all of the linguistic information during the entire process. This allows a translator to formulate solutions to problems more carefully and thoughtfully. 

The result is that each profession approaches the translation of any text in a slightly different way. The translator looks for (in general) the most accurate and similar translation of each concept, including structure and word choice. The interpreter is more concerned with “equivalency” within the target language rather than a “word for word” approach. This may take the form of restructuring sentences, using different words, or finding completely unique idioms in the target language that serve the same function as the ones being used in the source language. A simple example of this is the greeting in Chinese “Nihao ma?” (你好嗎). Literally, this phrase means “Are you well?” But it is used much more frequently and in a wider context than the English phrase. It is therefore most often translated (or interpreted)  as “hello” as it is used as a generalized greeting in Mandarin the same as the word “hello” functions in English. These are generalizations and there are several schools of thought for both translating and interpreting that take harder or softer stances on these issues. 

 

Expansion and Contraction

When attempting to translate anything, there are certain issues which must be considered as many languages have different solutions to the same problems. One of these is the issue of linguistic expansion and contraction. This is when a single word in the source language cannot be expressed with a single word or “gloss” in the target language. It is necessary then to explain the concept in as concise language as possible to communicate the meaning and intent of the original text. This is a common occurrence in any language, but in written Chinese it happens with considerable frequency and can have lasting effects on the understanding of terms and concepts. 

When translating and interpreting poetry and verse, the job becomes that much harder. Not only does one have to contend with almost intentionally obscure literary allusions and aesthetic styles, but one must now also render it in a similar fashion for the target language. This makes it necessary to approach the task with more of an interpreter’s mind set, being willing to alter things to make them adhere to the same type of experience for the reader, in which ever language there are experiencing it. There are concerns regarding meter, rhyme, structure, devices used and many many more things that are indicative of poetry and verse beyond what is found in prose. 

These factors come together with the nature of poetry and verse to create a very difficult scenario for the translator. There will be numerous ways to translate the same text and none of them will really be more correct than some of the others. In “19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei”, Eliot Weinberger looks at 19 different translations of a four line Chinese poem. Just among the English translations one can find distinct and unique takes on the simple verse. This underscores the fact that there are many ways to interpret what is being said and therefore, many correct translations of any text in verse. 

This is not to say the effort is wasted. It is absolutely possible to render excellent verse to verse translations of songs, poems, and other forms of expressive writing. A good example of this is the song “Les Tomber les Filles “ written by Serge Gainbourg and performed by Franz Gall and translated and performed by the musician April March in 1995. March’s translation of the ’60’s era French pop song displays many of the techniques needed for translation of these types of texts:

 

Original by Gainsbourg: 

Laisse tomber les filles, laisse tomber les filles

Un jour c’est toi qu’on laissera

Laisse tomber les filles, laisse tomber les filles

Un jour c’est toi qui pleureras

Oui j’ai pleuré mais ce jour-là, non je ne pleurerai pas

Non je ne pleurerai pas

Je dirai c’est bien fait pour toi, je dirai ça t’apprendra

Je dirai ça t’apprendra

 

Translation by March: 

Hang up the chick habit

Hang it up, daddy,

Or you’ll be alone in a quick

Hang up the chick habit

Hang it up, daddy,

Or you’ll never get another fix

I’m telling you it’s not a trick

Pay attention, don’t be thick

Or you’re liable to get licked

You’re gonna see the reason why

When they’re spitting in your eye

They’ll be spitting in your eye

 

The first thing one notices is the title of the song. “Les Tomber les Filles” literally means “let the girls fall” or “drop the girls”. March’s translation of “Hang up the Chick Habit” does some fairly impressive things. First, it takes account of time period and chooses a phrasing with ’60 era flavor in the slang term “chick” used as an adjective. This immediately places the language in time and gets the listener into the right mindset. The idiom used in the French is reversed, conceptually, in the English translation. Where in the French we are told to “drop” the girls, the same sentiment is expressed by “hanging up” the habit of womanizing. Because of the nature of idioms and of course musical styles and concerns, finding equivalent phrases based on what they mean rather than the words they use is essential. 

Without going into too much detail on each the lines and their translation, a quick glance at the selection above will reveal that there is a significant difference in the literal meaning of the French and the transition by March. Again, due to the confines of music, restructuring, rephrasing, and finding equivalent words and phrases, not directly translated ones, is necessary. It is the underlying meaning that needs to be addressed and since verse is often used as a tool for delivering information, it is this meaning that needs to be understood before a translation can be rendered.

 

Image of a Taiji Boxer. Source: Burkhardt, 1953.

 

The question is then brought up, what value is there in the effort to translate and render these verses into Western equivalents? Besides the scholarly and linguistic value that such an exercise provides, it may also be important to the modern practitioner who is purely interested in the content of these texts rather than their academic discussion. Martial artists often take inspiration from these works in their teaching and practice. Making them accessible to more people would seem to be a laudable goal. 

Verse emphasizes form over function, sacrificing clarity. Modern attempts to not only understand the original message but then render it in verse form in the target language is a laborious, but ultimately rewarding, process. I have tried to keep the changes in my own project to a minimum, or in service of the verse structure. I have used my prior experience in Chinese martial arts, specifically Taijiquan, as a base for my interpretation of the techniques. I offer them only as an example of a single interpretation and do not claim authority on the matter. 

In translating the verses of Qi Jiguang into English rhyme, some linguistic and interpretive liberties have been taken. A certain amount of linguistic expansion and contraction is necessary to achieve a proper meter and rhythm that remains internally consistent throughout the text. The form of the verses has also been changed to find an equivalent structure in English that can encompasses the several metrics in the original. 

 

Verse structure

The verse structure I have chosen for these translations is based on U.S. armed Forces “Cadences” or marching rhymes. I have chosen this form as it is related to the military context, of which the text is a part, and for it’s simplicity. I have imagined (or rendered) it as if these verses were used as a call and response drills for large groups of provincial soldiers. As such I have kept the language on the courser side, although still giving nods to Qi Jiguangs practice of poetry. Although I have little knowledge of classical Chinese Poetic forms, Qi and his fellow military people were often criticized on their writing as being overly simple and naive. Although some did find Qi’s poetry to be pleasing, writers like Shen Defu claimed their success was due to their uneducated audience and the low brow environment of the frontiers and borderlands . 

Settling on the military cadences, I used two forms; a quarter note version and an eighth note version. Most fit better into the eighth note form but there are several that are in the quarter note cadence. 

  1. Quarter note: Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta Taaa
  2. Eighth note: Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ta

 

Rhyme scheme

The Rhyme scheme I have chosen is a simple AA,BB structure to reflect the simplicity the succinct and brief nature of the originals. The simple rhyme scheme also is a feature of nemonic rhymes to facilitate their memorization. The simple paired scheme is a one that is intuitive to most languages and cultures. 

Voice

At times in the text, the first person is used. At other times the second person being given instructions is used. And at still other times it is unclear on whether the passive or active voice is being used. I have attempted to keep it as consistent as I can. The particulars of Literary Chinese grammar make it sometimes difficult to determine the subject and/or object in the sentence. Again, these factors are in addition to the already mounting factors when the target translation is to be in verse. 

 

Examples

What follows is a sampling of my attempt. I have chosen the first four entires as they relate to modern Taijiquan practice and are often seen as antecedents of present day techniques. I do not attempt to draw lines of origin or make authoritative statements into the connection between modern naming conventions and Ming Dynasty ones. While the names and many of the positions are similar, the nature of the drawings and the text make it difficult to discern the original intent. Still, these are iconic techniques and positions that form the foundation of many practices today. 

These four entries also provide a good sampling of the various types and flavors of techniques presented. Qi’s text has a few basic structures and approaches. Some are straight forward, step by step instructions. Others are explained in general terms as responses to situations and changing variables. Lastly, Qi ends each verse with a superlative, often making statements of prowess that seem right out of kung fu movies or modern professional wrestling. 

My first attempt tried to take all linguistic information contained in the lines. The resulting translations were in my opinion, too verbose stylistically and did not match the succinct and brief nature of the originals: 

Lazily Tie Your Coat and come to stand outside,

Sink into single whip, with single sudden stride

Without the courage to attack, when your enemy is caught,

The sharpest eyes and the fastest hands will both be all for naught.

While far more skilled and expert translators, like Douglas Wile, have produced excellent translations, I hope to add a small amount of depth by offering a glimpse into what these lines would sound like in verse form. I feel that having them rhyme in this way can give a little extra flavor, and maybe foster more thought about the content of the text. Either way, I accept any and all criticism and know that there will be many errors in my work. These errors are mine but I have tried to accommodate alternate perspectives when available. 

 

 

1.

Tie your coat and come outside,

Single Whip with sudden stride,

With out the courage to advance,

Sharp eyes fast hands will have no chance.

懶扎衣出門架子

變下勢霎步單鞭

對敵若無膽向先

空自眼明手便

“Lazily Tie the Coat” begins the set.

Lower your stance and lightly step into Single Whip.

If you lack the courage to attack when facing an enemy,

Your sharp eyes and fast hands will be for naught.

 

The first verse. The verse is about the technique called “Lazily Tie the Coat”. It states that this is an opening move to the “set” or form (架子 JiaZi). The poetic liberties taken should be obvious. Reframing the same information as a command brought about a more literal yet figurative relationship in the sentence. “Come and stand outside” is used to mean a beginning relating to 出門- literally “out the door”. While it probably means ‘to begin’, keeping the poetic nature of the phrase offers a good equivalent in English.

The interpretation of the passage seems to be more general in its scope. The first two line describe the technique “Lan Zha Yi”-Lazily Tie the Coat and the step into “Single Whip”. Any practitioner of Taijiquan, especially Chen Style, should be able to picture this move in a particular way. The grappling of Lan Zha Yi and the step into Dan Pian (single whip) are ubiquitous in the various styles. Although the illustration of Qi’s move shows a standing position with feet together, a difference from the current practices in Taijiquan, it is reasonable to assume that the name of this technique is focused mainly on the upper body. Very much like Single Whip, Lazy Tie the Coat is an image or mime of an action of tying a long belt around a coat as was done in old China.

The last two stanzas give general advice for fighting. Essentially, take the initiative in an encounter and do not let up. Violence tends to favor the aggressor and if you lack the courage or fortitude to press your attack, it will fail no matter how good your other attributes are. Qi has put an number of these general axioms for combat amongst the verses.

 

 

 

2.

Golden Rooster stands on top,

Present your leg then sideways chop,

Rush in low and trip the bull,

They cry to heaven loud and full.

金雞獨立顚(顛)起

裝腿橫拳相兼

槍背卧牛雙倒

遭着叫苦連天

Jīnjīdúlì diān (diān) qǐ

zhuāng tuǐ héng quán xiāng jiān

qiāng bèi wò niú shuāng dào

zāozhe jiàokǔliántiān

Golden Chicken Stands Alone rises up.

Brandish the leg and cross the fists together.

Thrust forward and turn the back in “Reclining Bull” to throw them.

Those that encounter this move will cry of their hardship to heaven.

 

This verse differs a bit from the first in that it is more akin to step by step instructions or “plays” denoting martial application. The instructions are for its application in fighting, one assumes in a one on one encounter. Modern practitioners may be more comfortable thinking of this technique as a solo exercise or mime of a combat technique.

However, the verse contains another named technique “卧牛” or “Reclining Bull”. Which seems to indicate a throw where the opponent’s legs are in the air. Essentially hitting the ground supine. One possible interpretation of this technique is a standard “fireman’s carry”. Coming in low and scooping the opponent up and throwing them over your shoulders. I have chosen to translate this technique as “trip the bull” to stay with in meter and rhyme.

 

 

3.

Testing Horse was Song Taizu’s,

Stances all can drop and move,

Advance attack, retreat to dodge,

Come in close with a fist barrage.

探馬傳自太祖

諸勢可降可變

進攻退閃蒻生強

接短拳之至善

Testing Horse was taught by Taizu.

Several stances can drop down and change.

Enter to attack and retreat to dodge with full vigor.

Come in close range where the fist’s reach is best.

 

This verse seems fairly straight forward as well. The first line is worth examination in a few aspects. First the name of this technique “Tan Ma” (探馬) is similar to the Taiji posture, “Gao Tan Ma” 高探馬 often translated as “High Pat on Horse”, it is more likely referring to testing a horse to see if it is able to be saddled. The high outstretched arm being the testing hand and the other arm folded but he side as if holding a saddle. Although like most of the illustrations, it is difficult to match them to real world actions.

 

 

The first line makes the claim that this technique was taught by “Taizu” the Emperor of the Song and a frequent figure in martial arts. The intent here seems to be to give the technique a sense of antiquity or lineage. This plays into the idea that traditional martial arts should have long histories. While that is a common idea in modern days, it held true in the Ming Dynasty as well. Several authors bemoan the loss of martial traditions, arts, and methods during their time. And while writers like Mao Yuanyi set out to preserve these traditions in works like the Wubei Zhi, the actual partitioners of the techniques, i.e. the military, were seeing firsthand the power of firearms and gunpowder based weapons. Qi, himself, wrote of the superiority of firearms and later built tactics almost solely around such weapons. Our present text is found in the Jixiaoxinshu, and was intended as a manual for the training of mercenary troops in provincial armies. Even in the introduction to this section, Qi states that “Barehanded fighting is all but useless on the battlefield”, and that he included the fist routines as a kind of exercise for troops. It may be that these troops responded to long histories and lineages more so than the upper classes and hereditary military families.

There is a liberal dose of restructuring in the first line. Trying to encapsulate the idea of antiquity and prestige I opted to go out on a limb. “Testing Horse was Song Taizu’s” seems to fulfill those requirements. This was done entirely for structural reasons and I was able to keep all information intact.

 

4.

Crossed Single Whip firmly pries it’s way in,

When finding it hard from their kick to defend,

Rush in with continuous, liftings and chops,

Knock down Tai mountain into low stances drop.

拗單鞭黃花緊進

披挑腿左右難防

槍步上拳連劈揭

沉香勢推倒太山

Crossed single whip advances with tight circles.

When you find it difficult to defend kicks from either side,

Rush in with continuous downward and upward chops.

Sink low into the posture, Pushing Mount Tai.

“Ao Dan Bian” or “crossed Single Whip” is a common name and familiar again to practitioners of Taijiquan. The illustration provided by Qi shows the familiar stance of one hand held up in front as if in a chop and the rear hand made into a fist or hooked shape with arms stretched out straight from each other. “Ao” or “crossed” refers to the position of the forward leg to the forward hand which are opposing each other. So, if the right hand is forward the left leg will be forward.

 

An opera performer holding a bian during a performance.

 

“Dan Bian” or “single whip” refers to the upper body position and the arms. The arms are stretched out from the body and turned so that one hand is behind (often held in a hook gesture) and the other in front. The image is most likely of a mounted rider, holding the reigns with the front hand and the riding crop (bian 鞭) behind. It is a familiar position in opera indicating when the characters are riding in the narrative. In opera too, a long stick called a “bian” is used. The whip in this instance being a riding crop or short stick.

The rest of the verse explains the basic use of the technique. While there are many ways in which to interpret the movements explained, the logic of them seems salient. Qi advocates that his readers be aggressive with their intent and rush in with downward and upward strikes with which to disrupt, or otherwise interfere with, the opponents kicks. Once done, the practitioner sinks low into the stance “pushing Mt. Tai”. Essentially, it appears as if the technique comes in aggressively and then drops low to attack the legs, presumably for a knock down.

 

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About the Author: Chad Eisner is a martial arts practitioner and instructor in Ann Arbor Michigan, teaching Ma She Tongbei and Taiji Quan. His experience in Chinese martial arts  and as a professional interpreter have naturally lead to a fascination with the translation of Ming dynasty martial arts texts. He is also the co-founder of Terra Prime Light Armory which uses historical based weapon arts to create lightsaber and fantasy martial arts for use in competition, performance, and learning. 

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Nolan, James. Professional Interpreting in the Real World. second ed. Vol. 4, Interpretation: Techniques and Exercises. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2012.

Peers, Chris. Men-at-arms Series. Vol. 307, Late Imperial Chinese Armies 1520-1840. London: Osprey, 1997

Qi, Jiguang戚繼光. Wu Shu Xi Lie武術系列. chu ban. ed. Vol. 6, Ji Xiao Xin Shu.績效新書 Tai bei shi: Wu zhou, 2000min 89.

Schulte, Rainer, and John Biguenet, eds. Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Weinberger, Eliot, and Octavio Paz. 19 ways of looking at Wang Wei: (with more ways). New York, NY: New Directions Books, 2016.

Wile, Douglas. T’ai-Chi’s Ancestors: The Making of an Internal Martial Art. New York: Sweet Chi, 1999.

 

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If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Tai Hsuan-chih Remembers “The Red Spears, 1916-1949”

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