Meditations on the Blade, Ultra-Modernity and the Fine Art of Self-Promotion


 

 

The Unexpected Giant

Some of the essays at Kung Fu Tea are the result of several days of careful research and thinking.  This is not going to be one of those pieces.

I started out with a great topic.  It was my goal to explore the stochastic progress of duanbing, a type of competitive short-weapon fencing, conducted with specific safety gear, which has been on the verge of “really taking off” within the TCMA community ever since the late 1920s.  As I began to assemble some articles and descriptions of the first phase of duanbing practice in the 1930s, one name just kept coming up. In fact, I ran across so many references to this individual that I just had to find out more about him.

Sadly, he has nothing to do with Chinese fencing. But Col. Voldemar Katchorovsky did make quite an impression on anyone who met him. His colorful career suggests something about the general attitudes which shaped the development of Guoshu, as well as the types of adventurous individuals, peripatetic either by choice or circumstance, who shaped the global transmission of all martial arts (both Eastern and Western) during the 19thand 20thcentury. Lastly, his career is also a valuable reminder that duanbing did not emerge in a vacuum.  It was developed at a time when both Japanese Kendo and Western foil fencing were making inroads into Chinese schools and popular culture. As I (and many others) have already noted, the development of any “local” and “traditional” practice must arise in discourse with notions such as “international” and “modern.”  Katchorovsky’s writings provide us with a very specific example of how these concepts entered discussions of martial and combative pursuits in China.

Who was V. A. Katchorovsky?  It is difficult to say with absolute certainty. As with many martial artists, we simply do not have a complete life story.  Yet a review of period newspapers reveals two competing narratives.  The first was something that Katchorovsky’s inherited.  Despite his enormous height (over seven feet), and unusual profession (fencing instructor), most people saw him primarily as a refugee, a former Russian military officer displaced by the Bolshevik Revolution.  Indeed, quite a few Russians refugees would eventually end up in China, and they seem to feature prominently as “threatening outsiders” in many kung fu legends.  Perhaps we should not be surprised that displaced individuals (many with a military backgrounds) would end up coming into contact with China’s own martial artists.

Still, Katchorovsky’s path to China was far from direct. The first mention that I can find of him comes in the form of a short article in a local paper in New South Wales, Australia. It seems that in 1924 Katchorovsky was passing through on his way to Tahiti.  Yet he was viewed as such a tragic figure that an article on his visit was necessary.

Giant Refugee

Body Guard of Murdered Czar

Melbourne, Saturday. –Penniless and physically worn, after years of intense anxiety, Artillery Colonel (W)oldemar Katchorovsky, once of the first Artillery Brigade attached to the late Czar’s Imperial Russian Life Guards, arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday.  He stands over seven feet one inch high.

Having been hounded out of his country by the Bolsheviks, Katchorovsky is on his way to Tahiti, where he will join another refugee, Colonel Basil Nik[]tine.  His fortune having been confiscated, he was obliged by necessity to travel steerage on the French liner Ville de Strassbourg.

Katchorovsky was one of the late Czar’s bodyguards.  As a refugee in Malta with the Dowager Empress Maria Deodorovna, he learned the authentic story of the death of the Royal family.

While the Royalist Generals were organizing volunteer corps in the Caucasus and Crimea, the Czat and his family were taken prisoners to Ekaterinburg, Western Siberia.  According to the Dowager Empress, his majesty was killed by the prison guard against military orders.  The rest of the family, after suffering terrible humiliation, were likewise done to death.

Katchorovsky carries with him treasured photos of himself taken with members of the royal family when holidaying in Lividia Palace in the Crimea.

Northern Star(Linsmore, NSW) 16 June 1924. Page 4.

Readers should note that this piece contains no discussion to fencing, leading me to wonder whether Katchorovsky had begun to teach. Tahiti in the 1920s, while probably lovely, would not have been my first choice of location to open a new fencing salon.  Beyond that, this article offers readers very few biographical details.  We do not learn how old Katchorovsky was, or whether he ever had a family.  Nor do we learn where he was coming from.

Like many refugees in our own era, Katchorovsky seems to have been subjected to a process of biographical flattening.  His entire life is reduced to only those elements most interesting to the paper’s readers.  One suspects that in the 1920s any number of White Russian refugees might have passed through the same area and inspired almost identical articles.  In this discursive movement Katchorovsky, as an individual, was hollowed out and reduced to a symbol of the era’s increasingly well-developed fear of Bolshevism.

 

Col. V. A. Katchorovsky as he appeared in the pages of The China Press in 1933.

 

Maitre d’Armes

Whatever business Katchorovsky had in Tahiti, he seems not to have stayed long.  In 1927 his name resurfaces in another newspaper in New South Wales.  Then in 1930 we catch a glimpse of him in Honolulu. While most of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa was consumed with an upcoming football game against BYU, the school newspaper reported that an exhibition fencing tournament had been planned between the students of Katchorovsky and those of Cedric Wodehouse (a local instructor who had been trained in the UK).  Once the preliminary matches were finished, the student body was promised an exhibition match between the two instructors.  This was billed as a “real match between experts.”  Without digging into more detailed local historical sources, it is difficult to say how long Katchorovsky stayed in Honolulu.

In any case, he did not put down roots.  Two years later a student newspaper for the University of British Columbia (Vancouver) ran a brief notice stating that Katchorovsky had taken up residence in the area and was looking to establish a class for local university students. Any student wishing to take him up on the offer needed to hurry.  By the spring of 1933 Katchorovsky would be seeking to establish a somewhat larger presence in Shanghai.

This is the period of Katchorovsky’s career that generated the most interesting paper trail.  Between February 19-22 of 1933, he wrote a series of three, highly detailed, articles for The China Press.  Each of these sought to explain and promote Western style fencing as a desirable type of personal exercise and competitive sport. [Readers should note that, confusingly, both the second and third articles in this series are labeled as “number two,” so it is necessary to actually check the dates of publication].  Collectively these discussions seem to announce the arrival of a more prosperous stage of Katchorovsky’s teaching career.

Readers may recall The China Press was one of Shanghai’s leading English language “treaty port” papers. While the editor of this paper was Chinese, and a virtual agent of the KMT government, the China Press prided itself on its connections to the American tradition of journalism and liberal editorial slant. The paper served three audiences. Obviously, it spoke to the needs of the expatriate English speakers in Shanghai.  Yet unlike other foreign language papers, it reported extensively on Chinese political and social events.  Indeed, its ostensible foreign ownership helped the paper to skirt certain censorship regulations, and it thus also appealed to educated, English reading, Chinese citizens. Lastly, the KMT tolerated papers such as this as they hoped that they would bring news of what was happening in China (unfiltered by the always hostile Japanese newswire services) to citizens in the West.

Given this complex readership, it is significant that The China Press was unrelentingly enthusiastic about all aspects of the martial arts.  It seems to have published more stories on Chinese boxing (or “national boxing”) than any other treaty port paper.  But it also reported on judo, kendo, boxing and fencing. One suspects that someone in the editorial office took a keen interest in martial pursuits.

Still, the degree of coverage that Katchorovsky’s thoughts on fencing received seems exceptional, even by the standards of The China PressAs I mentioned in our prior discussion of Ma Liang’s New Wushu movement, certain outlets also offered their services to government officials or important individuals who sought (for a price) to promote a project that was generally in line with a paper’s editorial policy. For a few years the China Press even seems to have run an ad hoc English language public diplomacy program for the KMT.  I suspect that Katchorovsky may have entered into a similar promotional arrangement with the paper.

His first three articles, in April of 1933, were immediately followed up by another piece at the beginning of March.  This article (written by a reporter) sought to both promote fencing in general and Katchorovsky’s classes more specifically.  It noted that he had recently been hired by St. John’s University as a fencing instructor for the students. The paper proclaimed (probably incorrectly) that these were “the first Chinese [boys] to take up this typically European sport.”  It was also noted that his experience in America demonstrated that fencing was really a sport for everyone, regardless of age or gender.  A local girl’s school was also considering adding fencing classes.

Again, it is difficult to know exactly when Katchorovsky arrived in Shanghai and began teaching. But at the end of March (22nd) the China Press ran another story, probably independent of any formal advertising campaign, noting that due to the increased popularity of the sport an exhibition had been scheduled at the International Branch of the YWCA. Exactly one week later (March 30th) another unsolicited article was run reporting on the result of this social and athletic gathering.  Such stories are relatively common in the pages of The China Press.  Still, it seems that this event made a positive impression on the reporter.  Like Hawaii, the student tournament was followed by two exhibition matches in which the various coaches and organizers demonstrated other weapons and superior techniques for the crowd.

Skimming various accounts of tournaments and exhibitions, it seems that much of the fencing in Shanghai was led by, or included, Russian refugees.  Indeed, one wonders whether this was what drew Katchorovsky to the city in the first place.  His own match was against Dr. Schoenfeld.  Col. Minuchin, who coached many of the participants, is reported to have graduated from the Officers’ Fencing and Gymnasium School in Petrograd just before the outbreak of WWI in 1914.  He had been living in Shanghai for approximately five years.

All of this publicity resulted in two photographs of Col. Katchorovsky in his role as fencing instructor.  The first, published on Feb. 27th, shows a sophisticated looking individual, hair parted in the middle, sporting round glasses and a neat mustache.  He holds his trademark foil and fencing mask on his lap as he seems to look beyond the camera with a pensive gaze.  If the first image is serene, the second is slightly unsettling.  It was taken on the day of the YWCA tournament/exhibition.  Several female students sit in the front with their instructors standing behind them.  Shown at his full height, Katchorovsky towers over the others.  At first one guesses that the other coaches must have been sitting as well, but of course they are not.

The China Press revisited fencing again on October 27th with another article by Katchorovsky.  This piece quoted liberally from the Art of Fencing by Senac and Fencing by Brek in an effort to argue for the athletic, personal and somatic value of the practice.  Not to be outdone, the North China Herald also ran an article by Katchorovsky on November 7th. Unfortunately, this rehashed many of his prior points without adding much new to the discussion.  Still, in a remarkably short period of time Katchorovsky had written or been discussed in at least eight articles and received two photographic features.

That is a remarkable amount of press coverage for anyone in this period, let alone someone from the martial arts community. But his efforts paid off.  The introduction to the October China Press article noted that Katchorovsky was currently serving as Master of Arms at both the Shanghai American School and St. John’s University, while running his own fencing academy at 73 Nanking Road.

 

 

Modernity’s Knight Errant

Given the volume of material that Katchorovsky produced, it is important to ask how he (and other instructors) sought to promote fencing in the 1920s and 1930’s.  More specifically, how are the values that they sought to promote similar to, or different from, the sorts of discussions that other martial arts (especially Guoshu and Judo) were generating?  One might suppose that given his military background, Katchorovsky would be something of a traditionalist when it came to the sword. He came of age in an era when there was still an expectation that officers might have to fight with their swords. And all of that seems to fit with the more tragic and orientalist ways in which the press sought to frame his life narrative.

Yet Katchorovsky was no traditionalist.  One suspects that he would have had little tolerance for the sort of essentialist cultural rhetoric that followed Kendo. His understanding for the need for modernization and reform within the martial arts would have fit well within the more progressive currents of China’s own Guoshu movement. Note, for instance, the following excerpts from his discussion on the topic of traditionalism vs. modernity in his third article for The China Press, titled “Modern Fencing Reaches High Sate of Perfection.”

 

 

…There are so many people who have never given up the old-fashioned idea that fencing is an ancient art, graceful and beautiful to behold upon the stage. Many never think of fencing as competitive sport, which it really is—the fastest and most brilliant of all man to man sports in existence.

 Fencing progresses like everything else.  A fencing bout of two hundred years ago and a present day match have very little resemblance. Fencing today is very fast, very competitive, and a study of it gives one a deep and interesting experience in the thoughts of modern science and philosophy, such as timing, motion, space, reflex-action and counteraction, and shows one the vast differences between perception and intuition.

Suits Modern Youth

Fencing today is very modern, very athletic, very fast, sparkling and vivid, almost scientific. It should suit the modern youth to perfection.  He can still keep his identity, his individuality, be a little swaggering and devil-may care, and possibly fence better for it….

Helps Eliminate Time

I know of no other sport today which has become as ultra-modern as fencing.  In my opinion fencing develops such keenness and precision that it becomes far more mental than physical. A fencer finds that along with modern inventions, modern science and its fourth dimension, this sport goes a long way to eliminate more of the encumbering element of matter we call time.

To think is to set, i.e., when you think “thrust” your arm is already extended: when you think “lunge” your right foot hits the floor with pantherish agility.

It is especially true that in a hardfought bout between equals you are never conscious of your body.  It has ceased to exist; that is, it is no longer the tool of the mind, but becomes the mind itself.

Ultra-Modern Thrill

You lose all consciousness of self and exist as the mental qualities of speed, precision, accuracy, distance, balance, judgement or seem to exist as life and action itself.  For your time is not, and each moment of action flashes from the future into the past without the realization of its passing.

After a twenty-minute bout, whether you have won or lost, you feel that if you have not spent a second in eternity, you have least lived more vividly, more intensely during these minutes than is ordinarily lived in a week.

Thus fencing, once necessary as a means of bodily protection between the exponents of the art, has today become a new mental and physical thrill for the ultra-modern.

1933. A. Katchorovsky. “Modern Fencing Reaches High State of Perfection.” The China Press. Feb. 22 1933. Page 8.

This is one of the more interesting first-person accounts of any martial practice which I have encountered during the 1920s or 1930s. While most of Katchorovsky’s articles tend to emphasize the fully-body muscular development that fencing provides, or its utility for students seeking to lose weight, it seems clear that he was motivated by a quest for altered states of consciousness.  This article provides a very detailed account of what it is like to experience a “flow state” in weapons work.  Yet rather than seeing this as a universal psychological phenomenon, something that might occur in any number of activities, he supposed both that it is unique to fencing and its modern reforms.  Katchorovsky even points to the achievement of personal goals and individually attained altered states of consciousness as core qualities of his “ultra-modern” martial art.  Reading these passages I am left to wonder how many practitioners of combat sports in or own era might agree with him, even if they have never picked up a foil.

All of this might seem very distant from the world of Guoshu and the development of duanbing.  And, in a sense, it is.  Yet it must also be remembered that the great reforms of the 1920s and 1930s did not happen in a vacuum.  Both Jingwu and Guoshu sought, in their own way, to appropriate and respond to the discourse of modern superiority which was projected by the Western imperialist powers. That is why the “traditional” Chinese martial arts which we practice now are, in fact, a product of modernity.

 

Given his frequent discussion of the benefits of fencing for female students, and his quotes from Senac’s text, it seems only appropriate to end with this image. Source: THE ART OF FENCING BY REGINALD AND LOUIS SENAC, “PROFESSIONAL CHAMPIONS OF AMERICA,” 1915.

 

Conclusion

Of course, fencing is also modern art. Katchorovsky’s embrace (even celebration), of this fact is probably a multi-layered phenomenon. On the one hand, it may have been commercially necessary to distance fencing from its historical association with dueling if one wanted to win middle class female students. Doing so might have been more challenging than one might guess as even newspapers in China were carrying stories of duels (some carried out with sabers, others with pistols) which were still happening in France as late at the 1930s. At least some of Katchorovsky’s rhetorical efforts to carve out a space for sport fencing as a distinct modern practice, unrelated to the art’s bloody past, were probably necessary. [For a sample of what else his audience might have been reading see “Savage Duel is Fought by Paris Lawyers.” The China Press, March 10, 1935. Page 3.]

Of course, “ultra-modern” practices are by definition young, trendy and more likely to be popular with university students.  Such things are also transnational and transcultural, values that he probably felt very strongly about given his constant wandering. Undoubtedly Katchorovsky reveals something of his life experience in all of this.  Scientific rationalism and international community may have been things that he could ground his identity in after the nation-state and political ideology had failed him. He many even have seen these values as tools to push back against the socially dominant narrative that defined him solely as a refugee.

Modernity takes on a variety of meanings as we read these accounts of fencing’s brief flowering in Shanghai during the 1930s.  Yet all of this was happening in concert with larger intellectual trends and global events. Katchorovsky is a valuable remainder of the role of marginal and displaced people in the popularization and spread of modern martial practices.  Beyond that, his writings offer a particularly clear glimpse into the sorts of concepts that shaped both the development of the Guoshu movement and the modern Chinese martial arts we know today.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this discussion of the the martial arts scene is Shanghai in the 1930s you might also want to read: Mixed Martial Arts in Shanghai, 1925

oOo



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Wang Ziping and the Early Days of Wushu: Two Important Films


 

Introduction

Wang Ziping (1881-1973) was an iconic figure within the world of the Republican martial arts.  Having gained fame through his many feats of strength and public fights, the Muslim martial artist from Heibi province went on to hold important positions in the Central Guoshu Institute.  Indeed, he was one of the few Chinese martial artists ever discussed by name in the New York Times prior to the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s.  Readers may recall that I recently wrote a brief biographical sketch of this important figure which you can review here.

Every essay must have a focus, and that piece was most concerned with the early years of Wang’s life and his contributions to the Guoshu movement.  Unfortunately, I could only touch on his remarkable “second act.”  While many important teachers fled to Taiwan, Hong Kong or South East Asia in 1949, Wang stayed in mainland China and went on to have a distinguished career both as a traditional Chinese medical practitioner and as an elder stateman of the martial arts. The Communist government would tap Wang for several important appointments and honors, all of which served to call him back into service as a supporter of the newly emerging Wushu program.

I hope to explore this later phase of Wang’s career in some of my future writings. Yet I think all would agree that the greatest honor came in 1960 when Zhou Enlai requested his presence on a state visit to Myanmar.  Here he was once again called upon to demonstrate, and to be the public face of, the Chinese martial arts.

Multiple histories have already noted the significance of this trip.  Less appreciated is the fact that in the years immediately following this expedition Wang was also used to educated English speaking Western audiences about the importance of the Chinese martial arts and their connection to the “New China.” In many respects, Wang’s role as “Kung Fu diplomat” was just getting started in 1949.  His name would appear in publications such as China Reconstructs, one of the few official English language propaganda channels that the PRC sponsored during the period.

Still, I must admit that I have always had questions. When Wang was tapped to go to Myanmar he would have been close to 80 years old.  After a lifetime of fights and punishing strength training (we often forget that in his youth Wang was also famous as a wrestler and professional strongman), what sort of demonstration would he have been able to offer?  Did he undertake this trip primarily as a martial artist, or more as an elder statesman of what Western scholars refer to as “cultural diplomacy”? Short of finding some detailed film footage from the era, I assumed that this would be an impossible question to really answer. Many issues in the field of martial arts history will, by their very nature, remain a mystery.

 

 

Two Views of Wang Ziping

One can only imagine my surprise when I came across not one, but two, pieces of footage, both shot in 1963, that provided a pretty definitive answer to my question.  Not only was Wang still active at the age of 80, he moved fantastically. Better yet, these films compliment the few other clips I had been able to locate on YouTube. Yet they did not come without some questions of their own.

Interested readers can link to these films here and here. Both clips are just under two minutes and offer a clear, well directed, vision of the period’s developing Wushu culture, complete with English language narration.  Ironically, I came across both of these clips on the Getty Image database earlier in the Spring of 2018 when I was looking for newsreel footage of Chinese soldiers with dadao’s during the 1930s.  I realized that both films were quite exciting, but it took a while for my own writing and research to catch up with them.

Sadly, Getty does not provide their properties with the types of citations that are generally required in academic publications, but we do have some information. Their labels make it clear that both clips came from some sort of English language “cultural survey” that the Chinese government completed in 1963.  The actual title of this project, and how it was distributed to the West, are all left to the imaginations of the reader.

I have yet to resolve these questions and would appreciate any input that readers of this blog might have.  Yet as I further explored the archive it became clear that there were many other clips from the same project.  Some of these dealt with other traditional Chinese arts (such as the construction of miniature wood carvings).  But the majority of them reflected the dominant discourses seen in other period propaganda pieces. China was shown as a technologically advanced, wealthy, nation that had already achieved a high degree of industrialization. Indeed, it was getting ready to challenge the West on its own terms.  In one clip Chinese scientists were shown researching new petroleum products.  In another Chinese surgeons successfully reattached a hand that had been severed in an industrial accident.

All of this should help us to properly frame and understand these clips. The view of China which this “cultural survey” set out to construct was overwhelming that of an advanced and industrialized nation. While clearly noting that the Wushu was an aspect of China’s traditional physical culture (or more specifically, a type “traditional calisthenics”), one got the sense that all of this was meant to underline the fundamental modernity that ran throughout the rest of the project. Foreign audiences were not meant to see in these scenes a romantic view of an unchanging China.  Given the film’s avowedly Marxist viewpoint, its fundamental argument was that China had changed, and so had its martial arts.

 

 

These large themes can be seen in both clips. But beyond that, each clip seems to accomplish different goals for its Western audience. The first of these runs for 1:51 seconds.  It opens with an establishing shot of senior citizens preforming Taijiquan in the park. Indeed, the age of the practitioners seems to be an organizing principal of this brief film.  Having hailed the audience with what was already a fairly common trope, the camera then cuts to a shot of Wang Ziping leading a large group of children through a similar type of exercise.  This scene seemed to have its own message.  While “New China” was moving on, the younger generation would not forget their fundamental identity.

Questions of identity come up repeatedly in the narration of this brief clip.  The next shot shows an enthusiastic young boy demonstrating a dynamic dao routine.  The narrator informs the English speaking audience that Wushu was an art with uniquely “Chinese characteristics.” These could be found in its penchant for combining opposed sorts of movement.

As if to illustrate that point the camera then cut to Wang, who was demonstrating a sword set using a long, two handed jian. This is perhaps the best sequence in the film as it clearly establishes the virtuosity of his techniques.  Yet rather than naming the master, the narrator simply informs the audience that such practices are “popular among the broad masses of the working people.”

 

 

 

Even when dealing with foreign audiences, China’s new government sought to define and justify the martial arts at least partially through a class-based narrative.  Yes, this was “traditional” physical culture but, more importantly, it was property of the masses.  Wang’s anonymous performance stood in technical contrast to what was about to come next. It seemed to exemplify the neo-historicism of certain aspects of the Republican period (such as a fascination with the archaic two handed jian) which was in contrast to the streamlined and socially conscious Wushu to come.

Having introduced both the very old, and the very young, the film then cut to the athletic performance of young adults in their prime.  First an individual (who bears at least some resemblance to Wang’s son), dressed in a white silk performance costume, performed a more vigorous Jian set.  The performance was spectacular and kinetic. After that we are introduced to the more acrobatic aspect of Wushu when an unarmed fighter is forced to “defend” himself from a dao wielding opponent. The visual tension was further escalated with a spear vs. double dagger performance. Both exciting and theatrical, such sets had been the mainstay of public demonstrations in the 1920s and 1930s. Finally, the clip ends with a female performing a solo set with the Emei piercers. She was dressed in the same silk uniform as the other university age performers who had come before.

None of the individuals in this clip were named. Rather, everyone was presented as a general cultural type: the group of old people doing Taijiquan in the park, the enthusiastic young students, and (most importantly) the mysterious teacher.  Yet all of them were shown as contributing to the explosion of kinetic vigor seen in the final Wushu demonstrations.  The narration of this film sought, in simple terms, to define this new Wushu for Western audience.  Yet the director’s arrangement of visual images presented an equally compelling argument as to how a resurgent China was reframing and transforming its traditional cultural heritage.

 

 

The second film seeks to tell a very different story. Rather than defining Wushu, it uses traditional martial arts practice to explore the lives of a “typical Chinese family” living in a luxuriously furnished apartment in Shanghai.  Of course, the patriarch of this multi-generational family is Wang Ziping.

If anything, the second clip is even more dramatic.  It begins with a shot of Shanghai in the evening, focusing on the street lights and scenes of vehicles driving by the water. We then see the glowing windows of Wang’s residence as though we were visitors walking up the sidewalk.

As the camera moves inside, a family comes into focus. Whereas all of the figures in the previous clip were anonymous representation of the nation, we are now guests in a home. Introductions are in order.  These begin with Wang himself, who is shown working on a piece of calligraphy. The audience is informed that Wang is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, and the camera cuts to a quick shot of his clinic where he can be seen manipulating a patient’s arm.

Next, we meet Wang’s son.  While his father wears traditional clothing, the son, like everyone else, is smartly dressed in western attire.  He plays some type of shuffle board game with a number of other family members.  We learn that he too is a physician.

After that we are introduced to Wang’s daughter and her husband, both of whom are professors.  The camera then pans from a shot of the two speaking with their children, to a framed photograph on the wall in which Mrs. Wang is putting a group of identically dressed Wushu students through their paces.  This would seem to answer any question as to what subject she taught.

Once we have established for the Western audience that this is indeed a “typical” Chinese family, we are then told that the Wang’s do have one unique characteristic.  Despite their many professional commitments, they all gather during their free time to practice various types of Wushu in the park.  A set of traditional weapons are shown leaning against a park bench and one by one a set of hands appears to claim them.  A long continuous shot then weaves through the family group showing everyone involved in their own solo practice.

Finally, the viewers gaze is allowed to settle on Wang. He has again resumed his role as teacher and cultural guardian.  We can see his face as he happily instructs one of his grandchildren. The segment ends as the camera pulls back to reveal a family united by practice.

 

 

 

Conclusion

There are many remarkable things about this second film. Perhaps the most basic might be that Communist (and even Republican) authorities tended to treat family/lineage-based practices with a fair degree of suspicion. These were seen as being based on pre-modern modes of social arrangements, and individuals ended up investing their loyalty in the group rather than the party or the nation.

The advent of the Cultural Revolution in 1965 would see a forceful reemergence of these claims, and the subsequent suppression of much traditional martial arts practice.  This film shows a very different vision of family practice, one in which there are no doubts as to anyone’s loyalties, or their equal value to the group. Indeed, Wushu has been adopted as a means to tell Western viewers something important about the modern Chinese family.  Under the guiding hand of the CCP, practices that might have been harmful to individuals or the nation have been rectified and made socially useful. If this is true for the martial arts, we can also rest assured that it is true for gender and family relations.

Nor was the first clip actually content to simply define Wushu.  If the second film sought to use a visual portrayal of these practices to explain the family, it appears that the first’s real subject is the Chinese nation.  The intergenerational portrayal of the Wushu was not a coincidence.  Indeed, it can be read as an argument about transmission.  What exactly does the narrator mean when he notes that Wushu possesses “Chinese characteristics?”  The virtuosity of the anonymous teacher, and the explosive potential of his adult students, suggest that the stabilization of these traits was not a random or automatic process.  Rather it was one of refinement and discernment, the creation of something essential by those who worked under the authority of a benevolent state.

These clips are remarkable not just because of the technical prowess that Wang and his family display.  They also indicate that even prior to the advent of the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government was seriously investigating the use of the martial arts as a soft power resource.  More specifically, in these clips they sought to use visual representations of Wushu to convey basic principles about the nature of the new Chinese state and the reformed (yet still reassuring traditional) family.  Wang himself can be seen not just as a leading figure within the traditional Chinese martial arts community, but as a pioneer of the basic Kung Fu Diplomacy strategy which would come to define much of the global view of these practices in the current era.

 

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (22): Wang Ziping and the Strength of the Nation

oOo

 

 

 



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Play and Learning in the Martial Arts


Three unidentified children practice Kung Fu near the Shaolin Temple. This newswire photo was taken in 1982 and it captures the first moments of the “Golden Age” of Kung Fu in mainland China.

 

The Problem with Play

I have always found TED talks to be a mixed bag. Some are wonderful. Others I find vaguely irritating. But the project itself, which seeks to popularize some of the most important “big ideas,” is deeply interesting.  If nothing else, scrolling through a list of titles on the video platform of your choice is a good way to see which concepts are currently making their way into popular consciousness. That is important as scholars are increasingly being judged by the sorts of “real world” effects that their research generates.

If the “TED Index” has any validity, there is one idea whose time has truly come.  “Play” is back.  After decades of being little more than a term of abuse, a purposeless activity relegated to the realm of childhood, play has recently become an important concept.  While few individuals, other than a handful of psychologists and evolutionary biologists, thought about play a decade ago, today studies are being conducted, grants are being written and (many) books published.

This material seems to have come to a general agreement on a few key facts.  Play is a very important aspect of human (indeed, all mammal) learning and development. Individuals who are artificially deprived of play tend to be less creative, flexible, resilient and have an increased likelihood of psychological disorders.  The rise of anxiety, depression and suicide in the Western world, while typically blamed on cell phones and Facebook, also corresponds with the increasing displacement of all forms of play from the lives of tightly scheduled children and young adults.  It seems that the entire TED circuit speaks with a single voice when they tell us that we are facing a crisis.  As Weber’s iron cage of modern rationality grinds on, play has become an endangered species.  The result is a society filled with less creative, less sociable, and less psychologically resilient individuals, precisely at the moment when we need those sorts of attributes the most.

Nor is this simply a matter of concern for parents and school administrators. While most mammals retain some interest in play, humans are practically unique (or at least right up there with dolphins and sea otters) in that extended periods of play remain necessary for adults as well.  As one of the afore mentioned TED talks noted, the opposite of play isn’t “work.”  Its depression.  And that quip brings us to the heart of our problem.  Play has a branding problem.  Can the martial arts help?

As with so much else, I blame the Puritans for all of this. The advent of the protestant work ethic represented a fundamental break with traditional modes of social organization across large portions of the West. While there is much that we could say on the topic (indeed, entire books and articles have been written on the subject), for the purposes of the current post it is enough to note that frivolous activities came under severe scrutiny in a society where an individual’s personal value became increasingly conflated with their net worth.  After all, the one thing that no society can abide is an individual who fails to take its values seriously.  In short order “play” came to be regarded with suspicion.

Nor has the increasing secularization of society done anything to alleviate this problem.  If anything, it has gotten far worse in recent decades.  School years are longer now than they were two generations ago, and seemingly secondary subjects like music, art and recess have all found themselves on the chopping block.  The sorts of athletic leagues that most children find themselves in today are so tightly supervised and disciplined that they no longer meet even the most basic definitions of play. Indeed, the need for constant resume building has eliminated much of the unsupervised “downtime” in which childhood used to occur in.

 

Naganita Class. Okayama City, 1935. Source: Old Japan Photos.

 

Martial Arts Practice as Play

This is the section of the essay where I typically introduce martial arts practice as the unexpected solution to what ever issue kicked off our discussion.  Unfortunately, the relationship between the martial art and play is complex and multilayered.  On the one hand, these practices have been haunted by the widely held perception that they are not something that “serious” people do.  Spending an hour a day training for your half marathon is fine, even admirable.  But spending that same hour in a kung fu or kickboxing class can elicit sideways glances and nervous laughter.  Paul Bowman tries to unwrap what is going on here in the opening chapters of his volume Mythologies of Martial Arts(2016).  His arguments are well worth reviewing. But in brief, the alien and seemingly pre-modern nature of the Asian martial arts makes it difficult to incorporate them into Western society’s dominant discourses.

The health benefits of jogging are obvious, as are the competitive virtues of winning a 10K race. They require no explanation.  Yet one must always explain that kickboxing is a great workout, or that BJJ “burns a lot of calories.”  Martial artists are constantly, and with only partial success, justifying the resources that they spend on their training.  Yet at the end of the day, for most members of society, this will always be “just playing around.”  Children may get some benefits from martial arts training.  But Master Ken remains a telling image of the overly serious adult student who never managed to grow up. Serious martial arts training remains unavailable to many adults precisely because it is perceived as a type of (delusional) “play.”

The irony is that many, maybe even most, martial arts class rooms are devoid of actual play.  Real play, true play, can be antithetical to the goals of many martial arts schools.  To understand why this is we need to think a little more carefully about play itself. Unfortunately there are lots of definitions floating around and they don’t all agree. Still, I know play when I see it.  For a short essay like this a compete clinical definition probably isn’t necessary.  Luckily there are a few broadly held points of agreement that can guide our thinking.

To begin with, play is not the same thing as inaction or simply a lack of seriousness. It is an independent process in its own right, with both psychological and social aspects.  There are many types of play.  Some are deeply imaginative and others are not, being primarily observational or embodied. True play is an independently chosen activity that happens in the absence of a directing authority.  It is basically a truism to say that no one can force you to play. Play is generally seen as being purposeless.  This does not mean that it has no impact on an individual’s life.  Rather, it happens for its own sake. To summarize, fun activities are “play” only if they are self-controlled and self-directed.

A psychologist or social scientist may look at what happens in the average Taekwondo class and see a highly creative modern ritual. Individuals dress in symbolic clothing and engage in rites of reversal that upend mundane social values (such as don’t hit your friends or choke your siblings). And yet many training environments go out of their way to avoid an air of playfulness.  In its place we find the formality of ritual and the constant supervision (and correction) of concerned teachers.  Indeed, the parents of the children in the class are likely to be found on folding chairs in the school’s lobby, closely monitoring everyone’s progress. This is a type of performance staged for social purposes rather than individual play. Much the same could be said for most school sports.

One may have quite a bit of fun in such a structured martial arts class (I know I always do).  And there is no doubt that students learn and derive all sorts of physical and social benefits from participating in such classes.  And yet all of this is basically the antithesis of play.  The general feeling seems to be that not only would play in a martial environment be unproductive (how can one learn “good habits” without constant correction and oversight?), but that it might also be dangerous.  Just stop to think about the arsenal of weapons that line the walls of the average kung fu school?  Do you really want to turn the students loose for long periods of unstructured play?  Perhaps the opposite of play is actually “liability insurance.”

Luckily my own Sifu didn’t seem to believe that last point.  I can confidentially say that unstructured play was critical to my development as a Wing Chun student. Indeed, it was an important part of the curriculum.

Standard classes, graded by level and each having a well-developed curriculum, were held four nights a week at Wing Chun Hall in Salt Lake City. Yet Jon Nielson, my Sifu, was aware that more was needed when attempting to find your own place in the martial arts community.  So every Friday evening and Saturday morning his school would open for three hours of unsupervised “practice time” for anyone who wanted to come. Students of the Wing Chun Hall were expected to attend these “open sessions” on a semi-regular basis (and there was never any cost for doing so).  Even individuals from other schools were welcome to come by and train with the Wing Chun people if they so desired.  The critical thing, however, was that the one person who was rarely ever there was Sifu. The sessions were instead monitored (but not run) by his junior instructors who were under strict orders to help if asked. Otherwise students were left to train how they saw fit.  If someone wanted to learn some basic dummy exercises, even though they were years away from starting the dummy form, this was their time to do it.

Most people would come to an open session with some sort of goal in mind.  Maybe they wanted to work on a specific form.  Perhaps they were having trouble with ground-work, or one of the paired exercises that had been introduced during the week.  And it goes without saying that everyone wanted to practice Chi Sao with the more senior students (or to touch hands with visitors from different styles).

Yet three hours is a long time.  One would inevitably be drawn into all sorts of other drills, exercises and discussions that you had never envisioned. The second and third hour of any sessions always seemed to evolve organically. One might well come in to work on the dummy and end up with a pole in your hands.  I still have fond memories of one Saturday spent making up a game so that new Siu Lim Tao students could practice their footwork. While these open sessions tended to start out as directed and focused, by about hour two things had become much more fluid.

My sifu instituted these open sessions for a couple of reasons.  To begin with, everyone needs a night off.  And we can all use more hours of practice when it comes to the sorts of sensitivity drills that Wing Chun so loves.  These things are not like riding bike.  Once certainly will forget them, and you are never any better than however many hours of practice you put in the month before.

Beyond that, my Sifu was also a keen student of pedagogy.  He carefully explained to me the importance of unstructured play, free of judgement or overbearing correction, in learning any physical skill.  More specifically, he noted that this was where students would learn to trust their bodies, bodies that were now defined through a new set of skills.  And it was those martially educated bodies that would make judgements about the world. Understanding whether someone was a threat, or whether a technique was working, was an embodied process.  Teaching and drilling this material during the more structured nightly classes was not enough.  It was also a matter of how that knowledge was internalized, localized, modified and rearranged.  Drawing on his background in linguistics he noted that kung fu meant “hard/skillful work” (and it certainly is), but in China the martial arts are often associated with the verb “to play.”  One “plays wushu,” or goes to “play sticky hands.”  Both modes of action, he suggested, exist in a reciprocal relationship. Self-controlled and self-directed play is not disposable or supplemental.  Properly understood, it is a critical aspect of the learning process.

 

Chad Eisner (left) sparring with one of his students.

 

A Common Sentiment

I had not thought about my teacher’s open sessions (and how much fun they were) in a while.  But earlier this week I bumped into an old friend at the grocery store who had recently returned to the US after living abroad. She asked how my martial arts training was going and, while mentioning my various projects, I noted an upcoming workshop with a guest instructor that I would be hosting for the lightsaber combat group here in Ithaca.

My friend already considers my Chinese martial arts practice to be strange enough.  But apparently she had been gone long enough that she didn’t know about the lightsaber project.  It elicited a laugh hinting at something other than delight.  Still, laughter from the uninitiated comes with the territory when one is holding a lightsaber (or, if we are being totally honest, any other type of sword).  I noted that, if nothing else, it is easier to fill a class with lightsaber students than, say, the traditional Wing Chun swords.  She immediately noted that she would be much more likely to come to the later, “but to each their own.”

This was not the first time I have heard something like this.  When explaining to curious passersby that our lightsaber system is based, in large part, on traditional Chinese swordsmanship, this is actually a pretty common response. Everyone it seems, is more interested in “serious” fencing or maybe Wudang sword practice.  And yet we all know that the vast majority of these individuals would never actually show up for that class.  Ithaca is full of highly skilled traditional martial arts teachers that struggle to find more than a handful of students. The sad truth is, to an outside observer, anyone who voluntarily spends that much time with a sword isn’t being “serious.” How could they be?  Isn’t it all just for fun?  You might call it training, but for most people it will always be “just playing around.”

One of the challenges facing the modern martial arts is not to internalize this common critique.  It is all too easy to respond to these questions by reframing all of our activities as investments and “hard work.”  Indeed, the nationalist turn taken by the Japanese and Chinese arts in the 1930s explicitly argued that the goals of hand combat practice were fundamentally a continuation of modernist project.  The martial arts of the era demanded (and received) state support precisely because they argued that they had moved beyond childish things and become a means of “strengthening the nation.”

Such rhetoric was intoxicatingly effective in the 1930s and 1940s.  Yet these arguments work less well in the consumer driven spaces that define the modern West.  Few people want to pay $100 a month to be part of a nationalist indoctrination program.

Nor, given our increased understanding of the importance of play as an aspect of mental health, as well as its critical importance to the learning process, a move back to the “seriousness” of the 1930s would not be wise.  Sadly the martial arts sector lacks the visibility to create a widespread desire for play in the West.  I suppose that is the job of public intellectuals, morning talk show appearances, NY Times best sellers and (if all else fails) TED talks. Yet what we can do is to provide spaces for less-structured play in our classes, organizations and training structures.  My Sifu did that for me, and it was immensely valuable. After speaking with my friend I realized that my lightsaber classes might need something similar. It is not enough that an activity is imaginative or fun. We all learn fastest when given opportunities for truly independent play.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Red Boats and the Nautical Origins of the Wooden Dummy

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Through a Lens Darkly (57): The Asian Martial Arts and Modern Primitivism


This advertisement is from the 1970s, but it hits many of the same notes as the one discussed in this post and I love its graphic nature.

 

 

Introduction

My ongoing research on the public diplomacy of the Chinese martial arts has taken a decisive turn.  The Second World War is one of those historical calamities that defines an era, and I now find myself venturing into the post-war era.  This is something of an adventure for me as I have gotten rather comfortable with the first half of the twentieth century.

Adventures are fun.  But any journey worth the trip is also a bit intimidating. Moving into a new era inevitably means loosening my grip on old assumptions and trying to see familiar processes through new eyes.  More specifically, if we are going to understand how various Asian states engaged in “Kung Fu Diplomacy” in the 1950s and 1960s it becomes vitally important to learn a little more about the attitudes of the Western public that they were attempting to appeal to.  What sorts of desires and predispositions do we find here?  Why might images of the martial arts appealed to them? What did they make of updated martial arts practices the post-war period?

Such answers might help to explain some of the remaining paradoxes regarding the post-war globalization of the Asian martial arts. For instance, it makes sense that Americans would have found the Japanese martial arts more interesting than their Chinese cousins during the 1910s.  Japan had just shocked the world with their defeat of Russia, and all sorts of travel writers were commenting on the rapid modernization of its society. It was inevitable that the Western public would develop an interest in their martial arts as it sought to come to terms with a newly ascendant Japan.

This is a logical, cohesive, and widely shared narrative. It also makes what happens after WWII something of a paradox.  If there had been a degree of polite interest in the Japanese martial arts during the 1910s-1930s, it paled in comparison to the boom unleashed during the 1950s.  Yet this was a humbled Japan, one that had been exposed as a brutal fascist power and utterly broken on the battlefield of the Pacific. China, on the other hand, had been on the winning side of this conflict and an ally (if a somewhat reluctant one) of the West.  Yet American GI’s remained vastly more interested in judo than kung fu.

Perhaps Japan’s status as an occupied country after 1945 made its culture available for colonial appropriation in ways that had not really been possible in the 1920s-1930s.  If nothing, else the country was hosting a sizable occupation force? Yet China’s status as a defacto colonial power in the late Qing and early Republic period did not seem to make its physical culture all that attractive to the many missionaries, government functionaries and YMCA directors that administered the Western zones of influence there.

Donn Draeger explained his interest in the Japanese martial arts by noting the superior performance of Japanese soldiers on the battlefield. Yet surely that had as much to do with their superior weapons, officers and communications systems as anything else. Something in this equation remains unexplained.  Japan continued to possess a store of cultural desire (or “soft power”) that was intuitively obvious to individuals at the time. But what exactly was it? Ruth Benedict’s controversial book, the Chrysanthemum and the Sword, has been widely criticized for what it got wrong about Japanese society.  Yet we still need to come to terms with its popularity.  What does this say about the Western adoption of the martial arts, and their continued preference for Japanese, rather than Chinese, fighting systems in the 1950s and early 1960s.  After all, it was an era when American servicemen and women were being in posted in Taiwan and all over the Pacific region.  Why not a sudden interest in White Crane?

 

Funny story, I decided to write this post while listening to a DJ on an NPR’s Retro Cocktail Hour play this record.

 

 

Visiting the Tiki Bar

We can shed some light on this small mystery by turning our attention to a larger paradox, emerging from the realm of architecture.  In 1949 the Eames finished construction on “Case Study Number 8”, now known simply as the Eames House.  This masterpiece of modern design was an experiment in using newly available “off the shelf” materials (many invented during WWII) to create functional modern dwellings to address America’s post-war housing crisis.  If one were searching for a harbinger of mid-century design, something that would begin to push its simplified, functional, glass and steel lines into the mainstream of American culture, this might well be it.

Yet this was not the only architectural trend to explode in the early 1950s.  At exactly the same time that Americans were building mid-century masterpieces, they were also creating thousands of cringeworthy Tiki bars.  It would be hard to think of two aesthetic visions that could be more opposed to each other.  Why would the flannel suit clad worshipers of America’s modernist temples spend their evenings in Tiki bars, listening to an endless supply of ethnically inspired vinyl records that inevitably featured the word “savage” in their titles?

Americans are restless spirits searching for paradise.  Their popular culture has been shaped by reoccurring debates about where it is to be found, and how one might acquire such an ephemeral state.  Much of the 19thcentury was invested in debates between pre and post-millennial religious movements.  In the early 20thcentury these currents secularized and reemerged as a debate between what I will call “progressive modernism” and “modern primitivism.”

It was the core values of progressive moderns that the period’s architecture rendered in steel and concrete. This social movement exhibited an immense faith in the ability of technology to address a wide range of material and social challenges, and the wisdom of human beings to administer these ever more complex systems. The era that gave us the space race promised that man’s destiny lay among the stars, and it was only of matter of time until well ordered, rational, societies reached them.  Of course, there were underlying discourses that found a certain expression in the 1950s.  It is clear that science and modernism had been looking for a future paradise in the stars since at least the time of Jules Verne.  But the 1950s threatened to make this vision a reality.

Reactions against progressive modernism also had their roots in the pre-war period.  Post-impressionist artists were becoming increasingly concerned about the sorts of social alienation that technological change brought.  They turned to African, Native American and Asian art as models because the abstract forms they found within them seemed to symbolize the alienation of modern individuals cut off from traditional modes of understanding.  Yet these “primitive” models also offered a different vision of paradise, the promise that an early Garden of Eden could still be recovered if we were to turn our backs on a narrow vision of progress and attempt to recapture the wisdom that “primitive” communities possessed.

The current of “modern primitivism” surged again in the post-war era, a period of unprecedented economic and technological change.  A wide range of thinkers once again became concerned with creeping alienation.  Some noted that that an Eden could be found within.  Joseph Campbell, drawing on the work of Jung and Freud, released his landmark Hero with a Thousand Facesin 1949.  Rather than seeing happiness and fulfillment as something to be achieved through future progress, Campbell drew on psychological models to argue for a return to something that was timeless.  The stories of forgotten and “primitive” societies were a sign post to our collective birth right.  Likewise, Alan Watt’s the great popularizer of Zen Buddhism, published prolifically throughout the 1950s and 1960s, feeding an endless desire for an internal technology that could insulate us against fears of displacement, alienation and even nuclear annihilation.

It is easy to discount the Tiki Bar, to treat it as an architectural oddity.  Yet it was simply a popular manifestation of a fascination with naturalism and primitivism whose genealogy stretches back to the first years of the twentieth century. The easy play with sexual innuendo and hyper-masculinity that marked these spaces makes sense when placed within the larger discourses on the stifling effects of modernism, social conformity and the need to return to a more “primitive” state to find human fulfillment.  The savage was held up as someone who bore a secret vitally important to navigating those temples of glass and steel that marked the American landscape.

 

 

 

A Kendo Lesson

The pieces are now in place to approach the central subject of this essay.  Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Canadian Club whisky ran an advertising campaign attempting to associate their product with notions of exotic travel and (luxurious) adventure. In an era when much of the advertising in the alcohol market focused on nostalgic images of hearth and home (situating the consumption of whisky within a comfortable upper-middle class heteronormativity) Canadian Club asked its drinkers to aspire to something more.  It featured images of archeological expeditions to Central America, safaris in Africa, and (of course) adventures in the exotic east.

Yet the fulfillment in these adds was not simply the product of getting back to nature, or living in a more primitive condition. It was necessary to physically strive with the citizens of these realms to capture some aspect of their wisdom.  At times these advertisements, each of which reads like a miniature travelogue, seem to spend as much time advertising hoplology as whiskey.  Of course, nothing as prosaic as judo was featured in these adds. One did not need to join the jet set to experience Kano’s gentle art.  More exotic practices, including jousting matches between Mexican cowboys, stick fighting in Portugal, and Japanese kendo were held up as the true measure of a man.

Judging from years of watching eBay auctions, the Kendo campaign was Canadian Clubs most successful of their excursions into hoplology. Or, more accurately, people have been more likely to preserve the Kendo advertisements than some of the other (equally interesting) campaigns.

Titled “In Japanese Kendo its no runs, all hits and no errors” the advertisement tells the story of traveler who comes to Japan and, after a brief period of instruction, joins a kendo tournament.  Readers are informed:

“A greenhorn hasn’t a chance when he crosses ‘swords’ in a Japanese Kendo match,” writes John Rich, an American friend of Canadian Club “In Tokyo I took a whack at this slam-bang survivor of Japan’s 12thcentury samurai warrior days.  The Samurai lived by the sword and glorified his flashing blade.  His peaceful descendant uses a two-handed bamboo shinai in a lunging duel that makes Western fencing look like a dancing class.”

Predictably, things go badly for Mr. Rich who is immediately eliminated without being able to get a blow in against his first opponent. His instructor informs him that he “needs more training.” But its ok, because even in an environment as exotic as this, one can still enjoy Canadian Club whisky with your fellow adventurers. Interestingly, the advertisement places Mori Sensei within the category of fellow travelers when he opens a bottle from his personal reserves.  Thus, a community is formed between the jet setting adventurer and the bearer of primitive wisdom through their shared admiration for the same popular brand.

So what is the Ethos of a kendo tournament, at least according to a 1955 alcohol advertisement?  It is challenging and painful.  But is it primitive?  Is it savage?

Historians of the Japanese martial arts can easily inform us that Kendo is basically a product of the 19thand early 20thcenturies.  Yet this advertisement repeatedly equates it with the world of the samurai, thus suggests that something medieval lives on in Japan.  According to mythmakers in both East and West, this is a defining feature of Japanese culture.  So clearly there is a type of “primitivism” here.

Nor does one need to look far for the savagery.  It is interesting to think about what sorts of practices we don’t see in these advertisements.  I have never seen a Canadian Club story on judo, Mongolian wrestling or professional wrestling. Not all of these adds focus on combat, the jet setter had many adventures to consume. Yet when the martial arts did appear, they inevitably involved weapons.  I suspect this is not a coincidence.

Paul Bowman meditated on the meaning of these sorts of issues in his 2016 volume Mythologies of Martial Arts.   While those of us within the traditional martial arts think nothing of picking up a stick, training knife or sword, he sought to remind us that to most outsiders, such activities lay on a scale somewhere between “deranged” on one end and “demented” on the other.  While one might argue for the need for “practical self-defense,” it is a self-evident fact few people carry swords in the current era and even fewer are attacked with them while walking through sketchy parking garages. There is just very little rational justification for this sort of behavior.  Most of who engage in regular weapons practice can speak at length about why we find these practices rewarding, or how they help to connect us with the past. But all of that rests on a type of connoisseurship that most people would find mystifying.  For them, an individual who plays with swords has either seen too many ninja movies or is simply asking for trouble.  Playing with weapons (as opposed to more responsible pursuit like jogging, or even cardo kick-boxing) is almost the definition of “savage.”

But what about an entire society that plays with swords? What if one has been told, rightly or wrongly, that this is a core social value?  It is that very disjoint with modernity that would make such a group a target for the desires of modern primitivism.  The problem with the Chinese (and hence the Chinese martial arts) was not that they won or lost any given war.  Rather, it was the (entirely correct) perception that the Chinese people did not valorize violence.  Despite all of the critiques that were directed at their “backward state” and “failure to modernize” in the 1920s-1930s, their pacific nature was seen as a positive value widely shared with the West (indeed, it was a point of emphasis in WWII propaganda films).  Ironically, that similarity would serve to make Chinese boxing less appealing to the sorts of individuals who consumer Canadian Club whisky, or at least its advertisement.  Nor did the actual performance of real Japanese troops on specific battlefields determine the desirability of their martial arts.  It was the image of cultural essentialism (carefully constructed by opinion makers in both Japan and the West), which made kendo desirable because of its “primitive nature,” not despite it.

Seen in this light, the early global spread of the Japanese arts makes more sense.  What had once been a modernist and nationalist project could play a different role in the post-war American landscape.  These arts promised a type of self-transformation that placed them in close proximity to the currents of modern primitivism.  While the Tiki bar appealed to those who sought temporary release from the strictures of progressive modernism, the martial arts spoke to those who sought a different sort of paradise.  Theirs was an Eden to be found in the wisdom of “primitive” societies and the search for the savage within.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: The Tao of Tom and Jerry: Krug on the Appropriation of the Asian Martial Arts in Western Culture

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Individualism, Art and Craft: Reading Bruce Lee by the Numbers


 

 

 

Interpreting Bruce Lee

We may debate lists of the 20th century’s most influential martial artists,* but when it comes to written texts, there is simply no question.  “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate,”  Bruce Lee’s 1971 manifesto, first appearing in the September issue of Black Belt magazine, has been reprinted, read, criticized and commented upon more than any other English language work.  Like many aspects of Lee’s legacy, it has generated a fair degree of controversy.  But what interests me the most is the scope and character of its audience.

One might suppose that Lee’s essay would have been read primarily by the Karate students that the title hailed, or perhaps by the generations of Kung Fu students who have come to idolize him.  And it is entirely understandable that this text has assumed an important place within the Jeet Kune Do community.  Yet its title notwithstanding, Lee never intended this piece as a narrow argument.  Nor, when we get right down to it, was Lee actually trying to convince anyone to quite Karate in favor of another style.  Such nationalist or partisan concerns were a feature of the earlier phase of his career. By 1971 Lee was concerned with more fundamental issues.

Yet all of these statements are really my own personal readings, and as such they open the door to questions of interpretation. What are the most valid ways to read Lee’s famous essay? And what sorts of interpretations might be unsupportable, what Umberto Eco called “overinterpretations” (See “Interpretation and Overinterpretation: World, History, Texts” (Cambridge University 1990). I have it on good authority that two of my friends are currently preparing a debate on this text, and what it suggests about the validity of various theories of interpretation, which will appear in a future issue of Martial Arts Studies.

With that on the horizon, I am hesitant to venture too far into the same territory.  Yet if he were here, Umberto Eco’s would probably point out that a close reading reveals that Lee seems to have had some well-developed thoughts on how his essay should be read, and what sorts of interpretations of this text (and the Jeet Kune Do project more generally), might be considered valid.  Lee begins his argument with the well known story of the Zen master overflowing a cup of tea precisely to head off responses to his work that might be classified as “arguments from authority.”  Indeed, in the very next paragraph he tells his readers that he has structured his essay like the traditional martial arts classes that they are all so familiar with. First the mental limbering up must happen so that one’s received bodily (or mental) habits can be set aside.  Only then is it possible to see events as they actually are, without resorting to the crutch of style (or perhaps theory) to tell you what you are perceiving.

As a social scientist I am very suspicious of those who claim to be able to put “theory” aside and to simply see a situation for what it really is. As one of my old instructors colorfully declared, no such thing is possibly.  “Theory is hardwired into our eyeballs.”  It is fundamental to how our brains make sense of raw stimulus. We all have so many layers of mental habit, training and predisposition that the notion of setting it aside is fundamentally misguided.  Much the same could be said of our bodily predispositions.  Lee is correct in that one can set aside style.  But the more basic structures that Marcel Mauss called “techniques of the body”, or Bourdieu’s socio-economically defined (and defining) “habitus,” are not things that can ever really be set aside. Seeing the world with no filter at all, dealing with pure objective reality, is not possible, no matter how much enthusiasm Lee generates for the project.

On a personal level I suspect that while we all strive (and we should strive) to empty our cups, the best we can actually do is to try and be aware of the unique perspectives that each of us bring to an event. For instance, when Lee composed the arguments and images that make up this essay, it was with the intention of constructing what Eco called a “model reader”, someone who would become sympathetic to the arguments that he was trying to make. This was not necessarily a reader who would quit his karate class and put on a JKD shirt (though that might happen).  Again, Lee was pretty explicit about his aims.  He wasn’t trying to make America’s martial artists more like him in a technical sense.  Rather, it was enough if they simply began to “leave behind the burdens of pre-conceived opinions and conclusions,” and base their training strategies on personal observations of what actually happened rather than someone else’s notions of what should happen.  In essence, Lee was not so much proposing that America’s martial artists change styles (something that by definition could only be a pointless, lateral, move). Rather, he wanted them to begin to think seriously about how exactly they knew what they knew.  He wanted them to change epistemologies.

We can say this much with confidence. Yet knowing everything that Lee wanted, or intended, as an author is tricky.  This was not a long essay, and while key points can be teased out (e.g., a surprising degree of faith in the individual and a notable suspicion of all sources of social authority), many lines in the essay remain open to interpretation.  It is the sort of text that rewards a very close, sentence by sentence, reading. Even then, all we can really know is the intention of this essay, a linguistic artifact created at a specific moment in 1971.  It is interesting to speculate as to what a much younger Lee would have made of this text.  And by the end of his life in 1973 his thoughts on the value of Jeet Kune Do seem to have evolved rather dramatically.  While we might fruitfully debate the interpretation of Lee’s text, the interpretation of its author remains a much more difficult task.

Still, Lee attempted to make it clear that certain interpretations of his text were out of bounds. It is that authorial strategy that actually brings Eco’s approach to mind as possible interpretive strategy. He notes that a proper reading would be a humanist one.  For Lee the martial arts are properly a matter of individual human activity rather than the exclusive property of nations or groups.  He notes that his essay should not be seen as a polemic by a Chinese martial artist against the Japanese bushido.  Nor should he be read as proposing a new style or system of martial training.  It also seems clear that Lee himself is the subject of the extended metaphor on page 25.  It is the author himself who in the past “discovered some partial truth” and “resisted the temptation to organize” it.  The whole story is directed towards Lee’s own students who in their enthusiasm to wrench meaning from one part of Lee’s text (or bodily practice) might fall prey to Eco’s process of “overinterpretation.”

All of this is only my interpretation of Lee’s essay, and it goes without saying that I am a type of reader that this text never anticipated.  After all, the academic study of the martial arts did not really exist in 1971, certainly not the way that it does now.

What audience did Lee, as an author, seek? What sort of “model reader” did this text intend to create? And why was there even a need to issue a call for liberation in the first place?  One might suppose that the value of freedom, self-expression and increased fighting prowess would simply be self-evident.  The fact that Lee is extolling their virtue, and calling for a fundamental change in the sources of authority that martial artists are willing to accept, suggests that it was not.

 

While I have never seen a martial arts themed paint by numbers, the “oriental other” was a popular subject between the 1950s and the 1970s.

 

Paint by Numbers

Eco may be correct that it is essentially impossible to divine the true intent of an author simply from the resulting text. Yet the complexity of that task pales in comparison with the challenge of reconstructing how his or her readers responded to that text at a given point in history.  After all, the author had the good sense to leave us with a text (even if his meanings may have been unclear).  The readers, more often than not, left nothing but nods of agreement or groans of frustration deposited within the etheric sphere.  Trying to reconstruct their experience through our own empathic imagination might really be an exercise in “organized despair,” to borrow a phrase from Lee.  Yet it is precisely in those moments, where the expectation of the reader and the intention of a text clash, that brief bursts of light are created.  And this fading conflict can suggest some of the critical features that once defined a historical landscape.  While difficult, it is worthwhile to try and discover something about the “model readers” who struggled with, and were organized by, this text.  Indeed, I actually find the readers of this essay even more interesting (and vastly more sociologically significant) than its author. Yet we know so much less about them.

While few readers took the time to provide contemporaneous documentation of their first reading of this essay (I know of no such record), it would not be correct to say that they left no evidence of their passing.  For one thing, the 1970s produced a rich material and symbolic record which suggests some interesting hypotheses about the sorts of audience that Lee would have encountered.  Two such artifacts are currently hanging on the wall of my living room.

They appear in the form of pair of paint by number landscapes, illustrating a wintery New England day so picturesque that one is quite certain that it never happened.  These paintings were completed by a woman in 1971, the same year that Lee’s essay first appeared.  One suspects that if he had taken an interest in art criticism Lee would have had much to say about my paintings. With a few choice substitutions his famous essay could easily be retitled “Liberate Yourself from the Paint by Number Kit” and it would read almost as well.

That, seemingly flippant, observation reveals an important clue about the sorts of readers (and martial artists) that Lee was addressing.  We don’t have a large body of informed martial arts criticism dating from the 1970s, but we do have a vast literature on the criticism of the visual arts.  And several critics explicitly addressed the paint by numbers fad.  The sorts of arguments that they made sound, at least to my ear, uncannily like the points that Lee was trying to make.

By 1971 the paint by number phenomenon was already a well-established part of American middle class landscape (much like the neighborhood judo club).  These kits were originally conceived of by an artist named Dan Robbins and Max S. Klein, the owner of the Palmer Paint Company.  After the end of WWII Americans leveraged their increased rights in the workplace, and a period of unprecedented economic growth, to create a new golden age of the leisure economy.  The forty-hour work week meant that workers had more free time than ever before, and they had enough income to fill those hours with an ever expanding range of activities. The visual arts were increasingly popular, but for most people doing their own paintings remained an aspirational dream.  Robbins and Klein decided that simple kits, which required only an ability to color within the lines, would provide Americans with many hours of relaxation while selling an unprecedented amount of paint. Their initial run of kits, which attempted to educate consumers about the latest trends in serious modern art, did not sell particularly well.  But when more nostalgic images of the countryside, animals, dancers and the “exotic East” were introduced, it was clear that a cultural phenomenon had been born.

This did not please most of the art critics of the day. The lack of creativity, indeed, the process of near mechanical reproduction, involved in these “paintings” came to symbolize the worst aspects of 1950s social conformity. [Note also that cover of the 1971 Black Belt issues has Lee  hyperbolically warning America’s martial artists that they are being transformed into machines].  In the view these critics, individuals were drawn to art because they wanted to experience creativity. Yet these kits promised them basic results only by foreswearing any degree of individual expression.  When the critics imaged millions of (near identical) Mona Lisas hanging on the walls of the millions of (near identical) tiny homes which populated America’s postwar landscape, they found themselves drowning in a nightmare of suburban mediocrity.

This was precisely the cultural milieu that inspired Umberto Eco to undertake his cross-continental road-trip, explicitly focusing on the question of simulation in the American imagination of fine art, which would result in his essay “Travels in Hyperreality.”   This is a work that has proved important to my own understanding of the role of cultural desire within the martial arts.  Still, the judgement of the contemporary critics was clear.  Art was the product of individual inspiration and struggle with a constantly changing world.  These paintings were not art.  At best they were a mechanically reproduced “craft.”

Yet there has always been a strain of American popular culture within which such an assertion does not work as an invective. The entire turn of the century “arts and crafts” movement (seen in architecture, furniture, and the graphic arts) explicitly rejected the elitism of high art and instead asked what sort of social benefit could be derived from the support of, and participation in, wholesome crafts in which people enriched and beautified their environments while supporting local craftsmen. Nor do most of the post-war individuals who spent their afternoons with these kits seem to have aspired to be “artists.”  While such questions may have been critical to the critics, these were not categories that structured the lives of these consumers.

Paint by numbers was popular because the process was enjoyable.  People found these kits to be relaxing. Further, the idea that one could make an object suitable for display in their own homes was intrinsically rewarding. In light of this, the critic’s emphasis on individual creativity and authenticity seems to have been misplaced.  No one bought a Mona Lisa kit because they wanted to express their authentic “inner vision.” Rather, they wanted to enter into a dialogue with that specific piece of art.  They sought to understand someone else’s vision, and to be part of a community that appreciated that.

The entire genera of paint by numbers is marked with an almost overwhelming air of nostalgia.  This was an exercise in cultivating (and satisfying) a desire for preexisting categories of meaning.  Through the reproduction of different types of art (religious images, Italian masters, American landscapes, dancing figures, Paris cityscapes, etc….) individuals sought to align themselves with, and appropriate, some specific aspect of pre-existing social authority.  Make no mistake, the creation of real art is hard work.  Yet paint by numbers succeeded as a popular medium because it took seriously the notion of leisure. The physical artifacts that it generated were, in many ways, secondary to the social and psychological benefits created.

A traditional class within the Japanese martial arts might seem quite different than a paint by number kit.  Ideally the later generates very little sweating and yelling, while the former practically demands it. Yet it is no coincidence that these pursuits both exploded into America popular culture in the 1950s, driven by the growth of the post-war leisure economy. Both sought to simplify complex elite activities and present them to the masses in such a way that they could be easily mastered. Indeed, the standardized kata and training methods seen in Meiji and Showa era martial arts schools seem to have appealed to the same social sensibilities that Robbins and Klein sought to capitalize on.

Nor do questions of individuals or individual expression figure that prominently into the early post-war martial arts discourse.  We should hedge this last point as, while they were more visible, the Asian martial arts remained outside of the hegemonic aspects of Western culture (Bowman 2017).  To practice Judo in the 1950s was an expression of individual choice and values in a way that would not have been true of Japanese school children taking a Judo class in 1937.  And it is certainly true that when many returning GI’s (and later Korean and Vietnam veterans), took up these pursuits. Some sought solace, while others were looking for a source of martial excellence.    For instance, Donn F. Draeger’s letters to R. W. Smith make it clear that he was quite interested in the Japanese koryu, but had no interest in contemporary Chinese martial arts, because Japan had performed well on the battle field, and Chinese troops, by in large, had not (Miracle 2016).

Yet I doubt that Draeger was expecting to find real, unfiltered, free-style violence within the traditional dojo. One suspects that most of these vets, at least the ones who had actually seen combat, would have had enough of that on the beaches of the Pacific. What seems to have motivated many of these early students was not so much the search for “realism,” as it was the search for a “cultural essence.” Knowing the reality of warfare, one wonders whether they were freed from petty debates about the “reality of the octagon” (or its post-war equivalents).

Draeger threw himself into highly ritualized styles of Japanese swordsmanship not because he believed this was what a “scientific street fight” actually looked like.  He seems to have been looking for a deeper set of answers as to how men had achieved victory in combat in the past.  The answers were partially technical, but they also included more. Rightly or wrongly, it was clear to Draeger that (some) Japanese martial artists had the answers, while the Chinese did not. His friend and fellow researcher, R. W. Smith, came to a different set of conclusions after his own experiences with Chinese martial artist while living in Japan and Taiwan. Their martial arts research was not so much about expressing individualism in the abstract (though Draeger’s interests in body building did eventually take him in that direction), but understanding systems of social authority that had allowed individuals to do amazing things.

 

Bruce Lee Graffiti. Source: Wikimedia.

 

Conclusion: A Debate Between Readers

These duel excursus into the graphic arts and the early days of hoplology suggests how one group of readers may have approached Lee’s classic essay.  In larger cultural terms, Lee’s essay may be less daring than it first appears. While such discussions were novel in the small world of Western martial arts practice, art and culture critics had been making points very similar to Lee’s for decades. They had been doing that because activities that were structurally similar to the practice of the traditional martial arts had become increasingly common within American society since the early 1950s.  Lee is often portrayed as a radical or iconoclastic thinker, but when placed next to these critics his calls for individual expression and authenticity within the arts actually replicate the era’s elite social values. More radical, in some senses, were the voices that argued for primacy of craftmanship over art, or for a turn towards a foreign (even colonial) set of cultural values as a way of dealing with the malaise of modern life.

The issues being debated by the martial artists of the 1970s (and still today) are so fundamental that Lee’s essay was bound to generate disagreement.  The editors of Black Belt anticipated this. It may be worth reading Lee’s essay in comparison with the issue’s opening editorial on the importance of bowing and traditional etiquette, as well as its final article titled “The Legacy of the Dojo” by David Krieger (50). The first piece contains a quote by an anonymous Chinese martial artist (who may well be Bruce Lee himself as he often haunted the magazine’s offices) praising the efforts of Japanese martial artists to bring morality into their training halls while noting the often-disrespectful ways that Chinese students discussed their own teachers.  The two pieces, which both make oblique arguments for the acceptance of traditional modes of social authority within the Asian martial arts, seem to offer an intentional counterpoint to some of Lee’s more individualistic notes.

When we consider the larger social trends in post-war America, and read Lee’s essay in conjunction with the pieces that bookend the September 1971 issue, the parameters of the debate become clearer.  Then, as now, the martial arts could be seen either as a vehicle for understanding traditional modes of social authority, or as a means of breaking them down. Readers split on this issue, just as they still do today.  It is precisely this ongoing dialectic that allows the ostensibly “traditional” Asian martial arts to fill so many social roles in the modern Western world. This essay’s genius lies not in its ability to convince one side or the other, but in its ability to draw successive generations into the discussion.

 

*For the record, Kano Jigoro has my vote for the 20th century’s most influential martial artist.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Explaining “Openness” and “Closure” in Kung Fu, Lightsaber Combat and Modern Martial Arts

oOo



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The Martial Arts Studies Reader: 2018’s Essential Book


 

 

An Essential Book

 

This is a time of year to sit back and reflect on our achievements and struggles.  I suspect that within the broader historical record 2018 will be remembered for its calamities.  Yet it has been a remarkable year for Martial Arts Studies.  And that is where my trouble begins. It is one thing to make lists of important events or news stories. It is quite another to name the most significant achievements within a quickly growing academic field.

In the past Kung Fu Tea’s New Year’s post has honored either the best blog or scholarly book on the martial arts. Given the avalanche of new publications, one suspects that this would be a good year to once again focus our attention on the best books.  And I have read quite a few excellent works.  I am even tempted to simply give the honor to Lauren Miller Griffith and Jonathan Marion’s Apprentice Pilgrimages: Developing Expertise Through Travel and Training (Lexington, 2018) as it provided a great ethnographic examination of the role of travel in martial arts practice. On a more personal note, it was also a fascinating explanation of why I seem to spend so much time in airports even though I am not particularly fond of flying.

Unfortunately, there are still several books that I have not read, and some that I am really looking forward to. I will try do better on that front in 2019 but, as it stands now, naming a “best book” seems a bit presumptuous.  Still, there was one publication that deserves special consideration. I can, without hesitation, name The Martial Arts Studies Reader (Cardiff UP) 2018’s most “essential” book. If you only read a single new book within the field, it should be this one.

Even that more limited pronouncement may raise suspicion.  Edited collections have never commanded the same prestige as single-authored monographs. They tend to tell the reader a great deal about where a field is at, but they typically do not to advance the high-stakes theoretical arguments that can actually shape a research area going forward. Some might accuse me of choosing an edited volume, which includes excellent chapters by many of my friends and colleagues, so that I would not have to go out on a limb and favor just one. And they would be absolutely correct! At least partially.

Fields are advanced when top scholars put out the sorts of books that tenure committees love.  But they also progress when a community of readers takes a long and reflective look at where we stand now.  What type of work are we producing in our field?  How did we even become a research field?  What set of needs or desires is Martial Arts Studies fulfilling within both the academy and the larger social discussion of these fighting systems?  And, most importantly, how do we ensure that a desire for this sort of work continues to grow in the future?

The Martial Arts Studies Reader can claim two great accomplishments. The first is that it provides a comprehensive collection of brief articles ideal for class room use. As Bowman and Morris observe in their concluding dialog, the desire for some activity (even the scholarly study of the martial arts) does not necessarily exist in some platonic state prior to anyone actually doing it.  Rather, we typically only develop a desire for something once we have been exposed to it, seen other people do it, and been asked to take part in it ourselves.  In fact, the story of Martial Arts Studies, as a field, is very much the story of how an ever-wider circle of readers and scholars have been drawn into a dialog with each other, catalyzed by a mutual attraction to these fighting systems.

Discussions of the state of our field often focus on theoretical discourses, conferences or important publications.  Yet the desire for any sort of academic discussion is typically born and nurtured in the classroom.  It was in the lecture hall that most of us chose our disciplines and research fields. And it will likely be in the class room that a new generation of undergraduates will be exposed to Martial Arts Studies and decide to pursue their own research on these topics in graduate school.  The creation of resources that can spark a desire for more scholarly investigations of the martial arts is in no way secondary, or “supplemental,” to the development of the field.  It is something that we should all strive to do.

Yet for readers who have already found a home within Martial Arts Studies, Paul Bowman’s edited volume does something else.  Through a broad survey that touches on many critical trends in the field, he asks us to consider what sort of field MAS has become?  What sort of academic and social work is it doing? Do we like the current direction? Indeed, his collection holds a remarkably clear and incisive mirror to the field’s face.

Each of these questions is important enough that it deserves an in-depth response of its own.  Yet rather than writing several separate posts, I think that a turn to the comparative method may begin to address these issues.  As important as this reader is, it is not the first edited volume on the academic study of the martial arts.  There have been quite a few important collections on this subject over the decades, probably due to the lack of journal outlets for research of the martial arts between the 1980s and 2000s.  One might even say that the desire for a larger, more independent, field of martial arts studies was born out of edited volumes which, by choice or necessity, brought together scholars from many disciplines, as well as independent researchers that who often approached these questions without any disciplinary commitments at all.

If we really wish to understand the significance of the Martial Arts Studies Reader, and what it suggests about the current state of the field, we need to place it side by side with these other collections and subject them all to a focused comparison.  In the interests of time I will restrict my own investigation to three other volumes. While hardly comprehensive, I have selected these works as I suspect that anyone who will buy the Martial Arts Studies Readerlikely owns them as well, suggesting that a meaningful exercise in comparative reading really is possible.

 

 

Honest question, what could be more masculine that Donn F. Draeger and Sean Connery together on the set of “You only Live Twice.” Lets call this Martial Arts Studies mark 1.

 

 

The Comparative Context

 

There is one critical, yet paradoxically unaddressed, question which haunts the modern field of Martial Arts Studies. At what point, and in what ways, has this exercise diverged from the older approaches to Hoplology, pioneered by William Burton, Donn F. Draeger and others?  Why has this effort (so far) succeeded when so many others failed to launch?

I am aware of a few researchers who refuse to admit that such a split has taken place and simply use the terms ‘Hoplology’ and ‘Martial Arts Studies’ interchangeably.  Yet if I had to note one specific instance that signaled the rise of something fresh and new it would be Green and Svinth’s 2003 edited collection, Martial Arts in the Modern World (Praeger).  Released a few years after Wile’s pioneering work on Taijiquan (SUNY, 1996) and Hurst’s efforts on the Armed Martial Arts of Japan (Yale UP, 1998), this collection signaled to readers both the vitality of these early efforts and the ability of scholarly discussions of the martial arts to move beyond traditional disciplinary and geographic boundaries.  Anthropological discussions were most meaningful when they were placed next to historical studies of events on a different continent, or sociological investigations of community formation.

It is somewhat telling that this volume was dedicated to “John F. Gilbey, who inadvertently showed us the way.”  Of course, Gilbey was the literary creation of Donn F. Draeger and R. W. Smith, the early pioneers of Hoplology. Frustrated by the seemingly endless gullibility (or perhaps orientalist longing) of North American readers who could not distinguish reliable truths from fantasy, these early researchers decided to get in on the act by publishing pseudo-biographical accounts of a fictional martial arts adventurer that read like an early draft for “the most interesting man in the world” advertisements mashed up with the spy-cartoon Archer.  Exactly what “direction” Gilbey showed anyone is left open to speculation, but he certainly fanned the same flames of cultural desire which had given him birth.

Yet what interests me the most about this collection is what does not appear within it.  A single pseudonymous dedication is the closest that Smith and Draeger come to substantive inclusion in this volume.  Smith’s unfortunate publication on the Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing gets a mention by Stanley Henning, who otherwise enjoyed his work with the caveats that one had to consider the “limitations” that the author was working under at the time.  Neither Smith nor Draeger are even listed in the index.  Nor does their highly empirical vision of hoplology, one based on the recovery, recording and comparison of technique, appear at all in the historically and socially focused volume curated by Green and Svinth.  The authors included in this collection came from both academic backgrounds and the more practical worlds of martial arts practice. Yet while acknowledging a debt of gratitude to Hoplology (or more precisely, it’s fantastic doppelganger), already by 2003 the desires of these authors was moving in a substantially different direction.

“Desire” may be the critical term when thinking about this volume’s place in evolution of our current field.  It spoke to, and fanned the flames of, a certain type of desire for community and communication.  And yet with the possible exception of a few articles this was not the desire for a new “interdisciplinary disciplinary academic field.”  Not exactly.  This was a book that appears to have been produced more for “the love of the game” than any sort of professional obligation. Only a couple of these authors had even came out of traditional university departments. In no way do I seek to impugn the quality of the work that was produced by pointing that out.  Scholarly investigations of the martial arts was clearly something that people desired, but it still remained secondary to disciplinary concerns, or the more serious business of actual practice.  Much like the afore mentioned Gilby, current readers might view this volume as a promise that pointed the way.

The situation seems to have been quite different in 2011 when Farrer and Whalen-Bridge published Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World (SUNY Press). It is striking to consider how differently scholarly studies of the martial arts are socially positioned within their volume. The introduction begins with the editors laying out the case for the existence of a new approach to Martial Arts Studies.  They explicitly address the contributions of Burton and Draeger (as well as modern students of Hoplology) before arguing that if progress is to be made in this new field we must de-centralize “how-to” studies in favor of “a more theoretically informed strategy grounded in serious contemporary scholarship that questions the practice of martial arts in their social, cultural, aesthetic, ideological, and transnational embodiment.” (p. 8) If one were to look for a simple constitution outlining the intellectual mandate and responsibilities of Martial Arts Studies, this paragraph would be an critical place to start.

Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge remains among the better organized collections within the field of martial arts studies. The move towards a sustained engagement with academic theory meant that there was much less room for those without extensive scholarly training and a continual engagement with these discourses. As one reads through the list of contributors to this volume (all of whom were professional academics) one can only note that the professionalism that Draeger had hoped to achieve had finally arrived but, ironically, shut the door on Hoplology’s hopes of ever being the primary vehicle for the academic study of the martial arts.

Professionalization also brings with it the possibility of increasingly fruitful specialization.  This was reflected in the scope of Farrer and Whallen-Bridges collection.  Arranged in three sections the article sought to address “Embodied [and media] Fantasy,” ways in which the “Social Body Trains” and finally “Transnational Self-Construction.”  Each topic was approached from a variety of perspectives yielding one of the first truly interdisciplinary conversations within Martial Arts Studies. And all of these categories of investigating have remained central to martial arts studies today.

Garcia and Spencer’s 2013 Fighting Scholars: Habitus and Ethnographies of Martial Arts and Combat Sports (Anthem Press),demonstrated progress in different ways.  Rather than broadly surveying the sorts of work that could be done within an interdisciplinary field, it chose a single conceptual framework, the notions of habitus and carnal sociology as developed by Wacquant in his groundbreaking Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. By design this was a narrower collection, but it was one that demonstrated that Martial Arts Studies was capable of engaging with (and in turn being engaged by) some of the most seminal thinkers of the day.

Where as Farrer and Whalen-Bridge had emphasized the professionalization of the field, Garcia and Spencer’s promoted the work of many younger and up and coming scholars. This choice illustrated the explosion of interest that had taken place in the decade since Green and Svinth’s 2003 volume, and foreshadowed the publishing boom that we see now.

Within our survey this volume is unique in its focus on a single conceptual framework and debate.  In that way it helped to establish the discourse on habitus and embodiment that has come to dominate much of the Martial Arts Studies literature.  Yet I have always felt that it also (often inadvertently) demonstrated the limits of this approach.  That was a point that Bowman would explicitly return to in the concluding discussion of the Martial Arts Studies Reader.  Fields are constructed just as much by debates over key concepts as agreements. Even the ability to identify weaknesses in certain contributions marks an important point of progress.

All of which returns us to Bowman’s own effort. The Martial Arts Studies Readeris, in many ways, a natural culmination of what has come before.  It is the fully realized fruit of the desire for community signaled by Martial Arts in the Modern World.  Like Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledgeit is a fully professionalized volume, and one that explicitly seeks a broad engagement with critical trends in recent scholarship.  Yet it also shows increasing sophistication in that its contributors seek not just to borrow from the disciplines, but to either contribute to their critical debates, or to move beyond them all together.  All of this is organized and curated in a collection ideally suited for survey courses on the growing field of Martial Arts Studies.

 

Martial arts studies conference group photograph (taken the closing day), July 1017 at Cardiff University. Martial Arts Studies Mark 2?

 

Concluding Thoughts

 

Comparing this work against the collections which have come before also allows us to ask some critical questions about the direction that martial arts studies is headed. To address one of Bowman’s earlier questions, this collection suggests that a research field emerges when a group of authors decide that it is more desirable to ask question of, and address their work to, scholars who write on the same subject from different disciplinary perspectives, as opposed to their colleagues in their own departments.  This is always a difficult move as it requires energy and creativity. Nor do our interdisciplinary interlocuters sit on our tenure, promotion or hiring committees.  Still, at some point either theoretical necessity or the search for intellectual community may inspire such a move.  Thus, a research field exists first and foremost as a social fact.  It is created when a certain density of communication is achieved, and it exists for as long as that is seen as desirable.

If we were to view the health of the field through this sort of lens, what does the Martial Arts Studies Readersuggest? As I reviewed the various chapters and read footnotes it became apparent to me that we are united not just through the magnetism of the martial arts, but by a general agreement upon (or at least a mutual interest in) certain approaches to them.  The essays in this volume are marked with an interest in identity, desire, media, community, communication and interpretation. What is shared between any set of chapters is often a reliance on a shared set of theorists who have addressed one or more of these topics, and thus provided a common conceptual or methodological lens.

What remains much less common is direct engagement, debate, or even creative borrowing between martial arts studies scholars. Bowman wonders in his concluding remarks if perhaps people give lip service to the importance of media-discourses and the like in their analysis before reverting back to their entrenched disciplinary habits.  It is an interesting point, but it may well be worth extending that question to include the entire social construct that is “Martial Arts Studies.”  To what degree are we reallygetting the most out of the contributions of our fellow scholars? Have we reached a point where we can build off of debates (or discoveries) that have already happened in the field?  Or is a core of shared concepts and methods being used to power a wide range of forever idiosyncratic research questions?

Put another way, if Martial Arts Studies is an independent research area, can we agree on what sorts of questions are important, or even how we might discover important questions in the field?  How do we see this reflected in the sorts of communications that authors have with each other?

These are difficult questions to answer.  I chose this collection as 2018’s essential volume as it represents perhaps the best image of the current state of the field that we are likely to get.  Yet an image can never be mistaken for the original thing. Simple editorial choices can skew the way that conversations appear.  Broad field surveys (such as this) are less likely to encourage meaningful dialogue between pieces than much more focused volumes (such as the one produced by Garcia and Spencer) precisely because we have asked scholars to show us the breadth of what might be done.

Then there is the issue of the medium.  Most scholarly monographs have a “theory chapter” which encourages both the author and the reader to explicitly consider the ways that a new work builds upon, is indebted to, and challenges its predecessors. Journal articles might get a few paragraphs to do the same thing.

The even tighter word-limits found in edited volumes require authors to get to their point even more quickly. That can certainly obscure much of the background that goes into any research project. In my own contribution to this volume I had to drop an extended engagement with the work of Meaghan Morris who had also addressed Victor Turner’s notion of liminoid symbols and transformation in the modern world.  Yet regardless of their limitations, field surveys always present us with an opportunity to assess where we personally have failed to engage with the literature, and what we might stand to gain by doing so.

So long as we are contemplating absences (always a tricky task as an infinite number of things could be said to be missing from any work), I would like to close this post with a final thought on Hoplology. If Green and Svinth’s 2003 volume marked a definitive turning away from the “how-to” salvage expeditions of an earlier era, and a move towards a vision of Martial Arts Studies that put their social and cultural functions first, where do we stand today?  Reading through this latest volume I think it is safe to say that the mandate that Farrer and Whalen-Bridge outlined in 2011 has now been fully realized.  Indeed, the older works of Draeger and Smith seem to have left no trace on this volume. While Bowman acknowledges that things like Martial Arts Studies have existed in different forms in the past, he provides no hint of what they might have been, or why they might have failed.

Still, my personal feeling is that many of the strongest chapters in this volume are those that are the most steeped in the empirical record.  I am drawn to instances where authors went out into the world and actually wrestled with the technical “how-to” questions because that was often where new puzzles, unimagined by prior theoretical debates, emerged.  The modern incarnation of Martial Arts Studies never seems to have time to discuss the details of what was actually done, and how it was actually learned.  Yet that is precisely the soil that many of the most interesting discussions emerge from.

So I am left to close this essay where I started it. What is the relationship between Martial Arts Studies and Hoplology?  As a truly academic field, the later no longer exists.  Yet on a deeper level, what is our personal debt to the “how-to” question?  Is there theoretical value in the seemingly simple act of documenting a system of practice? If the best minds of the modern Martial Arts Studies era were to recreate Hoplology, what would it be?

Martial Arts Studies can only grow as fast it replicates a desire for communication between its students.  A greater degree of engagement with the existing literature is always desirable.  But its growth is also linked to our ability to identify powerful and paradoxical questions that reflect the reality of our lived experience.  A fully realized “New Hoplology” might not be necessary to generate these questions, as fascinating as that project might be. Yet placing as much emphasis on the quality and documentation of our empirical research as we do on our theoretical analysis probably is.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Striking Distance: Charles Russo Recounts the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts in America

oOo



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THE INSIGHTS OF WU GONGZAO


太極拳講義
TAIJI BOXING EXPLAINED
著作者 吳公藻
by Wu Gongzao
校正者 吳公儀
text proofread by Wu Gongyi
[published by the 湖南國術訓練所 Hunan Martial Arts Training Institute, June, 1935]

[translation by Paul Brennan, Dec, 2018]

吳公藻編
by Wu Gongzao:
太極拳講義
Taiji Boxing Explained
何鍵題
– calligraphy by He Jian

向愷然序
PREFACE BY XIANG KAIRAN [a dialogue]

客有致疑於太極拳者。曰。拳之為用。主搏人。四肢百骸。人所同具。欲操勝算。捨快與力奚由。故拳家有一快不破。一硬不破之言。乃今之言太極拳者。則曰。以不用力為體。以慢為用。得毋與拳之原理相悖謬乎。
A doubter of Taiji Boxing once said to me: “The main function of a boxing art is for fighting opponents. Four limbs and a body – it’s the same set-up for everyone. But if you want to win, why would you dispense with speed and strength? As boxing masters say: ‘unbeatable speed, unbreakable hardness’. But nowadays there are Taiji Boxing practitioners saying: ‘To put forth no exertion is the foundation, and in slowness lies the function.’ In relation to the other boxing principle, isn’t this a ludicrous statement?”

余曰。誠然。拳之為用。捨力與快無由。客將謂拳之快而多力者。有逾於太極拳者乎。
To this I said: “Yes indeed. There’s no reason to abandon strength and speed for the functionality of those other boxing arts. But are you suggesting that boxing practitioners with great speed and strength would defeat a Taiji boxer?”

客曰。吾習太極拳三年於茲矣。先晢嘗詔吾曰。一舉動週身俱要輕靈。用勁如抽絲。不可斷續。是云云者。非慢而不用力之謂乎。吾寢饋其中。無間寒燠。然嘗與里中之習他拳纔數月者角。輒敗退不知所以支吾之道。曩固疑其非搏人之術。茲益信其然矣。今吾子顧曰。拳之快而多力者。無逾此。願聞其說。
He then said: “I’ve now been practicing Taiji Boxing for three years. Previous masters explain to us: ‘Once there is any movement, your entire body should have lightness and nimbleness.’ ‘Move energy as if drawing silk.’ ‘Do not allow there to be breaks in the flow.’ Aren’t such statements saying that it’s slow and doesn’t use strength? I’ve obsessed over this even in my sleep and practiced constantly no matter what the weather’s like. Nevertheless, when I tried wrestling with a practitioner of another boxing art in my hometown, who had only been training for a few months, I was defeated, for I had no idea what to do. I then strongly suspected that this isn’t a fightworthy art and I’ve come to believe even more that this is the case. But now you instead say that boxing arts that are fast and strong do not surpass this one. I wish to hear your explanation.”

余曰。異哉子之所謂快與硬也。豈不以手之屈伸。足之進退為快。肌膚之粗糙。筋骨之堅實為硬乎。是屬於人類自然之本能。無關藝術之修養者也。且屈伸進退。為用甚簡。雖至迅。必有間。人得而乘焉。太極拳之為用。雖亦不離乎屈伸進退。然曲中求直。其象如圜。唯其圜也。為用不拘一方。猶之槍之為用。人知其在頴也。刀之為用。人知其在鋒也。非甚簡矣乎。若夫圜之為用。則無在無不在也。唯其用之無不在也。故一舉動週身俱要輕靈。庶幾無習於拳者。難於掌。習於臀者。難於足之病。其迅捷視他拳不可以數字計。拳經載。一處有一處虛實。處處總此一虛實。又謂。一動無有不動。一靜無有不靜。是可知其一舉動為用之繁賾矣。他拳鮮不用斷勁者。斷而復續。授隙於人。太極拳泯斷續之跡。用時隨在可斷。斷而復連。王宗岳謂粘卽是走。走卽是粘。人不知我。我獨知人。正是於此等處。用力久而後能臻於縝密。試思一舉動之為用遍週身。處處皆當詳審其虛實所在。則其形於外者。安得不慢乎。
I responded: “How strange. Isn’t what you’re saying about speed and hardness a matter of the speed of the arms bending and extending, of the feet advancing and retreating, and of the hardness of tough skin and muscle, of robust bone and sinew? These are natural human capacities, nothing to do with developed martial skill. For that matter, bending, extending, advancing, retreating are extremely simple actions, and no matter how fast they’re performed, they’ll surely leave a gap for the opponent to take advantage of. Although applications in Taiji Boxing don’t depart from bending, extending, advancing, retreating, they also have the quality of ‘within curving, seek to be straightening’, and is rounded in appearance. Because of its roundness, its functionality is unlimited.
  “Compare this to using a spear, which everyone knows is mainly a matter of using the spear tip, or to using a saber, which everyone knows is mainly a matter of using the saber edge. Are they not extremely simple? But the applicability of roundness reaches nowhere and everywhere, and thus it can function anywhere. Hence: ‘Once there is any movement, your entire body should have lightness and nimbleness.’ This frees you almost fully from the errors made by those who overtrain punching and so have difficulty striking with the palm, or those who overtrain striking with the hips and so have difficulty kicking.
  “The speed of this art thus can’t even be measured in the same way as for other boxing arts. It says in the classics: ‘In each part there is a part that is empty and a part that is full. Everywhere it is always like this, an emptiness and a fullness.’ Also: ‘If one part moves, every part moves, and if one part is still, every part is still.’ From this we can know that once there is any movement, its function will be complex and subtle.
  “Other boxing arts rarely do not employ an interrupted energy, stopping and then starting up again, leaving a gap for an opponent to exploit. In Taiji Boxing, there is no indication of any stopping and starting, because during application you can ‘disconnect but stay connected’. Wang Zongyue said: ‘In sticking there is yielding and in yielding there is sticking… He does not know me, only I know him.’ This is exactly the idea. After working at it for a long time, you’ll be able to achieve this quality even at a level of minute detail. Consider that ‘once there is any movement’, you’re using your entire body, examining for emptiness and fullness everywhere, so of course the outward appearance would seem slowed down.”

客曰。慢之道。得聞命矣。其以無力為多力之說。可得聞乎。
He then asked: “Having heard the theory of slowness, can I hear the explanation for no strength being great strength?”

余曰。拳術不貴力。而貴勁。不僅太極拳也。一切拳術。則皆然矣。夫人不患無力。特患其力之不能集中耳。力為人所恆有。世固無力之人。一臂之重十斤。能屈伸運動。則一臂具十斤之力矣。一身之重數十斤。未聞其足之不能自舉。則足具數十斤之力矣。此為天下至弱者之所同具。但以其為力而非勁也。不能集中一點。以傳達於敵人之身。故不足貴。習拳者。在使力化為勁。倘能以十斤之勁。集於手而中於人。人必傷。數十斤之勁。集於足而中於人。人必斃。則亦何患乎力之不多也。他拳之勢。掌則為掌。肘則為肘。顯然易知。然學者積久成習。尚多有麤疏木强。不能集中其勁以達於敵人者。病在知有力之為力。不知無力之為力也。握拳透爪。嚙齒穿齦。自視殊武健。而不知力因此已陷於肩背。徒為他人攻擊之藉。力雖大何補。太極拳之原則。在化力為勁。尤在能任意集中。用之則行。舍之則藏。無麤疏木强之弊。無屈伸斷續之跡。故經曰。無氣者純剛。是不用力也。非不用勁也。
I said: “Boxing arts do not value strength, but power. This is not only the case in Taiji Boxing, but in all boxing arts. A practitioner does not worry that he has no force, only that his force cannot be concentrated.
  “Strength is something everyone has, even those who hardly have any. An arm may weigh ten pounds. It can therefore move by bending and extending with the force of ten pounds. A body may weigh a hundred pounds. There is no one who can’t lift his own foot, therefore the leg acts with the force of a hundred pounds. Even the weakest people in the world have this much strength. But this is merely a matter of strength rather than power. It can’t be focused at a point and transmitted into the opponent’s body, therefore it’s not really worthwhile.
  “A boxing arts practitioner seeks to convert strength into power. If he can concentrate ten pounds of power into his hand and hit the opponent with it, the opponent is sure to be injured. If he can concentrate a hundred pounds of power into his foot and hit the opponent with it, the opponent is sure to be killed. So why would there be any worry about not having a lot of strength?
  “In the postures of other boxing arts, a palm strike is clearly a palm strike and an elbow strike is obviously an elbow strike. But the students form habits through long-term practice and end up maintaining a mindless stiffness, unable to concentrate power and send it into opponents. The error lies in treating strength as strength and not understanding how going without strength can be strength.
  “They clench their fists so hard that they look like talons protruding, and they clench their teeth so hard that they look like they’ll bite through their own faces. They imagine themselves to be replete with martial skill, but they don’t understand that their strength has become stuck in their shoulders and back, giving their opponents an opportunity to attack. So even with great strength, what help would it be?
  “The principle in Taiji Boxing is to convert strength into power, and particularly to be able to focus it as you please. When you apply it, it is in action. When not applying it, it is stored away. There are no errors of rough-edged stiffness, nor signs of bending and extending, stopping and starting. Therefore it says in the classics: ‘If you ignore the energy and let it take care of itself, there will be pure strength.’ So it is not a matter of putting forth exertion, but of applying power.”

客曰。誠如吾子之說。則吾三年來寢饋其中。未嘗不慢。未嘗用力。何為而不得一當也。
He said: “What you say rings true. But I’ve been completely absorbed in the training for three years, I’ve never rushed through the set, and I’ve never used any exertion. So why can’t I get it right?”

余曰。古人緣理以造勢。吾人應卽勢以明理。不知理而徒練勢。他拳且不可。况精深博大之太極拳乎。雖寢處其中三十年。亦何益也。
I said: “Previous generations made the postures according to principles, and so we should practice the postures in order to understand their principles. But if we don’t come to understand the principles and we’re just practicing the postures, we wouldn’t be able to succeed even in other boxing arts, much less in the case of deeply profound Taiji Boxing. Even if we put all our time into it over the course of thirty years, we’d get nothing out of it.”

客曰。然則如何而後可。
He asked: “That being the case, what should we do to succeed?”

余曰。練體、惟熟讀經論。力求體驗。練用、則玩索打手歌。及十三勢行功心解。斯亦可矣。
I answered: “To train foundation, you only have to study the classics and strive to experience what they discuss. To train function, specifically ponder the Playing Hands Song and Understanding How to Practice. By this means, you will succeed.”

客曰。是不待吾子之命。曩嘗從事於斯矣。論言、由着熟漸悟懂勁。由懂勁階及神明。吾日習幾三十遍。着法不為不熟矣。為時三年。用力不為不久矣。而豁然貫通之效不見。是以疑之。
He said: “Before you suggested it, I’d actually already studied them. The Treatise says: ‘Once you have ingrained these techniques, you will gradually come to identify energies, and then from there you will work your way toward something miraculous. [But unless you practice a lot over a long time, you will never have a breakthrough.]’ Everyday I practice almost thirty rounds of the solo set, so the techniques can’t really be considered uningrained, and after three whole years, my great deal of practice can’t really be considered to have happened over a brief time. But I haven’t yet witnessed any results on the level of a ‘breakthrough’, and thus I’m in doubt.”

余曰。子之所謂着熟者。殆其形於外之進退周旋歟。若能心知其意。虛實分明。則勢愈練而意愈縝密。所謂行氣如九曲球。無微不至。則一身之四肢百骸。無在不可以蓄勁。無在不可以發勁。卽是隨處能走。隨處能粘。復安有敗退於學他拳纔數月者之理。
I said: “By ‘ingrained techniques’, do you mean outward postures such as advancing, retreating, turning around? If you’re to understand such actions in terms of intention, emptiness and fullness will be clearly distinguished, and then the more you practice the postures, the more meticulous your intention will become. It is said: ‘Move energy as though through a winding-path pearl, penetrating even the smallest nook.’ This means that the whole body, its four limbs and hundreds of bones, can store power in every part and issue power from any part. What this means is that you’re everywhere able to yield, everywhere able to stick. And then how would you be defeated through the principles of someone who has been studying some other boxing art for just a few months?”

客至是恍然若有所悟。曰。虛實無定時。無定位。以意為變化。於理則然矣。施之於事。每苦進退失據。甚且頂抗蠻觸於不自覺。雙重之病。有若天性使然。避之甚難。吾非不知病在虛實未分明也。觸覺未敏銳也。然有時明知其然。而法無可施者。其故亦別有在乎。
He seemed to arrive at a sudden realization and said: “As the timing or position is never certain when it comes to emptiness and fullness, the intention has to be on adapting. This principle makes sense. But whatever I try to do, I always advance or retreat in vain, even to the point that there’s a great deal of resistance in my touch and yet I’m not aware of it. The error of double pressure seems to be an inherent part of me, really difficult to avoid. It’s not that I don’t know that the error lies in not clearly distinguishing between emptiness and fullness, it’s that I don’t yet have a keen enough sensitivity to do it well. There are times when I know exactly what’s going on, but I can’t carry out any technique. So is there still some other problem?”

余曰。十三勢以中定為主。掤捋擠按十二勢為輔。有中定。然後有一切。一切勢皆不離乎中定。然後足以言應付。陳品三謂開闔虛實。卽為拳經。吾人應知無中定。安有開闔。譬之戶牖。開闔在樞。樞若動搖。云何開闔。不開不闔。虛實焉求。是可知無中定之虛實。非虛實也。無中定之觸覺。猶瞽之視。跛之履。觸如不觸。覺如不覺也。經曰。中正安舒。安舒云者。定之謂也。
I said: “Within the thirteen dynamics, being centered is the priority. The other twelve – warding off, rolling back, pressing, pushing, and so on – are just there to assist. If you have that quality of being centered, then you have everything. When none of your postures exist independent from centeredness, then you’ll be ready to talk about applying them. Chen Pinsan [Chen Xin] said: ‘Open and close, emptiness and fullness – these are the keys to the art.’ We should understand that when we don’t have centeredness, there’s no opening and closing.
  “For example, the opening and closing of a door depends upon its hinges. If a hinge slips into an awkward angle, will it open or close well? Without opening and closing, you won’t be able to seek emptiness and fullness. Thus you can understand that any emptiness or fullness you feel when not centered is neither emptiness nor fullness. Being without a sense of centeredness is like a blind man’s sight, a lame man’s steps, touching when without a sense of touch, perceiving when without ability to perceive. It says in the classics: ‘Your posture must be straight and comfortable.’ That word ‘comfortable’ is the indicator of being centered.”

客曰。求中定有道乎。
He then asked: “Is there a method for developing centeredness?”

余曰。子但知虛實無定時。無定位。以意為變化。而不知每一虛實。皆先有中定。而後有變化。處處有虛實。卽處處有中定。蓄法無定法。而一切法皆從中定中出。則聖人復起。不易吾言也。法遍周身。中定亦遍周身。然初學者。不足以語此。無已。則求左右開闔之樞。在脊。上下開闔之樞。在腰。先哲所謂力由脊發。所謂尾閭正中。所謂氣貼背斂入脊骨。所謂頂頭懸。皆明示其樞在脊也。所謂腰如車軸。所謂腰為纛。所謂命意源頭在腰際。所謂刻刻留心在腰間。所謂主宰於腰。皆明示其樞在腰也。學者先求得腰脊之中定。然後一切法。乃有中定。非然者。雖童而習之。以至於皓首。猶無益也。十三勢歌云。若不向此推求去。枉費工夫貽嘆息。鳴呼。昔賢悲憫之言。如聞其聲矣。
I said: “You merely understand that emptiness and fullness have no fixed moment or position, and your intention is to switch them, but you don’t understand that for every instance of emptiness and fullness, there first has to be centeredness in order to switch them. There’s everywhere an emptiness and a fullness, and so there’s everywhere a centeredness. Because the techniques are not fixed, every technique emerges from centeredness. Even if Zhang Sanfeng rose from the dead right now, he couldn’t alter this point.
  “The techniques involve the whole body, and centeredness also involves the whole body. But since beginners are not equipped to understand this, they ought to just confine themselves to seeking the mechanism of opening and closing to the left and right in the spine, and the mechanism of opening and closing above and below in the waist. The previous masters said: ‘Power comes from your spine.’ ‘Your tailbone is centered.’ ‘Energy stays near your back and gathers in your spine.’ ‘Your headtop will be pulled up as if suspended.’ These clearly indicate the pivot is in the spine. ‘Your waist is like an axle.’ ‘Your waist is a banner.’ ‘The command comes from your lower back.’ ‘At every moment, pay attention to your waist.’ ‘Direct it from your waist.’ These clearly indicate the pivot is in the waist.
  “If you first seek centeredness in your waist and spine, then every technique will have the quality of centeredness. If not, then even if you practice from youth to old age, it’ll seem like you’ve gotten nothing out of it. It says in the Thirteen Dynamics Song: ‘If you pay no heed to those ideas, you will go astray in your training, and you will find you have wasted your time and be left with only sighs of regret.’ Alas, these wistful words from the wise men of a previous generation do seem to go unheard.”

客聞而再拜曰。微吾子言。吾雖日讀經論。而不得間也。抑更有請者。經言氣宜鼓盪。論言。氣沉丹田。十三勢歌言。氣遍身軀不少滯。十三勢行功心解言。以心行氣。以氣運身。其言氣者多矣。究竟氣以何法使鼓盪。使沉丹田。使遍身軀。心、如何行氣。氣、如何運身。明知氣為此中肝要。然苦無下手處。且丹田在臍以下。今之生理學家。謂呼吸以肺不以腹。橫膈膜以下。非呼吸所能達。所謂腹部呼吸者。橫膈膜之運動而已。其將以何法使氣沉丹田。
Having heard this explanation, he politely said: “How profound your words are. Despite studying the classics daily, I still haven’t been able to understand their content, and so I have some more questions. It says in the Classic: ‘Energy should be roused.’ It says in the Treatise: ‘Energy sinks down to your elixir field.’ It says in the Thirteen Dynamics Song: ‘Then energy will flow through your whole body without getting stuck anywhere.’ It says in Understanding How to Practice: ‘Use mind to move energy… Use energy to move your body.’ The mentions of ‘energy’ are numerous. How exactly does one ‘rouse’ energy, or get it to sink to the elixir field, or flow through the whole body? And does mind move energy, or energy move the body?
  “Moreover, the ‘elixir field’ lies below the navel, but modern physiologists say that breathing uses the lungs rather than the abdomen. The diaphragm moves downward, but the breath is not able to reach that far. Therefore ‘abdominal breathing’ is just the movement of the diaphragm. So what method is there to get ‘energy’ to sink to the elixir field?”

余曰。善哉問乎。夫人捨呼吸外無氣。所謂氣沉丹田。卽意存丹田也。亦卽所謂腹內鬆淨氣騰然。刻刻留心在腰際也。習太極拳者。求每勢之開闔。勢勢存心。揆其用意。然後以呼吸附麗於開闔之中。呼為開。吸為闔。各勢中有手開闔。足開闔。身開闔。縱橫開闔。內外開闔。一開闔卽一呼吸。開闔所在。卽意所在。亦卽呼吸所在。習之旣久。自然氣遍周身。下手之功在呼吸。成就玄妙不思議之功。亦在呼吸。行功心解中。謂能呼吸。而後能靈活者。此也。
I said: “Good questions. Without breathing, there’s no energy. It is said: ‘Energy sinks down to your elixir field.’ This means that intention stays at your elixir field. It’s also said: ‘At every moment, pay attention to your waist, for if there is relaxation and stillness within your belly, energy is primed.’
  “Practitioners of Taiji Boxing seek for opening and closing within every posture. ‘In every movement, very deliberately control it by the use of intention.’ But within opening and closing, there’s breathing involved. Exhaling makes opening. Inhaling makes closing. Within every posture, there’s opening and closing in the arms, the legs, the body. There’s vertical and horizontal opening and closing, and internal and external opening and closing. A single ‘opening and closing’ means an exhaling and inhaling. Where there’s opening and closing, there’s intention, and there’s also exhaling and inhaling.
  “If you practice over a long time, there will naturally be energy flowing throughout your whole body. The work lies in the breathing, so achieving unimaginable skill also lies in the breathing. It says in Understanding How to Practice: ‘Your ability to be nimble lies in your ability to breathe.’ This is what that is talking about.”

客曰。讀太極拳經論者多矣。果能心領神會。事理無礙者。實未易多覯。吾子曷書適所論列者。以昭式來茲。或亦足為研習此道者解感之一助歟。
He said: “There are many who have read the Taiji Boxing classics, but few have understood their reasoning. Could you maybe make some commentary to these texts to make it clear for new students and help to better explain it for seasoned practitioners?”

余曰唯。
To which I said: “Hmm, I think maybe we just did.”

湖南國術訓練所太極拳教官吳雨亭君。能傳其父鑑泉先生之術。有聲於時。並為諸生編太極拳術講義。以視當世僅注圖解。毫無當於精義。或摭拾五行八卦與藝術無關之艱深易理諸著作。自有天壤之別。責序於余。余久悲此道之難有正知見也。與客適所論列。復為吳著所不詳。故書以歸之。是為序。
民國二十四年六月平江向愷然序於湖南國術訓練所
In the Hunan Martial Arts Training Institute is the Taiji Boxing teacher Wu Yuting [Gongzao], who is able to pass down the art of his father, Wu Jianquan, and has also built his own reputation. He has written Taiji Boxing Explained in order to share information with this generation, a generation which has overly focused on images and hardly at all on essential concepts. Some people have merely drawn theories from the five elements and eight trigrams, and others have written strained interpretations of how the techniques are associated with the theory in the Book of Changes even though they are actually worlds apart. Wu demanded a preface of me, as I myself have long been troubled by how difficult it is to see this art getting understood properly. Fittingly, I happened to have a conversation with someone that contributed a few extra details which Wu’s writings have not covered, and so I wrote it down and am giving it to him as my preface.
  - written by Xiang Kairan of Pingjiang, at the Hunan Martial Arts Training Institute, June, 1935

自序
AUTHOR’S PREFACE

拳術一道。不外强健筋骨。調和氣血。而太極拳。乃循太極動靜之理以為法。採虛實變化之妙而為用。動靜者、行意之本源。虛實者、運勁之基礎。蘊之於內者曰勁。以為體。形之於外者曰勢、以為用。以靜制動。動中求靜。以柔尅剛。剛以濟柔。逆來順受。純任自然。蓋由於感覺使然。感之於身。覺之於心。身有所感。心有所覺。聽其虛實。問其動靜。得其重心。然後審己量敵。運用機勢。變換虛實。攻而取之。經云。斯技旁門甚多。槪不外有力打無力。又曰。察四兩撥千斤之句。顯非力勝。夫有力打無力。斯乃先天自然之能。生而知之。非學而後能之。所謂四兩撥千斤者。實則合乎權衡之理。無論體之輕重。力之大小。能在一動之間。移其重心。使之全身牽動。故太極拳之動作。所以異於他技者。非務以力勝人也。推而進之。不惟强筋健骨。調和氣血。而自能修養身心。却病延年。為後天養生之妙道焉。
近年來當道諸公。提倡國術不遺餘力。用以振發民族。尚武精神。引起國人之注意。而一般行政機關。及學校法團。尤注重於太極拳。風行所至。幾遍全國。以其動作緩和。吻合生理。雖老少童婦。習之咸宜。蓋無妨於體質也。
公藻於民國二十二年隨褚民誼先生來湘觀光國術。承主席何公之邀。擔任湖南國術訓練所太極拳教官。駒光易逝。倐忽三載。間嘗以我國數千年來。關於國術一道。競以門戶相尚。師弟相承。互為守秘。無籍可稽。漸至淹没。終於失傳。殊堪痛惜。誠武道之大不幸也。近世志士。鑒於外侮日迫。民氣消沉。痛往昔之錯謬。倡為國術救國。各有消滅門戶惡習之見解。著作專書。梓行於世。闡揚各個門派之真精神。俾人人得有公開研究機會。公藻祖傳斯道。三世於茲。家父傳人最多。入室弟子。如褚民誼、徐致一、王志羣、馬岳樑、吳圖南輩。各有著述刋行。吾道光明。實不後人。公藻頻年教學相長。常以經驗所得。筆之於書。管窺蠡測。未敢公諸大雅。蓋亦藏拙之意耳。客歲何公。復聘家兄子鎭。任本所太極拳主教。三湘人士。慕斯道者。步趨益衆。而秘書向愷然先生。為吾道同志。造詣頗深。鑒於所中學子。習太極拳者。苦無成文法理。可以觀摩。督公藻編纂太極拳講義一書。義不容辭。爰將舊作重新整理。分為上下二篇。俾從學諸生有所準繩。卽他日公藻去湘。人手一篇。亦有按圖索驥之便矣。
公藻不敏。習斯道二十餘年。徒以東西飄泊。粗無成就。旣愧綘灌無文。復悵隨陸不武。茲書之出。難免掛一漏萬。深望吾道同志。博雅君子。摘我瑕疵。匡我不逮。拋磚引玉。惠我珠璣。不獨公藻之幸。亦吾道之光也。
民國廿四年六月北京吳公藻序於湖南國術訓練所
Boxing arts are little more than a means of strengthening sinews and bone, and regulating breath and blood. But Taiji Boxing takes the taiji [“grand polarity”] concept of movement/stillness for its method and the subtle transformations of emptiness/fullness for its function. Movement and stillness form the framework for the actions of intention. Emptiness and fullness form the basis of expressing power. What is stored within is “power”. It provides the foundation. The external shape is the “posture”. It provides the function.
  Use stillness to control movement, and within movement seek to find stillness. Use softness to overcome hardness, and use hardness to assist softness. Receive whatever comes at you, responding to it with a pure naturalness. It all comes down to sensitivity, which is comprised of feeling with the body and perceiving with the mind: what is felt by the body is then perceived by the mind. Listen for the opponent’s emptiness and fullness, inquire into his movement and stillness, and find his center of balance. Then assess yourself and estimate him, making use of timing and positioning, switch emptiness and fullness, attack, and win.
  It says in the Classic: “There are many other schools of boxing arts besides this one… They generally do not go beyond the strong bullying the weak.” And also: “Examine the phrase ‘four ounces deflects a thousand pounds’, which is clearly not a victory obtained through strength… The strong beating the weak is a matter of inherent natural ability and bears no relation to skill that is learned.” Innate knowledge is not learned ability. The concept of “four ounces deflects a thousand pounds” conforms to the principle of the counterpoise weight being slid along a steelyard scale. Regardless of the weight of the opponent’s body or the extent of his strength, you can with one little movement shift his center of balance, causing it to affect his whole body.
  Therefore the movements in Taiji Boxing are different from those in other arts because it does not rely on using strength to defeat opponents. Furthermore, this art is not only a means of strengthening sinews and bone, of regulating breath and blood, but is inherently equipped for cultivating body and mind, for preventing illness and prolonging life, and is thus a marvelous method of nurturing health.
  In recent years, those in government have been doing their utmost to promote Chinese martial arts in order the rouse the people’s martial spirit. To draw the attention of our countrymen, ordinary administrative bodies and educational institutions have given particular focus to Taiji Boxing, which has become popular throughout the nation. Because its mild movements conform to physiological principles, it is suitable for all to practice – young and old, women and children – regardless of physique.
  In 1933, I went with Chu Minyi to observe the state of martial arts in Hunan. I was subsequently appointed to the position of Taiji Boxing instructor at the Hunan Martial Arts Training Institute, at the invitation of He Jian [governor of Hunan, who also oversaw the staffing of the Institute], and these past three years have raced by.
  Throughout our nation’s several thousand years of history, our martial arts have existed in a state of competition. Though styles respected each other, they passed their arts down only to disciples and otherwise kept their teachings secret from each other, and thus they made no books that could be examined. The result of this is that most of these arts gradually faded away until they were ultimately lost forever. This is unbearably tragic. Truly our martial ways have been greatly unfortunate.
  But now men of integrity have seen that the threat of foreign aggression is increasing by the day and that the morale of the people has plummeted. Bitter about the mistakes of the past, they have decided to promote our martial arts in order to rescue the nation. Whatever is left of these lost arts is being published in specialized manuals to spread the authentic spirit of the various styles and share with everyone the opportunity to study them.
  I received my art as a family transmission, passed down through three generations, mostly from father to son. Among my father’s other students are Chu Minyi, Xu Zhiyi, Wang Zhiqun [Runsheng], Ma Yueliang, and Wu Tunan, who have each published writings which gloriously illuminate our art. I have not actually been lagging behind them. Over the years, I have learned a great deal from teaching the art, and I too have often written down what I have gained through experience. It is just that I had never yet dared to show my shallow understandings to such refined gentlemen and instead decided to hide my inadequate attempts.
  Last year, He Jian appointed my elder brother Zizhen [Gongyi] to be the head Taiji Boxing instructor for the school. The people of Hunan so admired this art that students have swelled in number. But Xiang Kairan, who has been serving as the school secretary and is my comrade in this art, in which he is highly accomplished, noticed that the students were suffering from having no written theory to study alongside their training. Thus I was told to make a book explaining Taiji Boxing. Accepting this as a duty, I then made a fresh arrangement of my old scribblings, intending to divide it into two volumes, in order for students to have some criteria to work from, and so that someday when I depart from Hunan they will be able to simply pick up the book and use it to find their way.
  I am not terribly bright. I have been practicing this art for more than twenty years, and after traveling from place to place with it, I am still at a rather crude level, and [quoting from Chu Dawen’s Gazetteer of Shanxi, book 61] “I am ashamed that I have conquered no lands nor made any literary achievements”. When this book comes out, it will probably have more things wrong than right, and so I sincerely hope that my more scholarly martial arts comrades will seize upon my errors and not hold back from offering corrections. I am “tossing out a brick to draw forth jade”, so please favor me with your gems. It would not only be a blessing to me, it would also make the art shine brighter.
  - written by Wu Gongzao of Beijing, at the Hunan Martial Arts Training Institute, June, 1935

吳鑑泉先生肖像
Portrait of Wu Jianquan:

校正者吳公儀
Proofreader, Wu Gongyi:

著者吳公藻
Author, Wu Gongzao:

太極拳講義
TAIJI BOXING EXPLAINED
吴公藻編
by Wu Gongzao

總論
[ONE] GENERAL INTRODUCTION

拳術一道。不外强健筋骨。調和氣血。修養身心。却病延年。實為後天養生之術。太極拳。乃循太極動靜之理以為法。採虛實變化之妙而為用。其姿勢也中正安舒。其動作也輕靈圓活。故一動無有不動。一靜無有不靜。其動靜之理。與道家之坐功。互相吻合。實道家之行功。在拳理言之故稱內家。因與道本為一體。老幼婦孺。均可練習。其功用純任自然。學之毫無痛苦。誠有益無害之運動也。苟能精勤研究。歷久不懈。則愈練愈精。愈精愈微。由微入妙。由妙入神。不但有益於身心。更能增進智慧。獲益殊非淺尠也。
Boxing arts are little more than a means of strengthening sinews and bone, and regulating breath and blood. But an art which cultivates body and mind, which prevents illness and prolongs life, would be an even better method for nurturing health. For that there is Taiji Boxing, which takes the taiji concept of movement/stillness for its method and the subtle transformations of emptiness/fullness for its function.
  The postures are centered and upright, calm and comfortable. The movements are light and sensitive, rounded and lively. It is said: “If one part moves, every part moves, and if one part is still, every part is still.” This principle of movement conforms to Daoist sitting meditation, or rather to Daoist moving meditation. The boxing theory is deemed to be of the “internal school” because it shares the same philosophical foundation as Daoism. It can be practiced by everyone – young and old, women and children – because it is performed with a pure naturalness, the student enduring no pains at all. It is truly an exercise that has only benefits and no harms.
  If you can study it devotedly, committing to it for a long time without slacking, then the more you practice, the more refined your skill will be. The more it is refined, the more subtle it becomes, until it goes from subtle to incredible, from incredible to magical. It will not only be helpful to both body and mind, for it can also increase wisdom, and thus its benefits are by no means meager.

太極拳十三勢大義
[TWO] THE BASIC MEANING OF TAIJI BOXING’S THIRTEEN DYNAMICS

十三勢者。按五行八卦原理。卽推手之十三種總勁。非另有十三個姿勢。五行者。卽進,退,顧,盼,定,之謂。分為內外兩解。行於外者。卽前進,後退,左顧,右盼,中定,行於內者。卽粘,連,黏,隨,不丢頂。八卦者。亦分內外兩解。行於外者。卽四正,四隅,蘊於內者。卽掤,捋,擠,按,採,挒,肘,靠,八法也。行於外者為勢。蘊於內者為勁。學者以拳為體。以推手為用。經曰。其根在脚。發於腿。主宰於腰。形於手指。實為太極拳之精義。學者不可不留意焉。
The thirteen dynamics are based on the principles of the five elements and eight trigrams. They are the thirteen kinds of energy in pushing hands, not thirteen specific postures. There are two versions of the five elements – internal and external. Externally, they are advancing, retreating, stepping to the left, stepping to the right, and staying in the center. Internally, they are the qualities of sticking, connecting, adhering, following, and neither coming away nor crashing in. The eight trigrams also have internal and external versions. Externally, they are four cardinal directions and four corner directions. Internally, they are the eight actions of warding off, rolling back, pressing, pushing, plucking, rending, elbowing, and bumping. They are expressed outwardly as postures, but dwell within as energies. Treat the solo set as the foundation, the pushing hands exercise as the function. It says in the classics: “Starting from your foot, issue through your leg, directing it at your waist, and expressing it at your fingers.” These energies form the very essence of Taiji Boxing. You must devote attention to them.

五行要義詳解
[THREE] THE FIVE ELEMENTS EXPLAINED IN DETAIL

五行者。金,木,水,火,土也。五行之勁。曰粘,連,黏,隨,不丢頂。茲將各勁詳解於後。
The five elements are metal, wood, water, fire, earth. The energies of the five elements are sticking, connecting, adhering, following, and neither coming away nor crashing in. Each of these energies is explained in detail below:

(一)粘者。如兩物互交粘之使起。在太極拳語中謂之勁。此勁非直接粘起。實間接而生。含有勁意雙兼兩義。如推手或交手時。對方體質强大。力氣充實。椿步穩固。似難使其掀動。或移其重心。然以粘勁。能使其自動失中。用意探之。使其氣騰。全神上注。則其體重而足輕。其根自斷。此卽彼之反動力所致。吾則順勢撤手。而以不丢不頂之勁。引彼懸空。是謂粘勁。
夫勁如粘球。一撫一提之間。運用純熟。球不離手。粘之卽起。所謂粘卽是走。走卽是粘之謂也。
意者。設想之謂。以虛實之理。使敵出其不意。攻其不備。對方雖實力充足。據險以守。不畏攻擊。不畏力敵。然最忌誘敵。吾若以利誘之。使其棄守為攻。實力分散。吾則分而擊之。是誘而殺之。亦其自取敗亡。所謂攻其所不守。守其所不攻之道也。學者務須時時體會。久而自驗。
1. Sticking is like two objects becoming stuck together. It is referred to in Taiji Boxing as an “energy” because it is an indirect rather than a literal form of sticking. Within it are the two concepts of energy and intention. During pushing hands or sparring, if the opponent’s physique is large and powerful, he is full of strength, and his stance is stable, it will seem difficult to move him or even affect his balance. But by using sticking energy, you can cause him to lose his center by himself. Test him by using intention, causing his energy to become agitated and all of his spirit to concentrate upward, with the result that his body may be heavy but his feet will become light, and he will break his own root. This is caused by his own reaction, and so you can simply go along with it and allow it to happen, using the energy of neither coming away nor crashing in to lead him into emptiness. This is the energy of sticking.
  This energy is like a sticking to a ball. [Imagine dribbling a basketball.] Give it a pat and then lift your hand. If this is done right, the ball will seem to not lose contact, sticking to your hand as you lift it. This is what is meant by “sticking is yielding and yielding is sticking”. “Intention” means imaginatively using the principle of emptiness and fullness in order to catch the opponent off guard and attack him unprepared. Even if he is very strong, is in a solid defensive position, is not worried about being attacked, or about how strong you may be, he is nevertheless very wary of been lured into a trap. If you entice him with the promise of some advantage, it causes him to abandon his defensive position in order to attack, scattering his strength and enabling you to attack him in some area where he is now reduced. In this way, you trick him into fighting, and thereby he defeats himself. This is the principle of “attack where he does not defend and defend where he does not attack”. You have to constantly work to understand this, and then after a long time, you will naturally get it through experience.

(二)連者。貫也。不中斷。不脫離。接續聯綿。無停無止。無息無休。是為連勁。
2. Connecting means “linking together”. Do not interrupt the movement or come out of synch with it. Let it be continuous, without any pauses or haltings. This is the energy of connecting.

(三)黏者。粘貼之謂。彼進我退。彼退我進。彼浮我隨。彼沉我鬆。丢之不開。投之不脫。如粘如貼。不丢不頂。是謂之黏勁。
3. To adhere means to “be glued”. As he advances, retreat. As he retreats, advance. When he is floating, follow. When he is sinking, loosen. He tries to disconnect but cannot come away. He tries to cast you off but cannot escape. Stick as though glued to him, neither coming away nor crashing in. This is the energy of adhering.

(四)隨者。從也。緩急相隨。進退相依。不卽不離。不先不後。捨己從人。是謂之隨。
4. Following means to “go along with”. Match the opponent’s speed. Coordinate with his advancing and retreating, neither overreaching nor separating. Without acting before or after, let go of yourself and go along with him. This is the energy of following.

(五)不丢頂。丢者開也。頂者抵也。不脫離。不抵抗。不搶先。不落後。五行之源。輕靈之本。是為不丢頂勁。
5. Neither come away nor crash in. Coming away means separating. Crashing in means resisting. Neither separate nor resist. Do not force your way ahead nor lag behind. The key to the rest of the five elements, and the basis of sensitivity, is the energy of neither coming away nor crashing in.

八法祕訣
[FOUR] SECRETS OF THE EIGHT TECHNIQUES

掤勁義何解。如水負行舟。先實丹田氣。次要頂頭懸。全體彈簧力。開合一定間。任有千斤重。飄浮亦不難。
What is meant by “warding off”?
It is like water floating a moving boat.
First fill your elixir field with energy,
then you must suspend your headtop.
Your whole body has a springy force
in the instant between opening and closing.
Do not worry about a thousand pounds of force coming at you.
Just float it and there will be no problem.

捋勁義何解。引導使之前。順其來時力。輕靈不丢頂。力盡自然空。丢擊任自然。重心自維持。莫被他人乘。
What is meant by “rolling back”?
Induce the opponent to come forward.
Then go along with his incoming force,
but staying nimble, neither coming away nor crashing in.
Once his power has naturally dissipated,
then you may disconnect and attack as you please.
Maintain your own balance
so that you do not instead become his victim.

擠勁義何解。用時有兩方。直接單純意。迎合一動中。間接反應力。如球撞壁還。又如錢投鼓。躍然聲鏗鏘。
What is meant by “pressing”?
There are two ways to apply it.
You may act directly from your own clear intention,
dealing with him in a single action.
Or you may act indirectly, reacting to his force,
which will make him like a ball bouncing off a wall,
or like a coin tossed onto a drum
that then leaps away with a chiming sound.

按勁義何解。運用似水行。柔中寓剛强。急流勢難當。遇高則澎滿。逢窪向下潛。波浪有起伏。有孔無不入。
What is meant by “pushing”?
It is like flowing water.
Within its softness lurks hardness.
Is it not difficult to stay up when standing in rapids?
Meeting a tall obstacle, water swells up heavily.
Finding a hole, it floods down into it.
Waves rise and fall.
There is no gap that water does not enter.

採勁義何解。如權之引衡。任你力巨細。權後知輕重。轉移祗四兩。千斤亦可平。若問理何在。幹捍之作用。
What is meant by “plucking”?
It is like the counterpoise of a steelyard scale sliding out to balance something.
No matter how great or small the opponent’s force is,
you will know the weight of it once it is balanced.
Even the shifting of a mere four ounces
can balance out a thousand pounds.
What is the theory behind this?
That of the lever.

挒勁義何解。旋轉若飛輪。投物於其上。脫然擲丈尋。君不見漩渦。捲浪若螺紋。落葉墮其上。倐爾便沉淪。
What is meant by “rending”?
It rotates like a flywheel.
Throw an object at it
and it will immediately be hurled over ten feet away.
Have you ever watched a whirlpool?
The waves curl in like the threads around a screw.
Any leaf that falls onto it
is quickly engulfed.

肘勁義何解。方法有五行。陰陽分上下。虛實須辨淸。連環勢莫擋。開花捶更凶。六勁融通後。運用始無窮。
What is meant by “elbowing”?
The technique contains the five elements.
The passive and active aspects will be revealed above and below.
Emptiness and fullness have to be clearly distinguished.
Continuous techniques are harder to defend against.
A “blooming-flower punch” [i.e. a backfist unfurling out of a stopped elbow attack] is even more brutal [than the prevented elbow would have been on its own].
Once your “six energies” [of structure (supporting forward and back, left and right, up and down)] are unified,
you will be able to apply endless techniques.

靠勁義何解。其法分肩背。斜飛勢用肩。肩中還有背。一旦得機勢。轟然如搗碓。仔細維重心。失中徒無功。
What is meant by “bumping”?
The technique divides into using the shoulder or the back.
The DIAGONAL FLYING POSTURE uses the shoulder,
but when using your shoulder, you can also continue into using your back.
If suddenly you have the opportunity,
crash into him as though you are collapsing onto him.
But be very mindful about maintaining your balance,
for if you lose it, you will have wasted your effort.

慢與不用力之解釋
[FIVE] EXPLAINING WHY THE ART IS DONE SLOWLY AND WITHOUT EXERTION

太極拳慢而無力。學者多懷疑之。或謂不能用。徒能鍛鍊身體。蓋練拳之道。首宜研究學理。學理瞭然。再學方法。方法精熟。始能應用。非拳術之不能應用。實功夫之尚未練到耳。如鍊鋼然。由生鐵。而鍊成熟鐵。由熟鐵。而鍊成純鋼。非經過長時間之火候不為功。夫太極拳之所以由慢而成者。其練習時間。純任自然。不尚力氣。而尚用意。用力則笨。用氣則滯。是以沉氣鬆力為要。太極拳。以靜制動。以柔制剛。無中生有。有若無。實若虛。逆來順受。不丢不頂。均係虛實之變化也。慢者緩也。慢所以靜。靜所以守。守之謂定。此卽心氣之中定也。心定而後靜。靜而後神安。神安而後氣沉。氣沉而後精神團聚。乃能聚精會神。一氣貫通。慢由於心細。心細則神淸。神淸則氣爽。乃無氣滯之弊。快由於心粗。心粗由於急。急則氣浮。氣浮不沉。心急不靜。不沉不靜。心無所守。則散亂之病生。虛靈二字。更無由求。以靜制動。以柔制剛者。由於感覺使然。故其拳架係鍛鍊身心以為體。功夫出自推手而為用。推手之初步。專在摩練感覺。身有所感。心有所覺。感應精微。致用無窮。故能知己知彼。其滋味則心領神會。非筆墨所能形容。其變化之無窮。皆由感覺之靈敏。故能知其虛實。而便利從心。此慢與不用力之義也。
Because Taiji Boxing is performed slowly and without exertion, students often doubt it. Or they will say that it cannot be applied and is only good for training the body. To train in the ways of this art, you should start with the principles. Once the principles are understood, then learn the techniques. Once you are skillful with the techniques, you will then be able to apply the art. It is not that the art is not applicable, it is just that skill has not yet been trained. It is like the process of steelmaking. First pig iron is smelted to produce wrought iron, then wrought iron is further smelted to make pure steel. If you do not go through a similar process of “cooking” yourself with the training over a long period, you will not develop any skill.
  Taiji Boxing is done slowly because there has to be a pure naturalness while practicing. Do not rely on strength and vigor, instead make use of intention. Using strength will only make you clumsier. Using vigor will only end up making your movements sluggish. Therefore you should sink your energy and relax your strength. Taiji Boxing uses stillness to control movement, softness to control hardness. There is a something that arises from nothing, a something that still seems to be nothing, a fullness that seems to be empty. Go along with whatever comes at you, neither coming away from it nor crashing into it. This has to do with the alternations between emptiness and fullness.
  By “slow” is meant leisurely. By moving slowly, you will have a sense of stillness, which will lead to a sense of maintaining your state, which is called “stability”. This is the centered stability of mind and energy. Once your mind is stable, there is quietude. Once there is quietude, your spirit is calm. Once your spirit is calm, then energy sinks. With your energy sinking, then essence and spirit gather and unite. Able to concentrate essence and spirit, there will be a single flow running through the movement.
  Slowness comes from being meticulous. With that level of careful attention, your spirit will be clear. Once your spirit is clear, your energy will be clean, and thereby free of the error of sluggishness. Moving fast comes from being careless. Carelessness comes from being in a hurry. When your mind is in a hurry, your energy will be floating rather than sinking. With your mind in a hurry and your energy not sinking, there will be no sense of stillness and you will be unable to maintain stability, which will then generate the error of panic, and there will be no longer be a way to operate from a state of naturalness.
  Using stillness to control movement and using softness to control hardness depend on sensitivity. The foundation of the art lies in the training of body and mind that occurs through doing the solo set, but the function lies in the skill that comes from doing pushing hands. In the beginning of learning pushing hands, focus on developing sensitivity. Body feels, mind perceives. Once your responses to what you sense are refined and subtle, applicability will be limitless, and you will truly be able to know both self and opponent. (This is an experience that will be understood instinctively and is not really something that can be put into words.) The limitlessness of adaptability comes from the acuteness of one’s sensitivity. Therefore if you can know where your opponent is empty and full, you will easily be able to do as you please. This is the significance of slowness and not using exertion.

中定
[SIX] CENTERED STABILITY

伸屈開合之未發謂之中。寂然不動謂之定。心氣淸和。精神貫頂。不偏不倚。是為中定之氣。亦道之本也。
Before you have expressed any extending or bending, opening or closing, you are in a state of being centered. When you are [quoting from part 10 of the commentary section of the Book of Changes:] “[without thought, without action,] silent and still”, you are in a state of stability. When your mind is clear and your energy is harmonious, spirit is coursing through to your headtop, and you are not leaning in any direction, this is the state of “centered stability”, which also happens to be the whole foundation of the art.

虛領頂勁
[SEVEN] FORCELESSLY PRESS UP YOUR HEADTOP

頂勁者。卽頂頭懸。頭頂正直。腹內鬆淨。氣沉丹田。精神貫頂。如不倒翁。上輕下沉。又如水中浮瓢。漂然不沒之意。歌曰。
To “press up your headtop” means that your “headtop is pulled up as if suspended”. With your headtop upright, your belly can be completely relaxed. Energy will sink to your elixir field and spirit will course through to your headtop. You will be like a round-bottomed doll, light above, heavy below, or like a buoy that stays afloat on the water rather than vanishing under the surface. Here is a poem on the subject:

神淸氣沉任自然。漂漂盪盪浪裏攢。憑你風浪來推打。上輕下沉不倒顚。
With your mind clear and your energy sinking, you will move with naturalness,
despite being buffeted by winds and waves.
No matter what difficulties push and punch at you,
you will remain light above and heavy below, and thus you will not be toppled over.

感覺
[EIGHT] SENSITIVITY

身有所感。心有所覺。有感必有應。一切動靜皆為感。感則必有應。所應復為感。所感復有應。所以互生不已。感通之理。精義入微。以致用也。推手初步。專在摩練感覺。感覺靈敏。則變化精微。所以無窮也。
When your body feels something, your mind then perceives it, and thus whenever you have any sensation, it will cause you to react to it. At every moment, whether you are in a state of movement or stillness, there will be something to feel, and therefore there will also be something to react to. Your response will create new sensations, and those sensations will in turn produce new responses, and in this way they give rise to each other ceaselessly. The concept of sensing what is going on is essential for being able to apply techniques. In the beginning of training in pushing hands, focus on developing sensitivity. Once your sensitivity is acute, your adaptability will be profound, and then you will have no limitations.

聽勁
[NINE] LISTENING TO ENERGY

聽之謂權。卽權其輕重也。在推手為偵察敵情。聽之於心。凝之於耳。行之於氣。運之於手。所謂以心行意。以意行氣。以氣運身。聽而後發。聽勁要準確靈敏。隨其伸。就其屈。乃能進退自如。
To “listen” means to weigh, as in assessing whether the opponent is being light or heavy. Listening in pushing hands is like the scout who reconnoiters the enemy’s situation. Listening lies in your mind, whereas focusing your attention is what is carried out by your ears. Moving lies with your energy, whereas wielding techniques is what is carried out by your hands. It is said: “Use the mind to move intention. Use intention to move energy. Use energy to move the body.” Therefore listen first and then issue. When listening to energy, you have to have accuracy and sensitivity. Go along with the opponent’s extending, then move in toward his bending. Thus you will be able to advance and retreat smoothly.

問答
[TEN] ASKING & ANSWERING

我有所問。彼有所答。一問一答。則生動靜。旣有動靜。虛實分明。在推手則以意探之。以勁問之。俟其答復。再聽其虛實。若問而不答。則可進而擊之。若有所答。則須聽其動靜之緩急。及進退之方向。始能辨其虛實也。
I “ask” for information. The opponent supplies the answer. Each exchange of asking and answering will spark movement or stillness. Once there is any kind of movement, emptiness and fullness will become distinct. While pushing hands, use intention to probe the situation and use energy to ask the opponent what he is doing. Await his answer, listening for where he is empty and full. If you ask and there is no answer, then you can advance and attack. If there is an answer, then you must listen for the speed of his movement and the direction of his advance or retreat in order to be able to distinguish where he is empty and full.

虛實
[ELEVEN] EMPTINESS & FULLNESS

兵不厭詐。以計勝人也。計者虛實之謂。拳術亦然。姿勢,動作,用意,運勁。各有虛實。知虛實而善利用。雖虛為實。雖實猶虛。以實擊虛。避實擊虛。指上打下。聲東擊西。或先重而後輕。或先輕而後重。隱現無常。沉浮不定。使敵不知吾之虛實。而吾處處求敵之虛實。彼實則避之。彼虛則擊之。隨機應變。聽其勁。觀其動。得其機。攻其勢。如醫者視病而投藥。必先診其脈。觀其色。察其聲。問其症。故曰。虛實宜分淸楚。一處自有一處虛實。處處總此一虛實也。
Armies do not mind cheating [“All’s fair in war.”] and will use strategies to defeat the enemy. Such tricks are what is meant by “emptiness and fullness”. [In fact the sixth chapter of the Art of War is titled “Emptiness & Fullness”. The term could also be rendered as “fake and real”.] The same is true in boxing arts. Postures, movements, intentions, energies – they all have an element of emptiness and fullness.
  Understand emptiness and fullness, and be good at making use of them. Being empty, become full. Becoming full, seem still to be empty. Attack a place of emptiness by filling it in. Avoid a place of fullness by emptying. Aim above and then strike below, applying the strategy of “threatening to the east but striking to the west”. Start with heaviness and then become light, or start with lightness and then become heavy. Disappear and appear inconstantly. Sink and float unpredictably. This causes the opponent to never know where you are empty and full, whereas you can always find his emptiness and fullness. Avoid him where he is full and attack him where he is empty, responding according to the situation.
  Listen to his energy, observe his movement, catch his timing, and attack his position. It is like a doctor examining a patient. He first has to check his pulse, observe his complexion, listen to his body’s sounds, and ask about symptoms, and then he will be able to prescribe the right medicine. Thus it is said: “Empty and full must be distinguished clearly. In each part there is a part that is empty and a part that is full. Everywhere it is always like this, an emptiness and a fullness.”

量敵
[TWELVE] ESTIMATING THE OPPONENT

兵法云。知己知彼。百戰百勝。是故整軍行旅之初。當先審己量敵。而計其勝負之情也。誠哉斯言。勝負之機。在知與不知耳。拳雖小道。其理亦然。以已之短。當人之長。謂之失計。以己之長。當人之短。謂之得計。取勝之道。在得失之間。故量敵最關重要也。
太極拳之所謂間答。卽問其動靜。目的在聽其勁之方向與重心。卽偵察敵情之意。所謂量敵也。彼我在未進行攻擊以前。吾應以靜待動。以逸待勞。毫無成見。彼未動。我不動。彼微動。我先動。貴在彼我相交一動之間。卽知其虛實而應付之。此均由於感覺。聽勁,虛實,問答,量敵,而來。學者應注意致力焉。
It says in the Art of War [chapter 3]: “Knowing both self and opponent, in a hundred battles you will have a hundred victories.” True words indeed. Before preparing to mobilize, it is necessary to first take stock both of one’s own forces and the enemy’s situation in order to calculate how to defeat him. The difference between success or failure is a matter of knowledge versus ignorance. Although a boxing art is a lesser art, the same principle still applies. If you use your weaknesses to attack his strengths, you will lose, but if you use your strengths to attack his weaknesses, you will win. The means to victory lies on a fine line between winning and losing, therefore estimating the opponent is crucial to tip the balance.
  In Taiji Boxing’s “asking and answering”, inquire into the state of his movement or stillness, the purpose being to “listen” for the direction of his energy and the position of his center of balance. Estimating the opponent is therefore the same idea as reconnoitering the enemy’s situation. Before you and he and have advanced to attack each other, you should be using stillness to await his movement, using leisure to await his fatigue, and be entirely without any certainties as to what he is going to do. “If he takes no action, I take no action, but once he takes even the slightest action, I have already acted.” It is vital in the moment you connect that you learn the status of his emptiness and fullness in order to deal with it. To estimate the opponent is all down to sensitivity, listening to energy, asking and answering, and emptiness and fullness. You have to devote your attention to it.

知機
[THIRTEEN] KNOWING THE RIGHT MOMENT

機者。陰陽未分。虛無緲茫。謂之機。先機之謂也。卽是無聲無臭。無形無象。在應用時。是未有動靜。未成姿勢。是無機會也。工夫高者。皆能知機。能知機。能造勢。所謂無中生有。乘機而動。下者。不知機。故不得勢。所謂先知先覺。後知後覺。不知不覺。此為吾道之三大境界。凡屬吾門。一經推手。自然領會。彼我之高下。無須相角勝負。譬如圍棋。高者每下一子。皆有用意。眼光遠大。着不虛發。氣俱聯貫。而占局勢。其勝負之情己定。下者。眼光淺近。心無成竹。不得先手。隨人擺脫。而自顧不暇。其必敗也已知。推手之理亦然。高者。心氣沉靜。姿態大雅。逆來順受。運用自如。下者。進則無門。退則無路。攻之不可。守之無術。此卽知機與不知機之分耳。
The decisive moment is before passive and active qualities have become distinct, while they are still a vagueness in a void. Thus the right moment is: right before it happens. It is silent and intangible, formless and shapeless. When applying a technique, do it before the opponent moves, before he has a definite posture, when he still has no opportunity.
  One who is highly skilled is always able to know the right moment, and so he is able to create the right position. While something emerges from nothing, he takes advantage of an opportunity and acts. One who has a low level of skill does not know the right moment and therefore cannot get into the right position. It is said that to know before, to realize after, and to not notice at all are the three main skill levels in our art [in descending order]. When someone in our art has gone through the process of training in pushing hands, he immediately knows if his opponent has a higher or lower skill level than himself and does not need to wrestle to find out.
  For an analogy, it is like encirclement chess. When one who is highly skilled puts down a piece, it is always with purpose. He sees many moves in advance, and so he always moves with precision and his energy flows through every step of the process. He is able to predict everything that will happen, and so victory and defeat are already clear to him. One who has a low level of skill does not see far ahead and has no plan in mind at all [“a mind without a finished bamboo” – the phrase originally describing a painter who simply starts painting an image without having a sense of what the finished product should look like]. Unable to go on the offensive, he merely responds to whatever move the opponent has just made. As he is kept too busy with just keeping up, his defeat is already certain.
  The same principle applies in pushing hands. One who is highly skilled has a calm mind, a settled energy, and an elegant demeanor. He receives whatever comes at him and deals with it smoothly. One who has a low level of skill has no path of advance or retreat and no way to attack or defend. This is the difference between understanding timing and not understanding timing.

重心
[FOURTEEN] THE CENTER OF BALANCE

凡人有四肢軀幹。頭為首。其站立俯仰。亦各有姿勢。姿勢立。則生重心。重心穩固。所謂得機得勢。重心失中。乃有顚倒之虞。卽不得機。不得勢也。拳術,功用之基礎。則在重心之穩固與否。而重心又有固定與活動之分。固定者。是專主自己練習拳術之時。每一動作。一姿勢。均須時時注意之。或轉動。或進退皆然。重心與虛實本屬一體。虛實能變換無常。重心則不然。雖能移動。因係全體之主宰。不能輕舉妄動。使敵知吾虛實。又如作戰然。心為令。氣為旗。腰為纛。太極拳以勁為戰術。虛實為戰畧。意氣為指揮。聽勁為間牒。重心為主帥。學者。應時時揣摸默識體會之。此為斯道全體大用也。重心活動之謂。係在彼我相較之間。雖在决鬥之中。必須時時維持自己之重心。而攻擊他人之重心。卽堅守全軍之司令。而不使主帥有所失利也。
A person has four limbs and a trunk, led by the head. The positions of standing straight, leaning slightly forward, and leaning slightly back each have particular postures that go with them. Once in a posture, it will produce a center of balance. When your balance is solid, you will be in the right place at the right time. When you lose your center of balance, you will be in danger of falling into disorder, and you will end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  The whole basis of applying a boxing art comes down to whether or not your balance is stable. But there is also the distinction between stability and maneuverability. As for stability, every movement and posture during the solo practice has to be given attention. Sometimes you will be advancing, sometimes retreating, sometimes turning, and this will involve your center of gravity in the workings of emptiness and fullness. Emptiness and fullness can alternate inconstantly, but your center of balance has to stay stable because it is in charge of your whole body even when you are shifting positions. You must not act rashly, which would cause the opponent to know the status of your emptiness and fullness.
  A fight is like a battle. “The mind makes the command, the energy is its flag, and the waist is its banner.” Taiji Boxing is like a military operation in this way: it is emptiness and fullness that forms the strategy, it is intention that sends the commands, it is listening that gathers intelligence, and your center of balance is the commander. You should constantly contemplate what you experience, for this will make the art complete in terms of both foundation and function.
  Maneuverability has to do with when you are competing with an opponent. Although in the midst of a struggle, you must at all times preserve your own center of balance and attack his. This is like protecting the commander of an army. Do not allow your general to fall.

雙重
[FIFTEEN] ON DOUBLE PRESSURE

雙重者。無虛實之謂也。雙重之病。有單方。與雙方及兩手兩足之分。經云。偏沉則隨。雙重則滯。又云,有數年純功而不能運化者。率為人制。雙重之病未悟耳。故雙重之病。最難自悟自覺。非知虛實之理。不易避免。能解此病。則聽勁,感覺,虛實,問答,皆能融會貫通焉。脚踏車之所以能行動灣轉自如者。均力學也。人坐於車上。手拂之。足踏之。目視之。身隨之。其重心在腰。而司顧盼,以手輔助之。其輪盤置於車之中心。兩足踏於脚蹬之上。一踏一提。則輪齒絞練而帶動前進矣。若使兩足同時用力踏之。則車卽行停止前進。此蓋雙重之病耳。
夫推手亦然。對方用力推我。吾若仍以力相抵抗之。因而相持。則謂之滯。此卽双方之双重也。若我或彼。各順其勢。不以力抵抗。而順對方來力之方向撤囘。引之前進。然須不丢不頂。則必有一方之力落空。此卽偏沉所致。如我擬攻對方之側面。使其倒地。若以兩手直接推之。而對方氣力强大。不可挫其鋒。須以虛實之法。雙手撫其肩。我左手由彼之右肩下捋。同時我右手擊其左肩。此時我之兩手作交叉之勢。同主一方。而發勁成一圜形。則彼可側斜而倒。因彼同時不能上下相顧。而失利也。此卽吾發勁偏沉所致也。學者悟一而知十。所謂由着熟。而漸悟懂勁也。
“Double pressure” means that there is no distinction between emptiness and fullness. The error of double pressure is divided into occurring on one side [resisting against the opponent with one hand while in a bow stance], occurring on both sides [resisting against the opponent with both hands while in a bow stance], and occurring in both hands and both feet all at the same time [resisting against the opponent with both hands while facing him squarely in a horse-riding stance].
  It says in the Classic: “If you drop one side, you can move. If you have equal pressure on both sides, you will be stuck.” And also: “We often see one who has practiced hard for many years yet is unable to perform any neutralizations and is generally under the opponent’s control, and the issue here is that this error of double pressure has not yet been understood.” Therefore the error of double pressure is very difficult to comprehend, much less be aware of, and if you do not understand the principle of emptiness and fullness, it will not be easy to avoid. But you can fix this problem by way of sensitivity, listening to energy, asking and answering, and emptiness and fullness, all of which are tools that will help you through to success.
  The reason a bicycle can move smoothly is all a matter of the science of mechanics. You sit on the seat, hands on the handlebars, feet on the pedals. Your eyes are looking ahead of you, body following, your center of balance in your waist. You control your movement side to side with the assistance of your hands, the steering pivot placed at the centerline of the bicycle. Your feet are on the pedals, one foot pressing down as the other is rising up, causing the gearing teeth to twine the chain around, thereby leading the bicycle forward. But if both feet press down at the same time, the bicycle will come to a halt. This is due to the error of double pressure. [This analogy is weakened because Wu is describing a foot-braking bicycle as opposed to one with the hand-braking system that is far more common nowadays, but the essential idea is still a good one: if you push along one side of a wheel, it will rotate, but if you push in the same direction along both sides, it will stop rotating.]
  The same principle applies to pushing hands. If the opponent uses strength to push you and you also use strength to resist against him, you will both become stuck in a stalemate. This is a situation of double pressure on both sides. If either of you instead goes along with the incoming force, there will be no resistance. If you withdraw in the direction of his incoming force, it will draw him forward. As long as you are “neither coming away nor crashing in”, this will cause his force on one side to fall into emptiness. This is the result of “dropping one side”. [Returning to the wheel analogy, the effect is the same as pushing along both sides of a wheel and then taking one hand away, causing the wheel to again rotate.]
  Suppose you want to make the opponent topple by attacking him from the side. You might try to do a direct push, even with both hands, but if he has great strength, you will not be able to upset his structure. Instead you have to use the principle of emptiness and fullness. With both hands touching his shoulders, your left hand does a rollback below his right shoulder and your right hand at the same time attacks his left shoulder. Your hands are now forming a crossed position as they come into line with each other and you issue power along a curve, causing him to be leaned aside and fall away.
  The reason this occurs is because he is unable to coordinate his upper body with his lower body and thus ends up in a disadvantageous position. This is the result of issuing power on one side while dropping the other side [your right hand expressing while your left hand is rolling back.] If you can grasp this one technique [being the rending technique], you will understand the rest. [Lun Yu, 5.8: “After learning just one thing, he knows ten.”] Thus it is said: “Once you have ingrained these techniques, you will gradually come to identify energies.”

捨己從人
[SIXTEEN] LET GO OF YOURSELF AND FOLLOW THE OPPONENT

捨己從人。是捨棄自己的主張。而依從他人動作。在太極拳中。為最難能之事。因兩人在交手之時。勝負之觀念重。彼我决不相容。何况互相攻擊。或在相持之中。而棄其權利。所謂捨己從人。不僅作字面解釋而矣。在吾道中。其寓意至深。學者當於惟務養性。四字下功夫。經云。無極而生。動靜之機。陰陽之母也。動靜為性。陰陽為理。故性理為道之本源。養性之說。是學者應時時致力修養。潛心揣摩。心領神會。久之自能豁然貫通矣。又云。由着熟而漸悟懂勁。懂勁後而階及神明。此乃循環之理。歸宗之意。蓋所謂超以象外。得其寰中。功夫練到精微。能造機造勢。不愁無得機得勢處。能處處隨曲就伸。則無往不利。如此乃能捨己從人。
To “let go of yourself and follow the opponent” means to abandon your own plans and act in accordance with his movement. This is the most difficult thing to do in Taiji Boxing, because when two people cross hands, the idea of winning or losing gains weight. You and the opponent are entirely at odds with each other, and moreover trying to attack one another, and so you may become locked in a stalemate until one of you gives up. Thus it is said: “Let go of yourself and follow the opponent.” But this phrase is not used in its literal meaning. Within our art, it goes a little deeper than that.
  Students should restrain themselves, training with the mantra of “I will let go of myself and follow the opponent” in mind. It says in the Classic: “Taiji is born of wuji. It is the manifestation of movement and stillness, giving rise to the passive and active aspects.” “Movement and stillness” are the physical embodiment. “Passive and active” are the philosophical principle. The embodiment and the principle form the basis of the art. Self-restraint requires constant dedication, concentration, and instinct. After a long time, you will naturally become ready for it to suddenly all make sense to you.
  It also says: “Once you have ingrained these techniques, you will gradually come to identify energies, and then from there you will work your way toward something miraculous.” This is the cyclic principle, the idea of “returning home”, as is expressed by [quoting from Sikong Tu’s The Twenty-Four Kinds of Poetry, poem 1]: “Transcend external appearances and obtain the center of the world.” [This quote is itself drawing from Zhuangzi, chapter 2: “Obtain the center of the circle and from there respond limitlessly.”] Once your skill is refined, you will be able to produce the right timing and the right position, and no longer have to worry about choosing the wrong moment or being in the wrong position. By always being able to “comply and bend, then engage and extend”, everything you try will work. It is in this sense that you will have the ability of letting go of yourself and following the opponent.

鼓盪
[SEVENTEEN] “AGITATE, AGITATE, AGITATE!”

氣沉,腰鬆,腹淨,含胸,拔背,沉肩,垂肘,節節舒展。動之。靜之。虛之。實之。呼之。吸之。開之。合之。剛之。柔之。緩之。急之。此種混合之勁。乃是鼓盪也。是故以心行意。以意行氣。以氣運身。乃生鼓盪之勁。由心氣貫串。陰陽變化而來。如颶風駭浪。雲行水流。如鳶飛魚躍。兔起鶻落。載沉載浮。忽隱忽現。大氣鼓盪。風雲莫測者也。太極推手。最後工夫有爛採花者。「又名採浪花」。全以鼓盪之勁。鼓動對方。使之如海船遇風。出入波濤之中。眩暈無主。頃斜顚簸。自身重心。難以捉摸。卽鼓盪之作用也。
Sink your energy, loosen your waist, and relax your belly. Contain your chest and pluck up your back. Sink your shoulders and droop your elbows. Stretch out each joint one after another. And then, move and be still, empty and fill, inhale and exhale, open and close, use hardness and use softness, move slow and move quick, and so on. The mixing of such opposites is what it means to agitate.
  Start with: “Use the mind to move intention. Use intention to move energy. Use energy to move the body.” Then develop an agitating energy. With mind and energy coursing through, let passive and active switch back and forth. Be like a hurricane forming, waves crashing, clouds rolling, water flowing, or like a hawk soaring, a fish leaping, a rabbit bolting, a falcon diving. Suddenly sink and suddenly rise. Suddenly hide and suddenly appear. Like changes in the weather, be as unpredictable as wind and clouds.
  The final exercise in Taiji’s pushing hands is “plucking random flowers” [i.e. freeplay] (also called “plucking at the sea spray”), and is entirely composed of agitation. Agitate the opponent, causing him to be like a boat on the sea encountering a storm and getting tossed around by the waves. Make him dizzy and disoriented, wobbly and jolted, and keep your own center of balance impossible for him to find. This is the function of agitation.

基礎
[EIGHTEEN] FUNDAMENTALS

太極拳以拳架為體。以推手為用。在初學盤架時。基礎最關重要。其姿勢務求正確。而中正安舒。其動作必須緩和。而輕靈圓活。此係入門之徑。學者循序而進。不致妄費功夫。而得其捷徑也。
In Taiji Boxing, the solo set is the foundation and the pushing hands training is the function. In the beginning of learning the solo set, the key fundamentals are: the postures should be accurate, meaning that they should be centered and upright, calm and comfortable; and the movements should be moderate, meaning that they should be light and sensitive, rounded and lively. These things form a pathway into the art. If you progress through them in the proper sequence, the result will not be that have wasted your time, and instead will turn out to be a shortcut.

中者。心氣中和。神淸氣沉。其根在脚。卽是立點。重心繫於腰脊。所謂命意源頭在腰隙。精神含歛於內。不表於外。乃能中定沉靜矣。
Centered: having a sense of your mind and energy being in state of harmoniousness.
  Your mind is clear and your energy is sinking. Techniques are rooted in your feet, being what you are standing on. Your center of balance then lies in your lower back, as is indicated by “the command comes from your lower back”. With spirit contained within rather than exhibited externally, you will thus be able to be centered and calm.

正者。姿勢端正。每一姿勢。務宜端正。而忌偏斜。然各種姿勢。各不相同。或仰,或俯,或伸。或屈。非盡中正。是以其發勁。及其用意之方向。而求其重心。蓋重心為全體樞紐。重心立。則開合靈活自如。重心不立。則開合失其關鍵。如車軸為車輪之樞紐。若使車軸。置於偏斜。而不適於車身之重心處。則車輪轉動。進退失其效用矣。故拳架之姿勢。務求正確。則重心平穩。要不自牽扯其重心。而辯別虛實也。
Upright: having a sense of your posture being properly aligned.
  Every posture should be performed with accuracy, never misaligned. However, each posture is different. Sometimes there is a forward lean, a backward lean, a reaching out, a bending in, not entirely centered or entirely upright. Therefore you have to seek to be balanced in the context of issuing power and the direction that you are sending your intention. Your “center of balance” is your body’s pivot point. When your center of balance is right, then you can open and close with nimbleness and naturalness. When your center of balance is off, then all of your openings and closings will have no leverage.
  This is like a wheel spinning around an axle. If the wheel is installed at an improper angle, it will not be suitable for supporting the weight of the car, and the turning of the wheel will not effectively move the car either forward or in reverse. Therefore the postures in the boxing set need to be accurate and your center of balance needs to be stable. Only when your posture is not impeding your balance will you be in a position to distinguish between emptiness and fullness.

安者。安然之意。切忌牽强。由自然之中。得其安適。乃無氣滯之弊。而能氣遍身軀矣。此由於姿勢安穩動作均匀。呼吸平和。神氣鎭靜所致。
Calm: having a sense of peacefulness.
  Avoid forcing yourself. Starting from a state of naturalness, seek to become comfortable. You will then be without the error of energy stagnating and instead energy will be able to move throughout your body. This is because your postures are stable, your movements are even, and your breath is gentle, and the result will be that your spirit is calm.

舒者。舒展之謂。故云先求開展。後求緊凑。初學盤架時。姿勢動作。務求開展。使全體關節。節節舒展之。然非故意用力伸張筋骨。於自然之中。徐徐鬆展。久之自然鬆活沉着矣。
Comfortable: having a sense of being stretched out.
  It is said: “First strive to open up, then strive to close up.” When beginning to learn the solo set, the postures and movements should all be opened up, causing every joint in the body to get stretched one after another. However, this is not a matter of deliberately using any effort to extend the sinews and bones, just naturally and gradually loosening. Then after a long time, you will easily feel very relaxed and settled.

輕者。輕虛之意。然忌漂浮。在盤架時。動作要輕靈而和緩。往復乃能自如。久之自生鬆活之勁。進而生粘黏之勁。故輕字是練太極拳下手之處。入門之途徑。
Light: having a ghostly lightness of touch.
  This does not mean that you are floating up. When going through the solo set, the movement should be delicate and gentle, and then you will be able to go back and forth smoothly. After a long time, you will naturally develop an energy that is loose and lively, and then you will progress to having an energy that is sticking and adhering. Thus the concept of “lightness” is an important ingredient to have when you set about learning Taiji Boxing, providing a way into the art.

靈者。靈敏之謂。由輕虛而鬆沉。由鬆沉而粘黏。能粘黏。卽能連隨。能連隨。而後方能靈敏。則可悟及不丟不頂矣。
Sensitive: having a keen awareness.
  From having a ghostly lightness will come relaxing and sinking. From relaxing and sinking will come sticking and adhering. Able to stick and adhere, you will be able to connect and follow. Able to connect and follow, you will then be able to be keenly aware. And you will then be capable of comprehending the concept of “neither coming away nor crashing in”.

圓者。圓滿之謂。每一姿勢一動作。務求圓滿。而無缺陷。則能完整一氣。而免凸凹斷續之病。推手運用各勁。非圓不靈。能圓則活。處處能圓。則無往不利。
Rounded: having a sense of completeness in the movements.
  In every posture and movement, strive to have a rounded fullness, without any cracks or gaps, and then you will able to have a single flow all the way through. Avoid the errors of having pits or protrusions anywhere, or any breaks in the flow. In the pushing hands techniques, if there is no roundness, you will lack sensitivity, whereas if your movements can be rounded, there will then be a liveliness. Always be able to be rounded, and then you will always be victorious.

活者。靈活之謂。無笨重遲滯之意。上述各節。貫通後。則伸屈開合。進退俯仰。無不自由。所謂能呼吸。而後能靈活也。
Lively: having a sense of flexibility in the movements.
  The idea is that you lack clumsiness or sluggishness. Once you have thoroughly understood the rest of the points above, then extending and bending, opening and closing, advancing and retreating, leaning forward or back, will all be performed with great freedom of movement. When all is said and done, “your ability to be nimble lies in your ability to breathe”.

授受
[NINETEEN] ON GIVING INSTRUCTION

夫人之性情。各有不同。大抵可分為兩種。曰剛,與柔,是也。剛性急而烈。上者為强。下者為暴。强者喜爭。故其學拳時多務於剛。以其性喜爭强鬥勝。不屈人下也。柔者性和而順。上者心氣中和而篤敬。故其學拳時。多務於柔。以其性喜和平多涵養也。暴者。性燥而魯莽。故其學拳時。專務於猛。而無精細之趣。柔之下者。性柔而弱。意志不强。少進取心。故其學拳時不求甚解。然武人貴志剛而性柔。有智,有仁,有勇。方為剛柔相濟。如此乃能進德修業矣。上述性別。關乎學者之本性。應注意之。學者以性情之不同。而所得結果亦異。間賞竊觀。學太極拳者。雖同一師承。而其拳之姿勢。與理論之解釋各異。因而遺下多少疑竇及誤會。凡此蓋亦教授者因其人之性情而授受之耳。所謂差之毫釐。謬以千里。故特表而出之。以解釋羣疑。而資參考焉。
Everyone has a different temperament. For the most part, there are two kinds of people: hard and soft.
  Hard people are impatient and intense. The best of them are merely forceful. Forceful people love to compete, and thus when learning a boxing art, they tend to emphasize hardness because they want to win and will not yield to other people. The worst of them they are outright violent. Violent people are crude and rash, and thus when learning a boxing art, they focus on fierceness and have no interest in precision.
  Soft people are mild and agreeable. The best of them are even-tempered and respectful, and thus when learning a boxing art they tend to emphasize softness because they want to diffuse situations and are full of patience. The worst of them overdo their softness to the point of weakness. They have no determination, no initiative, and thus when learning a boxing art, they do not strive for a thorough understanding.
  However, warriors value hardness of will and softness of temperament. Possessing the qualities of wisdom, compassion, and courage, they thus have a state of hardness and softness complementing each other. In this way, they are able to enhance their virtue and enrich their learning. Attention should be given to these two types of temperament, for students have different dispositions and consequently they will obtain different results. Observe them practicing and you will see that even if students of Taiji Boxing are learning from the same teacher, they are bound to perform the postures differently and have a different understanding of the principles.
  It is for this reason that there are many gaps and mistakes in the transmission of the art over generations, and it is generally due to teachers who have given instruction based on the student’s disposition [i.e. tailoring the art to fit the student instead of expecting the student to simply learn the art, and thereby unwittingly allowing the art to become altered for no legitimate reason]. As it is said: “Miss by an inch, lose by a mile.” This is why I have listed some of these differences of disposition above, to serve as a reference for clearing up such doubts.

[APPENDICES – THE TAIJI CLASSICS]

太極拳論
[I] TAIJI BOXING TREATISE

一舉動。周身俱要輕靈。尤須貫串。氣宜鼓盪。神宜內歛。無使有缺陷處。無使有凸凹處。無使有斷續處。其根在脚。發於腿。主宰於腰。形於手指。由脚而腿而腰。總須完整一氣。向前退後。乃得機得勢。有不得機得勢處。身便散亂。其病必於腿腰求之。上下前後左右皆然。凡此皆是意。不在外面。有上卽有下。有前卽有後。有左卽有右。如意要向上。卽寓下意。若將物掀起而加以挫之之意。斯其根自斷。乃壞之速而無疑。虛實宜分淸楚。一處自有一處虛實。處處總此一虛實。周身節節貫串。無令絲毫間斷耳。
Once there is any movement, your entire body should have lightness and nimbleness. There especially needs to be connection from movement to movement. Energy should be roused and spirit should be collected within. Do not allow there to be cracks or gaps anywhere, pits or protrusions anywhere, breaks in the flow anywhere.
  Starting from your foot, issue power through your leg, directing it from your waist, and expressing it at your fingers. From foot through leg through waist, it must be a continuous process, and whether advancing or retreating, you will then catch the opportunity and gain the upper hand. If not and your body easily falls into disorder, the problem must be in your waist and legs, so look for it there. This is always so, regardless of the direction of the movement, be it up, down, forward, back, left, right. And in all of these cases, the problem is a matter of your intent and does not lie outside of you.
  With an upward comes a downward, with a forward comes a backward, and with a left comes a right. If your intention wants to go upward, then harbor a downward intention, like when you reach down to lift up an object. You thereby add a setback to the opponent’s own intention, thus he cuts his own root and is defeated quickly and certainly. Empty and full must be distinguished clearly. In each part there is a part that is empty and a part that is full. Everywhere it is always like this, an emptiness and a fullness. Throughout your body, as the movement goes from one section to another there has to be connection. Do not allow the slightest break in the connection.

長拳者。如長江大海。滔滔不絕也。十三勢者。掤,捋,擠,按,採,挒,肘,靠,此八卦也。進步,退步,左顧,右盼,中定,此五行也,掤,捋,擠,按,卽乾,坤,坎,離,四正方也。採,挒,肘,靠,卽巽,震,兌,艮,四斜角也。進,退,顧,盼,定,卽金,木,水,火,土也。(原注云此係武當山張三丰老師遺論欲天下豪傑延年益夀不徒作技藝之末也)
Long Boxing: it is like a long river flowing into the wide ocean, on and on ceaselessly…
  The thirteen dynamics are: warding off, rolling back, pressing, pushing, plucking, rending, elbowing, and bumping – which relate to the eight trigrams:

☱ ☰ ☴
☲      ☵
☳ ☷ ☶

and advancing, retreating, stepping to the left, stepping to the right, and staying in the center – which relate to metal, wood, water, fire, and earth: the five elements. Warding off, rolling back, pressing, and pushing correspond to ☰, ☷, ☵, and ☲ in the four principle compass directions [meaning simply that these are the primary techniques]. Plucking, rending, elbowing, and bumping correspond to ☴, ☳, ☱, and ☶ in the four corner directions [i.e. are the secondary techniques]. Advancing, retreating, stepping to the left, stepping to the right, and staying in the center correspond to the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire, and earth.
  (A original note says: “This relates to the theory left to us from Zhang Sanfeng of Mt. Wudang. He wanted all the heroes in the world to live long and not merely gain martial skill.”)

太極拳經 山右王宗岳遺著
[II] TAIJI BOXING CLASSIC (by Wang Zongyue of Shanxi)

太極者。無極而生。動靜之機。陰陽之母也。動之則分。靜之則合。無過不及。隨曲就伸。人剛我柔謂之走。我順人背謂之黏。動急則急應。動緩則緩隨。雖變化萬端。而理為一貫。由着熟而漸悟懂勁。由懂勁而階及神明。然非用力之久。不能豁然貫通焉。虛領頂勁。氣沉丹田。不偏不倚。忽隱忽現。左重則左虛。右重則右虛。仰之則彌高。俯之則彌深。進之則愈長。退之則愈促。一羽不能加。蠅蟲不能落。人不知我。我獨知人。英雄所向無敵。蓋皆由此而及也。斯技旁門甚多。雖勢有區別。槪不外乎壯欺弱慢讓快耳。有力打無力。手慢讓手快。是皆先天自然之能。非關學力而有為也。察四兩撥千斤之句。顯非力勝。觀耄耋能禦衆之形。快何能為。立如平準。活如車輪。偏沈則隨。雙重則滯。每見數年純功。不能運化者。率皆自為人制。雙重之病未悟耳。欲避此病。須知陰陽。黏卽是走。走卽是黏。陰不離陽。陽不離陰。陰陽相濟。方為懂勁。懂勁後。愈練愈精。默識揣摩。漸至從心所欲。本是舍己從人。多誤舍近求遠。所謂差之毫釐。謬以千里。學者不可不詳辨焉。
Taiji [“grand polarity”] is born of wuji [“nonpolarity”]. It is the manifestation of movement and stillness, the mother of yin and yang [the passive and active aspects]. When there is movement, passive and active become distinct from each other. When there is stillness, they return to being indistinguishable.
  Neither going too far nor not far enough, comply and bend then engage and extend.
He is hard while I am soft – this is yielding. My energy is smooth while his energy is coarse – this is sticking. If he moves fast, I quickly respond, and if his movement is slow, I leisurely follow. Although there is an endless variety of possible scenarios, there is only this single principle [of yielding and sticking] throughout. Once you have ingrained these techniques, you will gradually come to identify energies, and then from there you will gradually progress toward something miraculous. But unless you practice a lot over a long time, you will never have a breakthrough.
  Forcelessly press up your headtop. Energy sinks to your elixir field. Neither lean nor slant. Suddenly hide and suddenly appear. When there is pressure on the left, the left empties. When there is pressure on the right, the right disappears. When looking up, it is still higher. When looking down, it is still lower. When advancing, it is even farther. When retreating, it is even nearer. A feather cannot be added and a fly cannot land. The opponent does not understand me, only I understand him. A hero is one who encounters no opposition, and it is through this kind of method that such a condition is achieved.
  There are many other schools of boxing arts besides this one. Although the postures are different between them, they never go beyond the strong bullying the weak and the slow yielding to the fast. The strong beating the weak and the slow submitting to the fast are both a matter of inherent natural ability and bear no relation to skill that is learned. Examine the phrase “four ounces deflects a thousand pounds”, which is clearly not a victory obtained through strength. Or consider the sight of an old man repelling a group, which could not come from an aggressive speed.
  Stand like a scale. Move like a wheel. If you drop one side, you can move. If you have equal pressure on both sides, you will be stuck. We often see one who has practiced hard for many years yet is unable to perform any neutralizations, always under the opponent’s control, and the issue here is that this error of double pressure has not yet been understood. If you want to avoid this error, you must understand passive and active. In sticking there is yielding and in yielding there is sticking. The active does not depart from the passive and the passive does not depart from the active, for the passive and active exchange roles. Once you have this understanding, you will be identifying energies. Once you are identifying energies, then the more you practice, the more efficient your skill will be, and by absorbing through experience and by constantly contemplating, gradually you will reach the point that you can do whatever you want.
  The basic of basics is to forget about your plans and simply respond to the opponent. We often make the mistake of ignoring what is right in front of us in favor of something that has nothing to do with our immediate circumstances. For such situations it is said: “Miss by an inch, lose by a mile.” You must understand all this clearly.

十三勢歌
[III] THIRTEEN DYNAMICS SONG

十三勢勢莫輕視。命意源頭在腰隙。變轉虛實須留意。氣遍身軀不少滯。靜中觸動動猶靜。因敵變化示神奇。勢勢存心揆用意。得來不覺費功夫。刻刻留心在腰間。腹內鬆淨氣騰然。尾閭中正神貫頂。滿身輕利頂頭懸。仔細留心向推求。屈伸開合聽自由。入門引路須口授。功夫無息法自修。若言體用何為準。意氣君來骨肉臣。想推用意終何在。益夀延年不老春。歌兮歌兮百四十。字字真切義無遺。若不向此推求去。枉費功夫貽嘆惜。
Do not neglect any of the thirteen dynamics,
their command coming from your lower back.
You must pay attention to the alternation of empty and full,
then energy will flow through your whole body without getting stuck anywhere.
  In stillness, movement stirs, and then in moving, seem yet to be in stillness,
for the magic lies in making adjustments based on being receptive to the opponent.
Posture by posture, stay mindful, observing intently.
If something comes at you without your noticing it, you have been wasting your time.
  At every moment, pay attention to your waist,
for if there is complete relaxation within your belly, energy is primed.
Your tailbone is centered and spirit penetrates to your headtop,
thus your whole body will be nimble and your headtop will be pulled up as if suspended.
  Pay careful attention in your practice
that you are letting bending and extending, contracting and expanding, happen as the situation requires.
Beginning the training requires personal instruction,
but mastering the art depends on your own unceasing effort.
  Whether we are discussing in terms of theory or function, what is the constant?
It is that mind is sovereign and body is subject.
If you think about it, what is emphasizing the use of intention going to lead you to?
To a longer life and a longer youth.
  Repeatedly recite the words above,
all of which speak clearly and hence their ideas come through without confusion.
If you pay no heed to those ideas, you will go astray in your training,
and you will find you have wasted your time and be left with only sighs of regret.

十三勢行功心解
[IV] UNDERSTANDING HOW TO PRACTICE THE THIRTEEN DYNAMICS

以心行氣。務令沈着。乃能收歛入骨。以氣運身。務令順遂。乃能便利從心。精神能提得起。則無遲重之虞。所謂頂頭懸也。意氣須換得靈。乃有圓活之趣。所謂變動虛實也。發勁須沉着鬆淨。專主一方。立身須中正安舒。支撐八面。行氣如九曲珠。無往不利。(氣遍身軀之謂)運動如百鍊鋼。何堅不摧。形如搏兔之鵠。神如捕鼠之貓。靜如山岳。動若江河。蓄勁如開弓。發勁如放箭。曲中求直。蓄而後發。力由脊發。步隨身換。收卽是放。斷而復連。往復須有摺疊。進退須由轉換。極柔軟然後極堅硬。能呼吸。然後能靈活。氣以直養而無害。勁以曲蓄而有餘。心為令。氣為旗。腰為纛。先求開展。後求緊凑。乃可臻於縝密矣。
Use mind to move energy. You must get the energy to sink. It is then able to collect in the bones. Use energy to move your body. You must get the energy to be smooth. Your body can then easily obey your mind.
  If your spirit can be raised up, then you will be without worry of being slow or weighed down. Thus it is said [in the Thirteen Dynamics Song]: “Your whole body will be nimble and your headtop will be pulled up as if suspended”. Your mind must perform alternations nimbly, and then you will have the qualities of roundness and liveliness. Thus it is said [also in the Song]: “Pay attention to the alternation of empty and full”.
  When issuing power, you must sink and relax, concentrating it in one direction. Your posture must be upright and comfortable, bracing in all directions.
  Move energy as though through a winding-path pearl, penetrating even the smallest nook. Wield power like tempered steel, so strong there is nothing tough enough to stand up against it.
  The shape is like a falcon capturing a rabbit. The spirit is like a cat pouncing on a mouse.
  In stillness, be like a mountain, and in movement, be like a river.
  Store power like drawing a bow. Issue power like loosing an arrow.
  Within curving, seek to be straightening. Store and then issue.
  Power comes from your spine. Step according to your body’s adjustments.
  To gather is to release. Disconnect but stay connected.
  In the back and forth [of the arms], there must be folding. In the advance and retreat [of the feet], there must be variation.
  Extreme softness begets extreme hardness. Your ability to be nimble lies in your ability to breathe.
  By nurturing energy with integrity, it will not be corrupted. By storing power in crooked parts, it will be in abundant supply.
  The mind makes the command, the energy is its flag, and the waist is its banner.
  First strive to open up, then strive to close up, and from there you will be able to attain a refined subtlety.

又曰。先在心。後在身。腹鬆。氣歛入骨。神舒體靜。刻刻在心。切記一動無有不動。一靜無有不靜。牽動往來氣貼背。歛入脊骨。內固精神。外示安逸。邁步如貓行。運動如抽絲。全神意在精神。不在氣。在氣則滯。有氣者無力。無氣者純剛。氣若車輪。腰如車軸。
It is also said:
  First in the mind, then in the body.
  With your abdomen relaxed, energy collects in your bones. Spirit comfortable, body calm – at every moment be mindful of this.
  Always remember: if one part moves, every part moves, and if one part is still, every part is still.
  As the movement leads back and forth, energy sticks to and gathers in your spine.
  Inwardly bolster spirit and outwardly show ease.
  Step like a cat and move energy as if drawing silk.
  Throughout your body, your mind should be on the spirit rather than on the energy, for if you are fixated on the energy, your movement will become sluggish. Whenever your mind is on the energy, there will be no power, whereas if you ignore the energy and let it take care of itself, there will be pure strength.
  The energy is like a wheel and the waist is like an axle.

打手歌
[V] PLAYING HANDS SONG

掤捋擠按須認眞。上下相隨人難進。任他巨力來打我。牽動四兩撥千斤。引入落空合卽出。粘連黏隨不丢頂。
Ward-off, rollback, press, and push must be taken seriously.
With coordination between above and below, the opponent will hardly find a way in.
I will let him attack me with as much power as he likes,
for I will tug with four ounces of force to divert his of a thousand pounds.
Guiding him in to land on nothing, I then close on him and send him away.
I stick, connect, adhere, and follow, neither coming away nor crashing in.

又曰。彼不動,己不動。彼微動,己先動。勁似鬆非鬆。將展未展。勁斷意不斷。
It is also said:
  If he takes no action, I take no action, but once he takes even the slightest action, I have already acted.
  The power seems relaxed but not relaxed, about to expand but not yet expanding. And then even though my power finishes, my intention still continues…



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Events and Trends that Shaped the Chinese Martial Arts in 2018


 

This is the time of year when it is only natural to pause and reflect on where we have been and what may be coming next.  2018 has been a busy year in the Chinese martial arts.  Progress has been in made in certain areas, while suggestions of trouble have arisen in others.  Lets explore all of this together as we count down the top ten news stories of the last year.  As always, if you spotted a trend or article that you think should have made this list, please feel free to leave a link in the comments below!

 

A “Kung Fu” nun demonstrates a pole form at a Tibetan Temple in Nepal.

 

10. The first story on our list reflects one of my favorite themes (and research areas).  Namely 2018 saw an expansion in the Chinese government’s efforts to harness its traditional martial arts as a tool of cultural and public diplomacy.   Confucius Institutes around the world have a mandate to hold various sorts of cultural education events, and if you live near one in North America or Western Europe it is not that difficult to find a martial arts themed event once or twice a year.  These efforts pale in comparison to the resources being invested in cultural exchange and education programs in Africa (where China has made substantial investments and is eager to maintain a positive public image) and in other regions affected by the “Belt and Road Initiative.”  As I reviewed the last year’s news it seemed that we were hearing more about these sorts of efforts in South and Central Asia. This story, from back in July, nicely illustrates these trends as it discusses efforts to expand the profile of the Chinese martial arts in Nepal.

 

 

9.  In a very real sense we are the product of our identities.  They create us and impart a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives.  Yet no identity is perfectly stable.  These things are constantly shifting, slipping and being renegotiated as their relationship with society changes.  As such, identity can be a source of anxiety, though people will go to remarkable lengths to suppress these feelings.  Still, 2018 seems to have been a year when anxiety in the TCMA boiled to surface and entered into a number of (seemingly) unrelated discussions.

Certainly the ongoing trend of traditional “masters” being pummeled by journeyman MMA fighters on social media has helped to crystalize this.  But it can be seen in other places as well.  For instance, this account of a “Chinese Cultural Night” at a local University caught my attention as it argued that the traditional martial arts were a critical aspect of Asian American identity.

Yet Asian American media critics are increasingly reserving their praise for projects that distance the Asian American community from what they see as limiting activities  and lazy media troupes.  Indeed, on the media front 2018 will certainly be remembered as the year of “Crazy Rich Asians” rather than anything martial arts related. The value and place of these activities within the constellation of ideas, representations and practices that collectively comprise “Asian American Identity” seems to be up for explicit renegotiation.

A different, and more official, version of this debate seems to have emerged among certain Chinese policy makers.  As our first story noted, the Chinese government has long sought to harness global interest in the martial arts, cooking and other traditional practices as a “soft power” resource in international politics.  Yet another group of officials is becoming concerned that these self-Orientalizing strategies will backfire in the long run.  They worry that China is not doing enough to showcase itself as a rich, technologically advanced and urban society. Individuals who travel to China may be disappointed when they discover a wonderland of modern materialism rather the romantic haven of “traditional” culture that they imagined.  In any case, who is to say that this more realistic image of Chinese culture would not appeal to an ever greater segment of the world’s population (specifically, the sorts of people who enjoy scenes of rapid economic development, followed by the rise of soaring glass and steel skylines). Is it a problem that the identity which China seeks to cultivate on the world stage does not reflect the values and aspirations of many of its citizens?  It will be interesting to see where this debate goes in 2019.

 

Xu Xiaodong Strikes again!

8. Xu Xiadong topped the 2017 news list, and he succeeded in making waves in 2018 as well.  I had a particular fondness for   this article which appeared Bloody Elbow  back in April.  It struck me as interesting on two counts.  Its title, “MMA fighters batter Wing Chun Masters in China”, was a masterpiece of aspirational misstatement.  A more accurate title would have read: “MMA (journeyman trainer) batters (unknown) Wing Chun (practitioner) in Japan.”  Yeah, that is better.  

Beyond that, this story, and others like it, capture so much of the anxiety that surrounds the Chinese martial arts.  Xu has gotten in trouble with the government as they view his antics as devaluing China’s traditional culture and “humiliating the nation” (no matter how much he protests to the contrary).  And the press coverage of Xu’s activities really frames an entire group of other stories chronicling the rise of MMA, Muay Thai and BBJ in China as activities to be taken up by regular citizens rather than just professional fighters (which is where Sanda and Olympic Judo had largely remained).   My favorite of those pieces was the New York Times article titled “The First Rule of Chinese Fight Club: No Karaoke.” It provides a nice profile of a local “fight club,” inspired both by the founder’s love of the movie, and the growing popularity of Western combat sports in China.  It discusses the legal and administrative hurdles that such a business faces, and in so doing gives a nice glimpse into the social anxieties that still surround the martial arts. Here is a quote to whet your appetite:

“…boxing, mixed martial arts and other high-energy fighting forms have been enjoying a minor boom in China in recent years. Gyms and audiences have multiplied across the country. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but one fan group estimates that the number of clubs had reached 8,300 in 2016, up from 2,700 in 2008.

Even so, commercial fight venues that draw a broader audience are rare. And Chengdu, with its zestful night life and hipster scene, seemed as good a place as any to try opening one. Yet even here the club has struggled to balance between being cool enough to draw customers and respectable enough to keep the inspectors at bay.

In a former venue, the fight club had to fend off complaints from the police, who deemed the weekly bouts undesirable, if not illegal. The authorities cut off their power and water late last year, Mr. Shi and Mr. Wang said. Tensions had also grown when a national controversy erupted last April after Xu Xiaodong, a mixed martial arts fighter, challenged masters of China’s gentler traditional martial arts to fight and flattened one of them in about 10 seconds.

Mr. Xu may have won that fight hands down, but the episode brought bad publicity for new martial arts in China.”

A student performs at a demonstration near Mt. Song. Source:http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

7.  The government’s involvement with Xu’s various challenge fights should inspire students of martial arts studies to critically reflect on the various intersections of politics and Kung Fu.  Indeed, the second half of 2018 saw a number of stories in which the Chinese government explicitly demanded a greater degree of loyalty from the nation’s institutions of traditional cultural.

The Shaolin Temple, in its double capacity as both a religious institution and center for martial arts training, found itself at the center of this controversy. Seeking to get ahead of new government policy directives designed to limit the independence of Chinese religious movements from the state and Communist Party, the temple’s leadership decided to take a much more visible and proactive role in promoting “patriotism” (rather than simply Buddhism) in the monks’ public performance.  This is actually a somewhat nuanced topic as Chinese Buddhist monasteries have never been truly independent of the state and Shaolin, in particular, already carries a patriotic reputation.  Still, the move has inspired some controversy and much discussion.  A good overview of all this can be found in the South China Morning Post article titled: “Red flag for Buddhists? Shaolin Temple ‘takes the lead’ in Chinese patriotism push.” Here is a sample of the sort of pushback that has been encountered:

Tsui Chung-hui, of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre of Buddhist Studies, said Buddhist scripture already required its followers to respect the state.

“The government does not need to take pains to promote [this] and monasteries also do not need to pander to politics,” Tsui said on Tuesday. “They should let monks dedicate themselves to Buddhism and not waste their time performing various political propaganda activities.”

China has recently come under the spotlight for its efforts to clamp down on minority religions including Islam and Christianity, which it associates with foreign influence or ethnic separatism. Mosques and churches flying the national flag have become an increasingly common sight in China amid the crackdown.

Interested readers may also want to check out this follow-up article critically examining the state of Buddhism in China, including multiple discussions of the compromised situation of the Shaolin Temple.

 

 

6. When thinking about the Chinese martial arts and politics it would be a mistake to focus solely on the question of national identities.  These systems are also invoked as part of efforts to define and shore up a wide variety of local and regional structures.  This is something that we can see throughout the realm of the traditional Asian martial arts.  Still, when reviewing media coverage of these events I noted that “Southern” arts (and cities showed up) with a fair degree of frequency.  These articles are so interesting to me that its hard to pick just one. Over the course of the last year we saw lots of good news coverage of Wing Chun in Hong Kong, exhibitions on the Hakka arts, and a really nice piece on the rebirth of Foshan’s Choy Li Fut in the 1990s. But if forced to choose I might suggest taking a look at this piece on White Crane in Taipei.  I liked the way that it explicitly engaged with the discourse linking local martial arts practice with regional prestige/identity.  Note the following quote:

Every Asian nation and culture around Taiwan has laid claim to a signature martial art, such as taichi, wing chun, karate, taekwondo, Muay Thai and escrima, [Lin] said.

“It is a shame that Taiwan does not have a representative martial art,” he said. “I want to leave behind something for the nation. I have vowed that I will travel to make the feeding crane style thrive all over the world,” he said.

 

 

 

5. Anthony Bourdain’s death earlier this year inspired a torrent of press coverage.  Interestingly, some of it focused on both the famed chef’s prior drug use and relationship with the martial arts. While not directly related to the traditional Chinese martial arts (Bourdain was an avid BJJ student), his passing did reignite interest in the use of all sorts of martial arts training to treat (and support) individuals recovering from addiction.  I addressed the discursive relationship between Bourdain’s celebrity, addiction recovery and martial arts practice here.  And much of the subsequent media discussion focused on programs attempting to use Taijiquan (rather than BJJ) in institutional settings.

 

 

4. Our collection of top stories in 2017 discussed some of the ways that the “Me Too” movement manifested itself within the martial arts community.  2018 was not without some disturbing new revelations of its own. But even more common was a different sort of account settling, one in which female martial arts pioneers were acknowledged for their accomplishments.  The San Francisco Chronicle  ran a great piece on Cheng Pei-Pei (probably the first female martial arts star) who was honored at CAAMFest.  It has a number of good quotes on the golden age of Hong Kong film as well as the development of Cheng’s career.  And it all started with her epic first film, “Come Drink With Me.”

From the moment she entered that inn and took a table in the middle of the room with steely confidence amid dozens of leering men — then dispatched them in an epic fight with a fury unseen in cinema up to that point, 19-year-old Cheng Pei-Pei was a star.

The year was 1966, and “Come Drink With Me,” directed by the great King Hu, was the first major martial arts movie to have a woman as the central action star, paving the way for Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and many others. And this was 13 years before Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in “Alien” broke ground in Hollywood as an action heroine.

Other stories focused on the up and coming female martial artists.  The rapid growth of the MMA scene in China has led to the rise of a new generation of female fighters, and reporters have been quick to record and promote their stories.

 

English language tabloids continue to discuss the newly “rediscovered” tradition of “kung fu bull fighting.” This is basically the latest attempt to parlay martial arts exhibitions into a local tourist attraction.

 

3.  It seems that every year has that one story that just won’t die.  Somewhat improbably, 2018’s champion would have to be “Kung Fu Bull Fighting.”  If you have never heard of this “ancient” practice before, don’t worry, you are not alone.  Bull wrestling was first registered as an ethnic martial art (attributed to the Hui people) in 2008.  More recently practiconers in Zhejiang have taken to the practice in an attempt to create a local tourist attraction, capturing a slice of China’s lucrative domestic tourism market.  And its hard to blame them.  The massive success of places like Chen Village and the Shaolin Temple ensures that local officials throughout China are always on the lookout for raw material that can be turned into the next martial arts pilgrimage destination.

Still, the practice of Kung Fu bullfighting (which first hit the English language press in September of this year) feels different.  While many Chinese language books on the martial arts begin with a boilerplate paragraph explaining that these fighting systems were invented in the ancient past to defend the people from “wild animals,” I don’t think I have ever seen a modern “martial art” system that claimed to take animals as their primary opponent.  While it would be easy to look at this story in terms of (transparently) “invented traditions” and the demands of local tourism markets, I suspect that there is more going on here.  The constant comparisons to Spanish bull fighting in these articles suggests an exercise in both gender and national identity construction.  On the other hand, given all of the news about the Chinese martial arts (movies, sporting events, kung fu diplomacy, etc…) that is produced every month, one has to wonder why this story has captured the English language press to the degree that it has? Clearly there is a healthy dose of Orientalism going on here.  But what specifically do readers imagine that they are learning about Chinese culture as they immerse themselves within the world of “ancient” Chinese bullfighting?  What does this suggest about the ways that China continues to be imagined in the West?  The strange endurance of this story reminds us that even the least serious practice can inspire important questions.

 

 

2.  There is no better known figure within the Chinese martial arts than Bruce Lee.  Indeed, he is probably the most well-known martial arts figure of all time.  Still, even by Lee’s elevated standard, 2018 was a good year.  Anniversaries aside, much of that credit must go to the well known author Matthew Polly who finally released his long anticipated (and extensively researched) biography.  I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that this Polly’s effort is destined to be remembered as the definitive Bruce Lee biography.

Just as interesting as the book itself was the media’s response to it. While the tabloids tended to dwell on Polly’s more lurid revelations, the book was reviewed, discussed and meditated upon in a surprisingly wide variety of print and televised outlets. Pretty much every major newspaper and magazine weighed in on Polly’s book, some more than once. Discussions of this work dominated the Chinese martial arts headlines for months, testifying to Lee’s enduring charisma. Lee even got his own academic conference earlier this year (at which Polly made an appearance)!  All in all, 2018 was a good year for the Bruce Lee legacy, and it suggests that his image continues to shape the way that the public perceives the Chinese martial arts.

 

 

1.  This brings us to the top news story of 2018, the passing of Louis Cha, also known to his fans as Jin Yong.  Indeed, coverage of his achievements began relatively early in the year with the announcement of new graphic novels based on his work, and  the release of an important English language translation of Legend of Condor Heroes. While Cha is the best selling modern Chinese author, few of his works had found English language publishers. As such, this new translation was treated as a major publishing event which generated a large number of reviews, discussions and think pieces.

That press coverage proved to be only a primer of what was to come  following the author’s death (at the age of 94) at the end of October.  It seemed that every major paper and news outlet on both sides of the Pacific was eager to remember and reevaluate the fruits of a remarkable life.  There was much to be said regarding Cha’s contributions as a newspaper editor and leading (and at times controversial) political figure during Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese rule.

Yet it would be impossible to overstate the importance of Cha’s Wuxia novels in the rejuvenation of Hong Kong’s post-war martial arts culture.  His stories provided practices that were often publicly scorned with a degree of gravitas.  They granted cathartic relief to a generation of exiled readers struggling with the sudden realization that after 1949 they would not be returning to their homes in other parts of China.  Later they helped younger readers to position their own martial practice and social struggles in terms of larger cultural and historic narratives.

While Cha was never known as a martial artist, his writings helped to popularize and give social meaning to these practices.  Indeed, for cultural historians of the Southern Chinese martial arts it is often necessary think in terms of the “pre” and “post” Jin Yong eras.  While Cha’s passing is a tragedy, the remembrances of the last few months have highlighted his enduring contributions to the public appreciation of the Chinese martial arts.



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Events and Trends that Shaped the Chinese Martial Arts in 2018


 

This is the time of year when it is only natural to pause and reflect on where we have been and what may be coming next.  2018 has been a busy year in the Chinese martial arts.  Progress has been in made in certain areas, while suggestions of trouble have arisen in others.  Lets explore all of this together as we count down the top ten news stories of the last year.  As always, if you spotted a trend or article that you think should have made this list, please feel free to leave a link in the comments below!

 

A “Kung Fu” nun demonstrates a pole form at a Tibetan Temple in Nepal.

 

10. The first story on our list reflects one of my favorite themes (and research areas).  Namely 2018 saw an expansion in the Chinese government’s efforts to harness its traditional martial arts as a tool of cultural and public diplomacy.   Confucius Institutes around the world have a mandate to hold various sorts of cultural education events, and if you live near one in North America or Western Europe it is not that difficult to find a martial arts themed event once or twice a year.  These efforts pale in comparison to the resources being invested in cultural exchange and education programs in Africa (where China has made substantial investments and is eager to maintain a positive public image) and in other regions affected by the “Belt and Road Initiative.”  As I reviewed the last year’s news it seemed that we were hearing more about these sorts of efforts in South and Central Asia. This story, from back in July, nicely illustrates these trends as it discusses efforts to expand the profile of the Chinese martial arts in Nepal.

 

 

9.  In a very real sense we are the product of our identities.  They create us and impart a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives.  Yet no identity is perfectly stable.  These things are constantly shifting, slipping and being renegotiated as their relationship with society changes.  As such, identity can be a source of anxiety, though people will go to remarkable lengths to suppress these feelings.  Still, 2018 seems to have been a year when anxiety in the TCMA boiled to surface and entered into a number of (seemingly) unrelated discussions.

Certainly the ongoing trend of traditional “masters” being pummeled by journeyman MMA fighters on social media has helped to crystalize this.  But it can be seen in other places as well.  For instance, this account of a “Chinese Cultural Night” at a local University caught my attention as it argued that the traditional martial arts were a critical aspect of Asian American identity.

Yet Asian American media critics are increasingly reserving their praise for projects that distance the Asian American community from what they see as limiting activities  and lazy media troupes.  Indeed, on the media front 2018 will certainly be remembered as the year of “Crazy Rich Asians” rather than anything martial arts related. The value and place of these activities within the constellation of ideas, representations and practices that collectively comprise “Asian American Identity” seems to be up for explicit renegotiation.

A different, and more official, version of this debate seems to have emerged among certain Chinese policy makers.  As our first story noted, the Chinese government has long sought to harness global interest in the martial arts, cooking and other traditional practices as a “soft power” resource in international politics.  Yet another group of officials is becoming concerned that these self-Orientalizing strategies will backfire in the long run.  They worry that China is not doing enough to showcase itself as a rich, technologically advanced and urban society. Individuals who travel to China may be disappointed when they discover a wonderland of modern materialism rather the romantic haven of “traditional” culture that they imagined.  In any case, who is to say that this more realistic image of Chinese culture would not appeal to an ever greater segment of the world’s population (specifically, the sorts of people who enjoy scenes of rapid economic development, followed by the rise of soaring glass and steel skylines). Is it a problem that the identity which China seeks to cultivate on the world stage does not reflect the values and aspirations of many of its citizens?  It will be interesting to see where this debate goes in 2019.

 

Xu Xiaodong Strikes again!

8. Xu Xiadong topped the 2017 news list, and he succeeded in making waves in 2018 as well.  I had a particular fondness for   this article which appeared Bloody Elbow  back in April.  It struck me as interesting on two counts.  Its title, “MMA fighters batter Wing Chun Masters in China”, was a masterpiece of aspirational misstatement.  A more accurate title would have read: “MMA (journeyman trainer) batters (unknown) Wing Chun (practitioner) in Japan.”  Yeah, that is better.  

Beyond that, this story, and others like it, capture so much of the anxiety that surrounds the Chinese martial arts.  Xu has gotten in trouble with the government as they view his antics as devaluing China’s traditional culture and “humiliating the nation” (no matter how much he protests to the contrary).  And the press coverage of Xu’s activities really frames an entire group of other stories chronicling the rise of MMA, Muay Thai and BBJ in China as activities to be taken up by regular citizens rather than just professional fighters (which is where Sanda and Olympic Judo had largely remained).   My favorite of those pieces was the New York Times article titled “The First Rule of Chinese Fight Club: No Karaoke.” It provides a nice profile of a local “fight club,” inspired both by the founder’s love of the movie, and the growing popularity of Western combat sports in China.  It discusses the legal and administrative hurdles that such a business faces, and in so doing gives a nice glimpse into the social anxieties that still surround the martial arts. Here is a quote to whet your appetite:

“…boxing, mixed martial arts and other high-energy fighting forms have been enjoying a minor boom in China in recent years. Gyms and audiences have multiplied across the country. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but one fan group estimates that the number of clubs had reached 8,300 in 2016, up from 2,700 in 2008.

Even so, commercial fight venues that draw a broader audience are rare. And Chengdu, with its zestful night life and hipster scene, seemed as good a place as any to try opening one. Yet even here the club has struggled to balance between being cool enough to draw customers and respectable enough to keep the inspectors at bay.

In a former venue, the fight club had to fend off complaints from the police, who deemed the weekly bouts undesirable, if not illegal. The authorities cut off their power and water late last year, Mr. Shi and Mr. Wang said. Tensions had also grown when a national controversy erupted last April after Xu Xiaodong, a mixed martial arts fighter, challenged masters of China’s gentler traditional martial arts to fight and flattened one of them in about 10 seconds.

Mr. Xu may have won that fight hands down, but the episode brought bad publicity for new martial arts in China.”

A student performs at a demonstration near Mt. Song. Source:http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

7.  The government’s involvement with Xu’s various challenge fights should inspire students of martial arts studies to critically reflect on the various intersections of politics and Kung Fu.  Indeed, the second half of 2018 saw a number of stories in which the Chinese government explicitly demanded a greater degree of loyalty from the nation’s institutions of traditional cultural.

The Shaolin Temple, in its double capacity as both a religious institution and center for martial arts training, found itself at the center of this controversy. Seeking to get ahead of new government policy directives designed to limit the independence of Chinese religious movements from the state and Communist Party, the temple’s leadership decided to take a much more visible and proactive role in promoting “patriotism” (rather than simply Buddhism) in the monks’ public performance.  This is actually a somewhat nuanced topic as Chinese Buddhist monasteries have never been truly independent of the state and Shaolin, in particular, already carries a patriotic reputation.  Still, the move has inspired some controversy and much discussion.  A good overview of all this can be found in the South China Morning Post article titled: “Red flag for Buddhists? Shaolin Temple ‘takes the lead’ in Chinese patriotism push.” Here is a sample of the sort of pushback that has been encountered:

Tsui Chung-hui, of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre of Buddhist Studies, said Buddhist scripture already required its followers to respect the state.

“The government does not need to take pains to promote [this] and monasteries also do not need to pander to politics,” Tsui said on Tuesday. “They should let monks dedicate themselves to Buddhism and not waste their time performing various political propaganda activities.”

China has recently come under the spotlight for its efforts to clamp down on minority religions including Islam and Christianity, which it associates with foreign influence or ethnic separatism. Mosques and churches flying the national flag have become an increasingly common sight in China amid the crackdown.

Interested readers may also want to check out this follow-up article critically examining the state of Buddhism in China, including multiple discussions of the compromised situation of the Shaolin Temple.

 

 

6. When thinking about the Chinese martial arts and politics it would be a mistake to focus solely on the question of national identities.  These systems are also invoked as part of efforts to define and shore up a wide variety of local and regional structures.  This is something that we can see throughout the realm of the traditional Asian martial arts.  Still, when reviewing media coverage of these events I noted that “Southern” arts (and cities showed up) with a fair degree of frequency.  These articles are so interesting to me that its hard to pick just one. Over the course of the last year we saw lots of good news coverage of Wing Chun in Hong Kong, exhibitions on the Hakka arts, and a really nice piece on the rebirth of Foshan’s Choy Li Fut in the 1990s. But if forced to choose I might suggest taking a look at this piece on White Crane in Taipei.  I liked the way that it explicitly engaged with the discourse linking local martial arts practice with regional prestige/identity.  Note the following quote:

Every Asian nation and culture around Taiwan has laid claim to a signature martial art, such as taichi, wing chun, karate, taekwondo, Muay Thai and escrima, [Lin] said.

“It is a shame that Taiwan does not have a representative martial art,” he said. “I want to leave behind something for the nation. I have vowed that I will travel to make the feeding crane style thrive all over the world,” he said.

 

 

 

5. Anthony Bourdain’s death earlier this year inspired a torrent of press coverage.  Interestingly, some of it focused on both the famed chef’s prior drug use and relationship with the martial arts. While not directly related to the traditional Chinese martial arts (Bourdain was an avid BJJ student), his passing did reignite interest in the use of all sorts of martial arts training to treat (and support) individuals recovering from addiction.  I addressed the discursive relationship between Bourdain’s celebrity, addiction recovery and martial arts practice here.  And much of the subsequent media discussion focused on programs attempting to use Taijiquan (rather than BJJ) in institutional settings.

 

 

4. Our collection of top stories in 2017 discussed some of the ways that the “Me Too” movement manifested itself within the martial arts community.  2018 was not without some disturbing new revelations of its own. But even more common was a different sort of account settling, one in which female martial arts pioneers were acknowledged for their accomplishments.  The San Francisco Chronicle  ran a great piece on Cheng Pei-Pei (probably the first female martial arts star) who was honored at CAAMFest.  It has a number of good quotes on the golden age of Hong Kong film as well as the development of Cheng’s career.  And it all started with her epic first film, “Come Drink With Me.”

From the moment she entered that inn and took a table in the middle of the room with steely confidence amid dozens of leering men — then dispatched them in an epic fight with a fury unseen in cinema up to that point, 19-year-old Cheng Pei-Pei was a star.

The year was 1966, and “Come Drink With Me,” directed by the great King Hu, was the first major martial arts movie to have a woman as the central action star, paving the way for Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and many others. And this was 13 years before Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in “Alien” broke ground in Hollywood as an action heroine.

Other stories focused on the up and coming female martial artists.  The rapid growth of the MMA scene in China has led to the rise of a new generation of female fighters, and reporters have been quick to record and promote their stories.

 

English language tabloids continue to discuss the newly “rediscovered” tradition of “kung fu bull fighting.” This is basically the latest attempt to parlay martial arts exhibitions into a local tourist attraction.

 

3.  It seems that every year has that one story that just won’t die.  Somewhat improbably, 2018’s champion would have to be “Kung Fu Bull Fighting.”  If you have never heard of this “ancient” practice before, don’t worry, you are not alone.  Bull wrestling was first registered as an ethnic martial art (attributed to the Hui people) in 2008.  More recently practiconers in Zhejiang have taken to the practice in an attempt to create a local tourist attraction, capturing a slice of China’s lucrative domestic tourism market.  And its hard to blame them.  The massive success of places like Chen Village and the Shaolin Temple ensures that local officials throughout China are always on the lookout for raw material that can be turned into the next martial arts pilgrimage destination.

Still, the practice of Kung Fu bullfighting (which first hit the English language press in September of this year) feels different.  While many Chinese language books on the martial arts begin with a boilerplate paragraph explaining that these fighting systems were invented in the ancient past to defend the people from “wild animals,” I don’t think I have ever seen a modern “martial art” system that claimed to take animals as their primary opponent.  While it would be easy to look at this story in terms of (transparently) “invented traditions” and the demands of local tourism markets, I suspect that there is more going on here.  The constant comparisons to Spanish bull fighting in these articles suggests an exercise in both gender and national identity construction.  On the other hand, given all of the news about the Chinese martial arts (movies, sporting events, kung fu diplomacy, etc…) that is produced every month, one has to wonder why this story has captured the English language press to the degree that it has? Clearly there is a healthy dose of Orientalism going on here.  But what specifically do readers imagine that they are learning about Chinese culture as they immerse themselves within the world of “ancient” Chinese bullfighting?  What does this suggest about the ways that China continues to be imagined in the West?  The strange endurance of this story reminds us that even the least serious practice can inspire important questions.

 

 

2.  There is no better known figure within the Chinese martial arts than Bruce Lee.  Indeed, he is probably the most well-known martial arts figure of all time.  Still, even by Lee’s elevated standard, 2018 was a good year.  Anniversaries aside, much of that credit must go to the well known author Matthew Polly who finally released his long anticipated (and extensively researched) biography.  I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that this Polly’s effort is destined to be remembered as the definitive Bruce Lee biography.

Just as interesting as the book itself was the media’s response to it. While the tabloids tended to dwell on Polly’s more lurid revelations, the book was reviewed, discussed and meditated upon in a surprisingly wide variety of print and televised outlets. Pretty much every major newspaper and magazine weighed in on Polly’s book, some more than once. Discussions of this work dominated the Chinese martial arts headlines for months, testifying to Lee’s enduring charisma. Lee even got his own academic conference earlier this year (at which Polly made an appearance)!  All in all, 2018 was a good year for the Bruce Lee legacy, and it suggests that his image continues to shape the way that the public perceives the Chinese martial arts.

 

 

1.  This brings us to the top news story of 2018, the passing of Louis Cha, also known to his fans as Jin Yong.  Indeed, coverage of his achievements began relatively early in the year with the announcement of new graphic novels based on his work, and  the release of an important English language translation of Legend of Condor Heroes. While Cha is the best selling modern Chinese author, few of his works had found English language publishers. As such, this new translation was treated as a major publishing event which generated a large number of reviews, discussions and think pieces.

That press coverage proved to be only a primer of what was to come  following the author’s death (at the age of 94) at the end of October.  It seemed that every major paper and news outlet on both sides of the Pacific was eager to remember and reevaluate the fruits of a remarkable life.  There was much to be said regarding Cha’s contributions as a newspaper editor and leading (and at times controversial) political figure during Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese rule.

Yet it would be impossible to overstate the importance of Cha’s Wuxia novels in the rejuvenation of Hong Kong’s post-war martial arts culture.  His stories provided practices that were often publicly scorned with a degree of gravitas.  They granted cathartic relief to a generation of exiled readers struggling with the sudden realization that after 1949 they would not be returning to their homes in other parts of China.  Later they helped younger readers to position their own martial practice and social struggles in terms of larger cultural and historic narratives.

While Cha was never known as a martial artist, his writings helped to popularize and give social meaning to these practices.  Indeed, for cultural historians of the Southern Chinese martial arts it is often necessary think in terms of the “pre” and “post” Jin Yong eras.  While Cha’s passing is a tragedy, the remembrances of the last few months have highlighted his enduring contributions to the public appreciation of the Chinese martial arts.



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Seasons Greetings!


When not collecting images of the traditional Chinese martial arts, I occasionally hunt for vintage Christmas cards.

 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of Kung Fu Tea’s  readers!  Thanks so much for your support and feedback over the last seven years.  I think that Santa left me one or two martial arts related items under the tree.  Hopefully he did the same for you.

We will be returning to our normal posting schedule after the first week of January, but I might have one or two short articles to go up before then, so check back often.  If, however, you find yourself looking for some long-reads over the holidays, consider checking out one of these classic posts:

 

2012: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (2): Cheung Lai Chuen (Part I).

2013: The Story of Ip Man’s Wooden Dummy

2014: 1928: The Danger of Telling a Single Story about the Chinese Martial Arts

2015: Five Moments that Transformed Kung Fu

2016: James Yimm Lee and T. Y. Wong: A Rivalry that Shaped the Chinese Martial Arts in America

2017: By Popular Demand: “Tradition” vs. Modernity in the Chinese Martial Arts

2018: Who “Killed” Kung Fu: Habermas and the Legitimization Crisis within Traditional Martial Arts



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