Recent Comments

Weakness With A Twist 

A place for qi-jocks & qi-nerds to explore internal martial arts, Daoism, health, performance, shaolin, and inner cultivation.


Live Blogging 3

Very excited about my new secret weapon.  It is called plunger power.  But of course I can not reveal much more than the name.  It makes you back away while making me more healthy!  

George Xu was talking this morning about this poem (at the bottom)

And mysteriously yesterday and today they are discussion the same guy Song Shuming on Rum Soaked Fist!

Song, actually claimed that poem and a bunch more that I have yet to find, were written by a famous daoist he was directly descended from, Song Yuanqiao.  But on closer examination this Song Yuanqiao was most likely known because he was in a Wuxia (martial arts) novel!

Fun stuff.  I hope we find the full text. And if anyone knows more about a real historical figure called Song Yuanqian or has read the novel, please help us out in the comments below!  

Also I ordered this book:  

Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel (Suny Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture) 
Wan, Margaret B.; Paperback 


Update: Found the novel--


Live Blogging 2

This morning George Xu told me about his elementry school class mate who was a professionally trained pick pocket.  This came up because we were discussing the similarities between high levels of martial arts skill, magic tricks, and pick pocketing.

Anyway, there was a pick pocketing guild for crying out loud.  This kid had mastered 8th Dan on Rolling Wheels!  Which is the equivalent of 6th Dan on still ground.  The ranking went all the way up to 10th Dan.  At 8th Dan you had to be able to pick one persons pocket for every stop on the trolley.  

The kid got caught after he picked the cheif of police's pocket, successfully I should add, but the cheif of police was wise to their strategies of escape and realized after the kid asked him a question that this kid was trying to figure out if he should exit right away or wait.  The police ended up killing the kids teacher after they kept the kid in jail for 6 months.  


Class is going great, but there isn't much to report at the moment.  


Live Blogging

I'm here live blogging at the George Xu workshop in Sonoma, California.  We are at a beautiful Zen Mountain retreat, I'm staying in a yurt.  

Lots of fun people here, an argument about stem cells and qi nearly came to blows.  Very funny, but then everyone laughed it off and went to breakfast.  It is very stimulating already because there is a high level of skill for me to interact with and a high level of intellect too.  

I heard both roosters and coyotes this morning.

George layed out his current iteration of levels, I will briefly state them for the record but I'm not sure if I got it right:

1. loose free and active upper body

1. (alternate) external/physical leads the dantian

2. Dantian leads the body, all types of dantian originating or controlling power

2. (alternate) dantain and body move at the same time

3. feet lead 

3.  (alternate) whole body is a dantian and empty, allowing the feet to lead

4. mind outside the body attacks opponents weak point (lack of awareness error), [this is seeing dependent] qi rising and sinking at the same time, empty and full at the same time.

5. Internal is bigger then external. (can be done with eyes closed)


These can be found on George's website described in other ways.  But they have to be felt, that is the only way to learn/unlearn them.  


Mean while I was thinking about a new way to define internal and external.

External:  Upon seeing or feeling the "perfect model" one tries to copy it by refining what they already know.

Internal:  Upon seeing or feeling the "perfect model" one tries to identify exactly what they are already doing and then just stop doing that thing (discard that power).  

This then suggests that original nature, or predator mind, or true nature...whatever we want to call it, is available and discoverable only when we drop our aggression, only when we drop our identity, only when we discard all effort, only when we discard all intention, or focus...etc, etc....



I learned to skateboard on steep hills in San Francisco.  They are steep enough that one hardly ever needs to push off with the foot, it’s just jump on and go.  Skateboards do not have speed controls.  No accelerator, no brakes.  How fast you are going is determined entirely by the steepness of the hill and how often one turns or slides.  Of course, this being the Era of The Wimp, now’a’days some skateboards have itty-bitty wheels that keep them moving at snail like speeds.  But in my day 35 miles an hour was about what one would expect to achieve if you went straight down the hill.  If you were going too fast to make a turn, you just died.  

That seems like a pretty good introduction to a mostly unrelated subject I want to talk about.  There is a common and legitimate compliant about people who practice push-hands as training for fighting.  The complaint is that some techniques only seem to work when they are done slowly.  Or stated another way, push-hands techniques tend to fail at higher speeds.  

There is a way to inoculate oneself against this problem.  It is quite simple and easy to  condition.  Of course it has to be conditioned to function at high speeds.  Normal learning and practicing won’t work unless they are put inside of a spontaneity inducing game.

Here are the instructions.  Begin touching forearms.  Stick to your partner.  If you become unstuck, just start over.  Use the entire surface of your arms, you can use other body parts too as long as you stick.  There are three levels of sticking and they must be practiced distinctly and exclusively.  The order in which you condition them does not matter.  1) Bone- structure against structure, if you lose contact with your partner’s entire structure, even for a split second, you are not doing it.  2) Skin- the contact must become so light that it is continuously sliding, skin passing by skin.  If you roll along the surface or press into the muscle or bone, or lose contact, you are not doing it.  3) Muscle- flesh touching flesh continuous rolling, no sliding what-so-ever, no pressing structure against structure, no bone contact, no losing contact.  (note: 1 and 2 are the extremes, 3 is in the middle)

The three levels must be distinct because they become guides for spontaneous action.  This is really part of the soft-hand (roushou) game more than it is part of push-hands.  To practice this you must develop a level of emotional safety with your partner that allows you to slap each other anywhere.  You should at least be at the level of comfort in which slapping and being slapped makes you happy.  (Generally speaking, if you and your partner are comfortable doing this while crying, you have reached an even higher level of trust.)

I’m not particularly confident that this type of kinesthetic knowledge can be communicated through a paragraph of writing, but if you already have an serious push-hands, roushou or sticky-hands practice, hopefully you can figure it out.  Keep in mind this key idea:  You are developing a game that conditions spontaneity such that the need to control speed is no longer a consideration.  Like skateboarding, there is no accelerator and there are no brakes.  Speed is determined by the depth of contact. 



After being on the road for three months and returning to San Francisco for just over a week, I headed up to Leggett California to join my wife Sarah at a Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Center called Rangjung Yeshe Gomde, or just Gomde for short.

Since I’ve gotten here I’ve had some time to work on my book everyday.  The retreats here taper off with the end of the September and we are staying around to help run the place for the next three months.  Hopefully this will give me a lot of time to write.  Lots of people have asked me what I’m writing about so I’ve conjured a proto-title: Obscuring the Martial Arts; how and why the arts have been cut off from their roots and what finding those roots reveals about contemporary practice.  It’s a start.

Anyway, Gomde is on the Eel River which is great for swimming this time of year and we have a canoe to paddle about in too.  We are sleeping outside in a big tent until things quiet down for the fall.  Hopefully by the time the rains start some private indoor space will open up.

 In this part of the country you have to really look where you are walking because you might step on a hippy, there are a lot of them up here.  I have deep respect for those highly evolved individuals who have developed the ability to manage incompetent people.  Blessings.

Besides my usual gongfu practice, writing and helping with whatever needs to get done around here, I’ve been playing my tabla drum and chatting with the Tibetan language experts and various Doctoral candidates in Buddhist studies.  Gomde is at the center of a project which is working on translating 84,000 Buddhist texts.  

I do plan to write about Tibetan Buddhism a bit.  I’m working up to it.  


The Binary Mind

I've been meaning to write about a short list of people.  And I have a list of blog ideas to follow up on.  But this morning I'm thinking about something else that is holding me back.

Johnstone's discussion of status in the last post can be seen from a different angle.  I seem to have developed the ability to decide whether to have a positive or a negative outlook.  I can choose whether to frame the world by its positives or by its negatives.  I'm not sure if the split in my mind is becoming stronger or if I'm just becoming more aware of it.  

This applies to people too.  I can choose whether to view someone with respect or contempt.  If I view everyone with respect I become a happy, low status, bumbling idiot.  If I view everyone with contempt I become a dower fashion model.

This applies to objects in the world and events too.  I can treat the chair I'm sitting on with contempt or respect.  It changes the way I sit, and feel.  I can treat everything in your house with contempt, or everything in San Francisco with contempt.  Or, I can treat everything on a mountain path with respect or everything on someone elses blog with respect.  

The norm however is to mix and match, to respect the weather and have contempt for a particular person.  Or even to have contempt for a person's clothing choices but respect for their opinions on food.  

I can respect how cool a chair looks but have contempt for the lack of thought that went into making it comfortable to sit in.  

I would posit that this (0,1) or (+,–) is fundament to thinking.  An idea or a complex opinion is really a long chain of pluses and minuses or perhaps a series of ( 0 )boxes inside of ( 1 )boxes, inside of (0) boxes (n+1, n+2...)(n–1, n–2...).  

Perhaps, to my readers, this seems too robotic, or too enlightened, or too obvious.  If this is the case then you have either consciously or unconsciously put this post in the negative box.  On the other hand if you are feeling that this post could very well improve your driving skills (do you treat stop signs with contempt?), or get you a promotion at work, or make you a better meditator, or mediator, then you have consciously or unconsciously put this post in a positive box.  

Someone might like me because I'm a jerk. Or think I'm a jerk, but love my ideas. But still, I'm not seeing any nuance in the world, only layers of pluses and minuses, respect and contempt, pity and purchase.  

The decision, up or down, is, I think, faster than the conscious mind.  The conscious mind is always playing catch-up.  In other words, our mind chooses to prefer certain musical notes, in certain combinations, to other tones, and only after the decision has been made can we explain it to ourselves.  If we don't explain it to ourselves, it remains unconscious, but it is still happening all the time.  These preferences are imprinting on us all day long, and at night during our dreams.  

So how is it possible that I am claiming to be able to choose?  I suspect that, for instance, I look at a baby and I think that is a baby, it is a beautiful unique human life, I must respect it, and it has such cute eyes, but it has a pretty ugly face, and that scream is really annoying!  Well, I think it is possible to just look at the baby and erase all of those pluses and minuses.  After a moment or two of looking at this baby as a zero, no doubt another preference will come up.  But I can just erase that preference too.  At that point I have a choice.  I can choose respect or contempt.  Once I've chosen contempt (for instance), the justifications and explanations just flow out like hot water from the Old Faithful geyser at Yellow Springs National Park.  One of the more boring and predictable geysers at Yellow Stone.



Failing at the Beginning and the End

International living treasure, Keith Johnstone.  

If you haven't read his book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre  ...well, you're missing out on one of the best books ever written.  But then maybe I'm biased.  I'm not a freaking robot, automaton, empty shirt!  Then again, how would I know if I was one?  

When I finally got Sgt. Rory Miller to read Johnstone, he wrote back to me, "Martial arts are to fighting as acting is to improvisation."

There is a little bit of new material in these videos, stuff that isn't in Impro.  I only know that because I've read the book countless times.  One thing that is new, is that he defines trance simply as the absence of a little voice in the back of our heads analyzing, strategizing, calculating and attempting to steer our actions.  

Having had a bit of time on my trip to read some Buddhist texts with my wife, I realized that I reached enlightenment. My wife says that regardless of this achievement, I'm still responsible for washing the dishes. Unfortunately, being an unlicensed immortal, there has been no one around to give me a certificate of completion.  Buddhists and Daoists alike, use various description to describe the same experience.  One calls it a view, another calls it a base, and another calls it a pervasive awareness, complete emptiness, a limitless release of the spatial mind.  The Zen tradition, Dzogchen (Tibetan Buddhism), Zuowang (Daoism), all refer to transcending duality via a non-conceptual method.  

I hear it reported that some people have trouble getting non-conceptual methods to work, so they try other stuff.  It is really out of all this other stuff that someone came up with the term 'enlightened,' because if you just do the non-conceptual thing, doesn't lead to that kind of naming.

If I were to get up on a stage and start explicitly teaching non-conceptuality, I would use the stage itself as my metaphor.  The experience is like an empty stage.  You can put anything on it.  It doesn't change the stage or make it go away.  You can easily be so involved in what is on the stage that you forget there is a stage there.

So I would hazard that everything on the stage is a sort of trance.  I haven't squared this with Keith Johnstone's explanation.  But I'm working on it.

Something he says in the 6th video in this series is that movement experts as they age can get really grumpy and crotchety in general and tend to have a hard time improvising.  This is because their bodies know what to do.  That's a bit close to home.

I mean, I'm tapped into the flow and all, but the process of teaching what is right, what is correct movement-wise, is a double edged spear.  It is imperative for us as teachers that we let go of knowing.  It is imperative that we keep returning to 'beginner's body;' to uncoordinated, clumsy, wild and empty.

As a student, I have mostly held improvisation as the fruition of practice.  I studied with Johnstone when I was 15 and the damage was permanent.  

It is dreadfully important for teachers to create situations where they themselves fail. Otherwise we condition ourselves to believe we are correct.  If we are conditioned to a belief, we will be insulated from reality.  We have to keep creating new tests.  And if we want to condition our students to be free fighters, then they also need to experience us, their teachers, failing miserably.  Did you know that if coffee makes you sleepy, it is diagnostic for ADHD?

Probably not great business advice huh?  Still, I'm going to get yinyang t-shirts printed that say 'Sometimes I'm a Loser,' and make a go of it.  I heard that the Italians named weak coffee Americano, because they wanted to make fun of us weak Americans.  Like taking on the insult Yankee, which meant one who masturbates a lot, I think we as teachers can try to find some actual humility.  Like the stage, it's always there, it's always available...

There is an imperative for us to figure out how to put improvisation at the very beginning and keep it at the center of martial arts training at every level.  


Johnstone says we are a culture that fears trance.  Perhaps we could say, wherever modernity arises trance goes into hiding.  When we talk about the art of improvisational movement we are talking about going into different types of trance.  There are many, many way to do this, setting a rhythm, catching a feeling, imagining a scene.  

Isn't it interesting that there is a parallel between Johnstone talking about the central challenge of knowing what the person we are on stage with wants, and the Taijiquan classics (Sunzi too) talking about knowing your adversary better than she knows herself?  

Martial Arts forms and stances are really like scripts that we extemporize off of, we use them to spin off into chaos and then we fight our way back to them.   In a pure improvisation we wouldn't know them, we might not even remember them.  

This body forgetting is a great challenge.  Are tension and remembering one and the same?



Wondering Where the Wealth is Coming From?

My wife and I are coming to the end of a three month road trip.  The future still looks uncertain, as I suspected it would.

I'm in Bend at the moment.  There is more ballet here than martial arts.  I don't know how to interpret that information.  

For those following our trip spatially, after leaving Hamilton Montana we travelled up to Glacier National Park, which is very cool.  We could have spent a month there I think, perhaps on a future trip.  On the way out we visited the Miracle of America Museum on my sister's recommendation (she is a museum-ologist).  It is an amazingly weird place, there is a whole room dedicated to old chain saws, there are old fighter jets and missile carriers and farm equipment.  There is a fantastic history of the snow mobile.  Lot's of stuff on war.  Old toys.  Part junk yard, part tribute to white supremacy, part 'wow, that's some cool old sh-t' and part 'I've always wanted to see one of those up close and swing it around my head' kind of a place.  

We spent a night on the ...... river in Idaho and landed at my sister's place in Seattle the next day.  I've always liked Seattle, I spent a lot of time there with my grandmother as a kid.  Strangely, they have a dog poo problem like San Francisco had in the '70's before personal responsibility became a 'thing.'  Seattle seems to be a little more beer oriented than San Francisco but compared to Boulder, Bozeman, or Missoula, it is more on the wine side of the fence.  It is also a lot bigger.  I had great meetings with martial artists and my friend Josh Leeger. 

We then went down to Portland and spent a wonderful night with Rory Miller and his wife Kami.  Then ate and drank our way through Portland with my wife Sarah's brother who is a chef.  Portland has changed a lot since I was there last.  It has a huge food, coffee, bicycles and beer scene.  

As a general rule in America, there is more Homeless Pride the closer one comes to the coast.

Here is the list of insanely energetic Martial Arts folk I've met with a few quick comments:

Susan Mathews (Durango: Great use of centerline and wide qi base, fun and insightful about working with parkinsons)

Mike Sigman (Durango:  Strong opinion about what the beginning instructions and method need to be in any internal martial arts training.  Basically, the body is a spiderman suit (a fine web-like net) controlled by the dantain.  Excellent discussion and rough play, people should be lining up to test their theories with him!)

Ken Cohen (Boulder:  Fantastic discussion, very supportive and insightful.  He way exceeded my expectation in terms of knowledge and experience and openness!)

Steven Smith (Missoula:  Great time playing by the rivers, insightful about the importance of putting improvisation at the front end of martial arts training.)

Chris from the old blog Martial Development (Seattle: runs a wonderful push hands group!  Great night of play with him and also Steve, as former student of New York's "The Black Taoist.")

Josh Leeger (Seattle:  As usually, had no trouble keeping my interest over 4.5 hours of rapid fire ideas exchange.)

Xie Bingcan (Seattle:  Could not feel any physcial action at all in his arms or shoulders while he tossed students around.)

Rory Miller (Portland:  He openned his safe for me.  Great insights about culture flowing at a mile a minute while fighting in the kitchen, whiskey, nagila, and swords.)

More to come.


By the way, I know that all wealth comes from creativity (unless you happen to trip on a giant gold nugget).  I'm seeing a lot of wealth in places that are not obviously producing it, playgrounds for early retirement I think.  I would like to see a map of every credit card purchase over the last ten years in the US.  There are more ballet studios in Bend than martial arts studios.  We toured the breweries last night and felt under dressed.



Quick Update

(I wrote this two weeks ago but it didn't post because my internet connection got cut off.)

 Went to the Bozeman farmers market just after writing the last post.  There were about 8 farmers and 100 small business stalls.  It was really a networking spot that happens twice a week this time of year.  We had some pulled pork and some brisket with southern berry spices, some aspin-wood fired pizza, lemon-ginger-mint iced tea, bought cibata and salad greens for the road.  There were about 30 picnic tables and we just sat there and talked to people about place and lifestyle and business.  

We met some Christians with an adventure mission; you know God meets rock-climbing, mountain biking and kayaking.  Fun.  And an older couple who were born in Bozeman, very warm but a bit like deer in the headlights...the town used to stop at 7th street and all we had to eat in the winter was elk and deer.  We heard that 40% of folks here don't work, because they don't need too.  A great number of homes are second homes.  I have not yet met anyone with a job-job.  It's self-employment or odd jobs, or part time service.  

The place we camped was so beautiful we had to spend an extra day just sitting there staring.  

And then we found a great coffee shop, the floor was made out of 8x10 railroad ties, hightech, clean, elegant.

We drove to Missoula, and stopped at the Lewis and Clark Caverns on the way...spectacular!

Missoula passed the food test too, okay, pizza and beer, but really good pizza and beer and another martial artist meeting (I've still got to report on all the people I've met!).

I'm in Hamilton Montana at the moment.  Wow.  So beautiful.  The street is closed off and someone set up a skateboard ramp which kids are riding right now.... Is Montana a giant playground where nobody works?  I spent 15 minutes talking to a nine year old who makes and was selling his own knives, well he helps his father make them, they were very cool knives and I don't say that lightly.  After feeling how perfectly balanced they were I asked him about throwing knives.  Yeah, he makes them but they always go quickly...sold out.

Rent is so cheap out here 



It's Tuesday, What Religion Are You? 

Travel Update: I’m in a cafe in Bozeman Montana.  There are more older people here than I expected, having been told in Boulder that Boulder, Bozeman and Bend are the three towns in America with good food and lots of very physically active people in their twenties.  After a few beers at a bar called Bacchus, I learned that the older people leave as soon as the summer is over.  Rents here are very cheap, so it is full of young people who went to college in order to get into debt.  The slacker ethic is strong, in the sense that all the people I have met work odd jobs with low pay so they have tons of time to ski, climb, mountain bike, sit in hot springs and party.  I think some guys we crossed after leaving the bar last night were trying to see if I would fight them, “Hey, look at his Captain America t-shirt, is he going to kick all of our asses?”  Sarah wisely retorted, “Only if you want him too.”  But that was the end of it.  Martial arts classes here are dirt cheap, $7 for a drop in, $40 for a month.  It is a beautiful town, the houses all have new paint jobs and maintained gardens.  Lot’s of dogs, good food, whiskey and wilderness.  I want to find people who have the time to dedicate to learning martial arts for hours everyday.  This might be the place.  But I also want some intellectual stimulation and a jumping off place for a Daoist inspired milieu to arise.  It would be nice to see a few people with thick glasses carrying around doorstop sized books.  Ah, what I would sacrifice for a land full of 20 year old librarians with an insatiable appetite for dancing and fighting.  


In the historic Chinese past, the question “what religion are you?” was not a question about ones beliefs.  It was likely to be phrased more like this, “to whom do you make sacrifice?”  Or, “what rituals are you committed to performing?”

Statements about origins of Martial Arts should perhaps begin the question, “why don’t we know the exact origins of Chinese martial arts?”  “What forces in society have made the past difficult to see? especially in a culture like China has recorded so much about the past and has so many rituals designed to create common dreams and common memories?”

It seems that historically there were many systems of Martial Arts named after people.  To the extent that these people or historic figures are too distantly in the past to have direct lineages or historic connections to present day arts, I think it is safe to posit that they were characters of the theater.  After all, that was how the vast majority  of people learned about history.  They learned it from watching history plays, usually called wu (martial) plays.

Let me pose it another way.  From what source could a man in 17th Century China have gotten an inkling about how a man from the 15th Century moved, other than through watching him in a historical performance or ritual?

The actors would have made sacrifice to specific deities like this one described by Daoist priest Jave Wu (hat tip to Julianne Zhou).  This is an example of the integration of theater and Daoism in the Hokkien speaking Southern parts of China, but also remember that the most prominent deity that actors made sacrifice to was one of the Eight Immortals, the theatrical mythic founders of Quan Zhen (Complete Reality) Daoism! Actors were obligated to sacrifice to Immortal Cao Guojiu

In the previous post I discussed martial arts as a social institutions for the transmission of values.  In the case of ritual "Chinese Opera" theater, we have values being transmitted through both fictional storytelling and the teaching of history on the stage, as well as the direct representation of gods, and ancestors.  In some contexts the actual gods and ancestors were channelled directly onto the stage through the actors as empty vessels.

Amateur martial theater arts embodying both theatrical and real fighting skills, and combining emotional, intellectual, historical and physical elements, may be the most comprehensive institution created for the transmission of cultural values anywhere.  I haven’t compiled a list, but the other top contenders have their origins in Africa and Polynesia.  In Europe the closest thing I can come up with is Italian Folk dance used as training for knife fighting.  

To properly follow this line of reasoning we should ask the question, what constituted an amateur martial artist?  Simply, anyone who wasn’t born into or adopted into an actor family.  I suspect that many people who performed forms (taolu) at public markets as a way to sell medicines would be considered amateur, as would anyone in the military who practiced forms, and anyone considered a local or family expert.  Professional ritual theater was the model for a vast array of martial arts training as a method for transmitting values within families, villages, regions, and language groups.

Significant parts of the Chinese theater tradition were improvisational, but since the 20th Century trend has been away from this sort of freedom of expression, and because actor training was a form of ritual transmission without any written manuals, the extent of improvisation is hard to prove.  But I will hazard that-- where there is improvisation, there is a rebellious spirit.  (see Improvisation in A Ritual Context : The Music of Cantonese Opera, By Shouren Chen)

What were the values being transmitted to a kid learning Monkey Kungfu?  Or other comic roles?  There are so many martial heros and anti-heros in the theater traditions!  The walls of temples in Taiwan are covered in them literally floor to ceiling!  It is as if value systems were modular!  Pick a role, learn that body art (shenfa), and then be it, model it, profess it.  

Avrom Boretz deserves credit for much of this idea.  He explores the transmission of prowess and other martial values through martial rituals in his book Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society .

 Again, if you follow this logic, we have to explain what happened to the martial arts in the early part of the 20th Century that obscured these origins even while they were being preserved in a new form in Hong Kong action film.

Andrew Morris, in Marrow of the Nation explains how martial arts were used to promote nationalism (it used to be called fascism) and to some extent how the arts were changed by that process.   Karate in Japan and Taekwondo in Korea also need to be understood in this context.

If we think about martial arts not just as the transmission of values and character and skills, but as the transmission of specific character types we get some shocking results.  The character types promoted by the Chinese Nationalists are mostly angry generals and cruel judges, along with some self-sacrificing young passionate heros.  That's it.  The survival of the mystical Tai Chi Daoist character role, the world transcending Buddhist monk character role, and Sun Wukong the Monkey King role, are testaments to the strength and pervasiveness of these roles as institutions for the transmission of cultural values!  They survived dispite the movement to suppress them.  (Note: more serious work needs to be done on female and gender bender roles in the history of martial arts! I still have too many unanswered questions to discuss them here.)

Since the revolution the Chinese government has been promoting “Wushu,” a from of competitive martial dance largely devoid of martial skill or character training.  Serious martial artists have been laughing at Wushu for 60 years and yet the Communist Party is still trying to get it into the Olympics.  If seen as a character type Wushu is like a lingering ghost possessed by conflicting emotions, too weak to resolve itself through a complete death!

Karate in Imperialist Nationalist Fascist Japan took on a single character type, that of a disciplined angry kamikaze!   Okay, maybe that is too harsh.  But clearly it is a character type of limited theatrical depth.  It has some of the rigid qualities of a death mask. Nationalist Korea developed Taekwondo mostly from karate and kept the same character type.  I suspect there was a reformation process after the war which changed elements of Karate.  Certainly the spread of Karate in countries all over the world has had profound effects on the values being transmitted through this particular body art.  The Karate character has proven very dynamic.  But I think that if an understanding of its origins were more widespread we would see an explosion of new styles, and cooperation between styles.  We would see an opening to character types outside the box!  Comic, crazy, loving, tricky, motherly, vixen, Mormon, etc, etc... Stoner Karate anyone?

One of the reasons I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that I think Buffy was the spontaneous arising of a new American martial arts character role.  Did you know that I teach Buffy Style Kungfu?



Transmitting Values

 (I’m in Boulder right now in case anyone wants to hook up with me here).

I’ve been working on a book, and while we were in Leadville Colorado last week my wife initiated a live reading in front of her folks of an introductory chapter. It was well received considering how shocking the material from my childhood is, but after fielding questions and comments I realized that I hadn’t even touched on one of the defining aspects of martial arts; the use of physical training to transmit values.  

On further reflection I realized that I have probably neglected the topic on my blog more than I should have. I have previously discussed precepts in the context of Daoism and the use of precepts and movement practices by lay people as a form of personal exorcism and for the rectification of the bad behaviors one might inherit from an ancestor or a teacher.

But among the most common reasons an American parent is likely to give for putting their son or daughter in martial arts classes is the assumed capacity of physical training to transmit positive social values.  

As I age, I have come to realize that I am a fierce moralist.  I believe in the necessity of grappling with difficult moral questions and taking strong stands.  Most moralists believe it is their duty to put pressure on society to continuously strive for a more virtuous world through modeling and professing upright conduct.  I believe that the only effective way to change the way people think is through institutions.  I generally believed that moral outrage can be leveraged to force people to confront the consequences of their unconscious behavior, beliefs and values, but without institutions to support those values they will not take root.  So the moral imperative I feel is to create, define, challenge and re-make the institutions that define how we live and adapt to change.  

As teaching martial arts is my trade, I want to influence the way the institution of martial arts is taught, and the ways people think about and define martial arts.  

But when we are talking about martial arts, we are talking about embodying values.  One of the most fascistic values of my generation is the notion that everyone should be fit.  My use the the word fascistic is intentional.  Fitness has been associated with nationalistic movements throughout the 20th Century.  Fitness has often been used in an attempt to create conformity of thought and attitude, to shape peoples‘ values in accordance with the interests of the state.  My early dance carrier was in open rebellion of this notion.  The more wild and weird, the more culturally international, the more chaotic and spontaneous the dance, the better. 

Fine dancers, find answers.  Break the rules.  Write your own script.  Dare to be different.  Sublime beauty.  Rituals of death.  Insanity is the appropriate response to an insane society (at least theatrically speaking, I think that is a quote from R.D. Lang).  Be a holy body.  Be a model of freedom.

A friend recently pointed out that yoga classes are probably the dominant mechanism by which the notion of mindfulness has spread, not just in America, but among an international group of urban elites.  That notion of mindfulness often becomes a platform for the transmission of Buddhist inspired Insight Meditation.  Probably more often, yoga is a platform for the transmission of Quaker values.  As a Facebook friend of mine recently commented, “I took my first yoga class in New York and no one came up to hug me afterwards, that would never happen in California.”  I suspect also that both yoga and tai chi are a major force in the spread of leftwing cultural values.

If all this is true, I’m still not sure I understand what the mechanism is by which body and values link up.

The widespread notion that martial arts training will instill discipline has always seemed somewhat suspect to me.  Is it possible that people, like me, who naturally have extraordinary discipline are simply attracted to martial arts?  And perhaps those few people modeling discipline brings out latent qualities of discipline in new students?  Being surrounded by a group of people with a particular value may indeed transmit that value.  Exercising as a group tends to have a hypnotic effect, it probably conditions our behavior in unconscious ways.

Taking hikes in nature appears to be the major force in the transmission of pro-environment and ecology values.  

What are the most important values that I hope to transmit in my classes?

Self-reliance in health issues is one.  Being your own change.  Self-defense is the most basic right, the one all others stem from.

Also, the value that wildness and aggression are part of human nature, our nature, and that true self-possession involves exploring, discovering and pushing their limits.  Non-aggression is less a value as it is the fruition of seeing how aggression occludes awareness and optionality.  

I like to model clean living and openness.  The thing about transmitting values, and I believe I got this from Zhuangzi, is that you have to meet people where they are.  Be a mirror for people, but also be a companion on the journey. People are often turned off if they even sense they are being judged.  They also tend to flee from styles of communication which are aggressive or invasive beyond their comfort level.  

When I’m just hanging out with people interacting socially it is far too easy for me to feel like I’m surrounded by idiots.  One of the reasons I simply love teaching is that feeling never comes up, I am morally bound to enjoy my students and meet them wherever they happen to be.

Does tai chi transmit specific values?  Does the quality of its movement do that?  Or is it a process of conversation, feeling and modeling?  

I like to think that what I’m teaching is beyond values.  Freedom and spontaneity in body and mind is a value, but it is also simply a way of interacting with the world.  

Probably the deepest thing I teach, the thing closest to Dao, is to recognize and cultivate the experience of emptiness.  It is hard to call that a value.  But the process of getting there involves consciously making intensions clear so that they can be discarded.  That isn’t a value either but in rubs against a lot of values, particularly the ideals, hopes and wishes people carry around with them.

What are the limits to what can be transmitted through the practice of martial arts?  Are there values in martial arts training and practice that are inherent, ones which are transmitted even when the teacher doesn’t talk and the students didn’t socialize together?

It seems to me that a big part of transmitting values is creating, setting and controlling the environment, the mood and the space where teaching takes place.  But calm and chaotic can both work wonders.  Intimacy, mentoring and honesty can not be overlooked either.  Thoughts?  Am I missing something?


The History of Kung Fu Movies

I've been sitting here in a cabin near Taos, New Mexico, doing some writing.  I hurt my knee, so this seemed like a good place to get some bodywork and extra sleep.  There is a beautiful hotsprings right on the Rio Grande about 20 minutes from where I'm staying.  I've been getting a significant amount of writing done everyday.  The guy in the next cabin over, however, seems to have gone off his meds.  He was been talking on what I thought was the phone, but now I gather is somekind of radio.  Talking, well, it doesn't seem like there is anyone on the other end answering back, although he keeps refering to the person on the other end of the line as the "dude."  He wanders between nuclear contamination measurements to talking about a curtain over a painting, to worrying about someone who hasn't attended cooking school.  His hours of activity are 7 PM to midnight, the last four days, I estimate about 20 hours of talking.  Anyway, it isn't much of a bother because I'm getting my work done earlier in the day and then heading to bed early.  But weird none the less.

Anyway that isn't why I decided to blog.  I was writing about history and I realized I didn't know much about the early history of Kung Fu movies so I went to Wikipedia and found some pretty good articles.  Here are two of them.  Shaw Brothers Studio  and Hong Kong Action Cinema.  What I gather is that as the staging of violence and other sorts of fun were being supressed and even banned in live theater more people were learning how to read and it fostered this type of popular liturature called wuxia, which is all about fantastic martial arts heros.  Some of the first fiims made in Shanghai were adaptations of these novels, which by 1930 were banned by the Nationalist (they used to call that fascism) Government.  The movie industry then moved to British Hong Kong where Cantonese Opera stars were available for staging fights in this new type of filmic liturature.  

I was also delighted to find this link from Ben Judkins to the Foshan Opera Musuem.  It looks really cool.


Debating Theatrical History

I recently engaged in a little discussion about the origins of Chinese martial arts on Michael Saso’s Facebook page which got deleted.  

Anyway, I was delighted to get this private note from a gentleman in that discussion.

Dear Scott,

I am intrigued by your unique perspective on Chinese martial arts history, though, and would like to continue our conversation if you have the time and are interested in doing so.
I am a 20th generation practitioner of Chen Style Taijiquan, and specifically study the Chen Style Taijiquan Practical Method, which is also know as Hong Transmission Chen Style Taijiquan. I have studied with Chen Zhonghua since 2002. I have traveled through China and have interviewed many people about the Chen Style transmission and learned from them. Some of these people were rough and tumble characters, some were the scholarly type, none of them, however, were involved in the theater arts to my knowledge.


If my thesis about theatrical origins is correct then that is a sad fact.  I would at least contend, however, that most Chen Taiji folk still have a bit of show in them.  When a small older guy tosses around a big youthful guy as if he was some misplaced beach ball, to the awe, laughs, and delight of a small group of observers; I’d say there is a bit of theater at hand.  

You said that it was implausible that martial traditions could have arisen as a response to banditry. 

Martial arts developed in a very violent world, but violence does not make China unique.  Since there are martial arts styles all over China, we ought to attempt to answer the question generally instead of locally.  Since complex martial arts forms (taolu) are all over China and yet only exist in other places, like Indonesia and Japan, where there is an acknowledged continuous Chinese presence going back centuries. 

However, from what I have heard and read of the Chen family history (I can not rightly speak of any other family styles or lineages), the Shanxi immigrant Chen Bu helped the people of Wenxian county in Henan province suppress a group of bandits during the early Ming dynasty. Due to the political and social instability of the time as the new ruler tried to assert his authority and attempted to rid the country of all threats to his power through sweeping examples of force, there were many opportunistic looters and bandits. It has been documented that several generations later, Chen Wangting fought many bandits and robbers in Shandong and Henan provinces. His military predecessor, Qi Jiguang, whose writings he studied, fought sea-borne invaders and pirates during the late Ming. During Chen Wangting’s time during the late Ming and early Qing, the political upheaval again gave rise to opportunistic criminal activity in the area as Manchu troops chased bands of Ming loyalists into Southwest China. The agricultural community of Chenjiagou certainly needed to protect itself and the harvests from the pillagers and perhaps even a slightly stubborn resistance may have been enough to dissuade such acts and caused the marauders to pursue a less formidable target.

Absolutely, what we call martial arts today, in every part of China, developed under the stress of violent conflict and the experience of men at arms.  I do like the notion that Taiji comes from fighting pirates, and I’ve written about it before.  The skill of balancing becomes paramount when fighting on water.  However, it should be noted that a great deal, perhaps the majority, of theater was performed on boats and barges in the south.  Many performers lived their whole lives on boats, and kept their life savings on those same boats.

I have researched Chinese theater during this period under consideration for a paper I wrote on the cultural context of the Mudan Ting (The Peony Pavilion), which you many know was Tang Xianzu’s masterpiece produced for Kun operatic theater. From what I have gathered the theater and operas, while performed by performers belonging to a low social estate, were mainly enjoyed by the elite gentry estate. Much of this flourished in cities around the Yangzi delta. There was also a scene up north around the capital. 


“Temples,” writes Susan Naquin, “Were overwhelmingly the most important component of public space in Chinese cities in the late-Imperial era.”  Martial artists often made a living by giving public performances on temple grounds.  Like other “rivers and lakes” artists--actors, singers, and storytellers--they traveled from one shrine to another, performing on such holidays as the local god’s birthday.  A seventeenth-century pilgrim discovered at the Shandong Temple of the Eastern Peak “some ten wrestling platforms and theatrical stages, each attracting hundreds of spectators who clustered like bees or ants.”  “In every city temple fair,” observed the late Qing Yun Youke, “there are martial artists demonstrating their arts.”

The following quote is from a scholar native to Shanxi recalling the situation before 1949.

“Every village, large and small, had nonprofessional performances of its own operas.  The farmers called this “family opera” (jia xi).  Virtually every village had this.  After liberation a single county (xian) could have had over 200 non-professional troupes....I remember that in my home town, Yishi, and its suburbs, there were over eighty stages, and it was only an ordinary small town.  Larger villages usually had five or more stages, and the smallest ones had at least two”  (David Johnson 2009: 146-147).

However, unless traveling troupes of actors carried the theater arts away from the core to peripheral areas, such as Wenxian county in Henan, perhaps as part of some occasional countryside market to which some works of classical literature refer, it is unlikely that any martial influence would have held sway coming from such transient types, given the guardedness generally shown toward the transmission of a traditional skill. 


I think I answered this above, but it is worth noting that both amateur and professional actors were an essential component of popular communal religion.  Nearly every small town would have had long standing relationships with regional professional theater groups as well as lineages of amateur groups.  As for the secrecy argument, there are hundreds of possible answers, but I would venture that if I taught you 90% of what I know and kept a certain 10% absolutely secret, you’d still be in the dark.  

I suppose those who performed well on examinations and became military officers could have been exposed to more culture, but then why would they hobnob with lowly actors and singsong people? 

That question bothered me too, and I’ve written about it HERE.  It turns out that there are many reasons, fun and sex probably being at the top, but it is not really in doubt that they mixed socially a great deal.

Maybe those of the family who served as armed escorts could have come into contact with actors accompanying wealthy families, but then if the actors were more skilled in martial arts than the bodyguards, then why bother with bodyguards?

 An interesting question.  My answer is a bit sideways.  I believe that there were two pre-20th Century ways to sneak out of the performing caste, one was as hired muscle, the other was prostitution.  Hired muscle could over time gain a lot of trust and responsibility, a prostitute could become a high status concubine.  

But also consider, acting troupes were often paid in silk and they carried around great chests full of this treasure when they went from town to town.  As low caste, these troupes were not allowed to sleep inside the city walls.  Kind’a makes you think they were armed and could fight doesn’t it?

If it is as you say, and Chen style is originally a choreographed “image mime” of the life of Zhang Sanfeng, 

I came up with the idea that the form was in fact the narrated story of Zhang Sanfeng because it fit with out any tweaking!  I must do a video on this. 

why is there no mention of this in the genealogical history of the family? What motive would they have had to omit this?  

I believe most of the genealogies were written in modern times to exclude this info, but anything written at an earlier date in Chen village would have considered it too obvious to state.  As for motive, all the martial arts were subject to humiliation after the Boxer Rebellion and a great effort was made to purify them of any religious or theatrical content.  This is the same upheval that ended footbinding, it was intense and pervasive over a generation or two.  Nearly every martial history written in that era, was an anti-theater anti-popular religion doctrine.  I think, in the future we will read them as threats and intimidation.  

Some forms of martial arts are probably more closely associated Triads (Tiandihui) and other secret revolutionaries.  These cults were also highly theatrical involving for instance, trance possession by Sun Wukong or Guan Yu, and in that sense are historically tied to a pre-Opera theatricality and exorcism processions.

You speak of culture, but can you deny the existence of the culture of the bandit, robber, and pirate, or for that matter the culture of the bodyguard, armed escort, or soldier? What effects did the existence and activity of these specific social fields have on society at large?

That question will be easier to answer once we start being honest about the pervasiveness of theater before the 20th Century.

I admit that there is a certain performance element to Taijiquan as we see it today, but each move of the forms my teacher has taught me has martial application and that is the only meaning that I have ever heard him attach to them. He maintains that this is the traditional transmission. The culture that surrounds our learning community is thus very practical in nature. While it may sound strange, we are trying to make ourselves into machines that are able to use “four ounces to move one thousand pounds” and that’s about it. You will not likely see anything like the “Shaolin Warriors” stage production coming out of our camp anytime soon! LOL
I generally attribute the development of the unique “silk reeling” method of martial application that is the hallmark of Chen Style to the indigenous Chinese theory of yin and yang and the scientific understanding of physics and mechanics that was circulating in China in the 1600’s. I do not think the Scottish at that time had the same cultural legacy and scientific understanding, and so did not come up with something so ingenious. China was actually outpacing Europe in terms of scientific and technological advancement up until the Enlightenment in Europe and then a number of factors reversed this trend.

The way I learned Chen Style is that every inch is at least 3 techniques, striking, joint breaking, and throwing.  I haven’t seen a technique in any other art that isn’t in Taiji, and push hands can be done on the ground.  This eventually leads to an apophatic realization that there are no techniques, only performance of them as two person routines. It is the relationship of jing, qi, and shen that produces Taiji Fighting Magic.    

I admit that I have a certain bias and I am invested in the narrative that I have presented. However, I am not uncritical and your perspective has made me think more deeply about the history of my lineage. Although challenging, I respect your viewpoint and would greatly appreciate if you could direct me to any writings or other evidence that supports your thesis. I will check out Meir Shahar’s “Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and Chinese Martial Arts” when I have the chance.
Thank you,
Name Withheld by Request

Sure, I wrote a paper a few year back that has a lot of references!  (This is a PDF feel free to cite, I haven't had time to figure out how to change it on the Daoist Studies Cite.

Best Regards,



Masters of Out of Body Mis-Perception

I'm in Taos, fires on all four sides.  The roads are open at the moment, but the forest locations are mostly closed.  I guess I'll spend a few days here on the Rio Grande.  I spent yesterday rafting and kayaking down the river.  I seem to have come to a point where I have committed to not spending more than a few minutes thinking about where I might go next.  Why spend the time if it is going to be on fire anyway?  Perhaps there are other reasons.  Anyhow, this article is stimulating:

I am fast changing my views about all martial arts.  Well, fast isn't the correct word, but I'm beginning to see martial arts in an even more theatrical way than I have in the past.  I'm beginning to see it as magic.  Yes, the woo woo type.  Why? because the best skills rely on mis-perception and mis-direction.  In my mind it is still high art, high skill, beauty, athletic, real fighting mastery.  Know your opponent better than he knows himself.  


Operatic China

A popular scene staged by professional Chinese theater companies in San Francisco during the second half of the 1800’s was a male actor, portraying a woman giving birth.  Was it comedy? drama? or socio-political commentary?  It was probably all three.  This I learned from reading Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity across the Pacific (Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History)  by Daphne P. Lei.   This work is a powerful contribution to our understanding of the culture of martial arts.

As an aside I also learned what coat check girls were for!  See every man in the early days of San Francisco carried either a gun or a bowie knife--or both--and these were not allowed to be carried into a theater, restaurant or a hotel.  Also someone skilled in the grit of fighting could also use a hat to great effect and a coat of course could conceal more weapons, and with muddy streets that were in total darkness at night, people generally carried canes.  So all these things had to be left with the coat check girl.  Coat check was the whole pre-1900 security apparatus.

This an excellent book which covers Opera as a function of identity and social organization in Southern China and California, and deserves a much more detailed review when I get a chance.  But for our purposes, the most significant idea I got from the book is an explanation of why Southern martial artists almost universally claim northern origins.  This has always been troubling to anyone who has a good eye for movement because there are big differences in the movement languages of North and South China suggesting a long period of distinct development.

In the 1860’s, just before the Tai Ping Rebellion which led to the deaths  of 20 million, there was a smaller rebellion called the Opera Rebellion focused around Foshan on the Southern coast.  It was an alliance of what we today call Triads, or Tiandihua (Heaven Earth Society), and Opera companies.  The Opera companies actually led the rebellion in costume.  They claim to have organized some 100,000 rebels.  They had a lot of ships, it seems all the Opera ships have been destroyed but each of these boats slept about 100 people with the starboard side being for male roles and the port side being for female roles.  About a 10th of the troop members were animal role experts, I don’t know where they slept.  Elsewhere I read evidence that the wooden man used in Wingchun Shaolin was some sort of a upright taffrail for belaying pins, which developed into a training tool for Opera.  

I really shouldn’t be using the word Opera, something like Traditional Chinese Theater Caste Professionals would be more accurate.  But ‘Opera’ is convenient for the moment.    A key point I have been reiterating is that the caste status of Opera people was below thieves and prostitutes, and that it was in perpetuity. One could not just quit and take up shoe making.  Ben Judkins has added to my thinking on this that money wasn’t very widespread for most of the history of martial arts.  It is a hard concept for modern people to comprehend.  I have always lived in a world of money and fixed prices for nearly everything.  Patronage societies took on much of the social organizing functions that stable currency later came to replace.  By the early 1800’s money started to get much more reliable in the South which led to a huge increase in commerce and naturally a diminishing of societies of patronage.  In the North and more interior regions,  where currency was less reliable, patronage societies were probably stronger and lasted longer.  

As Judkins has shown in his posts on martial arts manuals in the South, a commercial market for martial arts teachers was thriving as early as 1800.  How much of an escape window out of Opera caste status this market provided the experts of martial theatrical roles is still an open question.  

The Opera rebellion was a revolutionary struggle for power and perception which consolidated the ru (gentry scholars class), landowners, and wealthy merchants against everyone else.  That alliance had already existed in the South far more than in the North because the commercial vibrancy of the Southern ports was an irresistible source of corruption for government officials and powerful families.  When the Opera rebellion was finally put down it resulted in an outlawing of Opera for some 15 years, a period in which rebel and anyone associated with Opera was hunted down and executed.  There is an estimate in the book (if I recall correctly) of some 1 million slaughtered during these ‘hunts.’  

And this is the great insight that precipitates the foundation stories of all the “pure” martial arts of the South.  They nearly all claim to have come from the North around 1870-1880.  Some also claim origins in the somewhat mythical Southern Shaolin temple which was burned to the ground in the 1860’s.  Of course there was a huge fire at this time, but it was the final battle of the Opera Rebellion in which the Gentry/Officials burned the fortifications of Foshan to the ground, not a temple.  The lineages and the lineage stories were invented in order to completely disassociate themselves from the rebellion.  It was a survival strategy.  

Judkins has also suggested that the divisions and styles of Southern martial arts appear to have evolved as communities in alliance to various social divisions that become apparent in this era.  Wingchun developed as a higher status art than the more popular Choilifut Shaolin.  Interestingly and fittingly, a key founder of the Choilifut system is known as the Green Grass Monk, because he routinely covered his body with a medicinal paste made from green grasses, he had burns all over his body.  Of course it could be true that he was truly a monk from the Southern Shaolin temple, but it seems much more likely that he was an Opera star skilled at playing ‘martial-monk’ roles who escaped the burning of Foshan.  

Page 1 ... 3 4 5 6 7 ... 61 Next 15 Entries »