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Weakness With A Twist 

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


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.  


Martial Arts is Dance

I wrote this on April 25th, and just left it as a draft, because it was obviously so cranky.  But today I like it so hopefully you will too---

There is a weird puritanical machismo anti-theatrical fear of freedom status quo which tends to belittle dance in many of the worlds inferior societies.  Perhaps some readers will think me chauvinistic in my pro-dance views, but in my opinion any aspect of a society which suppresses movement expression is barbaric.  

A new study now suggests that dementia may be caused by not enough dancing, which could perhaps explain the link between the suppression of dance and lack of intelligence in a given society.  The study compares all sorts of mental and physical activities and clearly shows that among a wide range of physical activities none of them does anything for you except dance, which also out performed all other intellectual and mental activities in suppressing dementia. Read about it here.  And look at the data here: New England Journal of Medicine.

Throwdown MMA Cage Bed!So, as I have always said, the more dance you can put in your martial arts, the better.  I'm particularly saddened by simplified forms and styles of teaching which kill off the natural polyrhythms in Tai Chi, Xinyi, and Bagua.  

Meanwhile...if you want to pump up your martial arts lifestyle there is this great Laundry/Punching bag you can hit.  And sword book-ends.  If you are still wearing 20th Century shoes you must have been in a 9 year solo retreat because the whole shoe thing has like blown up in all sorts of cool ways.  Check out these puppies!

Oh, I must apologize.  I have a bit of angst today.  I am seriously considering getting this bed!



New Mexico

I'm in Angle Fire, New Mexico, headed toward Santa Fe.  If you are anywhere near by and you want to meet up or you just want to talk to me for any reason you can call or email.  (  415.200.8201) I will keep checking email but my hopes of having a mobile hotspot were highly optimistic.  I ended up cancelling the service because it only worked in places where I had internet access anyway, like my house in Oakland.  Like everything tech, it will work eventually I'm sure.  The phone works pretty well for text and calls, if I'm near a town or a grand vista.

I also had a ton of stuff to do before I left Oakland, so I didn't have the mind for writing.  But I'm sure my mind will come back.  At least I'm optimistic.

Here is a quick update.  We, my wife Sarah and I, left on the 15th of May and promptly had to deal with lingering problems...the world just doesn't want to let go of us!  But we saw a lot of rabbits and an amazing jumping coyote stopping overnight on the way to LA.  A few days later we were in St. George UT.  We went backpacking in Bryce Canyon.  It was great, but I hurt my knee.  Old injury coming back to haunt me 8 years later.  There were some dry camps on our 6 day hike so I was carrying water for two days, plus most of Sarah's, and that was probably too much.

From there we rocked all over the Utah desert for a few days, wow.  Then we went to Durango, CO, where we stayed with a friend of Sarah's in a big Styrofoam house he built himself out on an open plateau.  Chill time.  But the first day in Durango I met up with Susan Mathews in the morning and Mike Sigman in the afternoon.  Blog posts on that to follow soon.

Then we went straight to Angle Fire where Sarah is doing a one month Tibetan Buddhist retreat in a cabin in the mountains all by herself!  After I said good-bye, I headed up to The Valle Vidal for about a week, but honestly I lost track of time.  So much wildlife.  60 Buffalo, 10 of them babies.  I watched them drinking milk, and splashing it all around...that's what I would probably do too.  The elk were having babies too, I saw about 40.  A bear, coyotes, rabbits, antelope... and lots of just hanging around.  I read Fire Season , which is excellent (thanks Tom!).  I also read Blood Meridian , it is nature writing as imagined in 1849 by folks at war with the Indians.  Dark stuff, very entertaining.

Anyway, I'm headed to some hot springs, my knee is getting better but it still ain't right.   


The Search for Intelligent Life - Garage Sale

Well, in the next week I might put out a few half eatten blog posts that have been laying around here gathering mold.  I've been busy.  My wife and I recently decided to sell everything except books and weapons and head out on the road.  Our plan for the momment is to be gone from California for 3 months. I bought a Honda Oddyessy minivan that we can sleep in if we need to.  I've been packin' and haulin' and chuckin' stuff out.  I've been dehydrating a ton of food for backpacking.  Where are we going?  In the direction of Montana, but there is a good chance we will pass through New Mexico too.  

I have a wifi hotspot on my cell phone so I should be able to blog regularly and talk to people while on the trip!  I don't know if I'll run into any of my readers out there but it would be fun to hook up with friends and enemies alike!  My phone number and email are on the sidebars.  

We are leaving May 15th, 2013!

This Sunday May 5th, we are having a massive blow out garage sale with a bunch of other folks at Pine Haven Farm in Montclair:   6515 Pinehaven Road, Oakland.  

The sale will go from 9 AM to 3 PM and there are all sorts of projects and tours happening at the farm, check out the goats and chickens and all the honey that just came out of the beehives.  

Come on over, say hello and good-bye, and join the party.

If you are into Tea Equipment, I'm selling a ton of it.  Ceramics too.  And kitchen stuff.  Here is the craigslist add with some pictures.


Tactile Body Maps

Body maps are one of the primary ways the mind organizes sensory data for the purpose of movement.  Thinking about perception in terms of body maps is a very powerful intellectual tool.  Body maps are also a very powerful tool for kinesthetic learning.  

As far as I know, the theory of body maps emerged to explain strange perceptual-action phenomena among people who suffered strokes and other injuries to the brain.  For example there were people who could only hold themselves up in a lit room, if you turned off the lights they would fall down.  The tension that held their sense of body together was somehow channeled through or embedded in their visual perception.   A person can lose the ability to orient and make movement judgements about the space with in their immediate reach, yet maintain that ability for distances of over 15 feet.  They call lose movement or orientation components of perception for all, half, or a just a single part of their body.  They can lose the ability to use a coffee cup without losing the knowledge of what it is, what’s for, or any other general movement skills.  The theory of body maps goes a long way toward explaining the imagination too.  It turns out that when we imagine shooting a basket ball all the functions of our brain active when we shoot a basket ball are operative, with the addition of the frontal cortex which acts to suppress that movement.  Thus going some way toward explaining people with impulse control problems on the one hand and self-repression on the other.  Child developmental problems have contributed to this theory as well.  There are children who can crawl perfectly on a single floor pattern or texture but when the pattern changes, say from stripes to checks, they can not cross the line on their own. They just get stuck.

A wide range of body maps for specific aspects of smell, hearing, seeing and touch can be lost, but in a normally functioning person all of these maps are overlapping and interacting.  Yet, there are discernible elements of distinct body maps.  When you try to drive and park a car you have never driven before, it becomes obvious that your body is mapping what the functional movement and spatial boundaries of the car are.  

I imagine that in utero two of our first perceptions are fluid balancing and tactile texture differentiation.  I also imagine that these two develop as some sort of base for many body maps which, later on, become essential to moving and seeing.  This is weird stuff.  It seems likely that these perceptions happen long before any differentiation of a social self, even in the spatial sense.  I’m positing here that qi is tactile, it can be understood as a tactile body map, it has a texture which can be differentiated from the texture of air.

So with these explanatory tools I believe we can explain how high level tai chi works.  Tai chi functions by bringing to the forefront of consciousness both tactile body maps and liquid rebalancing body maps.  Because both of these develop before the self, they are completely asocial.  Thus they are a door to certain types of enlightenment where the illusions of social constraint and context turn to dust.  Babies put everything in their mouth because lips and tongue are even better amplifiers of texture than finger tips are.  When you see the world as texture, as tactile feeling, it becomes something to devour, echoing some creation myths .  But I’m not just talking about lips and finger tips, our entire body has the ability to feel out into space.  In fact the experience of feeling out into space does not need to include feeling ones own body.  When this tactile body map is totally active the sense of ones body loses its boundaries and enters the realm of liquid spatial perception.  From there the perception action sequence is marked by feeling the exchange of fluid (yin and yang), the dynamic movement of fluid around the inside of a container.  The container is bounded and altered by the size of our active tactile body maps, not our actual body.

When the opponent is fully incorporated into these body maps, there is no social experience of “me” attacking “him,” just an exchange of yin and yang. Thus, I described it in the previous post as “asocial action without an agenda.”

How does this relate to theater or forms?


We Need A Name

I would like to draw all of my readers’ attention to Ben Judkins’ blog Kung Fu Tea.  He began posting in August of 2012 and now has a large number of posts on what he calls martial studies.  When I started reading his posts I immediately knew I had found a kindred spirit; a seriously trained martial artist (Wing Chun) who was open to viewing contemporary Chinese martial arts as having emerged from a milieu which embedded them in ritual, theater, music, and other complex social and religious phenomena.  (We need a name for this type of view/study/project.)

I quickly sent Ben an email introducing myself and then I called Daniel Mroz at the University of Ottawa.  Daniel teaches Theater using Choi Lifut and Chen style Taijiquan as the basic training.  Or perhaps, if one accepts the premise of this blog, he teaches Chinese Martial Arts from its theatrical base.  Anyway, I excitedly asked Daniel if he wanted to help me organize an academic conference, and with his help we quickly made out a list of scholars and experts we hoped to invite.  (We need a name for this conference)

That week I had a wonderful talk with Ben on the phone.  His focus is the Southern area around Hong Kong and mine has tended to be the North of China, so he had a number of interesting reading suggestions that I have been plowing my way through.  The conversation also opened me up to thinking more broadly about the spread of martial arts theater (so called opera) outside of China.  Look at this Wiki page on Bruce Lee’s father-- he was in 86 films!


Ben Judkins’ current post is about Bandits, Eunuchs, and the Son of Heaven, Rebellion and the Economy of Violence in Mid-Ming China  by David M. Robinson, (which I reviewed here).  My paper, Theater, Ritual and Exorcism in Chinese Martial Arts (download the pdf), relies heavily on Robinson’s book in places and so I read Judkins’ current post as thoughtful feedback of my own work.  I just want to respond to it here briefly.

Judkins’ draws a distinction between two ways of looking at history, “rational choice” and “thick description.”  It is a wonderful discussion.  He makes a very good case that there is an event (the Opera Rebellion) which was foundational in the creation of the modern martial arts of Wing Chun, Choi Lifut, and possibly a few others.  He posits that people made rational choices which drove that event.  I think he would agree that we still can’t know very much about why the martial arts turned out the way they did without a "thicker" description, perhaps including a discussion of the way rituals are used and physically embodied to remember events inside or outside of normal histories.  

I would invoke Mary Douglas’ How Institutions Think , and say that there is deep continuity within the ritual and theatrical aspects of martial arts training which effect memory, values, and ways of knowing, even across cultures and stretches of time.  So here I suppose I am going further a field then Geertz’s “thick description.”  I am studying  me, and people like me, who have discovered themselves inside a cultural milieu, not just agents of a “thick” description but something with more space, more volume. (We need a name for this)

For instance in teaching Baguazhang’s single palm change I use many different metaphors to embed the movement with meaning.  I can spontaneously come up with a hundred utilitarian technical “applications” of single palm change, but I know that students don’t learn the “real” single palm change that way.  Metaphors transmit complex kinesthetic ideas like being asocial without an agenda.  Yesterday I attempted to communicate this to a student by telling her the story of Musashi and Benkei, in which Benkei in his last breath says, “Thank you” to Musashi for having just broken the rules of the duel and killing him with his short sword.  Then I said, “Offer your arms as if you are the old warrior Benkei thanking Musashi for killing you.” Sometimes I use material from Daoist Ritual, it depends on the student and the situation.  Another student, who is a doctor, came to me one day and said, “I figured out how to practice single palm change.  I imagine I am delivering a premature baby from the mother to the intubation table.  These babies are extremely slippery and small and they haven’t breathed yet so they have to be moved and placed quickly, but with perfect balance and softness.”  

That student’s description of delivering a baby (actually more than a hundred babies) is emotionally intense, physically refined, spatially alive, and socially meaningful.  If bagua is done as ritual emptiness, it both accumulates and resolves kinesthetic memories like this one.  In fact, that is actually what you do when you fight with it.  

Perhaps this is a longer discussion than I set out to have but I wanted to say this:  Rather than framing “the project” as thinking about causes and events in history, or specific milieus which nurtured or influenced the martial arts, I would like to think about the martial arts we know and follow strands of thought and movement and experience and knowledge back through time and space.  I suppose in a way I want to reverse engineer history, ethnology, and religion. (We need a name for this)


Judkins’ previous three posts are about Peter A. Lorge’s book Chinese Marital Arts From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century, published by Cambridge University Press.  I picked this book up about a year ago while on the UC Berkeley campus.  When I got home I sat down with a big expectant grin (Cambridge Yea!) and read the Introduction.  Then I stood up, threw the book in the air and did a spinning double back kick, knocking it across the room where it smashed into the wall.  I then ran to my bed and screamed into my pillow for three hours, at which point I sat up quickly read the rest of the book and then called Daniel Mroz (this is his blog--and this is his book! ) and begged him to convince me to not write a review of it.  Which he did.

To my delight Judkins has reviewed the book and found kind and scholarly ways to say most of the things I was going to say through my teeth.  What a great ally!

I realized after thinking about it for a few months that if there had been no Introduction and the book had been titled Key Innovations in the Development of Warfare in North Asia, and he had used the words warfare or combat all the way through the text I would have been delighted to find the handful of golden nuggets in there. But it is not a book about martial arts, the nuggets are there because the subjects have some small overlap.

I also realized, with time, that his introduction very clearly lays out the antithesis of what I think the subject is.  Which is helpful!  Lorge rejects the quest for authenticity in the martial arts and the importance of naming-- two things I believe are indispensable.

I used to teach high school students and I’ve had quite a lot of students who were in street gangs.  These kids had been taught how to fight.  They had done a lot of what I would call adrenalized scenario training.  Most of it on each other, but some of it on people they targeted as victims or rival gangs.  They knew how to spar, some dirty wrestling, how to use elements from the environment to advantage (including weapons) and how to fight effectively as a group.  But they had no martial arts skill.  Period. 

In that same vein Lorge attempts to make a distinction between the aesthetics of violence and all other aesthetic considerations.  While it is true that people will search Youtube to watch gang fights or violent crimes being committed as entertainment, I don’t see how a practitioner of martial arts can confuse that with the performance of martial arts.

Aesthetics, authenticity and naming can be challenging issues to discuss, but they are also essential issues.  


So, in keeping with the title of this post, we need a name for this project.  I don't have it yet, so I'm looking for feedback.  Here are some rough stabs at it:  

Milieu Martial Arts (MMA) ha ha...

Situational Loci of Aesthetical Fighting and Performance Studies

Apophatic Kinesiological Ethnographical Martial Investigations through Time

Ritual Martial Theater Confluence Studies of History and Ethnology

Reverse Engineering Martial Arts and Performance

Normalizing Martial Arts Expertise through the study of Violence, Markets and Theatricality

Martial Arts Ritual Studies

Very Thick Ritual Martial Arts Performance and Historical Re-visioning.  

Embodied Martial Artists Reclaiming Ritual Theater as Historic Memory (EMARRTAHM)




Simple Two Person Forms

Please join us for a workshop called Simple Two Person Forms
At Soja Martial Arts
Sunday 3/17/2013 
From: 12:00 noon - 3:00 pm
Soja is located at:  2406 Webster, Oakland, CA, 94612 between 24th & 25th Streets.
Simple Two Person Forms offer a way to play with the elements of timing, positioning, power and structure in an effortless flowing way. Like goats establishing dominance, people naturally fall into force against force patterns of resistance and self-assertion which reduce their power and speed. The purpose of this class is to create a space to explore two person forms as a tool for unlearning this social habit and opening up to spontaneous joy.
Workshop cost: $50. Soja offers partial scholarships for those in financial need.


Sign up by calling: Peter at 510.832.7652    or Emailing:

or go to and click through to Schedule/Adult Workshops.


Are Martial Arts Taoist?

One of the reasons I started this blog was to answer the question, how can a martial art be Taoist?  Over the six years I’ve been writing I’ve attempted to answer that question. The question actually comes in many different forms.  For instance: Are some martial arts part of Taoism?  How did martial arts influence Taoism? Is there a reason why a Taoist can not practice martial arts?  Are there specific Taoist practices which are embedded in the martial arts?

In this post I will attempt to offer a grand summary of the issue.

First off, let us look at Daoism* on a 3D grid.  John Lagerwey went to Taiwan in the early 1970’s where he became a Daoist priest and wrote a book called, Taoist Ritual in Chinese Society and History, in it he describes Daoist Orthodoxy as a continuity of “view” passing back in time for 2000 years and permeating music, movement, mythology, individual conduct, life, death and social institutions.  At the same time, Michael Saso, and Kristofer Schipper  did the same thing.  They each went to different communities in Taiwan and became Daoist priests and they each wrote books making the same point about Orthodoxy and continuity.  Except the content of those books is actually quite different.  The expression of that “view” in each community was profoundly unique.  In one community the main job of Daoist priests is to perform funerals, and in another community Daoist priests performed many different rituals but were forbidden to perform funerals.  Was Orthodoxy an illusion?

John Lagerwey went on to publish in Chinese, a thirty volume encyclopedic record of the incredible variety of Orthodox Daoist traditions concentrated exclusively among the Hakka ethnic group in Northern Taiwan.  In his most recent book in English, China: A Religious State, “Daoism” is conspicuously left out of the title.  That is because it puts Daoism in a historic context where it played many different roles over a long period of time within a much larger culture of state ritual.  And then in the second half of the book he looks at the role of Daoism in local ritual culture as an ethnologist and finds enormous diversity of expression.  This diversity had elements of continuity like the use of talisman or the Daodejing, but single defining signifiers are almost meaningless because talisman and the Daodejing are not exclusive to Daoism.

So that is the first axis of our 3D grid, call it infinite orthodox diversity.  

Many books and articles on Daoism start out by explaining that the English term “Daoism” doesn’t actually exist in Chinese, that there are three or more terms which are conflated:  Daoshi (official of the Dao), Daojiao (religion of the dao), and Daoren (a person of the Dao).  But these terms are themselves quite mushy.  Daoshi most often means “priest” but it can mean “monk” or “hermit” and in some regions it is more likely to be understood as “traveling magician.”  Daojiao, is mainly used to distinguish other religions like Buddhism, state ritual, or Islam--it seems to have developed as a default category rather than a self-identifier.

Daoren has come to mean a person who tries to live a life consistent with the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi, which, because of those book’s centrality in Chinese culture have remained readable and in print for 2300 years.  But Daoren can be used more generally to mean an artist or artisan whose work is modeled on the natural world.  Or even someone who appears to accomplish tasks in an effortless way.  

So that is the next axis of our 3D grid, the infinite influence of the Laozi and Zhuangzi spreading out into every aspect of “normal” peoples lives.  We’ll call it the Daoren axis.

The third axis of our grid is equally difficult to pin down, it concerns the identity of the practitioner.  Because of things like political intrigue and ethnic conflict, at various points in history, people practicing Daoism suddenly decided to start calling what they do Buddhism.  And likewise various sorts of shaman, trance-mediums or Buddhists decided to call themselves Daoists.  

The same goes for magicians, hermits, poets, artists, performers, and urban eccentrics, sometimes they decided to call themselves Daoist when they really weren’t, and other times they decided to hide the fact that they were Daoist by calling themselves something else.  So this category is all the different ways one can be a Daoist, including the better known categories of priests, hermits, and monastics, but also including poets (the most famous poet in Chinese history Li Po, was a Daoist initiate), performers and the super unique like urban-hermit-insect-eating-exorcists.    

As you can see, Daoist 3D space is a little bent.  With one end of the Daoren axis meeting up with the identity of practitioner axis.  And just to show how outside the box one needs to be to even have this discussion, our 3D grid actually has a 4th axis!  A fourth dimension we will call the Methods axis.

At one time I would have simply defined methods as either orthodox or unorthodox, with the orthodox methods being zouwang (sitting and forgetting), jindan (the elixir practice), ritual/liturgy, dream practice, and daoyin (exploring the outer limits of movement and stillness); with the unorthodox encompassing all other methods. But now I’m more likely to avoid the orthodox category and think in terms of the transmission or discovery of daoist “view.”  I want to avoid sounding cryptic so let me offer some examples.  Someone who practices Buddhist meditation can discover the kinesthetic experience of stillness being infinitely and constantly available everywhere.  A person practicing the zouwang method of sitting could just as likely not have that experience.  The transmission of the experience from teacher to student also does not guarantee that the student has the experience.  Even the experience itself does not guarantee that it will be valued or cultivated in different contexts.  

So this 4th axis is made up of any method which attempts to transmit or accidentally transmits daoist “view.”  This axis is also infinite and simply bends down as the ‘view’ within the method becomes more defuse.  Take for example this website explaining daoist talisman.  Go ahead and read about the talisman which attracts beautiful women to you.  It transmits Daoist “view” in a sneaky way.  While most young men want to have the power to attract women to them, this talisman works in the opposite way, it gives the power to the women to see you as attractive.  All you have to do is wear the talisman and wait.  It doesn’t require any male assertive action.  You don’t even have to believe in it!  If you see a beautiful woman you can just stop and see if it works.  No crude one liners, no posturing, you don’t need to offer to buy her a drink, nothing.  Just wait and see what happens!  This talisman tricks guys into not doing!  Also known as wuwei or non-aggression, the most central of all daoist precepts.  


Alright, now that we have a 3D grid for Daoism, let's make a grid for martial arts. On the first axis we have all the possible reasons and ways someone might optimize training the skill of fighting.  This axis includes dueling, banditry, militia, assistants of the courts (police, bailiff, guard etc..), body guard, crop guarding, home defense, child self-defense, rebellion, military weapons, drilling with gong and drum, competitions, merchant escort services, etc... 

The second axis of the martial arts grid is all the ways we can optimize training for performance, display and ritual.  Think everything from staged fights, to martial opera, to exorcism, to games, to militia displays, to self-mortification performances, to shows put on for the gods, to trance possession by fighting gods.

The third axis of the martial arts grid is self-cultivation.  This includes all types of personal ritual, the most common being health, fitness and prowess.  But it also includes practices for the purpose of instilling virtue, naturalness, kindness, or any of the darker types of attributes like cruelty, invincibility, or to see the future.  This particular axis can easily be applied directly to daoism because it can incorporate daoists methods or daoist precepts.  For example here are the Xiang’er Daoist precepts from the 200 CE:

Lack falseness or pretense (be honest)

Cultivate weakness and flexibility

Practice being like the feminine

Do not seek fame

Participate in meritorious actions

Cultivate clarity and stillness

Cultivate emptiness and desirelessness

Practice stopping when a thing is complete

Discover wuwei, yield to others

Any activity, including martial arts, can be practiced to express or nurture one or all of these precepts.  Would that make a martial art daoist?  Hold on, you don’t need to answer that question, we’ll get to it in a minute.  But consider here that if following these precepts were the only measure of whether or not a martial artist is Daoist, then not many martial artist would fit the bill.  


So now we have a 4 dimensional grid encompassing Daoism, and a 3 dimensional grid encompassing martial arts.  All we have to do is put them together and see what lights up!  Wherever there is an overlap we have a magical confluence of Daoism and Martial Arts!  

We can also look at the spots that don’t light up, like Daoist priests that have specifically taken a precept to never practice martial arts.  Or women who read the Daodejing and like to knit.  Or hermits who never leave their cave. Oh, but we have a problem there.  See there are hermit practices of internal ritual alchemy that involve kinesthetically visualizing demon troops doing battle, or martial deities dancing with a sword.  

See the academic question we posed, “Is a given martial art Daoist?” is tied up in answering questions of authenticity and authority.  So take note if you are academically inclined, I have just answered all the questions about authenticity and authority for the general case of the question.  It is one gigantic infinite multi-dimensional light show.  Now the question remains, how do we deal with authenticity and authority in any individual or particular case?


My own experience is that the apophatic kinesthetic revelations of practicing daoyin are totally integrated into my martial arts practice, both internal (Tai Chi, xinyi, bagua) and external (Northern Shaolin, Lanshou).  Then again, integration is the name of the game.  Jindan, the differentiation of jing, qi and shen in stillness is practiced inside of zouwang, sitting and forgetting, and daoyin.  The words of the Daodejing are the source of Daoist precepts, years of chanting them has embedded them in my movement and my dreams.  It is as if the sacred texts of Daoism are written on my bones.  

The ritual practice of visualizing a deity and his attributes before me, and then floating him up and around and then inside of me, and then moving him to a specific location in my body and then inviting him into action while leaving emptiness behind--this practice is to me the same as practicing taijiquan or baguazhang or xinyiquan.  The visualization part of the method itself is not essential, but the changes in perception are how the internal martial arts function.  There is an order of action.  A procession of jing, qi and shen.  

Even the external arts, when practiced as empty forms, are identical to the effortless intrinsic tonifying structural flow of daoyin.

This is true whether the art is "identified" as a Muslim art, like Liuhe Xinyiquan, or a Buddhist art, like Shaolin Quan

Another way one could ask the question is, can martial arts have daoist fruition?  Does practice result in spontaneity (ziran)? effortlessness? healing? a return to baby-like simplicity? potency? awareness? 

Lastly, as a teacher looking at what I teach, if I am encouraging students to hold a specific type of intent or intention then I am teaching trance, not wuwei.  Likewise, if I am teaching students to assert themselves or improve themselves, then I am teaching pretense; not things as they actually are, not the discovery of constant virtue (daode). 


*Note: I inelegantly use Taoism in the title and in the first paragraph to be searchable on Google and then I use Daoism in the rest of the article to be consistent with contemporary scholarly standards.  

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