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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.

Saturday
Jun222013

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,

Scott

Friday
Jun142013

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:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23694-heartbeat-used-to-generate-outofbody-experience.html?cmpid=RSS#.Ubt7D_ZEQdg

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.  

Tuesday
Jun112013

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.  

Tuesday
Jun112013

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!

 

Sunday
Jun092013

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.  (gongfuguy@gmail.com  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.   

Friday
May032013

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.  

http://sfbay.craigslist.org/eby/gms/3774556493.html

Wednesday
Apr172013

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?

Friday
Mar012013

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)

 

 


Wednesday
Feb272013

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:  info@sojamartialarts.com

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

Sunday
Feb032013

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.  

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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). 

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*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.  

Thursday
Jan172013

Timing Isn’t Everything

Every martial artist has heard the expression, ‘Timing is everything!’  I’d like to discuss how people come to this conclusion and why it might be an error.

I recently read the book Antifragile by Nassim Taleb , and while I believe he makes the enormous error of deciding what his preferences are in advance and then attempting to use his theory to justify them, the book none-the-less got me to think about a wide range of subjects and for that I am deeply grateful.  

Before we set off on our journey, here is a measurement primer in case you want to check my results.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the importance of speed in martial arts.  If we graph velocity relative to harm on an x/y axis we get an ‘S’ shape.  At the bottom we of the ‘S’ we see almost no harm as velocity increases along the horizontal axis until a critical velocity is reached and then we see harm rising very fast until we get to incapacity and death which causes harm on the vertical axis of the graph to level out rather abruptly.  You can’t be more harmed than dead.  

Harm (vertical axis) as a function of Speed (horizontal axis)The reason for this ‘S’ shape is in the equation for kinetic energy which is: half the mass times velocity squared, (0.5)mv².   Because velocity is squared this formula gives us an upward moving curve of ever increasing steepness.  But the beginning of the curve doesn’t increase very fast at all.  That’s why if you want to make practically any martial arts technique safer you can easily remove most of the kinetic energy simply by slowing it down.  

In fact, this reveals a large vulnerability.  If a given punch has just enough force to do me serious damage, and I can some how slow that punch down just a small amount I may be able to take away most of its kinetic energy, making it impotent.  A small change creating a big effect.

This is why timing is so important; without proper timing kinetic energy disappears.  It is also why techniques which compromise speed are generally inferior.  This leads to some interesting consideration if you practice internal martial arts slowly which we will deal with below, but first let’s look at the other part of the equation: the constant.

In the equation mv² the m for mass is generally assumed to be a constant.  We can see this in the equation for momentum which is: mass times velocity, mv.  If we graph mv on an x/y axis we get a straight diagonal line, not a curve.  Momentum is always measured as a vector force, meaning it has a direction.  Kinetic energy is measured in joules and refers to the energy released on contact, it is not a directional reference.  In the equation for momentum, if I increase the mass a small amount for any given velocity, the result is simply a small increase in momentum.  This is called a direct ratio.  

The (obvious?) implication of this is that the person with larger mass usually wins!  Big guys hit that critical steep part of the harm curve at slower velocities.  They also have more potential energy from the combination of weight and gravity just waiting to drop on you at any moment.  

There are important exceptions like blades and vulnerable areas.  It doesn’t take very much kinetic energy to poke out an eye, so as long as the finger gets to the eye (position) it can do damage.  Very sharp blades act on tiny surface areas allowing very small amounts of velocity to do catastrophic amounts of damage.  Likewise the fast speeds attainable by the business end of a club can easily trump larger mass.

Slow martial arts practice is usually very safe.  But this doesn’t mean that the mind should become sedate.  When we practice Taijiquan or other slow forms practices we must not give up our ability to move at maximum speed.  This means that no matter how quiet your body gets in motion, your mind must be totally spatially active.  During Tai Chi practice you must be able to jump away instantly in any direction as if your clothes were on fire!  It is the same thing with push hands, just because you can move slowly doesn’t mean you have given up the option to move at lightning speed.  In fact, to compromise your ability to move fast is a fatal error (it is described in the Tai Chi Classics as a form of “stagnation” which results from directing the qi to lead the body).

So perhaps readers are thinking, bummer, I thought martial arts would give me some advantage over people bigger than me.  Don’t despair.  Large is of course relative but most large people have less incentive to improve their structure or their ability to attack with whole body liquid mass.  Why?  Because they can usually win with lousy technique.  For this reason being large can be a vulnerability. If you have a mechanism for increasing your smaller mass or decreasing your opponent’s larger mass, you have a way to gain advantage.   

No, I don’t mean eating more fatty foods.  The way to increase mass is to practice using your entire mass in all your movements.  The way all internal martial arts are designed to do.  This is a very “anti-fragile” way to practice because if you are good at keeping all of your mass functioning as a liquid unit you have dramatically reduced your vulnerability to changes in timing!

And as everyone already knows, when fighting a dragon, cut off their tail first, then a wing, then go for a leg...or in martial arts terms use your whole body mass to attack their disconnected (lack of whole body liquid mass) arm, leg, or head.  Even a 400 pound man does not have an arm as thick as my torso.  

So, in conclusion, reliance on timing creates a vulnerability.  Methods which give up speed usually sacrifice kinetic energy too.  Internal martial arts train the body to be totally quiet and the mind totally active so that maximum speed is available at all times.  One of the primary reasons for training slowly is to practice mobilizing whole body liquid mass effectively bring much larger amounts of mass to the fight then is normally possible, thus creating the opportunity to defeat larger opponents.  

Sunday
Jan062013

Down Time

Just got a lot of down time in the mountains by a river, outside of internet and cell phone range.  Walked in the snow under the Giant Sequoia and a bunch of other great spots.  Stared at the fire.  Pulled a lot of books off of an ancient book shelf, lots stuff from over 100 years ago.  Ended up reading Congo kitabu.  Really interesting stuff written by an old school braggart Jean-Pierre Hallet.  Blew off his hand saving thousands from starvation while swimming away from crocodiles and then had to drive 250 miles through the mountains at night with the bloody stump, and then trained a lion to do tricks but had to let him go when... you get the idea.  But there was lots of interesting stuff about the colonial projects and the languages and cultures.  

Came back to a pile of books and I'm enjoying this one: The Boxers, China, and the World

Also I got a kick out of this article about pick pocketing:  A Pickpocket's Tale, The spectacular thefts of Appolo Robbins. Martial arts and pick pocketing have more in common than I realized.  Seems like he'd be an interesting guy to meet.  All martial arts have an element of trickery and that is part of what makes them fun.  

Don't forget to sign up for my workshop next Sunday at Soja, Rooting and Uprooting!

 

Thursday
Dec272012

The Clumsy Cowboy

When I was a little kid I had a little book called The Clumsy Cowboy that I treasured.  It was about a cowboy who couldn’t stay on his horse.  After going through some trials and tribulations he eventually solves the problem by attaching himself to the saddle with a bucket of glue.  No doubt, before the invention of stir-ups in the 3rd century a lot of cowboys had this problem.  But even after that one can imagine that wielding a weapon from horseback ran the risk that when the weapon came into contact with a fearsome warrior the sudden shock would transfer to the rider causing him to either drop the weapon or fall off his horse.  

Of course, whether or not one falls off their horse also depend on what sort of weapon they are using and how they are using it.  But any force transferring into the rider’s body is going to either hurt or knock him off the horse.  If the force transfers to the rider’s wrists he will probably drop the weapon.  The goal in such collisions of force is for the rider to transfer all the shock directly to the horse.  The horse can handle it.

This is clearly one of the origins of horse stance.  Shaolin and Tai Chi are almost identical in the way they use horse stance.  When we punch from horse stance it is essential that whatever resistance we meet is transfered to the imaginary horse-- the imaginary horse between our legs that is.  Really this imaginary horse is the lower part of the dantian and at the physical level requires that we relax and expand our base, especially the underside of the thighs, to redistribute all incoming force.  This can only be learned by having a teacher who understands how it works resist your punches while giving direct feedback about the quality of the punch.  Although the mechanism should be the same in Shaolin and Tai Chi, meaning it could be classified as either internal or external depending I guess on how well one does it, most people who learn to punch from horse stance only learn to generate power.  

Horse stance is not a particularly good stance for punching, in fact, it is a bit ridiculous.  To get power from a horse stance most people lean and push through their feet, which is of course wrong.  The whole reason for using horse stance to train punches is so that the student can learn to hit while staying perfectly upright and simultaneously transfer all the incoming force to the horse.  It’s a difficult stance, if the student can accomplish this task in horse stance then that skill will transfer easily to any other stance.  

Tuesday
Dec252012

Compression

I often hear martial artists talk about compression as one of the ways of gathering power, particularly in the joints.  The idea is that one can compress energy and then release it against an opponent.  This technique works.  But it has some big flaws that can be exploited, it is fragile.  When an opponent compresses themselves they create a moment of rigidity.  Whenever an opponent is rigid they are vulnerable to either being broken by a big mass crashing into them, or having their connection to the ground broken by a tiny bit of upward movement.  Even more embarrassing, if I can add some weight to an opponent’s self-compression they may tiddlywink themselves backwards or simply collapse.  

So one of the reasons all internal marital artists practice shrinking and expanding is to ensure that we can shrink without the slightest bit of compression.  This by itself has intrinsic healing ability.

In my experience, compression is painful if practiced a lot, and tends to wear out the joints.  It is probably harmful to the internal organs and I suspect it creates a lot of negative emotion.  

Yes, compression can be used for generating power but its downside is nearly unlimited while its upside is small and over rated.  (Kind of like fruit cake:)

Wednesday
Dec192012

Invest in Loss

I've written about this topic before, Not Your Grandmother’s Tai Chi and here too.  And I recommend you go over to the Yang Family Tai Chi forum and read what the expert translators say "Invest in Loss" means.

Here is the question:  

I am told of a quote from Cheng Man-ching, "Moreover, a beginner cannot possibly avoid losing and defeat, so if you fear defeat you may as well not even begin. If you want to study, begin by investing in loss. An investment in loss eliminates any greed for superficial advantages... Concentrating your ch'i to become soft is the only proper method to invest in loss." translation by Mark Hennessy.

"Invest in loss" is an expression which has become very widespread as a part of any English language explanation of tai chi push-hands.  As Louis Swaim explains in the link above, it is actually two characters, eat and loss (chi kui).  And that any fluent Chinese speaker would hear it as closely related to the ubiquitous phrase, eat bitter (chi ku).  

The problem is to make it apply to tai chi practice.  As I said in my first link above, I believe the phrase implies willingly losing as a method of learning better ways of moving and fighting.

For example, take a better position by moving your foot, without letting your opponent know that is what you are doing.  Use your mind in tricky ways.  Plan, not to win but to cheat.  

I also like thinking that Cheng Man-Ching knew he was in New York City and knew what a bear market strategy was.  He was aware that he was talking to Americans and liked a translation that had the term 'invest' in it.  Invest in loss sounds like a short sale on the stock options market.  Why not make money while you're losing?  Americans will understand that.

But I also had the great fortune to read Paul A. Cohen's book Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China , which explains the origin of "eat bitter."  The premise of the book is that the Goujian story is as well known to all Chinese as Cinderella is to Americans.  And yet, most foreigners who become fluent in Chinese never have an opportunity to learn the story or to contemplate it's meaning.  The expression "eat bitter" is often explained as a rough equivalent of "pay your dues," or Muhammad Ali's "Don't quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion" or "misery has its merits."  Except that it is often explained that Chinese people kind of expect to suffer and don't necessarily expect a reward later on, although they may hope for one.  I have often heard that in the context of learning, "eating bitter" is a byproduct of dedication and subordination to a worthy teacher.  

But Paul Cohen turns all that on its head because the story of Goujian is very straight forward.  He was conquered and he totally accepted the most humiliating subordination for years before getting his kingdom back by trickery.  Then he secretly plotted a strategy of total revenge over 20 years.  The way he kept himself focussed on the task of revenge was by wearing furs in summer and going bare chested in winter, and by hanging an extremely bitter gallbladder from his doorway which he would lick every time he walked under it.  So eating bitter, or eating loss, means to accept defeat publicly while secretly planning totally revenge.  

That fits very nicely with my understanding of "invest in loss."  Let your opponent think he won, but position yourself to break his legs.  

__________________________

As an aside, I am very sympathetic to those who wish to see push-hands as a way to transmit non-aggression or even non-intention, giving up control and letting go of self-assertion.  But I think the "game of push-hands" is at best a tool, if people are using it to improve skill or attain attributes they are likely to charge right past such open ended forms of daoist fruition.  The dao of wuwei has no method, no requirements and no form.

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Irony Alert!  After having written the above text, I spent about two hours editing it and added another section.  The stuff I said was totally awesome, like the best writing I’ve ever done, and it was full of secrets too.  And then I hit the cancel button by mistake...I guess that’s what happens when you title a post “invest in loss.”  

I’ll just tag a few more lines on here but I just don’t have the time to re-do it.

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As another aside, (and I've written about this a bit in the first link up top)  Dominance is in our genetic code.  A two week old goat has good rooting and uprooting skills because they use those skills to establish social dominance.  We are the same except we also establish dominance verbally, spatially, with money, with knowledge, with mates, etc....  So when people set out to learn martial arts they naturally frame it as a dominance exercise.  Complicating things, self-defense is not about dominance, but violence professionals like prison guards, bouncers, and police are often required by their job to assert dominance so a lot of dominance training gets totally mixed up with the larger subject of martial arts.  

Push hands can be a fun dominance and submission game.  I concede that.  It is dominance by either superior skill, sensitivity or mysterious qi cultivation. The Cheng Man-Ching school, the school most responsible for popularizing the expression "Invest in Loss," tends to teach push hands as a dominance game.  They are often so hell bent on not losing that they collapse their chests in a desperate effort to evade.  This is a tragedy because with the loss of upright posture there is a profound loss of fruition.  

When people practice push hands with perfect upright they completely discard pushing!  From there effortlessness and stillness are revealed.  Non-aggression, wuwei, our true nature (de), all manifest spontaneously. 

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