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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.

Monday
Mar022015

Autonomy, Community, Divinity

An excellent primer on advanced ethical relativism in anthropology and beyond is,Why Do Men Barbecue?: Recipes for Cultural Psychology  by Richard A. Shweder. Funny and provocative, if you want a discrete answer to the question, why men barbecue? you better read another book. He doesn't even bring it up. Which is, I suppose, a way of commenting on how crazy most academic discourses on ethics are. Anyway I loved it. If you know a student heading to college, get them this book. It is the intellectual equivalent of concealed-carry.

Shweder, like me, believes that you shouldn't open your mouth unless you can sustain three distinct viewpoints on any subject. To have a real conversation each person needs to bring along multiple opinions, otherwise you are doing something other than carrying on a conversation. This is one of the ways the internet diminishes our interactions.*  A well educated seven year old should be able to bring three opinions to any subject, but the capacity to make that multi-view clear in a short written text on the internet is too rare. And perhaps there are fewer seven year olds being educated these days.

(cue Erik Satie)

How does this relate to martial arts? Simple. Any instruction I give, or learning situation I set up, is informed by the possibility that it is wrong. It is also informed by the probability that there is another way. And the probability that there is a better way. Probability is a term from statistics. As many of my students have pointed out over the years, this requires enormous maturity on the part of the student! They must be responsible for evaluating what they are learning while they are learning it, they must be actively imagining themselves teaching the same thing and contemplating the variety of reactions they could be having. Students need to be capable of challenging me, and each other, otherwise the transmission they are getting is only the road, not the over-view map. That is why I prefer to teach students over the age of seven.

I suppose in an indirect way I am referencing the famous essay by Isaiah Berlin on the question of Foxes vs. Hedgehogs. (Here is my Dad interviewing Stanley Fish, I think this is the interview where he talks about Isaiah Berlin, you'll enjoy it either way!) Foxes are smart about many things, hedgehogs are smart about one thing. We need both. Unfortunately this perspective is a bit dark. There are always fewer foxes than hedgehogs, so being a fox is lonely. Hedgehogs are boring and they dig too many holes! Of course, we foxes do love a really well developed hedgehog! But they are too rare. And they tend to be good at hiding. A good fox needs a lot of good hedgehogs simply to exist.

Are we still talking about martial arts? Or have we drifted into the realm of enlightenment? Or is this a performance art text? 

Shweder offers a construct for examining ethics, three categories that are useful for understanding behavior across cultural divides: autonomy, community, and divinity. This examining process is a powerful tool, try applying it to twenty different types of examples and see what kinds of results arise.

In martial arts history for instance we could ask, to what extent the arts were purposely designed to serve each of these ethics? Immediately the subject explodes into a 1000 page dissertation. Consider...

 

  • Autonomy: Self-defense, crime, personal journey of self-improvement, dodging the punishment, social status, owning, profit, passion, self-expression, righting wrongs, secrets. 
  • Community: Militia, banditry, community defense, family loyalty, brotherhoods, purpose, resource security, vengeance, self-sacrifice, establishing order, keeping the peace, eliminating competition, certainty, duty, unity, giving back, secrets. 
  • Divinity (this is perhaps a culturally limiting term to describe the ethical category, but you'll get the idea): Demonic possession, exorcism, transcendence, serving the future, rectifying the past, devotion, purity, cosmic alignment, beauty, cutting all ties, not-knowing, the infinite, enlightenment, secrets. 

 

In sketching out the above lists I didn't even attempt to crack techniques or technologies. Where do they fit in? Notice that secrets are in all three categories!

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* Saying that "the internet diminishes our interactions," is entirely self-referential.  I don't believe things were better at some time in the past!  The possibilities are just so obviously NOT being lived up to, that's all.  (more on that in a future post).  

Saturday
Feb282015

New Stuff Old Stuff

Okay, now that the wood goat year has started I've got a lot to say.  But first let me get some of this stuff I've piled up for you out of the way.

1.)  This is a martial art dance form from East India.  It has material that I know from Indian Dance and from Chinese martial arts.  China and India have a lot in common culturally, but they may be a few hundred years out of sinc.  Indian is much more comfortable with its religious localism than China is, that might be the biggest difference in the current era.  

2.)  Here is some footage from the Chinese demonstration at the 1936 Olympics.  Awesome, some choreography, some games, Guan Gong wielding a halberd? what else?

3.)  Okay, everyone has already seen and commented on this video.  My only addition is that it is cool and was meant to turn teens on to archery!  
4.)  Good news, the brain heals!  Maybe we can get head-attacks back in the NFL (American Football).
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5.)  A useful discourse on the meanings of xing and ming in Daoist internal alchemy, Neidan.  I don't think this is a great place to start although it is a good exploration of vocabulary.  Think of these two terms as categories of discourse, a sort of short-hand for teaching.
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6.)  Check out this awesome collection of old-time martial arts videos!  Vintage baby!  Epic Old Rare.
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7.)  Here is the oldest Jujitsu footage ever taken.  Notice how the pre-Fascism era stuff integrated theatricality effortlessly.  
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8.)  I thought I would write a whole piece on Prince Nassem, but I never got around to it.  Everybody hates him because he was too much of a "show-off" and a case of "wildman beats the master."  But, by breaking conventions he got great results.  Okay, he eventually lost.  Nearly everyone does.  Does it matter that he lost to someone with more orthodox skills?  Watch this highlights video if you haven't seen him before.  I think people should study these outliers, he was obviously doing something RIGHT that no one else was doing. 
Wednesday
Feb182015

Happy Year of the Wood Goat!

Yes, this is the most creative year of the whole 60 year cycle, so what ever it is you are doing, bust out!

If hitting it with your head doesn't work, you can climb it, if that does it work, go ahead and eat it, it is probably edible!  And digestible!  Live long, get rich!

 

Tuesday
Jan202015

Standing Still

Let's get some things straight.  There are standing postures in all Chinese Martial Arts.  The physicality of Chinese theater comes out of these same stances.  Many different religious traditions in China require participants to hold specific stances during ritual.  

The term most often used to refer to standing postures these days is zhan zhuang.  That term does not apparently make any distinctions between difficult jibengong basic training stances which are often physically difficult and painful for beginners, and standing meditaion which is only difficult because people won't let themselves do it.  

Also, zhan zhuang is probably not the correct term for describing these standing practices used in theater and ritual.  I think the term comes from Wang Xiangzai, if anyone knows different please let me know.

In the martial arts world, difficult standing postures are a key part of jibengong, or basic training.  After a student can do a falling stance with their butt on their ankle (feet parallel, one leg all the way straight, the other all the way bent), then I have them hold the stance with their hips (measured at the greater trochanter) one inch below the level of the knee. After they get that I have them hold it with the hips one inch above the level of the knee.  Then there are arm positions to add, and a few other tricks.  There are instructions like this for every posture in Taijiquan, Shaolin, or Xinyiquan.  Students often rebel, they don't like the pain.  They think I'm some kind of sadist, when the truth is I love them, they are my babies.  

There are a whole bunch of easier postures that are used for meditation, horse stance, post stance, and just simple knees bent, feet shoulders width apart, back straight.  When I say meditation I mean an hour of stillness.     (If the stance is on one leg, then it is a half-hour on each leg.)  Why an hour?  Why not?  Do you have some place to be?  Because if your mother is in the hospital or something you should probably get over there!  Or if you have a game of Frisbee golf to get to...at 7 AM...hey that's important stuff!

Frankly I've heard countless explanations for why an hour is good. Yawn.  This is an experimental tradition, do your own experiments, find your own answers.  I've heard even more excuses from martial arts teachers about why they don't do standing practice.  Yawn.

The heart of the problem is in the framing.  If people don't understand that martial arts were fully integrated into religious ritual, meditation, and theater they are likely to come up with some argument about how long periods (really..., an hour is long?) of standing are not utilitarian.  Yawn.  Let's face it, if you haven't lived in a violent world with a violent lifestyle where you had to use moral (or immoral) acts of skillful force every few days you don't even know what utilitarian is.  

Here we go.  Movement is communication.  We are social animals.  The tiniest movements are communicative. If you hold your pinky out when you drink a beer you are communicating something.  Even if you are alone.  That's why people tend to freak out when they find out someone has been secretly watching them, even if it was just for a couple of minutes.  After going into complete solo retreat far away from other people for long enough, upon returning to society, one will be shocked by how much physical and mental attention goes into managing where everyone else is positioned, how they are moving, and what all those movements mean.  In other words, normal everyday human activity is intense, we are just used to it.  (Perhaps we could call this material "unconscious" or "sub-conscious" but...yawn...there is a lot of baggage there, and I like to travel lite.)

In the theater communication is king! and queen, and the forest and the grass and the mountains and the naked hairy wildwoman, etc.  Every movement matters.  The quality of every movement matters.  On the stage, everything gets seen (unless it is intentionally hidden).  In Chinese theater there is an expression, "The actor wears the scene on his body!" (jing jiuzai yanyuan shenshang).  Yep.  If a person's body is going to do this well, it requires the capacity to add and subtract tiny little details of movement.  That capacity comes from being physically and mentally quiet.  Standing still is key.

Ditto for religion.  Who is watching us?  Gods, ghosts, demons, our imaginary ancestors (hi grandma); what is it they are seeing us do? What is agency?  Is this my movement or am I just walking like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" because that was my favorite record album when I was 10 years old. Free will? Maybe, but then why do you put your pinky out when you are drinking beer?  

If our conduct is connected to our morality, then how we move is a profoundly moral issue.  This is a core concept of all Chinese religious expression, especially Daoism and Confucianism, yet there is hardly a better theological explanation for why Buddhist monks practiced martial arts at Shaolin temple.    

Monday
Jan192015

Don't Yield!

This is a training tip.  The problem with a lot of the posts like this one is that it came out of a private lesson where I spent half an hour demonstrating and trying to explain a movement concept. Are my dear readers going to understand what I'm saying from simply reading?  I don't know.  But the process does help me clarify the issues and it might at least inspire readers to try some new experiments.

There is a massive misconception, especial in the internal martial arts, that yielding is a good idea.  It isn't.  This misconception is a huge part of bad push-hands, and bad Aikido; yielding appears to work because of cooperative patterns and the assumed constraints of a particular exercise or game.  I shouldn't pick on push-hands or Aikido because I've seen the problem in nearly every type of art to some extent.  However I am picking on push-hands and Aikido because what I am about to say should really be one of the first lessons in those arts.  But allow me first to clarify what is Not Yielding.

Sticking or adhering or attaching oneself to an opponent or practice partner is not yielding.  It is a necessary skill for, among other things, improving ones position and for infighting.  

Getting out of the way is also not yielding.  If an opponent is charging you or falling on you, it is usually better to get out of the the way or let them fall, rather than trying to holding them up.  

There is also a special skill called a sacrifice throw.  Sacrifice throws manipulate or take control of the opponent's center of mass, they do not involve yielding.  Ronda Rousey is a master of these, check it out:

So what is this yielding thing we are not supposed to do?  Yielding is when we feel an opponent's force and we go against it with any amount of force which fails to over power it.  Yielding is meeting force with less force.

In the martial arts world a common effective strategy is to meet an opponent's force at a superior angle, that is, an agle that diminishes the opponents effective force while increasing the opponent's effort.  That is certainly not yielding because the technique effectively overpowers the opponent.

More skilled practitioners may be able to create the illusion of going directly against an opponent's force, effectively leading them into a trap.  But that is an illusion.  It is not force against force.

So another way of saying this is, if I yield, I yield 100%, never 99%.  But from my own perspective I prefer to think of it as not allowing or giving up even one ounce of force, or even one millimeter of space.  

Martial arts is the study of chaos, sometimes what I don't want to happen just happens!  If I happen to end up in a force against force situation, I want to win it!  By hook or by crook.

Tuesday
Jan062015

The Body We Feel

Failure to adequately answer the question, what is qi? Is a seemingly never ending problem in the Martial arts. The core of the problem is that historically qi is consistently described as being both inside the body and outside the body.  In the modern era there are two dominant schools of thought for dealing with this problem. The first school says there is no physical force that exists both inside the body and outside the body, therefore Chinese masters before the 20th Century must have been delusional.  The second school agrees that there is no physical force both inside and outside the body, but since the Chinese masters of the past were so brilliant in other realms, we must have misunderstood them.

The insistence that qi be explainable in modern terms is something we can work with, the insistence that qi have a direct modern corollary is simply beyond the pale.  

The correct question to ask is, how is it possible to have a felt experience which is both inside the body and outside the body?  This is a big problem for (modern) Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners too, because most 20th Century texts focus on describing qi as being inside the body. That is not entirely fair, 20th Century texts all describe weiqi (guarding qi) which floats about 2 to 5 inches off the surface of the skin. However weiqi is usually interpreted as radiant heat (or the capacity to distribute it) around the surface of the body.  The texts rarely deal with qi out beyond 10 inches.  I would argue that qi is never just inside the body, and that thinking of it as such is a modern idea.  

I recommend the book The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine  because it tells the history of feeling the body from a Chinese cosmological perspective and from an Ancient Greek perspective and then shows how we got where we are today through looking at both art and medicine.  

Also on this topic I recently found an essay by Daoist scholar Stephen Bokenkamp, in which he draws on the work of linguist George Lakoff to discuss perception of the self as an experience of body.  Lakoff is a Tai Chi guy and his practice has had a big effect on his theories about language.  The idea in the essay is that Daoists had an implicit notion of self embedded in the language that exists as a continous background to constituents of self, such as jing, qi and shen or hun and pö, or the infinite array of visualized deities. Lakoff's book is called Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought, the essay by Bokenkamp is titled, "What Daoist Body?" in a book called Purposes, Means and Convictions in Daoism: A Berlin Symposium .

Bokenkamp like many scholars of Daoist religion are asking good questions about what early Daoists thought the body was. Here is my question, how did those Daoists experience their bodies such that they thought visualizing deities would be efficacious?   Or the reverse corrolarry, where did modern people get the wacko idea that visualization in and around the body isn't efficacious?

The notion that the specific body we feel is an experience of material reality is a modern conceit. When Shakespeare writes, "Mine own flesh and blood," he isn't talking about the material body, he is talking about imagined ownership and connection.  Experiencing flesh and blood wasn't a static truth, and it still isn't.

We define our self, who and what we are, as a specific material experience of our body.  I don't know how universal that is.  But I do know that it isn't permanent or static.  We only have to consider what happens to us when we are dreaming to know this can not possibly be true.  There are a lot of tricks (call them methods if you prefer) in martial arts, designed to get us to drop our specific material experience of our body.  But even when students understand the purpose of these tricks, such methods are hard to pull off because our specific material experience of the body snaps back like a rubber-band.

The notion that perception and action can be separated has been demonstrated to be false in countless kinesiological studies.  If you doubt what I'm saying, go to Google Scholar, type in "perception action," then add a word like "matrix" or "integration," or "loop," hit return and start reading.

A few of the key terms kinesiology has come up with to describe this are, proprioception (sense of body in motion), peripreception (sense of space within arms reach), extra-periperception (sense of space beyond one's reach), and tactile perception.  There are also various terms for interior perception.  I tend to use the general term spatial perception which covers all of these.  There are many other terms that have been created to distinguish between the many ways we feel and sense in action.  

The felt body and felt space are absolutely key to all movement capacity.  That is a demonstrable fact.  As is the postulate that different felt experiences enhance or disrupt movement capacity.

The crazy idea that the term qi refers to something inside the body probably dates from the late 1800's.  When people were trying to find a Chinese (rather than foreign) justification for the end of foot-binding, they hit on the Modern notion of "circulating qi" as a metaphor for everything good, i.e. medicine, technology, new ideas and commerce...all of which circulate around. Unbinding womens' feet was simply another way to increase circulation!  China had the "qi circulation" expression earlier, but it never referred exclusively to inside the body.  Before the late 1800's qi always referred to both inside and outside the body simultaneously.  Chinese pre-Nationalist reformers of the late 1800's were trying to find Chinese origins or precedents for Modernity, a big part of which entailed seeing the body as a biological lump of flesh.

Whenever we are changing the way we move we are changing the ways we feel our body and space.  One of the biggest obstacles to conditioning new ways of feeling is that how we feel is linked to who we believe we are.  Both have to change.

For example, the idea that our body is made up of muscles is a function of the spatial imagination.  It is not innate.  It is not even historically coherent, people in the past didn't think of themselves this way.  To have a body of muscles is to have trained one's body to feel them.  Most of us learned this as children in our society (it is refined and reinforced in school), but functionally there is enormous variation between individuals.  None the less, the body as muscles can be unlearned.

The idea that we can experience our body as emptiness is a core concept for all traditional Chinese movement practices, including: martial, ritual, and theatrical.  However there are many different concepts of emptiness.  Emptiness is understood in multiple ways.

The idea of emptiness used in Iron-Shirt practices is different from the idea used for fighting while possessed.  In the case of possession, the person possessed by a deity has no memory of the experience.  That is the definition of possession in China.  And the understanding is based on the idea that a person's body can be an empty vessel that the deity occupies temporarily.  In Iron-Shirt the body is trained to feel diffuse or numb so that it does not feel pain, this is also described as emptiness. 

In one form of Daoist ritual training, adepts first establish emptiness in a part of the body, like an empty room or an office called a guan.  This takes anywhere from two of weeks to two years.  Then a deity is visualized in the empty space.  These deities are always moving, not in the sense of running around, but in the sense that they are visualized in clouds or with flowing silk clothing.  Such a deity is then referred to as an officer, also guan (one who occupies an office).  In ritual perception-action a deity is moved outside the body so the experience of interior space (the office) is also outside the body.  

This Daoist ritual perception-action practice is the way internal martial arts were created.  The movement in the imagined empty space does not have to be a deity, it can be anything felt with the imagination.  It could perhaps be a giant muscle, an ocean wave, or infinite darkness.  The conventions are not important to understanding the mechanism.

The concepts of healing, exercise, exorcism, talisman, education, and beauty, are tied to the way we feel, in every culture.  The insight that Daoism brings to all of these is that we have access to an experience of zero. This zero is part of the basic cosmology of ritual and is found in the Daodejing, "Dao gives birth to One, One gives birth to Two... etc...."  In simpler English renewal is possible.  

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Editor's Note:  Okay, that is the end of this short essay.  What follows is a tail that readers may use as additional food for thought...

 I don't know if most people are ignoring how they feel their bodies, or if most people simply tend to use language as if how we feel our bodies is set in stone (or bone?).  I don't know if I'm living in a land of ghosts, or if we are all just truly alone?  

I have been thinking about early Daoism and I suspect that early Daoist rituals were created to give people a shared sense of being able to change how we feel our bodies.  The rituals they created were heavy on group visualizations that altered one's sense of body.  And learning to read too, the early Daoists taught everyone to read and write, it was a 2nd Century literacy drive.  

 

Monday
Jan052015

Pandit Chitresh Das, dies at 70

It is with great sorrow that I announce the passing of one of my mentors Pandit Chitresh Das.  I got the news last night just before bed.  I dreamt that I was teaching a large class of children when I got the news.  I stopped class to tell them what a great improviser he was, and what an amazing teacher, and how he taught me and so many others new ways of seeing, hearing and feeling.  Then I started teaching the students how to pick flowers, in the Kathak mode, in rhythm, as a man, as a woman, and as a wild man.  

When I woke up, my whole body was full of rhythm.  Laying there in bed, complex rhythmic patterns were coming out of me, from me, and from beyond.  New ones and old ones I hadn't felt in a long time, like emotions spilling over.  

I started studying with Chitreshji when I was 20.  I traveled to India when I was 26 and met up with him there.  He was a child prodigy known throughout India but because of political favoritism in the Guru system he felt under appreciated and when modern dancer Murray Louis offered him a chance to come to America and teach he took it.  For twenty years he didn't return.  He moved to California where he worked intimately with Zakir Hussain and Ali Akbar Khan to innovate new forms of rhythmic mastery.  When I was with him in Kolkata (Calcutta) he was mending fences and building new relationships after 20 years, it was intensely emotional and profoundly gratifying.  He introduced me to a lot of people but sent me alone to visit his Guru brother Bachan Lal Mishra, who was practically in tears after he saw me dance in his tiny studio in a dilapidated building.  He said this was the true martial spirit of the original Kathak, that Chitreshji had kept it alive.  The walls of his studio were covered in pictures of boxers, his inspiration.  

Kathak is an intimate performance the dancer should be close enough to see the audiences expressions, and it is best done on a marble floor to bring out the full range of sounds the feet can make. 

Kathak, North Indian Classical Dance, has changed a lot with time. A hundred years ago it was an intimate style that took on the qualities of an improvised duel between the drummer (tabla player) and the dancer. My teacher was a consummate improviser.  In our first class he channelled the harsh nuns he had known attending Catholic Schools in India, Rambo with a machine gun, and pop star Michael Jackson.  All of this within the strict rhythmic structures of Indian Classical music.  If you’ve never seen Kathak, it is sort of like tap-dance and flamenco done in bare feet and with five pounds of bells wrapped around each ankle.  Das explained that Kathak was developed around Rajput warriors and then moved into the Mughal Courts of Lucknow and as the Mughals fell from power many dancers fell into the role of courtesans. With the rise of Indian nationalism, dance played a role as a marker of Indian pride and identity.  Chitreshji's father and mother were dancers at the center of this revival and Chitreshji grew up in a home that was a major stopping off point for all the great dancers of Indian, most of them probably performed in his living room.  

Martial arts were not taught explicitly, and Chitresh Das was not a fighter, but if you’ve ever tried dueling with blades you know that rhythmic footwork with speed and power is a handy thing to have.  Kathak also has body technique that can be used as chops, sweeps and elbow strikes, joint locks, and drop steps, lots of drop steps.  The bells worn for Kathak are bronze strung tightly together with open facets.  From a martial point of view they were armor for the ankles designed to catch blades and weights for developing speed and power.  In the historic epic the Mahabharata the thunderous sound of thousands of men stamping their feet with ankle bells struck terror in their enemies hearts. 

I saw Chitreshji perform countless times, but the improvisations he would bust out in class when we were completely exhausted were always the best.  As a teacher he put his entire being into it. In a sense he is always right there with me when I teach, he taught me how to be intensely responsive and aware of every sound and movement my students make; precision and nurturing, compassion and fury.  

He wanted to give us students a sense of what it was like to study with his Guru, Pandit Ram Narayan Mishra, so we all went up to a YMCA camp on the Gualala river in Northern California for a retreat.  During the four days we were there I never saw the river because we were dancing the entire time.  We woke before dawn put on our clothes and our bells and started dancing, we ate lamb shank curry for breakfast, which lasted just long enough to eat and take a five minute shower, then we were dancing again until lunch. Lunch was even shorter and we were dancing again, in the late afternoon and evening we did more theatrical movement, singing and reciting in addition to more dancing.  Dinners were a blur and with the last shower of the evening came the risk of falling asleep while standing up. In the morning we did it again, for four days. By the end, all that was left of me was a steady vibration, and feet, the bottoms of which looked like raw hamburger.  

Probably the best performance I ever saw him give was actually a rehersal.  We were staying in the flat of a Calcutta painter friend of his, I remember she had a pet monkey who was completely out of control jumping and swinging about the room.  When Chitreshji was performing a solo he didn't like to rehearse because Kathak is about spontaneity, but also because it is a symbolic duel between the tabla player and the dancer, and duels are not rehearsed.  For about four years I was studying with both Chitreshji and Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri (a great tabla player).  When they were scheduled to perform together, both of their students would try to get them to rehearse, with increasing desperation as the event got closer.  Each of them would say things like, "Okay, if he needs to rehearse we can rehearse, ask him if he needs to rehearse?"  Students were sent back and forth with messages, "Tell him I don't need to rehearse, would it be helpful for him?" Sometimes they would talk on the phone I guess.  Anyway we were in Calcutta and Chitreshji was scheduled to perform with what he called a "red hot chilli pepper," that is, a young very fast tabla player, in this case Bickram Ghosh, son of Pandit Shankar Ghosh.  So he consented to a rehearsal.  It lasted about an hour, I sat at his feet while the two of them went through compositions at top speed, often only doing a half or a third of the composition and then saying something like, "Okay, and so on."  This is the thing about Kathak, it is an insider art.  To really see, feel and hear it, one has to have a lot of training.  When they were stopping a composition a third of the way through I was left hanging on a quarter of a beat.  The confidence they had that these complex rhythmic cycles would come out mathematically perfect was itself on show.  

In recent years, Chitresh Das has had enormous success, the father ten schools in India, America and Canada.  His collaborations and innovations are being felt far and wide.

This last week I sent off the abstract for a paper I'm going to deliver in England at Cardiff University in June titled, Shaking Thunder Hands:  Where Martial and Performing Arts Meet in India and China.  It examines evidence that North Indian Classical Dance (Kathak) and Chen style taijiquan share common movement concepts, theatrical representations, and forms of heightened awareness associated with martial enlightenment.  

I've been working on my book everyday too, and my tabla drums are on the same table with my computer.  That's how I've been writing, back and forth between the drum and the key board.  So Chitreshji has been on my mind, visiting me everyday. And by some strange coincidence, I made lamb shank curry yesterday! It has been 20 years since I danced with him.  Still, his memory, his brilliance and his spirit live on in my work.  I am forever grateful to have had him as a mentor.  

Thank you Dadaji.

Chitresh Das, demanding more from his students! With love.

Sunday
Dec282014

Medicine, Martial Arts and Bandits

I'm on a writing retreat, working with a new draft of my book, exciting.

I got in a discussion on hoax/outrage central, ie. Facebook.  It quickly became an appeal to authority, boring.  So as a way of backing out I posted this reading list, I thought my readers would enjoy:

The standard definition of Six Harmonies is as follows: 

 

  • Three external, wrists-ankles, elbows-knees, shoulders-hips.  
  • Three internal, jing, qi, shen.  

 

In the interest of clarifying what relationship Chinese medicine might have to Six Harmonies I thought I would offer a short reading list:

This is a superb place to start because it goes from broad to narrow, and past to present, in attempting to give us an understanding of Chinese historic concepts of the body.  It also deals with seeing the body in art, which is a smart way in.  The Expressiveness of the Body  

Next I recommend this one, by Unschuld.  He taught an entire generation of scholars on the History of Chinese Medicine.  This book is from his public lectures, it is not the arcane historic discussion of his other works.  His conclusions are profound: What Is Medicine?  

Third, Unschuld's student Elisabtheth Hsu's work is exceptional and shows the range of ideas that jostle in the 20th Century around medicine and movement arts: The Transimission of Chinese Medicine 

Forth, this book is indispensable for understanding the current milieu: Qigong Fever 

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I also have another recommendation on the topic of Bandits in China.  The book title is, Chinese Femininities/ Chinese Masculinitites.  With a title like that, it is hardly surprising that it came out in 2002 and I never noticed it! (The picture on the front is also a turn off.)  It is a collection of essays, most of which are about historical gender issues, which is just weird.  But the article by Matthew H. Sommer titled:  Dangerous Males, Vulnerable Males, and Polluted Males: The Regulationof Masculinitiy in Qing Dynasty Law, deals with how professional martial artists and actors were viewed and treated by the law.  It doesn't actually discuss martial arts directly but the subject is implicit in the material.  Anyway, essential reading.  

Even better is an essay by David Ownby titled: Approximations of Chinese Bandits: Perverse Rebels, Romantic Heroes, or Frustrated Bachelors?  This essay also does not discuss martial arts directly, but what else could it be about with a title like that?  It is in fact an excellent summary of the issues. This one essay and its references are worth the price of the book, it is like getting ten books in just one essay!  High praise.

Monday
Dec012014

Snake Daoyin

This is Daoyin from Vietnam.  Elsewhere I have explained that the Daoyin Paulie Zink does has about twenty animals, it was a Daoist religious theatrical martial training system for animal role specialists.  Paulie Zink was explicitly being taught monkey kungfu (or Tai Sheng, which means Great Sage which is another name for the Monkey King).  All the animals were at times framed as being supportive training for learning the difficult parts of the various monkey roles (there are five of them).  Another way to understand it is that monkey is just the most developed role of the twenty animal roles.  That's how he explained it to me one afternoon, but I don't have that in writing or anything.

That is why I was delighted to find this video on Youtube.  It is almost certainly the same system, the snake movements are the same, but this woman has the full blown snake role.  I would love to know if she has little bits of all the other animals or if she just learned this one?  In any event, if this type of Animal Role Specialist Daoyin is old, like 500 years old, I'm betting there were at one time experts for every single animal.  Are there any other high quality masters of animal daoyin out there?  Experts in an animal other than snake or monkey?  I know there are dog kungfu experts but that appears to be a lesser amateur style.  Are there any pig masters for instance? How about crab masters?  Or frog masters?  Send me the links if you find them!  Please.  Also I'm taking a break from Facebook so if you comment there, please comment here too.  Thanks.

Thursday
Nov202014

Sex is Dangerous

Historically, in English speaking countries anyway, there has been a gradual covering over of the idea that sex is dangerous.  Thus, most readers are probably unaware that 8 out of 10 mating dances also happen to be martial arts.  Nearly all mating dances were developed by people who had to deal with levels of violence that are frankly unimaginable for most people today. 

I first heard the idea that sex is dangerous expressed in an essay by Pat Califia* in about 1992. The essay was in the form of a photocopy that a friend handed to me, this was one of the ways people used to spread ideas before the internet. In the essay Pat Califia methodically went over all the ways sex has been dangerous from STD's to Romeo and Juliet.  

Historically sex has been dangerous in nearly every culture, but that hasn’t stopped most people from trying it, and at times (to understate the case) enjoying it.  (Since I am a contrarian, even to myself, readers may find this essay interesting as a counter point, “It’s Only a Penis.”)

One of the most brilliant and culturally transcendent ideas invented to make sex a little safer is the mating dance.  Saying that mating dances are an idea is somewhat problematic in that a great many animals do them too, peacocks come quickly to mind.  But humans have certainly attached all manner of rituals, protocols, visions, designs and ancillary purposes to the “idea” of learning and performing mating dances.   

People are often reluctant to communicate verbally about their sexual needs.  Speaking broadly across cultural realms, the range of what is considered sexual communication is mind bogglingly diverse.  What is thought of as sacred and what is taboo, what is ideal, and what is frightening, are literally all over the map.  

Dances have historically and evolutionarily played an important role in courting.  Dances were used to help teach adolescents how to behave around the opposite sex and how to communicate.  Men have a tendency to fight over women, and women often pick their mates base on the outcomes of these violent performances.  Women also compete over men, although they come to blows less often.

There is also a historic developmental link between mating dances and competitive dances that display martial prowess in front of a king.  This happened because part of the purpose of these dances was to honor the king and so when communities wanted to honor a woman coming of age they would do similar dances for them.  

We could go deeper into the many cultural purposes of mating dances, there is an enormous literature in socio-cultural anthropology to that effect.  But our subject is martial arts.  

Mating dances usually teach elements of competitive social violence and asocial violence.  Even rather stately mating dances like the Waltz teach one a lot about taking control of centrical momentum, which is one of the master keys for reversing the odds in a surprise attack.  Today when most people think of the waltz they are imagining staged prudery and pomp, that is not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the Waltz as a folk art. I’m talking about spinning around and around for hours on end by the light of the moon on ever increasing amounts of alcohol, and then stumbling home in the dark.

Italian country dance is a great example of a martial art hidden inside of a social dance.  A great many of the Italian country dances are knife fighting games.  We can find similar examples in countless other cultures.

Many mating dances have extraordinary footwork which is directly transferable to weapons fighting, as well as drop steps for power generation.  Many mating dances have well developed elbow strikes, or hands raised to keep the spray of blood out of ones eyes.  

Nearly all mating dances were developed by people who had to deal with levels of violence that are frankly unimaginable for most people today.  These dances teach people to fight in the thrall of the heart fluttering hormones of sexual passion, fear, and other mind altering conditions.  As practical martial arts they are far more realistic than most “traditional” or “pure” martial arts when it comes to understanding how social violence happens and how asocial predators attack.  

Samba is a mating dance from Brazil that has it all.  It has superb defenses for attacks from behind, awesome footwork, fantastic body slam combinations, elbow strikes in all directions, vital target evasion, tripping, head attacks, and brilliant escapes. 

Watch this whole video but especially check out the guy in blue pants at the 4:03 minute mark.  Now imagine having someone attack you from behind and responding with that movement.

The inspiration for this post came from the fact that I was roped into teaching a dance class based on the song ‘What Does the Fox Say?’  After watching the videos and listing to the music for a few minutes I realized it was a Samba, so I went in and taught Samba to the kids.  I had extraordinarily good training in Samba from an important dance teacher of mine named Alicia Pierce.  Teaching the class to kids got me exploring Samba as a martial art and I was blown away by how effective it is.

No dance is usable as a martial art unless one conditions responses in a martial way.  That takes some time, but not more than about 40 hours.  The dance itself takes a lot longer to learn. Samba is a highly functional and practical self-defense system, but it has to be re-focused to that purpose.

A key concept in self-defense is the idea that when we encounter asocial violence it is usually a surprise and a new experience which causes us to freeze.  So one of the most important skills to develop is breaking the freeze.  The current convention is to teach students to do a single action like shouting or moving, or a single structurally solid martial technique like the S.P.E.A.R. or Dracula’s Cape.  And because under extreme stress we might freeze again or deceive ourselves by imaging we just moved when in fact we were still frozen, we want to condition ourselves to do the same action twice, or to do two structurally related actions one after the other.

But I’ve been doing some experiments and I’m nearly convinced that busting out a sudden dance pattern is a better way to break the freeze than the standard counter assault stances.  If you have mastered a fast dance pattern which was designed to deal with an attack from behind, I suspect that is a superior way to break the freeze and neutralize the threat.  

The term for the basic dance step in Samba is called ginga, which is the same name for the basic stepping pattern used in Capoeira, even thought these are technically different steps.  The term probably referred to the action of a sweep-oar moving back and forth propelling a boat forward from the stern of a river boat, but in practice ginga means something much more profound.  It means to have mojo, to have cashé, to have hidden power.  It means to have a twisted-up disambiguated poly-rythmic body.  It means being in more than one place at the same time.  It is a feeling.  It is a performance of other worldly access.  

A friend of mine ran a theater program in a Brazillian barrio.  One of his comments has stuck with me.  He said Brazilian kids don't wear clothes like other kids, they move their bodies around inside of them.  

I was recently watching a bunch of Lindy-Hop dancers, and they all had great technical skill, some of it quite impressive to watch.  But it just looked wrong to me, they didn’t have swingSwing is a word like ginga that refers to the African traditions of tricknology.  Lindy-hop was one of the first cross-over dances, one of the first African-American dances that White people started doing.  But despite being ‘good’ dancers, more often than not, they didn’t get it.  That is the origin of the jazz standard, ‘It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!”

Take it away Ella:

 

Here is a link to the Lindy-Hop, it is a 15 minutes video and there are some great moves by many of the performing couples, but only the first couple has some swing.  Can you see it?

So back to martial arts. Awesome mating dances have that swing feeling, or ginga or whatever they call it locally.  It is the juice a person needs to make their dance into a martial art.  It isn’t a rhythmic pattern or a dance combination, it is a feeling of otherworldly connection, a type of access, an ability to come un-hinged.  

It is also one of the sexiest things in the world. 

 *Pat Califia used to be a woman but she has now swung over to being a man.

Wednesday
Nov052014

Mixing Styles of Kungfu

I'm headed out to teach in Chicago and then Traverse City for 10 days, if anyone wants to try and meet me, send an email.

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This post is just a quick follow up on the previous post: Performative.

There has long been an injunction against studying more than one martial arts style at a time.  The common explanation is that styles will conflict and the student will end up with a mixed style that doesn't represent either style well.  Let me put aside the problem that the student might be just a dabbler, of course if you want to learn real gongfu (kungfu) you have to dedicated hours everyday.  This discussion is for and about serious students of the arts.

In the dance world, students dedicate every day to dance.  But in the dance world the problem is exactly the opposite of the martial arts world.  People who learn many dance styles are versatile and adaptive.  The people who have exclusively studied one style tend to find it harder to dance in other styles.  The most notorious example is classically trained ballet dancers who find it hard to do african dance, they end up looking stiff.  And on the other end there are dancers who do everything with too much flow.  I'm not a fan of the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance," by the way, because they make this claim that the dancers are doing a wide variety of dances, but in reality I see ballet and some "poppie" hip-hop moves in almost every dance.  It should be called, "So You Think You Know What Dance is Because You Watch It On TV?"

Anyway back to martial arts.  The reason some serious students end up blending their arts together is because they think of the different arts in terms of how each art generates power.  So in practice they end up using one style's ideas about how to generate power in the techniques of another style.  

This problem does not come up if the teacher uses the concept of Performative Arts that I outlined in the previous post.  A given art is performed a specific way.  The same way a dance has a specific quality and character.  Each martial art has a performance standard, that is what you are learning.  Using martial arts to learn power generation is a mistake.  That should be an after thought.  

Rory Miller claims to be able to improve most people's power generation in a two day workshop whether they have ten years of experience or ten days.  It simply isn't very difficult to develop power.

I would also argue that the unique types of power any particular style has are entirely accessible through the performative aspects of the art.  

In the end what have you got?  Gravity, structure, unity of mass, and momentum.  No matter how tricky you get, it is always going to come back to these four.

 

Thursday
Oct302014

Performative

Let's talk about the power of words.  Words can become stand-ins for whole ideas, even whole histories, which makes certain words really powerful.  But strangely these power-words have a half-life, a point at which they lose any actual meaning.  At that point they become simply markers of identity or tribe, if they maintain power it is the power to exclude or ridicule.

Here are some easy examples: sustainable, capitalism, embodiment, spiritual, relax. Feel free to add your own examples in the comments and to devise poems out of them.

After a word has journeyed to meaninglessness it can sometimes be reclaimed.  'Elightenment' is a good example of this.  The word got so over used that it hit the point of self-parody.  But I discovered that if I started using it to mean something real, immediate, present and available, people had to stop and try to figure out what I was talking about.  Suddenly the word had power again, not the same power it once had but at least the power to trigger a deeper conversation.

The paper I wrote last spring which is hopefully going to be published next year is called:  "Cracking the Code, Taijiquan as Enlightenment Theater."  At the same time as I came up with that title I realized the power of another word: Performative. 

The word 'performative' has been framing my teachings and arguments for about six months, it is a powerful word.  Of course I know it is going to become meaningless eventually, but while it still has power I'm trying to get as much use out of it as I can.

The word highjacked my vocabulary because the most common (and effective) argument against the notion that martial arts, theater and religion are a single subject is that performance is differnt from real fighting. 

There are many versions of this argument, for example, "The way people fight on stage is different than the way they fight in real life, therefore performing artists need to train differently than martial artists do."

My response is, no, that is a misconception, a blind spot.  In fact that mistaken view creates training artifacts which prioritize the illusion of utility.  If we start from the correct historically accurate assumption that martial arts are performative, then we won't create false answers to the "why" questions that constantly come from students who don't have experience with lethal violence.  (Another way for teachers to avoid this problem is simply to admit they don't know.  Hey, a guy can hope can't he?)

There is a lot packed into that last paragraph, let me try to unpack it a little.  What is the basic structure of martial arts, be they from Chinese theater or (to take an outlier example), Japanese operant conditioning for living in a castle where assassination is a regular threat?  The basic structure of martial arts is that we train the body to be able to perform certain operations which can be executed under extreme stress (be it the immediacy of a threat or the rigors of physically staying in-character for six hours at a time).  A prince living in a castle has to learn highly specific ritual responses with his body, when to bow, how to bow, what to do with his eyes,  what to do with his sleeves, how to walk into a room.  In Japan, operant conditioning was simply integrated into these exacting protocols.  If someone draws a sword from the left while you are sitting, you do this.  If you both draw at the same time you do this.  If the attack is at this distance you do this, if it starts closer in, do this instead.  It is performative.  It is exacting.  It is all in response to specific "what if's." But it is also part of a much larger performance.  It is the basic training for performing a prince.  

My favorite "why-question" training artifact to make fun of is "the chambered fist!"  This is the idea that the reason people pull their fist back to their hip is so that it will be cocked and loaded, ready to fire!  The real purpose of that whole body posture with the fist at the hip is performative.  As operative conditioning it is a position one fights to, not a position one fights from. As theatrical training it is the base for performing a character.  The core skill one needs to be able to physically stay in character is the ability to keep returning to the same exact body shapes but with specific communicative variations, like context specific walks, mimed actions, or altered facial expressions.  

Enlightenment is perfromative too.  One of the big misconceptions about enlightenment is that it is some sort of process, some type of reactive or responsive way of seeing the world and then acting in it.  I would even argue that the most important element of enlightenment is its performative nature.  Enlightenment is immediate, that is, it is completely un-mediated by any process, it is instantaneous.  

The same is true for gender.  Gender is completely performative.  I can perforom as a woman or a man if I practice those gender norms.  Performing like a woman won't actually change my sex or my biology but it can be liberating to question what is performance and what is biology.  

Identity isn't real; performance is.  "Reality-Based" martial arts aren't real; performance is.  Earthly hierarchies of superiority aren't real; performance is. 

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Now for fun try replacing various subject words from the classic "mystical" chapter 6 of the Daodejing with variations of the word "performance":

The Valley Spirit is Deathless,

It is called the Dark Mare,

The door of the Dark Mare is the root of heaven and earth,

Lingering, it only seems to exist,

Yet in use, it is inexhaustible.  

--Laozi, Chapter 6

Translation by Ellen M. Chen, In Praise of Nothing; 2011: p. 93.

 

Sunday
Oct192014

Shadow Yoga

 

Shandor Remete, Shadow Yoga, Chaya Yoga : The Principles of Hatha Yoga. North Atlantic Books, 2011.

I'm taking a greater interest in yoga lately, especially since I started my, Daoist Circus Yoga for Kids, the funnest yoga class for kids ever. (Scroll to the bottom of the link.)

This book is small, elegant and I got a lot out of it.  That surprised me because frankly, most books are just personal spin, and reiteration, especially books about movement and spirituality.

This quote in the introductions shows his commitment:

“I have also studied other disciplines: martial arts and the ancient Kathakali and Bharatanatyam dance forms of southern India.  What has become apparent to me is that there is a common basis in the  preparatory forms of all of these disciplines.” 

Zander (as his students call him) often recommends his students study martial arts because they are too WEAK!  And as irony would have it, quite a few talented and dedicated students of his have come to me to study or exchange ideas.  I really should have read this book a few years ago, but better late than never.

On the primary goal of yoga he has this to say:

“Yoga is a spiritual system that deals practically with the process of enlightenment.  The final goal is to differentiate the soul from everything that is not the soul.  The method of yoga teaches the individual to discriminate, or to see the differences between these two things.”

I find that a bit troubling, mostly because he doesn't define soul and the word is so loaded with meaning in English.  He doesn't even translate it back into Sanskrit as atman, although I think that is what he means.  After thinking more deeply about the totality of the text, I started to think that when he says soul he means what we call in Chinese the three Hun, and this would be differentiated from the seven .  But more on that below.

He explains the the process is about skillfully reducing fixed patterns, and that if this end goal is kept in mind, the steps on the path will be self-revealing.  

This was probably my favorite quote from the book:

“It is little understood that flexibility of the whole body can be achieved through the proper manipulation of the ankles, wrists, and neck.  When these five regions are flexible the entire system softens and gains elasticity.”

By stating this he is suggesting that flexibility is always available and that mostly people practicing yoga are profoundly misunderstanding the subject.  His biggest complaint is that people do not practice, nor do they comprehend the importance of, the preliminaries.

He has quite a bit of stuff about out-side the body perception and practice.  This seems a bit rigid and formulaic to me, but else where he explains that the order and content of learning is not inherent and can be skipped by some people.  Micro-macrocosm stuff like this planet is connected to your liver, can be read as jindan (golden elixir) instructions, but in the modern era I think we can skip right to talking about these visualizations as having a function in the perception action chain of motivations for movement.  We agree on the importance of this kind of content but disagree on how to present it.

Zander describes a three body system which is like the Chinese one:  the Causal Body karana sharira, the Subtle Body sukshama sharira, the Gross/Physical Body sthula sharira. I think this corrisponds to shen, qi and jing.

He describes kosha which are traps (or perhaps cavities?) which interweave the three bodies together, there are 7 of them according to a yoga text he references.  These are what hold the 7 shadow bodies together.

Zander explains the very complex relationship between breathing and posture, but then says that all of this is preliminary to breathing without any fixed pattern.  

There is a chapter on Nauli kriya which was outside my knowledge base. On further consideration I noticed it looks a lot like the chair pose in Paulie Zink's daoyin, and a lot like one of the basic movements of Tibetan trulkhor. I hadn't considered this type of yoga before but it might prove very useful for people differentiating the dantian from the kua.  

The title of the book comes from this quote:

"The appearance of the body is nothing but frozen shadows.” --  Allama Prabhudeva.

“The shadows are seven in number: the shadow of joy, the shadow of the intellect, the shadow of the mundane mind, the power of principle, the gross structure, the luster of the skin, and the shadow on the ground.  Each shadow is a blockage of light.”  

Elsewhere he describes them differently, so I don’t think he intended this list to pin it down.  They are all obstacles, but they are the obstacles we happen to have to work with.  I could plumb these further: luster of the skin is probably radiance, shadow on the ground is probably pure earth power, the power of principle is probably bio-mechanics and jin or ground-path power, intellect is probably having preferences, the shadow of joy has me a bit stumped but I'm guessing it is unconsciously obscuring our animal nature with nice-ness.

I thought of hun and pö as a translation of soul and shadow bodies into ChineseIn Chinese cosmology, the hun and pö exist as a form of polarity holding us together during our life, and they disperse at death.  The hun are said to disperse within the first three days (they go up!), but even in a normal death the pö can take up to seven years to disperse (they go down!).  This is why proper funerals are so important in Chinese culture, there is a danger of creating a ghost if the  don't fully disperse.  In a sense we can think of the pö as unresolved conflicting emotions and weak or desperate desires.  If a grandparent dies really wanting a cigarette, there is a chance they can pass on that conflicted emotion to a child as some quirky behavior.  That is a psychological "ghost" but there are other types.  A desire for power or revenge would tend to be more demonic than ghostly, but essentially made of the same ephemeral stuff.

An immoral, or xian, in Daoist cosmology is a person who has a complete death at the moment of death. That is, their hun and pö completely disperse instantly because they have already completely differentiated them (like Zander is suggesting is the goal of yoga: to differentiate the souls from the shadow bodies).  Thus great immortals like Zhang Daoling rose up in broad daylight with their dogs and chickens at the moment of death.  

Zander offers a translation of the term samadhi as “absorption."  I think that is exactly the way to translate it if we are talking about a movement tradition like daoyin, theater, or martial arts.

Anyway it is a small elegant book and I recommend it!

 

Tuesday
Sep302014

Song 鬆 May Not Mean Relax or Sink

Recently in a debate about martial arts someone said I must not know what I’m talking about because I do not speak or read Chinese fluently.  While most people would not say that, they might think it, and certainly there is a prejudice for giving higher regard to someone who does speak the language fluently.  

I have a lot of counter arguments I could make but this is really a form of bullying, so naturally I followed my Bullying Protocol:  Over admit to everything and concede that the bully owns the space.  “Thank you for sharing your great culture with me.  Not only do I not speak Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) but I don’t speak any of the many Fujianise dialects, I don’t speak the languages of the Hui minority, or the languages of Shanxi or Henan, or any of the other mutually incomprehensible languages of the Chinese mainland.”

A hundred and fifty years ago,  the hundreds of Chinese martial arts styles out there were taught exclusively in local languages.  What I sometimes refer to as theater and sometimes as opera, covers a vast array of professional low-caste performers, and amateur lineages of processional fighting dances, family opera, physical storytelling, circus, and hundreds of traditions which are simply undocumented.  The languages used in these performance traditions were often local, but they could also be archaic like Shakespeare, or from another region, or from a formal poetic or vocal tradition.  

Regardless of whether one accepts my thesis that theater, martial arts, and religion were a single subject, it is hard to argue that the language of teaching and transmitting martial arts was mutually coherent to people from different regions.  

Unless, of course, one thinks the arts can be transmitted with either minimal language, or with minimal language supported by key terms that can be translated and explicated.  

Just as an aside, no one actually knows how much of the Chinese population was literate two hundred years ago.  I’ve yet to meet a scholar who was willing to come down clean on the issue.  It is widely believed that China was historically the most literate society on earth, other than Jews.  But what constituted literacy is a tough nut to crack.  Being able to read 500 characters might have been very useful, but it probably wouldn’t have made someone literate.  In any event the important issue here is that there was one common written Chinese language and all official decrees (from 1644 to 1910) were written and read aloud in Mandarin, Mongolian and Tibetan, all which would have been largely incomprehensible to the majority of people.

The common written language was usually used for what is called “classical Chinese,”  but it was sometimes used to transliterate local languages for the purpose of writing down plays or rituals.  

The current authoritarian government in China tries to censors discussions about the diversity of Chinese languages, it would prefer that they be thought of as minor dialects, the issue is highly contested.  

But back to the main argument about martial arts, learning Modern Standard Mandarin is probably helpful for learning martial arts, heck, it opens up the possibility of talking freely to more people.  But a dozen times I’ve been talking through a translator to an older Chinese martial arts master or a Daoist adept who was speaking a local dialect and because I was familiar with the context and content I ended up explaining to the translator what the adept was talking about.  That is not a trivial or single anecdote experience, if you’ve spent many years training martial arts you can communicate heart to heart.  

During the early part of the 20th Century when martial arts were being ‘purified,’ a key element of the purification movement (Jingwu 精武) was the idea that all martial arts had to be explainable in plain language.  In effect, we can morn the loss of a great deal of the subtlety, of local linguistic associations, and highly specific meanings, that were embedded in local languages over generations for transmitting complex martial arts concepts.  

I’m not trying to be romantic here about all the stuff that has been lost, what is gone is gone, but if you truly believe lack of language is an obstacle, then the same obstacle applies to people who only speak Modern Standard Mandarin.  And the possibility exists that thinking one has the right translation for a key term can actually work to effectively hide or obscure other meanings.  

That brings me to the concept of song 鬆, as in fangsong 放鬆.  It has most often been translated as ‘relax,’ which is a word that has been so over used and abused in English I can not even tell you what the driving metaphors of it are.  The other common translation of song is ‘to sink.’  That, at least, has a driving metaphor which is easy to visualize: sinking in mud.  

The character for song represents a person pulling out their hair pin.  Which is super cool because the expression, ‘let your hair down’ is easily understood in English.  But the meaning in Chinese is more complex.  All officials of the government going back a couple thousand years, had regulation hairstyles that displayed their rank.  So pulling out the hair pin meant dropping in rank, or giving up rank, or refusing rank.  Thus by inference song can mean to sink in status, and thus simply ‘to sink.‘  

But the issue can get even more complex.  To give up one’s status, can mean to let go of social obligations, social stresses, and social conventions.  Thus it can mean to transcend the physical rigidities and emotional tensions that tend to define character and identity.  Song can mean to forget your Self.

The theater nudges itself into the conversation here because acting is in effect, to forget your Self, and become someone else.  But theater is central to understanding the cultural context of the term song in another way too.  Most Opera performance that we know about, both amateur and professional used the hair styles and costumes of the Ming Dynasty.  This was an implicit act of visual rebellion because all ethnically Chinese (Han) men from 1644 to 1911 (the Qing Dynasty) were required to wear their hair in a queue under penalty of death.  So no ethnically Chinese men would have actually had the experience of pulling out the pin other than through watching or participating in theater!  

(Side note:  There were street performing groups that specialized in doing tricks with their queues.)

Then there is the sound of the word song 鬆, which is a homonym with the word pine tree!  Were it a different tree, this might not be a big deal, but the pine tree is a symbol of long-life.  No, that is too weak a statement, the pine tree is an icon of the cosmic force of long-life.  The pine tree is practically a deity.  

So this is all background to a fight I started about the meaning of the word song 鬆 during a workshop George Xu was teaching a couple of years ago.  I don’t remember exactly how it started but George was trying to transmit a subtle idea and the word song 鬆 came up, it was translated, and I contested the translation.  Everybody got mad at me and told me to shut up, but I didn’t.  In addition to George there were two other native Chinese speakers there. George speaks both Shanghainese and Modern Standard Mandarin, the other two each spoke two additional Chinese languages, so there was a total of six Chinese languages contesting and attempting to explicate the meaning of the word song.  The discussion I forced started by examining song 鬆 as a compound with various other characters, because as most linguists have argued, most Chinese words are two characters long.  The conversation then moved toward trying to find appropriate English words or expressions to match up.  George Xu ended the conversation by offering a metaphor no one else had conceived.  He said that song 鬆 in the sense he was using it meant to open up like a pine cone releasing its seeds.  

What a shock! After years of thinking song 鬆 meant relax, or sink, or any of the other possibilities we just went over, it may in fact mean something profoundly different, it may mean to physically, mentally and metaphorically open up like a pine cone. 

Sunday
Sep282014

Hitting the Road

I'm headed to the University of Connecticut to deliver a paper on Daoyin.  It compares Tibetan, Orthodox Daoist, and Animal Role Specialist Opera styles of Daoyin, exploring the commonalities in view, method and fruition.

I'm then headed up to Vermont to work with Paulie Zink's youngest advanced student, Damon Honeycutt.  

Then I'm going to Montreal for fun.

And then I'm goign to be teaching for a week in Ottawa with Daniel Mroz.  

As usual if there is someone you want me to meet, beat, or have intellectual intercourse with drop me a line!  I'm much nicer and more dangerous in person than I seem on the blog.  

Here is my schedule 2014:  

  • Connecticut Oct 4th
  • Vermont Oct 6th
  • Montreal Oct 10th
  • Ottawa Oct 13th
  • Back in Boulder Oct 19th

And then I'm going to Chicago to teach Daoyin and Internal Martial Arts in a graduate level Shiatsu Progarm, followed by a week in Traverse City for some workshops.

  • Chicago Nov 6th
  • Traverse City Nov 11th
  • Back in Boulder Colorado Nov 17th