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Weakness With A Twist 

Internal Martial Arts, Theatricality, and Daoist Ritual Emptiness

Sunday
Apr122015

Liu Ming, Sends the Carriage Back Empty

I was very close to Liu Ming from 1994 to 2004.  My account of his life up to that point and my experiences with him was published by the Journal of Daoist Studies (volume 1) in 2008.  That article is also available on academia.edu.  

The title I wanted to use for that article was, To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth, or Not.  My editor wisely over-ruled that because the reference is obscure.  To Live as Long as Heaven and Earth, is a reference to Ge Hong the third century Daoist Official and author of the Baopuzi (Embracing Simplicity). The last thing we know about Ge Hong is that he road a carriage out into the mountains and sent his carriage back empty.  Since then it has become a way of describing completion at the moment of death.  Liu Ming was no doubt complete long before his passing.

As I look out my window, swirling clouds and gentle updrafts,

Traffic noises chirping above a sea of unending quiet,

Perhaps I could try to name this mix of smells, peoples and kitchens, early spring?

Yet the singular taste of clear water reaches out to infinity.    

 

Wednesday
Apr012015

Literature as Ritual Combat 

Mark R. E. Meulenbeld’s new book Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel, is a wonderful new book that starts out with a problem.  Historical shifts in perception have obscured the subject he is studying by dividing it up into different fields.  In order to make the subject whole in reader’s minds requires a metaphor, like a series of bridges, or linkages, or an estranged family getting back together.  But none of these are up to the task.  The metaphor would need to explain that a thing that was once whole, was mis-perceived for a hundred years as being separate categories and yet it always was and remains whole.  Is there a metaphor that easily does that?

His subject is Chinese literature, Daoist religion, and local combat networks.  His assumption is that theatrical-martial-ritual texts, religious organization, and warfare were a single subject.  

The case that Meulenbeld makes is quite similar to the case I have been making on this blog and in other writing, namely that Chinese martial arts, religion and theater were a single subject.  The major difference is that the basis of his realization comes largely from studying texts, while mine comes out of somatic experience.  The two notions fit together like a whole that was never separate (I don’t have an adequate metaphor either). 

Meulenbeld begins by showing that the category of literature in China is a modern invention. Martial-ritual-theatrical texts were transformed into literature via a process of ridicule and dismissiveness. Religion in these texts was seen as humiliating to the modernizers of the early 20th Century who were grappling with the symbolic defeat of the Boxer Rebellion, the end of foot-binding, and the desire to shrug off the “Sick Man of Asia” label.  What happened to literature is akin to what happened to Daoism, theater, and of course martial arts.

[I highly recommend these books for discussions of the invention of these modern subjects, Daoist Modern , Chinese Theatre , Martial Arts , and History  itself.]  

Lu Xun, leading intellectual of the May 4th movement, considered “Daoist fiction” both a fabrication and a deceit!  This sort of activist conceit is still very much alive in the Western discourses on martial arts and literature.  As a modernist protest, it is even more desperate in the Chinese discourses.  

As the 20th Century progressed, the situation just got worse.  Important texts of ritual martial theater got ignored, the few that did get attention were pounded into a secular mold.  This was a process led by Chinese, even if we can see the impulse for it in Protestant Christianity.  Protestantism was spread in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s through the building of hospitals and schools, and by preaching feminism and rationality.  It is a dark irony that the secular impulse within China is in fact Protestant inspired revisioning.

The vernacular Chinese fictional works most readers will be familiar with are Journey to the West (Monkey King), The Three Kingdoms, and Outlaws of the Marsh.  That is because these three works were the easiest to transition to the modern notion of literature.  But in the late Imperial period there were a number of other works that were equally important but which have become obscure through dismissiveness and ridicule, the ritual elements in these works were just too obvious.  Meulenbeld focuses on one work of ritual martial arts fiction called Canonization of the Gods, Fengshen yanyi

Anyone who reads one of these so called novels in English discovers that they are collections of awkwardly connected stories with too many characters, just barely held together by larger themes. However, once we understand that they were built or assembled from theatrical rituals of canonization, the logic of their organization becomes coherent.  Demonic Warfare is a landmark work and will no doubt spawn new translations of China’s epic fiction informed by an understanding of the cultural context which created these works. 

Theatrical presentations of these works are always short stories, individual chapters as it were. Hundreds of these chapters work as stage theater but contemporary imaginations tend to find them structurally complicated.  The magical abilities that many key characters have, and the transformations they go through, contain layers of metaphor and presumptions of cosmological knowledge that are not explicated in the individual stories.  In other words, they are rituals of social organization first, and cosmological teaching stories second.  The substantial entertainment value they once had was built around their value as cultural pivots of meaning.  

After reviewing the enormous hostility towards religion which framed the discourses of the 20th Century, Meulenbeld shows how Chinese literature grew out of the ritual theatricality of temple culture(s).  Temples were intertwined organizational networks, they were the primary institution used to organize militias and other forms of organized, sanctioned violence.

Martial rituals functioned by infusing and imbuing would be combatants with an active cosmology of ritual actions which gave meaning to violent struggles in historic time and regional locale. 

While Demonic Warfare does not discuss embodied martial arts directly, it is a collection of ideas and insights that will have martial artists rolling on the floor with delight.  It brings us a lot closer to an understanding of what Chinese martial arts are, and where they came from.  

Given the insights from this book, martial arts can be understood as the embodied shell of canonization rituals that were done to contextualize violence, rituals that were scalable for both small and large group warfare.  


Meulenbeld translates the key term feng 封 from the title of Canonization of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi), as “canonization.” There is an implicit parallel here with Catholicism.  Martyrs are people who died premature deaths, people who have been credited with transcendent values and purpose.  A martyr dies for a cause, usually a noble, virtuous or valiant one.  Canonization is the process of promoting a martyr to sainthood so that he or she can be looked to for comfort or strength.  It was used extensively by the Catholic hierarchy to incorporate the fringes of its control into a network of reciprocity.  For instance a great many of the Haitian gods of Voodoo are also Catholic saints, they just changed the names.  The basic formula works for Chinese warfare too, conquer your enemies and then turn their local gods and heros into righteous demon warriors and saints in your heavenly hierarchy established by regular theatrical rituals and regulated by a hierarchy of ritual experts.

When they wanted a local militia to hook up with other local militias under a military command structure they performed rituals which imagined collections of local gods and demons fighting for the cause together. 

The role of professional, low-caste actors in this process is not at all clear.  But there is a body of evidence showing that military forces and experts performed plays as martial rituals in earlier eras.  These martial rituals appear to be the same plays performed by professional actors.  

This raises the question, were actors the priests of martial arts as religion?  Also, how were these rituals different in times or war and in times of peace? Could the martial order the rituals established be conferred to serve commerce, cooperation, and well being?  Could the enactment of ritual violence be experienced as an affirmation of all that was good?

In Chinese cosmology, violence is usually caused by conflicting emotions.  Conflicting emotions along with desperate unfulfilled or unresolved desires can linger after a person dies.  These are of course carried forward by the continuing intertwined convictions of the living.  For instance, I’m quite comfortable with the idea of killing Nazi’s, I don’t need to know much else about them.  Were I to kill a Nazi, we might say that my actions were caused by the lingering desire to avenge my ancestors, who have become ghosts.  

In Chinese culture when someone dies naturally of old age they get a place on the family alter and are incorporated into family rituals, the purpose of which is to resolve these conflicting emotions and acknowledge and carry forward the positive model and contributions of the dead to family and society.  

In the case of someone who dies an unnatural violent death, they are not included in the family alter and they become a kind of ghost that needs a place live. A shrine must be built as a site for people to both forgive and otherwise resolve old commitments and establish new ones.  When large numbers of people are killed in battle, these unresolved spirits leave vast amounts of conflicting emotions spinning around for years, sometimes generations.  In Chinese religious cosmology if these ghosts are not appeased, they can survive in lowly wild animals, trees, and even in grasses.  As metaphor they get buried and they put down roots in the earth.

Canonization rituals were performed before battles to clarify the intentions of the combatants and infuse them with demonic powers, tamed resident demons and baleful spirits of past conflicts who have agreed in ritual to serve righteous causes.  Canonization rituals after battles attempted to incorporate all the dead, especially the leaders of the losing side, into the service of the new order.  In a very simple and direct way, honoring the enemy’s dead created a basis for the survivors to save face, go on with their lives and eventually forgive.  

The term feng (canonization) literally means to contain or enclose.  It implies the container of ritually correct behavior, and the taming or pacifying (an 安, as in anjin in taijiquan) of unruly demons and baleful spirits.  Is this why mothers and fathers across America are putting their kids in martial arts classes?

When people went into battle they thought of themselves being accompanied by demonic warriors, martial arts routines must have been part of the rituals for making this real.  Meulenbeld explores the direct connections between Daoist thunder rituals as theatrical displays of violence and narratives of the transformation of demons into gods. Or rather he argues that is what literature was!  

I suspect every traditional martial art was originally named after one of these rituals.  Meulenbeld’s explorations of Guanyu, Xuanwu and Nezha as demons transformed into gods through these forms of ritual literature are astounding.  I hesitate to spill the beans on all this in a review, but allow me to hint.  Nezha the child-god is one among, and the leader of, the eight thunder gods, all of whom ride spinning fire wheels.  What martial art aspires to child-like smooth movements, holds its hands in the mudra of thunder bolts (vajra) and travels in a circle as if moving on a spinning fire wheel?  Baguazhang perhaps?  Yes, you did here it here first.

Embodied martial arts as we know them today is certainly not the subject of Demonic Warfare, it is not discussed directly.  But this book does explain things like the origins of the five generals that are the likely basis for Xingyiquan, and the origin of the name of my broad sword routine, Five Tigers Sword (Wuhu Dao).  It does describe the context in which collections of local animal spirit powers were put into rituals, a better explanation for many martial arts than I have heard anywhere. 

Demonic Warfare also presents a fair amount of textual evidence that theatrical plays were performed by combatants in earlier eras.  The questions this raises are an iceberg waiting to sink three generations of defensive martial arts scholarship.  

Allow me to back pedal for a moment.  The biggest difference between Chinese martial arts and the rest of martial skills training world-wide is the taolu-- the long form routines which are characteristic of Chinese marital arts.  These long patterns of movement have always been hard to explain, what precisely is their importance?  What justifies their prevalence?  The arguments have always been weak. Are forms a way to compile knowledge of all the variations?  are they endurance training? or simply a minimum daily dose of discipline.  Obviously there are more direct ways to training these skills or achieving these results. Why use a form?  Countless 20th Century bravos have advocated tossing out the forms.

Now we have a better answer.  Martial arts forms are rituals of canonization and transformation that integrate demonic warfare with the practice of real violence.  This knowledge and practice was once ubiquitous!  It was fully integrated into the popular forms of entertainment, it was cherished by communities as a source of commitment and inspiration.   

Why should today’s martial artists care?  Well first off, we can stop telling false tales, we can drop all the historic defensiveness, the incomprehensible sense of outrage, and the fear that real might be fake!  But after that, with this knowledge, we are in a better position to think about the importance martial arts play in our lives, the real and available connections between martial arts enlightenment, vigor, spontaneity and expressivity.  


[Note: If you buy books through the links on this post Amazon will send us a percentage!]

Friday
Mar202015

Social Thought Radio

I just thought I'd give a shout out to my father's website.  He interviewed hundreds of the worlds top thinkers between 1988-1998 for the radio show Social Thought.  

Here is a great interview with Bill Porter about Hermit Civilization in China.

Tuesday
Mar172015

Heros and Titles

Here are some cool links about important stuff I didn't know.  

The Real Lone Ranger is way cooler than the fictional one!

Two Guns-Cohen!  Personal Bodyguard to Sun Yet-sen?  This story is epic and yet it is completely new info to me.

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I was thinking the other day about the bright future of Martial Arts Conferences that mix academic and practitioner interests so that we may have a long love affair.  Here are some Conference titles that I hacked out:

  • The Martial Body, Enlightenment and Morality.
  • The Search for Authenticity: Autonomy vs Community.
  • Self-Defense and Sovereignty- Changing Laws and Social Norms within and between Cultures.
  • Martial Arts as Expression- Symbolic and Ritual
  • Social vs. Asocial Violence and the Endocrine System (Martial Arts as Physiology)
  • Expressivity in the Martial Arts-Spontaneity, Creativity, Discipline, Innovation, and Inter-Arts Collaboration.
  • Martial Arts and Social Thought- How Institutions Think- Community, Hierarchy, and the Market.

Saturday
Mar142015

Taking In-Fighting Seriously

I think Rory Miller speaks for a lot of us when he expresses just how serious we should be about In-Fighting.  

Pajama party at my house.

 

Thursday
Mar122015

Teaching in UK, Amsterdam, and Portland

This wood goat year is exciting.  I'm finishing up two papers for publication, and working on another to be delivered at the Martial Arts Studies Conference in Cardiff, UK.  My book, about the possible origins of Chinese martial arts is at a professional editor now.  

I plan to get a Workshops web page up in the next couple of weeks with a complete schedule, but as info trickles in I'll post it:

Portland Shaolin Center, Oregon, May 16th-17th, probably available for private lessons, and jams on that Friday and Monday.

Cardiff, UK.  I'm delivering a paper called Shaking Thunder Hands: Where Martial and Performing Arts Meet in India and China, and I'll be in Cardiff from June 9th-12th, available for private lessons and meet-ups.

Amsterdam, teaching with Alex Boyd, Inner Workings of Chinese and Indian Performance Practice.  June 13th-14th.  (we have a Facebook events page too.)  I'll be there Monday and Tuesday for meet-ups.

Kings Cross, London, UK.  Again teaching with Alex Boyd.  The Energy of Performance Practice: Ways of Moving and Being from the East   June 22-26th.

So many people in Europe and the UK over the last 8 years I've been writing this blog have asked to meet me.  I didn't keep a list.  I will search around in my emails and comment lists before I go, but if you want to meet me, or bring me in for a workshop, please reach out again.

Also, do come to Boulder Colorado for a few days or weeks to study with me, hike or try the beer, things are pretty great here.  I've had a steady stream of visitors!  If this keeps growing I'll be running a year-round retreat center.  

I'm also floating the idea of hosting George Xu in Boulder in the Fall of this year, 2015.

 

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.