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Weakness With A Twist 

Internal Martial Arts, Theatricality, and Daoist Ritual Emptiness

Saturday
Jul042015

Cardiff Keynotes

Here are some links to the Cardiff Martial Arts Conference Keynotes.

http://martialartsstudies.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/martial-arts-studies-conference-keynote.html

Watching video lectures is hard for me personally, but they are all excellent!  If I had to pick a favorate it is the one by D. S. Farrer on the changes in anthropology.  Farrer has almost single handedly invented the field of Martial Arts Anthropology.  All of the lectures attempt to make bridges between different focuses of inquiry, showing broad possibilities for new ways of thinking about martial arts.  

Friday
Jul032015

Xilam a Martial Art from Mexico

One of the highlights of the Cardiff Martial Arts Studies Conference was the idea that martial arts are being used for identity transformation.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, this notion is being pioneered by women and is very exciting.  Since the early 20th Century people have been trying to change their identities.  The Boy Scouts come to mind, as do the less rigid journey-into-the-wilderness Outward Bound programs, created as New Age coming of age rituals. Psychotherapy, and psychology in general, have dabbled in this notion with limited success.  Psychedelic drugs are defended on this basis in some circles. But the notion that there are specific tools of culture conceived specifically for the purpose of transforming identity may be a new idea.  

Xilam is a new Mexican martial art created by Marisela Ugalde.  I learned about it in a video presentation by George Jennings (adademia.edu).  The name Xilam means removing the skin!

This art obviously draws on Asian martial arts, but it has been reconceived.  Watch this video on Vimeo.

Or this slightly longer one on Youtube:

Here is their website.  http://www.xilam.org/

 

Friday
Jul032015

Armor

This is Daniel Jaquet who I met at the Martial Arts Studies conference in Cardiff.  He smokes a pipe.  He got a $20,000 grant to have this armor made for him so he could do scholarly experiments.  In order to become at ease with the armor he wore it when he went out to Starbucks, out on walks, and to places like the library or to do his laundry.  This is the kind of alternative lifestyle that is available to people these days.  It is a great example of the freedom available to creative people in the world we live in today.  Daniel is one of the fascinating and exciting people I met at the conference who are investigating and practicing traditional Western martial arts.  They were a large contingent at the conference and have something fascinating to offer the world.  There is something very satisfying about being around people who dream big, the very nature of what we call art is changing.  We have a name for this already, it is called "the culture of makers" and it is changing the way we see, hear, and move.  It is changing what it means to learn and study.  

For the economists out there:  Speaking in historic monetary terms, at the time this sort of armor was worn by knights it cost the equivalent of a house, about half a million dollars.  

Here is Daniel Jaquet's academia.edu page.

Friday
Jun192015

Saturday Workshop Change

It looks like rain tomorrow, so the workshop has been moved:


The tai chi/martial arts event that was taking place from 2-4pm has been moved to a different (indoor) venue. If you'd like to attend this, (which is going to be pretty exciting and fun (see details here: http://www.meetup.com/Lishi-Chinese-Daoist-system-of-mind-body-spirit-training/events/223086052/)) let me know or RSVP to the event.

We are meeting for this at 1:45 PM at Bethnal Green Station and I will bring the tea for a tea break in the middle!

________________

And I'm excited about teaching Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday:

https://www.facebook.com/events/1547093382219214/

@ Eastbourne House Arts Centre, Bullards Place, Bethnal Green, London

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Had an awesome day, will report soon.

Monday
Jun152015

Cardiff-Amsterdam

A week ago I arrived in Cardiff, Wales, UK, for the first Martial Arts Studies Conference.  I went straight from there to teaching a two day workshop in Amsterdam with Alex Boyd.  Over the next week I hope to have some time for reflection.  Until then, here are some undigested bits of excitement.

Paul Bowman deserves enormous credit for organizing the conference, and doing a wonderful job of it.  I admit, I worried beforehand that we might have disagreements, but Paul gets my highest praise:  He is the kind of guy one can disagree with and feel the bonds of sworn-brotherhood grow deeper.  His character, thus set the tone for the entire conference.  This is the first academic conference I have attended where everyone present had the ability to kick me in the head.

This is a dream network.

I taught in Amsterdam at a converted shipyard with a vegetarian restaurant and artist studios, will post a video.  The students taking the workshop practice Lishi, a Chinese Daoist collection of martial movement and ideas--I'll post more on it later.  It is very worth researching.  It is connected to Daoist thunder rituals and was brought to the UK in the 1920's, so it is a window into the past as well.  Some excellent training, and orthodox Daoyin.  They were very open to what I have to share, it is a good fit.  (And Alex Boyd is a great teacher.)

Snibits:

Martial Arts Studies--will it become a discipline or not, how about an "indiscipline?"  I think the point here is that martial arts stretches the boundaries of many categories, and at the moment is in need of some working definitions.

Considerations of authenticity must be included in the definition of martial arts.

There is much support for the notion that dance and acting were closely related to western martial traditions. Dueling was expected to up hold standards of beauty.

Do we need a theory of history?  How do we know what questions to investigate?  Is it enough to follow what is intreging?  Probably not, we need to consider metaphors, and make lists of differing views, perspectives and conditions.  Yes, theory is dangerous, it can obscure or become an obsession.  Theory is powerful, we need to be able to put it down, it should not become part of our arm.  Sometimes great questions seem to come from nowhere.  

There are Japanese Kata, that tell stories.  I didn't know that before, a new subject to investigate.

We need more people from the "outer edge," (that's the sharpest bit of the sword).  So much of the work on Martial Arts Studies up until now has been outside of academia, those people need to be included and rewarded.  I suspect this field is going to explode now because there are people out there who have been sitting on research for more than 30 years.  Up until now, it has been career suicide for academics to seriously take up the study of Martial Arts.  The commercial world in film, religion, and sports is a huge potential source of funding and interest.  

Open minded enthusiasts can accomplish a lot.

Project:  Understanding what sovereignty is by looking at differences in notions of individual self-defense.  

Shiva, lord of the dance, is the destroyer of illusion.  In the South Asian world view, dance is closely related to destructive power (perhaps).  

"One should avoid making sweeping generalization."--a view held by people who don't seem to notice that they are in the habit of making sweeping generalizations.  Better, in my view, to do it, and know you are doing it.  It makes it easier to take it back later.  

Bruce Lee was defiantly killed by talismanic magic.

Plate steal armor was easy to move in, do flips and rolls, hop fences, climb, swing, and wrestle in.  It just requires wearing it a lot--some wise men tested this out.  I hope this means that we stop seeing people move like stiff robots when they wear armor in the movies.  And I hope we see more people wearing plate steal armor to the movies, driving google-cars and drinking coffee at Starbucks.

Zhang Sanfeng texted me several times during the conference to clarify his positions.

Anthropology has changed from representing (peoples, events, milieus) to making.  This was obvious when I was in college, and partially accounts for me dropping out.  

Martial arts is a very potent tool for identity transformation.  This position was promoted particularly by women at the conference, but I think there is a consensus

The desexualization of confined spaces.

One can not teach self-defense/counter-assault scenarios without acting, and the better the acting is--the better the training will be. 

 

 

 

Saturday
May232015

Tickling and Enlightenment

Meditate as if you are being tickled, but don’t respond to the tickling, pretend you are immune.  If you’ve ever been the victim of tickling over an extended period of time, years in my case, you probably noticed at some point that it is possible to use Vulcan-mind-lock to feel the tickling, but not respond to it.  I developed this skill because I had to deal with my older sister tickling me.  She tickled me mainly because she hadn’t ever heard about water-boarding.  The basic goal of tickling is to get one’s sibling’s organs to explode.  

Once I developed the Vulcan-mind-lock skill, my sister quickly discovered that tickling me was boring, and she moved on to more sophisticated forms of torture.  

This is why people have trouble meditating.  Meditating is a lot like being tickled. People often think the tickling experience is going to stop when they get better at meditating.  When it doesn’t, they think they have failed, and quit.  If anything the tickling experience is likely to become more profound.    

Widespread confusion about meditation also explains why many people find the golden-elixir (jindan/neidan) practice so mystifying.  Judging by the number and variety of descriptions of neidan and jindan--and we are taking about tens of thousands before the twentieth century--I think it is fair to say neidan is an enlightenment practice invented by people with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)

A great direction for scientific inquiry in the next few years would be to explore the relationship between ADHD and tickling.  The mindfulness-meditation in the schools movement is great because it is directly addressing nervous system re-orientation problems. Basically, we can think of it as a way to trick disruptive kids into tickling themselves.  Very cool.  

Given all this, and my own self-induced ADHD, let me try (again) to explain jindan (the golden-elixir).  Once the experience of emptiness has been established by giving-in to the experience of being tickled all over one’s body for an hour every day for a year, then it is possible to transition to maximum explosive felt spatial imagination, called shenling (神靈), in Chinese.  Maximum-explosive-felt-imagination, that’s a lot of words strung together!  Well, if that doesn’t work, I give up. You may be on your own.  

Here is the monster in the room--people get good at meditating, standing or sitting, whatever; just like people get good at sitting in a chair in school and shutting off the learning hormones, known colloquially as playfulness.  Don’t get good at meditating!  That was the whole freaking point of Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.  Instead give-in to being tickled on every spot of your body, inside and outside, that is what perfection feels like.  Surrender, not retreat; in the moment, not in-control.  

Of course, I’m not pushing perfection.  Maybe you don’t want that?  Maybe it isn’t right for you?  Perhaps you like to walk around art galleries with your nose upturned sipping wine and nibbling cheese.  That’s cool.

It is a bit like insults.  I encourage students to insult each other early and often.  Complements too.  I also jibe my students towards mastery of the self insult and the self complement.  See, this is what enlightenment looks like when it is expressed and performed.  It isn’t neutral, dead, or boring.  It isn’t all blissed-out.  Daoist enlightenment, and I suspect most other types, too, identifies the fruition as: without preference.  

The practice of meditation is to experience the way things are without preference.  The expression of that experience is to act without preference.  I mean, how do you know a Buddha when you meet him?  He has gangly arms so long they touch his knees, he has been sitting still so long his hair is full of snails, his ear lobes are long enough to bat flies off of his shoulders, when he walks through mud, lotus flowers bloom in his footsteps.  

Seriously, if you want to be enlightened, start seeing these qualities in the people around you and commenting on them.  Why not start by telling the stranger sitting next to you on the airplane that you fart rainbows, and then ask them if they like being tickled?  Or perhaps enlightenment is just too creepy for you?

For my martial arts readers who don't practice meditation, think about it this way, there are two major obstacles to learning martial arts: 1) Fear of being hit; including fearfulness before, during and after being hit, and 2) Fear of hitting; also before, during and after.  Meditation is similar, there are two obstacles: 1) Fear of stillness, and 2) Fear of movement.  

Saturday
May232015

Pre-Order: The Creation of Wing Chun

I'm delighted to announce that Ben Judkins' book The Creation of Wing Chun,
A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts
, published by SUNY Press, is about to be released.  It is available for pre-order now.  Check it out.

I haven't read it yet, but I am very excited about it.  From reading Judkins' blog and talking to him, one of his most exciting discoveries, which I fully expect to be in the book, is the real story behind the burning of the Southern Shaolin Temple.  I dare say, I expect this book will rise to the top of martial artist's reading lists for years to come.  

Monday
May112015

Modern Vestments

Check out this slide show of a new show at the Met in New York.

Here is an image of traditional Daoist Vestments:

Chicago Art Institute

Here is an image from the show:

Creation of Laurence Xu & Mr Galliano, photo by Hiroko Masuike--NYT

 

 

Friday
May082015

Two Types of Movement: Predator and Unstoppable

There are lots of different ways of moving.  What I'm provisionally calling "pure internal movement" is predicated on making clear distinctions between different types of movement.  Without those distinctions there is no way to define either "pure" or "internal."  

Here are two distinct types of movement which have the potential to profoundly improve the way people move.

1) Predator movement is always "on" your opponent.  I mean really on them, before, during, and after contact.  Make them double-weighted, make them carry you.  Make your mind like a dark cloud surrounding your opponent's body, shooting lightning bolts into his openings.  As a predator, your opponent should smell like food, or like that first cup of coffee in the morning.  And also imagine you are leaving your scent all over your opponent. Needless to say, predator movement uses all the senses.

Predator movement can not be pre-set, it must be improvised.  It must be immediately and continuously responsive.  Predator movement can be used to control, but it is leading and initiating the action, not resisting it.  In other words, using predator movement, I can move someone around in space, where ever I want them to go, but the patterns I make in space cannot be pre-set in anyway.  

2) Unstoppable movement is "on" me.  It uses pre-set movement patterns with resistance. When performing unstoppable movement, I do not modify the external appearance of my form or routine.  Resistance must be offered by a partner, that resistance cannot be pre-set, in must be spontaneous. 

When performing unstoppable movement, I can be doing a form, but if my partner disconnects I will not follow him.  My partner is responsible for providing spontaneous resistance against the set patterns of my movement.  In this situation my partner could just disconnect and then poke me in the eye.  It isn't a fighting mode.  It is a way to purify the quality of one's movement.  It is a testing ground.  

With unstoppable movement, my movement pattern is visibly predictable, my partner's is not.  I don't control my partner's body in space.  I am spontaneously adapting to whatever resistance she offers.  That is why it is "pure" internal; on the outside I am just doing a form, but on the inside I am creative and dynamic.  

With unstoppable movement I can not move my partner wherever I want.  I can only follow my own pre-set pattern.  

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Both of these types of movement are key.  Unfortunately, many martial artists attempt to do both types of movement at the same time.  This causes both to fail.

There are actually three possibilities, 1) follow and evade, 2) follow and evade while offering resistance, 3) lead by improvising.*  

Fixed patterns of movement don't produce set responses. There is no positive value in training them that way. 

There are ways of moving, two-person forms, for instance, in which both people are doing, linked, pre-set movement.  I like this type of practice, but it is important to understand why it fails. Don't try to do both predator and unstoppable movement at the same time--that will produce negative results; instead, change between the different types of movement, or practice in one of the two "pure" modes. 

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Spontaneously communicating ideas, like talking to a friend in a cafe, is like predator movement, it is the perfection of mind/shen.  When we communicate spontaneously we can adjust, repeat, reframe etc...as needed.

Writing a book, is like unstoppable movement, it is the the perfection of form/jing.  The reader offers criticism, resistance, analysis, questions, and responses.  If the book is well written, all this thoughtful engagement makes the book more effective...but the words are pre-set.

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*Footnote from above, for my friends in the theater [In the Keith Johnstone's improvisational theater 1) is called "accept all offers", 2) is called "accept and block," 3) is called "making blind offers."]

Friday
May082015

New Workshops

I've got a new Workshop Calendar for 2015.  I'll update as new things come in, and I would like to set-up workshops for visiting teachers in Boulder.  Check it out!

Besides my Calendar, the new Workshop Page has images that lead to pages describing the new classes I'm offering: Pure-IMA •  GamesCircus-DaoyinMartial-Dance •  Classic

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By the way, Yelp was at the top of the SNAFU list for the full eight years of its existence.  But low and behold! They seem to have it together now.  If you've studied with me and want to write a review--please do, that would be awesome.  And note, they still use some strange divination tool to decide whose reviews people can see easily, but there is hope.  Check out my page in Boulder.

You can write reviews for Google Maps too, search under:

North Star Martial Arts
2525 Arapahoe Ave, Boulder, CO

I do not teach at this address; I teach in North Boulder Park, so thumbs down for Google.  They have the hours wrong too.  I wish it was easier to fix.  

Anyway, if you are coming to class via a Google Car, make sure to enter the correct address, North Boulder Park, or you will end up at my mailbox. Google called me the other day to get the facts right, but they didn't make the updates.  Weird.  They have been trying to fix the Google+/Youtube interface for over six months, no progress and no direct link to my videos.  

Maybe if these tech schools required a semester of "Magic" we would be in better shape!  Enjoy.

 

Monday
May042015

Mind Body Split...Revisited


The problem is bigger than the fact that English language speakers cannot just stop splitting mind and body because these concepts are split in our language and that is how we think.  Awkwardly saying, "Mind-body," all the time does not seem to effect any real change in the way people perceive.

Martial artists sometimes exacerbate the problem by researching so called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for answers.  These investigations often end in disappointment because TCM is a modern invention which attempted to incorporate Western notions of anatomy and physiology into a traditional therapy.  It is problematic in the original Chinese.  

Martial artists often want answers to questions like, what are the Meridians of Acupuncture and how were they discovered?  Realizing that TCM doesn't answer those questions they may seek out older Chinese medical texts, or perhaps texts on daoyin.  However, these are often framed by Chinese thinkers in the 20th Century who were themselves trying to adopt the mind-body split.  And once we are into ancient translations, sadly, sometimes the best we can hope for is concluding that we don't know what the original text meant.  Seriously.  

A lot of Chinese medicine is passed down in lineages from teacher to student.  In these relationships, texts are used to transmit idiosyncratic explanations, ideas which simply can not be gleaned from the ancient texts themselves.  (For more on this particular subject see Elisabeth Hsu's excellent comparison of different transmission methods, The Transmission of Chinese Medicine (Cambridge Studies in Medical Anthropology) .)

No! The problem is even bigger than that!  Traditional Chinese cosmology does in fact split what we are into different aspects or components!  But the split between body and mind is a profoundly different split than the one traditional Chinese cosmology uses!

The concept of jing, qi, and shen is a conceptual split, an artificial categorization embedded in language.  To understand this type of thinking everything must be split into these three categories. Discussions of qi alone, will not escape the West's mind-body split.  The same is true for terms that martial artists love like yi (intention which is liquid-like, visualized, and felt), or jin (force generated from within the body which is not based directly on momentum or strength).  Those definitions I just wrote in parentheses are tangible, but they limit comprehension, they impede student development in the long run.

There is no way around this problem other than perhaps working in pure-animal mode, outside of language altogether!  And someone always seems to get bitten when we try that.

I have been suggesting the expression, active-spatial mind, as a translation of shen; and, the physical body without animation, as a translation of jing.  However, if we want to use these and get around the mind-body split we have to understand that neither jing nor shen exist without qi as an intermediary between the two.  Qi is how jing and shen communicate with each other.  

Thursday
Apr302015

Defining Emptiness

The main terms used to refer to emptiness in Chinese are xu 虛, kong 空 and wu 無.  I've seen a wide range of different terms used in English to translate each of these, to the point where there is no meaningful distinction between the three.  In putting them together as a compound word, xukong-lingtong, we are attempting to point to a single experience which can be hinted at by it's components.

Lingtong (靈通) means lively and animated all the way through.  If I wanted to sound pedantic I might call it whole-body attentive-listening.  It also means that there is no articulation of the joints, which is an advanced skill, most training begins with developing clear articulation of the joints first. 

In earlier blog posts I have defined xu as empty like a puppet, and kong as empty like a container.  But it is how they fit together that matters. Xu is a "dead-weight" body, but it is also radiant and luminous. Kong, is a container in the simplest sense: It has a boarder.  There is a way to train which will make the container feel hard, but the xukong container seems porous to air and light--like a dragonflies wings.  

The terms hard and soft are used a lot in martial arts, but I haven't found them very useful for describing what I do.  With regards to the origins of Golden-Bell and Iron-Shirt body conditioning practices, which come form India (or are considered gifts form the gods); these practices make a distinction between two types of emptiness, impenetrable and insubstantial.   Those terms are more meaningful than hard or soft.

Here is a list of xukong concepts:

  • luminous
  • radiant
  • limitless
  • formless
  • empty
  • absorption
  • melting
  • dissolving
  • toukai (refracted light)
  • permeable
  • hollow
  • spherical intent
  • mind outside the body
  • dead weight
  • numb
  • fake
  • perfect visualization
  • zero density

As a last word, let me remind readers that conceptually Chinese cosmology do did not use the dichotomy of Form and Function.  The dichotomy was Form and Emptiness!  As the Heart Sutra puts it (awkwardly in English);

Form is not other than emptiness;

Emptiness is not other than form.

Friday
Apr242015

Zero Density--No Power inside the Body

One of the definitions of pure-internal power is that there is no compression or loading in the body what-so-ever. This experience or state, once achieved in motion, can be describe as zero density. Because there is no compression anywhere, every place in the body feels the same. Although one might feel a distinction between inside and outside the body, density does not define that distinction. The distinction is purely spatial. This is well established in works on Daoist inner alchemy over the last 1000 years. But as my students tend to point out, it doesn't matter whether you are a tenured scholar of Daoism or a Kung Fu child prodigy, if you don't have this specific experience these words are going to be difficult to comprehend. Somatic language requires somatic experiencing.

Where does this weird concept of zero density come from? Humans are one of the few animals that use our arms for carrying things. And we are the only animals that do a lot of carrying. We are also the only animals that make constant use of tools. This fate (命 ming) is surely related to walking on two feet. The evolution of the spatial-mind (神 shen) is linked in humans to the unconscious and automatic experience of being upright on two feet, and to our ready capacity to carry stuff. Carrying things is practical, but it is also tied developmentally and evolutionarily to status displays. All accumulation of status-objects (money, Rolexes, cell-phones, cars, patchouli oil) begins with carrying stuff. Carrying is also the most convincing way to make a threatening status display-- simply pick up a stick or a rock.

The things we carrying are tied to our sense of who we are, and what we are (性 xing). That is why pure-internal power is associated with enlightenment. This type of counter-intuitive empowerment begins with giving up ambition.

Identity markers, the qualities we "possess," create density in our bodies. Granted, it is a strange idea that the characteristics of our personality involve carrying stuff! Wilhelm Reich called this character armor. The Daoist take on it is that we carry around invisible symbolic-talisman. These talisman are a trade we make in the unseen (unconscious) world; when we seek status, we are effectively trading away some freedom of action. It is a subtle form of dis-empowerment. This is why theatrical performance is so closely linked with enlightenment. Acting is the study of how identity is socially constructed, great acting is the capacity to discard all evidence of a permanent self, and temporarily take on a new one.

How does zero density play out in martial arts?

Throws to the ground based purely on momentum can be done without any lifting or carrying. Throws based on lifting someone off the ground usually require carrying unless the opponent is tricked into jumping. Generally speaking any type of throw causes our body to become dense, but picking an opponent up off the ground creates more density. The ultimate status display is picking an opponent up over our head and roaring!

Yet I doubt that a tiger with a monkey in his mouth is engaged in a status display. One method for achieving zero density is as follows:

  1. Practice emptying the limbs, like water flowing inwards toward the torso, without hardening any part of the body.
  2. Release the feeling of you limbs out in all directions such that you lose proprioception.
  3. Add an object (a rock or a stick), into your hand and empty it as if it were part of your body.
  4. Do a set movement pattern while a partner is resisting your movement, empty their entire body as if it is part of your body.
  5. Lift a partner off the ground as if he or she is part of your body.

Perhaps we shouldn't even call this gongfu, as that term implies hard work. There is nothing wrong with effort. But understanding that artificial effort comes from carrying things on two feet is key to understanding Daoism. 

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.  


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