Edward Hines and Scott Park Phillips Discussing Tai Chi, Baguazhang and The Golden Elixir

Scott P Phillips is one of the few authors discussing the link between Chinese martial arts and Chinese Opera (also called Chinese Theatre).

I find his ideas intellectually fascinating. But, for many martial arts people he goes too far in the sense of seeing this one idea in almost everything to do with Chinese martial arts. You could say that in terms of taking the ball and running with it, he does tend to kick it out of the park (sorry) completely 🙂

Is that a fair summation of Scott’s work? Probably not. Part of the problem I think is that the world where theatre was the big entertainment of the day in China, and was simultaneously connected to religion and martial arts, has long since disappeared. From today’s standpoint it’s hard to imagine it even existed. Also, words like “theatre” and “opera” in the West have distinctly different cultural baggage attached to them already, so it’s almost impossible for us to see them as they actually were, free of our cultural biases.

So, that’s why I was pleased to see this interview with him and Ed Hines where Ed gets to ask Scott some basic questions about his theories. Ed is a Baguazhang practitioner based in Paris and he asks some of the more “down to earth” questions that need to be addressed by Scott before he can take us on his magical mystery tour. Have a listen:

Why so many grappling styles stop when things go to the ground

If you throw your opponent to the ground in almost all of the old, traditional folk wrestling styles then you win. That’s it. Game over. To modern day martial artists that seems very odd, as we’re now all used to seeing MMA and BJJ fights on the ground, sometimes lasting minutes. But in olden times, if your shoulders touched the ground or you were pinned (or some version thereof), it was all over.

Why is that?*

Photo by Alan Stoddard on Pexels.com

You’ll find the answer in the latest episode of the Sonny Brown Breakdown in which he interviews Ruadhán MacFadden of the Hero with a Thousand Holds podcast.

“I talk to Ruadhán MacFadden. He runs a project titled The Hero with a Thousand Holds which looks at the culture and practice of folk wrestling styles around the world. In particular the people and places that the styles have emerged from and not just the techniques which they used. We discuss some of the mythology and culture behind these styles and what the future holds for them. And we get into some of the particulars of Icelandic Glima and Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling and Scuffling.”

* Ok,I’ll tell you the answer, (or one of the possible answers anyway). Wrestling between males (and sometimes females) was often used as a form of socialisation, and entertainment in tightly knight communities, or as a way of settling disputes without recourse to serious violence. Killing valuable members harmed the community’s chances of long term survival. In any case, there was nothing to be gained for the community from people getting seriously hurt either, so there had to be a simple way of declaring a winner without things escalating to the point that somebody was bludgeoned to death with a rock. Hence, once you landed on the ground, it was over.

Movie Kung Fu vs real Kung Fu

I was alerted to a great post by Reddit User drkaczuz about the role of stunt men and women compared to the same scenes done by “real” martial artists who are not trained in movie-fu.

I’ll quote it here (I hope he doesn’t mind because it’s really interesting, and he makes some great points):

“Yeah, people very often misunderstand the role of stunt doubles, especially in fight scenes. It’s often not as much about skill, or risk as about production logistics. Even if you have a physically capable actor, with MA experience, you still want to use the stunt doubles, simply to squeeze the most out of pre-production time. You can’t lock the star of the show in a room with the stunt crew for a few weeks to rehearse the scene to perfection, they need to well, act. Learn their lines, prepare for their non-action scens, do marketing stuff, photoshoots, etc. What you CAN do is have the stunt double rehearse the entire choreography for months untill it’s buttery smooth and them tag them in on a moment’s notice.

Another thing with actors that have MA background is how different movie fighting is from real fighting – a lot of time real fighting skills and reflexes actually make on-screen fighting look worse.

I think Donnie Yen vs Mike Tyson is a good example showcasing a lot of issues when working with real athletes – we all know Mike is insanely fast, but in this clip he appears slow and sluggish, and you can’t really see the power behind the blows – further below I’ll try to explain why.

 BJ Penn and Rampage in this clusterfuck of a movie – in this case choreography, montage, lighting are absolute garbage, but you can still see that they seem weirdly uncoordinated and slow.

 Anderson Silva from the same flick, notice the kicks especially, also look at all Randy Couture scenes from Expendables – they’re a dark, shakycam mess, but a lot of shakycam and bad lighting is damage control to hide hits that didn’t sell well.

I am not saying that having actual martial artists on set is bad – but you have to manage them really well, have an action director that will guide them and communicate their vision clearly. In a lot of cases a director will oh so wrongly assume that if they have the star martial artist on set they can just tell them to do their thing and it’ll come together somehow. Also it’s not that being good at actual fighting is somehow a hinderance – all good stuntpeople will be at least competent in one or more actual combat sport or martial art. It’s just they have a LOT of additional knowledge on top, as well as the ability to turn some instincts on and off.

There’s more to this post, including links to good examples of well done fight choreography.

A better way to do martial arts

I’m thinking again about my theme for the last couple of posts, the subject of myth busting and how it can lead to disillusionment in martial arts.

Essentially the question I grapple with is: How do we make martial arts better without all the bullshit?

One guy who is doing a lot to change things in martial arts – specifically in his area, which is BJJ, but I don’t think it takes much to apply it to a wider context – is Priit Mihkelson. In this lecture he gives one possible version of what this “how to make martial arts better without the bullshit” might look like.

Perhaps the specific things he’s talking about don’t relate to your particular martial art, but it’s the thinking behind it I like. It feels progressive, scientific, hopeful and perhaps a glimpse of a better future for martial arts: training methods based on progressive resistance, feedback and success, rather than failure.

Ueshiba was not the Messiah. He was a very naughty boy.

Not Jesus.

With our Heretics podcast existing as a kind of permanent record online people can discover it at any time. Recently the Aikido Heresies episode we did has kicked off a couple of conversations. 

I think they relate directly to the Myth Busting post I did yesterday. That was all about Chinese martial arts, but the same thing applies to Aikido, perhaps on an even bigger scale.

One post from a listener goes as follows:

“So recently I came across some apparently very grim details of Morihei Ueshiba’s life history. Apparently he was in good terms with far-right activists and known war criminals (including the head of Unit 731; if you don’t know what it is, do yourself a favour and DON’T google it), and was a staunch nationalist supporter of the Emperor and the Imperial regime. 

   I have for long held to the opinion that Ueshiba was perhaps the most complex and misunderstood figures of 20th century martial arts, but now I’ve been really left to grapple with how his legacy and ideology should be correctly dealt with during our era.

   Is this more “ugly” side of Ueshiba well understood and interacted with among many Aikidoka, and what has been your solution to it?”

I see a lot of parallels between the myth-busting of martial arts and the things that are happening in modern times now in the US and UK as we unpick the uncomfortable truths of our relationships to slavery.

For example, almost all the big Downton Abby-style manor houses in the UK that have become the property of the National Trust (usually after the 2nd World War) and we all enjoy spending our Sundays visiting and enjoying the splendid gardens and architecture, were all built by fortunes made off the backs of the slave trade. And none of this is taught in our schools.

Statues like the one of the famous slave trader Edward Coulston in Bristol have been pulled down by angry crowds in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, which have spread to the UK. 

The question is how do we deal with this. Should we stop people bowing to photos of Ueshiba in Aikido dojos, for example?

I don’t know what the answer is. Walking the fine line between personal freedom and making right the sins of the past is a difficult job.

Personally, with Aikido I would look to the Aikido community to address this issue and come to terms with it.

As our friend Tammo notes:

“As a long standing practitioner of Aikido who also runs his own dojo, it was a shocked to hear these things and in the course of a year it completely changed my perspective of Aikido. Meanwhile I have come to terms with that and think I can see and value Aikido for what it is and what it isn’t.

The success of Aikido from roughly the 60s to the early 2000s (I would guess) seems to have been due to the huge efforts of myth-making around Ueshiba, modelling him into a saint-like figure… with a god-like martial ability and some strange esoteric practices which seem all very impressive. It seemed to work. Now I find it more interesting to get my head around general developments in eastern martial arts as a way to understand how different styles and branches are able to develop and become successful and why others don’t.”

In the Aikido episode of our podcast we established Ueshiba’s colonial activities in Manchuria, close ties to the leadership of, for instance 731, and (not war) but colonial crimes against the Ainu. As a member of the Kwantung army he is also associated with all of their atrocities on the continent. On that basis, I think it’s fair to say that Ueshiba was not a nice person.

Myth busting in Chinese martial arts

Look at those lovely brain boxes.

I’ve been re-watching the excellent conversation between Dr Paul Bowman and Dr Sixt Wetzler on Martial Arts, Religion and Spirituality and it’s sparked a few thoughts in my mind. At 34.39 in the podcast they get on to the subject of myth busting.

Bowman notes that instead of helping people, the myth busting of martial arts which is going on all the time in academic circles is probably destroying the careers of some martial arts teachers. So it’s “doing a service to the world which is actually also a kind of violence”. It’s an interesting point. He notes that people often fall in love with the martial arts for silly orientalist reasons – they fall for the myth of studying an ancient and mystical martial art, then read a well-researched book about it, by somebody like Ben Judkins or Peter Lorge, which shatters their beliefs and makes then doubt the validity of the art they are doing. 

My own Heretics podcast does its fair share of myth busting too – our Aikido episode, Kempo & Jiujitsu history series and Tai Chi history series spring to mind as good examples. I’ve had first had experience of those episodes visibly upsetting teachers I know. Whether they know it or not, these teachers are heavily emotionally invested in the myths of their own arts superiority – they believe all the stories of old practitioners and the amazing feats they can do, and know exactly why their martial art is superior to others. If you start to chip away at those beliefs then the whole facade is at risk of crumbling, and they don’t like it! Unfortunately reality is usually disappointing when compared to the myths. 

When the Chinese martial arts first started making an impact on the West in the 1970s they were full of obvious untruths. Tall tales of Buddhist and Taoist origins abounded. For example, that Tai Chi was apparently created by a Taoist immortal who had a dream about a crane fighting a snake, and Wing Chun was named after the girl who was taught it by a female Buddhist monk, when it turns out that there’s no evidence that she even existed. Over time these myths then get added to by other myths – like the one that Yang LuChan was “invincible”, for example. Even in the modern age the myth of Ip Man has been enhanced to bursting point by a series of pseudo-historical films in which he combats the Japanese, western wrestlers, boxers and even Mike Tyson at one point! 

Ip Man 4

These more marketing-orientated myths about the prowess of practitioners – how deadly they were, how unbeatable their martial arts was, how the power of Qi was greater than physical strength all fed directly into all that nonsense about no touch knockouts and “empty force” that has marred the image of Chinese martial arts in the modern age.

And politics also gets involved. When obvious myths about the origins of martial arts are dispelled they often get replaced by more politically motivated stories about the arts origins that are equally as unprovable and unreliable yet fit a natioanlist agenda. It seems like the Chinese martial arts are forever being used to support some sort of Chinese government propaganda.

In short, the Chinese martial arts world was in need of, and remains in need of, a lot of myth busting, because much of what we are being told and sold is basically not true. But Bowman’s fears, that we are in danger of spoiling the fun for everybody with this relentless search for the truth, holds true, I think. I was certainly attracted to Chinese martial arts by a steady diet of orientalist propaganda from the likes of David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV series and Marvel comics with heroes like Iron Fist. This is often what draws us to the martial arts in the first place and there has to be some way of searching for truth in the martial arts, but keeping the magic that drew us there in the first place. 

Don’t stick out your bottom!

I had an interesting conversation with a reader recently about Tai Chi and butts, which I thought I’d share as it’s a good topic. A lot of Tai Chi people, me included, tend to stick out their bottom slightly during form and push hands. Maybe more so in push hands… either way, it’s a fault that inhibits relaxation.

Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

I think in push hands it happens because people try to “brace” against the incoming force to stop themselves being pushed backwards, but by going for a short term solution they are inhibiting their progress in the long term.

Q: Do you have any experience of Chen style TCC? I’ve been to a few lessons. Seems like, in order to soften the kua sufficiently, you need to stick your backside out more than in Yang….?! Having spent a whole lifetime trying not to do this, it feels weird…..!

A: I’ve never really done Chen style, but I’ve looked into their silk reeling exercises quite a bit – just the simple one hand “wave” – I really like that and do it quite often.

I’ve seen some Chen stylists that stick their butt out a lot, but to be fair I’ve also seen a lot of Yang styists do the same. I think as part of an opening and closing movement it’s ok (like in Yoga, for example), but leaving it “stuck out” all the time can’t be right. Tai Chi requires you to move from the waist (or the dantien, if you like) and that encompasses both the front (belly), sides and back of the body around the waist line – the lower back is part of that. If you put your hands on your lower back then stick your butt out you can feel your muscles contract and tighten – having a tight lower back as your default means you can’t effectively “move from the dantien” so everything else you do, no matter how clever or artful looking, has to be wrong because the foundation is wrong.

When doing silk reeling exercises I try to keep my lower back relaxed and “hanging down” – that’s the right feel – so the movement can originate there. The form should be no different. I feel like the people who stick out their butt have simply missed an obvious problem with their Tai Chi.

Choy Li Fut’s 10 rules of conduct vs Ip Man’s 9 vs Cobra Kai’s 3

My last post about the various sayings (sometimes called “rules”) attributed to BJJ patriarch Carlos Gracie, and how they were actually copied from elsewhere lead me on to thinking about the 9 rules that Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man created, perhaps in response to the well known 10 rules of Choy Li Fut, from the previous generation.

Sets of simple rules to follow help bind a style together and give the participants a sense of a shared identity. Even Cobra Kai has a short set of rules to be followed – “strike first, strike hard, no mercy”, and of course, “Cobra Kai never dies!” and “Defeat does not exist in this dojo!”. It seems that if you want to make your martial art a success then a short list of simple and easily followed rules is standard practice.

Oil Painting of Chan Hung.

Choy Li Fut was one of the first commercial martial arts in China – in fact, when Chan Hung (1806-1875) opened his first Kwoon in 1836, it was probably the first ever place where you could actually go and buy kung fu lessons. The concept of “martial arts” as we know them today – i.e. as a commercial enterprise – was unheard of at the time, and Chan Hung was an innovator in this respect.

Chan Hung’s Choy Li Fut was a combination of older family systems like Li Gar, Choy Gar and Hung Kuen, with the word “Fut” meaning Buddah, added out of respect for his religious beliefs. Choy Li Fut is known for its big circular techniques, twisting body and agile footwork.

Chan Hung himself lived an eventful life. He was hired as a coach for local militia (the butterfly knives found in Wing Chun and Choy Li Fut are a direct ancestor of the “two short swords” used in local militia training in the 1840s), and allegedly served in the Ching army, fighting the British at the outbreak of the Opium War.

By the end of the century Choy Li Fut had become the most popular martial art in Guangdong with schools in every major county and town in the province, dominating the other styles like Wing Chun and Hung Gar. But the progress of Choy Li Fut was far from plain sailing though. For example, all martial arts schools in the area were banned for a period of 10 years after the Red Turban rebellion around 1855. Choy Li Fut declined substantially on the mainland after the Communists took over in 1949. In Hong Kong, where it could still survive it was on an equal footing with other martial arts, and no longer in a dominant position.

Chan Ngau Sing (1864-1926)

One of the successors to Chan Hung was Chan Ngau Sing (1864-1926), who took over the Hung Sing organisation in the 1890s when it was still a very large organisation, but in decline. Chan would have been a rough contemporary of Chan Wah Sun, teacher of the famous Ip Man, and they would possibly have mixed in the same circles.

Chan Ngau Sing managed to revive the fortunes of the Hung Sing association, I think, because he was very good at marketing and managed to make Choy Lee Fut very appealing to the working class clientele of Guangdong. It was Chan who made martial arts more respectable for the average working class man by improving its image with innovations such as a 10 point code of ethics for his members:

Ten Points

  1. Seek the approval of your master in all things relative to the school.
  2. Practice hard daily.
  3. Fight to win (but do not fight by choice).
  4. Be moderate in sexual behavior.
  5. Eat healthily.
  6. Develop strength through endurance (to build a foundation and the ability to jump).
  7. Never back down from an enemy.
  8. Practice breathing exercises.
  9. Make the sounds (“Yik” for punches, “Wah” for tiger claws, “Tik” for kicks).
  10. Through practice you cannot be bullied.

They’re quite bullish. Ben Judkins did an interesting comparison between these 10 rules of conduct from Choy Li Fut and the much more moderate 9 rules that Ip Man created for Wing Chun, much later on, which read like an evolution of Choy Li Fut’s 10 points.

Ip Man and students, 1950.

Wing Chun’s 9 points:

  1. Discipline yourself to the Rules: Keep Sacred the Martial Morality.
  2. Understand Propriety and Righteousness: Love your Country and Respect Your Parents.
  3. Love Your Classmates: Enjoy Working Together as a Group
  4. Control Your Desire: Stay Healthy
  5. Work Hard and Keep Practicing: Never Let the Skill Leave Your Body
  6. Learn How to Keep the Energy: Quit Inciting a Fighting Attitude.
  7. Always Deal with World Matters with a Kind Attitude that is Calm and Gentle.
  8. Help the Elderly and the Children: Use the Martial Mind to Achieve “Yan”
  9. Follow the Former Eight Rules: Hold to the Ancestors’ Rules Sincerely.

While some of the rules seem identical to the Choy Li Fut 10, it’s interesting to note how bold statements like “Never back down” have evolved to become “Quit Inciting a Fighting Attitude”.

By the time of the (admitedly fictional) Cobra Kai dojo of the 1980s even these 9 rules were too long and complicatd. The marketing process had been refined down to just 3 simple rules.

Martial arts, if they are to survive, must change with the times. I feel that Chan Ngau Sing, Yip Man, Carlos Gracie and Sensei Johnny Lawrence of Cobra Kai, knew this very well.

The 3 main rules of Cobra Kai.

For more information about the history of Chinese martial arts in the Pearl River Delta in the 19th century, see Ben Judkins book The Creation of Wing Chun.