I’ve been meaning to review Scott Phillips’ book on the origins of Chinese Martial Arts for some time now, but there always seemed to be something else for me to read, or to do… Ok, I admit it, I’m just a terribly slow reader. However, the recent uproar over the fight between Tai Chi “Master” Wei Lei and MMA coach Xu Xiaodong that has dominated the Chinese Martial Arts scene has made me pick up Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theatre and Religion, and give it the attention it deserves.
A bit of background to the current situation: Xu (who had to go into hiding after the fight once the government got involved) had started to make a name for himself as the debunker of Kung Fu masters who he claimed lacked the skills required for actually fighting while charging students large sums of money to learn these (nonexistent) skills. He wasn’t particularly respectful in his debunking either – in fact, his profanity filled rants were uncomfortable to watch and hard to follow, but his point was simple.
Wei, the subject of a documentary on Chinese television about his Tai Chi powers, took umbrage to the implied insult and challenged Xu in an effort to defend the honour of traditional martial arts. It sounds like the plot of every kung fu movie, but it actually happened. Anybody who has seen the fight (which lasts about 10 seconds ending with Wei’s face being ruthlessly pummeled on the ground by Xu) will have realised that Wei was utterly delusional about his fighting abilities. Even after his beating, in his post fight interview, Wei still seemed to be delusional about his fighting ability, proclaiming that he was only hit after he “tripped’ and fell”. In reality he was knocked to the ground by a punch which revealed him to be a bumbling amateur in the realms of pugilism.
You can easily make the argument that Wei was never a proper Tai Chi Master anyway, so his poor performance is irrelevant, but a lot of people obviously did think he was a legit martial artists. What’s interesting to me is how we got here. How did we end up with a generation of Kung Fu (especially Tai Chi) masters who think they can fight, but can’t? If you went to a boxing coach in Glasgow to learn how to box, he’d teach you how to box, and regardless of how good or bad you were, you’ll at least end up with some fighting skills. But if you go to a Tai Chi master in Taiwan, asking to learn to fight, he’ll teach you a lot of fancy arm-waving stuff, mystical qigong and forms, but after several years you might actually be no different from an untrained person in your fighting ability. In fact, you’ll probably be worse.
Nothing ushers in a period of self reflection like a catastrophic failure, so it’s at this point that we should turn to Possible Origins to see how we got here.
Scott’s book at least proposes some answers to this curious situation that Chinese Martial Arts finds itself in – which is to embrace it. His basic premise is that once upon a time in China, martial arts, theatre and religion were all one thing. Over time, and due to various political and cultural shifts they became separated out, but never truly lost their connection to each other, even if the arts lived on as a pale reflection. The book examines how that process happened, why it happened and what we can do about it. In a way it’s a call to arms for the reader to embrace parts of their practice that have hitherto remained untapped and to restore these connections.
I know plenty of people amongst the martial arts that I know who just laugh at Scott’s theories. (“Oh, no, not that guy…”)*. They tend to be practical people who are more interested in how something works than why it is the way it is in the first place. That’s fine, and there’s no reason to go ‘backwards’ in martial arts. I think it’s equally valid to not worry about any of this, and just focus on what you can do with what we’ve had handed down to us. But the book does open a door to a fascinating world of demons, spirits and ancestors that we’ve left behind. You’d also be surprised by how much evidence there is for his interpretations. He can’t be conclusive about anything (hence the title) but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t present a wealth of information to support his case.
Martial arts originated so long ago that almost everything about that time is lost to us, and survives only in fragments. I think the strongest ‘evidence’ Scott has for his theories is the Boxer Rebellion of 1899, which happened relatively recently, and was a kind of a last gasp of the old world where martial arts, religion, theatre and ritual were all tied up together. There are documented cases in the Boxer Rebellion of martial arts practitioners combining martial arts techniques with spirit possession and mediumship to help overthrow foreign powers. Unfortunately it turns out that invoking the spirits of demons to give you fighting ability doesn’t, in fact, stop bullets and the Boxers were wiped out, and many of the ‘old ways’ and knowledge with them. Further cultural, political, and repressive regimes buried them deeper and deeper until today we’ve lost all concept of why we do what we do in Chinese Martial Arts.
Besides all this, Possible Origins is a damn good read, and an entertaining, book in its own right. It’s not an academic tomb, it’s an easy to devour. I’m halfway through and loving it. Even if you don’t agree with Scott’s theories, you’ll learn a lot about things you never even knew existed from Possible Origins.
* In case you were wondering, Scott’s martial arts lineage is actually legit, and explained in the book.