The great mystery of Kung Fu forms

One of the frequent criticisms I hear of the idea that there is a connection between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre and religion is that no respectable Chinese martial arts teacher has ever implied their work comes from dance or spiritual ritual, so the idea is laughable. I have experienced a pretty negative reaction from some of my Chinese martial arts friends to these ideas. The thought that the rough and tough martial art they genuinely suffered to learn and dedicated their lives to had religious or (worse) theatrical origins is anathema to their world view, akin to an insult.

But the question really is, how can they not be theatrical? Just look at Chinese martial arts – of course they’re theatrical!

Here are some questions to ask yourself: Why do we do long complex, showy forms at all? Why is Chinese martial arts still so strongly associated with Lion Dance? Why do its modern day performers so often put on demonstrations for the local community, on stages? Why do performances sometimes have chaotic drumming soundtracks?

I’m sure any competent Chinese martial arts practitioner can produce answers to all these questions based entirely in the physical realm of pugilism – it’s all physical training at the end of the day –  but when you put all these questions together an obvious picture begins to form.

Nobody looks at Capoeira and says, “this has nothing to do with dance”. So, why do most Chinese martial arts practitioners look at their long theatrical forms and say, “this has nothing to do with theatre or religious practice”?

There’s an inherent mystery to Tao Lu, or “forms” found in Chinese martial arts. This great video by The Scholar-General hopes to provide some answers:

5 thoughts on “The great mystery of Kung Fu forms

  1. This idea was actually appealing to me and that is why I followed up. The ScholarGeneral did hid due diligence and provided the references to the articles from which he made these claims. I tracked down the articles and read them.

    The Mroz (2017) article actually claims that the roots of taolu are “cultural” and quotes Morris (2003) who lists the following factors as cultural with which Mroz agrees.

    “Attempting to clearly differentiate within the esoteric
    boxing forms of Fujian, let alone those of all of China, what
    is combative from that which has its
    origins in shaman, Taoist, Hindu/Buddhist magico-religious practices,
    mudra (i.e., the depicting of a story, emotion or action),
    secret society symbolism,
    zoomorphic display,
    Chi Kung gymnastics,
    the theatre,
    aesthetics
    or simply a fanciful display, would prove difficult enough for someone raised in the regional cultures in which these forms originated, let alone for a country boy from Penley ‘Dingles’, North Wales! (Morris 2003).

    In Mroz (2020), the thrust of the article is how the taolu are a spatio-tempral constructs and he mentions religion and theater along the way to that discussion. He further emphasizes the the history of the Red Turban (Opera Rebellion) and its connection to with Choy Li Fut Kuen and the theater. There is definitely a strong link here. However, so strong is the link that it is hard to apply it generally to all taolu throughout China. That would be a logical error.

    Perhaps, one on Mroz (2020) claims will be more appealing to you. He says the Taolu are a talisman. They are “war magic.”

    Mroz (2020) also becomes a little incredulous that Westerners have trouble with the notion of religion being involved in the martial arts. It think the problem here is connotation of the word, religion. Most Westerners are hardly familiar with shamanism, nor would we actually considerate it a religion, perhaps superstition, or proto-religion, or folklore.

    But again, Mroz (2020) ties this so strongly to practices in southern China, like the Lion Dance, that it is again a logical error to make this a sweeping statement about all taolu.

    In the video, the ScholarGeneral, says “we don’t know when the use of the taolu started exactly.” He mentions the Yuan Dynasty briefly, And he dates his evidence to the Ming Dynasty publication of Cheng Zongyou Shaolin staff form. But, you and I both know that by the Ming Dynasty Shaolin is as much a brand and any kind of religious connection. Further, It is not clear that the teachings the Cheng presents have a link to Shaolin, at all, except post facto. So this is not a Buddhist text detailing an art. So, it becomes only a weak link to the taolu and religion.

    Mroz (2017) repeatedly calls the taolu, palimpsestic, That is repurposed with only vestiges of the original intent. My point is simply that if we want to trace the development and sources and uses of taolu, we need to look at earlier roots the Mroz or the ScholarGeneral have.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Richard,

    Why do you think that? Sources? If you cannot provide real sources, then you are making categorical statements in a vacuum.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I guess that I should mention that the author of one of his sources focuses on the Choy Li Fut Kuen connection to the theater. He traces historical connections in some detail. However, this strong, historical connection cannot be generalized to apply to all taolu everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So, I thought this an interesting notion. Where do the practice of using taolu come from?

    However, I found that he mischaracterizes one source and latches onto a minor point in another source. This skews the premise quite a bit..

    Disappointing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The great mystery of Kung Fu forms - Abhishek Blog

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