I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions recently (and for years!) about what in Chinese martial art is fantasy and what is real. Realness, keeping it real, being truthful, whatever you want to call it, it is seen as a big deal. The question of the essential realness of a technique, a style or a whole person’s lineage, cuts to the heart of the matter, always.
Discussions of these types have flourished along with the growth of online video and the means to talk about these videos online. These discussions usually go along the line of:
1) A famous practitioner puts up a clip of himself (it’s usually always a male) demonstrating something visually impressive on a student. The purpose of the clip is self promotion for fame or seminars or online teaching material. Maybe they show a student go flying through the air from the lightest of touches, or they resist a strong push without any visible effort – you know the sort of thing.
2) Somebody comments and goes – “that’s bullshit!”
3) All hell breaks loose in the comments section between rival sections.
I can understand the strong urge to want to point these things out. I get involved in these things too. Sometimes I see something that is such obvious nonsense I can’t help but point it out. It’s like this old XKCD cartoon that is funny because it’s true:
The argument is logical: There are so many good things in Chinese martial arts and the fantasy stuff is damaging to that. And it’s therefore up to us to call out the fantasy, not accept it. If we don’t then we just invite ridicule, especially from other martial artists.
However, even when that attitude is adopted I see people tend to be more interested in calling out the fantasy stuff that other people do, or that is in other styles, not their own! And never in anything they do themselves or their teachers do. We all have our own blind spots and biases.
But I’ve been thinking differently about this issue recently…
When you look into the close connection between martial arts and street theatre, or opera troops and (as technology progressed) Kung Fu movies, it’s impossible not to conclude that showbiz (for want of a better word) has always been connected in some way with Chinese martial arts from the very beginning.
That doesn’t mean that Chinese martial arts masters of old weren’t bad ass. They were bad ass! But they also knew how to perform Lion Dance, or put on a show at New Years, or impress a prospective student with a. few tricks if they had to. These things were so interconnected in Chinese culture that it seems impossible to separate them (although successive Chinese governments gave it a good go throughout the 20th century).
Showbiz has always been there in Chinese martial art. It’s what makes amazing movie fight scenes like this one from The Grand Master possible:
Beauty, artistry, story telling. It’s all there. It’s using “real” techniques from martial arts and presenting them in a hyper-real, perfected, way.
Of course, the problem comes when people get conned into believing that the hyper-real is the real and that can take people to some very weird places, involving cult-like practices, exploitation and usually a lot of money being handed over. That’s where the problems start for me.
There are no easy answers, but I think that viewing some of these things that are not quite real as merely a part of the showbiz side to Chinese martial art, is perhaps an easier way to deal with it.
For instance, what is going on in this clip with Chen ManChing bouncing people around?
I can imagine a lot of Chen style Tai Chi people getting upset about that, as the sort of nonsense that doesn’t tend to happen in their style… and yet, what’s going on in this clip:
Is it as bad? Is it worse, even?
I don’t know.
It might just be easier to look at both these clips say,
“It’s just showbiz”, and shrug your shoulders and laugh.
One thought on “Calling out Bullshido”
This is a good approach. I am a Chen taijiquan practitioner, and I think recognizing that there is a big “showbiz” element to Chinese martial arts is a good first step in dealing with the culture shock caused by the gap between modern expectations and the reality of traditional martial arts, especially Chinese martial arts.
Second, recognize what you think you are seeing, even what you may be feeling, and what is really happening are often not the same thing. Shǒu fǎ (手法) is usually translated as technique, but it also means trick, which belies the deceptive nature of Chinese martial arts. As with magic tricks, there is skill involved, but the skill is not necessarily the one an observer might think, and the way a skill is shown is likely not be the way you would use it martially.
I am not going to vouch that these demonstrations are “real”, but real demonstrations would look a lot the same. Let’s assume they are “real” in that forces are actually being applied and correct biomechanics used.
In the case of Cheng Man Ching, it looks like he is demonstrating magical taiji pushing. The skill this demo actually demonstrates is compromising the opponent’s structure on first contact, an essential push hands lesson. It’s easy to push someone with no balance. The way he does it is not exactly the way I would, and it looks like sometimes he just catches them unprepared. Once the structure is compromised, he could use any technique, but pushing is safe. One of the reasons it looks fake, is that the students once they realize they don’t know how to defend but are not going to get hurt, start going with flow, and even ham it up as they work to regain their balance.
In the Chen Xiaowang video, long-line pushing is a well-known bit of fun. He only has to neutralize the static push of the first person. At one point, the first man collapses, so CXW has to neutralize the second man. There is real skill involved, the skill to negate a strong push. The rest is just showmanship.
The push from the strongman is similar with some nuances. CXW has to manipulate the energy of the push, disbursing it several places, into the ground, out into space, and back onto the opponent. In a real contest, the strongman would be told he must follow some rules, so no one gets hurt. This is true, but it’s also to set up the demonstration. He would be told he cannot give CXW a violent shove, or break contact and push again. He also must push like pushing a railroad car, in one direction. Other than that, he would not have to further cooperate. It’s not that person being pushed couldn’t counter these things, but he might have to step back or use unexpected techniques, which would make the results unpredictable.
It’s all biomechanics. Like a magic trick, it’s easy to show how it is done, but like a magic trick, it takes hours and years of practice to do well.
And, our modern question, could you use it in fight? Not the way it is shown in any of these videos. These are demonstrations for show. These basic skills would be combined into more sophisticated skills.
I am not very inclined to call out, Bushido! I have found that some skills dismissed as “Dojo tricks” can be the foundation of some really advanced skills.
For there rest, I follow the example of Chen Fake, which story is too long for an already long comment. The bottom line, a good reputation takes years to build. Those who seek to mislead people will expose themselves and be seen for what they are. They don’t really need my help, and I have better things to do.
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