The repurposing of Kung Fu postures

I really liked this video by The Wandering Warrior on Instagram:

True or not, he makes a good case for the move not being the backfist or punch it is usually shown as, and being a throw instead. In a way, there’s no right answer – the move is whatever you use it for.

But it made me think a lot about how Kung Fu postures are repurposed and reused through the years.

If we go back to one of the earliest written descriptions of Kung Fu by General Qi Jinguang in his “Boxing Classic” of 1560 we can see that all he’s showing are a series of still postures with written verse about the move in question.

You can see that the first posture shown, “Lazily pulling back the robe” shares some similarties with the posture discussed above.

Lazily pulling back the robe, Qi Jinguang, 1560

A Confucian cuture of respect for tradition and elders would naturally lead to respect for older kung fu postures, and you can see how they would get reused and repurposed to fit new needs over the generations.

I bet the current Yang style Single Whip posture is not chosen because it’s the optimal way of pushing forward with a single palm. Instead, it’s more likely a posture that has been passed down from older generations. Maybe it’s original meaning (if it had one) has been lost, over the years. Maybe it was once a Suai Jiao throw? Maybe it was once a posture from Chinese theatre or religious ritual? Who knows.

The important thing is, as always, what can you do with it now?

Kung Fu 2021

The classic TV series is back! This time the lead is female and the cast is almost all Asian. I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with it. I thought the trailer was pretty good. Not sure how I watch this in the UK though…?

Suspended from above. Bringing a sense of lightness to your Tai Chi.

One admonition from Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 important points, that has become something of a law in Taijiquan, is to ‘keep the head suspend, as if from above’.

This has produced all sorts of controversies in the Yang style side of the Tai Chi world. If you look at ChengFu’s student Chen ManChing, who did so much to popularise Tai Chi in the West, you see that he changed his form to truly embody this principle. His head, neck and back are vertical in all positions where he is not bending at the waist.

Whereas, if you look at pictures of his teacher, Cheng-Fu you see that he holds his back with a slight incline in forward postures.

Lineages derived from ChengFu’s peer Wu Jianquan, hold an even more inclined position.

I used to ponder these discrepancies a lot, but these days I have become more interested in the relation of the back (including the neck) to the hands and arms. When we lift and use our arms our tendency is to bend the top of the spine and drop the head forwards, a fact that can be proved each and every time you type on a laptop. Our head wants to move towards the object we are interacting with.

I was watching an excellent performance of a child doing Bak Sing Choy Li Fut shot in the 1960s. Young children doing martial arts can be great teachers because they effortlessly keep their posture as they move. It is only as we become adults that we seem to lose this ability.

Here’s the video. Watch the good posture he keeps – his back remains still in relation to the movement of his arms allowing his neck to stay extened and space and awareness to be present.

Choy Li Fut, 1960s

This is what I think is being asked for in Yang Cheng-Fu’s writings and the Taiji Classics, not mere fussing about how vertical a posture is. The freedom to move our arms but to keep our back still, and maintain our head and neck relationship without falling into the trap of bending towards the object of our attention.

But how to train this? Get a 4 pint carton of milk out of the fridge and swinging it in a figure of 8 in front of you. Now do it again and notice how you head wants to be pulled forward. Resist the pull and feel the work done by the torso muscles to prevent it from happening. It shouldn’t feel like they’re straining, but they are active.

You can do the same thing with a heavy Jian. Or if you feel like you can capture the same feeling without a heavy object, then in a silk reeling exercise, or in the Tai Chi form.

When you are standing still or sitting you can achieve the same torso and arms relationship but with even less use of muscle to maintain the position. You can let the weight of the upper body rest on the lower body, and down into the ground through the centre of the foot or the sitting bones.

Shoulds you have your head in that position to fight? Probably not – you want to tuck your chin a bit more, but the question is how you tuck your chin. The idea of the extended neck that you’re training by working on your posture can be transferred into the way you tuck you chin.

There are a lot of movement disciplines that also work on keeping the neck extended and the back still. Alexander technique and stage acting spring to mind, for example.

In a way the neck being tense, or feeling tired, after we’ve been doing something is a sign that we’re not doing it to the best of our ability. Especially if the shoulders get involved as well. If we can maintain the relaxed, neutral, position of the neck through movement, then it’s a sign that we’re using ourselves in a better way. Our breathing will be better, and we don’t lose that sense of lightness that the kid in the Choy Li Fut video from the 1960s so effortlessly demonstrates.

Keep your head up. Walk lightly, smile brightly!

Kung Fu and firearms

“Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills. The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?”

Charles Holcombe, Theater of Combat (1990)

I think it’s important to bear in mind Charles Holcombe’s classic article, Theater of Combat, when thinking of Chinese martial arts.

One recurring trope that I encounter from, as Holcombe puts it, “Western enthusiasts”, (a label I would apply to myself) is the idea that the Chinese martial arts styles evolved as effective fighting systems in a purer time, before the use of firearms became widespread, and that they gradually went out of favour as practical self defence arts in the face of modern weapons, and turned their attention instead to the more lofty goals of attaining physical fitness, health and spiritual enlightenment.

The idea gives credence to the original version of these arts being purely pugilistic. It follows that once the evil West showed up with their firearms the martial arts needed to find some other way to survive, so it tended towards gymnastic displays or spiritual attainment. It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t really hold sway with reality.

People forget that China is credited with inventing gunpowder and that the ‘older’ version of its martial arts was intricately embedded within a culture whose religious expression was revealed through performance at festivals and ceremonies, often officiated by a priest performing a ritual with a sword or a troupe of performing martial artists acting out conversations with the gods. 

Also, I think the “whiff of ancient mysticism” (as Judkins calls it) around the martial arts makes people think of them as being  incompatible with modern methods of warfare, like the gun. A popular theme within marital arts films, for example, is that of the introduction of guns destroying the old order, usually involving the death of an old master at the hands of a less skilled and resentful disciple who only had to pull the trigger. 

But, as Judkins explains, these media perceptions have twisted the truth:

“Historically speaking, this is totally backwards.  First the guns came, and then the modern martial arts developed.  What we see in China is quite similar to the puzzle that made life difficult for Perrin when he discussed Japan.

Firearms have been a fact of life in China since the 1300s.  At first they were difficult and expensive to manufacture, but the government employed large numbers of hand cannons, field artillery pieces and even massive rocket launchers from an early period.  If you are curious about what early military gunnery looked like you should check out the Fire Dragon Manual.  At the start of the Ming dynasty Chinese firearms were probably the most advanced in the world.  So what happened?”

Clearly there is more to this story of Kung Fu and firearms than we are aware. I’d recommend reading Ben’s full article: Forgetting about the Gun: Firearms and the Development of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts. and also his other article: Tools of the Trade: The Use of Firearms and Traditional Weapons among the Tongs of San Francisco, 1877-1878.

Enjoy!

Weapons of Chinese highbinders. 1900

Why you should train your martial art like a sport

“Sport” is kind of a trigger word for a lot of martial art practitioners, at least some of the ones I’ve met! So telling them they should train their martial art more like a sport usually goes down like a cold bucket of sick, but really I think they should listen.

“There are no rules on the street!”

“I train for the street, dude!”

“You mean a sport like netball, right?”

Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

When here’s the thing: Training your martial art like a ‘martial art’ is often an excuse for not working very hard and not really pressure testing anything you do.

Sport is a sweaty, dificult, thing to do that usually involves doing something pretty athletic (unless you count darts). Sport is also structured. Quite often in a martial art there is no real training methodology. People just turn up, do a few forms, practice a few safe applications against little or no resistance then go home again. The learning process can be a bit random.

I should stress, I don’t really think that there’s anything wrong with that, depending on your motivations for training, which often change as you age. Just feeling good about doing something is certainly reason enough to do it, but I think you should ask yourself, what progress are you really making? And, worse, are you becoming delusional?

Sports, in contrast, tend to be very structured. You train attributes specifically, and you engage in a focussed practice where you can drill to increase your ability in tightly defined things. Sometime those things are measured. You sit down and discuss progress with your coach. You troubleshoot and then you give it a go against somebody who is going to be uncooperative and gives you feedback. That’s real testing against nature – the sort of thing a human shaman would engage in 10,000 years ago.

Martial arts also have strange rules that sports don’t have – we have to call people odd titles like Sifu or Professor. There’s bowing and etiquette that looks strange to people outside the system. I can understand the cultural reasons for a lot of these things, but I often wonder that when these arts are put into a different culture, whether some of these things should be left behind because they’re not helpful and, in fact, can stand in the way of progress. For example, the little quirks like bowing to photos of dead guys or using a 1-2-3 clap system can gradually breed a cult-like quality of obedience that makes us stop questioning things.

I saw a brilliant video of a Muay Thai coach recently. I love the tiny details he’s giving. Muay Thai is an interesting martial art because it’s probably the most traditional martial art remaining on the planet, but it’s also a sport. It is undoubtedly effective and trained at the highest level in popular combat sports. I think there’s something to learn from that.

As I said earlier, I don’t think we need to make all martial arts into competative sports, but I think we can take elements of the sporting approach and apply it to what we’re doing, regardless of the martial art we’re doing.

Finally, the inspiration for this post is the latest brilliant episode of the BJJ Mental Models podcast to featuring Priit Mihkelson, about how to train your martial art like a sport. Give it a listen.

It’s also on YouTube:

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:

A bit of Xing Yi Snake to welcome in the spring and St. Patrick’s Day

The blossom is out on my tree and spring is in the air! So, it’s time to record a new video.

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, the saint who drove the “snakes” out of Ireland (a country which has never had snakes). I see a lot of people doing Xing Yi snake forms and generally I don’t like most of it. Sorry. It always seems a bit “dumbed down” to me. Linear and basic, and not very representative of the actual animal. Snakes coil, they twist, they wrap and they strike suddenly and swiftly. Those characteristics need to be present if you are going to embody the Snake (She Xing).

But rather than post videos of other people’s work and criticise it, (which seems to be a favourite pastime of people on the Internet), I thought I’d make my own and try to promote my mate Glen’s Xing Yi Snake book in the process:

Somebody commented on another of my videos that they liked the weapons work I’ve included previously, so I put some Snake sword in there too. As with all Xing Yi, you can see the barehand work is simply a translation from the weapons work. The application pictures are from Glen Board’s book Xing Yi Snake, (which I’ve reviewed here), that I worked on with him.

I actually recorded this video just before I did my regular Tai Chi practice, and I noticed that my Tai Chi form became infused with the flavour of the Snake Xing I’d been practicing previously and became very coily indeed! This is what the Xing Yi animals are like – they’re like strong flavours of tea, that you add to your hot water. Ultimately you should be able to blend all 12 freely. I don’t think there’s enough lifetimes left for me to do that though, which is why I tend to stick to the ones I prefer. Different Xing Yi practitioners tend to be heavily ‘flavoured’ by the animals they prefer.

But why snakes? What’s the advantage in studying them? There are many legends about snakes, but not many actual snakes to be found in the UK, so we don’t generally know too much about them, but it’s pretty clear from watching this YouTube video showing python attacks that they’re absolutely fearless predators:

What surprised me most about that video is how close the python manages to get to its prey before it strikes. I guess it must be to do with being absolutely silent as it moves? I don’t know. Either way, a python is a terrifying grappler and an ambush predator combined into one. You can see why horses, monkeys and man has a built-in snake phobia.

As Wikipedia notes: “Historically, serpents and snakes represent fertility or a creative life force. As snakes shed their skin through sloughing, they are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. The ouroboros is a symbol of eternity and continual renewal of life. … In Hinduism, Kundalini is a coiled serpent.”

Carl Jung had a lot to say about snakes. The ouroboros is cool symbol, a Western Yin/Yang, but the most recognisable snake symbol in our daily lives is the caduceus, the traditional symbol of Hermes and a symbol used in many esoteric religions and associated with healing:

The (very similar) Rod of Asclepius is still used on ambulances today:

Close Up of Caduceus Medical Symbol on Rear Corner of Ambulance Vehicle

“Some accounts suggest that the oldest known imagery of the caduceus has its roots in a Mesopotamian origin with the Sumerian god Ningishzida; whose symbol, a staff with two snakes intertwined around it, dates back to 4000 BC to 3000 BC.[3]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus

In Roman mythology the caduceus was often held by Mercury, harald of the gods, which brings me back to where I started, with the blossom on my tree being the herald of Spring.

And, bit like the ouroboros itself, I took a circuitous route to get there!

The Invention of Martial Arts, Popular Culture Between Asia and America by Paul Bowman

I’ve just got a copy of The Invention of Martial Arts, Popular Culture Between Asia and America, by Paul Bowman. (Amazon link. Non-Amazon link). Firstly, yes, that excellent cover illustration is a picture of Jim Kelly playing the iconic character Williams in Enter the Dragon, a character who speaks volumes about the international and multi-ethnic appeal of East Asian martial arts in the early 1970s. It was created by the incredible Jon Daniel, who passed away in 2017.

Some of Bowman’s work is very academic, but this one is for “normal people”, like me. I’m still on the Introduction, but feel compelled to write something about it because this book is dripping with ideas to do with the conversations we all have around martial arts.

That to me is what much of Martial Arts Studies is – it’s not about the martial arts themselves, it’s about “what we talk about, when we talk about martial arts”, which would otherwise be left unexamined.

Take his writing on theory in the introduction:

“At first glance martial arts may seem simple. But any discussion of them will involve an implicit or explicit theory about them.”

So true. If you’ve ever been involved in any sort of online discussion about martial arts you’ll find the participant are talking past each other because of an assumption of (often contradictory) theory that underlines everything they say to each other about any subject to do with marital arts. One person thinks the martial art is really all about this, and the other person thinks the martial art is really all about that, and they go on busily talking about different things.

He raises the brilliant point that no theory of martial arts (or culture) can contain all the answers and that “different theories offer variations and varieties of perspective. Looking at things from the perspective of one paradigm, or orientation, followed by another, and then another is stimulating and illuminating in many ways. The shifts in perspective caused by this can produce more well-rounded or enriched understandings of phenomena, and can also instil a prudent awareness of the limits of our own understanding. However, by the same token, such shifts can also produce contradictory, conflicting incompatible pictures of ‘the same thing’.”

It should come as no surprise that the title of the book can then be viewed in multiple ways. He’s not talking about the literal invention of the term “martial arts”, or the actual martial arts themselves, but the invention of the ideas about martial arts, ways of thinking about them, depicting them and valuing them.

I could go on, but really, I’d recommend grabbing a copy yourself.

What are we really doing when we do martial arts?

This is a fascinating talk between Drs Jared Miracle and Paul Bowman on martial arts. There’s a little section from 31.20 onwards where they get into the miasma that surrounds martial arts and how it can be manipulated for nation building and national identity. the example given is Tae Kwan Do and its need to be ancient. But they go on to talk about how, on a personal level, we often have an idea about what we are doing when we do martial arts that doesn’t necessarily match what we are actually doing or getting out of the martial art we practice.