What is an authentic understanding of Chinese martial arts?

Qing Dynasty martial artists performing in a procession (between 1901-1904)

I’m still fascinated by that film I posted a little while ago of China from 1901-1904. It’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the people who were around at the time that the popular martial arts of Northern China – Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan were being formalised into the structures and routines we still know and recognise today.

It gives a small insight into what the martial arts of the time were like, we have an idea of what they practiced, but we don’t always know where they practiced them, and to some extent really why they practiced them. There’s a particular sequence starting at 17.10 in the film where we see a procession of sorts going along a riverbank and then entering a village or town. There are martial arts performers doing twirls and spins of their weapons as they go. The setting is informal, music is being played (we see the musicians) and it has something of an air of the Saint’s Day religious processions you still see going on between villages in rural European nations, or the May Day “Hobby Hoss” procession that can still found in Cornwall in the United Kingdom.

But back to China. The martial artists involved seem embedded into the culture of the place and time as much as the musicians or flag holders.

“There was a well established pattern of village festival culture in Northern China. The ritual was called a sai and it was based on a three-part structure: inviting, welcoming and seeing off the gods. Ritual could last anywhere from three days to a month. Wherever you happened to be, these rituals were happening nearby every two weeks. A smaller sai might have only 50 people officiating and a thousand participants, while a large one might involve hundreds of ritual experts and 100,000 participants. A large ritual could invoke as many as 500 gods, their statues escorted out of temples in massive processions with armed escorts of martial performers that snaked between villages for miles.”

“According to David Johnson, ritual festivals were so common and so old and so large that they were overwhelmingly the most important influence shaping the symbolic universe of the common people. Regionally they happen about every two weeks and could involve over a hundred villages, with processions that strung out for miles attracting thousands of spectators. “It is quite impossible to understand what villagers… in North China thought and felt about the world of politics, about Chinese history and traditions, about the world of gods and demons, or about any of the grand matters of life and death, without a close familiarity with sai [and similar rituals]. Ref: David Johnson 1997, “Temple Festivals in Southeastern Shanxi”, Overmyer 2009,8.”

From Tai Chi, Baguazhang and the Golden Elixir: Internal martial arts before the Boxer Rebellion by Scott Phillips, p173.
Qing Dynasty martial artists performing in a procession (between 1901-1904)

I don’t think we can assume, from one film. that all Chinese martial art of the period was like this, but it’s fascinating to see a glimpse of how well it was integrated with everything else.

As Charles Holcombe wrote at the start of his seminal 1990 essay on the subject, Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts

Everywhere in China the martial arts either present themselves in the guise of simple exercises or are shrouded in arcane religious mysteries. 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: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts

Dragon dance and street theatre – rare video of old China 1901-1904

Thanks to Jarek Szymanski for posting about this clip.

“Unique documentary footage taken between 1901 and 1904 in Yunnan in southwestern China by Auguste François (1857-1935) french consul stationed there. Street performers, barbers, funerals, official visits, leopard catching a pigeon and monkey wearing opera outfit doing somersaults, opium smoker, it’s all there – and more. Absolutely stunning over fifty minutes of footage from China that none of us has ever seen. Somewhere there were probably also martial artists, hiding in plain sight;)”

https://www.cinematheque.fr/henri/film/129752-images-de-chine-auguste-francois-1901-1904/

Of particular note for martial arts fans are the Dragon Dance scene at 32 minutes and the street theatre dancing at 46m which looks an aweful lot like Baguazhang….

Baguazhang article and applications

The next episode of the Heretics podcast is going to be about the martial art of Baguazhang, so to get in the right head space here’s a classic Bagua applications video by Luo Dexiu along with a great article by Ed Hines of 21 c Bagua.

The article has some great ideas, especially about forms being memory holders for principles, rather than catalogues techniques.

“you need to use the forms, or techniques not as platonic ideals to be chased forever, but as examples from a broad set of ‘what is possible’. It is possible to hit this way, that way and another way. It is possible to unbalance this way, that way and another way. And so on. No perfect techniques, just the capacity to recognise possibilities”

Ed Hanes

Wait until you hear my crazy Baguazhang-Eagle-Dance/Archery theory

I find talking – as in real talking, not discussion forum kind of talking – with other martial artists always inspires some great thoughts. Recently, I was having a chat about some Eagle movements in Xing Yi and my venerable discussion partner noted that they were very similar to the Eagle Dance that Mongolian wrestlers do before a match.

Eagle dance.

My friend noted that the arm positions in the eagle dance are also quite similar to a lot of the arm positions in Baguazhang’s circle walking, like this one:

Baguazhang performed by Master Zhang Hong Mei.

Obviously, the performance is not exactly the same – the eagle dance can have music or a drum beat, but often doesn’t. However, music or not, it does have a rhythm, a beat, which are all things usually lacking in performances of Baguazhang. But Baguazhang does look a bit like a dance. It’s wonderfully twisty, mobile and changeable, but the Mongolian Wrestling dance is so much freer, it’s done with a smile, it’s clearly about having a good time. In contrast, Baguazhang is much more dower and serious. You could almost say it’s as close to dance as you could get if weren’t allowed to actually dance. You’re certainly not supposed to be smiling or showing emotions. I’m going to steal my friend’s hilarious comment about Baguazhang circle walking: “It’s almost like, ‘I want to boogie, but my Confucian culture won’t let me!‘”. 🙂

(As a side note, he also told me a theory about why there is no syncopation in classical Chinese music – it’s because in ‘ancient times’ drums were used to whip up the armies of the various tribes into a kind of pre-battle fighting trance, and when they wanted to unite the Han dynasty, they had to stop the tribes fighting. So, syncopation was removed from the music. I’ve got no proof for this theory, so just take it as an interesting idea, but banning drums it does sound exactly like the sort of thing Confucians would do.)

And that brings me onto my crazy Baguazhang/Mongolian Wresting/Archery theory. Dong Haichuan, the founder of Baguazhang and Yin Fu – his main student, spent 10 years together in Mongolia collecting taxes for Prince Su. This would have been during our Victorian times, so you can get an idea of the time period. Back in China the Dowager Empress Cixi sat on the throne in the Forbidden City.

10 years is a long time, and I find it impossible to believe that, being keen martial artists, that Dong and Yin didn’t have at least some exposure to Mongolian wrestling and/or religious practices, like Eagle dance, and that it could very well be reflected in the content of Baguazhang. I also wonder what all that exposure to a different culture to their own did for them.

Mill stone posture

Let’s look at another popular motif found in Baguazhang, the Mill store posture”.

Baguazhang performed by Master Zhang Hong Mei.

The key feature of the ‘mill stone posture’ is that the upper body and lower body are twisted away from each other in opposite directions as you walk the circle. If you’ve watched a lot of videos of Mongolian martial arts then it might remind you of something…

Another of the “manly arts” of Mongolian culture is horseback archery, which includes the ability to shoot an arrow behind you – the famous Parthian Shot, a horseback archery technique of feining a retreat then turning and shooting behind you 180 degrees once the enemy commit to chasing you.

Parthian Shot

The millstone standing posture of Baguazhang looks (to me) like some sort of training method for the Parthian Shot.

Here’s a video example of it being trained as a drill in Baguazhang:

Dong He Chuan was inside the imperial palace starting in 1864, the ruling Manchu’s (from the North) still had horseback archery as part of the military service exam. Is the simiarity of many Baguazhang postures to Mongolian martial arts a coincidence, or not? Who can say. The historical connection between Dong and Mongolia is there though.

And to finish things off, here’s a funny video I made with my kids when they were little. I wanted to boogie, but my kids wouldn’t let me! Ah, I miss those days, but I don’t miss the disturbed nights 🙂

Bagua circle waking with multiple attackers:

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:

Stop mashing together Chinese martial arts history!

Ching Dynasty soldiers, with a rifle.

I often come across a particular attitude to Chinese martial arts history amongst martial artists. They treat it as if it happens all together and all at the same time.

One common refrain you’ll hear is something like “the principles are all the same between Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi.” True, viewed from a certain perspective the “internal” arts are all based on the same principles, but I find this idea is often really being used to shut down debate and ignore historical facts.

It’s a lazy cop-out for doing actual research into the history of these martial arts. It’s a kind of “get out of jail free” card that squashes together events that happen decades, or even hundreds of years, and sometimes thousands of miles apart. It’s easy to forget just what a vast country China is, and how long its history is.

In a way, the last people you want doing your history research are martial artists. (My preference is for history scholars who are also martial arts hobbyists.)

I believe it was Sun Lu Tang who first grouped together Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi as “internal” arts in his 1915 publication, A Study of Xing Yi Boxing. Sure there had been talk of Neijia before this, but this was the point where the idea of grouping those three arts really took off.

Sun Lu Tang, 1930

He writes:

“I myself have barely scratched the surface of the Xingyi Boxing art. It contains the states of nonpolarity and grand polarity, the five elements and eight trigrams, a starting posture and various techniques. When we examine for its origin, it can be said to be of the same source as the two arts of Taiji and Bagua, as well as the two schools of external and internal, but was then gradually turned into its own system by later generations and has evolved into various styles, as is the normal way of things.” 

Sun Lu Tang – A Study of Xing Yi Boxing

The idea stuck, and later, when the Guoshu Research Academy was set up in 1928 to promote national unity initially the organisation was split into two sections – one dedicated to teaching “Shaolin” arts and the other to “Wudang” arts. (This proved disastrous because the two sections immediately started fighting with each other, in one case with bamboo spears!)

But the grouping of the Big Three, survived, probably with a little help from the Guoshu and then Wushu movements, and is still used today.

China was going through periods of tremendous change during the 19th and 20th century – 10 years here or there can make a huge difference to the political, social, cultural climate in which these arts operated and have profound implications on them.

Martial arts blew in the same breeze – swinging one year from being bastions of a return to traditional Confucian values, often with bloody outcomes, see the Boxer Rebellion, to being radical trailblazers in new scientific Western thought – see the Guoshu movement. 

And the influence of Western powers on China during this time was all pervasive. As were opium and guns! It’s often forgotten that guns were in common usage during the time period that all of today’s household names in Chinese martial arts were being developed – Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut, White Eyebrow, etc, 

My point really is simple: If you’re going to comment on Chinese martial arts then you need to take the wider Chinese historical perspective into account. 

If you enjoyed this post then you might like the Heretics podcast series on the origins of Jiujitsu and Kempo, Xing Yi and Tai Chi Chuan.

Did Taijiquan’s Yang Luchan and Baguazhang’s Dong Haichuan ever meet?

Image source: https://gameofthrones.fandom.com/

Game of Thrones’ fictional Grey Worm is probably the most famous Eunuch in modern literature, but while Grey Worm lead an army of disciplined, ferocious fighters called The Unsullied, the role of castrated men throughout history has been somewhat less fighting-orientated, especially in royal courts, where they have traditionally held positions of servitude mixed with privilege and power, especially in China.

The Empress Dowager Cixi was often photographed being carried in state on a palanquin by palace eunuchs, in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

As we discovered in part 1 of the Myth of Tai Chi podcast, Yongnian, the home province of Yang Luchan, was famous for providing the highest quality eunuchs to the Ching royal court, and connections made with eunuchs from ‘back home’ could have provided Yang Luchan with a route into Beijing and his role of martial arts instructor in the Royal Court. Nepotism was, after all, what greased the wheels of government in a Confucian court.

To find out more about the complicated world of the Royal Court and the role that eunuchs played we can look to books on the subject. In this short review of Melissa Dale’s book Inside the World of the Eunuch and Jia Yinghua’s The Last Eunuch of China, Jeremiah Jenne takes us into the world of old China:

“History has been cruel to China’s eunuchs. Chinese literature is filled with stories of avaricious and ambitious eunuchs exploiting their position for personal gain and power to the detriment of the social and political order. Society treated eunuchs with a mix of fascination and revulsion. They were a source of anxiety for the court and its officials. They were third-sex creatures marked by their relative lack of facial hair and perceived physical deformities (early castration often resulted in eunuchs being taller, with longer hands and limbs). In the foreign gaze, eunuchs became an analog for a decrepit China, feminine symbols of a decaying imperial system – a view perpetuated by 20th-century Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. Today, when thought of at all, it is as stock villains or comic foils in palace costume dramas.”

Jeremiah Jenne

After the initial gruesome operation, and assuming he survived, a eunuch’s life was hardly his own any more once he was serving in the palace.

“Once inside the palace, a new eunuch was isolated from his old life and introduced to a whole new reality. Both books describe the parallel world of palace eunuchs, a highly regimented and hierarchal society that still had spaces for deviant behavior, petty jealousies, and even violence. Eunuchs were expected to show complete devotion to their duties, and to their masters and mistresses. At the same time, they also formed friendships as well as master/disciple bonds with older and more experienced palace hands. While the rules governing eunuchs were numerous and punishments harsh, eunuchs still created actual spaces in the palace for their own activities. There were barbershops, noodle stands, gambling parlors, opium dens, and various other places where court eunuchs could blow off steam with multiple cups of wine and the sympathetic ear of their fellow attendants.”

Jeremiah Jenne

But the lives of eunuchs did not just impact Taijiquan, Dong Haichuan, (whose birth dates are give as either 1797 or 1813 – 25 October 1882), the founder of Baguazhang was a palace eunuch. According to tradition, around 1864 Dong arrived in Beijing and was hired as a eunuch at the residence of the Prince Su. (Whose name was Shanqi, a prince of the Aisin-Gioro clan, the ruling clan of the Qing Dynasty), as well as a minister in the late Qing. He was from the Bordered White Banner and the 10th generation Prince Su, the first Qing hereditary prince position.

Later Prince Su gave Dong the job of tax collector. 

10th generation Prince Su.

It’s possible that Yang Luchan and Dong Haichuan’s tenures in the royal court overlapped. Did they meet and have an exchange of martial techniques as legend and martial arts movies often suggest? It’s possible (Yang Luchan died in 1872), but we just don’t know.

It’s interesting to note that Taijiquan and Baguazhang both share that connection to the Ching royal court around the same time, and are both considered part of the ‘internal’ family of martial arts.

Stop thinking of internal arts as special

Internal Chinese martial arts are often presented in the West as this special spiritual thing deserving of seated lectures about the meaning of Tao, complex esoteric meanderings on the nature of Chi or Shen and expensive seminars involving “masters” “lineage holders” and “internal fighters”. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there.

I say to hell with all that. It’s a trap you need to avoid or break out of if you’re currently in it.

Internal arts are martial arts and they should be trained like martial arts.

When you see videos of people in China training, it’s small groups with a very informal structure. Watch this video as a good example:

What they’re saying doesn’t matter so much (although that is interesting too) as what they’re actually doing. Watch the people in the background training. That’s how I think these arts should be trained: small groups, informal structure and preferably outside. No whiteboards, lectures, seats or marketing.

Nobody is trying to sell you anything or upsell you anything. Just people being shown something and trying to practice it, Making mistakes, getting better and just training.

The Jing Cheng Wushu archives

Screen Shot 2019-12-30 at 9.22.07 AM.pngI just wanted to give a quick shout out to the work Byron Jacobs is doing preserving old Chinese TV performances of Chinese martial art from the 1980s.

“Jing Cheng Wushu” (京城武术) is a series that ran on Beijing TV in the 80’s. The title “Jing Cheng Wushu” means ‘The Wushu of Beijing’. Each episode focused on a Chinese martial art style popular in Beijing at the time and featured many prominent older generation practitioners, many of whom have passed away since.

He’s done three episodes so far, digitising and adding English subtitles. They are:

XingYi Quan

 

Bagua Zhang

 

Taiji Quan