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:
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
I 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:
As somebody said: “From the sample pages it looks as bonkers and brilliant and polarising as the last one. Better than being boring!”
I’m really looking forward to seeing how he supports his theory (from the back cover) that Baguazhang was created after the failings of the Boxer Rebellion (1900) when the founder of the art, Dong Hai Chuan, died in 1882. I’ve been assured he tackles this point in the book…
If you click the Amazon link above you can click “Look Inside” to read a bit.