Myth busting in Chinese martial arts

Look at those lovely brain boxes.

I’ve been re-watching the excellent conversation between Dr Paul Bowman and Dr Sixt Wetzler on Martial Arts, Religion and Spirituality and it’s sparked a few thoughts in my mind. At 34.39 in the podcast they get on to the subject of myth busting.

Bowman notes that instead of helping people, the myth busting of martial arts which is going on all the time in academic circles is probably destroying the careers of some martial arts teachers. So it’s “doing a service to the world which is actually also a kind of violence”. It’s an interesting point. He notes that people often fall in love with the martial arts for silly orientalist reasons – they fall for the myth of studying an ancient and mystical martial art, then read a well-researched book about it, by somebody like Ben Judkins or Peter Lorge, which shatters their beliefs and makes then doubt the validity of the art they are doing. 

My own Heretics podcast does its fair share of myth busting too – our Aikido episode, Kempo & Jiujitsu history series and Tai Chi history series spring to mind as good examples. I’ve had first had experience of those episodes visibly upsetting teachers I know. Whether they know it or not, these teachers are heavily emotionally invested in the myths of their own arts superiority – they believe all the stories of old practitioners and the amazing feats they can do, and know exactly why their martial art is superior to others. If you start to chip away at those beliefs then the whole facade is at risk of crumbling, and they don’t like it! Unfortunately reality is usually disappointing when compared to the myths. 

When the Chinese martial arts first started making an impact on the West in the 1970s they were full of obvious untruths. Tall tales of Buddhist and Taoist origins abounded. For example, that Tai Chi was apparently created by a Taoist immortal who had a dream about a crane fighting a snake, and Wing Chun was named after the girl who was taught it by a female Buddhist monk, when it turns out that there’s no evidence that she even existed. Over time these myths then get added to by other myths – like the one that Yang LuChan was “invincible”, for example. Even in the modern age the myth of Ip Man has been enhanced to bursting point by a series of pseudo-historical films in which he combats the Japanese, western wrestlers, boxers and even Mike Tyson at one point! 

Ip Man 4

These more marketing-orientated myths about the prowess of practitioners – how deadly they were, how unbeatable their martial arts was, how the power of Qi was greater than physical strength all fed directly into all that nonsense about no touch knockouts and “empty force” that has marred the image of Chinese martial arts in the modern age.

And politics also gets involved. When obvious myths about the origins of martial arts are dispelled they often get replaced by more politically motivated stories about the arts origins that are equally as unprovable and unreliable yet fit a natioanlist agenda. It seems like the Chinese martial arts are forever being used to support some sort of Chinese government propaganda.

In short, the Chinese martial arts world was in need of, and remains in need of, a lot of myth busting, because much of what we are being told and sold is basically not true. But Bowman’s fears, that we are in danger of spoiling the fun for everybody with this relentless search for the truth, holds true, I think. I was certainly attracted to Chinese martial arts by a steady diet of orientalist propaganda from the likes of David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV series and Marvel comics with heroes like Iron Fist. This is often what draws us to the martial arts in the first place and there has to be some way of searching for truth in the martial arts, but keeping the magic that drew us there in the first place. 

The invention of the Samurai

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Photo by Jermaine Ulinwa on Pexels.com

I wrote a short post for Cook Ding’s Kitchen blog the other day about our Heretics series on the history of Kempo and Jiujitsu.

If you’re interested in the history of Japanese martial arts then I would also recommend this talk by Dr Oleg Benesch on the Martial Studies podcast, which talks about a lot of the same stuff, particularly the interplay of Western and Eastern ideas after 1852, the invention of the ideal of the honorable Samurai warrior and, most importantly, castles!

Journey to the West – revisit the classic text on taming the monkey mind

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In the world before Monkey, primal chaos reigned!

I grew up watching Monkey on TV. This Japanese TV series based on the ancient novel Journey to the West was dubbed into English and run by the BBC from 1979 onwards. It was hugely influential in introducing Kung Fu and Taoist/Buddhist ideas to the West via a children’s story.

It’s quite fitting that I watched it as a child, because it is a story for children, but if you look closer, you’ll find that it deals with a lot of deeper issues.

Journey to the West follows the story of a Buddhist monk and three immortal animal spirits (four if you count the horse) who follow ‘him’ (this was always confusing to me, as the actor in the TV series was clearly a woman) on a journey to ‘the west’, which was India, in search of the Buddha. Along the way, they have to endure various trials and tribulations.

Journey to the West is a classic work of Chinese literature, and can be read as an allegory for all sorts of things – is it about the taming of the ‘monkey mind’? Is it a criticism of Buddhism by Taoists? Or Taoist by the Buddhists? Or is it a religious text that acts as a guide to spiritual enlightenment?

As you’ll discover from this fascinating discussion between Chinese language and literature professors Katherine Alexander and friend of the Tai Chi Notebook, Scott Philips, all things are possible!

Katherine Alexander is a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and has a PhD from the University of Chicago. Her PhD dissertation, “Virtues of the Vernacular: Moral Reconstruction in late Qing Jiangnan and the Revitalization of Baojuan” addresses popular religious literature and culture in Jiangnan during and after the Taiping War. https://www.colorado.edu/alc/katherin…

Buddhism vs Shamanism, in China.

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My friend Damon is back with another Woven Energy podcast after a long break.

Listen to “Episode 28 – Buddhism vs. Shamanism: Similarities, Differences and what we can learn” on Spreaker.

This time he tackles an interesting subject – Buddhism. I imagine this will upset a lot of Buddhists (if that’s possible!) because he classifies Buddhism as an exoteric religion, basically designed to help control the populace under the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD). In fact, to get them to self-regulate. You can agree with this view, or not, but there are some interesting facts in here about the rise of Buddhism in China that I didn’t know.

For instance, China used to be the main country for Buddhism during the Han Dynasty – it is where it got its foothold, and in fact, was the main reason for the expansion of the Chinese empire (as they sought out Buddhist teachers, inadvertently creating the Silk Route and facilitating trade). This was particularly unusual since China has traditionally been a very inward-looking country. That a foreign religion could become so widespread is really worth noting and looking into.

It’s hard to believe that now, since people associate Buddhism more with Japan or Tibet, but it makes sense – the ‘old masters’ quoted in Japanese Buddhist writing, like the Blue Cliff Record, were often Chinese.

There’s also a lot of stuff about Chinese history, and the Warring States period in the podcast. Fascinating stuff.