I think this is one of the best historical videos of Tai Ch you’ll find. I’ve seen this film before, but the quality wasn’t great. This version of the Tai Chi documentary however seems to have been edited to make it smoother and sharper:
In the video you’ll find the most famous masters teaching Tai Chi in Beijing in the 1950s. It’s a good cross section of the different styles being taught. The masters are (and I think I’ve got the order correct): Li Yaochen, Li Bingqi, Chen Zhaokui (the youngest son of the famous Chen style patriarch, Chen Fake), Yang Yunting, who learned from Quan Yu, who was a direct student of Yang Lu Chan. Sun Jianyun (daughter of the famous Sun Lu Tang). Wang Yongquan, who performs the Yang long form and was a student of Yang Jianhou and Yang Shouhou. And finally Li Jing Wu, who was a student of Wu style and Chen style, but here is performing the Beijing 24 step form.
One of the ways you can tell genuine history from a ‘made up’ history (in Chinese martial arts, or in anything really), is that the real history is always pretty messy, convoluted and complicated, and a conveniently invented origin myth or history of a style is usually pretty simplistic. Tai Chi Chuan is a good example, I think. Attributing the origin of Tai Chi to one particular Taoist immortal, or one particular remote rural village, is a very neat and simple solution – and probably not the whole truth.
And I think the same thing applies to Chinese martial arts as a whole. The Chinese martial arts, (as we know them today) were not just invented fully formed, hundreds of years ago and have remained unchanged ever since. On this blog I’ve often quoted those who have proposed that kung-fu has a more convoluted pedigree than one might otherwise have expected. Historian Charles Holcombe’s excellent “Theatre of combat” on the subject of kung fu history from 1990 is a good starting point for this line of enquiry. Also check out my first podcast episode with Daniel Mroz.
To quote from Holcombe:
“In China the martial arts are far more than just techniques of hand-to-hand combat, although actual fighting skills are indeed traceable far back into antiquity. In China the martial arts are an aspect of religion, with all of the attendant mystery and miracles. At the same time, the public face of the martial arts has often been that of the entertainer, and the self-image of the martial artist has been thoroughly imbued with motifs drawn from fiction and the theater. The martial arts of today must be understood as a confluence of China’s unique approach to physical combat, Buddho-Taoist religion, and theater.”
Theater of Combat – Charles Holcombe
It’s worth reading that quote a couple of times.
One curious thing I’ve noticed from other martial artists is that they often can’t comprehend this argument at all. They don’t seem able, or unwilling, to hear it properly. Some internal bias seems to prevent it. I’ve had people come back to me a year later saying, “I thought you were saying that all Chinese martial arts comes from dance”. Or theatre. No, that’s really not what I’m saying. I’m saying, it’s complicated. I’ve even gone back to these people and shown them the exact thing I wrote, a year ago, saying exactly the opposite of what they think I said. But for some reason, it doesn’t go in. They hear what they think I’m saying rather than what I’m actually saying.
Real history is always complicated. “Kung Fu came from dance” is just too simplistic to be true.
In the last episode of the Heretics podcast we talked about Chinese wrestling – Shuai Jiao – but Damon also mentioned Manchu wrestling quite a bit. He described it, but you can’t get a proper idea of how it works without seeing it done, so let’s look a little closer.
Manchu wrestling is a unique form of puppetry popular in certain parts of China where the participant wears a life-sized puppet of two wrestlers in a costume that turns ther legs and arms into both the puppet’s legs. Various wrestling maneuvers are then performed. The skill is to make it look like the two puppets are really wrestling and pulling off moves on each other.
To a western martial artist interested in only “learning how to defend myself” this might all look a bit silly, but if you watch this documentary you’ll see that there’s quite a lot to it:
There are so many things here worthy of note.
Firstly, the connection between puppetry and Chinese martial art is ripe for research – I’m thinking of the other famous puppet show that martial artists are known for – Lion and Dragon dancing. These cultural and religious practices are still done by martial arts groups at demonstrations and festivals.
Everybody in the Manchu wrestling documentary calls it “wrestling” even though it’s a solo drill. They don’t call it a dance or puppetry. To them this is “wrestling”, but we’d never call it that in Britain, for example – I find that pretty interesting.
It’s a damn good work out. If you’ve ever done any BJJ floor drills where you walk around on your hands and feet you’ll know that it’s instantly exhausting. Manchu wrestling will get you fit! If you don’t believe me then have a go at some of these drills before you tell me I’m wrong:
Manchu wrestling actually looks pretty dangerous – you can easily break a wrist with the high-speed spinning they’re doing, especially if the stick you hold in the shoe breaks.
Mental health benefits: a part of the documentary is focused on the mental health benefits of Manchu wrestling, especially looking at its life-changing benefits for rural Chinese women whose lives seem to be reduced to raising children and farming. I found this interesting in light of how much mental health benefits are talked about in BJJ culture – “BJJ saved my life” is a commonly used phrase amongst gym rats. Perhaps there is something inherently therapeutic about any style of wrestling movements and the human body?
There’s a new episode of the Heretics podcast out. In this chat, Damon and I discuss Shuai Jiao, the popular modern Chinese wrestling style and try and separate fact from fiction. We discuss what martial arts it is related to and also if there is a connection to Japanese Kempo.
The best thing about this episode is that Damon talks a lot about Chinese cosmology, and how it may related to an earlier form of Chinese wrestling – we look at the cosmological concept of Qinglong, or the Azure Dragon.
The Azure Dragon on the national flag of China during the Qing dynasty, 1889-1912:
“What did it mean that many of the poses I was teaching were identical to those developed by a Scandinavian gymnastics teacher less than a century ago? This gymnast had not been to India and had never received any teaching in asana. And yet his system, with its five-count format, its abdominal “locks,” and its dynamic jumps in and out of those oh-so-familiar postures, looked uncannily like the vinyasa yoga system I knew so well.” –
Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice
I really love discovering these odd curiosities of 19th and early 20th century European gymnastic or martial arts that look incredibly like what we practice in the Asian martial arts styles, Qigong or Yoga. The link between 19th century French Savate (kickboxing) and the Japanese version of Karate is another fascinating connection that I’ve looked at before.
Recently I watched another video about 19th century Swedish Free Gymnastics:
Swedish Free Gymnastics has long since declined, but was pretty popular in the 19th century. There are some great archive pictures and video of the movements in that video above, and they look incredibly like what we know in China as Qigong – the idea of slow, smooth, elegant movement with force balanced around the body. In fact, some of the positions look exactly like Qigong movements I’ve been taught and practiced myself.
“The Swedish system of gymnastics is distinguished from other methods in the fact that a special apparatus is not absolutely needed for its exercises. If any argument were necessary to prove the hygienic and intellectual benefits of physical exercise, in these days of varied athletics, a scrutiny of the handbook now under notice would excite due enthusiasm. The whole range of gymnastic performance, from the simplest to the most complex exercises, is herein put before the reader with explicit directions for practice, and with a gratifying abundance of illustrations. The fact that the English language has hitherto had no comprehensive manual on the Swedish system is the occasion of the publication ; the official service of Baron Posse confirms his fitness for the authorship of this book of rules; while in mechanical arrangement nothing seems to have been omitted that would induce fondness for gymnastic practice.”
Posse, Nils. The Swedish system of educational gymnastics. B
As the video says, the similarities have lead some people to wonder if Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) was actually the inspiration for these movements. There was, after all, a political connection between China and colonialist Europe powers in the 19th century, that culminating in the Opium Wars.
The author of the video sensibly disagrees with the connection to Tai Chi Chuan, and so do I. For a start, I think these movements from Sweden are likely older than Tai Chi Chuan, The general assumption amongst people is that Tai Chi Chuan must be really, really old, yet there’s no evidence of its existence before Yang LuChan arrived in Beijing in the 1860s.
But leaving the Tai Chi Chuan question aside, the movements of Swedish Free Gymnastics look more like Qigong than Tai Chi Chuan anyway, but there are records of Chinese health movements (“tao yin”) stretching back thousands of years in China, so I don’t think we can claim a European origin for Qigong. Some sets like the Muscle tendon change set are really famous.
However, I wouldn’t discount the role of influence. The Europeans arriving in China in the 19th century in large numbers and with superior military force resulted in huge changes. As China began to experience defeat at the hands of the European powers, it turned it attention to modernising and adopting these new methods or warfare, economics and exercise. We talked a lot about this in our podcast episodes on the history of Tai Chi Chuan.
As China looked to the West new ideas of commerce, military methods and politics were considered for the first time. I wouldn’t be surprised if some element of the gymnastics of the time slipped in as well, as it did in India, with Yoga.
In part 12 we pick up our series on Xing Yi with a new dynasty, the Yuan, examining the social changes that Mongol rule brought to China and their implications for the martial arts through the lens of the artwork of the period.
Damon also covers a bit on Marco Polo and covers one of the central points of the podcast series, that he’s building the historical case for the connection between Xing Yi and Yue Fei – essentially the idea that it’s not a fiction, joke or a legend – it’s just that people are framing the question in the wrong way.
Gongki’s Horse painting, which he uses as an example of Chinese political art from the period:
A friend pointed me to this great video “A brief history of China”, by Kristofer Schipper. I really like his down to earth views on the subject and the many misconceptions about China that can arise (and have happened historically) from trying to view it through a Western lense.
He has a few more videos too, which offer great insights, like this one:
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;)”
This is a very informative interview with Ma Yue who is a Mashi Tongbei master. He talks about (amongst other things) what it was like growing up in a traditional martial arts family when the Cultural Revolution happened in China, and he had to be taught in secret. He also talks about the making of the first Shaolin Temple film, which is father was involved in, and what he sees as the many problems with Wu Shu today.