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.
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 was alerted to a great post by Reddit User drkaczuz about the role of stunt men and women compared to the same scenes done by “real” martial artists who are not trained in movie-fu.
I’ll quote it here (I hope he doesn’t mind because it’s really interesting, and he makes some great points):
“Yeah, people very often misunderstand the role of stunt doubles, especially in fight scenes. It’s often not as much about skill, or risk as about production logistics. Even if you have a physically capable actor, with MA experience, you still want to use the stunt doubles, simply to squeeze the most out of pre-production time. You can’t lock the star of the show in a room with the stunt crew for a few weeks to rehearse the scene to perfection, they need to well, act. Learn their lines, prepare for their non-action scens, do marketing stuff, photoshoots, etc. What you CAN do is have the stunt double rehearse the entire choreography for months untill it’s buttery smooth and them tag them in on a moment’s notice.
Another thing with actors that have MA background is how different movie fighting is from real fighting – a lot of time real fighting skills and reflexes actually make on-screen fighting look worse.
I think Donnie Yen vs Mike Tyson is a good example showcasing a lot of issues when working with real athletes – we all know Mike is insanely fast, but in this clip he appears slow and sluggish, and you can’t really see the power behind the blows – further below I’ll try to explain why.
Anderson Silva from the same flick, notice the kicks especially, also look at all Randy Couture scenes from Expendables – they’re a dark, shakycam mess, but a lot of shakycam and bad lighting is damage control to hide hits that didn’t sell well.
I am not saying that having actual martial artists on set is bad – but you have to manage them really well, have an action director that will guide them and communicate their vision clearly. In a lot of cases a director will oh so wrongly assume that if they have the star martial artist on set they can just tell them to do their thing and it’ll come together somehow. Also it’s not that being good at actual fighting is somehow a hinderance – all good stuntpeople will be at least competent in one or more actual combat sport or martial art. It’s just they have a LOT of additional knowledge on top, as well as the ability to turn some instincts on and off.
There’s more to this post, including links to good examples of well done fight choreography.
I’ve known Michael Babin (online) for a number of years, and always enjoyed his insights into online discussion forum arguments and martial arts in general. Michael lives in Canada and may, or may not, be a retired Tai Chi teacher. Do we ever retire? Now David Roth-Lindberg, another online friend, has done a Q&A with him and published it on his blog, Thoughts on Tai Chi.
It’s worth a read as Michael has quite a few insights into the world of being a Tai Chi teacher and his dry sense of humour always amuses me.
I was interviewed for Ken Gullette’s Internal Fighting Arts podcast recently. It was a fun show and Ken is a gracious and generous host and a new friend in martial arts. We had a really wide-ranging discussion about so many different subjects. I’m sure each topic we touched on could have been a podcast in itself, but Ken did a great job editing it to keep it on track.
We start talking about what it’s like starting BJJ later in life, then move on to Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi, Choy Lee Fut and XingYi and if they are still relevant today for self-defence. Hopefully, you find something here of interest.
Thanks to Ken for the opportunity. I’d suggest checking out his other episodes, too.
Scott posted some answers to various questions he gets over at Strengthness with a Twist, his blog. I thought the first one was most interesting:
What do you mean when you say martial arts are rituals?
Rituals are ways of making order out of chaos. Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order. It is a daily ritual that has deep, lasting, and profound effects on every aspect of our being. This is true of martial arts world wide, but it is particularly clear in the structure of Chinese martial arts as they were understood before the Boxer Uprising.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote since it’s pretty clear to anybody who does a daily practice of Tai Chi (or related martial/yoga/chi kung type practice) in the morning, that it soon becomes a kind of ritual, whether you like it or not. Not a ritual in the Western religious sense, but a ritual for your body (which Scott is arguing is, in fact, the true essence of religion in the Eastern sense).
I like his definition of “bringing order from chaos” even if it does sound a bit Jordan Peterson fan-boy-ish 😉
But if we can separate the phrase from the alt-right ideology it has become attached to, that phrase is what you are doing to your body when you practice Tai Chi in the morning. Having just woken up in the morning you can consider your body to be in a state of ‘chaos’ – you’re not yet functioning at 100%, your tendons will be shortened from lying down for so long and your body might ache from uncomfortable sleeping positions, and it needs to stretch. In fact, we stretch as a reflex action once we wake. Mentally you are also not yet “with it”, at least not until you’ve properly caffeinated.
A morning Tai Chi “ritual” (or “routine” if you like), can bring you back into occupying your body properly and get it ready for the demands of the day. When I think about what the main health benefit of Tai Chi is, I think it’s this. People tend to treat Tai Chi as a panacea that cures everything from a bad back to an ingrowing toenail. I take all the latest ‘scientific’ research about the miraculous healing benefits of Tai Chi with a pinch of salt. I think its best feature is simply this: it’s a way of gently ordering and strengthening the body in the morning, ready for the day.
I also like Scott’s later quote,
“Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order“
This one brings to mind a whirling Baguazhang practitioner spinning in circles, taming the elements he is working with, or two sword fighters caught in the midst of a leaping blow.
It all sounds a bit fantastical, but again, I think there’s some truth buried here.
Through techniques in martial arts, we are bringing order to the chaos of the fight. This is perfectly demonstrated in a Jiujitsu match – it’s all scrambling, spinning madness, then order is established as a joint lock or choke is put in place, as one practitioner controls the limbs and body of the other through correct position, leverage and technique, and the ‘fight’ ends.
Performing the Tai Chi form is an analogy for how the whole universe was created out of chaos, and order established. When you start the Tai Chi form, in a still, standing position you are in a state of Wu Chi – the undifferentiated primordial state of emptiness, but always with the possibility of giving birth to something. Then the big bang happens and you start to move – Yin and Yang become differentiated and you are continually moving between these two opposite poles. The body opens and closes in a continuous spiral. As one part of the body is opening, another is closing until the final movement – often known as “Carry the Tiger back to the mountain”- when you return to stillness. The mountain here represents that primordial stillness. You have brought order to chaos and returned to the mountain.
My Facebook friend Byron Jacobs is the Technical & Events Manager and Technical Committee Member at International Wushu Federation in China. That’s a pretty high up in Chinese Martial Arts for a guy from South Africa 🙂
This is a YouTube video about him:
As you can see from the video, he’s fluent in Chinese and lives in China. He trains Xingyiquan under his Sifu, Di Guoyong.
Recently Byron appeared in an episode of the Chinese TV documentary “Da Dao Taiji” in which he was interviewed about traditional Chinese martial arts, its utility in the modern age and the problems it is facing both in the mentality of practitioners and their methods today. I don’t think they were quite expecting such a frank interview!
Unsurprisingly, it was edited quite heavily, and they only kept some of these “inconvenient truths” in the documentary.
The good news is that here on Tai Chi Notebook you can view his whole interview, complete with subtitles. It may have been too hot for Chinese TV, but nothing is too hot for you, my dear readers!
(As an interesting sidenote, the new laws in China were passed last year prohibiting people with tattoos from being shown on TV, so they had to smudge out his tattoo for the aired version of this!)
Enjoy the inconvenient truths video:
And here is the entire episode 2, as it appeared on Chinese TV:
I thought the interview went pretty well, so here it is in full. Please share it!
We jumped all over the place from Chinese history, the Boxer Rebellion, martial arts as theatre, Shaolin, Wudang, the origins of Xingyiquan, dealing with real violence, Rory Miller, Mexican drug cartels, child kidnapping in ancient China and more, including the superbly named Guan Gong, who was the “God of War and Accounting”!
I’ve uploaded it to both YouTube and Vimeo. I cut things short at the 1-hour mark but had the feeling we could have kept going for another 2 hours at least, so maybe we’ll do it again, perhaps with a little more focus on a particular subject.