People often claim that it was Bruce Lee who was the father of the Kung Fu boom of the 1970s, but was he really? Sure, Bruce brought a sense of realism to the genre, but it was Kwai Chang Caine who set the ball rolling. The other popular TV series Monkey and The Water Margin were also influential, but felt like they were aimed at a younger audience. And for kids like me it wasn’t possible to watch a Bruce Lee movie – they all tended to be rated 18.
I’d go as far as to say that Lee wouldn’t have had the movie success he had, particularly in the west, if it weren’t for the Kung Fu series.
Here’s a good documentary on the making of Kung Fu – I still remember some of these action sequences, particularly the one where he kicks the knife out of the guy’s hand and it sticks in the roof, which is shown in this video. That moment was the start of my lifelong interest in Chinese martial arts.
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 this episode Tai Chi Notebook podcast my guest is Ken Gullette, a native of Illinois, USA, where he trains in all three of the main internal arts – Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi. Ken also runs a website called internalfightingarts.com where he trains students from around the world in the three internal arts using a combination of recorded and live classes.
Ken is quite famous for his focus on body mechanics, internal power and getting to the root of these arts in a non-mystical and no-nonsense way. In fact, he’s written an excellent book that’s available on Amazon – it’s called ‘Internal body mechanics for Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi’, and I’d recommend you get a copy.
In this episode we discuss the internal body mechanics of Tai Chi, training with disciples in the Chen family linage and there’s also a few stories of the times Ken has had to use his arts in real situations.
In this post I want to ask a question. I’m going to give an answer too, so the question is slightly rhetorical, but I think it needs to be asked.
“Why do internal martial artists spend so much of their time criticising each other’s solo forms?”
Let’s break this down – firstly, is this statement true?
I’ll give you one recent example to act as a poof of the statement:
As somebody who has been involved in discussing internal martial arts on the Internet since around the year 2000 I can attest that this happens all the time. In fact, I would say that it’s the majority of the discussion is of this nature.
You don’t need to watch the whole video. It’s long, boring, petty and doesn’t display a particularly high level of etiquette or skill.
It’s essentially one Chinese martial artist ciricising another Chinese martial artists for the same thing over and over, which is sticking his elbow out a bit too much. I know! The horror!
Ok, he probably has a point, but you could easily turn this around and criticise all the mistakes that the tall skinny guy is making too.
The question I have is why did he make this? Why must internal arts people spend all their time criticising each other’s solo forms?
Look at other martial arts – especially the ones that have a sporting side. They don’t tend to do this. MMA people do not do this,
With internal arts it’s an endless debate on degree of uprightness, too much or not enough opening of the kua, level of relaxation, sinking enough or not enough, degree of the knee flextion, etc. The list goes on…
But ok, here’s my caveat. Internal arts are obsessed over these details because they matter. The amount of opening and closing of your kua dictates the amount of power you can produce, and the quality of your movements. The position of your elbow has a direct connection to whether you can produce whole body power or not.
But nobody has the same set of rules that these things are being judged by. In theory, there should be a standard set of rules, but in reality, different styles do things in different ways, and always will. I’m more inclined to think that obsessing over details of solo forms is a bit of a trait of internal arts and less valuable than seeing what a practitioner can do in application/sparring.
The language of internal arts is also based on the same ideas. People go to their Tai Chi teacher to get corrected. The language itself is kind of negative. Nobody talks like this is in sports. You spend time with a good boxing coach and get improved.
There’s a fascinating new interview with Daniel Amos about training Kung Fu in Hong Kong over at the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog. Daniel has been training in the same style of Kung Fu and living in Hong Kong since 1976.
The majority of the interview is about his academic research methods, but the last two questions are of most interest to Kung Fu practitioners and discuss the effects of globalisation that he’s observed on Kung Fu training over the last 45 years. The result seems to be a less “fighty” version of the arts being taught, and the breakup of the complex, interlocking social, cultural and religious weave of forces that made up martial arts in favour of a more easily packaged version that can be taught piecemeal.
The lack of sparring in modern Kung Fu houses is of course a cause for concern, however he says he believes that the knowledge is still there in young practitioners, particularly the children of Kung Fu masters, and could easily be revived in the future.
Have a good read of the answers to questions 6 and 7. Here’s a quote:
“Little sparing was occurring at Hong Kong martial houses in 2019, not only among those who practiced kungfu, but also in martial houses which taught martial arts styles developed in non-Chinese cultures. Students of western Muay Thai, for example, now probably the most popular martial arts practiced in Hong Kong, estimate that only ten percent of fellow learners do contact sparring. The motivation of most is to get exercise, lose fat and stay in shape.
During fieldwork between 2017-2019 among martial houses where kungfu was practiced, I witnessed only light, geriatric sparring, that performed by my kungfu brothers and me, all of us in our sixties and seventies, the eldest members of our brotherhood then still practicing. Members of one of our brother martial houses were reported to be doing some limited sparring, but I did not witness it. In interviews with a variety of kungfu learners many complained that they’d like to do sparring, but it rarely or never happened in their martial house.
Forty-five years earlier, if someone in Hong Kong wanted to learn one of the various kungfu fighting systems one usually needed to become a devout follower of a master, join his martial house, and enter into a complex socio-cultural system of loyalties and obligations. If one was loyal to the master, respected and followed the commands of more senior kungfu brothers and studied hard, one gained the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills associated with the specific variety of Chinese martial arts taught by the master. To belong meant not only showing up at the martial house five or six times a week for intense practice, but also participating in the brotherhood’s ritual practices and religious observations.
By 2021, economic globalization and cultural homogenization in Hong Kong has a meant that the corpus of complex Chinese kungfu knowledge and practices of many styles of kungfu have frequently been fractured into separate parts, turned into individual commodities, and sold on the open marketplace. This has placed the consumer, the potential learner of kungfu skills, in the driver’s seat. “
What is Shamanism? And how does it relate to martial arts? In this episode I catch up with my old, friend and teacher Damon Smith to answer some of these questions.
Damon is an incredibly experienced martial artist with a background in various Japanese and Chinese arts including Karate, Kempo, Xing Yi, Baji and Choy Lee Fut. And those are just a few of the arts he’s pursued to a very high level.
But despite being a great martial artist Damon’s true love has always been Shamanism.
And while he’s no stranger to banging a drum, Damon’s shamanism is not the hippy dippy sort of practice you might associate shamans with, instead it’s a very down to earth and practical art, much like the martial arts he does.
In this episode we talk about the link between martial arts and shamanism, and where the crossovers lie.
Jesse Kenkamp (AKA The Karate Nerd) has done another great video on tracing the roots of Karate. Here he is with White Crane practitioner Martin Watts in Yongchun, birthplace of White Crane, which is usually considered an ancestor style to Karate.
What I liked about this video is Martin’s no-nonsense teaching of what are generally thought of as internals in Chinese martial arts and shrouded in mystery (usually by westerners using Orientalism to sell books 😉 )
My point in posting this is that Martin covers “sinking the qi to the dantien” at 4.00 – what it is and, most importantly how what it is not is just as important.
I appreciate Martin’s simple, down to earth explanation.
We stand on the cusp of a major new martial arts movie release – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 5 Rings. On it’s own this should be something I write about, but it’s also the last film that Jackie Chan’s prodigy, Brad Allen worked on before his untimely death at 48.
Australian choreographer, performer and stunt coordinator, Brad Allen, was the first non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. He was incredibly skilled – here’s a short sample of his wushu and athletic ability:
It’s not clear how Brad Allen died, but 48 is very young. RIP.
I haven’t seen Shang-Chi yet, but by all accounts it’s a Kung Fu film done right, that avoids all the usual stereotypes, and a good chunk of the film’s dialogue is spoken in Mandarin Chinese, which is then translated into English subtitles for audiences.
“As an Asian (Taiwanese) Australian, it is so obvious that the film was written through the lens of those who have a lot of love for Asian culture and have lived through the Asian experience,” wrote kabutocat on Reddit, starting a fascinating discussion about the English-language translations of Mandarin dialogue in the movie. “The Chinese lines are written so well that a lot of the times the English subtitles actually failed to convey the nuances behind each line.”
Shang-Chi’s origins lie in Marvels answer to the Kung Fu boom of the 1970s, with various Kung Fu-powered superheroes emerging, with perhaps Iron Fist being the post famous. The Shang-Chi comic was a product of its time and you can see orientalist tropes in its styling:
Shang-Chi was the first of the Kung Fu superheroes, and was designed to be the most gifted martial artist anyone had ever seen. He was trained in espionage, infiltration, assassination and more. But when he went on his first mission for his father, he broke his conditioning and dedicated himself to destroying his father’s criminal empire.
Here’s a breakdown of the film (warning SPOILERS).
Shang-Chi was the last film Brad Allen worked on, so let’s end with his excellent live performance with Jackie Chan on Saturday Night Live:
After battling hard through various technical challenges I’ve finally managed to create a Tai Chi Notebook podcast with humans on! (Previous episodes of my podcast have been a robot voice reading my blogs). I’m pleased to have my good friend Daniel Mroz on board for my first real episode where we have a conversation about what Chinese martial arts might be.
You can find it on all the usual places you find podcasts – search for The Tai Chi Notebook on Apple podcasts, Spotify, etc.. or here’s a link:
What is the relationship between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre, religion, mime, serious leisure activities and military tactics? How do all these factors intermingle and produce the arts we have today? In this wide ranging discussion between Graham Barlow of the Tai Chi Notebook Podcast and Daniel Mroz, Professor of Theatre at the University of Ottawa we tackle all these subjects and more. As well as being a professor of theatre, Daniel is also a Choy Li Fut and Taijiquan practitioner and has spoken at the Martial Arts Studies conference and contributes articles to various journals including the Martial Arts Studies journal.
1) That Daniel Mroz quote in full:
“By ‘Chinese martial arts’, I refer to folkways that began to assume their present forms from the mid 19th to the early 20th centuries, at the end of the Imperial, and the beginning of the Republican periods of Chinese history. These arts train credible fighting abilities through exacting physical conditioning; through partnered, combative drills and games; and through the practice of prearranged movement patterns called tàolù 套路 (Mroz, 2017 & 2020). For millennia, up end of the Imperial period in 1912, China explicitly understood itself as a religious state (Lagerwey 2010). Communities across China not only used their martial arts to defend themselves, they performed them as theatrical acts of religious self-consecration, communal blessing, and entertainment in an annual calendar of sacred festivals (Ward, 1978; Sutton, 2003; Boretz, 2010; Amos, 2021). Modernization, and secularization at the end of the Imperial period removed the original context of these practices. The Chinese martial arts were transformed over the course of the 20th century by both their worldwide spread, and by their ideological appropriation by the Chinese Republic of 1912, and the Communist state that succeeded it in 1949 (Morris, 2004). Their religious heritage forgotten in many social, and cultural contexts within greater China, and internationally, the arts we practice today combine a legacy of pragmatic combat skill, religious enaction, participatory recreation, competitive athleticism, and performed entertainment.”