Why do people think Tai Chi has to be really old?

My recent Heretics Podcasts episodes on the history of Tai Chi Chuan seem to have provoked a lot of debate. People I’ve talked to seem to have this unshakeable belief that Tai Chi is ancient, and it must be ancient to be authentic. It’s simply unacceptable to them that Tai Chi is not as old as they think it is. This myth that old = authentic is pervasive.

I’ve become quite fascinated with the reasons why people think like this. A lot of it goes back to why we, people living in the West, started Asian martial arts in the first place. Quite often we reject our own history and culture, and adopt a fantasy of a Chinese Kung Fu culture that maybe never existed. Were we all just looking for our own Yoda?

In this new interview for the Martial Arts Studies podcast, historian Prof. Peter Lorge talks about this exact issue, and tackles the subject of orientalism, which often provides our first impulse to try a Chinese martial art, head on. It’s well worth a listen.

The multitude of meanings in Chinese Martial Arts

“You can’t tell a martial artists he’s a dancer without getting a bloody nose.” – G.Barlow, 2020

Bruce Lee, Cha Cha dancer.

I haven’t posted much recently, but the recent deep dive my podcast has taken into the history of a particular Chinese martial art (Taijiquan) seems to have coincided with a number of contentious discussion I’ve had elsewhere on the history of Chinese martial arts that have been taking up my time. Let me redress that imbalance now.

Experience has taught me that if you tell a group of Chinese martial artists that Chinese martial arts used to be so intertwined with Chinese theatre and religion that the two were indistinguishable you invariably annoy them. You will be laughed at and shunned. There are howls of outrage.

No! Chinese martial arts are based purely on effectiveness for fighting! Are you crazy?!?!

But at the same time the very same people will put on demonstration of martial arts (sometimes in the street, but sometimes in an actual theatre!) and perform things like Dragon Dance, without giving it a second thought, or thinking it in any way detracts from their pursuit of serious martial skills, or their wish to be see as serious pugilists.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why this is. I think it’s hard for people living in the modern age to get their heads around what it would have been like to have lived at the time these arts they practice were created. Yet, it’s important to note that the people who created the Chinese martial arts we’re all familiar with now – things like Choy Li Fut, Wing Chun, Bak Mei, etc, lived in a time when ghosts, demons and ancestors walked amongst us. A time when rituals were used to appease their spirits and gain spiritual merit for the community, and martial arts played a huge part in that.

The performance of a martial arts form was itself the enactment of a ritual for self consecration. The Chinese Government always used ritual to organise the state. The Chinese state was a religious state (See China: A Religious State, Hong Kong University Press).

As the 20th century began in China, the shame felt over the Boxer Rebellion and defeat by European powers, gave way to the realisation that modern ways would need to be adopted to avoid the humiliating defeats that had gone before. This lead to an almost endless series of wars, revolts, reforms and tragedies that resulted in societal change right down to the core, and the martial arts being stripped of much of their social, spiritual and religious function to become simply pugilistic calisthenics. Considering the horrors China endured, we should be glad they survived at all. 

Two great Chinese martial artists I have a lot of time for are Tim Cartmell and Byron Jacobs. Here they have a robust and fantastic discussion about what they’ve trained in and their thoughts on making Chinese martial arts practical again by using modern sparring methods (amongst other things). 

The conversation is really down to earth and useful. It’s clear that they consider the Chinese martial arts to be about fighting first and foremost. Can you imagine throwing in concepts of theatre and spiritual rituals into this conversation? You’d be laughed straight out the door! (If Youtube has doors, that is). 

I think that’s why it’s very hard to talk to martial artists about things like ritual, theatre and how these were entwined with Chinese martial arts almost 200 years ago. They are clearly not today, to the same extent, and yet the connection still persists in China (somehow!).

As Jo Riley relates:

‘In 1991 I filmed a wǔshù club training in the village temple in Zhong Suo village in Guizhou under their master Lu Huamei, who was also the head of the village theatre company. Lu teaches tang quan style, which is in the middle level range of skills, and over three hundred villagers train regularly with him (nowadays girls included). Six small boys also take part in the training, the youngest of whom is ten years old, and the skills they learn from Lu are also observed from standing on the stage with the village theatre company when they perform. As in many villages, the village temple, martial arts training and performance indivisibly form the cradle of acting in and spectating theatre’ (1997:17).

Riley, J. Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1997.

Some people are engaging in this conversation though, and I wanted to bring them to your attention. Daniel Mroz has just given a lecture at the most recent Martial Arts Studies Conference, (which was a virtual event, due to the Covid 19 Pandemic).

His lecture “The Meaning of Taolu in Chinese Martial Arts” is now online:

Or you can read it here:

Here’s a great quote regarding Choy Li Fut:

Historically, the Choy Li Fut exponents playing tàolù enacted a magical, religious role for their community. The play of tàolù in a seasonal calendar of popular rituals demonstrated the adepts’ martial prowess while earning spiritual merit for the entire community. By practicing and demonstrating the arduous and humbling physical training Choy Li Fut requires, these performers consecrated and re-consecrated themselves over and over to what Daniel Amos refers to as a religion of the body (1997: 31-61). This self-consecration made them spiritually inviolable and venerable in the eyes of their community. Their demonstration of skill acquired through perseverance, or gōngfū (功夫), was a meritorious act performed on behalf of the collective.
This self-consecration was also tacitly expressed in theatre. Theatre permeated public and private life in 19thcentury China. While professional actors belonged to a marginalized underclass, people loved the entertainment they provided and hired them not just to perform but also to teach and coach. For professional, amateur and private groups, the learning, rehearsing and presentation of theatre was beloved, constant and intense. While non-actors would never play professionally, virtually everyone was involved in performing at some level. Chinese theatre, or xìqǔ (戲曲) and Chinese martial arts employ many virtually identical training methods.

Here’s a great presentation by David Palmer and Martin Tse on the connection between social practices, ritual, and martial arts:

Personally I would like to embrace both these world views – the practical and the spiritual (for want of a better word).  I don’t think they need to be mutually exclusive at all. I am interested fully in the practical application of Chinese martial arts, but I’m also happy for its long and complicated history to enhance what I do. I don’t see it as a distraction or an irrelevance. I am so grateful these arts have survived during some of the worst atrocities in human history and made it through to the modern age, and I think viewing them in their original context empowers today’s modern practitioner. 

Human beings are capable of entertaining many different perspectives on something simultaneously, even if they are sometimes contradictory. In the words of Bob Dylan on the opening track of his excellent new album, 

“I’m a man of contradictions, 

I’m a man of many moods, 

I contain multitudes”.

Authenticity and competence in Chinese martial arts

Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com Does his performance look competent to you? What about authentic?

As noted at about 6.58 in this lecture on Tao Lu (forms) by Daniel Mroz, which I find myself coming back to frequently, martial artists, when evaluating others, are primarily concerned with two things: 1. authenticity and 2. competence.

Firstly, to be “good” a video clip showing a form performance, or sparring sequence must be authentic, by which I mean it must be clearly demonstrating the martial art style it claims to be. Evidence for this can be found amongst the many howls of “that’s not even Tai Chi!” That lie in the comments section beneath any video clips pertaining to be Tai Chi shown in some sort of real, full or semi-contact application.

Even competence, without the necessary authenticity to back it up, is thrown out.  Imagine the horror of a kick boxing clip accidentally labelled “full contact Wing Chun” leaking onto the Internet for example. People would get very upset. And it would inevitably lead to accusations that “You are destroying the very art itself!”, regardless of whether the techniques shown were competent.

Authenticity, then, is the most important thing. But who is to judge the authenticity of a performer? Quite often it cannot be seen in their performance, but is inferred by their lineage.  One of the many reasons that lineage is such a big deal in Chinese martial arts, and not such a big deal in other martial arts that have a more sporting focus, is that it confers legitimacy. Any authenticity gathered by being able to overpower somebody in a confrontation (whether cooperative, staged or real) is instantly rendered null and void if it turns out that your teacher’s teacher was a DVD player. In contrast, martial arts that have a sporting side can derive their credibility from competition results instead, so lineage is not such a big deal.

Sometimes the aesthetics of the situation can speak to authenticity. Chinese martial artists often wear silk pyjamas and sippers, despite their complete lack of suitability for opening a can of whoop ass in, but they do confer the image of authenticity. Then there’s the ethnicity. Being Chinese clearly gives you an advantage in the authenticity stakes. These are, after all, Chinese martial arts.

But once authenticity is established, what next? We then look to competence. Does what they are doing look competent? i.e. would it work. And often this is where most martial artists, who exist in a modern Wu Shu culture that has no concept of a punch to the face being a regular and valid occurrence, seem to have the most trouble. 

Chinese television regularly ran TV shows where state-approved martial arts masters presented themselves doing completely ridiculous things, like single-handedly beating a bunch of rugby players at rugby, or stopping a bird taking off from the palm of their hand because of their advanced sensitivity. Beating strong men in strength contests. Even beating a Judo player at Judo. This was not done with a sense of comic irony, as it would be in the West. The viewer was expected to take these things at face value, and it seems that a lot of people actually did. Including many Western martial artists who posted these tragicomedies as proof of the untapped potential of the internal arts. (See my recent post for more of this phenomena).

Competence then, like beauty, is also, it seems, in the eye of the beholder. 

What is to be done about this situation? Probably nothing. It always was thus, and probably always will be.

However, you can start to notice when you fall into the same trap. You can bet that 90% of the arguments you find on martial arts discussion forums are not about the thing itself being discussed, but about what the thing is called. Take away the name of the video clip, martial art or subject and you remove the majority of issues of authenticity, and you are often left with only competence to discuss, but as we’ve seen, even that is subjective. Still, I would argue it makes for a better discussion.

Authentic and competent? You decide. Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com

Can traditional martial arts survive COVID-19?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

There’s a great article over on Kung Fu Tea (Chinese Martial Studies) that talks about the long term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on martial arts training, but as usual takes in a lot of other stuff.

I really like this quote:

“Setting questions of charlatans, deluded masters and outdated training methods aside, I am going to hypothesize that even in the best-case scenario, there is a pretty simple reason why professional boxer/mma fighters will always beat the traditional martial arts master in those YouTube videos.  It comes down to specialization, or simply putting in the hours.  All else being, equal the individual who trains all day for one task will be beat the individual who trains for four and then runs an afterschool program to pay the bills.  It is a mathematical fact, and the reason why ever-increasing degrees of specialization have become the dominant paradigm for social development in the current era.”

Invest in Loss: Hope for Traditional Martial Arts

Of course, the question of “deluded masters” is quite a large one. Or maybe it only appears that way because of the media exposure these events create.

But his point is that traditional martial arts have to be all things to all people. MMA, boxing or San Da classes are designed to develop a very specific set of skills, and are full of people who all want to do the same thing. Traditional arts tend to have all sorts of different customers, and provide varied social functions, including kids classes. This obviously has disadvantages for the traditional arts when it comes to competing against practitioners of highly specialist fighting arts

“All else being, equal the individual who trains all day for one task will be beat the individual who trains for four and then runs an afterschool program to pay the bills.”

Invest in Loss: Hope for Traditional Martial Arts

However, Ben’s argument is that it gives the traditional arts more flexibility, both economic and organisationally, when it comes with dealing with the challenges thrown up by the global pandemic.

Narrow specializations presupposes economies of scale that may be achievable in some-times and places, but not others.  In periods of prolonged economic contraction a neighborhood martial arts schools which can do a little bit of everything might have a better chance of surviving than the large BJJ academy focused only on competition, the reality fighting school focused only on paramilitary knife/gun defense ,and the Wushu program with an emphasis on gymnastics.

Invest in Loss: Hope for Traditional Martial Arts

The invention of the Samurai

grayscale photo of woman holding katana

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!

General Qi Jiguang: On fighting pirates and his connection to Taijiquan

Qi_Jiquan

I’d like to point you to an excellent article by Sascha Matuszak on the Ming Dynasty General Qi Jiguang. In his 1560 book Jixiao Xinshu (“New treatise on disciplined service”), which contains a chapter called “Quanjing Jieyao Pian” (“Chapter on the fist cannon and the essentials of nimbleness”). This chapter is famous because it contains the first written reference to Kung Fu written by a military person.

(You’ll find a translation of the chapter here if you would rather just read the original source material.)

In his article Sascha says:

“There is a lot of speculation as to why Qi Jiguang included martial arts in his military treatise, but it is most likely that several trends converged to make including martial training a sensible thing to do. A few of them would be the rise of taijiquan during the late Ming Dynasty, the superior close combat skills of Japanese pirates, an incredible lack of disciplined, trained Chinese troops, and Qi Jiguang’s own experience training martial arts and developing farmers into soldiers.” – Sascha Matuszak

While I love the article, I’m puzzled by the inclusion of the rise of Taijiquan as a reasoning device for the inclusion of the chapter on kung fu, since 1560 was three hundred years before anybody had even heard of Taijiquan. The great populariser of Taijiquan, Yang LuChan died in 1872.

Interestingly, the chapter written by General Qi does contain references to some things that crop up in Taijiquan centuries later… Does this sound familiar to Yang stylists?

“The Golden Rooster: stand on one leg and cock the head askew.”

“Golden Rooster stands on one leg” is a well known Taijiquan posture.

“The Ambush Crouch posture: it is like using the hunting bow to lie in wait for a tiger;”

I’m thinking of the posture known as “Bend the bow to shoot the tiger”, also found in Yang style Taijiquan.

“Change to a lower position and momentarily take the single whip stance”.

Yang-single

Yang Cheng Fu showing Yang style Taijiquan “Single whip”.

While Qi seems to have a love/hate relationship with Kung Fu, it’s interesting to note that Qi incorporated “Chinese individuals capable of acrobatic performance including boxing instructors and Buddhist monks” into his army to meet the challenge of fighting Japanese pirates, who were much better versed in close-quarter combat skills than uniformed Chinese soldiers.

In chapter 14, he makes criticisms of the existing martial arts of the time as being too specialised, and that by combining them you can cover all bases better. My feeling is that although he does say he engaged in training at Liu Caotang’s Striking Fists school,  he’s a military man, an outsider looking at civilian arts he isn’t involved with personally or practices, so you get an interesting perspective.

He’s continually judging what is credible and what is not – something that continues to this day on martial arts forums on the Internet!

 

 

 

Take a long hard look at yourself, Chinese martial artist

mirror fragments on gray surface with the reflection of a person s arm

Photo by Thiago Matos on Pexels.com

A new video in the long line running ‘Tai Chi master vs MMA guy’ series got posted the other day. Rather than talk about it here straight away I wanted to see what the reaction was from the martial arts community, and boy, it didn’t disappoint!

This whole MMA vs Tai Chi genre was started by the now-infamous Xu Xiaodong who posted the first video showing what happens when a delusional Tai Chi “master” gets in a fight with an MMA guy.

The qualifications for being a “Tai Chi master” these days seem to be that you have:

1) The backing of Chinese state TV, who will post lots of faked videos of you performing magical martial skills.

2) You have a sufficient number of minions and followers to do you bidding.

3) You look the part (silk pyjamas) and have can talk a good talk about your abilities.

Of course, none of these martial abilities are grounded in reality, so when you get in a challenge match with an MMA guy it usually ends quickly and badly for you. Chinese martial arts, particularly Tai Chi, is the focus of the soft power emanated by Beijing and the hyper-nationalistic Chinese government on the global stage. Therefore, publicly humiliating a Tai Chi “master” doesn’t make the MMA guy very popular in China, and Xu Xiaodong has been badly persecuted – his social credit score is now so low that he can’t even travel on trains and his social media accounts keep being deleted.

After the initial video of Xu Xiaodong surfaced he didn’t let the persecution put him off and he kept calling out the masters boasting of their skills on state TV. Challenge after challenge followed. One involved self-proclaimed Tai Chi/Xing Yi Master Ma Bao Guo who had previously paid a retired cage fighter Peter Irving in the UK to perform in a demo video that made him look good, and was boasting that this video was proof he was the real thing.

In this excellent article, Peter recounts the story behind the video.

Here’s the video:

To anybody that knows anything about fighting it’s obvious that Peter is just feeding attacks to Ma who reacts with some twitching responses. The fact that some people thought this was real says a lot about the mentality of minions and followers.

Xu and Ma’s challenge match was all set to go ahead (and would have ended the same way as all the others) but Ma actually called the police on his own challenge match and it was called off!

But Ma Bao Guo wasn’t giving up. At 69 he recently got in a challenge match with a San Da (Chinese kickboxing) guy who was 20 years younger than him. Here’s the video of Ma Bao Guo vs the San Da guy

As expected, it was a shocking display of ineptitude, and as I said, the reactions of the martial arts community have been interesting. Here are a few of the common responses I noticed:

  1. The rebranding of this as MMA vs Tai Chi to fit the narrative.
    The fight is actually between two practitioners of Chinese styles – one is Tai Chi/Xing Yi and the other is San Da, which is a homegrown Chinese kickboxing style. But it instantly becomes “MMA” because it fits the story created so far.
  2. “The Chinese have absolutely ruined kungfu.”
    Hard to argue with this really.
  3. Concern for Ma’s safety.
    This was my first thought – getting knocked out like that at 69 could have been fatal, and will likely have long-term effects.
  4. He needs to be sued for fraud.
    I wonder how many minions and followers he convinced of his nonsense over the years? I wonder what they think of his teachings now? If they gained health benefits are they now invalid?
  5. Why don’t those Kungfu guys that angrily complain about the fraudulent masters’ performance themselves step up to make Kungfu great again?
    It seems like a bit of false reasoning to me. I think the point is that if you are going to claim abilities then you need somebody to test them. Perhaps you need to be more realistic about what you claim? The reason Xu is not challenging 20-year-old kickboxers, is that they’re not claiming magical abilities on state-run TV. And also, it’s usually the old masters doing the challenging!
  6. “I look at someone getting beaten and it has little to do with me or my training.”
    True – exposing the delusional Tai Chi masters doesn’t mean that Tai Chi itself is delusional. If you are honest about what you can and can’t do, then that’s a good thing.

But then we get to number 7, and this is the one that really gets my goat…..

        7. “It says a lot about those that post these clips.”

What???

Aiming your ire at the guy lifting the curtain to show a little old man, not a wizard, behind it is something you’d attribute more to the mad emperor Nero, (who had a habit of shooting dead the bearers of bad news) than the sane and balanced mind of Marcus Aurelius, one of the last ‘good’ emperors of Rome.

The event was done publicly. There were press there with cameras. Ma had clearly arranged for this to be broadcast. And I can bet if (by some miracle) Ma had actually defeated the San Da guy, then heralds of his victory would be celebrated far and wide by everybody who purports to be a Chinese martial artist.

Stop trying to shame people for exposing the bullshit.

You can’t have it both ways. If you do something sportive and public then it remains pubic, regardless of whether you like the outcome. The point of challenge matches is to see what works. Part of the appeal of MMA for me is that it’s on one hand sport, but on the other a long-running public education project about what works in fighting.

I can already feel the voices of those “MMA is not for the street!” guys building as I write this, but you know – screw them. A good answer to that is that if you can’t make your art work with a limited rule set that simulates a real fight as closely as we can make it, how are you supposed to make it work when the other guy isn’t even restricted by those few rules?

San Da, boxing or MMA is a young man’s game. Old masters of whatever martial art it is should really stop trying to engage in it altogether. Putting yourself in a position where you can get knocked out cold at 69 years old is just a terribly bad idea. The implications for what remains of your life are serious. There’s a reason that Muay Thai fighters’ careers usually end in the 20s.

The whole thing was folly.

Ma was delusional for

  1. Thinking that whatever martial skills he had gained from a lifetime of pushing minions, followers, and paid performers, around while wearing silk pyjamas could actually translate into real fighting skills.
  2. Thinking that you could do this at 69 years old.

But human beings are delusional. And in normal life, we can get away with it up to a point because there are no serious consequences. I talked about this in my recent interview on the Martial Arts Studies podcast. My point was that nature is not delusional, which is why the Song Dynasty had such success economically and military thanks to the Li Movement, which aimed to get back to looking at nature for what it is, not what we think it is. That was the point I was making about studying animal methods (that I don’t think my interviewer quite picked up on) that a snake does what a snake does regardless of what human beings think about it, or even better, with no human beings around at all.

Similarly, MMA or San Da or challenge matches bring martial artists into direct contact with nature, or reality, if you like. And sometimes that can be a painful act of recognition.

It should be celebrated, not turned away from. Look it full in the face and learn. As the old martial arts saying goes:

“In martial arts you either win or you learn.”

It’s probably not a good idea to wait until you’re 69 to start learning.