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:
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!
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.
Here’s a good interview with Prof. Paul Bowman, which I think acts as a useful introduction to te field of martial arts studies for the beginner, and how it interacts with some current thoughts and trends in society like Black Lives Matter, UFC, Bruce Lee and Conor McGregor.
* Is cultural studies trivial? * Why have you done so much research on Bruce Lee? * The response in the field of cultural studies to martial arts studies. * Accessibility in academia. * How academic publishing differs from vanity publishing. * How podcasting is pushing the conversation forward in martial arts studies. * The impact of the popularity of the UFC on martial arts studies.
I often come across a particular attitude to Chinese martial arts history amongst martial artists. They treat it as if it happens all together and all at the same time.
One common refrain you’ll hear is something like “the principles are all the same between Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi.” True, viewed from a certain perspective the “internal” arts are all based on the same principles, but I find this idea is often really being used to shut down debate and ignore historical facts.
It’s a lazy cop-out for doing actual research into the history of these martial arts. It’s a kind of “get out of jail free” card that squashes together events that happen decades, or even hundreds of years, and sometimes thousands of miles apart. It’s easy to forget just what a vast country China is, and how long its history is.
In a way, the last people you want doing your history research are martial artists. (My preference is for history scholars who are also martial arts hobbyists.)
I believe it was Sun Lu Tang who first grouped together Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi as “internal” arts in his 1915 publication, A Study of Xing Yi Boxing. Sure there had been talk of Neijia before this, but this was the point where the idea of grouping those three arts really took off.
“I myself have barely scratched the surface of the Xingyi Boxing art. It contains the states of nonpolarity and grand polarity, the five elements and eight trigrams, a starting posture and various techniques. When we examine for its origin, it can be said to be of the same source as the two arts of Taiji and Bagua, as well as the two schools of external and internal, but was then gradually turned into its own system by later generations and has evolved into various styles, as is the normal way of things.”
Sun Lu Tang – A Study of Xing Yi Boxing
The idea stuck, and later, when the Guoshu Research Academy was set up in 1928 to promote national unity initially the organisation was split into two sections – one dedicated to teaching “Shaolin” arts and the other to “Wudang” arts. (This proved disastrous because the two sections immediately started fighting with each other, in one case with bamboo spears!)
But the grouping of the Big Three, survived, probably with a little help from the Guoshu and then Wushu movements, and is still used today.
China was going through periods of tremendous change during the 19th and 20th century – 10 years here or there can make a huge difference to the political, social, cultural climate in which these arts operated and have profound implications on them.
Martial arts blew in the same breeze – swinging one year from being bastions of a return to traditional Confucian values, often with bloody outcomes, see the Boxer Rebellion, to being radical trailblazers in new scientific Western thought – see the Guoshu movement.
And the influence of Western powers on China during this time was all pervasive. As were opium and guns! It’s often forgotten that guns were in common usage during the time period that all of today’s household names in Chinese martial arts were being developed – Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut, White Eyebrow, etc,
My point really is simple: If you’re going to comment on Chinese martial arts then you need to take the wider Chinese historical perspective into account.
Our recent Heretics Podcast series on the history of Tai Chi Chuan keeps generating interesting feedback. Here’s a particularly good one I got today:
My compliments to Damon and Graham on their podcast about the origins of Tai Chi Chuan. I particularly liked mapping martial art history to the general history of the period. From a strict reading of the available evidence the podcast cannot be faulted. Where there maybe problems is in the interpretation provided, which it could be argued commits the error of anachronism. Here is a good quote from a Wikipedia article: “In historical writing, the most common type of anachronism is the adoption of the political, social or cultural concerns and assumptions of one era to interpret or evaluate the events and actions of another”. The interpretation basically argues that Tai Chi Chuan was a bonding exercise in the Imperial Court because of the political decline in the Qing state. A lot more evidence is needed to support the claim that Yang Lu Chan, probably an illiterate low-class bonded servant, was used like an external consultant to go into a large organization and help reassert tradition Confucian values. That looks like an interpretation of Chinese History filtered through the prism of 21th century corporate culture.
Well, that’s an interesting idea. I really like well thought out criticism, especially when it’s delivered so succinctly.
Let’s explore a few of these ideas, and see where it takes us.
I see our podcast on the Myth of Tai Chi as “what Damon thinks really happened based on the available evidence”.
So, there will always be a lot of interpretation involved. History is essentially how you join the dots together. I think what Damon is doing is joining the dots together in a new way that makes a lot more sense than the stories we have been given by our teachers (in some senses the last people you should be asking about real history are martial artists), which all have parts that don’t make sense:
1. The original story we were given was about Tai Ch Chuan (Taijiquan) being created by a Taoist immortal called Chan San Feng. He’s a semi-fictional character who appears at various times throughout Chinese history. Most people who don’t believe in spirits of the ancestors walking amongst us (a common belief in China then) now dismiss this story. Li Yiyu even removed it from his hand written copy of the Tai Chi classics as early as the 1880s. I think this is one for the flat-earthers out there 🙂
2. The next story is that he learned in Chen village where Tai Chi was created by Chen Wanting in the 16th Century. This story was officially adopted by the General Administration of Sport of China who awarded Chen Village, Henan, a commemorative plaque acknowledging its status as ‘the birthplace of taijiquan’, in 2007 (See Fighting Words, Wile, 2017, Martial Arts Studies (4).) however this plaque had to be removed after just two months after a “firestorm” of new claims to the Tai Chi $ appeared, including the newly ‘discovered’ Li family documents.
But apart from that the story is full of holes. i) For a start nobody in Chen village used the name “Taijiquan” until long Yang used it. ii) There is also no actual evidence he was in Chen village at all. iii) Wu Yuxiang and Yang Luchan meet in Beijing for the first time, yet both have separate connections to an obscure village in China? iv) Then there’s the issue of why they taught an outsider like Yang, but only him – they didn’t teach anybody else, ever! v) Then there’s all the extra content (lots of other forms, weapons, etc) not found in Yang style, but found in Chen style, vi) Chen village records crediting their martial art to the earlier Chen Bu, not Chen Wanting, vii) the emphasis on silk reeling found in Chen style… the list goes on and on. It just doesn’t add up. However, it still needs explaining why the Chen old form and the Yang long form follow the same pattern (see the upcoming part 6 of Heretics podcast series for Damon’s explanation).
3. There are other theories of Tai Chi Chuan being ancient – really ancient, sometimes a thousand, or two thousand years old (that’s the White Cloud Temple claim) – and coming from Wudang mountain, via various unverifiable people, and ending up in the hands of Yang LuChan somehow – but nobody takes these claims seriously.
Of course, Damon isn’t saying that Tai Chi Chuan was created out of thin air, but rather it is the content of Northern Shaolin arts that Yang LuChan (a good martial artist) knew, adapted to fit certain traditional Confucian Court values thanks to Wu Yuxiang, and with a backstory added by Wu to make it appear ancient.
A class-based society
Chinese society was class-based, and teaching martial arts would make Yang LuChan the same class as theatre performers, i.e. the lowest of all classes.
From the Wikipedia article above: “There were many social groups that were excluded from the four broad categories in the social hierarchy. These included soldiers and guards, religious clergy and diviners, eunuchs and concubines, entertainers and courtiers, domestic servants and slaves, prostitutes, and low class laborers other than farmers and artisans. People who performed such tasks that were considered either worthless or “filthy” were placed in the category of mean people (賤人), not being registered as commoners and having some legal disabilities.”
So, Yang LuChan was a Jianren, yet, there he was inside the Forbidden City, teaching (and mixing with) the most high-level people in the system.
I think this can be verified: The only students we know he had were all in senior positions, like Wu Yuxiang, and Wu Quan Yu, for example. Those are the facts of the matter, and viewed through our eyes that does make him something like an external consultant, but only superficially. Compared to a consultant of today the power dynamic would be very different. I imagine Yang would be doing a lot of bowing and kowtowing to these senior people he’s teaching.
But is that anachronism or just a reading of the facts? The teaching of martial arts as a hobby or binding action for the court, was indeed a unique innovation, but I don’t think somebody of the lowest class being used to entertain the court is that unusual at all – there is plenty of historical precedent: Theatre entertainers, for example, were regularly brought to the Forbidden City to entertain the Confucian court, throughout Chinese history:
“The Ming imperial court also enjoyed opera. However, most Ming emperors liked to keep their music entertainments inside the palace. They performed for the court. ”
Jingxi (Peking Opera) was certainly popular in the Ching court too:
“In music, the most notable development of the dynasty probably was the development of jingxi, or Peking opera, over several decades at the end of the 18th century. The style was an amalgam of several regional music-theatre traditions that employed significantly increased instrumental accompaniment, adding to flute, plucked lute, and clappers, several drums, a double-reed wind instrument, cymbals, and gongs, one of which is designed so as to rise quickly in pitch when struck, giving a “sliding” tonal effect that became a familiar characteristic of the genre. Jingxi—whose roots are actually in many regions but not in Beijing—uses fewer melodies than do other forms but repeats them with different lyrics. It is thought to have gained stature because of patronage by the empress dowager Cixi of the late Qing, but it had long been enormously popular with commoners.” – from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Qing-dynasty
So, I think we can establish Yang in the position we say he is in (the Royal Court). But let’s get to the meat of the matter!
“A lot more evidence is needed to support the claim that Yang Lu Chan, probably an illiterate low-class bonded servant, was used like an external consultant to go into a large organization and help reassert tradition Confucian values.”
I agree, but it’s hard to know what form that evidence could take? The Smith hypothesis is that it was Wu Wuxiang who was performing some sort of re-instigation of Confucian values, and Yang LuChan was just being used as a gun for hire. We know he was there, in the royal court, but the question of what he was doing there is the key issue.
Tai Chi Chuan as Neo-Confucianist martial art
Everybody knows Tai Chi is based on Taoist principles, starting with Yin and Yang. But wouldn’t you expect the martial art Yang and Wu came up with to be more Confucian in flavour than Taoist? Why then was Yang teaching a martial art that people instinctively know is Taoist in philosophy? Tai Chi Chuan (a soft, internal martial art) is, after all, based on those great symbols of Taoism – the Yin Yang symbol, the 5 elements, the 8 Bagua, etc..
So, how do you explain that contradiction? Well, I can add one more piece of evidence. I wouldn’t call it a smoking gun, but it does add to the overall narrative:
If we look at the content of what he was teaching (Tai Chi Chuan) – then you’ll find it kind of is based on traditional Confucian values, rather than anything Taoist. I’ll explain…..
People talk about Tai Chi as being Taoist a lot, but Taoism is this shaggy, messy, nature-loving, outdoorsy, shamanic, magic, smokey, rich, spiritual, earthy thing involving things like spirit possession and exorcism – it’s not very Confucian at all. Or indeed, very like Tai Chi Chuan.
The best description of Taoism I’ve heard was by Bill Porter (Red Pine), who likened Taoism to “house-broken shamanism”.
The philosophy we find in Tai Chi Chuan – yin and yang, 5 elements, 8 powers, etc. uses the symbols of Taoism, but is all very heavy on categorisation – it’s very clean, neat and orderly. In fact, very… Confucian!
Or, rather, it’s what scholars call “Neo Confucian”. At the time that Buddhism was gaining popularity in China, as a threat to Confucianism, the Confucians needed something to combat it, because they had nothing very “spiritual” in their religion, whilst Buddhism and Taoism were both full of spiritual stuff.
The Confucians plugged the gap with what became known as Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism adopted the signs and symbols and ideas of these more spiritual religions (yin and yang, Taiji symbols, 5 elements, etc), but it was really just repackaged Confucianism 101. The scholar responsible for all this was Zhu Xi, who lived during the Song Dynasty, from 1130-1200AD. He effectively sanitised all these Taoist ideas and related it all back to the 4 classic texts of Confucianism. His impact in his lifetime was not so great, but to later periods it was absolutely huge – his ideas formed the basis of the Civil and Martial exams that people had to pass to enter government/senior positions, for example.
Damon did an excellent episode about Zhu Xi’s impact on Chinese society and martial arts as part of the Heretics Xing Yi series (the same Neo-Confucian philosophy ends up being dumped on Xing Yi during a later period).
Give that episode 5 of Xing Yi a listen. To me it makes sense.
I should add some rumour control, since I think that Tai Chi people will generally not like this Neo-Confucian angle:
1. I don’t think saying that the philosophy of Tai Chi is actually Neo-Confucian, rather than Taoist is a diss to the art – an actual Taoist martial art I imagine would not be as practical! It would be messy, unfocussed and a bit wild. A martial arts form repeated over and over in the same sequence each time would probably be a strange concept to a Taoist!
2. I also don’t want to diss the Chen family – their reputation during the Ching Dynasty was of them being practical and expert martial artists who actually used their martial skills to fight bandits and escort caravans. They were the real deal! Their family martial art is older than the appearance of Taijiquan in the 1850s by far – and as any good Confucian knows, older is always better! 🙂
What matters to me about Taijiquan is that it works, not what you call the philosophy behind it.
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.
“You can’t tell a martial artists he’s a dancer without getting a bloody nose.” – G.Barlow, 2020
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 tangquan 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,