The great mystery of Kung Fu forms

One of the frequent criticisms I hear of the idea that there is a connection between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre and religion is that no respectable Chinese martial arts teacher has ever implied their work comes from dance or spiritual ritual, so the idea is laughable. I have experienced a pretty negative reaction from some of my Chinese martial arts friends to these ideas. The thought that the rough and tough martial art they genuinely suffered to learn and dedicated their lives to had religious or (worse) theatrical origins is anathema to their world view, akin to an insult.

But the question really is, how can they not be theatrical? Just look at Chinese martial arts – of course they’re theatrical!

Here are some questions to ask yourself: Why do we do long complex, showy forms at all? Why is Chinese martial arts still so strongly associated with Lion Dance? Why do its modern day performers so often put on demonstrations for the local community, on stages? Why do performances sometimes have chaotic drumming soundtracks?

I’m sure any competent Chinese martial arts practitioner can produce answers to all these questions based entirely in the physical realm of pugilism – it’s all physical training at the end of the day –  but when you put all these questions together an obvious picture begins to form.

Nobody looks at Capoeira and says, “this has nothing to do with dance”. So, why do most Chinese martial arts practitioners look at their long theatrical forms and say, “this has nothing to do with theatre or religious practice”?

There’s an inherent mystery to Tao Lu, or “forms” found in Chinese martial arts. This great video by The Scholar-General hopes to provide some answers:

The Invention of Martial Arts, Popular Culture Between Asia and America by Paul Bowman

I’ve just got a copy of The Invention of Martial Arts, Popular Culture Between Asia and America, by Paul Bowman. (Amazon link. Non-Amazon link). Firstly, yes, that excellent cover illustration is a picture of Jim Kelly playing the iconic character Williams in Enter the Dragon, a character who speaks volumes about the international and multi-ethnic appeal of East Asian martial arts in the early 1970s. It was created by the incredible Jon Daniel, who passed away in 2017.

Some of Bowman’s work is very academic, but this one is for “normal people”, like me. I’m still on the Introduction, but feel compelled to write something about it because this book is dripping with ideas to do with the conversations we all have around martial arts.

That to me is what much of Martial Arts Studies is – it’s not about the martial arts themselves, it’s about “what we talk about, when we talk about martial arts”, which would otherwise be left unexamined.

Take his writing on theory in the introduction:

“At first glance martial arts may seem simple. But any discussion of them will involve an implicit or explicit theory about them.”

So true. If you’ve ever been involved in any sort of online discussion about martial arts you’ll find the participant are talking past each other because of an assumption of (often contradictory) theory that underlines everything they say to each other about any subject to do with marital arts. One person thinks the martial art is really all about this, and the other person thinks the martial art is really all about that, and they go on busily talking about different things.

He raises the brilliant point that no theory of martial arts (or culture) can contain all the answers and that “different theories offer variations and varieties of perspective. Looking at things from the perspective of one paradigm, or orientation, followed by another, and then another is stimulating and illuminating in many ways. The shifts in perspective caused by this can produce more well-rounded or enriched understandings of phenomena, and can also instil a prudent awareness of the limits of our own understanding. However, by the same token, such shifts can also produce contradictory, conflicting incompatible pictures of ‘the same thing’.”

It should come as no surprise that the title of the book can then be viewed in multiple ways. He’s not talking about the literal invention of the term “martial arts”, or the actual martial arts themselves, but the invention of the ideas about martial arts, ways of thinking about them, depicting them and valuing them.

I could go on, but really, I’d recommend grabbing a copy yourself.

What are we really doing when we do martial arts?

This is a fascinating talk between Drs Jared Miracle and Paul Bowman on martial arts. There’s a little section from 31.20 onwards where they get into the miasma that surrounds martial arts and how it can be manipulated for nation building and national identity. the example given is Tae Kwan Do and its need to be ancient. But they go on to talk about how, on a personal level, we often have an idea about what we are doing when we do martial arts that doesn’t necessarily match what we are actually doing or getting out of the martial art we practice.

Where Karate got its kicks from (it was the French!)

This is a very nicely made video from the Karate Nerd that shows the influence of Western military methods (created by the French from Savate) on the formation of Japanese Karate. This influence of the West on Japan was something we talked about a lot in our podcast on The origins of Kempo and Jiujitsu, but it’s nice to see a video that uses old footage so well to demonstrate the point.

Here’s some of that lovely Savate from 1924, in normal and slow motion:

A brief history of China

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:

What is an authentic understanding of Chinese martial arts?

Qing Dynasty martial artists performing in a procession (between 1901-1904)

I’m still fascinated by that film I posted a little while ago of China from 1901-1904. It’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the people who were around at the time that the popular martial arts of Northern China – Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan were being formalised into the structures and routines we still know and recognise today.

It gives a small insight into what the martial arts of the time were like, we have an idea of what they practiced, but we don’t always know where they practiced them, and to some extent really why they practiced them. There’s a particular sequence starting at 17.10 in the film where we see a procession of sorts going along a riverbank and then entering a village or town. There are martial arts performers doing twirls and spins of their weapons as they go. The setting is informal, music is being played (we see the musicians) and it has something of an air of the Saint’s Day religious processions you still see going on between villages in rural European nations, or the May Day “Hobby Hoss” procession that can still found in Cornwall in the United Kingdom.

But back to China. The martial artists involved seem embedded into the culture of the place and time as much as the musicians or flag holders.

“There was a well established pattern of village festival culture in Northern China. The ritual was called a sai and it was based on a three-part structure: inviting, welcoming and seeing off the gods. Ritual could last anywhere from three days to a month. Wherever you happened to be, these rituals were happening nearby every two weeks. A smaller sai might have only 50 people officiating and a thousand participants, while a large one might involve hundreds of ritual experts and 100,000 participants. A large ritual could invoke as many as 500 gods, their statues escorted out of temples in massive processions with armed escorts of martial performers that snaked between villages for miles.”

“According to David Johnson, ritual festivals were so common and so old and so large that they were overwhelmingly the most important influence shaping the symbolic universe of the common people. Regionally they happen about every two weeks and could involve over a hundred villages, with processions that strung out for miles attracting thousands of spectators. “It is quite impossible to understand what villagers… in North China thought and felt about the world of politics, about Chinese history and traditions, about the world of gods and demons, or about any of the grand matters of life and death, without a close familiarity with sai [and similar rituals]. Ref: David Johnson 1997, “Temple Festivals in Southeastern Shanxi”, Overmyer 2009,8.”

From Tai Chi, Baguazhang and the Golden Elixir: Internal martial arts before the Boxer Rebellion by Scott Phillips, p173.
Qing Dynasty martial artists performing in a procession (between 1901-1904)

I don’t think we can assume, from one film. that all Chinese martial art of the period was like this, but it’s fascinating to see a glimpse of how well it was integrated with everything else.

As Charles Holcombe wrote at the start of his seminal 1990 essay on the subject, Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts

Everywhere in China the martial arts either present themselves in the guise of simple exercises or are shrouded in arcane religious mysteries. Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills. The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?

Charles Holcombe, Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts

The invention of martial arts

An excellent video by Prof. Paul Bowman to promote his new book, The Invention of Martial Arts: Popular Culture Between Asia and America.

This presentation looks at how martial arts arrived in the UK and when the concept of being a martial artist first entered into the popular consciousness. Along the way he covers Bartistu, the Avengers, James Bond, Bruce Lee, Kung Fu the TV series, Ninjas, the Wu-Tang Clan and the UFC.

People really, really want martial arts to be ancient

It’s easy to laugh at the QAnon followers who stormed the capitol in the belief that Donald Trump would pardon them of their crimes and there was a secret revolution about to happen, but there are plenty of equally delusional beliefs in martial arts.

I found an article on the Martial History Team blog recently that quotes from a longer article by Paul Bowman about why martial arts history seems to matter so much to some people.

There are plenty of gems here, but I like this quote:

“Unsurprisingly, in much scholarship on Asian martial arts, the matter of history remains freighted and weighted down by the same popular myths; so much so that even much that passes for scholarship seems to refuse to face up to the evidence that suggests that, quite frequently, martial arts that present themselves as ancient are hardly even old.[11] 


So many massive social mutations occurred through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that most ‘traditional’ martial arts effectively have at best little more than a century of continuous history to them, rather than the vast eons of allochronic time that so many seem to want them to have spanned.[12]


I emphasize the word ‘want’, here. This is because wanting appears to be a key issue to consider when approaching questions of martial arts history and culture. For instance, it seems that the perpetuation of fantasy histories and the fetishistic fabrication of lineages in ‘traditional’ martial arts evidently have everything to do with wanting. 

Practitioners want taiji to be ancient. Many want there to have been a Southern Shaolin Temple which was burned down, scattering the few surviving kung fu monks to the different corners of China.[13] We want Okinawan farmers to have fought samurai with rice flails. We want Yim Wing Chun to have been a real proto-feminist warrior.[14] We want the skill that wielded the weapon that killed Magellan to remain alive today.[15] And we want ancient warrior armies to have flown at each other through the air, kicking each other off horses with flying sidekicks and jumping spinning back kicks. 

Just because you want something, it doesn’t make it true.

Photo by Bakr Magrabi on Pexels.com

More lockdown listening on martial arts

As lockdown lingers around the world martial arts classes are facing a tough time, however, there are plenty of stimulating online discussions on martial arts to listen to. Here are three discussions I’ve listened to recently that have tickled my cerebral tentacles. Maybe they’ll do the same thing for yours?

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

First up – Viking martial arts!

This discussion between Paul Bowman and Qaus Stetkevych on so-called “Viking martial arts” is really interesting. It’s a world I know nothing about (although I did write an essay once on the connection between Xing Yi and old shield work )

Podcast link:

Youtube link:

It’s very interesting to listen to the criticisms that Qays makes in the above discussion then watch this clip I found of “Viking martial arts/Glima” – (which was litterally the first clip that came up when I searched for Glima). This martial art looks exactly like No Gi Brazilian Jiujitsu to me…

Xing Yi and Yi Quan

Next is Byron Jacobs excellent Drunken Boxing Podcast in which he interviews Yi Quan practitioner James Carss. What I like about this discussion is that it’s very down to earth and real about what it’s like training martial arts in China and Hong Kong. It’s not all smiles and rainbows and it was interesting hearing about the animosity between different groups of the same martial art that naturally spring up. Plus you get to find out more about the connections between Yi Quan and Xing Yi Quan, and how they are a lot closer than a lot of people think.

Podcast link:

Youtube link:

Byron recently added a new video to his series on baguazhang basics, that’s well worth a watch:

James Carss has an interesting video that introduces Zhan Zhuaung:

The Golden Elixer

Finally, here’s a bit of an older discussion, but fascinating if you are interested in the connection between Chinese theatre and martial arts. Scott Park Philips is in conversation with Daniel Mroz about all the subjects you find in his latest book. Scott never gives the same answer twice, but it’s an interesting slice into his mind. In particular he answers the question “What is the Golden Elixir?” at 41.44.

YouTube link:

The podcasts that kept me going in 2020

As 2020 falls into a slow-motion death spiral, like a bad cinematic supervillain delivering his final monologue before reaching for the detonator, it’s time to reflect back on the highs and lows of the year… and then the really low bits, and then the bits that were lower than those. Yes, 2020 sucked. Martial arts practice with other people became one of those things we all used to do, everybody stayed in their home and talked to each other on Zoom and our physical and metal health suffered. And whatever happens with the new vaccines on the way, the world will never be the same again.

One of the things that kept me going in 2020 were the podcasts. Trapped at home in various flavour of lockdown meant people had more time than ever to record podcasts and we all had more time to listen to them as we waited in the food queues, enjoyed our regulatory 1 hour walk in the fresh air or silently screamed under the blankets.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the shows that deserve my thanks for making 2020 slightly less awful than it could have been.

Martial Arts Studies

It’s like martial arts, but for people who want to think and talk as well as punch people in the head. Crazy, right? The ever-insightful Professor Paul Bowman is your host and he introduces a different guest each episode who has been doing research into an area of the martial arts you probably didn’t even know existed. This is a high-brow listen, so expect to have your horizons expanded and your tolerance for deconstructionism tested. At some point in the year I was on this podcast, so there’s that, too.
Martial Arts Studies.

OH GOD, WHAT NOW?

Brexit, brexit, brexit. Not only did we have to suffer the ravages of the COVID 19 pandemic in the UK, but we had to suffer an equally pernicious virus called Brexit simultaneously. A handful of super hard-right millionaires and billionaires had hoodwinked a statistically significant percentage of the population into believing it was in their interests that they should be able to keep on avoiding paying any tax in the UK. It turns out that while they were very good at winning referendums and putting the blame on foreigners for all the aweful things that they had in fact helped create, they were just not that particularly competent at negotiating trade agreements. We narrowly avoided a hard brexit by accident, but are left with a trade agreement that puts us in a far worse position than we have been when we were still a member of the EU and that also removes the right of UK people to live and work in 22 European countries. It’s been an unmitigated disaster, but the sane and rational voices on this podcast have enabled me be clearer about some of the frustrations I have with the government.
OH GOD, WHAT NOW?

Fights gone by w/ Jack Slack

While most sports ground to halt in 2020, MMA continued by, well, by not really caring too much about fighter health and safety in much the same way that MMA has always not cared too much about fighter health and safety (hey, they’re all going to end up with brain damage, anyway, right?) To beat COVID restrictions the UFC upped sticks and moved to a “fight island” in Abu Dahbi, where events could be staged with a higher degree of COVID safety and we had some fantastic matches, title defences, knockouts and submissions throughout the year. 2020 fights from Khabib Nurmagomedov, Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson, were particularly memorable. Should MMA really have continued in 2020? It’s hard to say, but plenty of fighters contracted COVID 19, and at least 2 now have long-term complications that have delayed their next appearances. Jack Slack has continually been the most insightful commentator on MMA, in fact, without his Fights gone by podcast I wonder if I’d watch anywhere near as much MMA at all. The level of detail he provides on the fight game can really change your appreciation of the job fighters are doing, and improve your own martial arts. What’s more, he’s British.
Fights gone by

Robby The Robot’s Waiting: The Sci-Fi Podcast

As well as podcasts and MMA, another thing that has kept me going in 2020 is sci-fi. I’m currently enjoying the latest series of The Expanse on Amazon Prime, for example. As cinema releases have stalled, streaming services have really come into their own, but they have so much content its easy to miss something you would like, which is why I’ve found the Robby The Robot’s Waiting podcast so valuable – it keeps you abreast of what’s happening in the world of sci-fi, what you should be watching now and what’s coming soon. The hosts all have a connection with SFX magazine, and I know quite a few of them personally from the publishing industry. It’s a perfect fix of weekly Sci-Fi goodness.

Special mention:

I’m going to give a special mention to Stephan Kesting for his Strenuous Life podcast. Stephan is a BJJ guy, but also enjoys things like Kayaking around the Candian wilderness on his own. (I think we can all see the attraction of that right now!) And while I don’t like every episode of his show (it depends on the guest very much) Stephan has been a consistent voice of reason in the BJJ community during the global pandemic, which has seen a lot of prominent BJJ personalities slip into the netherworld of conspiracy theories and casual racism. For some reason, BJJ people seem attracted to conspiracy theories, and it’s very frustrating to have to deal with them, along with everything else.

Also check out:

The Drunken Boxing Podcast, Byron Jacobs delivers the low-down on martial arts in China, from inside China itself.

Systema for Life. If you’re into the philosophical side of the martial arts then this is a good listen. 

Heretics by Woven Energy – my own podcast! We shine a light on esoteric subjects and their place in history, martial arts and religion.