A new YouTube video landed a day or so ago that has caused something of a sensation. It’s a trailer for a movie called The Power of Chi and has some well known UFC fighters and professional athletes in it, all experiencing the power of a Tai Chi master’s “chi”. And there’s a voice over by Morgan Freeman. I kid you not! Yes, the Morgan Freeman!
From the trailer, this mysterious chi is presented as a force that can be produced by the master and defies all explanation. To be honest, this tai chi master has been producing very similar YouTube videos for years now, but he’s usually demonstrating on no-name seminar attendees, this time however it’s a big budget production with well known fighters like Fabricio Werdum and Lyoto Machida being demonstrated on.
You can see the trailer here:
Now I haven’t seen the full film, and frankly, I’m not going to pay to download it, but colour me unimpressed with that. It all seems a bit silly to me.
Friend of the Notebook, Rob Poyton (who I recorded a podcast with recently) has produced his own video response to the trailer and I think it’s hard to argue with his conclusions, but feel free to make your own mind up:
I like Rob’s point at the end, that if you’re going to demonstrate things like this, then what are the functional uses of it? That’s what you should be demonstrating.
Somebody posted a quote by (founder of Yi Quan) Wang Xiang Zhai from his 1940s interview containing his thoughts on Tai Chi. It is pretty clear, unambiguous and to the point. Have a read:
Wang Xiang Zhai on Taijiquan (from an early 1940’s interview):As masters of the original Taijiquan, I should recommend the Yang brothers Shouhou and Chengfu. They are my friends, and I know that their Taiji has some knowledge of mechanics. But out of one hundred students, not even one gains its essence…and even then, it is still one-sided, because the skills of intuitive perception died out a long time ago. Originally, Taiji consisted of three fists, Wang Zongyue changed it into thirteen postures, and it was later embellished into as much as one hundred and fifty postures. This is the cause of the distortion.Sticking to mechanical movements, seeking beautiful postures and mistaking it for the glory of martial arts…that is terrible. Such a person cannot comprehend boxing for life. If a man of insight sees such a performance, he will feel sick for ten days.As a means of health preservation, Taijiquan restrains the spirit, and brings discomfort to its practitioner. For combat, it harms the practitioner’s limbs and trunk, and causes a useful body to become a mechanical and stiff thing…it’s nothing more than a waste of time.As for the training method—a punch with the fist here, a slap with the palm there, a kick to the left, and another one to the right—it is pitiful and laughable.As for dealing with an enemy in a fight: please do not even consider it. So ruined is this boxing that it has become useless. There are many more things, but I feel embarrassed to say them.
He doesn’t think much of Tai Chi, but there are some things to consider.
Wang was building a brand – Yi Quan – in a commercial setting. Setting out how you are different to/better than your competition is the first stage of building a brand.
2. This “three old fists” idea of history I don’t put much stock in. I think it’s a reference to the three old fists of Xin Yi (info on Jarek’s website), which he is therefore assuming as the origin of Tai Chi Chuan, but there’s not much of a link there that I can see. Or if there is, it’s very tenuous.
3. I think he’s criticising the Tai Chi training method, more than the art. He seems to hold the Yang brothers in high regard, but it’s their students and training methods he thinks are flawed. Wang was never a fan of forms training.
4. I think we need to consider what was happening in China in 1940. China has never (and still doesn’t) had a free press. If this was published it would conform to the political direction of the day.
“In 1940, the Japanese set up the collaborationistWang Jingwei regime, with its capital in Nanking, which proclaimed itself the legitimate “Republic of China” in opposition to Chiang Kai-shek’s government, although its claims were significantly hampered due to its being a puppet state controlling limited amounts of territory.
The United Front between the Kuomintang and the CCP had salutary effects for the beleaguered CCP, despite Japan’s steady territorial gains in northern China, the coastal regions and the rich Yangtze River Valley in central China. After 1940, conflicts between the Kuomintang and Communists became more frequent in the areas not under Japanese control. The Communists expanded their influence wherever opportunities presented themselves through mass organizations, administrative reforms and the land- and tax-reform measures favoring the peasants and, the spread of their organizational network, while the Kuomintang attempted to neutralize the spread of Communist influence. Meanwhile, northern China was infiltrated politically by Japanese politicians in Manchukuo using facilities such as the Wei Huang Gong.”
So while all this conflict with Japan is going on I think the general trend is towards westernising and modernising China, leaving behind the older traditions that had held China back. This interview – looking towards newer scientific methods of martial arts – is in keeping with that trend. Japan was also very into adopting western military methods and building an empire, like the British had.
5. Both Yang Shao-Hou and Yang Cheng-Fu died in 1936, yet Wang is talking about them as if they are still alive in the 1940s, so something doesn’t add up. This interview is either doctored, or was done a long time before it was published in the 1940s.
6. You can get a better idea of his larger themes by reading the whole interview.
In the latest episode of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast I’m talking to the man, the legend, that is Stephan Kesting. Stephan has taught thousands of people martial arts through his famous website grapplarts.com which, back in the day, was one of the first sites to put out quality Brazilian jiujitsu instructional material and is still putting out top notch instructional material today.
Stephan is a fireman, he has competed in marital arts, he has trekked across the Canadian wilds with a canoe and recently he’s undergone a full hip replacement and documented his recovery – and he’s about to return to training again, so he’s one tough old dude.
Stephan also hosts his own podcast, the Strenuous Life Podcast, which I’d recommend you listen to – because it’s always super interesting, especially his episodes debunking conspiracy theories.
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.
I used to train jiujitsu with Brad back in the day, before he went on to become a UFC fighter, so I’ve known him for years. Brad is retired from the UFC now, but he recently accepted a fight offer from the famous D.K. Yoo, who teaches martial arts seminars all over the world. The fight is scheduled to happen on December 4th on pay-per-view here:
Brad and Joe are flying off to South Korea in just a few days for a boxing match that looks set to make a huge impression on the martial arts scene.
So, let’s find out how it all happened, how Brad’s training is going and what the boys think is going to happen on December 4th.
There seems to be a sudden influx of good things to listen to, so, rather than do individual posts on all of them, I’ve decided to round them up in a collection of Things You Should Be Listening To Right Now
1. Peter Lorge on Inventing Traditional Martial Arts
This was very entertaining. It’s a great lecture on the difference between traditional and modern in martial arts, and how ‘traditional’ is in fact usually created by the ‘modern’.
2. Lavell Marshall & Hohoo – Spirit of the Grassland
I loved this so much. It’s a look into Mongol wrestling culture. It’s from Byron Jacobs who filmed it on a recent trip to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia for a wrestling competition and features Lavell Marshal, who left his life in the west to move to the grasslands and practice Bökh.
“Bökh (Mongolian Wrestling) has been practiced by nomadic and steppe cultures for thousands of years. It epitomizes the culture of the Mongolian people and the spirit of the grassland.
Lavell Marshal (Hangai), left his life in the west to move to the grasslands of Inner-Mongolia to study the art under Ho Bagsh (Coach Hohoo), a well-known wrestler and former national Shuai Jiao champion.”
3. Why Conspiracy Theories Are So Damn Hard to Disprove, with Dr Hanan Bushkin
This podcast isn’t necessarily martial arts related, but a lot of martial artists seem to be the sort of people that fall prey to conspiracy theories. I know, because I talk to them. This podcast sheds some light on why that is.
“Dr Hanan Buskin is a clinical psychologist specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In this episode we go deep into the benefits conspiracy theorist get from believing and sharing their crazy ideas and the long, difficult process required to gently wean them off conspiratorial thinking. “
4. Belts, Ranking, Titles & Hierarchy In Jiu-Jitsu With Priit Mihkelson
I had Priit as my guest in episode 5 of my podcast. In his most recent appearance, on the Sonny Brown Breakdown, he lays into the traditional structure of belts and titles in marital arts. He’s always worth listening to and I always find he delivers a fresh and interesting perspective on things.
“I talk to Priit Mihkelson, A Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt From Estonia and founder of Defensive BJJ. Priit always has a lot of interesting takes on the teaching, training & traditions of Jiu-Jitsu and after recently relocating his school I took the chance to ask him about his thoughts on belt rankings. We have a great conversation about how he has applied them to his Defensive BJJ system and set up his new school. We then move on to the use of hierarchy & titles like Professor and Master and their place in Jiu-Jitsu”.
5. Ken Gullette on internal body mechanics.
Finally, here’s another plug for my own podcast, The Tai Chi Notebook Podcast. I had Ken Gullette on recently who practices and teaches all the main internal arts but specialises in Chen style. Here’s the link to the podcast.
I really enjoyed this chat and although it becomes something of, “two old men talking about all their injuries”, at one point I think there’s a lot of value here. It also introduced me to a marital artist called Nabil Ranné from Germany.
Here he is teaching “Lazily Tying Coat” from Chen style.
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.
Thinking about my last post with the discussion from Tim Cartmell. Everything Tim says is great advice for people interested in learning to fight and applies to what we know as “martial arts” today, but I do wonder about the very starting point of their discussion, which is the assumption that underlies it all – “martial arts were created to teach people how to fight”.
It sounds so obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning. I mean, it’s almost farcical to think otherwise… but is it true? Were they all “created” for that purpose? How can we be sure?
Martial arts as practiced in Western countries today are obviously about teaching people to fight, but it seems to me that once you trace “martial arts” back further and further it becomes harder to separate them out from cultural practices that included “fighting”, but also encompassed a whole lot more – a whole world view that is no longer with us.
It seems to me that most people today see “martial arts” as the original, stripped-down, very concentrated pure combat practice, that over time has become waylaid with cultural and religious baggage that has been added after the fact.
I think they’ve got it backwards. I think it “martial arts” starts off as part of a really rich and deep, varied practice incorporating all sorts of aspects of the complex array of cultural activities… and in modern times we have stripped out the combat elements and separated them off from the other elements – to pursue in our leisure time, or by governments for political means. That was certainly what happened in China in the early 20th century, for example, with the Kuo Shu movement.
Does this matter? Does it make any difference to what we practice today. Probably not, but I think it’s a more honest view of the subject, and explains why we still have a lot of these cultural practices associated with marital arts, like the picture of Lion Dance above.
This period of Yang LuChan in Beijing (around 1860) is really the time we see the arrival of “martial arts” as a separate subject in Beijing, taught in its own right and not as part of something else, like a village ritual or festival rite, or as an entertainment performance, and different to what soldiers learned. Yang was teaching soldiers, yes, but he wasn’t teaching them how to fight on a battlefield. He was also teaching rich people. This was the newly created niche that “martial arts” fitted into – the serious leisure practice. After the Empress Dowager takes control and the Wu brothers are “out”, Yang loses his patronage and has to open a commercial school in Beijing, and it becomes a family business with his sons teaching too.
The “martial arts” as we know them, and as they were created, are a civilian occupation – the serious leisure practice of already tough men (think Yang LuChan’s banner men that he taught in Beijing), or the rich middle/upper class idlers with too much time on their hands (hello the Wu brothers).
“(Boxing arts do not seem to be useful skills for the battlefield, but they exercise the hands and feet, and accustom the limbs and body to hard work. Thus they serve as basic training. Therefore I have included this discussion of them as the final chapter, in order to complete this study [of military theory].”
As you can see – boxing arts were being practiced in Ming Dynasty China, but they were not considered part of regular military training. They were part of something else.
I’ve always got time to listen to Tim Cartmell talk about marital arts. In this interview he lays down some common sense about training and tells you what his experience training in Xing Yi and San Da in Taiwan was like in the 90s.