Our new podcast is out! I talk warriorship with the esteemed Matthew Kreuger of the Walking with the Tengu podcast, as part of the #warriorshipconversing project started by Kung Fu Conversations podcast. We also talk about Shuai Jiao, Iaido, BJJ and professional wrestling. You’ll find us on iTunes and Spotify. Search for The Tai Chi Notebook podcast. Enjoy!
I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions recently (and for years!) about what in Chinese martial art is fantasy and what is real. Realness, keeping it real, being truthful, whatever you want to call it, it is seen as a big deal. The question of the essential realness of a technique, a style or a whole person’s lineage, cuts to the heart of the matter, always.
Discussions of these types have flourished along with the growth of online video and the means to talk about these videos online. These discussions usually go along the line of:
1) A famous practitioner puts up a clip of himself (it’s usually always a male) demonstrating something visually impressive on a student. The purpose of the clip is self promotion for fame or seminars or online teaching material. Maybe they show a student go flying through the air from the lightest of touches, or they resist a strong push without any visible effort – you know the sort of thing.
2) Somebody comments and goes – “that’s bullshit!”
3) All hell breaks loose in the comments section between rival sections.
I can understand the strong urge to want to point these things out. I get involved in these things too. Sometimes I see something that is such obvious nonsense I can’t help but point it out. It’s like this old XKCD cartoon that is funny because it’s true:
The argument is logical: There are so many good things in Chinese martial arts and the fantasy stuff is damaging to that. And it’s therefore up to us to call out the fantasy, not accept it. If we don’t then we just invite ridicule, especially from other martial artists.
However, even when that attitude is adopted I see people tend to be more interested in calling out the fantasy stuff that other people do, or that is in other styles, not their own! And never in anything they do themselves or their teachers do. We all have our own blind spots and biases.
But I’ve been thinking differently about this issue recently…
When you look into the close connection between martial arts and street theatre, or opera troops and (as technology progressed) Kung Fu movies, it’s impossible not to conclude that showbiz (for want of a better word) has always been connected in some way with Chinese martial arts from the very beginning.
That doesn’t mean that Chinese martial arts masters of old weren’t bad ass. They were bad ass! But they also knew how to perform Lion Dance, or put on a show at New Years, or impress a prospective student with a. few tricks if they had to. These things were so interconnected in Chinese culture that it seems impossible to separate them (although successive Chinese governments gave it a good go throughout the 20th century).
Showbiz has always been there in Chinese martial art. It’s what makes amazing movie fight scenes like this one from The Grand Master possible:
Beauty, artistry, story telling. It’s all there. It’s using “real” techniques from martial arts and presenting them in a hyper-real, perfected, way.
Of course, the problem comes when people get conned into believing that the hyper-real is the real and that can take people to some very weird places, involving cult-like practices, exploitation and usually a lot of money being handed over. That’s where the problems start for me.
There are no easy answers, but I think that viewing some of these things that are not quite real as merely a part of the showbiz side to Chinese martial art, is perhaps an easier way to deal with it.
For instance, what is going on in this clip with Chen ManChing bouncing people around?
I can imagine a lot of Chen style Tai Chi people getting upset about that, as the sort of nonsense that doesn’t tend to happen in their style… and yet, what’s going on in this clip:
Is it as bad? Is it worse, even?
I don’t know.
It might just be easier to look at both these clips say,
“It’s just showbiz”, and shrug your shoulders and laugh.
My copy of Chen Taijiquan Illustrated arrived, and I’ve almost finished it. It’s an easy read since the word count isn’t very high – it’s essentially a series of high quality training notes, illustrated, which I think really helps to convey the message in a way that text alone cannot. I’m not going to do a full review for a while, I’m going to let the book sink in first, but I might do a series of posts on ideas it has sparked in me.
Here’s the first one.
The thing I wanted to talk about today was how similar Chen style (as described in this book) is to Yang style. I think a Yang stylist would get almost as much out of this book as a Chen stylist. While the content and methods described in the book all clearly derive from Chen style, as do the illustrations, I’d say 90% (or more) of what’s described here is exactly the same as Yang style.
So what’s different? Bits and bobs on silk reeling, some stepping methods and stance details and the bits on fajin. But even then, they’re not something alien to a Yang stylist, and would be easily within reach of anybody who wanted to take their practice in that direction.
What’s the same? The emphasis on posture is really good here – how to round the back, contain the chest, round the kua, the eight energies, the 5 steps, push hands strategy and training methods, quotes from the classics, being centred and upright, rooting, the dantien, martial applications, etc.
What was I surprised not to find more of? Opening and closing using the 5 bows, and empty and solid. Perhaps more on using the force from the ground… There are mentions of these things throughout, but the book never really goes deeply into them. Perhaps it was too complex for the illustrated book-based approach? There’s only so much you can fit in one book, and there’s plenty of content here.
However, the emphasis on the body requirements of Tai Chi, and explanation of why these things are done, is excellent and transfers effortlessly across Tai Chi styles. It’s reminded me a lot how similar Yang style and Chen style are ‘under the hood’, so to speak. I wrote a post recently where I talked about them being similar but different. I still kind of think that. My view is that at some point Chen style incorporated the ideas contained in “Taijiquan” wholesale from Yang Luchan’s lucrative teaching business in Beijing into its larger, pre-existing, village style (which was more militia fighting and weapons-based) – it absorbed it whole – a bit like a whale swallowing a smaller fish. It was easy because all Chinese styles are similar to some extent. But of course, this means that the Yang style is still there inside Chen, and it’s impossible not to see how ‘almost the same’ they are when reading this book. (I think the spiraling and silk reeling stuff was from the pre-existing Chen style). Your opinion may be different. Food for thought!
Tim, tell me you’re in a cult without telling me you’re in a cult:
A comment from “Tim”:
“I’m disappointed in your entire take on internal power, as indicated by your dismissive way of talking about those who actually do possess some genuine internal power as using “tricks”. To be blunt, you’re just ignorant–that is, you have no personal experience with real practitioners and assume everyone showing such power must be a charlatan. Yes, there are many fakers out there and also many brainless critics who are not truly skeptical but just reactionary and dismissive. You haven’t seen this film but you lump everyone doing demos of internal power into one category of fakers using cheap tricks. I suggest you seek out one of the genuine Tai Chi practitioners who possess such power and experience it for yourself. Otherwise, you don’t represent Tai Chi Chuan as your little blog suggests. You just stand for the Tai Chi meditation approach and teaching form, which is OK but very limited and in denial of the original purposes and uses of Tai Chi Chuan. It’s not that difficult to find those who are the real deal. Start with the Martial Man series and see some who have taught at their “camps”–Adam Mizner, Liang de Hua and many others who are authentic practitioners of internal power approaches. Those people are themselves the former students of even higher-level masters whose powers are phenomenal. Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art that can be practiced for health and well-being, but it remains an extremely effective and powerful self-defense system that includes the use of various forms of “jin”–an energy converted to force that can be issued against any opponent. Take a breath, lose the cheap tricks of your dismissal, and try to seek out some contact with those who can show you what you’re missing.“
Let’s just go over a few things from this:
Tim (the owner of an anonymous sounding Yahoo email address) has no idea who I am, has never met me, and has certainly not read much of my material beyond my one post about the film “The Power of Chi”, which has got him so upset. That post contained an excellent video by Rob Poyton (who has appeared on my podcast before) showing how those things are done, and that anybody can do them with a bit of training. It’s well worth a watch.
I can do the “internal power” things he’s talking about.
I’ve done the “internal power” things he’s talking about on a stage in front of people.
They are just demonstrations of ways to use power, not divine miracles done by a guy who needs to be paid thousands of dollars while being treated like a master of the universe.
What I object to is the conflation of these things with real fighting skill, not the things themselves.
Tim, you’re in a cult, and you don’t know you’re in a cult. One day you’ll look back and think, wow I was in a cult!
In this episode of the Tai Chi Notebook podcast I’m teaming up with Ken Gullette, to answer the kind of questions that Tai Chi teachers get asked all the time.
Ken is an all-round good guy and owner of the Internal Fighting Arts website where he teaches the arts of Xing Yi, Bagua and Tai Chi at a very reasonable monthly cost. Check him out at www.internalfightingarts.com
Ken is a Chen style guy, and I’m a Yang style guy so it’s no surprise we have slightly different views on a lot of different topics, but that’s part of the fun of it all.
And if you’d like to help out my podcast then you can now become a friend of the Tai Chi Notebook on Patreon. Head over to Patreon.com/taichinotebook and you’ll be able to get a downloadable version of the podcast as well as support my work and get exclusive articles.
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.