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?
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.
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.
Jack Slack was the first person to draw my attention to the parallel between rioters storming government buildings that happened in China’s Boxer Rebellion around 1900, and the storming of the Capitol Building by Trump Supporters in 2021. Both involve a kind of “spirit possession”.
Of course, America, along with many European nations, was involved in the Boxer Rebellion:
“In 1898 the Yellow River burst its banks and destroyed the harvest in much of Northern China, but this misfortune was followed by an agonizing drought which dried out the land and hardened the dirt. As young men went hungry and without work, some Chinese noted the connection between the anger of nature and the construction of train tracks, telegraph lines and churches since the arrival of foreigners in the Qing Empire. Anti-foreign sentiment brought together groups of peasants practicing martial artists and calling themselves the Righteous Society of the Harmonious Fists—though the West came to know them as “The Boxers”. The Boxers attacked and murdered missionaries across the Empire and in the summer of 1900, Tianjin and Beijing were plunged into chaos as the Boxers received the blessing of Empress Dowager Cixi and the Imperial army. 400 foreigners and 3000 Chinese Christians endured a two month siege in Beijing’s legation quarter—a stone’s throw from the Imperial Palace but completely helpless. The Boxer Rebellion is a story about agriculture and diplomacy, magic and court intrigue, and it stands as both the last great event of the Victorian Era and the beginning of the end for the Qing Dynasty. ” – Jack Slack
Of course, I’d contest that the events that lead to the end of the Qing Dynasty had started much earlier, back in 1860s. It was these conflicts with foreign powers and internal rebellions which lead directly to the creation of Tai Chi Chuan, as we discussed on our History of Tai Chi podcast series. Yes, I’m sorry, the myth of a Taoist inventing Taijiquan after a dream about a snake and a crane, is just a fairytale. The real reason is much more pragmatic.
Jack has done an excellent podcast episode on the Boxer Rebellion, which he’s just released to the public, instead of being behind his Patreon paywall. If you want to find out more, have a listen:
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.
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.
It’s Carlos Gracie’s birthday today, or it would be if he was still alive. Carlos Gracie is the man who is perhaps solely responsible for BJJ existing in the modern world, as a separate entity to Judo, which is something we should all be grateful for. He would have been 118 today. Because of this my Facebook feed is currently flooded with inspirational quotes from Carlos Gracie – particularly “Be so strong that nobody can disturb your peace of mind”.
Unfortunately, like a lot of the stories that have built up around him, and his brother Helio Gracie, the true story is different to the myth. In fact, he stole that quote (and all his other philosophical ramblings) from a short poem called the Optimist Creed written by Christian Larson, an American New Thought leader in 1912. *
The story we are told by the Gracie family is that Carlos learned from the famous Mitsuyo Maeda – the “Count of Combat” – a famous student of the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, who was in Brazil teaching Jiujitsu and engaging in prize fights for money.
In a parallel to the Yang LuChan story, we are also asked to believe that Carlos’ younger brother, Helio, who was too weak and sickly to learn Jiujitsu in classes, managed to learn the whole art by simply watching Carlos train.
In reality, Maeda had come to Brazil to retire, and there’s very little evidence he actually met Carlos at all. Helio Gracie was not weak or sickly – he was an athlete, a champion swimmer. True history is never simple, it’s always complicated and the history of BJJ is no exception. Without Carlos Gracie though, and his resistance to folding his Brazilian branch of Judo into the Japanese version, there would be no BJJ today, but it might be time for a more honest look at his legacy.
You can find out more about the true history of Carlos Gracie in the Sonny Brown Breakdown podcast where BJJ legend Robert Drysdale discusses his new upcoming film Closed Guard, about the history of Brazilian Jiujitsu.
The full text of the Optimist Creed is as follows:
The Optimist Creed
To be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.
To make all your friends feel that there is something in them.
To look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true.
To think only of the best, to work only for the best, and to expect only the best.
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.
To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.
We couldn’t resist doing a podcast episode about Cobra Kai, the modern TV series version of the classic 80’s martial arts film Karate Kid, so here it is.
I think I keep getting the names of the two protagonists mixed up, but who in their right minds makes a TV series with two lead characters who have such similar names as Danny and Johnny? Oh well, that is the beauty of the Netflix TV series that is Cobra Kai!
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.
In the second Woven Energy monologue, Damon talks about the shamanic origins of Reiki, why Reiki was fundamentally a shamanic art, and the historical background behind the misunderstanding surrounding Reiki’s origins and the poor state of Reiki in the world today.
In this episode we look at how the effects of the Taiping Northern Expedition and the Nian Rebellion of the mid Nineteenth Century drew the confucian Wu brothers and the fighters of Chen Village towards each other for the first time.
Ok, here it is, part 2 of our history of Tai Chi Chuan. In this episode we examine the context in which the relationship between Yang Luchan, Wu Chengqing and Wu Yuxiang developed during the years of the Taiping Rebellion and the new regime of Emperor Xianfeng.