Practicing Tai Chi in nature: Being like a teabag in the ocean

On holiday in the southwest of England for a week I managed to find some time each morning to practice Tai Chi in a lovely old wooded area.

So often we have to practice Tai Chi in our front rooms, back gardens or patios because of time pressures. Or maybe we only get to practice at a class in a village hall, gym or community centre. Either way, our surroundings are often far from natural.

Being able to practice Tai Chi in an environment where there were no other people, no human sounds and no interruptions was a blessing. It was possible to really sink into the environment for once, and not just my legs!

It’s a process one of my teachers calls “being a teabag in the ocean”. If you want to take in the good stuff from the natural world around you then you need to adopt the attitude of being like a teabag in the ocean – i.e. let nature move through you as well as around you, so that you don’t feel like something separate to it. Absorb it, soak it in. I’d say most people practice Tai Chi as if they are a teabag that’s sealed inside a plastic bag then dropped in the ocean. They can be doing great Tai Chi, but they are perfectly contained within themselves and not interacting with the environment. Often there’s not much environment to interact with, as mentioned previously, but if you get the chance to practice Tai Chi out in the woods, you should take it and take the opportunity to get out of that plastic bag.

Before you practice the form, stand for a few moments and try to let the barriers between you and your surroundings break down. Your mind should be focused on the moment and on your breathing, after all, that is as much a part of nature as anything else. Stand like that for a while before doing the form and just experience it, don’t think about experiencing it.

Then as you go through the movements of the form, you’ll start to feel like you are moving with the natural patterns around you. Don’t worry if your form takes on a subtly different quality than normal. It’s all part of the process.

I find that I don’t have as much free time for this in my normal life as I do when I’m on holiday, but I’m going to try and make an effort to get out to a secluded place now and again and practice my Tai Chi out there because the effort is well worth it.

The Taoist subtle body, by Dr Simon Cox

This is a very interesting interview with scholar and practitioner Simon Cox, PhD, whose book on the history of the concept of the subtle body is available on Amazon. Simon lived and trained full time in the Wudang mountains for over five years and has lots to tell…

I’m hoping to have Simon as an upcoming guest on my podcast, so if you can think of any questions you’d like me to ask him about what it’s like training Taoist martial arts in an actual Taoist monastery then put them in the comments. Thanks.

If you’d like to learn more about Simon, see amazing photos from his time in China, and join his mailing list to hear about all the cool stuff he’s offering, check out okanaganvalleywudang.com.

The most successful martial arts movement of the first half of the 20th century, that you’ve probably never heard of

I find I’m getting increasingly fascinated by the concept of ritual, magic, and how it relates to Chinese martial arts. I think I’ve just never been satisfied with the explanation that forms in Chinese martial arts are there for cataloguing techniques. There are many martial arts in the world that do not require forms to catalogue either their techniques or body methods (Shen fa). When something like that so obviously doesn’t add up, I think there has to be something else going on. But what?

It’s been a long time since I’ve linked to Ben Judkins excellent website Kung Fu Tea, but I’m going to recommend that you give this article a read. It’s about the biggest group of 20th century Chinese ‘martial artists’ that you’ve probably never heard of. They were called The Red Spears. And despite having a membership in the millions (millions!) they tend to get wiped from modern historical accounts of Chinese martial arts. Made up of poor, usually illiterate members, they existed away from the cities and the urban areas, where all the well known marital arts groups like the Jingwu Association and the Koushu Association existed. Urban association tended to write books and leave more newspaper articles as evidence for historians. The Red Spears had the numbers, but they were out in the sticks, and out there, less ‘scientific’, ‘outsider’ and ‘western’ ideas pervaded. There we find war magic, rituals and mystical arts.

Yanan China Peoples’ Militia member.

The Red Spears, as effective grassroots organisers in local areas seemed to perform something of the same function as elements of the historical Yakuza in Japan, stepping in when local authorities overstep their mark and being effective at “getting things done”.

And despite the name Red Spears, let’s not forget that these militia groups, like all militia groups, carried rifles. Performing magic rituals and being in a secret society did not mean they rejected all modern technology. 

The article contains a report called “Background and Doings of China’s Red Spears By Norman D. Hanwell (Asia Magazine), The China Weekly Review, August 19, 1939. Page 381” which talks about practices that don’t seem a million miles away from what we would call chi kung these days, if you made it more secular and removed the practices we would call superstitious.  

“Through the customs of the Red School probably differ from locality to locality and naturally the secret part of their program is difficult to confirm, since no outsider is permitted to attend, there are descriptions by Chinese in print. In some sectors members of the Red School “got to school” in a temple each evening. Arriving with their red-tasseled spears. Reaching the School Hall they come before the incense altar common to all Chinese Temples, bare their backs and kneel to listen to one their leaders lecture. Following this, each one breaths deeply and beats his breast, ending with the shouting of the slogan “Chi Kung lai yeh!”—a phrase difficult to translate. Perhaps it might be compared to “The gods be with us!” a short incantation from which strength may be obtained. Out of this process some of the Red Spears are convinced of their invincibility in battle and immunity to death therein.

The Type of Training

Certain persons profess to find in this type of training some scientific basis. For example, the regular evening attendance, the listening to lectures and the sitting in meditation are good training, they claim, for the development of the quality of serenity or tranquility.  The practice of holding the breath and beating the breast is excellent for developing the lungs. The crying out of the slogans is declared to be good training for breath control. Whether we accept any of these “scientific” values or not, we must admit that there are psychological advantages to be obtained from these practices. The peasant convinces himself of his own ability to undertake certain tasks, and his conviction inevitably increases his effectiveness.

A recently made investigation of the White Spear Society of Anhwei Province, an area now under Japanese occupation, reports that the superstitious “Chu kung lai yeh!” has been replaced by slogans more appropriate to present activities. Among these are “Kill the Eastern Sea Devils”—that is, the Japanese—and “Kill the Traitors”—that is, those Chinese cooperating with the Japanese.”

As you can see, the report talks about breath control, tranquility training, hitting the body to strengthen it and gain invincibility (The shouting of the slogan “Chi Kung Lai yeh!” may have some relevance, but who knows…? That may simply have been the historical equivalent of “Let’s do this!”)

I’m increasingly wondering how much of modern Chinese martial arts is built on all this long forgotten training from a different time and setting. It’s interesting to ponder.

I wrote about cults in marital arts yesterday. I think its pretty clear that The Red Spears would fit the definition of a cult, but by modern standards they are way more extreme than anything the Tai Chi world can conjure up today. Forget expensive training camps. They actually led their members into armed conflicts, battles and more! That’s also an interesting topic to consider.

Saanxi province China Peoples’ Militia

Did Taoist cultivation exercises really influence Western gymnastics?

I was watching a video recently about the origins of Swedish Gymnastics, the exercise system created (or codified) by Dr. Pehr Henrik Ling in the 18th Century. Swedish Gymnastics was part of the “Physical Culture Movement”, which began in Europe during the 19th century, spreading to England, the United States and can still be found today in the form of Gymnastics, Body Building and modern massage.

(Discussion of Swedish Gymnastics is usual centered around the fact that they contain more of the content of a modern Yoga class than you find in anything from ancient India. This information usually comes as a shock to most people, but postures like Downward Dog or Table Top are straight from Swedish Gymnastics and have little to do with ancient Indian Yogis on a path to enlightenment. You can find out more about that in the book Yoga Body by Dr Mark Singleton, or his Yoga Journal article.)

But today we are not interested in Yoga. We’re interested in the connection between Swedish Gymnastics and Taoist health exercises. It’s always been been assumed that Ling was, at least, inspired, by the Chinese/Taoist breathing, gymnastic and alchemical systems (what we would call Qigong today) when he created his gymnastic system, if not actually copying them, but the following video by Physical Culture Historians makes the case that there was no Chinese connection for Ling’s work at all. Have a watch:

It’s quite a persuasive video. I mean, it doesn’t matter much these days – nobody except cultural historians really practices the old style of Swedish gymnastics anymore, as far as I can see, and millions of people practice yoga and Chinese Qigong, but it did start me thinking about the whole question.

From watching the video it appears that the commonly quoted idea that Ling traveled to China at some point is bogus. Which leaves the idea that he might have been exposed to a book on Taoist gymnastic exercises. Everything traces back to the 1779 article by Jesuit priest Cibot “Notice du Cong-fou [Kung-fu] des Bonzes Tao-see Tao shih” which you could translate as “Kung Fu xercises of the Taoist Priests”. The video above calls these the “old form of the popular Baduanjin exercises” – however, I’m not convinced that’s what they are, but anyway… I agree with the point the video is making, which is that these seated exercises don’t seem to have much in common with Ling’s exercises, which are all done standing.

The video makes no reference to Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, Vol 5, which is the work that, I think for most modern scholars, adds the most credence to the idea that Ling’s exercises were based on Chinese Taoist gymnastics. But Needham is also using Cibot as his source. Needham says:

Our little digression, if such it was, on Chinese calisthenics, has brought us to the time when the Jesuit P. M. Cibot (3) presented Europeans with a short but celebrated paper on the strictly macrobiotic exercises of the physiological alchemists.a His ‘Notice du Cong-fou [Kung-fu] des Bonzes Tao-see [Tao shihJ’ of + 1779 was intended to present the physicists and physicians of Europe with a sketch of a system of medical gymnastics which they might like to adopt-or if they found it at fault they might be stimulated to invent something better. This work has long been regarded as of cardinal importance in the history of physiotherapyb because it almost certainly influenced the Swedish founder of the modem phase of the art, Per Hendrik Ling. Cibot studied at least one Chinese book, but also got much from a Christian neophyte who had become expert in the subject before his conversion. Cibot did not care much for the Taoist philosophy, but believed that kungfu and its medical theory was an ‘estimable system’ which had really worked many cures and relieved many infirmities.

Did this work really influence Ling? Maybe he read it, who can say, but I think the idea that Ling’s exercises are in any way copies of these Taoist exercises seems to be stretching things a bit. In any case, there were already plenty of existing exercises systems in Europe that are the most likely source of Ling’s influence, not to mention that Ling got a lot of his stuff from fencing, which he was very familiar with.

I think we also have to address the issue of whether anybody can truly create something new, or not, as well. Every new Kung Fu style, for instance, is not really new, it’s a blend of things that have come before with some new ideas added.

So, I have to say, it is looking like Needham is wrong here and that Ling wasn’t influenced by Chinese sources, but equally, I don’t think Ling created all these exercises himself out of thin air. Every great innovator stands on the shoulders of giants. Either way, Ling’s system remains a fascinating snapshot of exercise methods that started to sweep Europe, and US, paving the way for the things that would follow.

Don’t try

One of my poetic/literary heroes, Charles Bukowski had “Don’t try” written as an epitaph on his tombstone. To many people he was simply an alcoholic, womanising, bum who pissed way his talent, but I bet Charles Bukowski did more honest days work in his life than a lot go his critics ever did. Writing was his way out of a life of oppressive blue collar jobs that had ground him down, and he only succeeded as a writer late in life, and that gave him a unique perspective.

 There’s a video that explains his seemingly paradoxical philosophy of “Don’t try”.

But if you don’t have time to watch it then Bukowski explained it himself in one of his letters:

“Somebody asked me: “What do you do? How do you write, create?” You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it.”

    – Charles Bukowski

I think anybody versed in the philosophy of Tai Chi can see an instant parallel here to the Taoist ideal of Wu Wei – “not doing”. Quite often if you can wait for the mud the settle the water becomes clear all by itself, and the right action becomes obvious.

There are a number of quotes you can find in the Tao Te Ching that elucidate on this idea, right from the start of the book, where in chapter 2 Lao Tzu states: “The sage acts by doing noting”, then later in chapter 22 he says “Because he (the Sage) opposes no one, no one in the world can oppose him.” And in Chapter 48, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”

Now I wouldn’t say that Lao Tzu and Bukowski have exactly the same take on this idea, but they’re not a million miles apart.

There are obvious applications of “Don’t try” in all areas of your life – from creativity, as Bukowski found, to business and your home life, but one of the most obvious I find is in martial arts.

If I find I’m engaged in too much of a struggle during sparring, rather than go harder, I have slowly learned to back off. Rather than fight through something it’s much easier to change track and go around it. 

In Tai Chi push hands you can encounter this idea whenever you feel resistance from your opponent. How do you react? Do you push harder, knowing if you do, you can impose your will on them? Maybe you can, but you’re just engraining a bad habit that’s not going to lead to success when you try it on somebody bigger than you. 

In Jiujitsu I often find guard passing is the best example of this idea of Don’t Try. If you try and force a guard pass, like a knee slide for example, when your partner is defending well then quite often you can make it work, but it’s a lot of effort and ultimately you’ve depleted your energy reserves more than you had to. And again, it won’t work on somebody bigger and stronger. That’s when the words “don’t try” tend to appear in my mind. If the knee slide pass is defended then change the angle, work something else, see if you can switch to a bull fighter pass instead. Or change to a back step. There are always ways around the problem instead of having to power straight through it.

Don’t try. This is the way.

Three views of qi in Tai Chi

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

When it comes to “qi” it seems that every teacher has a slightly different view about what it is. After meeting many martial arts teachers, over the years (and ignoring the clearly delusional amongst them) I’ve paired these various views down to three models that I feel can act as a guide for helping the practitioner sort out what your teacher means when he or she says “qi”, and therefore, what you mean. I don’t think the three are exclusive at all – following one does not negate the others – and all three can be applied at once.

Many people would rather we kept qi out of Tai Chi Chuan teaching altogether, and I respect that view, however the Tai Chi Classics refer to qi quite often, so I think we’re stuck with it. And if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Of course, qi relates to things well outside of the realm of martial arts too, so I think that it’s important to say that what follows is from a martial arts perspective. I’m looking at qi with a view to how it relates to the human body in things like Xing Yi and Tai Chi Chuan. If I was thinking about how qi related to, say the universe, or the landscape, I’d be looking in different places. Although, it has to be said that in Chinese thought the microcosm often mirrors the macrocosm.

Biological qi

The first view we’ll call the biological model. This is the view that what the Chinese call qi is simply the energy the body creates in the cells using the ATP cycle. We’re not talking about a controversial “bio energy” here, just the normal way energy is created in the cells of the body.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the energy-carrying molecule found in the cells of all living things and the universal energy carrier in the living cell. The German chemist Karl Lohmann discovered ATP in 1929.

ATP contains three phosphates and when it is converted to Adenosine Diphosphate (ADP) a phosphate is removed and energy is released that cells can use for processes like movement, synthesis and active transport.

https://www.britannica.com/science/adenosine-triphosphate

While the chemical process of the ATP cycle is hard to explain, the impact on things like Tai Chi and martial arts is quite simple and uncomplicated – qi is nothing mysterious here, and all movement therefore requires qi.
In this model, qi is related to breath because oxygen is required for the ATP cycle, which ties into the Chinese view of qi being related to breath quite nicely. The lungs therefore take over a prominent role in qi production, since oxygen is required for the ATP cycle to work.

Teachers that have this view of qi tend to focus more on the middle dantien in the body, as the the focus of movement, since qi production is higher in the body, towards the lungs, compared to the lower dantien. Stances tend to be higher and not as wide. Mobility is stressed over stability. Arts like Xing Yi and Yi Quan are good examples of these sorts of martial arts.

Qi as strength in a conditioned body

The second view of qi fits in more with Chinese concepts of acupuncture. This view sees the body as containing a number of muscle-tendon channels that run from finger tips to toes. On the soft yin parts on the front of the body we find the yin channels, and on the harder yang parts of the body, the yang channels. These qi channels are the channels along which strength can ‘flow’. By strength we’re not talking about the normal isolated limb movements, but the type of springy whole-body strength exhibited by animals and some marital artists. You can view movement in animals (and humans following this model) as a series of opening and closing movements using these channels. When we contract inwards, for example, we pull along the yin channels and when we open the body outwards we are pulling along the yang channels.

Think of the movements of a Cheetah running – as the legs stretch out the yin part on the front of the body is ‘opened’ and the back ‘closed’. As the legs retract inwards, the front closes and the back expands and opens. The process repeats in a cycle. This movement from yin to yang and back again is the Tai Chi cycle in action.

These channels are not real anatomical structures in the body, but constructed as distinct pathways containing various muscles, tendon, ligaments and fascia groups. (The acupuncture meridians that most people are familiar with are a similar idea, but came later and are obviously based on this idea of muscle-tendon channels in the body.)

In a normal human being these channels are not particularly strong or well developed, and work is required to strengthen them – to give you a “strong qi” – which is what neigong and chigong is for.
Qigong practice is therefore designed to condition these muscle-tendon channels – notice a lot of Qigong practice is to do with stretching along these muscle-tendon channels, using the breathing to assist (e.g. the baduanjin set of exercise). Over time this stretching and breathing can strengthen the channels so that they become a tangible, physical presence in the body. Once they are strong enough to physically manipulate the body with, various martial arts feats can be performed using them, like explosive punching (Fa Jin) or strong twisting and coiling movements.

You most often find this qi model used in arts like Chen Taijiquan, which is known for its twisting and coiling locking and throwing methods (chin na) and its explosive, whole body strikes called Fa Jin. Silk reeling exercises, which are part of Chen style Tai Chi, are excellent for developing this kind of conditioned strength.

Qi as a non-physical body

The final, more esoteric, view of Qi is as a non-physical body. Chinese medicine has the concept of the Sanbao – the three bodies. The physical body – Jing (related to our ability to replicate ourselves by reproduction), the energy or Qi body and Shen the mental or spiritual body. All three bodies are thought to inhabit us at once.

The physical body is the most apparent being the one we use most obviously, but through practices such as Zhang Zhuang Qi Gong, where you stand and hold postures over time, we can gradually become more aware of the more subtle energy body. The Qi body becomes apparent through sensation observed over time. The act of being aware of the qi body, usually in standing Qigong postures, (although seated or lying meditation practice also exists), strengthens your connection to it and your appreciation of it. The same is, presumably, also true of the Shen body, but that is not something I’ve ever experienced myself.

These more esoteric practices tend to be associated with spiritual groups (Taoist internal alchemy traditions), secret societies (exploited in the Boxer Rebellion) and martial arts groups that tend more towards stillness in their practice – like Yang style Taijiquan, or ones that practice seemingly impossible feats of conditioning, like iron palm and iron body practices.

While this view of qi is the one that’s hardest to ‘prove’, it’s also one of the most accessible. Practicing with stillness over a period of time can be done by anybody anywhere and usually produces some tangible results – heat in the hands, etc. But I think this is also the qi model it’s easiest to become deluded with. After all, if your only feedback is judging the things you experience yourself it’s easy to lose your objectivity. This is of course why having a good teacher is important.

Was Stanley Henning wrong about Taijiquan?

Zhan Sangfeng

I’d just like to draw your attention to this excellent article by SSD about Stanley Henning’s often-quoted article Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan’ on the origins of the term Taijiquan. Henning’s article is often used to discredit the idea of Taoist origins of Taijiquan. However, it’s not without its problems, as Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) writes:

The tone and design of this work is generally dismissive and denigrating toward the subject of Chinese traditional culture, and represents, in my opinion, a continuation of the imperialist Eurocentric attitude that is essentially ‘materialistic’ in nature, and implicitly ‘intolerant’ to any other world-view. Astonishingly, this attitude that misrepresents Chinese culture is prevalent (even dominant) amongst Western martial arts media, and is found within martial arts online discussion forums, etc. One or two Taijiquan magazines in the West even partake in this attitude that demeans the Chinese cultural basis of the martial art they practice and support. Working from Chinese language source texts – which I do – I can say without a doubt that Henning’s viewpoints are not acknowledged as legitimate, and are ignored in China. The idea that certain lineal descendants of the Wu family of Taijiquan claim to have written the Yang family Taijiquan Classic texts appears to be only a Western trend – as this idea is not accepted within China. Indeed, such a claim is viewed as the Wu family trying to raise their lineage of Taijiquan above that of the Yang, but again, such a phenomenon could only happen in the West, outside of the cultural controls of Chinese culture. What is important is that the traditional Chinese cultural heritage is acknowledged and treated with respect. SDD)

By Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) from https://thesanghakommune.org/2012/07/13/how-old-is-the-term-taijiquan/

Daniel Mroz on defining Chinese martial arts – a podcast conversation

Daniel Mroz

After battling hard through various technical challenges I’ve finally managed to create a Tai Chi Notebook podcast with humans on! (Previous episodes of my podcast have been a robot voice reading my blogs). I’m pleased to have my good friend Daniel Mroz on board for my first real episode where we have a conversation about what Chinese martial arts might be.

You can find it on all the usual places you find podcasts – search for The Tai Chi Notebook on Apple podcasts, Spotify, etc.. or here’s a link:

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/6tuptU … c1bb1b468f
Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/t … 0530576920
Web: https://anchor.fm/graham47/episodes/Ep- … /a-a68h1lv

What is the relationship between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre, religion, mime, serious leisure activities and military tactics? How do all these factors intermingle and produce the arts we have today? In this wide ranging discussion between Graham Barlow of the Tai Chi Notebook Podcast and Daniel Mroz, Professor of Theatre at the University of Ottawa we tackle all these subjects and more. As well as being a professor of theatre, Daniel is also a Choy Li Fut and Taijiquan practitioner and has spoken at the Martial Arts Studies conference and contributes articles to various journals including the Martial Arts Studies journal.

Podcast Notes

1)
That Daniel Mroz quote in full:


“By ‘Chinese martial arts’, I refer to folkways that began to assume their present forms from the mid 19th to the early 20th centuries, at the end of the Imperial, and the beginning of the Republican periods of Chinese history. These arts train credible fighting abilities through exacting physical conditioning; through partnered, combative drills and games; and through the practice of prearranged movement patterns called tàolù  套路 (Mroz, 2017 & 2020). For millennia, up end of the Imperial period in 1912, China explicitly understood itself as a religious state (Lagerwey 2010). Communities across China not only used their martial arts to defend themselves, they performed them as theatrical acts of religious self-consecration, communal blessing, and entertainment in an annual calendar of sacred festivals (Ward, 1978; Sutton, 2003; Boretz, 2010; Amos, 2021). Modernization, and secularization at the end of the Imperial period removed the original context of these practices. The Chinese martial arts were transformed over the course of the 20th century by both their worldwide spread, and by their ideological appropriation by the Chinese Republic of 1912, and the Communist state that succeeded it in 1949 (Morris, 2004). Their religious heritage forgotten in many social, and cultural contexts within greater China, and internationally, the arts we practice today combine a legacy of pragmatic combat skill, religious enaction, participatory recreation, competitive athleticism, and performed entertainment.”

2)
THE STRENUOUS LIFE PODCAST WITH STEPHAN KESTING
334 – Ten Guru Warning Signs with Dr Dr Chris Kavanagh
https://kesting.libsyn.com/334-ten-guru … s-kavanagh

3)
Peter Johnsson
http://www.peterjohnsson.com/higher-und … reckoning/

Peter Johnsson – long video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6N3x_4 … 3gQGXHpgSG

Peter Johnsson – short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiSoLMx3v0I

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:

Forget Taoism, is Tai Chi Chuan really a Neo-Confucianist martial art?

Confucian Scholar Zhu Xi -(1130-1200AD. This man has a lot to answer for 🙂

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. 

The caste system is based on the Four Occupations of Confucianism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_occupations

Theatre performers and martial artists are lower than no.4. They were “mean people”: jiànrén.

The noun is also used to mean “bitch” or “bastard”. The pronunciation can be found here:  https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E8%B3%A4%E4%BA%BA#Chinese

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.[1]

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.

Wu Yuxiang and Yang Luchan

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:

From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_of_China

“The Ming imperial court also enjoyed opera. However, most Ming emperors liked to keep their music entertainments inside the palace.[24] 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 instrumentcymbals, 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.

Zhu Xi

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). 

Here it is: https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/20-xing-yi-part-5

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.