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:
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.
Stand in a place high up. Looking out over a valley, or the sea, or if you’re in a tower block then look out over the city. Don’t try to think and analyse what you’re looking at, just be open to it. See the place where the sky and land meet.
Open your body posture, holding the arms as if about to embrace an old friend. Let the breath enter the body and leave without any interference. Let the body breathe itself. Start to notice the breath as it goes deep inside you. Feel for the sound of your heartbeat. Get in touch with the rhythms of your breathing, of your heart beat and keep your internal focus there, while maintaining your external focus wide, on everything around you.
If you notice your mind has become caught in thought, simply return it to the body. Stand for as long as you want. Feel what happens to you as you enter a more natural state. You may start to feel a kind of inner strength.
This is the feeling you want to have in the Wu Chi position before you start the Tai Chi form.
How quickly you can enter that state depends very much on how much you’ve practiced it, what’s going on in your life and the state of your health. It’s much easier to achieve this state of Wu Chi in nature, without man-made things in your field of vision or man-made sounds polluting your ears. But if you’ve got a feel for it, then you can do it anywhere. Your body is after all a part of nature.
Tao Te Ching, chapter 49, translation by Stephen Mitchell
49 The Master has no mind of her own. She works with the mind of the people. She is good to people who are good. She is also good to people who aren’t good. This is true goodness. She trusts people who are trustworthy. She also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy. This is true trust. The Master’s mind is like space. People don’t understand her. They look to her and wait. She treats them like her own children.
Looking back over the last few blog posts I’ve written it occurs to me that a reader might think that I don’t actually like Tai Chi Chuan. I do. I practice it pretty much every day. There’s something in it that is just very good for you. Before practice I feel a bit unfocussed, and uncoordinated. After practice I feel like I’m back “in the zone”, and that’s a rare thing for any practice to deliver as consistently as Tai Chi does. And it always does.
If I contrast that with Jiujitsu (something I also love, or at least used to before this lockdown started), after that I’m an exhausted, sweaty mess in need of water and recovery. Jiujitsu is a lot of fun, but it breaks you down. In contrast, Tai Chi builds you up. You need both together. I’ve always practiced my Tai Chi with other more physical arts anyway. More dynamic things, like Choy Lee Fut or Xing Yi are great compliments to the relaxed, slow Tai Chi movements.
One of the reasons I criticise Tai Chi a lot is that it does have the most abysmally low standards amongst its practitioners of any martial art you’ll ever see. In fact, it’s a martial art that most people don’t actually practice as a martial art!
Regular readers to the blog, or regular listeners to the Heretics Podcast, will know that we recently started a series on “The Myth of Tai Chi“. Again, it sounds like it’s a bit of a negative attack on Tai Chi, but anybody with even a cursory understanding of Tai Chi history will realise that a lot of it is vague, unknown and contradictory, especially for a period of time (1850s onwards) in which other martial arts (like Xing Yi) have no confusion over their history and lineage.
Episode 1 of the podcast takes into account all the other things that were happening in China in 1850, and there was a lot! It was a period of turmoil that was about to become even worse with the most bloody civil war in world history – the Taiping Rebellion – which left an estimate 20 million dead. (If you’d like to know more about this and the various martial arts that were created around the same time period, like Wing Chun and Choy Li Fut, then I’d recommend Benjamin Judkin’s excellent book Creation of Wing Chun, The: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts – it’s by far the best Chinese martial arts history book I’ve read).
Now the scene is set, episode 2 (coming soon) will offer more definite conclusions on the origins of Tai Chi Chuan, but there’s still so much left to talk about that this will soon become a mult-part story. You might want to empty your cup before you listen though: Damon’s conclusions on what Tai Chi really is are not particularly favourable for any group trying to claim ownership of the Tai Chi brand – the Chens, the Yangs, the Wus the Taoists or anybody else. You’ll have to wait until episode 2 is released in the next few days to find out what the big reveal is!
But until then, just a little reminder that I do actually like Tai Chi Chuan (honest!), despite appearances. And regardless of its origins what matters is its actual practice. Learning about history won’t make you any more or less skilful, only practice will do that.
We all have blind spots. If you went outside and did your Tai Chi form right now I can guarantee you there’s a bit of it that you’ve never really paid attention to. I don’t mean something big, like a whole movement, but there will be lots of little spots which you’re glossing over your form without full awareness.
Try this as an exercise: Go through your Tai Chi form right now, but as you do each posture pay attention only to the way the joints of the body open and close. But here’s the thing – I’m not saying, make them open and close.
This is a crucial difference. If you try and make them open and close you just end up ruining your form, or being “too physical” as my teacher likes to say. Just use your awareness to be the silent observer of yourself as you do the form. And try and focus that awareness on the way your joints are opening and closing. Pick the easy ones to start with – the shoulder/hip, elbow/knee and ankle/wrist relationships. Try and see if you can maintain awareness of all 3 pairs and how they open and close as you move through the postures. The postures, done correctly, are designed to allow them to open and close – there’s nothing extra you need to add. If that’s too much too mentally juggle at once then just pick one pair to be aware of for the entire length of the form. Shoulders and hips is a good one. There are many more ‘joints’ to be aware of, of course, but that will do for now.
I don’t want to spoil the experience for you, so if you’d like to discover what this training method can do for yourself, then stop reading here and come back when you’ve done it.
Remember that joke – ‘Don’t think of an elephant’? This picture reminds me of that. 🙂 Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Still with me? Ok, let’s go on…
What I find when I do this is that the simple act of being aware of something changes it, without me having to do anything. For me, this exercise highlights the areas of the form that I’ve been glossing over, and from that awareness, a new form begins, one that is more complete and better.
As the great Taoist sage Lao Tse wrote:
Can you coax your mind from its wandering
and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become
supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision
until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them
without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters
by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from you own mind
and thus understand all things? Giving birth and nourishing,
having without possessing,
acting with no expectations,
leading and not trying to control:
this is the supreme virtue.
In fact, that’s just one example, the whole Tao Te Ching is full of the benefits of this sort of Wu-Wei “non-action”.
These blind spots in your Tai Chi are usually found in the transitions between what we think of as “postures”. The in-between bits. The space between the notes, as the great French composer Claude Debussy famously said, was where the music is found.
This discovery poses an interesting question not only for your Tai Chi, but for your life too. Where are your blind spots? What are you not really paying attention to? I think you know what to do now.
Prof. Paul Bowman of the Martial Arts Studies podcast interviewed me yesterday about various things like this blog, martial arts, the intersection between Xing Yi and BJJ. It was a fun chat because I have known Paul for years and used to be his Tai Chi teacher.
I grew up watching Monkey on TV. This Japanese TV series based on the ancient novel Journey to the West was dubbed into English and run by the BBC from 1979 onwards. It was hugely influential in introducing Kung Fu and Taoist/Buddhist ideas to the West via a children’s story.
It’s quite fitting that I watched it as a child, because it is a story for children, but if you look closer, you’ll find that it deals with a lot of deeper issues.
Journey to the West follows the story of a Buddhist monk and three immortal animal spirits (four if you count the horse) who follow ‘him’ (this was always confusing to me, as the actor in the TV series was clearly a woman) on a journey to ‘the west’, which was India, in search of the Buddha. Along the way, they have to endure various trials and tribulations.
Journey to the West is a classic work of Chinese literature, and can be read as an allegory for all sorts of things – is it about the taming of the ‘monkey mind’? Is it a criticism of Buddhism by Taoists? Or Taoist by the Buddhists? Or is it a religious text that acts as a guide to spiritual enlightenment?
As you’ll discover from this fascinating discussion between Chinese language and literature professors Katherine Alexander and friend of the Tai Chi Notebook, Scott Philips, all things are possible!
Katherine Alexander is a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and has a PhD from the University of Chicago. Her PhD dissertation, “Virtues of the Vernacular: Moral Reconstruction in late Qing Jiangnan and the Revitalization of Baojuan” addresses popular religious literature and culture in Jiangnan during and after the Taiping War. https://www.colorado.edu/alc/katherin…
Split, like Rollback, is one of Tai Chi’s 8 energies. It’s also one of the most commonly found of the 8 energies in the Tai Chi form. Almost every technique you see in Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan) uses Split energy to a greater or lesser degree.
I’ve seen Split described as spiral energy, a takedown or a breaking force. But all of those things miss the point – they describe its effects, not what it really is.
Split is really the energy of two things moving in opposite directions. If you move two things in a circle in opposite directions you create a spiral. When you do applications on somebody with spiral actions the result is usually a takedown. And you can’t break any joint without directing force in two different directions. For example, if you kick somebody’s leg it’s unlikely to break unless that leg is locked against something that doesn’t move, like say, the ground.
This brings us on to how Split is applied in Tai Chi Chuan.
In Tai Chi you want your hands to be clearly differentiated from each other. One hand needs to be active, the other passive. One empty, and the other solid. One Yin, one Yang. If you don’t do this then you enter a state known as being double weighted. As it says in the classics:
Sinking to one side allows movement to flow; being double-weighted is sluggish.
Anyone who has spent years of practice and still cannot neutralize, and is always controlled by his opponent, has not apprehended the fault of double-weightedness.
To avoid the fault of double-weightedness, which hand is the yin one and which is the yang one must change continually and ceaselessly as you go through the movements of the Tai Chi form. Tai Chi Chuan should always be in a state of change, just like the Tai Chi symbol itself is.
Image by Pixabay.
If it’s not in a state of change then it’s stuck. Calling something double-weighted is another way of saying that it’s stuck.
Split is usually applied along with another of the 8 energies. One example I wanted to look at today is Rollback. Rollback, or Lu energy, is the most yin of all Tai Chi’s 8 energies. It’s almost the absence of energy. When being confronted with active Yang energy, Lu is the energy of retreating or yielding. Its movement is usually inwards.
The technique called Rollback in the Tai Chi form gets its name from Lu energy, but also mixes in a bit of Split energy.
If you look at this picture of Yang Cheng Fu doing Rollback you can see the differentiation in his hands.
This left hand is withdrawing and pulling, but his right hand is pressing downwards.
In the action of Rollback your left-hand starts off as the active one with a guiding pull on the attacker’s wrist, but the right one then takes over as the active hand with a strong pressing down action onto the attacker’s elbow area.
I found a really old video of me doing rollback in push hands, so you can see what I mean:
At the start of the motion my left hand is the active one, then the right hand takes over with the pressing down movement.
Throughout the whole Tai Chi form, you should be aware of this interplay of energy between not just the palms but the other parts of the body too. If you can notice it in the palms, with one hand being the active one and the other the passive one, and then exchanging positions, you can start to notice it in the feet, the legs and so on.
Once you can do this over the whole body then you can distinguish yin and yang throughout your form and you will no longer be at the risk of exhibiting double weighting.
Have you noticed that some people always seem a little bit out of breath? Especially when they talk. I think it’s a problem of posture. Not a huge posture discrepancy, like bending over or tilting to the side, perhaps not even anything visible, but just a slight incline here or slump there that has become ingrained, causing the body to work harder than it needs to draw in oxygen.
The abdominal muscles relax while your diaphragm contracts downward, pushing all your guts out of the way.
Your intercostal muscles contract to expand your rib cage, lowering the air pressure in your lungs and creating a vacuum in the chest cavity.
Air flows through your nose and mouth in response to the vacuum.
The intercostal muscles and diaphragm relax while the abdominal muscles contract, pushing air out of the lungs.
Breathing is an automatic process that should be happening effortlessly, yet we mess about with it far too much.
So what does this have to do with Tai Chi you might be asking? Well the posture requirements needed to achieve the optimum style of breathing are provided by correct application of Tai Chi principles. I find standing upright with the head ‘as if suspended from above’, as it says in the Tai Chi classics and a relaxed upper body is the key. When we slump in even a minor way we impinge the correct functioning of the breathing process.
One of the best ways to train this is in Zhan Zhuang, “stake standing” postures, because it takes the complexity of movement out of the equation. With regular practice your general sense of being upright tends to improve.
One of the best free sources of information on Zhan Zhuang is the Channel 4 TV series Stand Still, Be Fit! that breaks it down into easy 10 minute lessons.
Notice that there’s no specific advice on breathing, but a lot of attention is paid on alignment and posture. The idea is that with correct posture, the breathing becomes natural again and follows what the Taoists called ‘the way’.
“Clear as a glass of water. Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.”
There’s a great article over on Kung Fu Tea about the life of one of the most influential Chinese martial artists of all time, Sun Lu Tang.
One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed. In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural. The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.
It’s a good read, so sit down with a cup of tea and put your feet up with your laptop.