There’s a great book review by Ben Judkins over on Kung Fu Tea of Daniel Miles Amos’ 2021 book Hong Kong Martial Artists: Sociocultural Change from World War II to 2020.
The book sounds excellent and offers first hand experience of the changes in the Hong Kong martial arts scene has gone through over an extended period of years, and as such really pins down the economic and social challenges that traditional Chinese martial arts face in the modern world.
I really liked the opening of the review, because it somehow sums up the message of the whole book in one easy to follow exchange:
“Some years ago, one of my younger brothers married into a Hakka family after moving to Hong Kong to teach. My sister-in-law finds my interest in the Chinese martial arts fascinating and even admirable. And she insists that her children should have an opportunity to practice martial arts as well. Yet she did not enroll them in a local Wing Chun class, despite the media buzz around the art. Nor did she seek out one of the traditional Hakka styles from her family’s home village. Like so many other parents, she placed them in one of the city’s many thriving Tae Kwon Do schools.
I asked her about this once while we were discussing martial arts films and her answer was both blunt and revealing. “Why would I turn my kids over to some sketchy alcoholic! Besides, after ten years in Tae Kwon Do you get a black belt and something to put on your resume when applying for University. What did they give you after 10 years of Wing Chun?”
Jesse Kenkamp (AKA The Karate Nerd) has done another great video on tracing the roots of Karate. Here he is with White Crane practitioner Martin Watts in Yongchun, birthplace of White Crane, which is usually considered an ancestor style to Karate.
What I liked about this video is Martin’s no-nonsense teaching of what are generally thought of as internals in Chinese martial arts and shrouded in mystery (usually by westerners using Orientalism to sell books 😉 )
My point in posting this is that Martin covers “sinking the qi to the dantien” at 4.00 – what it is and, most importantly how what it is not is just as important.
I appreciate Martin’s simple, down to earth explanation.
Bowman notes that instead of helping people, the myth busting of martial arts which is going on all the time in academic circles is probably destroying the careers of some martial arts teachers. So it’s “doing a service to the world which is actually also a kind of violence”. It’s an interesting point. He notes that people often fall in love with the martial arts for silly orientalist reasons – they fall for the myth of studying an ancient and mystical martial art, then read a well-researched book about it, by somebody like Ben Judkins or Peter Lorge, which shatters their beliefs and makes then doubt the validity of the art they are doing.
My own Heretics podcast does its fair share of myth busting too – our Aikido episode, Kempo & Jiujitsu history series and Tai Chi history series spring to mind as good examples. I’ve had first had experience of those episodes visibly upsetting teachers I know. Whether they know it or not, these teachers are heavily emotionally invested in the myths of their own arts superiority – they believe all the stories of old practitioners and the amazing feats they can do, and know exactly why their martial art is superior to others. If you start to chip away at those beliefs then the whole facade is at risk of crumbling, and they don’t like it! Unfortunately reality is usually disappointing when compared to the myths.
When the Chinese martial arts first started making an impact on the West in the 1970s they were full of obvious untruths. Tall tales of Buddhist and Taoist origins abounded. For example, that Tai Chi was apparently created by a Taoist immortal who had a dream about a crane fighting a snake, and Wing Chun was named after the girl who was taught it by a female Buddhist monk, when it turns out that there’s no evidence that she even existed. Over time these myths then get added to by other myths – like the one that Yang LuChan was “invincible”, for example. Even in the modern age the myth of Ip Man has been enhanced to bursting point by a series of pseudo-historical films in which he combats the Japanese, western wrestlers, boxers and even Mike Tyson at one point!
These more marketing-orientated myths about the prowess of practitioners – how deadly they were, how unbeatable their martial arts was, how the power of Qi was greater than physical strength all fed directly into all that nonsense about no touch knockouts and “empty force” that has marred the image of Chinese martial arts in the modern age.
And politics also gets involved. When obvious myths about the origins of martial arts are dispelled they often get replaced by more politically motivated stories about the arts origins that are equally as unprovable and unreliable yet fit a natioanlist agenda. It seems like the Chinese martial arts are forever being used to support some sort of Chinese government propaganda.
In short, the Chinese martial arts world was in need of, and remains in need of, a lot of myth busting, because much of what we are being told and sold is basically not true. But Bowman’s fears, that we are in danger of spoiling the fun for everybody with this relentless search for the truth, holds true, I think. I was certainly attracted to Chinese martial arts by a steady diet of orientalist propaganda from the likes of David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV series and Marvel comics with heroes like Iron Fist. This is often what draws us to the martial arts in the first place and there has to be some way of searching for truth in the martial arts, but keeping the magic that drew us there in the first place.
“You can’t tell a martial artists he’s a dancer without getting a bloody nose.” – G.Barlow, 2020
I haven’t posted much recently, but the recent deep dive my podcast has taken into the history of a particular Chinese martial art (Taijiquan) seems to have coincided with a number of contentious discussion I’ve had elsewhere on the history of Chinese martial arts that have been taking up my time. Let me redress that imbalance now.
Experience has taught me that if you tell a group of Chinese martial artists that Chinese martial arts used to be so intertwined with Chinese theatre and religion that the two were indistinguishable you invariably annoy them. You will be laughed at and shunned. There are howls of outrage.
No! Chinese martial arts are based purely on effectiveness for fighting! Are you crazy?!?!
But at the same time the very same people will put on demonstration of martial arts (sometimes in the street, but sometimes in an actual theatre!) and perform things like Dragon Dance, without giving it a second thought, or thinking it in any way detracts from their pursuit of serious martial skills, or their wish to be see as serious pugilists.
I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why this is. I think it’s hard for people living in the modern age to get their heads around what it would have been like to have lived at the time these arts they practice were created. Yet, it’s important to note that the people who created the Chinese martial arts we’re all familiar with now – things like Choy Li Fut, Wing Chun, Bak Mei, etc, lived in a time when ghosts, demons and ancestors walked amongst us. A time when rituals were used to appease their spirits and gain spiritual merit for the community, and martial arts played a huge part in that.
The performance of a martial arts form was itself the enactment of a ritual for self consecration. The Chinese Government always used ritual to organise the state. The Chinese state was a religious state (See China: A Religious State, Hong Kong University Press).
As the 20th century began in China, the shame felt over the Boxer Rebellion and defeat by European powers, gave way to the realisation that modern ways would need to be adopted to avoid the humiliating defeats that had gone before. This lead to an almost endless series of wars, revolts, reforms and tragedies that resulted in societal change right down to the core, and the martial arts being stripped of much of their social, spiritual and religious function to become simply pugilistic calisthenics. Considering the horrors China endured, we should be glad they survived at all.
Two great Chinese martial artists I have a lot of time for are Tim Cartmell and Byron Jacobs. Here they have a robust and fantastic discussion about what they’ve trained in and their thoughts on making Chinese martial arts practical again by using modern sparring methods (amongst other things).
The conversation is really down to earth and useful. It’s clear that they consider the Chinese martial arts to be about fighting first and foremost. Can you imagine throwing in concepts of theatre and spiritual rituals into this conversation? You’d be laughed straight out the door! (If Youtube has doors, that is).
I think that’s why it’s very hard to talk to martial artists about things like ritual, theatre and how these were entwined with Chinese martial arts almost 200 years ago. They are clearly not today, to the same extent, and yet the connection still persists in China (somehow!).
As Jo Riley relates:
‘In 1991 I filmed a wǔshù club training in the village temple in Zhong Suo village in Guizhou under their master Lu Huamei, who was also the head of the village theatre company. Lu teaches tangquan style, which is in the middle level range of skills, and over three hundred villagers train regularly with him (nowadays girls included). Six small boys also take part in the training, the youngest of whom is ten years old, and the skills they learn from Lu are also observed from standing on the stage with the village theatre company when they perform. As in many villages, the village temple, martial arts training and performance indivisibly form the cradle of acting in and spectating theatre’ (1997:17).
Riley, J. Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1997.
Some people are engaging in this conversation though, and I wanted to bring them to your attention. Daniel Mroz has just given a lecture at the most recent Martial Arts Studies Conference, (which was a virtual event, due to the Covid 19 Pandemic).
His lecture “The Meaning of Taolu in Chinese Martial Arts” is now online:
Or you can read it here:
Here’s a great quote regarding Choy Li Fut:
Historically, the Choy Li Fut exponents playing tàolù enacted a magical, religious role for their community. The play of tàolù in a seasonal calendar of popular rituals demonstrated the adepts’ martial prowess while earning spiritual merit for the entire community. By practicing and demonstrating the arduous and humbling physical training Choy Li Fut requires, these performers consecrated and re-consecrated themselves over and over to what Daniel Amos refers to as a religion of the body (1997: 31-61). This self-consecration made them spiritually inviolable and venerable in the eyes of their community. Their demonstration of skill acquired through perseverance, or gōngfū (功夫), was a meritorious act performed on behalf of the collective. This self-consecration was also tacitly expressed in theatre. Theatre permeated public and private life in 19thcentury China. While professional actors belonged to a marginalized underclass, people loved the entertainment they provided and hired them not just to perform but also to teach and coach. For professional, amateur and private groups, the learning, rehearsing and presentation of theatre was beloved, constant and intense. While non-actors would never play professionally, virtually everyone was involved in performing at some level. Chinese theatre, or xìqǔ (戲曲) and Chinese martial arts employ many virtually identical training methods.
Here’s a great presentation by David Palmer and Martin Tse on the connection between social practices, ritual, and martial arts:
Personally I would like to embrace both these world views – the practical and the spiritual (for want of a better word). I don’t think they need to be mutually exclusive at all. I am interested fully in the practical application of Chinese martial arts, but I’m also happy for its long and complicated history to enhance what I do. I don’t see it as a distraction or an irrelevance. I am so grateful these arts have survived during some of the worst atrocities in human history and made it through to the modern age, and I think viewing them in their original context empowers today’s modern practitioner.
Human beings are capable of entertaining many different perspectives on something simultaneously, even if they are sometimes contradictory. In the words of Bob Dylan on the opening track of his excellent new album,
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.
I keep hearing talk of current/or current interim/or previous UFC Lightweight champion (it’s such a mess in that division of the UFC at the moment that I lose track) Tony Ferguson and his use of Wing Chun in the UFC.
The following video puts all the different clips of him training on a Wing Chun wooden dummy and fighting in the UFC together, with a bit of Joe Rogan commentary over the top – it’s actually a good watch:
The exercise he’s doing with the metal ball looks a lot like the Baguazhang tea cups drill, as well.
To me his Wing Chun looks kind of self-taught. I get the impression he’s more into innovative training using the wooden dummy equipment, rather than in making a serious attempt to learn and apply actual Wing Chun in MMA.
A lot of the proof that he’s using Wing Chun in the UFC relies on that one elbow he did over the top in the clip above. But the thing is, Jon Jones has been using that for years, and nobody says he’s doing Wing Chun. Watch him doing it against Gustaffson here:
Still, it’s worth noting that Fergason is doing well with whatever unconventional training methods he’s using. If he can find some inspiration in traditional Chinese Martial Arts, then so much the better for everyone.
I’m always looking for ways that the sticky hands-like training found in Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi Chuan, Wing Chun, Praying Mantis, White Crane and Hung Gar, where contact between the forearms or hands is maintained and the practitioner is encouraged to ‘listen’ to the movements of the opponent through this contact, can be used in MMA.
A clip of Bruce Lee showing sticky hands training
The problem with transferring these sorts of skills to MMA is quite obvious: nobody in a ‘real’ fight is going to offer up their arm to you to stick too. Instead, they’re just going to punch you straight in the face, and not leave their fist hanging in the air afterward for you to grab.
Perhaps the most famous MMA practitioner ever, Conor McGregor, is a master of counter-attacking and timing. He waits for the opponent to commit to a strike before throwing his deadly left hand and catching him just as he comes in. He mixes this up with kicking techniques straight from a Tae Kwon Do instruction manual.
Other fighters like Nate Diaz are known for their straight-up boxing style hands and fighters like Gobrandt and Cruz have evolved the MMA striking game into a movement based style.
One of the names you don’t often hear mentioned regarding striking is the UFC light heavyweight champion, and now the new heavyweight champion, Daniel Cormier. Cormier, a former Olympic Wrestler, has a strong background in grappling but has dominated the light heavyweight division (despite two losses to Jon Jones, who keeps getting disqualified and banned for failing drug tests), achieving 10 TKO or KO victories from striking.
Using wrestling as his base he’s developed a style of clinch-based dirty boxing that has been very successful. He doesn’t look like a typical striker, with both his hands outstretched, instead of in a typical boxing guard. When engaging an opponent on his feet Cormier seeks to smother the other guy’s hands, and feed in strikes once they are out of the way, moving into a clinch position, then looking to land a strong hook as either he or his opponent exit the clinch. And of course, once in the clinch, he can use his wrestling to get a takedown. Video here.
If he can catch his opponent with his hands down as he exits the clinch then a short hook can mean its lights out, as the ex Heavy Weight champion Stipe Miocic found out to his cost this Saturday at UFC 226 when Cormier moved up a weight division to challenge for the belt, becoming a two-division champion in the process as Miocic collapsed to the floor following a clean hook to the chin from Cormier.
Cormier’s tactics have a president in boxing. Jack Johnson and George Forman used to smother opponents hands to set up their own fence and draw loopier punches that they could cut inside of.
Jack Slack breaks Cormier’s style down further in a subsequent article, after the event, which looks at Cormier’s use of a blocking arm, known as a barring arm. Video here.
But what peaked my interest was the idea that this style of fighting could be the ‘way in’ that Chinese Martial Arts practitioners are looking for when transitioning to MMA (or heck, just even real fighting). Cormier’s style makes extensive use of subtle angle changes and sensitivity that push hands and sticky hands training builds up.
If you’ve got a background in this style of sticky hands then read those Jack Slack articles and take a closer look at what Cormier is doing because it could be a style of fighting that would probably work for you too.
I was giving the Tao Te Ching the cursory glance I occasionally give it recently. I’ve got the copy shown above. I usually flick to a random chapter, read it three times and ponder it deeply. Well, as deeply as I am able to. I landed on chapter 61, and the next day I landed on chapter 8. These two seemed to be linked in theme, so I thought I’d say something about them.
Incidentally, I really like the Stephen Mitchell translation. I’ve no idea how accurate it is compared to the Chinese, but all translation seems to involve some interpretation, and I like the way he’s done it.
Here’s chapter 61:
When a country obtains great power, it becomes like the sea: all streams run downward into it. The more powerful it grows, the greater the need for humility. Humility means trusting the Tao, thus never needing to be defensive.
A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it. Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it. He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers. He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.
If a nation is centered in the Tao, if it nourishes its own people and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others, it will be a light to all nations in the world.
and chapter 8:
The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. Thus it is like the Tao.
In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.
So, firstly let’s look at the imagery of water, one of the classic symbols of the Yin side of the Taiji diagram. Both chapters use water as a metaphor for the correct way of acting or being in the world. It’s a theme that repeats through the Tao Te Ching, and also throughout the history of Asian martial arts, even in modern times. I’m thinking of Bruce Lee in the infamous interview where he says “Be water, my friend!”
I was reading another article about Wing Chun today by Ben Judkins, which also expanded upon this idea of softness overcoming strength, and how this idea has permeated Asian martial arts:
Early reformers in martial arts like Taijiquan (Wile 1996) and Jujitsu sought to shore up their own national identities by asserting that they brought a unique form of power to the table. Rather than relying on strength, they would find victory through flexibility, technique, and cunning (all yin traits), just as the Chinese and Japanese nations would ultimately prevail through these same characteristics. It is no accident that so much of the early Asian martial arts material featured images of women, or small Asian men, overcoming much larger Western opponents with the aid of mysterious “oriental” arts. These gendered characterizations of hand combat systems were fundamentally tied to larger narratives of national competition and resistance (see Wendy Rouse’s 2015 article “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 84 No. 4, November, pp. 448-477).
but as the author notes, the situation is often muddied
Shidachi appears to have had little actual familiarity with Western wrestling. It is clear that his discussion was driven by nationalist considerations rather than detailed ethnographic observation. And there is something else that is a bit odd about all of this. While technical skill is certainly an aspect of Western wrestling, gaining physical strength and endurance is also a critical component of Judo training. Shidachi attempted to define all of this as notbeing a part of Judo. Yet a visit to the local university Judo team will reveal a group of very strong, well developed, athletes. Nor is that a recent development. I was recently looking at some photos of Judo players in the Japanese Navy at the start of WWII and any one those guys could have passed as a modern weight lifter. One suspects that the Japanese Navy noticed this as well.
But while the idea of the soft overcoming the hard has already fallen to the level of a cliché, especially when it comes to martial arts, and mixed with political ideas, should we ignore it as a way of being in the world? I’d say not. It does point to a truth.
Anyone with any familiarity in martial arts is aware of the feeling of having to ‘muscle’ a technique to make it work, as opposed to executing a clean technique based on good leverage. This points towards what I think these chapters of the Tao Te Ching are talking about.
When it comes to Tai Chi one of the hardest things to grasp about the techniques exemplified in the forms is that they shouldn’t necessarily feel powerful to you as you do them. My teacher often uses this phrase: “…if you feel it then they don’t – you want them to feel it, not you“.
If you can give up the need to control and struggle with a situation, then you can relax and access your own inner power. See what acliché that statement sounds like already? It sounds like one to me as I wrote it, but I guess all cliches were probably based on something real, otherwise, they wouldn’t be acliché.
In Chinese martial arts that sweet spot between doing and not doing (to bastardize some more Taoist terminology) is called Jin. I’ve written a bit about that before:
After his fight with the “Tai Chi master” Wei Lei, which rocked the contemporary martial arts scene in China, Xu Xiao Dong, the MMA fighter on a mission to expose “fake masters” is back on the scene this time showing his skills against a Wing Chun fighter.
China doesn’t have the sort of government regime which tolerates people who rock the boat, so I’m pleased to see that Xu is no longer under detention, as I feared we may never have seen him again after what happened last time.
Here’s the fight:
It’s a pretty ugly fight. Here are my takeaways:
Ding Hao clearly lacks realistic sparring experience, as he falls apart pretty quickly. His grappling was non-existent.
Xu Xiao Dong is pretty much a ‘stand and bang’ type fighter. Or maybe he felt so unthreatened by Ding that he didn’t feel the need to do much of anything else.
The ref makes some daring saves!
Why are they wearing such different clothing? Ding has shoes on! Only Xu is wearing gloves. Xu is grabbing Ding’s clothing to throw and control him. It’s a mess.
Why are they fighting on what looks like a red carpet used for movie premieres or award shows?
If you watch Ding throughout the fight you can see him try to adapt as he realises what he is doing isn’t working. He starts off looking very much like classical Wing Chun and ends up looking more like Jeet Kune Do. It’s like watching the evolution of Bruce Lee in microcosm!
Here’s some background about Xu Xiao Dong and his fights and detention by police in China: