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:

What is an authentic understanding of Chinese martial arts?

Qing Dynasty martial artists performing in a procession (between 1901-1904)

I’m still fascinated by that film I posted a little while ago of China from 1901-1904. It’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the people who were around at the time that the popular martial arts of Northern China – Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan were being formalised into the structures and routines we still know and recognise today.

It gives a small insight into what the martial arts of the time were like, we have an idea of what they practiced, but we don’t always know where they practiced them, and to some extent really why they practiced them. There’s a particular sequence starting at 17.10 in the film where we see a procession of sorts going along a riverbank and then entering a village or town. There are martial arts performers doing twirls and spins of their weapons as they go. The setting is informal, music is being played (we see the musicians) and it has something of an air of the Saint’s Day religious processions you still see going on between villages in rural European nations, or the May Day “Hobby Hoss” procession that can still found in Cornwall in the United Kingdom.

But back to China. The martial artists involved seem embedded into the culture of the place and time as much as the musicians or flag holders.

“There was a well established pattern of village festival culture in Northern China. The ritual was called a sai and it was based on a three-part structure: inviting, welcoming and seeing off the gods. Ritual could last anywhere from three days to a month. Wherever you happened to be, these rituals were happening nearby every two weeks. A smaller sai might have only 50 people officiating and a thousand participants, while a large one might involve hundreds of ritual experts and 100,000 participants. A large ritual could invoke as many as 500 gods, their statues escorted out of temples in massive processions with armed escorts of martial performers that snaked between villages for miles.”

“According to David Johnson, ritual festivals were so common and so old and so large that they were overwhelmingly the most important influence shaping the symbolic universe of the common people. Regionally they happen about every two weeks and could involve over a hundred villages, with processions that strung out for miles attracting thousands of spectators. “It is quite impossible to understand what villagers… in North China thought and felt about the world of politics, about Chinese history and traditions, about the world of gods and demons, or about any of the grand matters of life and death, without a close familiarity with sai [and similar rituals]. Ref: David Johnson 1997, “Temple Festivals in Southeastern Shanxi”, Overmyer 2009,8.”

From Tai Chi, Baguazhang and the Golden Elixir: Internal martial arts before the Boxer Rebellion by Scott Phillips, p173.
Qing Dynasty martial artists performing in a procession (between 1901-1904)

I don’t think we can assume, from one film. that all Chinese martial art of the period was like this, but it’s fascinating to see a glimpse of how well it was integrated with everything else.

As Charles Holcombe wrote at the start of his seminal 1990 essay on the subject, Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts

Everywhere in China the martial arts either present themselves in the guise of simple exercises or are shrouded in arcane religious mysteries. Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills. The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?

Charles Holcombe, Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts

Chasing perfection: Yang Cheng-Fu’s roll back posture

I thought I’d start a series of posts commenting on what I like about photos of famous masters of the past. I thought I’d start with this photo of Yang Cheng-Fu doing rollback from the Yang long form.

Yang Chengfu, Rollback.

Yang Cheng-Fu comes in for a lot of criticism, mainly I think because of his weight. He was a big man, but I’ve always been impressed with how precise and delicate his postures seem to be. What I like most about this picture is that you can almost feel the heaviness and sinking in what he’s doing, yet at the same time there is the precise placing of his hands and feet.

Tai Chi is a paradox in that you are supposed to feel light yet also heavy. According to the Tai Chi Classics your head needs to feel like it is being pulled up “as if suspended from above”, and yet your body needs to also have the feeling of sinking, “Make the chi sink calmly” and “The abdomen relaxes, then the chi sinks into the bones.”

You can see both these qualities in Yang Cheng-Fu performing Rollback, head upright, light and nimble, yet also firm and heavy. With the placement of his hands you also get a sense of the yin and yang being distributed throughout his body. The back hand has the intent of pulling and the front hand has the intent of pushing. He is not “double weighted” – each hand is expressing a different energy. The weight on his feet is on the back leg – again, not in no man’s land in the middle, but clearly distinguished.

You also get a sense of calm. This is not a frantic and hurried performance. It’s slow and deliberate, like a great river rolling.

There’s a lot you can learn from a photo.

Xing Yi Quan by Tian Jinglong

Here’s a nice video of a Xing Yi Quan linking form showing some really nice Xing Yi Quan body methods.

Xing Yi Quan master Tian Jinglong (田景龙) shows Advanced and retreat linked form(Ji Tui Lianhuan(进退连环拳). Tian Jinglong is disciple of Li Jinbo(李金波), youngest student of legendary Hebei province warrior “Iron Luohan” Zhang Changfa (张长发aka Zhang Xiangzhai张祥斋) . Lineage: Li Luoneng(李洛能)—Liu Qilan(刘奇兰)—Liu Dianchen(刘殿琛)—Zhang Changfa(张长发)—Li Jinbo(李金波)—Tian Jinglong(田景龙)

Yi Quan people (usually) don’t understand Xing Yi

Edit: I wrote a second post that added a clarification about the difference between what I meant by “weight” and “weighted leg”, because I realise that this post isn’t very clear on the subject. I’ve left the rest of this post unedited.

Here’s the good news: our recent podcast about Yi Quan seems to have upset far fewer people than our one about Baguazhang. In general, reaction to the Yi Quan podcast has been positive. It’s a good point to remind people that our Heretics podcast isn’t a history podcast, it’s a podcast about the miasma – cultural assumptions and how they have played a role in the development of various arts, religions and institutions throughout history. The episode was as much about Xing Yi as it was about Yi Quan, and also the kind of tradition of criticism that the founder, Wang Xiangzhai, baked into it.

As we discussed in the podcast, Wang Xiangzhai’s criticism can be viewed as “the spirit of the times” speaking through him. At the time it was required to talk down to “rotten old traditions”, of which Xing Yi was an example (China has never really had a free press). You can read some of Wang’s criticisms in his article “Essence of Boxing Science”, which is an interview he did, turned into an essay.

He says about Xing Yi: “ It must be noted that Xing Yi Quan in its orthodox form had no such thing as the Twelve Forms (Twelve Animals), though their should be twelve forms of the body. Nor did it have the theory of mutual promotion and restraint of the five elements.”

Actually I’d agree with him – that is the way Xing Yi should be practiced. The animals are not “forms”. That was the general theme of the podcast – there’s very little difference between Yi Quan and Xing Yi done right.

However, Yi Quan people still like to criticise 🙂

I read a post recently by a (good) practitioner of Yi Quan criticising Xing Yi’s punching method – using Beng Quan as an example.

“It still baffles me when I see xingyiquan people Beng Chuan without turning the waist and shoulders, even worse almost hopping on the rear leg as all the weight is held back.”

I’d agree with him – you need movement in your body using your spine as an axis – it’s no use being like an inflexible lump of wood. And, yes, “hopping” is another mistake. Don’t hop.

But we do hold the weight on the back leg in a lot of movements. This is the hardest thing (I think) for people new to Xing Yi to understand. How can you generate force without putting your weight into the front leg?

That’s a good question to ask a Xing Yi practitioner, because they should be able to punch you and show you 🙂

“Every punch must have 2 important components:
Shift of weight. [to front leg]
Transference of kinetic chain from lower to upper extremity.”

Well, yes, but with caveats. That’s certainly how you generally punch in boxing, or in other martial arts. However, let’s remember that people in these arts can still generate power while retreating – enough to knock somebody out. Anderson Silva famously knocked out Forrest Griffin, while stepping backwards to avoid his rushing attack. So the situation is clearly not as cut and dried as some would like.

I’m not really into hitting things much these days – I prefer the joys of pyjama wrestling on soft mats (with minimal brain injury), but I thought I’d make a short video to show you can generate force without putting your weight into the front leg, as Xing Yi teaches us, and that maybe we should all keep an open mind on the matter.

If you look at my front leg in the video you’ll see I never put my weight onto it. It steps out in front of the body, then the back leg catches up. Obviously, it holds some weight, but the weight is ‘held’ mainly on the back leg. This is how you’re supposed to do it in my line of Xing Yi. You can, of course, also do it with a weighted front leg, but the principle of “Chicken Leg” is that one leg holds the weight – it doesn’t matter which one – and we don’t need to transfer the weight between legs to generate force, instead, the force comes from correct stepping and body movement (Dragon body).

Yes, I know need to get a bag to hit, but instead I’ve got a tennis ball on a string to play with (we go with what we’ve got available, right?) I’ll get a bag at some point and do another video.

Why do it like this? Good question.

i) You arrive quicker to where it is you’re getting to – it’s much more “all at once” than having to transfer weight between the legs. It’s sharper and better if you’re looking to intercept the opponent (Jeet) which matters most in weapons fighting, where timing is much finer than with fists (Xing Yi comes from weapons, spear being the main one).

ii) You keep your body “back”, which is better for defence. Leaning too much into things is a great way to get knocked out, as we all know. Or with weapons, you want to keep the vital organs as far back as you can. If you look at the Xing Yi Classics it says things like “do not wither and do not be greedy” – you need to keep a reserved attitude to fighting, especially with weapons.

In other news – the blossom is coming out on the cherry tree – you might be able to see it in the video. Spring is here!

Dragon dance and street theatre – rare video of old China 1901-1904

Thanks to Jarek Szymanski for posting about this clip.

“Unique documentary footage taken between 1901 and 1904 in Yunnan in southwestern China by Auguste François (1857-1935) french consul stationed there. Street performers, barbers, funerals, official visits, leopard catching a pigeon and monkey wearing opera outfit doing somersaults, opium smoker, it’s all there – and more. Absolutely stunning over fifty minutes of footage from China that none of us has ever seen. Somewhere there were probably also martial artists, hiding in plain sight;)”

https://www.cinematheque.fr/henri/film/129752-images-de-chine-auguste-francois-1901-1904/

Of particular note for martial arts fans are the Dragon Dance scene at 32 minutes and the street theatre dancing at 46m which looks an aweful lot like Baguazhang….

What it was like learning traditional Chinese martial art in secret during the Cultural Revolution

This is a very informative interview with Ma Yue who is a Mashi Tongbei master. He talks about (amongst other things) what it was like growing up in a traditional martial arts family when the Cultural Revolution happened in China, and he had to be taught in secret. He also talks about the making of the first Shaolin Temple film, which is father was involved in, and what he sees as the many problems with Wu Shu today.

Part 1

Part 2

The new American Boxer Rebellion of 2021

Jack Slack was the first person to draw my attention to the parallel between rioters storming government buildings that happened in China’s Boxer Rebellion around 1900, and the storming of the Capitol Building by Trump Supporters in 2021. Both involve a kind of “spirit possession”.

Of course, America, along with many European nations, was involved in the Boxer Rebellion:

“In 1898 the Yellow River burst its banks and destroyed the harvest in much of Northern China, but this misfortune was followed by an agonizing drought which dried out the land and hardened the dirt. As young men went hungry and without work, some Chinese noted the connection between the anger of nature and the construction of train tracks, telegraph lines and churches since the arrival of foreigners in the Qing Empire. Anti-foreign sentiment brought together groups of peasants practicing martial artists and calling themselves the Righteous Society of the Harmonious Fists—though the West came to know them as “The Boxers”. The Boxers attacked and murdered missionaries across the Empire and in the summer of 1900, Tianjin and Beijing were plunged into chaos as the Boxers received the blessing of Empress Dowager Cixi and the Imperial army. 400 foreigners and 3000 Chinese Christians endured a two month siege in Beijing’s legation quarter—a stone’s throw from the Imperial Palace but completely helpless. The Boxer Rebellion is a story about agriculture and diplomacy, magic and court intrigue, and it stands as both the last great event of the Victorian Era and the beginning of the end for the Qing Dynasty. ” – Jack Slack

Of course, I’d contest that the events that lead to the end of the Qing Dynasty had started much earlier, back in 1860s. It was these conflicts with foreign powers and internal rebellions which lead directly to the creation of Tai Chi Chuan, as we discussed on our History of Tai Chi podcast series. Yes, I’m sorry, the myth of a Taoist inventing Taijiquan after a dream about a snake and a crane, is just a fairytale. The real reason is much more pragmatic.

Jack has done an excellent podcast episode on the Boxer Rebellion, which he’s just released to the public, instead of being behind his Patreon paywall. If you want to find out more, have a listen: