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

Getting lost in words like Qi and Yi

Photo by Happy Pixels on Pexels.com

I was observing the usual argument/discussion between two people about ancient Chinese words like Yi and Qi that frequently happen in Tai Chi circles, and it was going down a familiar route..

“Don’t lecture me! I read classic Chinese and Yi means ‘idea’ and Qi means ‘movement’.”

“Really? Wang Yongquan wrote ‘To mobilize Qi, you create an empty space, by Soong and a light Yi to empty the area. The differentiation of yin and yang is what makes Qi flow.”

“Seems quiet different then…”

Confused! Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile on Pexels.com

And on and on and on…

Recently I had a conversation with a very experienced Chinese martial artist (it will be released as a podcast soon, don’t worry) about how these things are trained in Asia vs how we do it in the West. 

He made the point that in the West we have to understand something intellectually before we will do it. i.e. we have to know we’re not wasting our time, that we will get something out of this. It has to ‘make sense’. And we usually ask loads of questions before even trying it. In contrast, in Asia, there is a lot less questioning and a lot more doing. You just do it. If you’re doing it wrong you hope your teacher will notice and put you on the right track. But generally you just keep doing it secure in the knowledge that eventually you will get it. It’s all in the feel. If you have the feel right, then you are doing it. End of story.

Nowhere is this distinction between the Eastern and Western approach more clearly represented that on discussion forums about Tai Chi that are full of Westerners. We love to argue about what these ancient concept and words like Qi, Yi and Xin really mean. As if one day we will arrive at the ultimate answer. It seems we can’t get enough of it. 

But here’s the secret: it doesn’t matter how you define these words, what concept or theory you use for their implementation, or how well you read Classical Chinese from the Ming Dynasty. What matters is – can you do it? Can you show it to me?

If I said, “Show me your Yi. Let me feel your Jin” Could you do it?

If you can then it doesn’t matter wether you define Yi as “idea”, “mind” or “intent”. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the famous phrase coined by Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, who gave a paper in 1931 about physics and mathematics in which he wrote that “the map is not the territory” and that “the word is not the thing”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself.

So, all these online arguments about Qi and Yi, are effectively pointless. They are map, not territory. However, I do think that a little intellectual understanding can be useful. Especially if it stops you asking questions long enough to just practice. Also, there’s always this temptation to think that if I can just understand something perfectly, or write it down in the perfect, most simple way, then eventually everyone will go “Yes! That’s it!”

Anyway, as I was practicing this morning a thought popped into my head which I thought felt right, so I thought I’d write down and share it:

“Yi is the direction you’re sending your mind in, and the Jin follows.”

To me, Yi is always about a direction. And it is directed. It’s the opposite of a vague, warm, fuzzy haze. It has a steadfastness and a focus. There. Did that help? Or did it just make you more confused. Answers in the comments section please. If you have your own pithy phrase to summarise a concept as subtle as Yi that works for you, then feel free to add it below.

I’ve written before about Yi in Tai Chi Chuan. So, you can have a read of that too.

Can traditional masters beat MMA?

Friend of the Notebook, Byron Jacobs, who runs the Mu Shin Martial Culture Youtube channel and the Hua Jin Online Learning Program for Xing Yi and Baguazhang, just posted this monologue about Xu Xiaodong and the challenge matches that happened between him and various (self proclaimed) Chinese martial arts masters.

Now we’re a few months/years away from the high point of the Xu Xiaodong controversy it’s good to get a reasonable perspective on the matter from somebody who actually knows him and moves in the same martial arts circles in China.

It’s quite a long talk, but you can think of it like a podcast and listen to it while you’re doing your conditioning exercises. Wait, you are still doing those, right? 🙂

Shuai Jiao – fact or fiction?

By Metatronangelo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22973514

I’ve been meaning to write a post on Shaui Jiao, the Chinese wrestling style, for a while now. We covered Shuai Jiao in one of our Heretics Podcast episodes a while ago, but you can’t say that it was a particularly good primer on what Shuai Jiao is. As usual, Damon found an obscure angle and the episode is really more about the strategies associated with the Azure Dragon in China, and linked somewhat tangentially to Shuai Jiao.

Shuai Jiao is wrestling. It’s done in a jacket, which can be gripped, and consists of a variety of throws and trips, the aim being to get your opponent to touch the ground with any part of their body other than their feet. It’s popular in various parts of China and regional styles have sprung up in different areas.

Almost any book you buy on Shuai Jiao will inevitably start with a history section, where the author links Shuai Jiao back to various ancient Chinese wrestling styles from different points in time – things like Jiao Di (‘Horn butting’) get mentioned. The idea is to establish a link between the Shuai Jiao practiced in China today and ancient wrestling arts spanning back several dynasties. The propaganda arm of the Chinese government would really like you to know that Shuai Jiao is 1) ethnically, Chinese, the ancient art of the Han peoples, and 2) Old.

Unfortunately, neither of these things are true. While things like Jiao Di, and actual wrestling styles existed in the past, there is no connection between them and Shuai Jiao.

Shaui Jiao itself is neither ancient or “Chinese” in origin. It has no direct connection to anything practiced by the ethnic Han Chinese. It was actually imported by the Manchu, the northern tribe who invaded China, overthrew the Ming Dynasty and started the Ching dynasty from 1644-1912. Like the Mongols before them, the Manchu loved wrestling as a form of strengthening soldiers and entertainment.

Byron Jacobs has produced an extensive history of Shuai Jiao over three videos that’s well worth a watch if you want to understand where Shaui Jiao really came from:

Of course, the origins of an art have no direct relationship to its effectiveness. As Damon says in the Heretics episode, being good at any form of wrestling is a big advantage in any martial art. Physical conditioning, being a strong robust person who is fit and good at physical alignment is a useful thing.

But wrestling often has more of a community function than other martial arts, and it’s the same in China as it is in the West – wrestling can be great fun. There is a Chinese Shuai Jiao tradition called Tian Qiao Shuai Jiao, which is an intangible cultural heritage of China. It’s a style of wrestling-based entertainment that any body who is familiar with the same tradition in the West will instantly recognise:

Chinese martial arts: The place where theatre, religion and fighting meet

One of the ways you can tell genuine history from a ‘made up’ history (in Chinese martial arts, or in anything really), is that the real history is always pretty messy, convoluted and complicated, and a conveniently invented origin myth or history of a style is usually pretty simplistic. Tai Chi Chuan is a good example, I think. Attributing the origin of Tai Chi to one particular Taoist immortal, or one particular remote rural village, is a very neat and simple solution – and probably not the whole truth.

And I think the same thing applies to Chinese martial arts as a whole. The Chinese martial arts, (as we know them today) were not just invented fully formed, hundreds of years ago and have remained unchanged ever since. On this blog I’ve often quoted those who have proposed that kung-fu has a more convoluted pedigree than one might otherwise have expected. Historian Charles Holcombe’s excellent “Theatre of combat” on the subject of kung fu history from 1990 is a good starting point for this line of enquiry. Also check out my first podcast episode with Daniel Mroz.

To quote from Holcombe:

“In China the martial arts are far more than just techniques of hand-to-hand combat, although actual fighting skills are indeed traceable far back into antiquity. In China the martial arts are an aspect of religion, with all of the attendant mystery and miracles. At the same time, the public face of the martial arts has often been that of the entertainer, and the self-image of the martial artist has been thoroughly imbued with motifs drawn from fiction and the theater. The martial arts of today must be understood as a confluence of China’s unique approach to physical combat, Buddho-Taoist religion, and theater.”

Theater of Combat – Charles Holcombe

It’s worth reading that quote a couple of times.

One curious thing I’ve noticed from other martial artists is that they often can’t comprehend this argument at all. They don’t seem able, or unwilling, to hear it properly. Some internal bias seems to prevent it. I’ve had people come back to me a year later saying, “I thought you were saying that all Chinese martial arts comes from dance”. Or theatre. No, that’s really not what I’m saying. I’m saying, it’s complicated. I’ve even gone back to these people and shown them the exact thing I wrote, a year ago, saying exactly the opposite of what they think I said. But for some reason, it doesn’t go in. They hear what they think I’m saying rather than what I’m actually saying.

Real history is always complicated. “Kung Fu came from dance” is just too simplistic to be true.

Incidentally, the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog has written a long, and detailed post addressing Holcombe’s article: “Reevaluating the “Theater of Combat”: A Critical Look at Charles Holcombe, Popular Religion and the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts.”

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/

Challenging assumptions: Were martial arts really created to teach us how to fight?

What has this got to do with fighting? Photo by Vladislav Vasnetsov on Pexels.com

Thinking about my last post with the discussion from Tim Cartmell. Everything Tim says is great advice for people interested in learning to fight and applies to what we know as “martial arts” today, but I do wonder about the very starting point of their discussion, which is the assumption that underlies it all – “martial arts were created to teach people how to fight”.

It sounds so obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning. I mean, it’s almost farcical to think otherwise… but is it true? Were they all “created” for that purpose? How can we be sure?

Martial arts as practiced in Western countries today are obviously about teaching people to fight, but it seems to me that once you trace “martial arts” back further and further it becomes harder to separate them out from cultural practices that included “fighting”, but also encompassed a whole lot more – a whole world view that is no longer with us.

It seems to me that most people today see “martial arts” as the original, stripped-down, very concentrated pure combat practice, that over time has become waylaid with cultural and religious baggage that has been added after the fact.

I think they’ve got it backwards. I think it “martial arts” starts off as part of a really rich and deep, varied practice incorporating all sorts of aspects of the complex array of cultural activities… and in modern times we have stripped out the combat elements and separated them off from the other elements – to pursue in our leisure time, or by governments for political means. That was certainly what happened in China in the early 20th century, for example, with the Kuo Shu movement.

Does this matter? Does it make any difference to what we practice today. Probably not, but I think it’s a more honest view of the subject, and explains why we still have a lot of these cultural practices associated with marital arts, like the picture of Lion Dance above.

This period of Yang LuChan in Beijing (around 1860) is really the time we see the arrival of “martial arts” as a separate subject in Beijing, taught in its own right and not as part of something else, like a village ritual or festival rite, or as an entertainment performance, and different to what soldiers learned. Yang was teaching soldiers, yes, but he wasn’t teaching them how to fight on a battlefield. He was also teaching rich people. This was the newly created niche that “martial arts” fitted into – the serious leisure practice. After the Empress Dowager takes control and the Wu brothers are “out”, Yang loses his patronage and has to open a commercial school in Beijing, and it becomes a family business with his sons teaching too.

The “martial arts” as we know them, and as they were created, are a civilian occupation – the serious leisure practice of already tough men (think Yang LuChan’s banner men that he taught in Beijing), or the rich middle/upper class idlers with too much time on their hands (hello the Wu brothers).

The martial arts, as we know them, have very minimal connection to actual military arts. Those were for killing people, and required weapons. As General Qi Jiguang wrote in his 1560 Boxing Classic,

“(Boxing arts do not seem to be useful skills for the battlefield, but they exercise the hands and feet, and accustom the limbs and body to hard work. Thus they serve as basic training. Therefore I have included this discussion of them as the final chapter, in order to complete this study [of military theory].”

As you can see – boxing arts were being practiced in Ming Dynasty China, but they were not considered part of regular military training. They were part of something else.

Podcast Ep 4: Discover the link between martial arts and Shamanism with Damon Smith

What is Shamanism? And how does it relate to martial arts? In this episode I catch up with my old, friend and teacher Damon Smith to answer some of these questions.

Damon is an incredibly experienced martial artist with a background in various Japanese and Chinese arts including Karate, Kempo, Xing Yi, Baji and Choy Lee Fut. And those are just a few of the arts he’s pursued to a very high level.

But despite being a great martial artist Damon’s true love has always been Shamanism.

And while he’s no stranger to banging a drum, Damon’s shamanism is not the hippy dippy sort of practice you might associate shamans with, instead it’s a very down to earth and practical art, much like the martial arts he does.

In this episode we talk about the link between martial arts and shamanism, and where the crossovers lie.