Scott P Phillips is one of the few authors discussing the link between Chinese martial arts and Chinese Opera (also called Chinese Theatre).
I find his ideas intellectually fascinating. But, for many martial arts people he goes too far in the sense of seeing this one idea in almost everything to do with Chinese martial arts. You could say that in terms of taking the ball and running with it, he does tend to kick it out of the park (sorry) completely 🙂
Is that a fair summation of Scott’s work? Probably not. Part of the problem I think is that the world where theatre was the big entertainment of the day in China, and was simultaneously connected to religion and martial arts, has long since disappeared. From today’s standpoint it’s hard to imagine it even existed. Also, words like “theatre” and “opera” in the West have distinctly different cultural baggage attached to them already, so it’s almost impossible for us to see them as they actually were, free of our cultural biases.
So, that’s why I was pleased to see this interview with him and Ed Hines where Ed gets to ask Scott some basic questions about his theories. Ed is a Baguazhang practitioner based in Paris and he asks some of the more “down to earth” questions that need to be addressed by Scott before he can take us on his magical mystery tour. Have a listen:
Here’s a really good article over at Kung Fu Tea on the relationship between martial arts, religion and cultural practices that’s worth your time reading.
It’s about an old film from 1920s by Sidney D. Gamble showing a trip to Miao Feng Shan (Marvelous Peak Mountain), a popular Daoist pilgrimage site.
“Dedicated to the worship of the Goddess Bi Xia Yun Jun (Princess of the Clouds Before Dawn), the temple was located on a hill about 25 miles northwest of Beijing. Most worshippers made the arduous three-day journey in the spring. Pilgrims went either in groups organized by guilds or temple societies, or on their own as individual penitents. Although the primary purpose of the journey was religious, Gamble’s visual record illustrates that these pilgrimages also served a lively social function. Upon his return to America, Gamble edited the footage shot on one of his trips into a short 16mm documentary. We have re-edited his film slightly, retaining his original titles, and adding music.
Here’s the film (15 minutes)
And here’s the short edited highlights, showing the martial arts demonstration:
Once again, it highlights how hard it is for us, living in the present day, to connect what we know as martial arts practices with the way the people in this film understand martial arts practice. The Kung Fu Tea article makes a great point:
It may seem paradoxical, but the most important books out there for anyone attempting to understand the Chinese martial arts usually have very little to say about these fighting systems. The martial arts have many functions, and personal or village defense is certainly one of them. But on a more fundamental level these things are a type of social technology that allow individuals or groups to achieve their aims, more broadly defined. We will never understand how this technology functions if we remove it from its (always moving) cultural context and attempt to fix these techniques under ahistorical glass. As my friend’s teacher reminded me, dinner must come before dessert. Context comes before understanding.
Incidentally, the pilgrimages have been restarted in recent years. Here’s a film of a performance from 2016: