Forget Taoism, is Tai Chi Chuan really a Neo-Confucianist martial art?

Confucian Scholar Zhu Xi -(1130-1200AD. This man has a lot to answer for 🙂

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. 

The caste system is based on the Four Occupations of Confucianism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_occupations

Theatre performers and martial artists are lower than no.4. They were “mean people”: jiànrén.

The noun is also used to mean “bitch” or “bastard”. The pronunciation can be found here:  https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E8%B3%A4%E4%BA%BA#Chinese

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.[1]

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.

Wu Yuxiang and Yang Luchan

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:

From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_of_China

“The Ming imperial court also enjoyed opera. However, most Ming emperors liked to keep their music entertainments inside the palace.[24] 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 instrumentcymbals, 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.

Zhu Xi

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). 

Here it is: https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/20-xing-yi-part-5

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.

The history of Xingyi (a podcast series)

Xing Yi part 1

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Tang Dynasty soldiers

We’ve been building up to this episode of the Heretics podcast for a while, but we’ve finally got there. Here it is, the history of the martial art of Xing Yi, right from the very beginnings.

Damon heads back to the Tang Dynasty to dig into the historical conditions that gave rise to the Song Dynasty and influenced the eventual creation of Xingyi, specifically the An Lushan Rebellion (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Lushan_Rebellion) and its disastrous consequences (some scholars have estimated that we lost a 6th of the world’s population! Although that figure remains controversial) and the subsequent rise of the Wen and Li traditions in the new Song Dynasty, and how this was going to influence the mother of a certain young commoner who hadn’t even been born yet, but whose name would come to be known throughout all of China – Yue Fei.

This is probably starting a lot further back than most people would imagine a history of Xingyi would begin, but we’re not in a rush – we’re going to do it right, placing everything in its historical context. Lots of detail and lots of depth.

I’ll update this post with each new episode.

Podcast Link:

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/13-xing-yi-part-1

Xing Yi part 2

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Yue Fei being tattooed.

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/14-xing-yi-part-2

In this episode the look at the early life of Yue Fei, some of the factors that link him to the Li Movement, the meaning of some of the symbolism surrounding him, and the reasons for the transition between the Northern Song and Southern Song Dynasties.

Xing Yi part 3

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Emperor Gaozong of the Song Dynasty.

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/15-xing-yi-part-3

In part 3 of our series on Xing Yi, we look at how the Li movement influenced Yue Fei and other Song generals in formulating effective strategies for use against the Jin, and how they managed to challenge the previously unbeatable dominance of the Jin cavalry. We also discuss the rise to power of chancellor Chin Hui in the regime of Emperor Gaozong.

Xing Yi part 4

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https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/16-xing-yi-part-4

We come at last to the great general Yue Fei’s greatest victories, and ultimate betrayal and death – at the hands of corrupt officials on his own side.

Here’s the picture by Fan Kuan ‘Travelers amongst mountains and streams’ which gets a mention often:

Fan_Kuan_-_Travelers_Among_Mountains_and_Streams_-_Google_Art_Project

The Rainbow Bridge

Not strictly part of the series, but a whole episode about the industrial revolution of the Song Dynasty using the famous painting “Along the river at the Ching Ming festival” as a window into the past.

We return to China in the Song Dynasty, looking through the eyes of artist Zhang Zeduan at the vibrant economy that developed among the common people while their confucian rulers were distracted by external events, and the nascent Industrial Revolution that it gave rise to, which lasted until the early part of the Ming Dynasty.

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/1 … bow-bridge

Kaifeng-bridge-c.1100

The Rainbow Bridge

This link gives you access to the whole scroll to look at as you listen. It’s 17 foot long!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Along_the … g_Festival

Xingyi Part 5

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Zhu Xi

In this episode we examine the work of the Confucian Scholar Zhu Xi, who lived during the time period we have reached in the narrative (during the Song Dynasty). His philosophy did not impact Xing Yi until centuries later, but when it did, the effect was a large one, so this episode sets the scene for other episodes to come.

Zhu Xi was responsible for what we call the “Woo Woo Tai Chi world view”. If you practice Tai Chi, or almost any of the Chinese martial arts that had input from the intellectual class, then you need to know about Zhu Xi, although you might not like what we’ve got to say about him

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/20-xing-yi-part-5

Xing Yi part 6

In this episode examine the life of Yue Fei’s best friend, General Han Shizhong, and the circumstances immediately following the death of Yue Fei. We also take a look at the the life of Han’s heroic wife, Liang Hongyu, and internal politics of the Jin Empire at that time.

 

Xing Yi part 7

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Jurchen Jin Cavalry. Illustrations of Auspicious Omens [Public domain]

After looking at the rise of the Mongol Empire for a few episodes my Heretics podcast has come back around to looking at Xing Yi and in particular the use of weapons, military strategy and armour in the Song Dynasty armies.

Part 7 starts with a rebuke to the criticism “You haven’t even got to talking about Xing Yi yet!” then looks at some animal-based military strategy. These are the same strategies that are used in the Xing Yi animals today.

In particular, we look at Ma Xing – Horse strategy – but also look at Snake (She Xing) and Eagle (Ying Xing).

Listen to “#29 Xing Yi (part 7)” on Spreaker.

Xing Yi Part 8

animal animals backlit beach

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Part 8 looks at Chinese armour in more detail, but also talks about Xing Yi fighting tactics in relation to armour and how the armour influences the way the art works – stepping, continuous movement, minimal movement, twisting the fist in Tzuann, etc…

There are two versions of part 8, the first is for public consumption, available here:

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/30-xing-yi-part-8-short-version

and we got into some controversial topics at the end of the episode, so the full version is reserved for our Heretics/Woven Energy Patrons ($5 and up):

https://www.patreon.com/wovenenergy/posts

Here’s some nice Song Dynasty style armour a google search turned up

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Image Credit: Dragons Armory.

From:

http://dragonsarmory.blogspot.com/2017/07/heavy-song-dynasty-armor.html

Like Damon says, you could show that to a ‘normal’ person and tell them it’s Samurai armour and they would probably believe you 🙂

Also, here’s an interesting clip showing how effective Lamellar designed armour was. This design is taken from the much earlier Tang Dynasty armour:

 

Xing Yi part 9

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General Zhang Jun (left). From The “Four Generals of Zhongxing” painted by Liu Songnian during the Southern Song Dynasty.

In this episode we discuss the role of General Zhang Jun in the survival of Yue Fei’s tradition, as well as in the survival of members of Yue Fei’s extended family. We also discuss how Zhang Jun managed to protect himself from the purges carried out by Qin Hui.