Authenticity and competence in Chinese martial arts

Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com Does his performance look competent to you? What about authentic?

As noted at about 6.58 in this lecture on Tao Lu (forms) by Daniel Mroz, which I find myself coming back to frequently, martial artists, when evaluating others, are primarily concerned with two things: 1. authenticity and 2. competence.

Firstly, to be “good” a video clip showing a form performance, or sparring sequence must be authentic, by which I mean it must be clearly demonstrating the martial art style it claims to be. Evidence for this can be found amongst the many howls of “that’s not even Tai Chi!” That lie in the comments section beneath any video clips pertaining to be Tai Chi shown in some sort of real, full or semi-contact application.

Even competence, without the necessary authenticity to back it up, is thrown out.  Imagine the horror of a kick boxing clip accidentally labelled “full contact Wing Chun” leaking onto the Internet for example. People would get very upset. And it would inevitably lead to accusations that “You are destroying the very art itself!”, regardless of whether the techniques shown were competent.

Authenticity, then, is the most important thing. But who is to judge the authenticity of a performer? Quite often it cannot be seen in their performance, but is inferred by their lineage.  One of the many reasons that lineage is such a big deal in Chinese martial arts, and not such a big deal in other martial arts that have a more sporting focus, is that it confers legitimacy. Any authenticity gathered by being able to overpower somebody in a confrontation (whether cooperative, staged or real) is instantly rendered null and void if it turns out that your teacher’s teacher was a DVD player. In contrast, martial arts that have a sporting side can derive their credibility from competition results instead, so lineage is not such a big deal.

Sometimes the aesthetics of the situation can speak to authenticity. Chinese martial artists often wear silk pyjamas and sippers, despite their complete lack of suitability for opening a can of whoop ass in, but they do confer the image of authenticity. Then there’s the ethnicity. Being Chinese clearly gives you an advantage in the authenticity stakes. These are, after all, Chinese martial arts.

But once authenticity is established, what next? We then look to competence. Does what they are doing look competent? i.e. would it work. And often this is where most martial artists, who exist in a modern Wu Shu culture that has no concept of a punch to the face being a regular and valid occurrence, seem to have the most trouble. 

Chinese television regularly ran TV shows where state-approved martial arts masters presented themselves doing completely ridiculous things, like single-handedly beating a bunch of rugby players at rugby, or stopping a bird taking off from the palm of their hand because of their advanced sensitivity. Beating strong men in strength contests. Even beating a Judo player at Judo. This was not done with a sense of comic irony, as it would be in the West. The viewer was expected to take these things at face value, and it seems that a lot of people actually did. Including many Western martial artists who posted these tragicomedies as proof of the untapped potential of the internal arts. (See my recent post for more of this phenomena).

Competence then, like beauty, is also, it seems, in the eye of the beholder. 

What is to be done about this situation? Probably nothing. It always was thus, and probably always will be.

However, you can start to notice when you fall into the same trap. You can bet that 90% of the arguments you find on martial arts discussion forums are not about the thing itself being discussed, but about what the thing is called. Take away the name of the video clip, martial art or subject and you remove the majority of issues of authenticity, and you are often left with only competence to discuss, but as we’ve seen, even that is subjective. Still, I would argue it makes for a better discussion.

Authentic and competent? You decide. Photo by ArtHouse Studio on Pexels.com

Can traditional martial arts survive COVID-19?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

There’s a great article over on Kung Fu Tea (Chinese Martial Studies) that talks about the long term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on martial arts training, but as usual takes in a lot of other stuff.

I really like this quote:

“Setting questions of charlatans, deluded masters and outdated training methods aside, I am going to hypothesize that even in the best-case scenario, there is a pretty simple reason why professional boxer/mma fighters will always beat the traditional martial arts master in those YouTube videos.  It comes down to specialization, or simply putting in the hours.  All else being, equal the individual who trains all day for one task will be beat the individual who trains for four and then runs an afterschool program to pay the bills.  It is a mathematical fact, and the reason why ever-increasing degrees of specialization have become the dominant paradigm for social development in the current era.”

Invest in Loss: Hope for Traditional Martial Arts

Of course, the question of “deluded masters” is quite a large one. Or maybe it only appears that way because of the media exposure these events create.

But his point is that traditional martial arts have to be all things to all people. MMA, boxing or San Da classes are designed to develop a very specific set of skills, and are full of people who all want to do the same thing. Traditional arts tend to have all sorts of different customers, and provide varied social functions, including kids classes. This obviously has disadvantages for the traditional arts when it comes to competing against practitioners of highly specialist fighting arts

“All else being, equal the individual who trains all day for one task will be beat the individual who trains for four and then runs an afterschool program to pay the bills.”

Invest in Loss: Hope for Traditional Martial Arts

However, Ben’s argument is that it gives the traditional arts more flexibility, both economic and organisationally, when it comes with dealing with the challenges thrown up by the global pandemic.

Narrow specializations presupposes economies of scale that may be achievable in some-times and places, but not others.  In periods of prolonged economic contraction a neighborhood martial arts schools which can do a little bit of everything might have a better chance of surviving than the large BJJ academy focused only on competition, the reality fighting school focused only on paramilitary knife/gun defense ,and the Wushu program with an emphasis on gymnastics.

Invest in Loss: Hope for Traditional Martial Arts

Sand in your face and sickly children. Martial arts narratives.

At 6.28 in this BJJ promotion video from the early 1950s by Helio and Carlos Gracie, a “skinny guy” gets his girl stolen by bigger, stronger bully.  But don’t worry – he signs up for jiujitsu lessons and wins her back!

Let’s ignore the 1950’s idea of women as property and prize, which jars with modern sensibilities, and look at the marketing message. This narrative around the marketing of jiujitsu is clearly based on this classic advert for the Charles Atlas body building system “The insult that made a man out of Mac”:

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Again, a skinny scrawny guy, discovers the secret information that will turn him into a strong young bull and he has the powers to repel the sand kickers (with unlawful assault this time, but let’s forget about that at for a moment – it was a different age). He goes from being called a “little boy” by his girlfriend to being a “real man”.

In both cases we can see they’ve identified the target audience as the geeks. The skinny, scrawny men who need to gain knowledge and skills to compete with their more athletic contemporaries to win the approval of women.

So many times we hear the narrative that the founder of system x,y,z of martial arts was a sickly child or young man who overcame this using the power of his martial system to defeat not only his opponents but also his own weaknesses.

For example Chen Man Ching “An attack of tuberculosis turned Mr. Cheng’s attention to Tai Chi Chuan, which he credited with restoring his health.”

Bruce Lee “remained a sickly, skinny child throughout his early years”.

Grandmaster Huo Yan Jia (founder of Chin Woo) “frequently became ill and, as a result, was often taken advantage of by the other children”.

Notice that in the older, more conservative, Chinese narratives, there’s very rarely a women involved, unless it is the person’s mother. Sun Lu-tang was “a small and frail seeming child… When Sun’s mother heard that he was studying Kung Fu, She at first objected, afraid that he would hurt himself. Then she saw how much healthier her formerly-sickly child looked and give her blessing to him to continue his studies. ”

Do these stories bear much relation to reality? Sometimes, but often not. Here, for example, is a picture of the weak and sickly Helio Gracie who created Brazilian Jiujitsu by modifying the techniques of Jiujitsu to make them less physical, because he couldn’t use any strength in his techniques due to his frail condition.

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He “was always a very physically frail child. He would run up a flight of stairs and have fainting spells, and no one could figure out why. “

There probably is a lot of truth to sickly or weak people practicing martial arts diligently to improve their health, but the narrative is so often used and so often repeated that I can’t help but think a bit of marketing has slipped in at the same time.

And what’s the modern day equivalent? I suppose that it’s become about marketing martial arts directly to women. Women today don’t need a man to protect them – they can do it themselves!

 

 

Where will it go in the next 10-20 years, I wonder? Classes for men to learn to protect themselves from women? It’s possible….

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with any of these marketing trends, but I think it’s important to see them as trends. As always with martial arts – Caveat emptor “Let the buyer beware!”.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Mythologies of Martial Arts By Paul Bowman

Are you a scholar boxer? Then I’ve got just the book for you.

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While origin myths and lineages do feature from time to time in Mythologies of Martial Arts, the “Mythologies” in the title here relates instead to Roland Barthes 1957 book, Mythologies, which starts with an essay on wrestling – not the sportif, Olympic or college style of wrestling, but the entertainment-based, scripted type, which was popular in Paris at the time, and later found its way onto Saturday morning television in the UK throughout the 80s and is still hugely popular in the US. Essentially, Barthes was undertaking a high-brow analysis of low-brow entertainment – taking seriously what was not meant to be taken seriously; comparing the scripted wrestling dramas to the themes found in mythic tales of the Gods or Greek tragedies. That gives you an inkling of what this book is about. Using Barthes ideas on wrestling as a springboard, Bowman goes on to look at how Eastern martial arts are treated in popular culture, and why. It’s a fascinating discourse across a diverse range of subjects, which somehow all follow on from one another, yet all build towards returning to the central premise of the mythologies of today’s martial arts.

Perhaps unusually for an academic, Bowman is not talking from some lofty perch, looking down upon the martial arts, but rather as a lifelong martial arts enthusiast and practitioner he’s down in the trenches doing it with the rest of us, and asking the question, what exactly is happening here?

The chapter headings reveal the eclectic brew on offer:

  1. Wrestling myth
  2. The status of martial arts in the west: From the Kung Fu craze to Master Ken
  3. Cross-cultural desire in the Western Eastern martial arts
  4. The circulation of Qi (in media and culture)
  5. Myths of martial arts history, authority and authenticity
  6. On kicking, Kung Fu and knowing your lineage
  7. Enter the ethnicity
  8. The gender of martial arts studies
  9. Everybody was action film fighting
  10. From weird to wonderful and back again
  11. Martial arts myth today

I’ll be honest, your average martial artists will not have even thought about half of these topics before. I hadn’t. In that sense, this book is mind expanding. Most martial artists just get on with doing it without really thinking about why we’re doing it, or what is actually happening when they do it. As such this book will shine some lights on the unexamined parts of your psyche, your unacknowledged assumptions about martial arts and your own blind spots.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the aesthetic appeal of kicking, the similarity of ground fighting to the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien, and the “delicious aural quality” of the sound of the words “Kung Fu” and “Gong Fu” in English. I also enjoyed the way he tackled his own real life critic in Chapter 5, combining the critic’s furious reactions into his research. (The critic remains nameless, but anybody involved in discussions of Chinese Martial Arts on Internet discussion forums will recognise him instantly). But frankly, a lot of this book is beyond me. When Bowman drifts into quoting Derrida (as he does often) and discussing ideas of deconstructionism I find myself drifting off and wanting to skip pages, but then he’ll talk about how Alien’s Facehugger bears striking similarities to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu ground fighting technique, or how Kung Fu technique keeps him awake at night and I’m right back in the room with him, enjoying his unique perspective.

Bowman’s focus is often on Eastern martial arts (or martial artists) that have been transplanted to the West and the cultural ramifications thereof, Bruce Lee being a perfect example. It should also be noted that Bowman is an authority on Bruce Lee, having written several books about him, and Chapter 7 here is dedicated to understanding this key figure to modern martial arts in more detail.

Bowman uses his own experience of training in these Eastern martial arts in the West as his fieldwork, which is fine, but has some downsides. So much of cultural significance seems to be going on with the incredible popularity of Mixed Martial Arts at the moment that it seems like a missed opportunity that it only gets the briefest of mentions here, mainly because it has not featured as heavily in the lived experience of the author as the Eastern arts of Taekwondo, Kung Fu and Tai Chi have.

Having been to an academic conference (only once in my life, so far though) it strikes me that the key to delivering a good academic paper is to present lots of ideas, backed up by evidence, but to never come to any definitive conclusion about any of them. Academics naturally see their work as contributing to a larger conversation. Whereas most of us presented with the task of writing a book, an article, or a blog post would reduce it to a point we were trying to convey, to move towards, to solidify on, academics seem more interested in asking questions, which in turn spark more questions, which in turn keeps the conversation moving and developing. They are worker ants contributing to the overall health of the colony, not brave explorers conquering and claiming new lands and while it would be a disservice to accuse Mythologies of Martial Arts as lacking coherence, or building to good final act, I’m left with the impression that this book, hailing from the world of academia, holds true to the same ideals.

Buy this book on Amazon.

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Full Disclaimer: A long time ago (possibly in a galaxy far, far away) I taught the author of this book Tai Chi and Kung Fu, and while I’m not mentioned by name I find my ghost wandering the pages of several chapters, where I am mentioned as the “instructor”, noted for knowing my martial arts lineage by heart, or as the person who introduced him to what he’d been searching for: Chinese Kung Fu, for the first time.