One of the frequent criticisms I hear of the idea that there is a connection between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre and religion is that no respectable Chinese martial arts teacher has ever implied their work comes from dance or spiritual ritual, so the idea is laughable. I have experienced a pretty negative reaction from some of my Chinese martial arts friends to these ideas. The thought that the rough and tough martial art they genuinely suffered to learn and dedicated their lives to had religious or (worse) theatrical origins is anathema to their world view, akin to an insult.
But the question really is, how can they not be theatrical? Just look at Chinese martial arts – of course they’re theatrical!
Here are some questions to ask yourself: Why do we do long complex, showy forms at all? Why is Chinese martial arts still so strongly associated with Lion Dance? Why do its modern day performers so often put on demonstrations for the local community, on stages? Why do performances sometimes have chaotic drumming soundtracks?
I’m sure any competent Chinese martial arts practitioner can produce answers to all these questions based entirely in the physical realm of pugilism – it’s all physical training at the end of the day – but when you put all these questions together an obvious picture begins to form.
Nobody looks at Capoeira and says, “this has nothing to do with dance”. So, why do most Chinese martial arts practitioners look at their long theatrical forms and say, “this has nothing to do with theatre or religious practice”?
There’s an inherent mystery to Tao Lu, or “forms” found in Chinese martial arts. This great video by The Scholar-General hopes to provide some answers:
I’ve just got a copy of The Invention of Martial Arts, Popular Culture Between Asia and America, by Paul Bowman. (Amazon link.Non-Amazon link). Firstly, yes, that excellent cover illustration is a picture of Jim Kelly playing the iconic character Williams in Enter the Dragon, a character who speaks volumes about the international and multi-ethnic appeal of East Asian martial arts in the early 1970s. It was created by the incredible Jon Daniel, who passed away in 2017.
Some of Bowman’s work is very academic, but this one is for “normal people”, like me. I’m still on the Introduction, but feel compelled to write something about it because this book is dripping with ideas to do with the conversations we all have around martial arts.
That to me is what much of Martial Arts Studies is – it’s not about the martial arts themselves, it’s about “what we talk about, when we talk about martial arts”, which would otherwise be left unexamined.
Take his writing on theory in the introduction:
“At first glance martial arts may seem simple. But any discussion of them will involve an implicit or explicit theory about them.”
So true. If you’ve ever been involved in any sort of online discussion about martial arts you’ll find the participant are talking past each other because of an assumption of (often contradictory) theory that underlines everything they say to each other about any subject to do with marital arts. One person thinks the martial art is really all about this, and the other person thinks the martial art is really all about that, and they go on busily talking about different things.
He raises the brilliant point that no theory of martial arts (or culture) can contain all the answers and that “different theories offer variations and varieties of perspective. Looking at things from the perspective of one paradigm, or orientation, followed by another, and then another is stimulating and illuminating in many ways. The shifts in perspective caused by this can produce more well-rounded or enriched understandings of phenomena, and can also instil a prudent awareness of the limits of our own understanding. However, by the same token, such shifts can also produce contradictory, conflicting incompatible pictures of ‘the same thing’.”
It should come as no surprise that the title of the book can then be viewed in multiple ways. He’s not talking about the literal invention of the term “martial arts”, or the actual martial arts themselves, but the invention of the ideas about martial arts, ways of thinking about them, depicting them and valuing them.
I could go on, but really, I’d recommend grabbing a copy yourself.
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.
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.
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
It’s easy to laugh at the QAnon followers who stormed the capitol in the belief that Donald Trump would pardon them of their crimes and there was a secret revolution about to happen, but there are plenty of equally delusional beliefs in martial arts.
There are plenty of gems here, but I like this quote:
“Unsurprisingly, in much scholarship on Asian martial arts, the matter of history remains freighted and weighted down by the same popular myths; so much so that even much that passes for scholarship seems to refuse to face up to the evidence that suggests that, quite frequently, martial arts that present themselves as ancient are hardly even old.
So many massive social mutations occurred through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that most ‘traditional’ martial arts effectively have at best little more than a century of continuous history to them, rather than the vast eons of allochronic time that so many seem to want them to have spanned.
I emphasize the word ‘want’, here. This is because wanting appears to be a key issue to consider when approaching questions of martial arts history and culture. For instance, it seems that the perpetuation of fantasy histories and the fetishistic fabrication of lineages in ‘traditional’ martial arts evidently have everything to do with wanting.
Practitioners want taiji to be ancient. Many want there to have been a Southern Shaolin Temple which was burned down, scattering the few surviving kung fu monks to the different corners of China. We want Okinawan farmers to have fought samurai with rice flails. We want Yim Wing Chun to have been a real proto-feminist warrior. We want the skill that wielded the weapon that killed Magellan to remain alive today. And we want ancient warrior armies to have flown at each other through the air, kicking each other off horses with flying sidekicks and jumping spinning back kicks.
Just because you want something, it doesn’t make it true.
As lockdown lingers around the world martial arts classes are facing a tough time, however, there are plenty of stimulating online discussions on martial arts to listen to. Here are three discussions I’ve listened to recently that have tickled my cerebral tentacles. Maybe they’ll do the same thing for yours?
It’s very interesting to listen to the criticisms that Qays makes in the above discussion then watch this clip I found of “Viking martial arts/Glima” – (which was litterally the first clip that came up when I searched for Glima). This martial art looks exactly like No Gi Brazilian Jiujitsu to me…
Xing Yi and Yi Quan
Next is Byron Jacobs excellent Drunken Boxing Podcast in which he interviews Yi Quan practitioner James Carss. What I like about this discussion is that it’s very down to earth and real about what it’s like training martial arts in China and Hong Kong. It’s not all smiles and rainbows and it was interesting hearing about the animosity between different groups of the same martial art that naturally spring up. Plus you get to find out more about the connections between Yi Quan and Xing Yi Quan, and how they are a lot closer than a lot of people think.
Finally, here’s a bit of an older discussion, but fascinating if you are interested in the connection between Chinese theatre and martial arts. Scott Park Philips is in conversation with Daniel Mroz about all the subjects you find in his latest book. Scott never gives the same answer twice, but it’s an interesting slice into his mind. In particular he answers the question “What is the Golden Elixir?” at 41.44.
As you’ll know from listening to our “History of Kempo and Jiujitsu” podcast episdoes, Japan was opened up to the West in 1852, but it would take a while yet for Japanese martial arts to reach British soil. As revealed in the article “The Golden Square Dojo and its place in British Jujitsu history“ by David Brough, in issue 10 of Martial Arts Studies, the Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture of Edward William Barton-Wright was the first martial arts club to introduce Jujutsu to the U.K in London (along with other things, like Savate), but it quickly seeded ground to more traditional Jujitsu dojos in Britain. Jujutsu was originally taught in the Golden Square Dojo in Piccadilly Circus, which opened in 1903, and was run the teacher Sadakazu Uyenishi.
Here’s a short film about him – the forgotten grappler:
A reanimated film of photos of Sadakazu performing jujutsu techniques from his “Textbook of Ju-jutsu” in 1905 exists on YouTube:
What I find interesting is how much of jujutsu practice was about performance in the early 20th centuary – (perhaps this is a role that is filled by BJJ sport competitions and Judo in the Olympics today). Early Jujutsu teachers from Japan toured the UK trying to create a name for themselves, putting on shows in dance halls, taking on local wrestlers in prize fights and performing feats of strength. It was very much like a circus attraction. In Brazil this exact approach lead to the creation of Brazilian Jiujitsu, but in the UK, its indigenous wrestling (things like Catch, Devonshire wrestling and Cornish wrestling) and jujitsu seemed to stay in their own lanes, and a hybrid creation never really saw the light of day.
By 1930s the Golden Square Dojo had been demolished and Judo had taken over from Jujitsu as the dominant version of the art in the UK, although various Jujitsu societies connected to the Golden Square continued to this day.
Bartitsu is best remembered today because of Sherlock Holmes being a practitioner, and is seen as the fusion of Victorian gentleman attire (including the walking stick or umbrella) and Japanese Jiujitsu, but also included other martial arts, including French Savate.
Bartitsu died out, although a modern revival appears to be well underway. Judo remained the dominant strand of Jujutsu practice in the UK for many decades, although it mainly seems to be practiced by children, while Jujutsu, in its Brazilian variant (BJJ) seems to have taken over as the dominant practice amongst adults today. (N.B. I don’t have figures to support that assertion, but that’s my strong impression).
Professor Brough was also interviewed about this article on the Martial Arts Studies podcast, which contained another interesting fact that I didn’t know – there are records of the use of the walking stick in Britain as a self defence style going back to 1830, pre Bartitsu. Professor Brough will be producing more research on that in the future. Sounds dapper!
And let’s not forget, the image of the Victorian gentleman with his walking stick/umbrella fighting off attackers saw something of a revival in the 1960s thanks to The Avengers. Ka-pow!
Bruce Lee and the Kung Fu craze took over the nation’s interest in martial arts in the 70s, but in modern times things have swung back to jiujitsu again, thanks to the popularity of MMA, from the 90s onwards.
Even martial arts movies seem to have swung back to jujutsu, with things like the John Wick series, Jason Bourne and just about every fight scene in any movie being required to contain at least one armbar on the ground in it. I think Sadakazu Uyenishi would look at martial arts today and be pleased with what happened and the influence his Jujustu had.
Here’s a good interview with Prof. Paul Bowman, which I think acts as a useful introduction to te field of martial arts studies for the beginner, and how it interacts with some current thoughts and trends in society like Black Lives Matter, UFC, Bruce Lee and Conor McGregor.
* Is cultural studies trivial? * Why have you done so much research on Bruce Lee? * The response in the field of cultural studies to martial arts studies. * Accessibility in academia. * How academic publishing differs from vanity publishing. * How podcasting is pushing the conversation forward in martial arts studies. * The impact of the popularity of the UFC on martial arts studies.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.