My recent Heretics Podcasts episodes on the history of Tai Chi Chuan seem to have provoked a lot of debate. People I’ve talked to seem to have this unshakeable belief that Tai Chi is ancient, and it must be ancient to be authentic. It’s simply unacceptable to them that Tai Chi is not as old as they think it is. This myth that old = authentic is pervasive.
I’ve become quite fascinated with the reasons why people think like this. A lot of it goes back to why we, people living in the West, started Asian martial arts in the first place. Quite often we reject our own history and culture, and adopt a fantasy of a Chinese Kung Fu culture that maybe never existed. Were we all just looking for our own Yoda?
In this new interview for the Martial Arts Studies podcast, historian Prof. Peter Lorge talks about this exact issue, and tackles the subject of orientalism, which often provides our first impulse to try a Chinese martial art, head on. It’s well worth a listen.
Stand in a place high up. Looking out over a valley, or the sea, or if you’re in a tower block then look out over the city. Don’t try to think and analyse what you’re looking at, just be open to it. See the place where the sky and land meet.
Open your body posture, holding the arms as if about to embrace an old friend. Let the breath enter the body and leave without any interference. Let the body breathe itself. Start to notice the breath as it goes deep inside you. Feel for the sound of your heartbeat. Get in touch with the rhythms of your breathing, of your heart beat and keep your internal focus there, while maintaining your external focus wide, on everything around you.
If you notice your mind has become caught in thought, simply return it to the body. Stand for as long as you want. Feel what happens to you as you enter a more natural state. You may start to feel a kind of inner strength.
This is the feeling you want to have in the Wu Chi position before you start the Tai Chi form.
How quickly you can enter that state depends very much on how much you’ve practiced it, what’s going on in your life and the state of your health. It’s much easier to achieve this state of Wu Chi in nature, without man-made things in your field of vision or man-made sounds polluting your ears. But if you’ve got a feel for it, then you can do it anywhere. Your body is after all a part of nature.
Tao Te Ching, chapter 49, translation by Stephen Mitchell
49 The Master has no mind of her own. She works with the mind of the people. She is good to people who are good. She is also good to people who aren’t good. This is true goodness. She trusts people who are trustworthy. She also trusts people who aren’t trustworthy. This is true trust. The Master’s mind is like space. People don’t understand her. They look to her and wait. She treats them like her own children.
In part 4, the latest episode of our look at the creation of Tai Chi Chuan, we can see how the actions of the British and French acting aggressively in China forced the hand of the powerful new dowager empress, Cixi to make some changes in the Royal Court.
People like the Wu brothers and Yang LuChan were suddenly out on their ear and had to make a living in a strange new world that suddenly valued entrepreneurship over nepotism. When your family business is teaching martial arts and you’ve got a family to feed, then it’s time to open your own public martial arts school.
Here, in the 1860s, we start to see the birth of martial art styles in Beijing that can compete against each other for paying students. At this time Yang LuChan’s two sons were finally old enough to teach martial arts full time.
Game of Thrones’ fictional Grey Worm is probably the most famous Eunuch in modern literature, but while Grey Worm lead an army of disciplined, ferocious fighters called The Unsullied, the role of castrated men throughout history has been somewhat less fighting-orientated, especially in royal courts, where they have traditionally held positions of servitude mixed with privilege and power, especially in China.
The Empress Dowager Cixi was often photographed being carried in state on a palanquin by palace eunuchs, in the late 19th and early 20th century.
As we discovered in part 1 of the Myth of Tai Chi podcast, Yongnian, the home province of Yang Luchan, was famous for providing the highest quality eunuchs to the Ching royal court, and connections made with eunuchs from ‘back home’ could have provided Yang Luchan with a route into Beijing and his role of martial arts instructor in the Royal Court. Nepotism was, after all, what greased the wheels of government in a Confucian court.
“History has been cruel to China’s eunuchs. Chinese literature is filled with stories of avaricious and ambitious eunuchs exploiting their position for personal gain and power to the detriment of the social and political order. Society treated eunuchs with a mix of fascination and revulsion. They were a source of anxiety for the court and its officials. They were third-sex creatures marked by their relative lack of facial hair and perceived physical deformities (early castration often resulted in eunuchs being taller, with longer hands and limbs). In the foreign gaze, eunuchs became an analog for a decrepit China, feminine symbols of a decaying imperial system – a view perpetuated by 20th-century Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. Today, when thought of at all, it is as stock villains or comic foils in palace costume dramas.”
After the initial gruesome operation, and assuming he survived, a eunuch’s life was hardly his own any more once he was serving in the palace.
“Once inside the palace, a new eunuch was isolated from his old life and introduced to a whole new reality. Both books describe the parallel world of palace eunuchs, a highly regimented and hierarchal society that still had spaces for deviant behavior, petty jealousies, and even violence. Eunuchs were expected to show complete devotion to their duties, and to their masters and mistresses. At the same time, they also formed friendships as well as master/disciple bonds with older and more experienced palace hands. While the rules governing eunuchs were numerous and punishments harsh, eunuchs still created actual spaces in the palace for their own activities. There were barbershops, noodle stands, gambling parlors, opium dens, and various other places where court eunuchs could blow off steam with multiple cups of wine and the sympathetic ear of their fellow attendants.”
But the lives of eunuchs did not just impact Taijiquan, Dong Haichuan, (whose birth dates are give as either 1797 or 1813 – 25 October 1882), the founder of Baguazhang was a palace eunuch. According to tradition, around 1864 Dong arrived in Beijing and was hired as a eunuch at the residence of the Prince Su. (Whose name was Shanqi, a prince of the Aisin-Gioro clan, the ruling clan of the Qing Dynasty), as well as a minister in the late Qing. He was from the Bordered White Banner and the 10th generation Prince Su, the first Qing hereditary prince position.
Later Prince Su gave Dong the job of tax collector.
It’s possible that Yang Luchan and Dong Haichuan’s tenures in the royal court overlapped. Did they meet and have an exchange of martial techniques as legend and martial arts movies often suggest? It’s possible (Yang Luchan died in 1872), but we just don’t know.
It’s interesting to note that Taijiquan and Baguazhang both share that connection to the Ching royal court around the same time, and are both considered part of the ‘internal’ family of martial arts.
“You can’t tell a martial artists he’s a dancer without getting a bloody nose.” – G.Barlow, 2020
I haven’t posted much recently, but the recent deep dive my podcast has taken into the history of a particular Chinese martial art (Taijiquan) seems to have coincided with a number of contentious discussion I’ve had elsewhere on the history of Chinese martial arts that have been taking up my time. Let me redress that imbalance now.
Experience has taught me that if you tell a group of Chinese martial artists that Chinese martial arts used to be so intertwined with Chinese theatre and religion that the two were indistinguishable you invariably annoy them. You will be laughed at and shunned. There are howls of outrage.
No! Chinese martial arts are based purely on effectiveness for fighting! Are you crazy?!?!
But at the same time the very same people will put on demonstration of martial arts (sometimes in the street, but sometimes in an actual theatre!) and perform things like Dragon Dance, without giving it a second thought, or thinking it in any way detracts from their pursuit of serious martial skills, or their wish to be see as serious pugilists.
I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why this is. I think it’s hard for people living in the modern age to get their heads around what it would have been like to have lived at the time these arts they practice were created. Yet, it’s important to note that the people who created the Chinese martial arts we’re all familiar with now – things like Choy Li Fut, Wing Chun, Bak Mei, etc, lived in a time when ghosts, demons and ancestors walked amongst us. A time when rituals were used to appease their spirits and gain spiritual merit for the community, and martial arts played a huge part in that.
The performance of a martial arts form was itself the enactment of a ritual for self consecration. The Chinese Government always used ritual to organise the state. The Chinese state was a religious state (See China: A Religious State, Hong Kong University Press).
As the 20th century began in China, the shame felt over the Boxer Rebellion and defeat by European powers, gave way to the realisation that modern ways would need to be adopted to avoid the humiliating defeats that had gone before. This lead to an almost endless series of wars, revolts, reforms and tragedies that resulted in societal change right down to the core, and the martial arts being stripped of much of their social, spiritual and religious function to become simply pugilistic calisthenics. Considering the horrors China endured, we should be glad they survived at all.
Two great Chinese martial artists I have a lot of time for are Tim Cartmell and Byron Jacobs. Here they have a robust and fantastic discussion about what they’ve trained in and their thoughts on making Chinese martial arts practical again by using modern sparring methods (amongst other things).
The conversation is really down to earth and useful. It’s clear that they consider the Chinese martial arts to be about fighting first and foremost. Can you imagine throwing in concepts of theatre and spiritual rituals into this conversation? You’d be laughed straight out the door! (If Youtube has doors, that is).
I think that’s why it’s very hard to talk to martial artists about things like ritual, theatre and how these were entwined with Chinese martial arts almost 200 years ago. They are clearly not today, to the same extent, and yet the connection still persists in China (somehow!).
As Jo Riley relates:
‘In 1991 I filmed a wǔshù club training in the village temple in Zhong Suo village in Guizhou under their master Lu Huamei, who was also the head of the village theatre company. Lu teaches tangquan style, which is in the middle level range of skills, and over three hundred villagers train regularly with him (nowadays girls included). Six small boys also take part in the training, the youngest of whom is ten years old, and the skills they learn from Lu are also observed from standing on the stage with the village theatre company when they perform. As in many villages, the village temple, martial arts training and performance indivisibly form the cradle of acting in and spectating theatre’ (1997:17).
Riley, J. Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1997.
Some people are engaging in this conversation though, and I wanted to bring them to your attention. Daniel Mroz has just given a lecture at the most recent Martial Arts Studies Conference, (which was a virtual event, due to the Covid 19 Pandemic).
His lecture “The Meaning of Taolu in Chinese Martial Arts” is now online:
Or you can read it here:
Here’s a great quote regarding Choy Li Fut:
Historically, the Choy Li Fut exponents playing tàolù enacted a magical, religious role for their community. The play of tàolù in a seasonal calendar of popular rituals demonstrated the adepts’ martial prowess while earning spiritual merit for the entire community. By practicing and demonstrating the arduous and humbling physical training Choy Li Fut requires, these performers consecrated and re-consecrated themselves over and over to what Daniel Amos refers to as a religion of the body (1997: 31-61). This self-consecration made them spiritually inviolable and venerable in the eyes of their community. Their demonstration of skill acquired through perseverance, or gōngfū (功夫), was a meritorious act performed on behalf of the collective. This self-consecration was also tacitly expressed in theatre. Theatre permeated public and private life in 19thcentury China. While professional actors belonged to a marginalized underclass, people loved the entertainment they provided and hired them not just to perform but also to teach and coach. For professional, amateur and private groups, the learning, rehearsing and presentation of theatre was beloved, constant and intense. While non-actors would never play professionally, virtually everyone was involved in performing at some level. Chinese theatre, or xìqǔ (戲曲) and Chinese martial arts employ many virtually identical training methods.
Here’s a great presentation by David Palmer and Martin Tse on the connection between social practices, ritual, and martial arts:
Personally I would like to embrace both these world views – the practical and the spiritual (for want of a better word). I don’t think they need to be mutually exclusive at all. I am interested fully in the practical application of Chinese martial arts, but I’m also happy for its long and complicated history to enhance what I do. I don’t see it as a distraction or an irrelevance. I am so grateful these arts have survived during some of the worst atrocities in human history and made it through to the modern age, and I think viewing them in their original context empowers today’s modern practitioner.
Human beings are capable of entertaining many different perspectives on something simultaneously, even if they are sometimes contradictory. In the words of Bob Dylan on the opening track of his excellent new album,
This is Hong Xiuquan, the extremist Christian who orchestrated the biggest and most bloody civil war in history, the Taiping rebellion. It happened around the same time as the American civil war, and shared a lot of similarities.
The Taiping’s had some previously unimaginable beliefs in China, like equality for men and women (women fought in their army, which reached a million people) and no private ownership of land.
From the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Taiping Christianity placed little emphasis on New Testament ideas of kindness, forgiveness, and redemption. Rather, it emphasized the wrathful Old Testament God who demanded worship and obedience. Prostitution, foot-binding, and slavery were prohibited, as well as opium smoking, adultery, gambling, and use of tobacco and alcohol. Organization of the army was elaborate, with strict rules governing soldiers in camp and on the march. For those who followed these rules, an ultimate reward was promised. Zeng Guofan was astonished when, after the capture of Nanjing, almost 100,000 of the Taiping followers preferred death to capture.
Under the Taipings, the Chinese language was simplified, and equality between men and women was decreed. All property was to be held in common, and equal distribution of the land according to a primitive form of communism was planned. Some Western-educated Taiping leaders even proposed the development of industry and the building of a Taiping democracy. The Qing dynasty was so weakened by the rebellion that it never again was able to establish an effective hold over the country. Both the Chinese communists and the Chinese Nationalists trace their origin to the Taipings.
We believe these historical events contributed directly to the creation of Taijiquan. Without the Ching court being rocked to its core respected Confucian court officials like Wu Yuxiang and his brother would not have even interacted with a low-level martial artist like Yang Luchan. But the Taiping rebellion was not the only crises happening in China at the same time. A dynasty can survive one crisis, but several at once? No chance. The Yangtze river flooded leading to a catastrophic famine and loss of life and the British and the French started the second Opium war. There was also the Nian rebellion in the North.
The Taiping’s were eventually defeated with help from the Mongols and British. (The British wanted to sell opium, to sustain their empire and the Taiping’s were against that). If the rebellion had suceeded, just imagine the different China that would have emerged.
We cover all this in the 3rd part of your history of Taijiquan, and the crucial moment when the Wus first meet the Chens:
In this episode we look at how the effects of the Taiping Northern Expedition and the Nian Rebellion of the mid Nineteenth Century drew the confucian Wu brothers and the fighters of Chen Village towards each other for the first time.
Ok, here it is, part 2 of our history of Tai Chi Chuan. In this episode we examine the context in which the relationship between Yang Luchan, Wu Chengqing and Wu Yuxiang developed during the years of the Taiping Rebellion and the new regime of Emperor Xianfeng.
Looking back over the last few blog posts I’ve written it occurs to me that a reader might think that I don’t actually like Tai Chi Chuan. I do. I practice it pretty much every day. There’s something in it that is just very good for you. Before practice I feel a bit unfocussed, and uncoordinated. After practice I feel like I’m back “in the zone”, and that’s a rare thing for any practice to deliver as consistently as Tai Chi does. And it always does.
If I contrast that with Jiujitsu (something I also love, or at least used to before this lockdown started), after that I’m an exhausted, sweaty mess in need of water and recovery. Jiujitsu is a lot of fun, but it breaks you down. In contrast, Tai Chi builds you up. You need both together. I’ve always practiced my Tai Chi with other more physical arts anyway. More dynamic things, like Choy Lee Fut or Xing Yi are great compliments to the relaxed, slow Tai Chi movements.
One of the reasons I criticise Tai Chi a lot is that it does have the most abysmally low standards amongst its practitioners of any martial art you’ll ever see. In fact, it’s a martial art that most people don’t actually practice as a martial art!
Regular readers to the blog, or regular listeners to the Heretics Podcast, will know that we recently started a series on “The Myth of Tai Chi“. Again, it sounds like it’s a bit of a negative attack on Tai Chi, but anybody with even a cursory understanding of Tai Chi history will realise that a lot of it is vague, unknown and contradictory, especially for a period of time (1850s onwards) in which other martial arts (like Xing Yi) have no confusion over their history and lineage.
Episode 1 of the podcast takes into account all the other things that were happening in China in 1850, and there was a lot! It was a period of turmoil that was about to become even worse with the most bloody civil war in world history – the Taiping Rebellion – which left an estimate 20 million dead. (If you’d like to know more about this and the various martial arts that were created around the same time period, like Wing Chun and Choy Li Fut, then I’d recommend Benjamin Judkin’s excellent book Creation of Wing Chun, The: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts – it’s by far the best Chinese martial arts history book I’ve read).
Now the scene is set, episode 2 (coming soon) will offer more definite conclusions on the origins of Tai Chi Chuan, but there’s still so much left to talk about that this will soon become a mult-part story. You might want to empty your cup before you listen though: Damon’s conclusions on what Tai Chi really is are not particularly favourable for any group trying to claim ownership of the Tai Chi brand – the Chens, the Yangs, the Wus the Taoists or anybody else. You’ll have to wait until episode 2 is released in the next few days to find out what the big reveal is!
But until then, just a little reminder that I do actually like Tai Chi Chuan (honest!), despite appearances. And regardless of its origins what matters is its actual practice. Learning about history won’t make you any more or less skilful, only practice will do that.
The history of Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan), rather than its actual practice, is one of the most controversial subjects to do with the art. Various different groups have tried to claim Tai Chi as their own, and considering the amount of money involved in the art it’s very hard to know who to trust in this matter.
In this podcast we’ve tried to look objectively at the facts, and the result is that it doesn’t look good for anybody, especially the British 🙂
The history of Tai Chi Chuan is a subject I’ve wanted to tackle on our podcast for a while, but now (thanks to one of our patreons, Gabriel) it’s finally a reality.
In this episode we begin a new series of episodes on this subject by setting the scene and historical background to the mythmaking around the origins of Tai Chi that occurred starting from the middle of the Nineteenth Century in response to social turmoil and unrest exemplified by the Taiping Rebellion and Opium Wars.