Myth busting in Chinese martial arts

Look at those lovely brain boxes.

I’ve been re-watching the excellent conversation between Dr Paul Bowman and Dr Sixt Wetzler on Martial Arts, Religion and Spirituality and it’s sparked a few thoughts in my mind. At 34.39 in the podcast they get on to the subject of myth busting.

Bowman notes that instead of helping people, the myth busting of martial arts which is going on all the time in academic circles is probably destroying the careers of some martial arts teachers. So it’s “doing a service to the world which is actually also a kind of violence”. It’s an interesting point. He notes that people often fall in love with the martial arts for silly orientalist reasons – they fall for the myth of studying an ancient and mystical martial art, then read a well-researched book about it, by somebody like Ben Judkins or Peter Lorge, which shatters their beliefs and makes then doubt the validity of the art they are doing. 

My own Heretics podcast does its fair share of myth busting too – our Aikido episode, Kempo & Jiujitsu history series and Tai Chi history series spring to mind as good examples. I’ve had first had experience of those episodes visibly upsetting teachers I know. Whether they know it or not, these teachers are heavily emotionally invested in the myths of their own arts superiority – they believe all the stories of old practitioners and the amazing feats they can do, and know exactly why their martial art is superior to others. If you start to chip away at those beliefs then the whole facade is at risk of crumbling, and they don’t like it! Unfortunately reality is usually disappointing when compared to the myths. 

When the Chinese martial arts first started making an impact on the West in the 1970s they were full of obvious untruths. Tall tales of Buddhist and Taoist origins abounded. For example, that Tai Chi was apparently created by a Taoist immortal who had a dream about a crane fighting a snake, and Wing Chun was named after the girl who was taught it by a female Buddhist monk, when it turns out that there’s no evidence that she even existed. Over time these myths then get added to by other myths – like the one that Yang LuChan was “invincible”, for example. Even in the modern age the myth of Ip Man has been enhanced to bursting point by a series of pseudo-historical films in which he combats the Japanese, western wrestlers, boxers and even Mike Tyson at one point! 

Ip Man 4

These more marketing-orientated myths about the prowess of practitioners – how deadly they were, how unbeatable their martial arts was, how the power of Qi was greater than physical strength all fed directly into all that nonsense about no touch knockouts and “empty force” that has marred the image of Chinese martial arts in the modern age.

And politics also gets involved. When obvious myths about the origins of martial arts are dispelled they often get replaced by more politically motivated stories about the arts origins that are equally as unprovable and unreliable yet fit a natioanlist agenda. It seems like the Chinese martial arts are forever being used to support some sort of Chinese government propaganda.

In short, the Chinese martial arts world was in need of, and remains in need of, a lot of myth busting, because much of what we are being told and sold is basically not true. But Bowman’s fears, that we are in danger of spoiling the fun for everybody with this relentless search for the truth, holds true, I think. I was certainly attracted to Chinese martial arts by a steady diet of orientalist propaganda from the likes of David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV series and Marvel comics with heroes like Iron Fist. This is often what draws us to the martial arts in the first place and there has to be some way of searching for truth in the martial arts, but keeping the magic that drew us there in the first place. 

The multitude of meanings in Chinese Martial Arts

“You can’t tell a martial artists he’s a dancer without getting a bloody nose.” – G.Barlow, 2020

Bruce Lee, Cha Cha dancer.

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 tang quan 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, 

“I’m a man of contradictions, 

I’m a man of many moods, 

I contain multitudes”.

Just a reminder, I do actually like Tai Chi

Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR on Pexels.com

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).

The best Chinese martial arts history book you’ll ever 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.

Tony Ferguson’s Wing Chun

I keep hearing talk of current/or current interim/or previous UFC Lightweight champion (it’s such a mess in that division of the UFC at the moment that I lose track) Tony Ferguson and his use of Wing Chun in the UFC.

The following video puts all the different clips of him training on a Wing Chun wooden dummy and fighting in the UFC together, with a bit of Joe Rogan commentary over the top – it’s actually a good watch:

The exercise he’s doing with the metal ball looks a lot like the Baguazhang tea cups drill, as well.

To me his Wing Chun looks kind of self-taught. I get the impression he’s more into innovative training using the wooden dummy equipment, rather than in making a serious attempt to learn and apply actual Wing Chun in MMA.

A lot of the proof that he’s using Wing Chun in the UFC relies on that one elbow he did over the top in the clip above. But the thing is, Jon Jones has been using that for years, and nobody says he’s doing Wing Chun. Watch him doing it against Gustaffson here:

 

Still, it’s worth noting that Fergason is doing well with whatever unconventional training methods he’s using. If he can find some inspiration in traditional Chinese Martial Arts, then so much the better for everyone.

Wing Chun (Ding Hao) vs MMA (Xu Xiao Dong), in China

After his fight with the “Tai Chi master” Wei Lei, which rocked the contemporary martial arts scene in China, Xu Xiao Dong, the MMA fighter on a mission to expose “fake masters” is back on the scene this time showing his skills against a Wing Chun fighter.

China doesn’t have the sort of government regime which tolerates people who rock the boat, so I’m pleased to see that Xu is no longer under detention, as I feared we may never have seen him again after what happened last time.

Here’s the fight:

 

It’s a pretty ugly fight. Here are my takeaways:

  • Ding Hao clearly lacks realistic sparring experience, as he falls apart pretty quickly. His grappling was non-existent.
  • Xu Xiao Dong is pretty much a ‘stand and bang’ type fighter. Or maybe he felt so unthreatened by Ding that he didn’t feel the need to do much of anything else.
  • The ref makes some daring saves!
  • Why are they wearing such different clothing? Ding has shoes on! Only Xu is wearing gloves. Xu is grabbing Ding’s clothing to throw and control him. It’s a mess.
  • Why are they fighting on what looks like a red carpet used for movie premieres or award shows?
  • If you watch Ding throughout the fight you can see him try to adapt as he realises what he is doing isn’t working. He starts off looking very much like classical Wing Chun and ends up looking more like Jeet Kune Do. It’s like watching the evolution of Bruce Lee in microcosm!

Here’s some background about Xu Xiao Dong and his fights and detention by police in China:

 

Fight against Wei Lei: