Steps of Perfection (part 2)

Here I continue my discussion of, Steps of Perfection: Exorcistic Performers and Chinese Religion in Twentieth-Century Taiwan, by Donald S. Sutton. (see Here for the earlier post.)

This book has implications for how we understand Martial and all other Chinese arts.  To be fare to the author, this post is more about what the book inspired me to think and less about the actual content of the book.
When Taiwan's Jiajiang martial dance troops are traveling in procession, the head of the procession is a guy carrying a board covered in miniature torture devices. His other hand can hold a whip or various other weapons. Some of the boards appear to be like sandwich boards with various traditional torture devises glued or nailed to the surface.

What's going on? Well, part of what is exciting about this book is that nobody knows exactly. That is, people have explanations but the various explanations don't always jive with each other. However, the practice and how these events should be organized and performed is an orthopraxy, it has a clear right way and a taboo wrong way. This is true even taking into consideration that what is right and what is wrong has some flexibility from troop to troop and has changed somewhat over time.

The the author tells us that during the early part of the Ching Dynasty, before people from Fuzhou came to Taiwan, local magestraites organized parades in which they exhibited the actual devices used by the courts for torturing confessions. As you probably know, all convictions in a Chinese court required a confession. Very often this required a bit of torture. (Trance-mediums were also sometimes used in courts. For instance they might be hired to channel a recently murdered person in order to ask the person, "Who killed you?")

Chinese torture ChairProcessions for popular Heavenly gods mimicked the parading that magistrates and other representatives of Earthly government employed. In one account, Sutton describes how a magistrate and his entourage are forced to wait for some offensive amount of time while a god (often a youth with a painted face) passes by in a sedan chair dressed in magistrate like robes with a simular but perhaps larger entourage.

In the West, for reasons I won't go into here, we gradually decided that torturing a confession was a bad idea. But in China, torture by degrees took on various meanings which where not all together bad.

At a basic level, a confession can play a role in creating a feeling of resolution. This is true for society in criminal cases, but it is also true in personal relationships. An honest reckoning is actually essential for progress in any field or practice. A martial artist that doesn't admit the mistakes they have made in training will surely fail to progress. A person filled with shame who continues to avoid a confession or an honest reckoning will continue to do shameful things. For people with pour eating habits or hygiene, an honest reckoning can extend their lives.

A bad DayThus confessions were associated with both healing and merit. The threat of torture in the near future or by ghosts and demons during the slow process of being re-assimilated by heaven and earth at the time of ones death, was and is still thought to motivate people to confess their indiscretions.

Daoists framed this discussion in terms of qi. Indiscretions could be thought of as qi crimes, which were graded from the most extreme, killing people for fun, to the most subtle, using too much effort for a simple task like opening a door.

Social reforms, from a Daoist point of view generally incorporated the idea that bad behavior, like wasting qi, has consequences for the actor that take effect very quickly after the act. In other words, humans are self-correcting entities. We torture ourselves. The problem is that people aren't always paying attention to these consequences. This is one of the reasons that Daoists developed so many methods that develop sensitivity to are own body.

Hard styles and soft styles of martial arts can be understood this way. A hard style is a form of self torture in which the pain you cause in practice acts as a corrective agent, leading you to acts of merit (which is what Kung Fu means!) A soft style like taijiquan, is based on the idea that on any given day we are committing numerous qi indiscretions (or small qi crimes if you prefer) and that we ought to dedicate an hour or two a day to practicing not wasting qi.

Looks Scare but Feels Great!Aggression, of course, is a constant "cause" of qi wasting. From a Daoist point of view, if you lose your temper, you probably caused yourself a very minor internal injury, but you also caused some kind of reaction in the world around you. That reaction, like a ripple in a pond might dissipate gently, but it also might lead to a tidal wave somewhere down the line. And since we have no way of really knowing, losing your temper is seen as inappropriate. I think it is important to note, that from a Daoist point of view, well timed aggression may be worth the risk.

At the Acupuncture college where I teach it is well known that if given a choice between two treatments, most native born Chinese will choose the more painful treatment. I believe the inspirations for this, perhaps buried deep in the unconscious, is that acupuncture and moxabustion are like mini-torture sessions in which worldly and other worldly "causes" of pain and illness are forced to confess and correct their ways!