Fear vs. Danger: The Real History of Martial Arts and Trance

Sgt. Rory over at Chiron has been talking about the difference between fear management and danger management and the comments are interesting.  Basically Sgt. Rory says that a lot of martial artists are using a fantasy of martial prowess to convince themselves that they are capable of real fighting.  They do this with a combination of bravado, group think, and talismanic power emblems like 'The Black Belt.'  For someone like Sgt. Rory, who does danger management for a job, fantasies can get you killed.

So the real question is, if martial arts were created for real situations, why is everyone acting so dumb?

In other posts and in his book,  Sgt. Rory has made much of the powerful hormone cocktail that takes over your body and mind when you are in a real fight.   How did traditional martial arts deal with this?  They must have known about it.  Why isn't it a part of the average dojo training these days?

Early Chinese martial arts were trance based.  They started from experience and worked backwards.  The first experienced fighters who set out to train students did so by scaring them 'out of there wits.'  As these arts developed they started to include ear splitting metallic gongs and frenetic drumming.  They told frightening war stories and sang haunting songs filled with enmity.  These were soon followed by the invocation of supernatural forces and drunk dancers channeling gruesomely demised soldiers. The teachers were using these techniques to trigger the powerful hormone cocktail in their students so that they would know what to expect.

Cults devoted to martial hero/demons are as old as Chinese civilization itself, and they are still with us.  These days they are more associated with outcast smuggler types, but historically they were the village militia.

Violent situations are full of surprises.  There isn't just one type of trance which is "best" for all fighting situations.  There are many different types of trance.  As martial cults developed they taught different types of trance, often associated with different deities or animal spirits.  Often a movement style or sequence would be taught first and then, after some amount of practice, the spirit would be invoked, at which point the routine would be dropped.   The 'student' was practicing going berserk.  They were practicing being on a high dose of naturally occurring hormone cocktail.  They developed many measures to test if the trance was real including inability to feel cuts or burns and various degrees of memory loss.

When the really fight was about to happen, they would put themselves into trance, essentially preempting the 'shock' or the 'freeze.'

The big problem with this type of training is that it shortens your life.  That hormone cocktail is really bad for your long term health.   The kinds of permission people give themselves when they are in deep trance tend to lead them to bad decisions.  Also the wild movements people do, and injures they ignore, when they are in trance really hurt the day after.

What began as trance invocation movements became dances and martial arts forms.  One of the early purposes of martial training was to make ones body strong enough to survive the more extreme trance possessions the early 'teachers' developed.  Over many generations these martial 'forms' started to include actual 'techniques' and even 'applications.'  It was a slow evolution.  In peaceful times everyone did the forms as entertainment and the music got better, and then as times turned for the worse, they re-invoked the spirits and sanctified the ground with blood.

It isn't hard to see how great performers grew out of this tradition, especially if you know that trances weren't just used for movement but to get people talking and singing.  Poetry was written in trance too.  Imagine a bunch of talented people on stage all in deep trance and each invoking different historical figure improvising their way through history with swords and masks and you are more than half way to Chinese Opera.

It's a long story for another day how all this interacted with the military, but it is an important story because although Chinese armies did sometimes use people in trance, they also had good reasons for discouraging it.

Religion and martial arts parallel each other in that both have had a long history of social movements trying to distance themselves from trance without every totally dropping it.  As we all know, doing these martial arts forms and drills without the trance or the music became a way to train fighting all on their own.  In the religious realm, meditation, stillness without going into trance and without any deity invocation, became a religious practice all on its own.

On the other hand some people became experts in many types of trance.  I believe that Baguazhang was originally a collection of eight classes of god/demon possession.  Each one distinct in its powers but woven together through ritual walking.  Such a collection of forces would have been a very secret transmission.  Althought people would have encountered it, there was no system until someone came along and transformed the god/demon forces into types of qi named after the types of gods each represented --heaven qi, earth qi, wind qi, water qi, thunder qi, fire qi, mountain qi, and lake qi.