Masters of Internal Arts

Adam Hsu said in his last book that many traditional Shaolin systems have high kicks which are non-functional because they come from Chinese Opera.  In fact he calls them Opera Kicks.  Since the traditional Northern Shaolin system I learned has many different types of high Chinese Opera kick, I might be inclined to argue that they do indeed have a function.

For instance I might say that they increase the size of your martial frame, ultimately allowing for the development of superior power.  Or I could say that the great flexibility that these practice kicks develop makes all lower kicks safer.  Or I could say if you can kick high with power and control, your low kicks will have even more power and control.  Or I could say high kicks force you to use the correct muscle groups, accomplishing the same thing that other schools achieve by having students hold their legs in the air at waist level while distributing qi to all the extremities.

Yes I could make all those arguments, but I don't think they would get anywhere with someone who has decided that the traditional arts need to be repaired because they have become degraded by theatrical development.  (No one knows exactly when this degradation was supposed to have happened but somewhere between the great Han (200 BCE) and the fall of the Qing (1908)).  Their argument is actually hard to follow.  It requires that you believe there was a time in the past in which people practiced pure martial arts when in fact evidence for such an era is scanty at best.

However, I'm not going to make those arguments.  Instead I would like to argue from my own experience.  I live in a time of great peace.  In an era where wealth and hygene are taken for granted.  In my 20's I was part of a milieu which was enthralled with ideas about how to create improvisational theater and dance--developing methods and practices of mind which would enable us to adapt spontaneously to anything anyone threw at us.  That experience, urban public school, and perhaps my Jewish home style of ferocious passionate argumentation, gave me a set of skills that has made it nearly impossible for me to get in a real fight.  Believe me, it's not from lack of willingness to fight.  I spent several years under George Xu, where I was walking around seeing other people's movement in slow motion, watching their bodies for weaknesses I could exploit, the way my mom would look at a chicken before pulling off its limbs.

So here is my argument.  I've been practicing Northern Shaolin for over 30 years and I've been teaching it for 17.  I took the summer off from teaching children and I've recently started back up again.  My advanced students have already learned the lowest stances of any martial arts tradition, and most of the high kicks and airborne kicks that I teach.  But they need polishing.  I have each of them working on their own short routine this week.  I call it 3-2-1.  Three kicks, two stances held with fire in the eyes for 3-5 seconds, and one sudden unpredictable change in direction.  They can put it together anyway they want and I'll add more elements to the task next week.  At 42 years of age, I'm still doing these kinds of high kicks, like barrel turn slap the foot above your head into a sudden butterfly kick and then into a spinning double jump in the opposite direction of momentum---how is it that I am not getting injured?

Chorusline1BDI'll tell you how.  Because I'm doing taijiquan, xingyiquan and Baguazhang.  I'm doing internal arts when I do these high kicks.  Sure, it looks like Shaolin, but if it wasn't the purest internal practice I can pull off, my muscles would be ripping, my ligament falling off the bone.  It's not that it would be impossible to do this kind of practice externally at my age, it's just that the risk of injury is so high, and the healing time for even minor injuries is so long, that I couldn't possibly teach or perform.

And that's my argument.  There is more reason for a 40 to 60 year old performer to make their martial displays internal than there is for any bodyguard or officer in the military.  The incentive is just better.

It's not that I can't see the other argument.  Seeing real combat against drilled and tested troops doesn't inspire much need for cultivating qi.  But imagine an officer with 10,000 troops on the boarder for 10 years and nothing to do, because just his StageCoachRobbery3-1911-locpresence on the boarder is keeping the peace--yes I can imagine him developing internal arts.  He has to practice anyway because he might even see some action if things go badly.  But most likely he is going to end up back in his home village, perhaps  working on a farm.  There is some incentive, but it isn't a very strong one.

The same lack of strong incentive is probably true for caravan guards but I don't honestly know how this business worked.  I'd think that it was mostly a numbers game.  More guards than bandits and you're safe; fewer and you start to look like a car with "The Club" but no alarm.  A deterrent perhaps, but not enough to dissuade bandits who are pretty sure you've got treasure.

But I have no doubt that bodyguards, officers in the military, and Chinese theatrical performers-- all practiced internal martial  arts.  They all contributed something.  Each of these lifestyles would attract kinesthetic people like me, who get high on working out, playing rough, and looking for extraordinary beauty in motion.  The question I'm asking is, who of the three had the strongest incentive to develop internal martial arts?

Tell me what you think of my theory.

Okay, we didn't talk about the heath-nut contribution to internal martial arts.  Can we save that for another day?