Travel Update: I’m in a cafe in Bozeman Montana. There are more older people here than I expected, having been told in Boulder that Boulder, Bozeman and Bend are the three towns in America with good food and lots of very physically active people in their twenties. After a few beers at a bar called Bacchus, I learned that the older people leave as soon as the summer is over. Rents here are very cheap, so it is full of young people who went to college in order to get into debt. The slacker ethic is strong, in the sense that all the people I have met work odd jobs with low pay so they have tons of time to ski, climb, mountain bike, sit in hot springs and party. I think some guys we crossed after leaving the bar last night were trying to see if I would fight them, “Hey, look at his Captain America t-shirt, is he going to kick all of our asses?” Sarah wisely retorted, “Only if you want him too.” But that was the end of it. Martial arts classes here are dirt cheap, $7 for a drop in, $40 for a month. It is a beautiful town, the houses all have new paint jobs and maintained gardens. Lot’s of dogs, good food, whiskey and wilderness. I want to find people who have the time to dedicate to learning martial arts for hours everyday. This might be the place. But I also want some intellectual stimulation and a jumping off place for a Daoist inspired milieu to arise. It would be nice to see a few people with thick glasses carrying around doorstop sized books. Ah, what I would sacrifice for a land full of 20 year old librarians with an insatiable appetite for dancing and fighting.
In the historic Chinese past, the question “what religion are you?” was not a question about ones beliefs. It was likely to be phrased more like this, “to whom do you make sacrifice?” Or, “what rituals are you committed to performing?”
Statements about origins of Martial Arts should perhaps begin the question, “why don’t we know the exact origins of Chinese martial arts?” “What forces in society have made the past difficult to see? especially in a culture like China has recorded so much about the past and has so many rituals designed to create common dreams and common memories?”
It seems that historically there were many systems of Martial Arts named after people. To the extent that these people or historic figures are too distantly in the past to have direct lineages or historic connections to present day arts, I think it is safe to posit that they were characters of the theater. After all, that was how the vast majority of people learned about history. They learned it from watching history plays, usually called wu (martial) plays.
Let me pose it another way. From what source could a man in 17th Century China have gotten an inkling about how a man from the 15th Century moved, other than through watching him in a historical performance or ritual?
The actors would have made sacrifice to specific deities like this one described by Daoist priest Jave Wu (hat tip to Julianne Zhou). This is an example of the integration of theater and Daoism in the Hokkien speaking Southern parts of China, but also remember that the most prominent deity that actors made sacrifice to was one of the Eight Immortals, the theatrical mythic founders of Quan Zhen (Complete Reality) Daoism!
In the previous post I discussed martial arts as a social institutions for the transmission of values. In the case of ritual "Chinese Opera" theater, we have values being transmitted through both fictional storytelling and the teaching of history on the stage, as well as the direct representation of gods, and ancestors. In some contexts the actual gods and ancestors were channelled directly onto the stage through the actors as empty vessels.
Amateur martial theater arts embodying both theatrical and real fighting skills, and combining emotional, intellectual, historical and physical elements, may be the most comprehensive institution created for the transmission of cultural values anywhere. I haven’t compiled a list, but the other top contenders have their origins in Africa and Polynesia. In Europe the closest thing I can come up with is Italian Folk dance used as training for knife fighting.
To properly follow this line of reasoning we should ask the question, what constituted an amateur martial artist? Simply, anyone who wasn’t born into or adopted into an actor family. I suspect that many people who performed forms (taolu) at public markets as a way to sell medicines would be considered amateur, as would anyone in the military who practiced forms, and anyone considered a local or family expert. Professional ritual theater was the model for a vast array of martial arts training as a method for transmitting values within families, villages, regions, and language groups.
Significant parts of the Chinese theater tradition were improvisational, but since the 20th Century trend has been away from this sort of freedom of expression, and because actor training was a form of ritual transmission without any written manuals, the extent of improvisation is hard to prove. But I will hazard that-- where there is improvisation, there is a rebellious spirit. (see Improvisation in A Ritual Context : The Music of Cantonese Opera, By Shouren Chen)
What were the values being transmitted to a kid learning Monkey Kungfu? Or other comic roles? There are so many martial heros and anti-heros in the theater traditions! The walls of temples in Taiwan are covered in them literally floor to ceiling! It is as if value systems were modular! Pick a role, learn that body art (shenfa), and then be it, model it, profess it.
Avrom Boretz deserves credit for much of this idea. He explores the transmission of prowess and other martial values through martial rituals in his book Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society .
Again, if you follow this logic, we have to explain what happened to the martial arts in the early part of the 20th Century that obscured these origins even while they were being preserved in a new form in Hong Kong action film.
Andrew Morris, in Marrow of the Nation explains how martial arts were used to promote nationalism (it used to be called fascism) and to some extent how the arts were changed by that process. Karate in Japan and Taekwondo in Korea also need to be understood in this context.
If we think about martial arts not just as the transmission of values and character and skills, but as the transmission of specific character types we get some shocking results. The character types promoted by the Chinese Nationalists are mostly angry generals and cruel judges, along with some self-sacrificing young passionate heros. That's it. The survival of the mystical Tai Chi Daoist character role, the world transcending Buddhist monk character role, and Sun Wukong the Monkey King role, are testaments to the strength and pervasiveness of these roles as institutions for the transmission of cultural values! They survived dispite the movement to suppress them. (Note: more serious work needs to be done on female and gender bender roles in the history of martial arts! I still have too many unanswered questions to discuss them here.)
Since the revolution the Chinese government has been promoting “Wushu,” a from of competitive martial dance largely devoid of martial skill or character training. Serious martial artists have been laughing at Wushu for 60 years and yet the Communist Party is still trying to get it into the Olympics. If seen as a character type Wushu is like a lingering ghost possessed by conflicting emotions, too weak to resolve itself through a complete death!
Karate in Imperialist Nationalist Fascist Japan took on a single character type, that of a disciplined angry kamikaze! Okay, maybe that is too harsh. But clearly it is a character type of limited theatrical depth. It has some of the rigid qualities of a death mask. Nationalist Korea developed Taekwondo mostly from karate and kept the same character type. I suspect there was a reformation process after the war which changed elements of Karate. Certainly the spread of Karate in countries all over the world has had profound effects on the values being transmitted through this particular body art. The Karate character has proven very dynamic. But I think that if an understanding of its origins were more widespread we would see an explosion of new styles, and cooperation between styles. We would see an opening to character types outside the box! Comic, crazy, loving, tricky, motherly, vixen, Mormon, etc, etc... Stoner Karate anyone?
One of the reasons I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that I think Buffy was the spontaneous arising of a new American martial arts character role. Did you know that I teach Buffy Style Kungfu?