Manuals explaining secret martial arts techniques in China written before the 20th Century are rare. A text translated by Paul Brennan, Explaining Taijiquan Principles, attributed to Yang Banhou [circa 1875] is a particularly interesting one. But before I get into discussing it, I would like to frame it culturally.
In China, learning to read and write was preparation for taking an exam that allowed one to become a government official. Those jobs were extremely competitive and required full-time dedication to study. It was not unusual for someone to spend forty years studying before getting an appointment, many people never got appointments, yet the possibility of getting one was valuable enough to keep studying.
So imagine being a teenager stuck in a room studying all day and dreaming about being a martial arts hero. Any normal person who wanted to be a martial hero would find someone to study with. But these teenagers were stuck inside. What was the perfect solution to this problem? A secret martial arts manual! Without leaving the desk the student could acquire magical martial powers!
So it is not too surprising that a great number of plays used the discovery of a secret martial arts manual as a plot device. It was a common dream of the literate classes who not only wrote the plays but were major patrons of the theater. In fact, urban theater districts were called “scholar towns” because they were full of scholars.
This was the cultural context in which this 1875 text was produced. It is not written in didactic language, it is not a “how to” manual. It is dense poetic language, we might even call it evocative theatrical language. A person capable of reading this text would likely have greeted it with a blend of enthusiasm and mirth. At the same time, it is discussing real martial skills and tricks. It is discussing the fully developed art of Taijiquan.
The text also has quite a bit of Daoist content, the language of neidan (inner elixir) is embedded in the explanations. Zhengyi Daoshi (priests) were family lineages usually passed on to a son or a nephew, but the lineage could also be passed on by adoption. If one had a Daoshi in the family, it was possible to learn neidan or daoyin from them, but these sorts of things were secret within families so we don’t know much about them. It should also be noted that Daoshi were always married and the wife was equal in learning and rank, so these sorts of in-the-family teachings were available to women too.
Daoist monks of the Quanzhen tradition practiced in monasteries. The spiritual center of the Quanzhen tradition was at Baiyunguan (White Cloud Monastery) in Beijing. Becoming a monk was a lifelong commitment (which included celibacy) and according to the world expert on this subject, Vincent Goossaert, the only lay practitioners taught at Baiyunguan were eunuchs and actors. Two groups which were despised by the common people. (See Goossaert's essay "Daoists in the Modern Self-Cultivation Market," in Daoism in the Twentieth Century.)
During this period there was real interest in neidan meditation practices, but unless one had a Daoist priest in the family or was an actor or a eunuch, finding a teacher required looking outside of what we normally think of as Daoist religion. I suspect that a large number of neidan teachers were in fact actors who were universally trained in martial arts. It was very common for literati to have actors living in the home as entertainment-servants and teachers. Naturally, as time went buy, literati with both martial arts knowledge and neidan practice appeared.
Let’s turn to the end of the text first. If we scroll down to the bottom, the last two sections are “attributed” to the immortal Zhang Sanfeng. What does that mean? Zhang Sanfeng was a ubiquitous figure in the late 1800s, not just because he was a popular trickster of the theater but because he was the subject of widespread spirit writing cults. Groups of literati would gather together and do a kind of ritual séance, in which they would write in the voice of Zhang Sanfeng. That is almost certainly what these two sections at the end of the text are. They are channelled. How else could the presumed author Yang Banhou know what Zhang Sanfeng said? Zhang lived some 800 years ago and all of his writings are channelled.
The name Zhang Sanfeng is comic, it has a lot of different meanings, the most vulgar I’ve heard (from Douglas Wile) is that Zhang Sanfeng means “the three dirty peaks,” the lips, the breasts, and the vagina. I believe these sections are meant to be both poignant and comic, yet it is difficult to figure out what this poetic text means from these prose translations. There seems to be a joke here: When you do taijiquan with a man, become receptive like a woman, yet active as if you were sexually aroused.
This may seem like an aside, but I’ve been working on a problem. It seems to me that dancers are often stronger than martial artists. And martial artists are often more emotionally developed than dancers. I know that sounds weird, neither group wants to admit it. Dancers are constantly flinging themselves to the ground, bounding into the air, and lifting each other off the ground. That requires enormous strength just to stay in one piece. While martial artists often have a deep relationship with their dark side, they create situations which challenge their fears and unravel their identities. In my workshops I would like to find a way to bring these two strengths together. We could, if we lived in an earlier era, think of this in gender terms. I wonder if Zhang Sanfeng is pointing to something along these lines with his humor.
Paul Brennan has done a wonderful job of making these original texts and his translations available on-line. We are indebted to him. Send him money.
In section 2, On The Training Method for the Eight Gates & Five Steps, we get a discussion of four terms: perception, realization, activation, and action. I understand this section to be describing the most fundamental aspect of internal martial arts which I refer to in Daoyin Reimagined as “re-ordering the mechanism of perception-action.” It is gratifying to see this explicated in a pre-20th century text.
There is also ample discussion of the principle of counter-balancing, the most important and the most neglected concept in Taijiquan.
Throughout the text Brennan attempts to translate key terms from neidan: jing, qi, shen, xu, and ling. These texts are not meant to be read, they are meant to be studied. To gain an understanding here, one has to study the Chinese and specifically look at how these terms are used. Any one translation necessarily obscures other interpretations. Fortunately the Chinese text is right there and the internet has lots of Chinese dictionaries.
This is clearly a neidan text, it represents an aspect of Daoist teachings outside of both family lineage transmissions and monastic practices.
There is so much more! Check it out.