Tantui: Theatrical-Religious Artifact or Moral Propaganda Tool

Please head over to Ben Judkins' blog and read his piece "Judo and the Chinese Martial Arts: the View from 1928." In it he points out that the discourse around the history of Chinese martial arts was largely established by the 1930s and has not changed much (at least until Ben, and I, and a few others, started studying it). People often claim to be having a conversation about history when in fact they are arguing about the right way to practice today. 

Ben's piece is centered around this free translation by Brennan: BOXING ARTS FUNDAMENTALS – ILLUSTRATED HANDBOOK FOR TANTUI, from May, 1917. It is a fantastic document, but could use some contextualization. Rather than write my own piece, I'm just going to add some comments below.

The book was written and published during World War I. It is one of the earliest books from the Modern Era on martial arts. China was struggling to get its feet on the ground as a nation. Japan was occupying Shandong Province. China sent laborer to WWI and a lot of them were in YMCA run camps, digging trenches. This was a pivotal moment in Chinese history as this article explains at the end. Check it out, it's a good summary.

https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/labour_china  Western Front

https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/labour_china  Western Front

Tantui was basic training for Beijing opera, where it is best understood as:

  • Conditioning for Acrobatics (combined with handstands and bridges)
  • Self-defense for Children
  • The body-shape molding for maintaining standard character-types on stage

This is the type of training I got when I first studied Kuo Lienying's Tantui in San Francisco in the late 1970s. Nothing was explained to me, I figured all this out after the fact. By the late 1980s Adam Hsu was teaching the exact style of Tantui featured in the book. He also criticized Kuo's style of Tantui as "opera." 

In the Handbook for Tantui, it claims the training is for military readiness. But that is silly. They changed the "opera style" to be less functional for self-defense, the people who changed it were most likely ignorant of how criminals attack, how power is generated, and were guided by the simplicity demands of mass education.

They took out the complex rhythms. They took out the high kicks. They took out the rock solid upward punches with knee attacks which are at the end of each line, and replaced them with a tepid side punch. They took out the low stances. They made the whole thing rather robotic. And they make the absurd claim that it can be learned from a book.

The Handbook for Tantui debates the meaning of Tantui. Which I can put into context. It was obviously called Springy Legs because that was its purpose in opera training. The book claims this particular version of Tantui may have come from a Dragon Pool Temple in Shandong. Shandong was occupied by the Japanese at the time. During this period Dragon Temples were being confiscated and destroyed, by the late 1930s half a million temples had been destroyed. The Dragon temples were one of the most popular types of temple; the cult revolved around floods and draught which were near constants in North China. If this Tantui actually came from that temple, it was the only part of that cult that survived the Anti-Superstition movement. But the Handbook suggests another origin for the name Tantui: "Mr Tan's Legs." Pretty silly? Actually the attempt to give traceable human lineages to martial arts dates from this period. Martial arts were understood almost as mobile temples. To survive the Anti-Superstition Movement, temples had to be dedicated to one of a handful of Gods most of which were historical military figures that the Nationalists approved of. Martial arts, as mobile-temples, had to meet the same standard. But it was a work in progress to figure out an acceptable history for most styles during this period. 

The Handbook mentions the origin stories of Damo (Bodhidharma) for Shaolin and Zhang Sanfeng for Wudang in a matter-of-fact way. It presents these two names as if the stories were about real people rather than magical-religious stories--Damo cut off his eyelids, his arms, and his legs so that he could meditate better, Zhang Sanfeng was practically a Fox Spirit, teaching the golden elixir in whore houses. The Nationalists required all but a few deities to be real historical people. This text, like other early pure-martial-arts texts, tried to humanize these Buddha-Immortals, but over the next 15 years the lingering religious association with these two characters led Communist Tang Hao and others to insist that the theatrical-religious history of these martial arts be completely erased. 

The physical education classes where this somewhat crippled form of Tantui was being taught originated in Christian Schools, built on the YMCA model of moral purification through body discipline. The Doctor, Zhu Hongshou, who wrote the second preface, was probably a Christian. A large social force spreading these arts at this time was the Anti-Footbinding movement, which made martial arts for girls at school a big part of its agenda. Anti-footbinding advocates would say things like, "Girls cannot practice martial arts if they have bound feet!" There was massive feminist movement at this time and young women wanted to be able to fight. That desire among women had been growing for a century, and is especially evident in a type of literature called Tanci  Narratives, which were written by and for women, and often included scenes and plots about female fighter--warrior--generals. 

1919, Hedong Women’s Normal School, Shanxi (Courtesy of Dorothy Ko)

1919, Hedong Women’s Normal School, Shanxi (Courtesy of Dorothy Ko)

This is Cole (age 8) doing Tantui (Springy Legs) the first set of Northern Shaolin, sometimes called the ten roads. Taught by Scott P. Phillips, student of Bing Gong, student of Kuo Lien-Ying. Lafayette California. Visit us at NorthStarMartialArts.com


And this is an awesome article with great pictures down near the bottom of the first page about Chinese during World War One.

http://multimedia.scmp.com/ww1-china/  Chinese Stilt Walkers on the Western Front

http://multimedia.scmp.com/ww1-china/  Chinese Stilt Walkers on the Western Front



Write here…