Questions about Martial Arts

YMCA Camp in Europe WW1.

YMCA Camp in Europe WW1.

I get questions all the time about martial arts origins, meaning, history, and practice. When I get out of the deep editing mode that I have been in for a few months, I'm going to start making videos and doing interviews. The future looks great. 

There appears to be a cultural shift going on. In the past there was a small number of people who could have deep intellectual or kinesthetic conversations. The technology of video distribution is slowly changing that. Very few people have the concentration, focus, and appetite to read deep books. What is changing is that the few of us who can read, can now spread ideas via video. And we can talk to each other in front of massive rock concert sized audiences for several hours at a time. Books are still essential for deeper levels of engagement, but video has the capacity to make lots of people think. 

I wrote a review of the best current scholarly book on Chinese martial arts two years ago. The purpose of the review is to make the book accessible to martial artists. Why? Because I value ideas. And because the book assumes its readers know about either Chinese literature or Daoism. So I wrote the review to bridge that gap. I would not lightly say, "the best book," if I did not mean it. 
Here is a free copy available from the journal Martial Arts Studies--Review: Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks and the History of a Ming Novel, by Mark Meulenbeld

Here are some questions I got recently.

What do you mean when you say martial arts are rituals?

Rituals are ways of making order out of chaos. Martial arts are about unleashing the greatest forces of chaos and bringing them into order. It is a daily ritual that has deep, lasting, and profound effects on every aspect of our being. This is true of martial arts world wide, but it is particularly clear in the structure of Chinese martial arts as they were understood before the Boxer Uprising.

What do you mean by the golden elixir and the diamond body?

The golden elixir and diamond body are methods for changing the order of perception-action. The most evolutionarily basic function of the imagination is to move us through space. Because this function has been evolving for a long time, it has many layers of complexity. These 'layers' can be re-ordered, reversed, explored, amplified or diminished. The golden elixir and diamond body are big kinesthetic ideas. They are experiments in awareness. They are experiments which have the capacity to change both what we value and how we determine value. Meaning is created, discovered, and renewed by traveling to origins of being. 

How can you claim Chinese martial arts is a religion? 

The biggest issue is how we define religion. Chinese religion pivots around ritual action. The Protestant religion pivots around belief. Christianity is a matter of conscience. Chinese religion is a matter of state, temple, festival, and body. Western religion is a single communally enforced piety. Chinese religion uses modular mortality, each deity-cult is different. Chinese morality is portable and an individual can belong to multiple temples, jiao (teachings), and contexts. 

Martial arts are a form of ritual-theater that was performed for the state, the temple, the festival, and the body. It is a form of storytelling-mortality, a way to practice martial skills, a way to organize people around loyalty, a way to rectify the unresolved dead, and a source of beauty, self-expression and a way to train spontaneity. In the theater it was closely related to Buddhism and Daoism, particularly the golden elixir (jindan) and the diamond-body (jingang). 

If that is true, how did we get so confused about it?

How did it change? China was deeply humiliated during the Boxer Uprising. Martial arts, religion, festival culture, literature, eunuchs, opium, and foot-binding constituted a great big bundle of shame. After the Boxer Rebellion, basically, the YMCA conquered China. Not just the YMCA, other modernist-Protestant groups too. They took control over the levers of state power and intellectual discourse. New Redemptionist Societies built on the YMCA model appeared to remake Chinese religion (like the Red Swastika Society, Yi Guandao, Yuandao, lots of them...). The anti-superstition movements of the early 20th Century destroyed half-a million temples. The temples most closely linked to martial arts were the first to go. Martial arts were re-made in the YMCA image. I dive deeply into this question in my next book because the battle for ideas is on-going and ideas matter. If someone tries to tell you ideas are not important, punch them and then run away.  

If you have not had a chance to read my book Possible Origins yet, buy it now! There is still time to read it before the next one comes out. You will love it. Unless I hear some strong objections in the next month, the title of my next book is:

Internal Martial Arts Before the Boxer Rebellion.

Possible subtitles:

Tai Chi, Baguazhang, & the Golden Elixir. 

Zhang Sanfeng & the Angry Baby God.

The Sloppy Trickster and the Dragon Killer.

Fighting without Fighting and Stripping Flesh From Bone.

Humor and Mythology as Sources of Martial Prowess.

The Fight to keep Magic and Humor alive.