The Creation of Wing Chun

The Creation of Wing Chun

The Creation of Wing Chun, A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, by blogger Ben Judkins and his Wing Chun teacher Jon Nielson, is the first work of its kind. Anyone interested in the history of Chinese martial arts must read it. Specifically, it is the first book to take an existing Chinese martial art and trace both its origins and its development to the present day.

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Into the Badlands and Flaying

Into the Badlands and Flaying

I've been watching the new AMC show Into the Badlands.  I came across this article explaining how choreographer Dee Dee Ku works.  He gave all the actors a crash course in martial arts, six hours a day for six weeks.  During that period he had everyone doing wire-work and acrobatics too.  He then started to choreograph for each actor based on their strengths and talents.  

The article explains that it would be a disaster if the show was just martial arts with bad acting, and equally bad if it was just good acting with terrible martial arts.  I wonder if it is occurring to anyone else that if you want to be in the movies these days, both acting and martial arts are a requirement. 

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Joan Mankin (aka Jade Mango) Dies at 67

Joan Mankin was a dedicated student of mine and a living treasure in many ways; let me tell you about some of them.  She was an actor, director, physical comedian, teacher, swimmer, pioneer of women's martial arts, and a rabbi.  Most people knew her by her clown name, Queenie Moon, but I will always remember her by her martial arts, hero name--Jade Mango.

Joan attended the University of Chicago in the late 1960s and moved to San Francisco to work with the Mime Troop at a time when they were at the center of hippy counter-culture.  She once did a topless trampoline show in Union Square, the most public space in San Francisco.  Later she worked with the pioneering Pickle Family Circus.  I have fond memories of seeing her perform with both of these groups when I was just a child.  She went on to perform with almost all the major theaters in the San Francisco area.  As a performer she was among the best in the business.  Here is an obituary of her as an performer.

Joan came to my class three mornings a week for more than ten years.  She was my student; however, when someone with high-caliber skills like Joan's comes to study with you, you become their student too.  In class, when something funny was said, she would ask the questions, "Would adding some physical element improve it? A waddle perhaps?  What about the voice, or the phrasing?  What really makes that funny?  Do we understand it? What does it tell us about who we are?  What does it tell us about the human condition?" We all developed the habits of making things more funny.   

But before I go on, I want to tell you how I met Joan.  One night I went on a double-blind date, which involved a Hawiian outrigger-canoe and the four of us paddling on the San Francisco Bay.  It was after midnight and we snuck into the women's bathroom at the South End Rowing club, and since I was there, I posted a flier for my martial arts classes in the sauna.  Joan came to class a couple days later.  I was immediately honored and amazed to have her as a student.  But she kept asking who I knew at the South End Rowing club, and I kept saying I don't know anyone.  Joan was persistent, knowing I had a secret was like an invitation for her.  When I finally told her I had put the flier there myself, she was incredulous, after all, it was in the women's sauna! That made her more animated, forcing me to tell her every lurid detail.  After that when she wanted to give me a hard time, she would say, "Wait, who do you know at the South End Rowing Club?"

She swam in the freezing cold San Francisco Bay several times a week, and her daughter Emma held the record for the youngest person ever to swim underneath the Golden Gate Bridge; she made the crossing at age 10.  

Joan was a pioneer of women's self-defense in the 1970s.  She understood that freedom comes with responsibility.  Below is a picture of her and Laurie Cahn, they both were students of Adam Hsu's, performing a theatrical demonstration about the importance of self-defense.  

Joan was from a long tradition of fighting rabbis.  A rabbi is a well-read person, knowledgeable in multiple realms, who can argue many points-of-view simultaneously.  A rabbi is one who listens carefully and does not hesitate to take a contrary view if she believes it is merited.  This is why you can trust a rabbi.  You know they will tell you what they think.  And you also know that their commitment to you is deeper than anything you can say.  

Several times I had to get in-between Joan and another student she wanted to clobber.  Joan never required anyone to agree with her, but if you dismissed her ideas she would kick your ass.  As it should be; however, as the teacher, it was my job to keep the peace, and in each instance I actually thought Joan was wrong.  But so what, I loved her for that.

Joan's moral authority made it possible for me to run a martial arts class where people could pinch each other's butts, mock each others physical skills, make faces behind my back while I was giving instructions, insert slapstick comedy, and become overwhelmed by shock, insult, love, offense, or a good smell.  

Here is what it was like having Joan around.  We all got martial arts, hero names while making this video.  Her name came to me while I was eating a mango and discussing the sword name, Jade Destiny, from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.  Henceforth, she was known as Jade Mango!


On September 11, 2001, Joan and I heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center on our way to morning class.  As we practiced together, we knew something big was happening, and it would become a powerful bond for us.  The next day on the beach, no planes in the sky, I talked with a close friend about what had happened, what was happening, and I realized that things could get tough for me.  I decided not to tell anyone what I thought about 9/11 because I could see that I was going to lose friends over it.  And several months later, when I finally decide to speak up, I did lose most of my friends.  But Joan was steadfast.  She understood tragedy and that we were living through one.  

Joan knew that the San Francisco theater scene had become an ideologically rigid world.  She totally agreed with me, for instance, that the San Francisco Mime Troop had been putting on a different show with the same stupid plot for twenty years.  She was shocked by my anti-union positions, but she listened intently.  That kind of thing just made our mutual respect deeper.  Listening is an opportunity to change one's mind, that is what listening is, and she modeled it.  

Joan loved teaching and directing.  The head of the School Of The Arts (SOTA) called her up one day and said, "I've been interviewing people to teach Physical Theater here and everyone so far has had your name on their resume as a teacher, so I thought, why not go directly to the source and see if you want to teach here?"  She did.  She also taught at the San Francisco Circus Center--Clown Conservatory.  Her influence as a teacher is vast.  Whereever you are in the world, there is a good chance you have laughed at something she had a hand in.  She even spent a few months teaching clowning in China.  Teaching was also a big bond between us, we shared problems and successes.  Having someone to talk to regularly about how to be a better teacher is a fantastic gift.  

On a more personal note.  In the aftermath of 9/11, I was having trouble dating.  The problem was that my dates would be going along fine and then, back at the apartment, I would get some question designed to trigger a statement of hatred toward a certain George W. Bush.  If I failed to deliver, my date would suddenly have to go.  The president had become a sort of gateway to women's vaginas.  Of course, I could have lied and gotten all the sex I wanted.  But that made me angry, I didn't want to lie.  Joan understood this and was sympathetic.  One day I told her that I really wanted to whistle at beautiful women.  She was like, "Why would you want to do that?" and I was like, "You, know, it isn't really about them.  It is just a desire to express my own sexuality."  And she was like, "Ooohhh, great, do it!"  So I took her advice, and it helped.  

Joan was someone you could go to the dark side with.  Laugh about it, a lot, and come back stronger.  It was a great honor to know her.






This is Daniel Jaquet who I met at the Martial Arts Studies conference in Cardiff.  He smokes a pipe.  He got a $20,000 grant to have this armor made for him so he could do scholarly experiments.  In order to become at ease with the armor he wore it when he went out to Starbucks, out on walks, and to places like the library or to do his laundry.  This is the kind of alternative lifestyle that is available to people these days.  It is a great example of the freedom available to creative people in the world we live in today.  Daniel is one of the fascinating and exciting people I met at the conference who are investigating and practicing traditional Western martial arts.  They were a large contingent at the conference and have something fascinating to offer the world.  There is something very satisfying about being around people who dream big, the very nature of what we call art is changing.  We have a name for this already, it is called "the culture of makers" and it is changing the way we see, hear, and move.  It is changing what it means to learn and study.  

For the economists out there:  Speaking in historic monetary terms, at the time this sort of armor was worn by knights it cost the equivalent of a house, about half a million dollars.  

Here is Daniel Jaquet's page.

Pre-Order: The Creation of Wing Chun

I'm delighted to announce that Ben Judkins' book The Creation of Wing Chun,
A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts
, published by SUNY Press, is about to be released.  It is available for pre-order now.  Check it out.

I haven't read it yet, but I am very excited about it.  From reading Judkins' blog and talking to him, one of his most exciting discoveries, which I fully expect to be in the book, is the real story behind the burning of the Southern Shaolin Temple.  I dare say, I expect this book will rise to the top of martial artist's reading lists for years to come.  

Literature as Ritual Combat

Mark R. E. Meulenbeld’s new book Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel, is a wonderful new book that starts out with a problem.  Historical shifts in perception have obscured the subject he is studying by dividing it up into different fields.  In order to make the subject whole in reader’s minds requires a metaphor, like a series of bridges, or linkages, or an estranged family getting back together.  But none of these are up to the task.  The metaphor would need to explain that a thing that was once whole, was mis-perceived for a hundred years as being separate categories and yet it always was and remains whole.  Is there a metaphor that easily does that?

His subject is Chinese literature, Daoist religion, and local combat networks.  His assumption is that theatrical-martial-ritual texts, religious organization, and warfare were a single subject.  

The case that Meulenbeld makes is quite similar to the case I have been making on this blog and in other writing, namely that Chinese martial arts, religion and theater were a single subject.  The major difference is that the basis of his realization comes largely from studying texts, while mine comes out of somatic experience.  The two notions fit together like a whole that was never separate (I don’t have an adequate metaphor either). 

Meulenbeld begins by showing that the category of literature in China is a modern invention. Martial-ritual-theatrical texts were transformed into literature via a process of ridicule and dismissiveness. Religion in these texts was seen as humiliating to the modernizers of the early 20th Century who were grappling with the symbolic defeat of the Boxer Rebellion, the end of foot-binding, and the desire to shrug off the “Sick Man of Asia” label.  What happened to literature is akin to what happened to Daoism, theater, and of course martial arts.

[I highly recommend these books for discussions of the invention of these modern subjects, Daoist Modern , Chinese Theatre , Martial Arts , and History  itself.]  

Lu Xun, leading intellectual of the May 4th movement, considered “Daoist fiction” both a fabrication and a deceit!  This sort of activist conceit is still very much alive in the Western discourses on martial arts and literature.  As a modernist protest, it is even more desperate in the Chinese discourses.  

As the 20th Century progressed, the situation just got worse.  Important texts of ritual martial theater got ignored, the few that did get attention were pounded into a secular mold.  This was a process led by Chinese, even if we can see the impulse for it in Protestant Christianity.  Protestantism was spread in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s through the building of hospitals and schools, and by preaching feminism and rationality.  It is a dark irony that the secular impulse within China is in fact Protestant inspired revisioning.

The vernacular Chinese fictional works most readers will be familiar with are Journey to the West (Monkey King), The Three Kingdoms, and Outlaws of the Marsh.  That is because these three works were the easiest to transition to the modern notion of literature.  But in the late Imperial period there were a number of other works that were equally important but which have become obscure through dismissiveness and ridicule, the ritual elements in these works were just too obvious.  Meulenbeld focuses on one work of ritual martial arts fiction called Canonization of the Gods, Fengshen yanyi

Anyone who reads one of these so called novels in English discovers that they are collections of awkwardly connected stories with too many characters, just barely held together by larger themes. However, once we understand that they were built or assembled from theatrical rituals of canonization, the logic of their organization becomes coherent.  Demonic Warfare is a landmark work and will no doubt spawn new translations of China’s epic fiction informed by an understanding of the cultural context which created these works. 

Theatrical presentations of these works are always short stories, individual chapters as it were. Hundreds of these chapters work as stage theater but contemporary imaginations tend to find them structurally complicated.  The magical abilities that many key characters have, and the transformations they go through, contain layers of metaphor and presumptions of cosmological knowledge that are not explicated in the individual stories.  In other words, they are rituals of social organization first, and cosmological teaching stories second.  The substantial entertainment value they once had was built around their value as cultural pivots of meaning.  

After reviewing the enormous hostility towards religion which framed the discourses of the 20th Century, Meulenbeld shows how Chinese literature grew out of the ritual theatricality of temple culture(s).  Temples were intertwined organizational networks, they were the primary institution used to organize militias and other forms of organized, sanctioned violence.

Martial rituals functioned by infusing and imbuing would be combatants with an active cosmology of ritual actions which gave meaning to violent struggles in historic time and regional locale. 

While Demonic Warfare does not discuss embodied martial arts directly, it is a collection of ideas and insights that will have martial artists rolling on the floor with delight.  It brings us a lot closer to an understanding of what Chinese martial arts are, and where they came from.  

Given the insights from this book, martial arts can be understood as the embodied shell of canonization rituals that were done to contextualize violence, rituals that were scalable for both small and large group warfare.  

Meulenbeld translates the key term feng 封 from the title of Canonization of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi), as “canonization.” There is an implicit parallel here with Catholicism.  Martyrs are people who died premature deaths, people who have been credited with transcendent values and purpose.  A martyr dies for a cause, usually a noble, virtuous or valiant one.  Canonization is the process of promoting a martyr to sainthood so that he or she can be looked to for comfort or strength.  It was used extensively by the Catholic hierarchy to incorporate the fringes of its control into a network of reciprocity.  For instance a great many of the Haitian gods of Voodoo are also Catholic saints, they just changed the names.  The basic formula works for Chinese warfare too, conquer your enemies and then turn their local gods and heros into righteous demon warriors and saints in your heavenly hierarchy established by regular theatrical rituals and regulated by a hierarchy of ritual experts.

When they wanted a local militia to hook up with other local militias under a military command structure they performed rituals which imagined collections of local gods and demons fighting for the cause together. 

The role of professional, low-caste actors in this process is not at all clear.  But there is a body of evidence showing that military forces and experts performed plays as martial rituals in earlier eras.  These martial rituals appear to be the same plays performed by professional actors.  

This raises the question, were actors the priests of martial arts as religion?  Also, how were these rituals different in times or war and in times of peace? Could the martial order the rituals established be conferred to serve commerce, cooperation, and well being?  Could the enactment of ritual violence be experienced as an affirmation of all that was good?

In Chinese cosmology, violence is usually caused by conflicting emotions.  Conflicting emotions along with desperate unfulfilled or unresolved desires can linger after a person dies.  These are of course carried forward by the continuing intertwined convictions of the living.  For instance, I’m quite comfortable with the idea of killing Nazi’s, I don’t need to know much else about them.  Were I to kill a Nazi, we might say that my actions were caused by the lingering desire to avenge my ancestors, who have become ghosts.  

In Chinese culture when someone dies naturally of old age they get a place on the family alter and are incorporated into family rituals, the purpose of which is to resolve these conflicting emotions and acknowledge and carry forward the positive model and contributions of the dead to family and society.  

In the case of someone who dies an unnatural violent death, they are not included in the family alter and they become a kind of ghost that needs a place live. A shrine must be built as a site for people to both forgive and otherwise resolve old commitments and establish new ones.  When large numbers of people are killed in battle, these unresolved spirits leave vast amounts of conflicting emotions spinning around for years, sometimes generations.  In Chinese religious cosmology if these ghosts are not appeased, they can survive in lowly wild animals, trees, and even in grasses.  As metaphor they get buried and they put down roots in the earth.

Canonization rituals were performed before battles to clarify the intentions of the combatants and infuse them with demonic powers, tamed resident demons and baleful spirits of past conflicts who have agreed in ritual to serve righteous causes.  Canonization rituals after battles attempted to incorporate all the dead, especially the leaders of the losing side, into the service of the new order.  In a very simple and direct way, honoring the enemy’s dead created a basis for the survivors to save face, go on with their lives and eventually forgive.  

The term feng (canonization) literally means to contain or enclose.  It implies the container of ritually correct behavior, and the taming or pacifying (an 安, as in anjin in taijiquan) of unruly demons and baleful spirits.  Is this why mothers and fathers across America are putting their kids in martial arts classes?

When people went into battle they thought of themselves being accompanied by demonic warriors, martial arts routines must have been part of the rituals for making this real.  Meulenbeld explores the direct connections between Daoist thunder rituals as theatrical displays of violence and narratives of the transformation of demons into gods. Or rather he argues that is what literature was!  

I suspect every traditional martial art was originally named after one of these rituals.  Meulenbeld’s explorations of Guanyu, Xuanwu and Nezha as demons transformed into gods through these forms of ritual literature are astounding.  I hesitate to spill the beans on all this in a review, but allow me to hint.  Nezha the child-god is one among, and the leader of, the eight thunder gods, all of whom ride spinning fire wheels.  What martial art aspires to child-like smooth movements, holds its hands in the mudra of thunder bolts (vajra) and travels in a circle as if moving on a spinning fire wheel?  Baguazhang perhaps?  Yes, you did here it here first.

Embodied martial arts as we know them today is certainly not the subject of Demonic Warfare, it is not discussed directly.  But this book does explain things like the origins of the five generals that are the likely basis for Xingyiquan, and the origin of the name of my broad sword routine, Five Tigers Sword (Wuhu Dao).  It does describe the context in which collections of local animal spirit powers were put into rituals, a better explanation for many martial arts than I have heard anywhere. 

Demonic Warfare also presents a fair amount of textual evidence that theatrical plays were performed by combatants in earlier eras.  The questions this raises are an iceberg waiting to sink three generations of defensive martial arts scholarship.  

Allow me to back pedal for a moment.  The biggest difference between Chinese martial arts and the rest of martial skills training world-wide is the taolu-- the long form routines which are characteristic of Chinese marital arts.  These long patterns of movement have always been hard to explain, what precisely is their importance?  What justifies their prevalence?  The arguments have always been weak. Are forms a way to compile knowledge of all the variations?  are they endurance training? or simply a minimum daily dose of discipline.  Obviously there are more direct ways to training these skills or achieving these results. Why use a form?  Countless 20th Century bravos have advocated tossing out the forms.

Now we have a better answer.  Martial arts forms are rituals of canonization and transformation that integrate demonic warfare with the practice of real violence.  This knowledge and practice was once ubiquitous!  It was fully integrated into the popular forms of entertainment, it was cherished by communities as a source of commitment and inspiration.   

Why should today’s martial artists care?  Well first off, we can stop telling false tales, we can drop all the historic defensiveness, the incomprehensible sense of outrage, and the fear that real might be fake!  But after that, with this knowledge, we are in a better position to think about the importance martial arts play in our lives, the real and available connections between martial arts enlightenment, vigor, spontaneity and expressivity.  

[Note: If you buy books through the links on this post Amazon will send us a percentage!]

Heros and Titles

Here are some cool links about important stuff I didn't know.  

The Real Lone Ranger is way cooler than the fictional one!

Two Guns-Cohen!  Personal Bodyguard to Sun Yet-sen?  This story is epic and yet it is completely new info to me.


I was thinking the other day about the bright future of Martial Arts Conferences that mix academic and practitioner interests so that we may have a long love affair.  Here are some Conference titles that I hacked out:

  • The Martial Body, Enlightenment and Morality.
  • The Search for Authenticity: Autonomy vs Community.
  • Self-Defense and Sovereignty- Changing Laws and Social Norms within and between Cultures.
  • Martial Arts as Expression- Symbolic and Ritual
  • Social vs. Asocial Violence and the Endocrine System (Martial Arts as Physiology)
  • Expressivity in the Martial Arts-Spontaneity, Creativity, Discipline, Innovation, and Inter-Arts Collaboration.
  • Martial Arts and Social Thought- How Institutions Think- Community, Hierarchy, and the Market.