Strengthness with a Twist: A blog about internal martial arts, theatricality and Daoist ritual emptiness
Brand New Book: TAI CHI, BAGUAZHANG AND THE GOLDEN ELIXIR, Internal Martial Arts Before the Boxer Uprising. By Scott Park Phillips. Paper ($30.00), Digital ($9.99)
Also buy: Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theater and Religion, (2016) By Scott Park Phillips. Paper ($18.95), Digital ($9.99)
I wonder if this dancer has been reading my blog. He is certainly doing some interesting work, check out these two videos: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/japanese-performance-art-celebrates-vulnerability/
Check out this cool project coming out of the Netherlands. I've been taking a great interest in Nezha stories, this will eventually become a major writing project, but I'm reluctant to spill all the beans here on the blog. https://vimeo.com/101789329
Speaking of writing, I sent off the "final" draft of the text for my book Possible Origins, to the editor. I say "final" because I'm moving on to video story-boarding, but there is still work to be done. I've been exploring all the images in Museum collections because I need quality images for the book, and for the video I'm working on about the hidden origins of Taijiquan.
By the way, if anyone knows where to find high quality pre-or-early 20th Century images of Zhang Sanfeng (I have three so far from Shiu-hon, Wong (1993) Mortal or Immortal) or Dayu 大禹 (I have only have these two from the Wiki page), I would love to see them. Images of Nezha are oddly easier to find, but if anyone encounters something great, particularly high quality mural images, let me know.
In reading Journey to the North (Bei Youji), one of the major canonization texts of China, usually called epic novels, I discovered a hidden meaning in the taijiquan form. I hesitate to call this stuff "hidden" because once the right questions are asked it is all out in the open to see. The theater traditions of Japan, Indian and China, all use whole body image-mime as a form of sign language; however, it is only "readable" if one has the right cultural background. So the right question to ask about marital arts movement-postures is, what do they signify as language?
There is an expression that gets repeated over and over in Journey to the North, which explains the movement in the taijiquan form call Jade Maiden Works the Shuttles. The expression from Journey to the North is: "The sun and moon rose and fell like the shuttles of a weavers loom." The expression means, "a lot of time passed."
There is a star constellation called Weaver Girl, that is paired with the Ox Herder-Boy constellation, both of which are associated with a story of love across rigid social strata. But that was a dead end for trying to figure out the meaning of the movement because the Ox-herder Boy is not in the form, and it didn't seem likely that the Weaver Girl had anything to do with martial arts.
It was more promising to note that Jade Maidens are a form of muse in Daoist alchemy, something akin to Dakinis in Tibetan Buddhism. And also that the term jade (yu) in Chinese cosmology can mean very old or very slow. The reason for this meaning is that it is possible to see the swirling liquid of qi transformation taking place in a piece of jade. Jade is thus a window into a cycle of geological time that is too slow for humans to experience directly.
But the expression from Journey to the North is a much better explanation. The movement Jade Madien Works the Shuttles, is used as sign language to mean, "At this point in the story, a whole lot of time is passing." Now we just have to figure out what happens in the taijiquan form right before and after this movement, so that we can identify the change. Is it a man growing old? a child growing up? a series of re-incarnations? a very long fight scene? or is it Zhang Sanfeng re-immerging as an immortal after cultivating the golden elixir (jindan) for several generations?
This is a silly post about being in Boulder, Colorado. I'm sitting in a fancy café watching the end of the Tour De France, incidentally. This café has marble tables and black leather seats. Everyone here is in incredibly good shape, it is on a major bicycle route. But Boulder is like this in general, people are in great physical condition.
Anyway, there is a game people play in Boulder called 22/52. Incidentally, I was pretending not to be listening into a conversation in another café when I learned about this game. The rules are simple, you are hanging out with a friend and you see someone in the distance, you then say "22/52" and you both guess whether the person is closer in age to 22 or to 52. If you guess differently the game is on. As the chosen target gets closer it usually becomes obvious who won. You can play for push-ups, or beer, or just bragging rights.
I'm not sure this game would work anywhere but in Boulder but if you have nothing better to do, you can play it all day here. There really are that many "fit" people here.
This makes me think about a concept my father invented called "Social Sorting" back in the late '80's or early '90's. The idea is now popular with economists, especially when thinking about where people choose to live. The idea is that people sort themselves out into different groups by looking first at a "flag" or a signal that tells a person they may want to join, second experiencing a "screen", which is some kind of measuring-up, assessment, or perhaps a necessary barrier, and third the "overflow," which weeds people out who for whatever reason don't fit in.
Anyway this all gave me a really cool idea for a Tai Chi video commercial. Instead of 22/52 it would be called 42/72. The camera would start way off in the distance (perhaps a few shots from a helicopter) watching someone doing Tai Chi (or Baguazhang or some other type of gongfu). "42? or 72?" flashes on the screen, then the camera zooms in on this really old woman jumping around like a grasshopper. It should repeat three times with different people in different location for variety. At the end it can have some tag-line like, "Aging with power and grace: The art of Tai Chi."
I learned to skateboard on steep hills in San Francisco. They are steep enough that one hardly ever needs to push off with the foot, it’s just jump on and go. Skateboards do not have speed controls. No accelerator, no brakes. How fast you are going is determined entirely by the steepness of the hill and how often one turns or slides. Of course, this being the Era of The Wimp, now’a’days some skateboards have itty-bitty wheels that keep them moving at snail like speeds. But in my day 35 miles an hour was about what one would expect to achieve if you went straight down the hill. If you were going too fast to make a turn, you just died.
That seems like a pretty good introduction to a mostly unrelated subject I want to talk about. There is a common and legitimate compliant about people who practice push-hands as training for fighting. The complaint is that some techniques only seem to work when they are done slowly. Or stated another way, push-hands techniques tend to fail at higher speeds.
There is a way to inoculate oneself against this problem. It is quite simple and easy to condition. Of course it has to be conditioned to function at high speeds. Normal learning and practicing won’t work unless they are put inside of a spontaneity inducing game.
Here are the instructions. Begin touching forearms. Stick to your partner. If you become unstuck, just start over. Use the entire surface of your arms, you can use other body parts too as long as you stick. There are three levels of sticking and they must be practiced distinctly and exclusively. The order in which you condition them does not matter. 1) Bone- structure against structure, if you lose contact with your partner’s entire structure, even for a split second, you are not doing it. 2) Skin- the contact must become so light that it is continuously sliding, skin passing by skin. If you roll along the surface or press into the muscle or bone, or lose contact, you are not doing it. 3) Muscle- flesh touching flesh continuous rolling, no sliding what-so-ever, no pressing structure against structure, no bone contact, no losing contact. (note: 1 and 2 are the extremes, 3 is in the middle)
The three levels must be distinct because they become guides for spontaneous action. This is really part of the soft-hand (roushou) game more than it is part of push-hands. To practice this you must develop a level of emotional safety with your partner that allows you to slap each other anywhere. You should at least be at the level of comfort in which slapping and being slapped makes you happy. (Generally speaking, if you and your partner are comfortable doing this while crying, you have reached an even higher level of trust.)
I’m not particularly confident that this type of kinesthetic knowledge can be communicated through a paragraph of writing, but if you already have an serious push-hands, roushou or sticky-hands practice, hopefully you can figure it out. Keep in mind this key idea: You are developing a game that conditions spontaneity such that the need to control speed is no longer a consideration. Like skateboarding, there is no accelerator and there are no brakes. Speed is determined by the depth of contact.
I've written about this topic before, Not Your Grandmother’s Tai Chi and here too. And I recommend you go over to the Yang Family Tai Chi forum and read what the expert translators say "Invest in Loss" means.
Here is the question:
I am told of a quote from Cheng Man-ching, "Moreover, a beginner cannot possibly avoid losing and defeat, so if you fear defeat you may as well not even begin. If you want to study, begin by investing in loss. An investment in loss eliminates any greed for superficial advantages... Concentrating your ch'i to become soft is the only proper method to invest in loss." translation by Mark Hennessy.
"Invest in loss" is an expression which has become very widespread as a part of any English language explanation of tai chi push-hands. As Louis Swaim explains in the link above, it is actually two characters, eat and loss (chi kui). And that any fluent Chinese speaker would hear it as closely related to the ubiquitous phrase, eat bitter (chi ku).
The problem is to make it apply to tai chi practice. As I said in my first link above, I believe the phrase implies willingly losing as a method of learning better ways of moving and fighting.
For example, take a better position by moving your foot, without letting your opponent know that is what you are doing. Use your mind in tricky ways. Plan, not to win but to cheat.
I also like thinking that Cheng Man-Ching knew he was in New York City and knew what a bear market strategy was. He was aware that he was talking to Americans and liked a translation that had the term 'invest' in it. Invest in loss sounds like a short sale on the stock options market. Why not make money while you're losing? Americans will understand that.
But I also had the great fortune to read Paul A. Cohen's book Speaking to History: The Story of King Goujian in Twentieth-Century China , which explains the origin of "eat bitter." The premise of the book is that the Goujian story is as well known to all Chinese as Cinderella is to Americans. And yet, most foreigners who become fluent in Chinese never have an opportunity to learn the story or to contemplate it's meaning. The expression "eat bitter" is often explained as a rough equivalent of "pay your dues," or Muhammad Ali's "Don't quit, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion" or "misery has its merits." Except that it is often explained that Chinese people kind of expect to suffer and don't necessarily expect a reward later on, although they may hope for one. I have often heard that in the context of learning, "eating bitter" is a byproduct of dedication and subordination to a worthy teacher.
But Paul Cohen turns all that on its head because the story of Goujian is very straight forward. He was conquered and he totally accepted the most humiliating subordination for years before getting his kingdom back by trickery. Then he secretly plotted a strategy of total revenge over 20 years. The way he kept himself focussed on the task of revenge was by wearing furs in summer and going bare chested in winter, and by hanging an extremely bitter gallbladder from his doorway which he would lick every time he walked under it. So eating bitter, or eating loss, means to accept defeat publicly while secretly planning totally revenge.
That fits very nicely with my understanding of "invest in loss." Let your opponent think he won, but position yourself to break his legs.
As an aside, I am very sympathetic to those who wish to see push-hands as a way to transmit non-aggression or even non-intention, giving up control and letting go of self-assertion. But I think the "game of push-hands" is at best a tool, if people are using it to improve skill or attain attributes they are likely to charge right past such open ended forms of daoist fruition. The dao of wuwei has no method, no requirements and no form.
Irony Alert! After having written the above text, I spent about two hours editing it and added another section. The stuff I said was totally awesome, like the best writing I’ve ever done, and it was full of secrets too. And then I hit the cancel button by mistake...I guess that’s what happens when you title a post “invest in loss.”
I’ll just tag a few more lines on here but I just don’t have the time to re-do it.
As another aside, (and I've written about this a bit in the first link up top) Dominance is in our genetic code. A two week old goat has good rooting and uprooting skills because they use those skills to establish social dominance. We are the same except we also establish dominance verbally, spatially, with money, with knowledge, with mates, etc.... So when people set out to learn martial arts they naturally frame it as a dominance exercise. Complicating things, self-defense is not about dominance, but violence professionals like prison guards, bouncers, and police are often required by their job to assert dominance so a lot of dominance training gets totally mixed up with the larger subject of martial arts.
Push hands can be a fun dominance and submission game. I concede that. It is dominance by either superior skill, sensitivity or mysterious qi cultivation. The Cheng Man-Ching school, the school most responsible for popularizing the expression "Invest in Loss," tends to teach push hands as a dominance game. They are often so hell bent on not losing that they collapse their chests in a desperate effort to evade. This is a tragedy because with the loss of upright posture there is a profound loss of fruition.
When people practice push hands with perfect upright they completely discard pushing! From there effortlessness and stillness are revealed. Non-aggression, wuwei, our true nature (de), all manifest spontaneously.
Rooting is the skill of being unmovable and it is also a way of generating power.
This class will lay out a progression of exercises for developing perfect rooting skills. The better one's understanding of rooting is, the easier it is to defeat those skills in others. Thus, the internal martial arts are infused with the saying “Know your enemy better than he knows himself!" Most of class will be lively two person partner work, beginners with some athletic experience are welcome.
For Acupuncturists and Bodyworkers we will also cover the exact method for correctly differentiating the movement of the yin and yang meridians so that qi will spontaneously rise up from the bubbling-well.
Sign up by calling: Peter at 510.832.7652 or Emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org
or got to SojaMartialArts.com and click through to Schedule/Adult Workshops.
Quoting from Wikipedia:
The OODA loop has become an important concept in both business and military strategy. According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. An entity (whether an individual or an organization) that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby "get inside" the opponent's decision cycle and gain the advantage.
There isn’t all that much to say. Training can shorten your loops, allowing you to get inside a less trained person’s loop. Fast loops are good, slow loops are bad. Being unpredictable even to the point of chaos is generally an advantage if it keeps forcing the opponent to re-loop without being able to execute an effective action.
The problem with martial arts games of all types (wrestling, boxing, MMA, push-hands) from a fighting point of view is that they limit you. When you have a lot of training and you are suddenly confronted with a new set of rules which deny you those training options or action, you will likely get stuck. Why? Because you train for speed, and when you train for speed certain conditions will trigger a certain kind of action. If you train to pull off particular types of set-ups, or throws or strikes, your body will just start doing them when the opening appears. If the rule set doesn’t allow it, you will have to spend a second stopping your body from making the move. Your mind can get stuck making sure that you really aren't allowed to do what your body has trained to do. Your body won’t believe that it isn't allowed to do that thing which has worked so well in the past until it has had time to adjust to the new set of rules.
If you are training self-defense, you are training people to break the rules, to do the unexpected, to temporarily abandon social constraints.
This is related to the observation that oftentimes martial artists aren’t able to use their training in a surprise attack. The conditions just don’t seem right, you’d have to keep telling yourself, yes, go, do it now. The second time you get attacked it probably has a better chance of working, but who gets surprise attacked twice now-a-days?
The OODA loop is also important for training to win games in which both people are trained with the same set of rules. It is still possible to be faster and more difficult to predict. There are also things you can do to disorient or shock your opponent. A great deal of tai chi is focuses on the disorientation aspect of the OODA loop.
One of the interesting training questions that comes up in partner work is the distance vs. action ratio. Acting first usually trumps waiting because it forces the opponent to re-loop, dealing with an attack rather than attacking. But if you are ready for an attack there is a certain distance where any action is a mistake because it will reveal your intent too soon, giving the opponent time and options for a powerful response. This is why in Greco-roman wrestling, for instance, there are these long stand-offs where both wrestlers are waiting for the other person to make a mistake. Swords and knives have this quality too, as long as both parties want to avoid getting cut any thrust of the knife makes the hand vulnerable to attack. Tai Chi is famous for playing in this close quarters realm where whoever acts first loses. But of course a player of great skill will disorient their opponent on contact.
OK I've said enough about that. It came up a while back with Tabby Cat, who has a new video.
The problem is obvious if you watch it. The guy Tabby is pushing with looks like a loaded gun forced to keep the "safety" on. He sees ways to act, but then remembers he isn't allowed to do that: OODA loop shut down. It's very different then two people who train with the same set of rules. There is something else important and valuable to see here, namely that Tabby is easily uprooting his opponent by using his opponent's tension. It is a very difficult skill to learn because you have to comprehend what is happening and melt all the tension in your body. But what I always look for in a Tai Chi guy is, can they do it in the form? Can they do it in a big range of motion? Can they do it to the side? Up, down, left, right, front, back, circle? From behind? On the ground? or over their head? (While sipping tea is my goal.) Notice he only has the skill upward from a low position close to the body. That would be the easiest position. Sort of like treading water in the deep end of the pool. Swimming in the arctic it ain't.
Anyway that is my conceited opinion and that is what I was thinking when I got to the later part of the video where he wraps the red pregnancy cloth around his arms. OK perhaps it is because I've been doing too much relaxation of deep unconscious tension lately, but when I saw that, I just about busted a gut! Now that we know you can tread water in the deep end, why not try it in the kiddie pool!
Well, if you've read this far I have a little treat for you which is mostly unrelated. I have been thinking about advice to give beginners who what to go far in internal martial arts. Here is my advice. Don't try to make any technique work. It is quite counter intuitive, but the problem is, if you try to make a technique work you will be conditioning yourself to feel either 1) a type of active resistance, or 2) success. The problem with the feeling of active resistance is that when you actually have the internal gongfu you won't feel any resistance. The problem with the success feeling is that when your technique fails in a violent confrontation you are likely to freeze. Now I don't know from experience that the feeling of success in a flaw, but my gut tells me it is. Anyway, to win by force is a mistake. What we want is that you just practice the techniques, if there is resistance change, if not keep going. In the beginning it is the outer forms that really matter. Know the technique, don't try to make it work. A subtle difference perhaps, but I'm finding it is a powerful teaching key.
Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding, by Dorothy Ko.
I don’t know if my readers have much interest in the history of footbinding, but this is certainly a great book to read if you are interested. I must admit that I didn’t know much about footbinding myself before I read this, it’s been out for about 7 years and I hadn’t gotten around to reading it because I picked up a feminist vibe from the cover the first few times I saw it.
Ko’s premise is that all the histories written to date are actually histories of anti-footbinding. For the benefit of my readers I will focus on ideas in this book which are important to the hidden history of martial arts. The first is that she decided to write the history backwards. Although I had never thought of it, that made a lot of sense to me. Footbinding like martial arts has so many potential beginnings, reasons for existing, influences from different parts of society and meanings over a thousand years that there is no convincing beginning! Better to start from the present and work back along the various strands of time.
Christians have been in China since the Tang Dynasty, but they were minor players fading in and out along the borders. The Jesuits and Franciscans who spent time in China during the Ming and early Ching Dynasties were minor influences, but the ideas they brought back to Europe changed the rest of the world. After the Second Opium War Christians including Protestants, started to make large inroads into the Chinese heartland. These missionaries brought education, medicine, and all the elements of modernity including new ideas, technologies and international commerce.
Besides medicine and modernity the accommodations of the Second Opium War gave foreign Christian leaders a way to circumvent the old Magistrate Bureaucracy. Parish leaders could appeal directly to the Imperial Court via their embassies, effectively giving significant advantages to Chinese Christians.
The period between 1890 and 1910 was intense. Christian converts stopped attending theater and stopped paying for it too. Why? Because as regular readers may already know, the martial arts theater movement tradition known in the west as ‘opera’ was clearly understood as a religious institution. The local communities that put on these “opera” performances used them to raise money for education, repairing roads, building bridges and stuff like that. In other words, putting on these religious performances was the context in which local taxes were collected! This created a lot of resentment and is certainly one of the causes of the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1900), which was a roving mob, dressed as characters from opera like the Monkey King and General Guangong, responsible for killing thousands of Chinese Christians and burning their communities.
Christian missionaries really disliked footbinding and used it at the center of their critic of Chinese cultural barbarity and backwardness. However, it was in this twenty year period that Chinese voices against footbinding grew and in a very short time succeeded in ending what had been an extremely widespread practice. Not that it was a single practice, that is one of the main points of the book, there was a lot of variation in the techniques. For instance some women may have had good enough mobility to practice martial arts. One of the origins of footbinding hundreds of years ago was not all that different from the wrapping that ballet dancers do for point shoes. It also appears that footbinding done early enough (at age 3 or 4) was not painful and probably allowed women to have some ability to run. Certainly one of the reasons for footbinding was the beauty of the movement it could create. And obviously, the arguments against footbinding were overwhelmingly convincing.
The dominant metaphor offered by Chinese voices for the elimination of footbinding was that it decreased circulation and that what Chinese needed more than anything was more circulation! Circulation in women’s feet was paralleled with circulation of modern ideas, commerce and technology around the world. It sounds funny to our ears today because we think of China as the home of Tai Chi and Traditional Chinese Medicine and Fengshui, all of which center around the metaphor of circulation. But it is likely that this argument was really China’s way of claiming modernity for itself! “Modernity with Chinese characteristics!” The project of ‘nationalizing’ modernity absurdly included attempts to claim Chinese origins of the Anti-footbinding movement.
Think about it, this is the same twenty years in which Tai Chi, Bagua and Xingyi “came out” as public arts to be recognized by the entire population. Tai Chi eventually became a way to claim ‘generic’ Chinese-ness as opposed to ‘ethnic-minority-Chinese-ness’.
Unbinding ones feet was a bit of a nightmare. If you were past the age of puberty there was little chance your feet would be normal. It took months of slow, careful and painful adjustments to “let out” the feet. Tai Chi may have gotten it’s original reputation as a health practice because it was recommended that women letting their feet out practice Tai Chi as they were learning how to move on their feet in various stages of unboundedness. It must have been a profound moment in gender integration too.
The rural regions around Suzhou for some reason did not bind their feet. Many non-Han ethnic groups did not bind either, the Hakka for instance did not. However, in most regions, even poor families were likely to bind at least the oldest girl child, the younger daughters being more likely to be sold into servitude were likely to need big feet. That’s a pretty dark thought all around. Of course I’m trying to imagine this kind of world and the difficulty I have causes me to have doubts.
Footbinding started as a status symbol of the elite. It may have spread inadvertently as an act of rebellion because the Manchu ethnic rulers of the Ching Dynasty made ineffective but widespread attempts to ban it. Having come across this theory rebelious agency some time ago, along with a poem I came across about the potency of women with bound feet, led me to a thesis about bound feet representing potential power just as relaxed tai chi feet gather potential power by not pushing out the balls of the feet or the heels. (You can read more of my theory here.) The book doesn’t offer any direct support for my theory except that it promotes the notion that footbinding has multiple origins, reasons, and methods.
Another sidenote of particular interest is that up until the later part of the Tang Dynasty Chinese were barefoot in formal situations, especially at court. In less formal situations they wore socks. Shoes and such were for the outdoors, the way Japan was up until the 1980’s. During the late Tang Dynasty (around 900 CE) the practice of wearing boots became formal, perhaps because it was the custom of some ethnic generals attending court. Gradually socks and even small shoes became hidden underwear and bare feet became hidden in darkness. Ko points out that foot binding is unlikely to have happened until the Song Dynasty when people were sitting in chairs which could display their feet.
This change in footwear and thus in peoples relationship to the ground, must have been a necessary step in changing the well documented “seated” Daoyin internal body transformation methods into stand-up Shaolin and the various internal martial arts.
And finally we have a question. To what extent did women performers have bound feet? From what I’ve been able to gather about performers in general, both men and women, where in a moral category which made them available for sex. I gather that prostitution was understood as a type of entertainment usually coupled with singing and or dancing. So female prostitutes most likely were able to dance and had bound feet. As we have learned from other texts women sometimes performed in male troops (for an extra fee) but generally theater troupes were either all male or all female. In both cases women warrior roles were very popular. According to Ko’s sources, in Beijing and Shanxi men playing warrior women wore tiny stilts to make it appear that their feet were bound. Did women who specialized in male martial roles have unbound feet? Or did they wear fake foot enlargers to play those roles? In any event we know what we know about this because there were laws written around 1900 in Shanxi banning actors from wearing these tiny stilts. It was thought that they were setting a bad example within the changing standards of femininity. Warrior femininity that is.
Here is a dissertation that deals with the same issues: Women in Tianjin, 1898-1911