I predict that in my lifetime not knowing self-defense will become like illiteracy was 100 or so years ago.  

If you line up the arguments for teaching everyone self-defense and the arguments against, side by side, the arguments in favor are much stronger.  Sometime back in the 1990’s my former stepmother (who is an internationally known civil rights lawyer and can be seen eating cookies in a Michael Moore movie) and I were discussing sexual politics, date rape, and behavioral norms.  I said something on the order of, “The solution is to teach everyone self-defense.”  

Now, at that time, the apocalypse was a distant unlikelihood, Buffy had not yet staked a single vampire, nerds were still nerds, and nobody even knew how zombies were created. 

There was no internet, no youtube, nobody had a video cell phone, no Rory Miller, no Devi Protect, and no Gift of Fear.  There were Wimin’s self-defense classes at that time, like IMPACT which started in 1985, along with loud whistles, mace, and permanent ink spray.  

But there wasn’t to my knowledge anyone explaining in plain legal language, the way they regularly do on cop shows today, the importance of Intent, Means, Opportunity, and Preclusion.  Outside of castle law, back then, the “right to self-defense” was down right murky.  The difference between predator violence and social violence was unexplored territory in the popular imagination.  There was also no popular critique of terms like victim and victimizer, they were as irony-free in normal conversation as “bread & butter.”

At the time I was practicing martial arts and dance about 8 hours a day and since I didn’t believe in cars, I was riding my bicycle or my skateboard everywhere.  

My former stepmother’s response to my suggestion that everyone learn self-defense was memorable, “Women will never be equal to men in physical strength, and besides it is totally impractical.”

I knew then that she was wrong, but I didn’t have the arguments or the examples to prove my point.  If self-defense was the equivalent of becoming a skillful martial artist practicing for hours everyday, she might have had a point.  But it turns out that self-defense is really much more like a form of literacy.  It is a way of thinking about and seeing the world.  Surely it involves martial arts skills to some degree, but it is a mistake to think that self-defense skills require you to be superior in any physical sense. 

The arguments for teaching these skills to everyone before they reach puberty are getting stronger as the list of topics that should be included in a basic self-defense education grows: Good guy modeling, monkey dance awareness, personal responsibility, emotional bio-chemistry, the nature of autonomy, cultural and social “othering,” citizenship, talking to the authorities, the cultural and historical links between fighting, dancing and improvisation, etc, etc, etc... 

Thinking back on her comments that day, it is striking how similar the old arguments against teaching women how to read are to the arguments against teaching women self-defense.  

In fact, I would like to caution anyone who uses the “totally impractical” argument  to look back at all the people who were later face-palmed by inspired people who didn’t seem to notice that impracticality was an obstacle.  

A Revisionist History of Footbinding

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

Christian Missionaries in China, 1891  

The Right to Vote and Self-Defense

I have been saying now for a few years that 'self-defense' is a relatively new idea.  The basis of moral self-defense is a consequence of lower status people claiming parity against a majority.  Chinese actors (a degraded caste) must have found it very difficult to claim justifiable homicide or self-defense in the courts against a commoner--because actors were required to step into the gutter when a commoner passed them in the street.  

The same is certainly true of Jews in both Europe and the Middle East.  

For women, the possibility of independence from the protection and authority of a man was closely related to a woman's ability to earn independent income.  Along with income, and the right to vote, the notion of self-defense began to take shape.  

I'm very excited to see other people are taking an interest in the history of the idea of self-defense.  Here is a must read article:

One of the western world's first female martial arts instructors, Garrud, who died in 1971 aged 99, is thought to have learned jujutsu in the late 19th century. She began working with suffragettes between 1908 and 1911, eventually at her own women-only training hall, a room at the Palladium Academy dance school in Argyll Street

....."Woman is exposed to many perils nowadays, because so many who call themselves men are not worthy of that exalted title, and it is her duty to learn how to defend herself," [Edith Garrud].

Click the image to buy on Amazon!


Girls Are Doing the Monkey Dance

boxing_girls_thumbDojorat linked to this article and video about girls fighting in school:
Two teenage girls went at it. Two adults allegedly watched and another minor videotaped the whole thing in Louisiana. The fight popped up on YouTube more than a week ago. Days later, in Lowell, Mass., local authorities discovered similar videos online and said local educators report about 80 percent of school fights are now girl against girl.

80% of fights at school are now girl against girl.  Wow.  When I was in school there were girl fights once or twice a year, they were very rare compared to fights between guys.  Fights at school were almost always what Sgt.  Rory Miller calls "Monkey Dance" fights.  That is, fights for status.  Fights at school are always broken up by adults, and are usually witnessed by other students.  From my own experience, Middle-school had small fights everyday, larger fights every couple of weeks.  High-school had one small fight every week, and larger fights every few ArlingtonGirlFightVideomonths.  High-school was safer over all, but the fights, if they happened were more dangerous.  People also got " jumped," which was kind of like being mugged by a group, but it was usually people you knew.  I suspect that
"jumpings" went unreported most of the time.

Anyway, I'm willing to believe all that has changed.  Now 80% of high-school fights are between girls.  If you read the article above you'll see some silly theory about the Internet is causing fights.  I think the reason young women are fighting more is that they are taking on more responsibility and authority.  Specifically they are taking on the types of authority that require spacial dominance, something only men and prostitutes used to do.

gossip-girls-gone-wild2Young women in the US who are in high-school today have mothers who "benefited" from Title 9, which mandated that girls have equal access to athletics.  They are second generation athletes.  There is also a new phenomenon of female clowning which seems to be part of the same change.  The clown school in San Francisco has 50% female enrollment.

I've tried raising this issue with friends to see what they make of it, and 4 people so far have quipped some thing like, "I guess guys these days are just wimps."

I'm not recommending this site, but if you want to get a quick sense of what's happening check out Girl Fights Dump.

I think a lot more boys these days have serious martial arts training and I think it has made them safer, wiser, and more skilled at avoiding fights.  I think this is particularly true for those boys who are the most naturally aggressive and competitive.  Many of these boys have also learned that they can gain social status by using their own marital prowess to convince other boys not to fight.

So I have a simple solution to the problem of '80% of high-school fights are between girls.' Teach martial arts in the schools!  If your school or school district is too narrow minded to appreciate the social and intellectual benefits of quality arts training, than of course get your daughters into private martial arts classes.  The sooner the better.

Anyway, let me know what you think of my, 'women are taking on new positions of authority which require spacial dominance' theory.  Or submit your own theory.  It's a brand new wide open field.

Dangerous Women

 Courtesy of San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum Courtesy of San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum

Dangerous Women, Warriors, Grannies and Geishas of the Ming, by Victoria Cass came out in 1999, but I just finished reading it.  It doesn't have a lot of information about martial arts during the Ming Dynasty but it does a great job of describing what life was like.  I highly recommend it.

Cass divides the Ming Dynasty into three realms of action.

The first was the fanatical cult of the family.  40,000 suicidal mothers were officially recognized as martyr goddesses by the Ming governments (1350-1650).  Conforming to this cult was a way for women to gain power.  I love that she takes the subject most often referred to as "ancestor worship" under a "Confucian" doctrine--and labels it fanatical.

The second realm was Urbanity.  China under the Ming Dynasty was the wealthiest country in the world and it had a lavish vibrant urban culture, particularly in the south east.  The so called "Education District," was the center of theater and art in every city.  Female artists and entertainers of every imaginable sort were not only able to make a living, some got wealthy enough to retire to a country garden with a couple of servants.

The third realm was Solitude.  There was the option of being an eccentric outsider.  On the one hand there were female bandit leaders who lived in mountain strongholds, Daoist hermits, and hairy recluses who ate only insects.  And on the other hand there was an idealized worship of solitude which found expression in private urban retreats, islands of tranquility with perfect artistic wives (Cass uses the Japanese term geisha, the Chinese term is ji, an artist) in grass huts and rock gardens with poetry and exquisite incense.  There was a whole milieu of artistically inclined people who competed to see who could be the most reclusive with out leaving the city.  Eccentric hermits could tour the urban scene as guests of the well-to-do.

From her description of the three realms, Cass sets off to describe the different types of lives women made from themselves with in those three realms.  I was surprised by how common female doctors were.  There were also thousands of female spiritual leaders and teachers of every sort.  Women could be painters, writers, and actors.  There was only one female general, but women were often referred to as "Warrior types."  These warrior women for instance would dress up in beautiful armor and tour around the city doing martial performances on horseback.  She points out that some of these women were just artists and some were known for sexual prowess.  Most no doubt started from desperate circumstances, but Cass points out that most women artists in America have sex with multiple partners too.

The section on Grannies is great too.  Older women had hundreds of ways of making independent income; as fortune tellers, as nannies, as sales reps, dealers, matchmaking, connecting people, organizing, curing illness, consoling.  They were uniquely  un-threatening experts in many realms, especially dark realms, and they had the ability to get intimately close to the workings of everything. Ironically, for this they were also feared! and blamed!  The a-moral, strategic, sexual, articulate, trickster granny was among the most popular of literary heroes.

Hey!  It's a google book, you can search the whole thing!