UNBOXING: A blog about FLIPPING THINGS UPSIDE DOWN, internal martial arts, theatricality, Chinese religion, and The Golden Elixir.
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)
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While there is no doubt that popular dance has flourished through music videos, the last 20 years has also seen the growth of classical and lineage ethnic dance techniques as the basis for telling stories. These are starting to replace ballet in the world of dance performance. Kungfu, Capoeira, Indian Dance, African dance, Indonesian Dance, and circus arts are just some of the in depth movement forms that are replacing ballet. (Please put some of your little girls in kungfu classes, anything but ballet.)
This performance uses Shaolin:
Celebrated Flemish/Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui presents a brand new dance work inspired by the skill, strength and spirituality of Buddhist Shaolin monks. He has collaborated closely with Turner Prize-winning artist Antony Gormley, who has created a design consisting of 21 wooden boxes which are repositioned to create a striking, ever changing on-stage environment. Polish composer Szymon Brzóska has created a beautiful brand new score for piano, percussion and strings which is played live.
hat tip: Daniel Mroz
However, when I was asked to perform using pantomime, I got a lot of laughs and gasps and other audience responses. It struck me that my martial arts training has heaps of pantomime in it. Chen style taijiquan is particularly good training for creating objects in space, but the precision of Northern Shaolin stance training is also solid ground for pantomime. I know exactly where my fist is in space, whether it is behind me level with my shoulder or exactly one fist's distance away from my left temple. I can easily establish a consistent height for the ledge of an invisible window using horse stance. I can hide the murder weapon on an invisible top shelf for later retrieval using the precise height of monk stance.
Of course this should be obvious right? I mean every kid knows that when you are doing a martial arts form you are pantomiming beating up every mean kid who has ever set foot in the playground. No?
Storytelling with ones hands and body is a skill that can come in handy in a lot of situations. In places where you don't speak the local language it can be used to put money in your pocket or to defuse a potentially violent mis-communication. (Pirates also need these skills to communicate with each other ship to ship on the open seas.) I have been disappointed during my travels in China at how rarely I could get people to explain things with their hands. In Turkey it was even worse, if I tried to use my hands people would become noticeably anxious and upset.
However; we all know that no matter how frivolous or fruitless the quest for power becomes, people will still seek it.
The sacrifices we make in the pursuit of power are not small, and the likelihood of eventually becoming possessed is high. That's what power does, it possesses.
This is true of all sorts of power, including the most basic type: physical power. That's why demons in Chinese art are so often shown with "great" muscle definition.
Daoist precepts, which preclude the invention of internal martial arts, strongly discourage the development of physical power. Why? Because these precepts require us to be honest about just how strong we actually are-- from the beginning!
It is only through the quest for power that we come to think of ourselves as weak, or insufficient. Humans are naturally very strong.
Pure internal martial arts completely discard the idea of muscle force. They completely discard the idea that any form of exertion is necessary to generate force.
My hand, balled up into a tight fist, is mostly bone. So is my elbow, and so is the heal of my foot. I weigh a little under 160 pounds. If I can move, propel, rotate or swing my entire body weight and strike an opponent with all one hundred and sixty pounds concentrated at a single point, using my bony fist--what need do I have for muscle strength?
Even a 40 pound bone hammer can bring down most men with a single blow. Don't even waste your energy trying to image a 160 pound bone hammer, it's just too much force.
Relatively speaking, force generated from muscle exertion is pretty wimpy.
If you get possessed by the idea of being able to generate a lot of force; consider that time spent trying to move freely as a single integrated unit has a much bigger pay off than any muscle-force training.
A 160 pound bone hammer pay off.
Note: This post is a riff on Master George Xu's recient claim that he is a 160 pound bone hammer!
Second Note: The picture at the top of this post is from the Film "Hebrew Hammer," very funny, I recommend it! Shana Tova!!! (Yom Kippur starts tonight.)
And also I forgot to wish everyone a happy Double Nine Day (last Sunday)--It's Daoist New Year!!! and it's traditional to eat venison.
A few years ago I was teaching Northern Shaolin to juvenile delinquents. A program was set up that was a collaboration between the school district, the sheriff's department, and Performing Arts Workshop. It was a lock down school which had a significant performing arts component. My classes always had a probation officer present watching on the side. All the students were between 13 and 16 years old and had been convicted of crimes.
Somewhere towards the end of my residency I brought my friend and Choi Li Fut expert Greg Mooney in as a guest artist. One of my rules is that students bow as they enter or exit the room. On this particular day, like most days, they were unruly, rude and disorganized as they entered the auditorium. As I introduced Greg they started pestering and shouting that they wanted us to fight, "We want to see you fight."
I looked at Greg, he is a performer, a stunt clown (he used to do 500 shows a year), we had sparred enough to know each others stuff. He looked game.
"OK," I said, "I'll make a deal with you guys." "You give us your full attention, you work hard, concentrate, and give todays class the best effort you've ever given, and we'll fight for you-- at the end of class."
As I said it, I thought to myself, 'these kids don't have any discipline, there isn't much chance that they will really concentrate?'
"Really?" They asked, "If we do our best you'll really fight each other, for real?"
"Yes," I said. I knew I was taking a little risk, I looked over at the probation officer and he was motionless. "Alright, it's a deal then let's practice."
That day they practiced harder than they ever had before, it was a fun class. I guess they trusted me. So at the end I had them all sit down and Greg and I went at it.
Neither of us were looking to connect a punch, we were putting on a show. Our strikes were intentionally missing by just enough to make it look real, we each took a couple of dive rolls on the hard floor, our sweeps were slow enough to give each other time to fall the easy way, our kicks were to the meaty parts. The juveniles were screaming with delight.
Then I did a simple bagua zhang single palm change. Greg accidentally turned into it. I was trying to make all my movements empty of force, and at that moment I wasn't even aiming at a target, I was paying attention to my audience. But my elbow connected with Greg's temple and he flew backwards into the air. His temple opened up and blood spurted out everywhere. My movement at that moment was so effortless I didn't even feel my elbow connect.
I helped Greg to his feet and we had an eye to eye bonding moment. The juveniles were completely blown away, their enthusiasm was profound. They also found it incredible that after such an event we were showing all the signs of being best friends.
As they left class that day, each of them bowed with reverence and sincerity I hadn't believed possible. The staff of the school reported to me that a year later the students were still talking about it as their best day ever at school.
And you can check out my biography too, by scrolling down here--alphabetical by first name.
Much to my relief, the performers from Shaolin Temple USA were a pretext to show some great dancing, not the main attraction. It was a vehicle for exploring a theme.
The choreography is pure modern, in the sense that its single purpose is to display virtuosity. What I personally love about ballet is perfect technique, and these dancers have it. Their bodies exquisitely reveal the heights of muscular agility. The dancers muscles draw the torso inward and upward; creating a dense yet highly mobile structure for the expression of line and shape, time and gravity.
Interestingly, from a martial arts point of view, dancers don't move around their center. This is funny to me because I myself studied for two years with Alonzo King (20 years ago) and like all dance teachers, he teaches his dancers to "find their center." But in dance, one's center is the center of mass or the center of gravity. Ballet dancers are sometimes even more perceptive about space than martial artists are, but they don't differentiate qi and jing, they don't move qi around the body.Â They spin like a dynamic top which can change its shape in motion, not like a gyroscope.
Alonzo is a wonderful teacher, encouraging and funny, he taught me to appreciate classical music with every cell in my body. Although I was always a jumper who loved jumping, my favorite part of class was Adagio, big and slow. (Small wonder that I ended up putting most of my eggs in the internal martial arts basket.) During the very last class I took with him, we were doing balance work at the barre (leg extensions and port de bras). I remember I was having a really good day, my balance was on, I was on my toe with my leg in an arabesque and my hand off the barre. Alonzo noticed, walked over, and whispered in my ear, "Great, but you look like a zombie."
It was very funny, but I thought to myself, "Ballet is turning me into a zombie!" My long term readers will probably remember that I love zombies; however, at that time I didn't want to become one. I realized that I didn't care enough about how I looked to be a ballet dancer, and I still needed to find out what I did care enough about.
Yesterday afternoon a group of about 25 of my Northern Shaolin students performed at their school. These 3rd and 4th graders rocked the house. One of the things I'm most proud of is that I've been teaching a number of Special Education students with autism and other disabilities. They have improved so much that you would not have known which students they were just from watching the show.
A few of my students are getting so good that I was disappointed. I wanted them to be more professional, I wanted them to put on the best possible show. They don't yet have the consistency of a professional, even if they do some things as well, or dare I say it, better than the "monks" from Shaolin Temple USA!
In a way it is not fair to compare them because Shaolin Temple USA is not authentic Shaolin. It's wushu. It lacks the weight of true Shaolin. (You may be thinking, come on man, who are you to say that? But remember, I started studying Shaolin in 1977, before Shaolin Temple was reconstituted.) The "monks" are at their best when they are in the air or rolling on the ground and doing tricks. Near the end of the piece a few individual "monks" did some elegant soft choreography that I would love to see again.
Forgive me, I'm too tough to be a proper critic, I care too much. I'm too inspired! If this show is coming through your town definitely check it out! It will inspire you too.
I also hope that this is the beginning of a trend--where dancers and martial artists see their common goals, aspirations, and history.
And Alonzo, if you are reading this-thank you.
The classical explanation of the basic gongfu bow or greeting is that you are covering your right fist, which represents maximum explosive power, with your left hand, which represents the commitment and ability to control that power.
Wen, the left hand, culture, writing, government, civility; juxtaposed with Wu, the right hand, raw power, martial, chaotic, military.
Historically governments, and scholars generally had an interest in having us believe that Wen naturally dominates Wu, and that we should fear the opposite situation. Certainly, the Daoist pantheon gives hierarchical precedent to gods in civil roles and lower status to gods in military or punishment roles, and even lower status to demons and chaotic forces.
But reality on earth is not always so simple, nor should it be. There are no true earthly hierarchies.
Avron Boretz is, I think, the first martial artist to really dive into the blended subject of ethnology and history. As a martial artist and a scholar, he managed to get himself joined up with a cult dedicated to The Dark Lord (I kid you not, but in Chinese it would be Xuandi) in a small town in Northern Taiwan. All the inner cult members were martial artists and many of them were involved in crime, like smuggling and prostitution, fringe of society stuff. They were a brotherhood of sworn allegiance, prone to occasional fighting with other brotherhoods.Â In other words, small time gangsters.
The book takes a hard look at the role of rituals in creating feelings of prowess in men who are otherwise kind of marginal. Because he got quite close to these guys, he writes about many different aspects of the cult. They all go out together to do exorcisms dressed up in costumes as demon generals. Sometimes they get possessed by the demon general they are representing. They all wear thick make-up and go into trance, but they only occasionally become possessed.
One of the ways they determine if a possession is authentic is that the person who was possessed has no memory of it.
The second to last chapter kind of surprised me. It is all about partying with the boys. Heavy drinking nearly every night, women, money, status-- all ways that men demonstrate their prowess.
The only time I have done things I have no memory of was after drinking large amounts of alcohol. I wonder if that is what it is like to be possessed. My experience of it was just the opposite of prowess, it was extreme embarrassment. But I have met people who are proud of their black-out moments, perhaps for some rather desperate people, blacking out could be a form of prowess.
Martial arts and alcohol, seems like a bad combo, but so do sports and alcohol and we all know those games used to be played by very drunk individuals.
These martial dances are not martial arts, but they are displays of prowess and they do have many similarities to the martial arts I practice.
One interesting example is the Big Dipper step, or Seven Star step. When a group of demon generals approaches a house or a business they are about to do an exorcism on, they approach it doing the Seven Star step (chixing bu). They then stamp on the ground and run across the threshold into the building.
I realized that everyone of my Northern Shaolin forms begins with a Seven Star step. In Northern Shaolin, first we stamp on the ground and sink into cat stance, which is like stepping over a threshold. Then our hands shoot out and break apart, as if we were breaking through double doors or the opening in a curtain, and we run three steps, as if we were running into a building or onto a stage, and we do the "monk clears his sleeves" action. I counted it out and it is exactly seven steps. Cool huh?
UPDATE: This is now a book! Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters!
The question of whether indolence in its literal sense can be a virtue in martial arts training arose last month on Formosa Neijia and on Dojo Rat, but I'm too...you know...to find and link to the exact posts.
On Formosa Neijia the subject was raised in a rather contentions way, through the suggestion that Yang stylists might not work as hard as Chen stylists. Naturally, the comments concluded that it is individual practitioners, not styles, which are variously lazy or hard working.
However, some people did conclude that to avoid pain in ones practice can have positive results. Does this really work?
Diligently practicing to avoid pain won't work. We actually need to practice what is painful, and we need to practice each and every painful thing until we understand exactly how and why it is painful. I'm not saying you need to injure your wrist on the left side and then do it again on the right side. That would be dumb.
You can certainly extrapolate that if a practice causes injury to one part of the body it will do the same to another. The more quickly you learn what truly hurts, the more quickly you will progress. Learning, in this case means learning not to do what hurts.
I've been teaching kids some short Shaolin routines called Stone Monkey. One of the characteristics of the Stone Monkey is that you bang your elbows and knees on the ground and even grind your fist into the ground with your entire body weight on it. If you do it right, it doesn't hurt. But it always hurts the first few times you do it and if you have a case of blood stagnation from too much time on the cough watching Kungfu movies, it will continue to hurt until you improve the quality of your blood and your circulation. That could take a while.
Good martial arts training works backwards.
About 80% of the people I teach habitually slightly dislocate at least one of their hips. While they are young it hardly matters, young hips are juicy and forgiving. They just develop protective muscles which limit range of motion. But if one of these students takes a lot of weight in a slightly dislocated hip they can have pain. As people age the slight dislocation of the hips becomes a bigger and bigger problem.
The key to training is to notice the dislocation, notice that it causes a tiny bit of pain. The pain is usually so small it quickly turns to numbness if you ignore it, but don't ignore it! Understand exactly how and why it occurs. Then stop doing it. And when I mean stop, I mean STOP!
You have to take these sorts of mis-alignment-pain seriously enough to re-teach yourself how to walk, how to run, how to climb stairs, how to get in and out of a car, just about everything.
At one point (years ago) in my standing practice, about 40 minutes into standing still, my foot would start to hurt. I'm talking about, "I want to scream," type of pain. The first 1000 times I felt this pain, I wiggled, and jiggled until it stopped. Finally one day I stuck with it. When I was done standing I didn't shake out, I moved very slowly and carefully through my taiji and bagua and even while doing push hands. It hurt really badly the whole time. At some point I fell into trance and lost the pain.
But I had held onto it long enough to know that it was a problem I was re-creating with the inefficiency of my movement on a daily basis. So for the next week or so I stood until it hurt and I stayed with the pain until I could identify its causes in my daily behavior.
You won't really understand what is hurting and why it is hurting unless you push your body through the difficult parts of training. If you want to transform yourself through martial arts, you've got to hold low stances, do extreme power stretching and high kicks, get bumps, bruises and twists, and slowly and methodically unravel the bad habits and old injuries--pain is part of the whole package.
That being said, don't eat an 800 pound bag of potato chips. If something is hurting and you understand how and why, than stop already. There is nothing wrong with potato chips, as long as you don't eat more than five.
I might add in passing that pains of the heart and mind work the same way; the experience of intimacy is linked to betrayal, and abandoning rigid thinking is linked to cognitive dissonance.
Note: I got the picture of people doing taijiquan in wheelchairs from United Spinal. Apparently taiji is of benefit for people with MS.