Power Generation

Since you axed me, I'm gonna essplain it to you.

--Rush Limbaugh

A small part of the Rory Miller workshop a few weeks ago was dedicated to power generation. The simple reason for this is that striking a violent threat without doing damage is a waste of time. If you are already receiving damage, your ability to fight is diminishing as time passes.
Rory is able to pass on some very useful material about power generation in a very short time.
Let me start out by saying I think he did a great job of getting people to think about the importance of power generation to self-defense, and how to improve ones power in a short period of time. Tasked with the same goals I would not have done things much differently. However, I’m dedicated to discovering the highest level of martial arts theory available, so we have some taking apart to do.

Here is what he taught.

The drop step is the most immediate way to generate power.
Press the back heel.
Twist suddenly at the hip (kua).
Keep the whole arm and back loose like throwing a baseball.

These all increase power. When put together they dramatically increase power.
I realized a long time ago that I have way more power than I actually need to fight, from a self-defense point of view what I have to say about power generation is trivial. I suppose the charge of esoteric is a fair description of my opinion.
Rory himself raised the issue of why each of these work. With a better understanding of theory we can improve our results. So here are my explanations.

The drop step is used extensively in African dance and many dance systems, it is also the main strategy taught for punching in Northern Shaolin. It works primarily because it adds the force of falling mass. Rolling an elbow forward on the opponent’s arm while doing a drop step puts at least 100 pounds of force, multiplied by a few inches of gravity, onto the opponent. If the opponent’s structure is compromised already, the movement will likely cause damage. It can also shake up a person who has good structure. The flaw of this technique (all techniques have flaws) is that it is vulnerable to a sweep (or a rotation) while in the air, and tends to be over committed at the moment when it lands, particularly if it misses its target.
The same technique can be done internally, without leaving the ground or committing to one foot, but it takes a long time to train.RoryCert

Pressing the back heel is also a major part of Northern Shaolin training. It’s main value is that it backs up projections-- it is what most people do when they jab with a spear to stop from being thrown back by the forward motion of the wild thing they are jabbing. It is not actually a power generating technique. A foot pushing off the ground (whether with the heel or the toe) generates momentum; however, once the momentum is achieved the foot can leave the ground without any loss of force. Pressing the back heel can have another purpose, which is to uproot. In tai chi, we teach people to uproot off of either foot and generally it is the foot which is weighted over the toe which does the uprooting. So even if your back heel is down to root against the forward motion of your opponent, your front foot can still be used to uproot.
Perhaps the full extension of the back heel adds a little momentum (as compared to leaving it up), but that isn’t its main function. No doubt everyone who studies martial arts should learn this technique and build on it, but eventually it should be abandoned. Its flaw is that it combines with the drop step to create an on/off switch. The drop step entails a loss of stability, the pressing of the heel is an attempt to regain it. A superior theory of fighting seeks to eliminate the gap in power created by this transition between “on” and “off.” Some stability is gained in the front/back plane from pressing the heel, but it is lost in the other planes, making the striker vulnerable to rotational force or up/down force. A superior theory of fighting would never strike in a way that sacrifices the six dimensions of power: up/down, left/right, front/back (called liuhe in Chinese). It is preferable to keep the body moving like a rolling, spinning, expanding/shrinking ball which never comes out to a point. Lot’s of Tai Chi guys take this to mean don’t punch, but that isn’t correct, it just means that when you punch, the punch has to be part of a rolling ball.

Keep the whole arm and back loose, like throwing a baseball” is correct and needs no amending. The more relaxed and empty the movement, the more whole body integration and weight are available for generating force. In class I actually interjected that some people may experience shoulder injuries if they lack protective shoulder muscle. The injury can happen when a person throws the arm with a lot of force while only relaxing halfway. It’s probably best to work this idea gradually. Eventually ones entire body weight can be added to the force through the sequence relax, empty, unify.

Rory actually told us he was uncertain why “Twist the hip suddenly” helps increase power. Here is my explanation. First, rotation in the hip, what in Chinese martial arts we call 'turning the kua,' adds some rotational force so it makes forward force more difficult to stop, deflect or neutralize. Second, the suddenness of the technique is akin to shaking. It loosens the ‘meat’ from the bones and automatically adds fluid weight to the strike. Third, it cuts the body at the waist. This is actually a flaw, but it works! It diminishes structural force from the feet to the hands, however, it increases the moving mass available for the punch. It basically sacrifices the structure of the legs for the weight of the torso. No doubt many people will think I’m crazy for suggesting that loss of structure is a good thing.
Structure can be broken or uprooted-- fluid, dynamic mass can not.

So to summarize: The drop step can be hidden. The heel press isn’t necessary for power but can help with rooting against an on coming force or uprooting a threat’s structure; however a superior fighter will use your structure against you so eventually heel pressing should be discarded. A loose arm increases power if it integrates with the relaxed emptiness of the whole body. The sudden twist of the hip is a flawed technique but has positive effects on power generation anyway.

The big problem with martial arts is that they work. Since most of us will never need to cause massive damage to another person, if we measure martial arts by “effectiveness” they are all a massive waste of time. Most martial arts training will effectively increase power generation as long as you don’t train yourself to pull punches with free sparing, or subordination to the teacher.
While power for power’s sake is a fools errand, the martial arts I teach should give the student more than enough power to overpower a much larger person, or multiple people. But hopefully that will never need to happen. For me, the never ending search for power is just like a dance-- it is simply a happy consequence of freedom-- it is a unique expression of real joy.

Teaching, Guilt, But the Shows Must Go On

My regular readers deserve some sort of explanation about why I haven't been blogging much. I do hope to get back to regular posts soon.

First of all I'm busy teaching.  Lots of kids classes.  My advanced students are doing a mini-tour of schools and centers with a DeYoung Museum sponsored show for the public on Thursday May 13th at the Band Shell in Golden Gate Park around 1 PM.  It looks like we are head-lining because my kids put on such a good show last year.  Or maybe it was just an accident.  Anyway it should be fun.  Part of our show is a group fight scene and... we have 10 year olds with swords.

I'm also presenting a paper and teaching a workshop at the Daoism Conference in LA, June 4th... at the moment my paper is titled: Theater, Exorcism, Ritual and the Martial Arts.

Also I've been doing nothing but reading and sleeping on Saturdays for the last two months.  At 40 I realized that guilt was a primary motivator for me.  As a self-employed enthusiast, I always have something I feel guilty about not having started or finished yet.  So I decided to invert that.  I committed to doing absolutely no work on Saturdays.  Now I feel guilty if I try to do even a little work on my day of rest.  It's like, my job to lay on the couch.

I'm still looking for a space to teach evening classes and I'm looking to create my own after-school program for next school year.

shapeimage_2I started taking a Physical Theater class.  I haven't been in a class like this for maybe 20 years, but I thought I should test my ideas about the relationship between martial arts and theater training in a more immediate way.  The class is called The Flying Actor. At the first lesson we learned two stances which were used together.  The names for those two stances in martial arts are Bow stance and Horse stance.  The way they do Bow stance is with the front heal up and the arms are in what I would consider a basic shuai jiao or "throwing" position.  The horse stance has a high and a low version.  One of the things we did a lot was to put a hood over our heads.  The hood makes it hard to see but not impossible.  I'm used to moving with my eyes open (of course) and also with my eyes closed, but moving with disrupted vision messed me up a bit.  Good exercise.  We also worked on some basic mime and I realized that I've trained myself not to look at anything close up.  My fighter mind doesn't want to narrow my focus to "show" the imaginary object.  But I also realized that one of the beginning shaolin instructions is to slowly look into the distance and then draw your vision back to yourself before beginning.  It never occurred to me to do it as a mime exercise before, but it fits.

Rory Miller is doing a workshop called Responses to Ambushes and Breaking the Freeze, on May 9th, I'm attending with a few of my students.  I will not be wearing my pajamas.  Check it out.

Oh, and I actually wrote a really long blog post which I might still put up, but I don't know how to finish it.  Maybe just a summary is enough:  Traditional exercise routines were not for weight loss because in the old days people didn't have Trader Joe's or even McDonald's.  Anything claiming to be traditional would have been designed to work without consuming very much food, duh.  If anything, a traditional form of exercise would have helped you put on a little extra fat for leaner times. (Wrestling, by the way, is an extreme example.)

And lastly, I've had some stimulating time with George Xu lately and my practice has been really empty, in a good way.

Performers are Mean People

It would seem the most obvious thing in the world that martial arts are performing arts.  I mean, Jackie Chan, hello?  But denial of this notion is deeply embedded in contemporary Chinese culture.

MeilanfangBeijing Opera (Jingju) has as its most basic physical training something called "da" literally hitting or striking.  The warm ups I learned as a kid studying Northern Shaolin are the very same ones used in Beijing Opera.  The stage roles are divided into either martial or civil categories (wu and wen).  Extensive weapons training is given to everyone because much of the traditional repertoire involves depicting historic conflicts and battles.  Probably the best piece of evidence is the most famous Chinese Opera star of the 20th Century, the female impersonating dan Mei Lanfeng, studied Baguazhang with one of the toughest internal martial artists of his time!  It was said to have improved his sword dance.

Yet people will tell you that Chinese Opera has nothing to do with martial arts.

Beijing Opera is just one of many forms of physical theater in China.  There are urban regional styles like what Jackie Chan studied as a kid and there are rural regional styles.  There are also village lineage families, and there are amateur village and regional styles.  And within all of those categories there are ritual styles.  This is a quick gloss to give readers a sense of the scope--there were probably more than a hundred styles of physical theater in 19th Century China.

But there is a big problem here.  Denial.

Jackie Chan has said in variously self deprecating ways that he doesn't know about fighting.  And although it is well known that the Physical Theater of the Red Junks was created by the first Wing-Chun masters, it is also reported that they kept their fighting skills entirely separate from their performing skills.  Even today tight lines of distinction are drawn---at least in peoples minds---despite the fact that the stances used in fighting and performing are the same, and it is hard to know when a martial arts form has crossed-over into theater.

And everyone knows that Bruce Lee left Hong Kong for the US because he wanted to come here and teach Cha-Cha, right?  It's true.

Martial artists go to great lengths to deny any links to performing arts; the "New Life" and other nationalists movements in the 20th Century set out to completely separate martial arts from religious ritual and theater.  Sometimes they went ahead and just changed the arts, like Yang and Wu styles of taijiquan.  For example, Chen, the older style, is chockablock with pantomime training.  Other times they just discarded whole categories of practice, like back bends and high kicks, and sometimes they went for straight faced denial:  "No, that movement isn't for cueing the music, it's for poking your eyes out!"

Mean People!

I have not even finished reading David Johnson's new book, Spectacle and Sacrifice, The Ritual Foundations of Village Life in North China, but the chapter on Entertainers is so astounding I just had to blog!

Entertainers (yuehu) were a degraded caste in China.  Long time readers of this blog may know that I was deeply shocked and offended by my experiences of caste in India in the 1990's.  Chinese culture is not nearly as shocking to my American sensibilities, but then again, I've been studying Chinese martial arts for 32 years and no one has ever spelled it out to me as clearly as Johnson does in his book.

An entertainer had to move off to the side of the road to let "good people" pass.
[Performers] were known as jianmin, "mean people": they could not marry commoners, could not sit for examinations, and could not change their status.  In some cases they were required to be on call to the local yamen to entertain at banquets and other occasions.  (Just what their responsibilities were is never made clear, but they may well have included sexual services.)  They were treated with contempt by the general population....

While there were two major categories of entertainers, there were also castes within castes.  The basic categories were coarse (cu) and fine (xi), generally it appears that the coarse played music and the fine played music but also had acting skills.

boatburning"Mean people" were used for everything from entertaining visiting dignitaries, to weddings, to the most sacred rituals of a region.  "Opera Families" were profane outsiders who lived in separate districts or separate villages and yet were paid to entertain and purify--to bring order and expel evil.

A caste of hated artists brings to mind Roma (Gypsy) culture in Europe [hat tip to Liu Ming for the analogy].  The "mean people" were considered profane, but they were a necessity for the maintenance of the sacred.  Ritual Theater was the most common and widespread religious experience in China before the 20th Century. (Here are some links to previous posts.)

There were many different types of ritual performance throughout the calender year and every single village handled things differently.  So it is important to note that amateur commoners performed important roles in rituals and theater, as did Daoist priest, Buddhist monks, Yinyang masters, military personal, local elites, children and even high officials.  In fact, I think it is fair to say that some village rituals had a role for everyone.

GuanYuStatueWhich brings us back to martial arts.  Martial arts were used extensively in these rituals.  It seems almost too obvious that the basic physical training for popular and rarefied physical theater in China was in fact martial arts training.  Each region had it's own style of gongfu (kung fu) and it's own style of theater (ci).  But the basic training was the same.  It could be refined for either fighting, performing, or both.

What I've just now realized is that the ideology of modernity functioned in China as a cover for the deep animosity towards the performing castes.  These castes are now probably close to extinction.  Of course it's risky to generalize, but we now have a better explanation of why most martial arts lineages did everything they could to deny their past participation in ritual performance (lion dance being the big exception).  While the entertainer castes were officially liberated, their historic vocation as ritual experts was derided as the root cause of China's humiliations and failures as a nation!  I suspect that in some cases individual artists from degraded castes managed to survive by first denying any connection to ritual theater, and then skillfully transforming themselves into pure martial artists.

Now I have to re-think what qigong is in this context.  Kind of gives a different meaning to the expression "secret teaching," doesn't it?

(Remember if you are reading this on facebook you can see more images by clicking "original context" below.)

Big Kungfu Tournament in San Francisco

San Francisco "Golden Gate Kung Fu Championship"

July 2-4, 2010

Master Tat-Mau Wong and Nick Scrima bring you the "Golden Gate Kung Fu Championship" an official ICMAC 5 Star Rated event.

Over the weekend of July 2-4, 2010, a first rate Chinese martial arts championship will be staged in the beautiful city of San Francisco.

Over 350 divisions will ensure exciting competition in Traditional and Contemporary Wushu-Kung Fu, Taiji, Bagua, Xing Yi, weapons forms, Tui Shou (Push-Hands) and fighting.

We are excited to bring this tournament to what is considered the biggest home to Chinese martial arts outside of China. This is another great opportunity for West Coast competitors to build up their points standing for the Inside Kung-Fu Top Ten Rating and also to qualify for the ICMAC World Championship in the Bahamas in December.

We have secured Marriott Marquis in downtown San Francisco as the official tournament venue. Located in the heart of the city, the hotel is easy to get to from the airport by subway ($8.10 one way is the best transportation rate).

We look forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones in what is sure to fast become a premier Chinese martial arts competition.

Coaches, "Fire-up your Team", the 4th of July Weekend is going to bring some real fireworks to San Francisco!

For additional information please contact:

Nick Scrima at: Nick.Scrima@kungfuchampionship.com

Chinese speaking competitors may contact Master Tat-Mau Wong at:


New Home?

Lately I've been looking at studio space to rent or buy so that I can teach children's classes in the afternoon and adult classes in the evening.  The dream is to make my business better.  I'd like to have more opportunities for my students.  I'd also like to have a place I can call my own and do what I want with it.  I'm drawn to the idea that building or making a home is a basic human appetite that if left unfulfilled starts to creep up inside us like a giant wolf.

For years now, I've been getting cards and letters from students.  Thousands of thanks.  Most of the time students in the schools where I teach are telling me they want more lessons.  Schools budget a certain amount of money for classes and when it runs out that's it until the next year.  It isn't the way I want it to work but it has worked so far.

Here is one letter from a stack of about 60 I got the other day:
Dear Master Scott,

Thank you for taking the time to teach us kung fu.  I had fun with you.  The exercises were painful.  Thank you.--Sebastian

Obviously this 4th grader has been studying irony.  Here is another one.  This one is a card with a collage of a wolf, some trees and some bushes:
Master Scott,

In the trees, wolves lurk, glaring at their juicy lunch, and then they attack.  So be careful!  And your slim body will move as fast as lightening.  Thanks for sharing that power with my class.  I practice every night.  It is a lot of fun.--Alyssa

This next one has a cute cat drawing, lots of color and flip up tabs, with pictures and messages.  Here is one of the messages:
Thanks, Master Scott!  Before we started Kung Fu, I thought Kung Fu was some lame marshall arts for losers.  Kung Fu is really fun.  I wish you could stay.  Thanks times 1,000,000.--Jenny

And here are a few choice quotes from others:
...We will miss you a lot.  Now that you taught me Kung Fu I can flip my Dad.  Thanks again...

...I had a very good time going to your kung fu class.  You taught me how to break a wrist and a bunch of fingers.  You were the best teacher ever...

...My favorite part was when you brought the sword.  It was cool when you did the "5 Tiger Sword."  I though you were going to slice my head off.  Thank you for being so committed and devoted...

Kung Fu Rocks!!!

So if you live around San Francisco and you want to help me look for a dojo I'm looking for at least 1600 square feet with high ceilings.  At the moment there are spaces renting at $1 a foot.  A mixed commercial/dwelling arrangement in the 2500-3500 square foot range would be great too, so would a neighboorhood on the West side of town with parking.  An existing space that is willing to rent out two or three evenings a week and three to five afternoons a week could work too.

Weak Legs

sai ping ma horse stance1A 9 year old student asked me during class the other day if I did any strength training.  I did my teacher thing and screwed up one side of my face while bulging out my eye on the other, "No," I replied,  "Do you do any strength training?"  This kid admitted that he didn't but I could see by the way he looked at the ground that someone had been trying to breed a feeling of deficiency in this kid's head.  Now we aren't talking about just any old 9 year old, this kid can walk across the room on his hands and he can do a press handstand from a straddle position on the floor.  So I said, "OK, you stand in a low horse stance and I'll put all my weight on your shoulders and you try to lift me up."  I leaned down on his shoulders and lifted myself up on to the very tips of my toes so that he had about 150lbs on his shoulders.  He then stood up with out even a second thought, lifting me into the air.  "That was easy right?" I asked.  "You could lift two adults couldn't you?."  "Yeah," he said, looking a little brighter.  "So you're strong enough already right?"  He just looked at me, unsure what to say.  "Now you have to figure out how to transfer the force of your legs to your arms.  That's what you need to work on."  And then we got back to the two-man form we had been working on when he asked the question.

If any of my readers doubt the above anecdote I challenge you to do the experiment yourself.  Find a small healthy kid, 5 to 8 years old.  Show them how to do a horse stance and then try putting all your weight on their shoulders.  As long as the kid's back is straight and her legs are aligned to take weight she should have no trouble lifting you up.

Why is this relevant?  Why now?

On my last trip to China I wandered all over Ching Cheng Shan mountain in Sichuan.  The "trails" are mostly steep stone stair cases that wind up into the clouds.  If you are lazy and have a little cash, you can hire two guys to carry you up three miles of stairs in a litter made with some cloth and two bamboo poles.  The guys who do the carrying all day long during the tourist season have pencil thin arms and legs.  They are skinny enough to be run-way models at a fashion show.  Their leg muscles do not bulge.

Likewise, I studied twice with Ye Shaolong, the second time I trained with him everyday for three months.  He is probably the world's greatest master of what George Xu calls "the power-stretch."  He uses low, slow expanding movements to develop explosive and suddenly recoiling power.  In his 70's, Ye Shaolong is one of the skinniest people I have ever met. He has no muscle.

In my early twenties, with ambitious winds blowing, I took to standing still in a low horse stance with my arms horizontal to the ground out to the sides, for one hour. I did this everyday for a year.  (20 years later, I still stand for an hour everyday but not all of it in a horse stance.) For the first few months, my thigh muscles got bigger, but then a funny thing happened.  As my alignment and circulation improved, my thigh muscles, my quadriceps, started to shrink.  After a year of this kind of practice my thigh muscles were smaller than they had been when I started.  And by the way, I wasn't just standing, I was training at least 6 hours a day and I didn't have a driver's license so I was also riding my bicycle up steep San Francisco hills as my sole form of transportation.  I'll say it again, my muscles got smaller.

Ouch! That's got to hurt Ouch! That's got to hurt

Most people who practice martial arts actually never learn this because they don't have the discipline to pass through that first gate.  At the time, I was just like everyone else, I believed that I needed to improve my strength.  I now understand that strength itself is an obstacle to freedom.

The internal arts of Qigong, Daoyin, Taijiquan, Baguazhang, Xingyiquan, and some of the the mixed internal-external arts like Eight Immortals Sword, all have ways of training that do not require building strength.  Some Shaolin schools have these methods too.  In fact, under the proper guidance of a teacher, with a natural commitment to everyday practice, anyone can use these arts to reveal their true nature.  A true nature which, like that of your average 7 year old, is already very, very strong.

On this blog I have explored many justifications for the cultivation of weakness.  For instance:

--it makes you more sensitive,

--you need less food (making it possible for more people to eat in times of food scarcity),

--you need less energy to exercise leaving more energy available for other pursuits,

--it's better for circulation in times of less activity (which is what we are doing most of the time anyway),

--your movement is less conditioned to a series of set responses (spontaneously agile),

--and you don't need to wear spandex.

But the number one reason for not developing strength is that healthy human beings are already strong enough.  Even 5 year old children are very strong.  The problem is that normal human beings have disrupted the integration of natural, untrained strength, into their everyday activities.  This happens first of all in the arms, which develop both fine motor coordination and repetitive patterns, both of which leave the arms disconnected from the natural strength of the torso.  Also, adult hormones, particularly male hormones, produce muscle really easily if we prime them with lots of food and reckless exercise.  By reckless exercise I mean games or athletics that cause injuries.  Small injuries to the legs will instantly cause a healthy male to develop big thick quads, it can happen overnight. Once these arm and leg problems are established they become habits.  But natural strength doesn't go away, it's waiting for us just under the surface.  The real problem, the only real problem, is the fear that we need to be strong to face life's challenges--the notion that we need strength to prevail.

The likelihood of injury from strength training, by the way, is the reason that people who do strength training have to create all sorts of schedules to "cross train" the various muscle groups.  These people are now arguing that all training is actually in the recovery! Weird.

Fu4And don't get me started on core strength....  OK, it's too late.  Core strength is just a marketing scheme, like Green architectural-design-dog-walking-nanny services.  It just sounds good or something.  It plays on peoples feelings of insecurity and guilt.  There is no core that needs strengthening to begin with, but even if such a core existed, the market is saturated.  Every type of movement training from Yoga to tiny-tot-tap-dancing now claims to be good for your "core."

Here at North Star Martial Arts we specialize in Core Emptying!

That's Right! All negativity is stored in the inner "core"--known traditionally as the mingmen or "gate of fate."  Sign up for this once in a lifetime offer of 12 classes for only $99 (that's a $1 discount) and you will get a bonus "card" to keep track of your first one hundred days of Cultivating Weakness!  Empty your Core Today!  (Say the words "relax your dantian," or Tell them you heard it here at W.W.A.T.)

Like aggressive advertising, strength obscures our true nature.

Martial artists who try to develop strength are preparing themselves for some future attack, the nature of which is yet unknown.   I'm not against strength, heaven knows people love it, I'm just against the argument that we need it.  Anyone who says Chinese Internal Martial Arts require a person to develop strength is confused about the basic concepts.

note: (If you are a bit of a sadist and want to watch some people squirm, I'm about to post this at the unhinged Internet forum Rum Soaked Fist! check it out.)

Empty Like a Puppet

21701773_godI have written elsewhere about martial arts forms being an inheritance from the ancestors of that art. That practicing a particular tradition is a process of reanimating the movement of the ancestors who created it.  I have also written about how practicing a form may correct the errors in the form you inherited, in effect healing those in the past.  And I have also written about how practicing a form can heal your parents, your genetic ancestors, through gongfu as a conduct correcting process.  Gongfu can be understood as a process of developing efficiency which rectifies the inappropriate, aggressive, and wasteful movement (jing) and breathing (qi) habits which we learned from our parents.

All of this is akin to a daily personal exorcism.  I have also argued that traditionally it was understood as an exorcism, which goes a long way toward explaining why, when itinerant beggar-monks and priests wanted to ask for money, they would perform martial arts-- demonstrating the merit-worth they had accumulated and shared through this process.*

A common criticism of Chinese Martial Arts is that it is full of empty forms.  Most schools make an effort to teach "applications" for each movement in a form.  Applications are demonstrations of how a conflict might transpire.  But applications themselves don’t really work.  Gongfu is what works.  Gongfu is a quality of movement which has efficacy regardless of the techniques employed.  If you have gongfu, you have it when you are taking out the trash or setting the table--or even when performing an exorcism.

Conceptualization of the underlying metaphors of Chinese art and culture is key to understanding the arts in greater depth. Because people generally bring their own concepts and metaphors to the arts they inherit, it is very easy to lose sight of the vision which created the art in the first place.  That loss of vision leads first to frustration and then to either radical modification or outright destruction of the arts.
But I'll come back to that later.  Here is a quote from History in Three Keys:
Some of the conclusions derived from the serious study of Chinese popular culture in the postwar decades are relevant to our understanding of the embeddedness of Boxer religious experience in... [Northern Chinese] culture.  One such conclusion is that, at the village level, the sharp boundaries between the "secular" and the "sacred," to which modern Westerners are accustomed, simply did not exist.  The gods of popular religion were everywhere and "ordinary people were in constant contact" with them.  These gods were powerful (some, to be sure, more than others), but they were also very close and accessible.  People depended on them for protection and assistance in time of need.  But when they failed to perform their responsibilities adequately, ordinary human beings could request that they be punished by their superiors.  Or they could punish them themselves.  "If the god does not show signs of appreciation of the need of rain," Arthur Smith wrote toward the end of the nineteenth century, "he may be taken out into the hot sun and left there to broil, as a hint to wake up and do his duty."  This "everydayness" of the gods of Chinese popular religion and the casual, matter-of-fact attitude Chinese typically displayed toward their deities doubtless contributed to the widespread view among Westerners, both in the late imperial period and after, that the Chinese were not an especially religious people.  It would be more accurate, I believe to describe the fabric of Chinese social and cultural life as being permeated through and through with religious beliefs and practices.

But not always with the same degree of intensity and certainly not with equal discernibleness in all settings.  This is another facet of Chinese popular religion that, because it does not entirely square with the expectations of Western observers, has occasioned a certain amount of confusion and perplexity.  Sometimes religion appears to recede into the shadows and to be largely, if not altogether, absent from individual Chinese consciousness.  But at other times it exercises dominion over virtually everything in sight.  Thus, the martial arts, healing practices, and the heroes of popular literature and opera often inhabit a space in Chinese culture that seems unambiguously "secular."  But it is not at all unusual, as clearly suggested in the accounts of Boxer spirit possession transcribed at the beginning of this chapter, for these selfsame phenomena to be incorporated into a fully religious framework of meaning.

normal_mushin_by_kenji_sekiguchi_smallerConfucianism is founded on the idea that we inherit a great deal from our ancestors, including body, culture, and circumstance.  We also, to some extent, inherit our will, our intentions, and our goals.  The Confucian project is predicated on the idea that we have a duty to carryout and comprehend our ancestors' intentions in a way which is coherent with our own circumstance and experiences.  In practice, it is entirely possible that we have two ancestors who died with conflicting goals, or an ancestor who died with an unfulfilled desire, like unrequited love, or an ancestor who wished and plotted to kill us.  Our dead ancestors have become spirits whose intentions linger on in us to some extent in our habits and our reactions to stress.  It is the central purpose of Confucianism to resolve these conflicts and lingering feelings of distress through a continuous process of self-reflection and upright conduct--so that we may leave a better world for our descendants.  The metaphor is fundamentally one of exorcism.  We empty ourselves of our own agenda so that we might consider the true will of our ancestors (inviting the spirits), then we take that understanding and transform it into action (dispersion and resolution).  Finally we leave our descendants with open ended possibilities, support, and clarity of purpose (harmony, rectification, unity).

As gongfu practitioners we are emptying our practice of the inappropriate conduct of our ancestors and our teachers.  The forms should be empty.  That is part of the original vision of what they should be.

The theatrical exorcistic traditions (Nuo) which I have been reading about in Jo Riley’s book Chinese Theater and the Actor in Performance, begin with a ritual emptying of the performers/exorcists bodies.  They remove the three hun and 7 po (together ten spirits, which polarize in our bodies and which disperse at death, hun up, po down) and using protective talisman they put the hun and po in vessels for safe keeping.  They can then perform the exorcisms while possessed by martial deities, spirits or powerful allied demons, without fear of harming themselves.

Jo Riley explains that the physical training of jingju (Beijing Opera) begins with a process of emptying.  The movements of Northern Shaolin form the basis of jingju basic training.  She posits that the actors have a duel role as exorcists and as performers who must be empty in order to fully embody the theatrical and religious rolls they are playing.  My experience studying Noh dance/theater in Japan directly parallels this.  My Noh teacher taught us two forms and two songs to go along with them.  When we were performing we were instructed to be as empty as possible.  It was explained to me that a great performer is sometimes empty enough that the actual spirit of that particular dance will descend the tree painted at the back of the stage and enter the performer.

Taiyuan+tw04Daoist Meditation takes emptiness as it’s root.  All Daoist practices arise from this root of emptiness.  The main distinction between an orthodox Daoist exorcism and a less than orthodox exorcism is in fact the ability of the priests to remain empty while invoking and enlisting various potent unseen forces (gods/demons/spirits/ancestors) to preform the ritual on behalf of a living constituency, or the recently dead.

Calligraphy was historically understood in the same way.  To learn calligraphy was to copy the exact calligraphic movements of a righteous accomplished ancestor.  First one would empty themselves and meditate on the ink and the blank piece paper, then on the writing to be copied.  Through the brush, one would execute movements which would manifest on the page while simultaneously transforming (zaohua) or rectifying ones heart (zheng xin).  In the mature expression of Calligraphy both as an art and for talisman making, potency is a direct result of the artist or priests ability to first empty, and then manifest the characters internally as well as on paper.  That potency (qi) is then transmitted to those who see the writing; transforming, inspiring, protecting, purifying or healing them.

Music, medicine, and cooking can all be understood this way too.

Puppetry performances,--according to my informants in Taiwan, as well as the writings of Kristofer Schipper, and Jo Riley-- are sometimes considered the most potent of all forms of ritual exorcism.  This is because puppets are truly empty.

Emptiness is a key metaphor of Chinese culture.  A culture which favors actions over explanations.  Actions become polysemous, embedded with layers of meanings, meanings which can even seem contradictory.  There is rarely an orthodoxy of meaning.  The meaning of a particular action, in this case "emptiness,” can change as it traverses through strata of society, time, region, gender, family, or identity.  Emptiness is a key metaphor in a “realm of action” which is operative in a very wide and varied set of contexts.

In martial arts, particularly the internal martial arts, emptiness is the basis, the ground, the root of action.  We should expect the forms to be empty.  We should expect to feel nothing, taste blandness, see darkness, and hear silence.  When you do your forms and routines, be empty, like a puppet.


*It's probably also true that people would donate because they thought the monks were entertaining.  It's a lot less likely that they would donate because they thought the monks were ruffians.

Wing Chun Kung Fu Opera

SifusUncleIn China, the traveling theater functioned as a subversive organizing tool and a way to hide martial arts training.  It was a religious devotional act, watched by the gods (they would literally carry the statues of the gods out of the temples to watch the performances), it was sometimes a ritual exorcism too.  The theater was the source of most people's knowledge of history, and it's characters were both gods and heroic ancestors.
There are various versions of the origins of Wing Chun Kuen but no-one knows for sure as there are no written records as the legend was passed down verbally from master to student.

During the Qing Dynasty period Southern China was in turmoil and many rebellious groups hid there and concealed their true identities from the ruling Qing government. These rebellious groups where supporters of the old Ming Emperors and their descendants, and they sought to overthrow the Qing. Many of them were the survivors of the armies, trained in Shaolin Kung Ku, that were defeated by the Qing. These rebels formed Unions / Associations / Societies as a cover for there activities. One of these Associations was called Hung Fa Wei Gun. This group had a large northern element, including the Hakka people, it was these that started an Opera Troop so they could travel around the country without causing suspicion. They taught the southern people Opera and their Shaolin Kung Fu.  After a time the Qing government found out about this and closed the Association down forcibly. It was many years before the people dared to start an Opera Troop again. They eventually did and called the Association “King Fa Wei Gun”. This became a centre for Opera and Martial Arts training.  After a few years the King Fa Wei Gun purchased two Junks for the Opera troops to travel around the country.

The rest of the article is here, and there is some more here. (hat tip to Emlyn at Jianghu)

Masters of Internal Arts

Adam Hsu said in his last book that many traditional Shaolin systems have high kicks which are non-functional because they come from Chinese Opera.  In fact he calls them Opera Kicks.  Since the traditional Northern Shaolin system I learned has many different types of high Chinese Opera kick, I might be inclined to argue that they do indeed have a function.

For instance I might say that they increase the size of your martial frame, ultimately allowing for the development of superior power.  Or I could say that the great flexibility that these practice kicks develop makes all lower kicks safer.  Or I could say if you can kick high with power and control, your low kicks will have even more power and control.  Or I could say high kicks force you to use the correct muscle groups, accomplishing the same thing that other schools achieve by having students hold their legs in the air at waist level while distributing qi to all the extremities.

Yes I could make all those arguments, but I don't think they would get anywhere with someone who has decided that the traditional arts need to be repaired because they have become degraded by theatrical development.  (No one knows exactly when this degradation was supposed to have happened but somewhere between the great Han (200 BCE) and the fall of the Qing (1908)).  Their argument is actually hard to follow.  It requires that you believe there was a time in the past in which people practiced pure martial arts when in fact evidence for such an era is scanty at best.

However, I'm not going to make those arguments.  Instead I would like to argue from my own experience.  I live in a time of great peace.  In an era where wealth and hygene are taken for granted.  In my 20's I was part of a milieu which was enthralled with ideas about how to create improvisational theater and dance--developing methods and practices of mind which would enable us to adapt spontaneously to anything anyone threw at us.  That experience, urban public school, and perhaps my Jewish home style of ferocious passionate argumentation, gave me a set of skills that has made it nearly impossible for me to get in a real fight.  Believe me, it's not from lack of willingness to fight.  I spent several years under George Xu, where I was walking around seeing other people's movement in slow motion, watching their bodies for weaknesses I could exploit, the way my mom would look at a chicken before pulling off its limbs.

So here is my argument.  I've been practicing Northern Shaolin for over 30 years and I've been teaching it for 17.  I took the summer off from teaching children and I've recently started back up again.  My advanced students have already learned the lowest stances of any martial arts tradition, and most of the high kicks and airborne kicks that I teach.  But they need polishing.  I have each of them working on their own short routine this week.  I call it 3-2-1.  Three kicks, two stances held with fire in the eyes for 3-5 seconds, and one sudden unpredictable change in direction.  They can put it together anyway they want and I'll add more elements to the task next week.  At 42 years of age, I'm still doing these kinds of high kicks, like barrel turn slap the foot above your head into a sudden butterfly kick and then into a spinning double jump in the opposite direction of momentum---how is it that I am not getting injured?

Chorusline1BDI'll tell you how.  Because I'm doing taijiquan, xingyiquan and Baguazhang.  I'm doing internal arts when I do these high kicks.  Sure, it looks like Shaolin, but if it wasn't the purest internal practice I can pull off, my muscles would be ripping, my ligament falling off the bone.  It's not that it would be impossible to do this kind of practice externally at my age, it's just that the risk of injury is so high, and the healing time for even minor injuries is so long, that I couldn't possibly teach or perform.

And that's my argument.  There is more reason for a 40 to 60 year old performer to make their martial displays internal than there is for any bodyguard or officer in the military.  The incentive is just better.

It's not that I can't see the other argument.  Seeing real combat against drilled and tested troops doesn't inspire much need for cultivating qi.  But imagine an officer with 10,000 troops on the boarder for 10 years and nothing to do, because just his StageCoachRobbery3-1911-locpresence on the boarder is keeping the peace--yes I can imagine him developing internal arts.  He has to practice anyway because he might even see some action if things go badly.  But most likely he is going to end up back in his home village, perhaps  working on a farm.  There is some incentive, but it isn't a very strong one.

The same lack of strong incentive is probably true for caravan guards but I don't honestly know how this business worked.  I'd think that it was mostly a numbers game.  More guards than bandits and you're safe; fewer and you start to look like a car with "The Club" but no alarm.  A deterrent perhaps, but not enough to dissuade bandits who are pretty sure you've got treasure.

But I have no doubt that bodyguards, officers in the military, and Chinese theatrical performers-- all practiced internal martial  arts.  They all contributed something.  Each of these lifestyles would attract kinesthetic people like me, who get high on working out, playing rough, and looking for extraordinary beauty in motion.  The question I'm asking is, who of the three had the strongest incentive to develop internal martial arts?

Tell me what you think of my theory.

Okay, we didn't talk about the heath-nut contribution to internal martial arts.  Can we save that for another day?