Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.


Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Saturday, May 14, 2022

The Psychological Pressure of Attacking in Martial Arts


Seme is a Japanese arts term which means "to attack" but implies a kind of psychological pressure. Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kenshi 24/7 on Seme. The full post may be read here.

PART ONE: From seme to strike: understanding the process

The following will briefly list the four stages of the seme process mentioned in the article, from intention to attack to strike. 

A. Kizeme (draw in for the attack)

The first thing is to have the intention to attack. This is mainly WILL but also implies movement of the body and sword as you apply pressure on your opponent. 

The more mature a kenshi’s kendo is the less physical movement tends to happen. 

B. Tameru / infer response 

As your intention manifests itself and you “close in” on your opponent (not necessarily in the spatial sense) you “hold off’ on striking immediately and, watching your opponent closely, challenge them: “so, what are you going to do?”

The more experienced the kenshi is, the better they can control the opponent and infer the most likely response they’ll make. This inference can often be made somewhat successfully because those with more experience have done more keiko with more types of people and can recognise not only physical seme patterns but are good at reading the psychological aspects of seme-ai.

C. Partner intuits they will be struck

At this point your opponent, perceiving the incoming attack, will feel under pressure to react – they have a decision to make: strike back or dodge/block? Alternatively, they may be unable to choose either and simply stop indecisively (termed “itsuku” in Japanese).

If one of the four sickness occurs in them at this point (fear, surprise, confusion, or doubt) they will find themselves in a bad situation quickly.

D. Strike

If the opponent:

1. attempts to strike first, do some sort of oji-waza (response inferred/baited); 
2. stalls, strike them (mentally defeat);
3. breaks their posture, strike whichever area is open (physically defeat).
Of course, things don’t always go as smooth as this, and there is a lot 
of to-and-fro between both kenshi in the midst of the seme-ai. In mature
kenshi especially, there will be a lot of back and forth between stages
A and B on both sides before a “sickness” appears and stages C and D 
occur.  
 

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Aikido of Seigo Yamaguchi


Seigo Yamaguchi was a masterful aikidoka and taught many of the high ranking shihan who are active today. His approach to aikido is as distinct as Gozo Shioda or Koichi Tohei. Below is a video of him demonstrating. Enjoy.

 


Sunday, May 08, 2022

How to be a Great Taijiquan Teacher


Below is an excerpt from an article at Thoughts on Tai Chi about how to be a great teacher. This is a huge topic. The full post may be read here.

Lately, I’ve been asked by a few individuals who liked my writings to not only write something more about learning and studying, but also to write something that focus more on teaching aspects. So far I have written a whole lot about learning (like this post) and how to become a good practitioner. But teaching is something that I have always been reluctant to write about. First, teaching is something very individual and I don’t like to preach about how others should do it. As students are all different and different types of students need different types of teaching, there is no real point in telling people about what is bad or about who can’t teach. But still, teaching is an interesting subject which is hard to completely disregard.

But also, before getting starting with trying to verbalize my thoughts on how to be a great teacher, I should be honest about that, as a teacher, I don’t consider myself as anywhere near great. Nowadays, I only teach in private sessions to individual students, or for small groups not larger than 3 or 4 persons. I teach in my own way, and only things that I like myself, so there are a lot of things I won’t teach, and because of this my teaching is limited and not suitable for everyone. Maybe the people who like me and the things I do might consider it fun and rewarding to learn from me. But they don’t expect me to teach “like everyone else“.

So here are my dos and don’ts regarding teaching, and what to do to be a great teacher. If you want to fill in the gaps with things I have forgotten to mention, object, or if you have ideas related to these things, please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments.

Don’t try to earn a living on teaching

Just let’s face it, there are already very few people who get a liking for tai chi enough to consider practicing it, and even fewer who are really serious and want to dig deeper into the art. If you want to earn your living on teaching Tai Chi, the income will always be more important than the content of teaching. You can’t really get around this. Then you need to arrange your school, classes and teaching in such a way that you will make sure you can have an income that you could live on. This would mean that you would always need to deliver what people expect.

If you teach Tai Chi as a martial art, you would probably at least consider some kind of grading system, some standard types of clothing or uniforms, or maybe print your logo on T-shirts. You would need to teach using a standard curriculum which everyone has to follow. If you want to develop your school into several classes, or even more schools, you would need to build up Some sort of hierarchy, which is something maybe not every serious practitioner would find an easy thing to accept. But you would really need to do this as senior students could take over your classes and teach their own classes.

It would take time to build up a larger organization, but it’s not an impossible thing to do, not even with Tai Chi Chuan. But every step you take in this direction would have to be more about building up a brand while figuring out what people want and expect, rather than about teaching Tai Chi as it was supposed to teach or even what Tai Chi could be if presented through it’s full potential. So obviously, the quality of your teaching, and what you teach, will have to suffer in one way or another if building up a big organization to secure an income is your main goal. There’s just no way to get around this problem.

So if you are going to focus only at being as a great teacher as possible, it is likely that you would not be able to earn much on teaching. But of course, if you are a great practitioner who has developed some rare skills people are looking for to learn, you might have people paying big money to learn from you. However, this would more likely be through smaller classes and private sessions, because teaching larger classes is the second thing you should not do if you want to become a great Tai Chi teacher.

Keep the classes small

Think about it for a while, think about how different types of classes are usually taught in music, arts and handicrafts. The real good teachers who teaches the most gifted students and produce the most high quality students always teach only very small groups or in private. Of course you would want to rather hire a great private teacher for your kid‘s piano lessons than put him or her in a public class. You would get full attention every single minute of those private classes. Learning and developing would go much faster. For a gifted student, there is often no other way to continue to develop further than to find a great private teacher.

Now, think about professional magicians, how they actually teach their students or disciples who really learns the art and the methods that are always hidden away from the public. The illusionist as a teacher usually only has one or two, or maybe a handful of students. This is how the art of professional magic is transferred from teacher to student, through a close relationship. This might be the modern type of teaching that comes closest to traditional Chinese martial arts teaching.

In the older days, teachers in the Chinese martial arts would mostly teach only through their own blood line, like someone in older days who dealt with pottery for a living, who learned from his own father and passed the skills onwards to his own sons, so they in turn could make a living on it. In older China, Martial Arts were mostly either a tradition only kept within the family or to very close friends, but sometimes they could be transmitted just like how professional illusionists do today. Still, they would mostly only teach it to maybe two or three trustworthy students or disciples in order to keep the secrets from reaching the public. Sometimes a martial arts skill was a kind of trading skill, but still, those skills were mostly only taught to a few.

And this is the way a Chinese Martial Art should be taught, within closed doors and in private, or at least in small classes. This is how a student can build up real skills (if the teacher really wants his or her students to become skilled, but this is for another topic.). However, If you only want to teach Tai Chi as a lightweight health exercise, there doesn’t need to be any kind of skill involved, and you don’t need to keep the classes extremely small. 

 

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Dignity in Judo


Below is an excerpt form an article written by the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano on the how a student of Judo should properly conduct himself. The full post may be read here.

What exactly is it that constitutes a man's dignity? There are various facets that make up a man's dignity, but in simple terms it may be said to be comprised of the five components of etiquette, lifestyle, civility, work ethic, and ideals.

Etiquette

 
Etiquette denotes one's appearance and manners. Correct posture is requisite for good manners, but so is one's personal appearance and dress... People are apt to think that it requires considerable expense to acquire quality items to enhance their appearance, and that it is beyond their means. However, quality and extravagance are entirely different things. Irrespective of social class, all people should avoid wasteful extravagance. Those of meagre resources must keep their limitations in mind. Whatever your station is in life, it is important to be cognisant of what is respectable and what is not for somebody in your position.

Bearing is also of consequence to the way a man's character is perceived. We admire a person who is deft at his work, who walks expeditiously down the road, who stands up and sits down unassumingly, and who opens and closes doors or removes items with composure... In short, manners should be abided by as conventions of society, and to avoid making trouble for others and incurring animosity. Judo training facilitates the cultivation of such qualities. Correct posture is emphasised in the practise of Kata and Randori, and all movements are executed expeditiously, and with composure. Practice always commences and finishes with a Rei, and the dojo is a venue in which manners are refined.

Nevertheless, it cannot be said that all Judo practitioners are striving for such self-improvement. If the intention is to practise Judo solely as an athletic exercise without comprehending its spirit, such training will accordingly be left wanting in the important aspects of self-improvement. All Judo practitioners must give heed to training both the body and the mind. It is my hope that they will perfect their manners and etiquette concomitantly with technical improvement. When sitting in the formal upright position in the dojo, if one feels only discomfort thinking it necessary to endure simply because of dojo protocol, such a man will slink back into slovenliness upon returning home... Sitting properly in the dojo is not just a matter of protocol, but is the required posture for refining one's manners as a human being.

Lifestyle

 
The next theme concerns the way one lives his life. Soundness is of the essence... The most important point is to live a frugal lifestyle. If you increase your means, use it to engage only in things that will be of use. A student should use what he has available in strengthening his body and acquiring knowledge. The adult should use his resources to develop his business further, for looking after his progenies, for helping friends, or improving society and the state. Increasing the amount of money and resources spent for ameliorating one's outward appearance should be one's lowest priority. If you maintain this policy, you will have sufficient means without risking your reputation, and you will be able to uphold your dignity.

If one possesses little wealth, it would be disgraceful to spend a large sum of money on living expenses. Choose to live in a small house and wear inexpensive clothes. Even when living so humbly, your manners and Rei need not ever be lacking, and you can hold your head high if you do not burden others. Thus, through maintaining a sound lifestyle, you can amplify your capabilities and will eventually be able lead a prosperous life.

 



Monday, May 02, 2022

A Tribute to Imi Lichtenfeld, the Founder of Krav Maga


Imi Lichtenfeld created Krav Maga, sometime in the 1930s during the social upheaval and violence towards Jews that preceded WWII. He later became
Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav Maga at the IDF School of Combat Fitness for the new state of Israel.

Below is a short video tribute to Mr. lichtenfeld. 

 


Friday, April 29, 2022

The Influence of Karate on Judo

Below is an excerpt from a post at Ryukyu Bugei, about a kata developed by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo. It is one of ten kata recognized by the Kodokan.

The development of the kata may some influences of karate upon the development of judo. The full article may be read here.

The “Seiryoku Zen’yo Kokumin Taiiku no Kata” (in the following SZKTK) is a collection of combative movement exercises, created under inclusion of concepts from the field of physical education. It translates to “Form of national physical education of maximum efficiency”. It was officially released by the founder of Jūdō, Kanō Jigorō, in 1930 and today is one of the ten kata that are recognized by the Kōdōkan.

The SZKTK consists of two categories: The first category consists of 29 individual movements (tandoku-undō), performed by a single person. The second category consists of 20 partner exercises, performed by two persons (aitai-undō). Its salient characteristic is the almost exclusive use of atemi (impact) techniques. These atemi techniques particularly seem to indicate that Kanō incorporated results of his exploration of karate into this form.
In a lecture read on April 18th, 1888, Kanō explained towards the Asiatic Society of Japan that
“In some of the schools [of jūjutsu] special exercises, called Atemi and Kuatsu, are taught. Atemi is the art of striking or kicking some of the parts of the body in order to kill or injure the opponent.”
In his 1888 lecture Kanō strongly opposed any clams that jūjutsu originated in Chinese martial arts of any kind, while some of the major schools employing the concept of atemi clearly referred to it (See Chin Genpin, Akiyama and others), wich probably rendered it some sort of ideological no-go for Kanō at the time, or at least to be treated with great care.

As regards a possible influence from karate: Kanō grew interest in karate – with Okinawa being Japanese – in 1908, when pupils of the Okinawan 1st Middle School of Shuri presented karate at the youth tournament held by the Butokukai in Kyōto, which “Doctor Kanō attentively observed with bated breath”.

In Kanō’s “Imitative physical exercises” (Gidō taisō) published in 1909 we find movements such as
  • “polishing a long board (tate itamigaki)”,
  • “kicks in four directions (shihō-geri)”,
  • “strikes in four directions (shihō-ate)”
and others. These are considered to be the prototypes of techniques incorporated in the SZKTK, namely the techniques called
  • “polishing a metal mirror (kagami-togi)”,
  • “kicks in five directions (gohō-geri)”, and
  • “strikes in five directions (gohō-ate)”.
When in 1911 six members of the Karate Club of the Okinawa Teachers College of Shuri made a trip to Tōkyō, Kanō invited them for a karate demonstration at his Kōdōkan Jūdō Institute. There they demonstrated kata as well as tameshiwari (smashing boards). As regards Kanō’s reception of this performance, it is said that “The Jūdō founder, Master Kanō, could not contain himself from expressing his high praise.”

Further references to atemi techniques made by Kanō next appeared in his “Overview of Jūdō” (Jūdō kaisetsu, 1913).

In May 1922 Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) came to Tōkyō to present Karate at the 1st Exhibition of Physical Education, sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Education. In June the same year Kanō invited Funakoshi for a demonstration of karate at his Kōdōkan Jūdō Institute. At that time Funakoshi was provided both a jūdō practice uniform and a black belt to wear during his demonstration. This fashion soon reached Okinawa. Initially, in jūdō practice the traditional keikogi (practice uniform) of jūjutsu was worn. Later the current practice uniform of jūdō with its longer sleeves and trousers was created and used during practice.  As the training content in jūdō and karate was quite different, other functionalities of the practice uniform were necessary. The practice uniform of jūdō gradually adapted to its own necessities, as did the practice uniform of karate. In this way the current practice uniforms were born.






Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Interview with Yang Jwing Ming


Yang Jwing Ming has had an impact on the transmission of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts in North America. Below is an excerpt from an interview with Dr Yang that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. The full interview may be read here.

Introduction

Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming generously sat down with Kung Fu Tea for a lengthy and wide ranging discussion of his martial arts experiences in both Taiwan and the United States. A major topic of conversation was the creation of YMAA Publications which remains one of the most important martial arts publishing houses. Also intriguing were Dr. Yang’s thoughts on the future direction of the Chinese martial arts and the role that they might play as modern societies continue to grapple with the disruption of labor markets by the rapid development of artificial intelligence and automation. The notes from that interview have been edited for length and clarity.

By way of introduction, Dr. Yang started his martial arts training at the age of fifteen under white crane Master Cheng Gin Gsao (曾金灶). The following year Dr. Yang began the study of Yang style taijiquan with Master Kao, Tao (高濤). He studied physics at Tamkang College in Taipei Xian and also began to practice Shaolin long fist with Master Li, Mao-Ching at the Tamkang College Guoshu Club (1964-1968). In 1971 Dr. Yang completed his M.S. degree in Physics at the National Taiwan University before serving in the Chinese Air Force from 1971 to 1972. In 1978 he completed his Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering at Perdue University in the United States. In 1984, Dr. Yang retired from his engineering career and undertook his life-long dream of teaching and researching the Chinese arts and introducing them to the West through his numerous books and publications.

Kung Fu Tea (KFT): I understand that as a youth in Taiwan you studied white crane, taijiquan and then Shaolin long fist while at university.  What do you think inspired your interest in the martial arts as a teenager?  Why, in your opinion, are we generally seeing less interest among young people in the traditional Chinese martial arts today?

Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming (YJM): First off, you have to understand what it was like in Taiwan in the 1960s. Military education was compulsory. When you became a teenager, they took you out and taught you how to shoot an M1 rifle and everyone was getting ready to fight the Chinese Communist army in a continuation of the civil war. And to actually fight the Chinese Communists was to die! As a result, many young people were trying to build up their inner courage, or just process their own mortality. They wanted to prove that they were brave. This led some people to fight or join gangs, and others studied martial arts.

When I first asked my parents about studying the martial arts, I was surprised that my father quickly said yes because some people used martial arts in gang activities.  When I asked my grandmother about this she explained that we were from a martial arts village.  In Yang village, before the war, everyone studied martial arts.  It was a simple family style for farmers. The number of techniques was limited but people really perfected them.

Everything is different today. We haven’t had society wide wars in a long time.  Young people are not scared or thinking about their own mortality. It was after the Vietnam War that martial arts really became popular in the United States.  There was such an explosion of interest in the early 1970s.  I remember watching Kung Fu with David Carradine and thinking that the martial arts choreography was not great, but at least people were really trying to explore a philosophy, which was good.  

All of that changed in the 1980s. There came to be so much violence in all of the media about martial arts. There was also an increasing emphasis on how things looked rather than actual technique or application.  The Chinese martial arts became like plastic flowers, a societal fashion rather than a pursuit of serious self-cultivation. “Gongfu” means time and energy, but most people have so little patience today.

 


Saturday, April 23, 2022

A Brief Biography of Sun Lu Tang


Over at Kung Fu Tea was a series on Sun Lu Tang, who some give credit for inventing how we view martial arts today. Below is an excerpt. The first of the three part series may be found here.

 

I am currently working on a paper that has me thinking about Sun Lutang again.  To my mind he has always been one of the quintessential pioneers of the modern Chinese martial arts.  So here is Part One of a three part biographical sketch.  Also see Part Two and Part Three.  Enjoy!

Introduction: Why Sun Lutang?

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

To counter this trend I have been compiling a series of short biographies on important and interesting martial artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.  So far we have seen the martial arts used as a revolutionary philosophy by a cross-dressing political terrorist, as a means of economic and political advancement for a poor boy from the country, and as an natural outgrowth of southern China’s intensely commercial marketplaces.  All of our previous martial artists have pursued very concrete economic, social and political goals.  With the exception of Qui Jin’s use of martial imagery in some of her revolutionary poetry, none of them have viewed the martial arts as an overly philosophical or spiritual endeavor.

I believe that this accurately represents the life experience of the vast majority of China’s 19th century martial artists.  Most of these individuals were relatively uneducated youth from the countryside.  They sought out the martial arts either as a means to better paying employment (perhaps as a caravan guard) or as a source of entertainment and personal cultivation during slack periods of the agricultural year.

Yet this is not how most western martial artists view the Chinese styles today.  Discussions of the “traditional” martial arts (in both China and America) are prefaced with the assumption that these practices are “really” about health, weight loss, qi cultivation or mental peace.  I think that these often heard assertions would come as something of a revelation to most of China’s 19th century boxers.  It is not that they did not value the health benefits of regular exercise.  In an age without modern medical care they certainly did, and “Qigong-esque” exercises have been around for a long time.  But that was never why they braved social condemnation to practice these arts in the first place.

Still, since the late Ming dynasty there has been a small minority of individuals who did practice and advocate the study of boxing as a form of “self-cultivation.”  Meir Shahar, in his masterful study of the evolution of the fighting arts of Shaolin, has demonstrated that in the late 1500s at least one group of monks at the temple started to abandon the study of battlefield weapons in favor of unarmed boxing mixed with Daoist longevity practices and traditional medical philosophy.

It is not a mystery that small groups of monks might find the mixture of strenuous physical training and philosophical mysticism intoxicating.  These individuals were, after all, monks.  Self-cultivation and the attainment of altered states of consciousness through strenuous esoteric activities was their day-job.  This was just a new technology to accomplish the goals that monks in many religious traditions have always sought.

What was surprising was Shahar’s finding that the growing popularity of this strange brew was not confined to the nation’s Temples, but that it was spreading quite rapidly throughout the lettered classes in the late Ming and early Qing period.  At exactly the point in time when one might have expected elites to be the most interested in serious military study, they were instead turning their attention to more mystical pursuits.

So we know that this interest in Daoist philosophy, medicine and longevity practices has been an undercurrent in certain corners of the Chinese martial arts world for some time.  Probably over 400 years.  Depending on how you interpret the story of the Maiden of Yue (a Bronze Age fencing master who showed a keen interest in philosophy) maybe a lot longer.  But we lack the literary evidence to say much about the pre-Ming period.

Still, this view remained a minority one.  It was the sort of thing that was mostly taken up by the few educated elites who had any interest in Boxing, and it did not have a huge impact on the goals and military aspirations of ordinary martial artists.

This basic social pattern started to undergo a fundamental shift in the wake of the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901).  In the modern era (dominated by firearms) the original military applications of the martial arts started to look outdated to a number of educated social elites.  Actual military and police personnel had reasons to continue to be interested in unarmed defense, but these sorts of concerns rarely bothered arm-chair reformers or “May 4th” radicals.  In fact, many of these reformers and modernizers wanted to do away with traditional hand combat.  To them boxing was an embarrassing relic of China’s feudal and superstitious past.

For the martial arts to succeed in the 20th century they would need to transition.  They had to be made appealing to increasingly educated and modern middle-class individuals living in urban areas.  It would be hard to imagine a group more different from the rural farm youths that had traditionally practiced these arts.  But this is the task that the early martial reformers of the 20th century dedicated themselves too.

We have already briefly discussed the Jingwu Association (created in Shanghai in 1909) and their pioneering efforts to reform and save the Chinese martial arts (as well as the nation).  However, there were a number of other reformers in the same era.  And while the traditional martial arts did survive, the systems that we have today are in many ways quite different from what the Jingwu, and later Guoshu, reformers envisioned.

Sun Lutang is a seminal figure in the history of the early 20th century Chinese martial arts.  While best known in Neijia and Taijiquan circles (where he is credited with the creation of Sun style Taiji), his vision of what the Chinese martial arts should be is still being perpetuated today.  In fact, he did more to promote the idea that the martial arts are fundamentally about health and self-cultivation than any other single figure.  Through his ground breaking publications in the 1910s and 1920s he codified a set of ideas about the nature of the Chinese martial arts that we continue to carry with us.

In some senses I am hesitant to write on Sun Lutang.  I do not practice Sun style Taiji, Xingyi Quan or Bagua.  For that matter I am not particularly sympathetic to the view that the Chinese martial arts should be about health and self-cultivation.  I am much more familiar with the local histories of southern China and Cantonese culture.  I come to this question as an outsider.

Yet the influence of Sun Lutang’s ideas and reforms have stretched far beyond his homeland in the “central plains.”  His theories continue to influence popular perceptions, in both the east and west, about what the Chinese martial arts are and what they should be.  With his triple dedication to hand combat, Daoist longevity and classical Chinese philosophy, he has become the perfect “little old Chinese man” that all other martial arts teachers are subsequently judged against.  In short, it is necessary for the field of Chinese martial studies to address the contributions of this dynamic writer and thinker on a more fundamental level than any specific contributions that he may have made to popular lineages of Taiji or Xingyi Quan.

The next three posts comprise a brief discussion of Sun Lutang and his contributions to the traditional Chinese martial arts.  The remainder of this post provides an overview and timeline of his life.  The information in this review is based on the introductory essay (by Tim Cartmell, 2003) in A Study of Taijiquan (1921) by Sun Lutang.  Cartmell drew on a variety of sources when assembling his biographical sketch, including extensive interviews with Sun Lutang’s surviving daughter Sun Jianyun.  A skilled martial arts teacher who worked with her father, Sun Jianyun was able to fill in many of the gaps and paint a more accurate picture of her father’s day to day life.

The second post in this series will focus on Sun Lutang’s association with other martial artists and hand combat institutions.  In fact, one of the most interesting elements of Sun Lutang’s life is the window that it opens onto the transformation of late Qing hand combat traditions and the development of modern martial arts culture in Northern China.  While the brief biographical sketches that we present below cannot always flesh out the social importance of events in his life, we hope to be able to expand on some of this material in the second post.

With a better understanding of the factual and social foundations of Sun Lutang’s life, the third post will turn to a discussion of his lasting impact on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While Sun Lutang lived most of his life in Northern China, his ideas have spread around the country, and even around the globe.  What impact did his synthesis of philosophy, medicine and hand combat have on the development of the southern Chinese martial arts?  To what extent did he provide the intellectual and philosophical foundations that allowed the Chinese martial arts to become a middle class phenomenon outgrowing, in large part, their origins in rural poverty?  Do we see his hand in the emergence of the Qigong craze on the 1990s, and the subsequent “medicalization” of the Chinese martial arts?  Lastly, when I deal with students who want me to tell them that Wing Chun is really an “internal” art, to what extent are they responding to ideas and hierarchies that were first developed by Sun and promoted by his students?

Kennedy and Guo have called Sun Lutang the most important Chinese martial artists of the modern era (2005 p.182).  I don’t think that this assertion is an overstatement.  Of course saying that someone has had a huge impact on the development is not the same as saying that they were the most talented practitioner to ever live.  If nothing else his books have clearly had a transformative impact on all the literature that has come after them.  Still, it seems that relatively few modern martial artists (outside the Neijia community) really have much of an idea of who Sun actually was or what he accomplished.  He is lionized by members of his Taiji lineage and ignored by pretty much everyone else.

My review of Sun Lutang’s life will have little to say about his specific martial teachings or contributions to Taiji.  Instead I hope to promote a broader appreciation of this figure in the field of Chinese martial studies.  His life is a fascinating case study that illustrates a key era in the transition of the Chinese martial arts.  Further, the ideas that he authored or popularized continue to shape how many people approach these fighting styles to this day.  Even the practice of people who will profess to have never studied Sun is often profoundly marked by his writing.

Childhood: Overcoming Injustice with the Brush and the Sword.

The early years of Sun Lutang’s life are interesting enough to be the subject of a number of movies.  Originally named Sun Fu Quan, there is some debate as to when exactly he was born.  His daughter says that he was born in 1862 on a small farm outside of Baoding (south west of Beijing) in Hebei Province.  Sun’s father had never been very prosperous and did not marry until middle age.

Recognizing the intelligence of his son he sent him to study the Confucian classics with a local teacher when he was seven years old.  For the next two years Sun memorized and copied basic texts.  Despite his obvious intelligence his formal education came to an unceremonious end when his father’s crops failed and the family was forced to sell the farm to pay off debts or taxes.  A short while later Sun’s father fell ill and died, leaving the young boy fatherless and with no means of support.

Sun’s mother felt that she was unable to care for her child so she placed him in the home of a wealthy (but apparently sadistic) landlord as a servant.  Sun was never actually paid for his work but he was fed.  It seems that virtual slavery did not suit the young child’s personality and while he suffered through many beatings he started plotting a means of emancipation, at least to the degree that an eight year old child can imagine such things.

His first big break came in 1872.  While in a field tending sheep Sun came across an old man of about 70 leading an outdoor martial arts class.  The next day he returned and begged to be taught the martial arts.  When asked why he wanted to study boxing the naïve 11 year old bluntly told the teacher (surname Wu) about his situation and desire to take revenge on his employer and his equally abusive family.  Aghast at the tale of the young child life’s the older martial artist took him on as a student, but only after warning him that “The martial arts are not just for fighting, these principals are very deep.”

I hope to explore Wu’s background and his influence on the young Sun in my next post.  While a good mentor for the boy his influence on him only lasted a couple of years.  On New Year’s Day of 1875 Sun got in a confrontation with the son and nephew of his employer.  After successfully defending himself from an unprovoked attack, his boss threatened to beat him to death and Sun’s term of “employment” as a household servant came to an end.

With no means of supporting himself, and no plans for the future, Sun fell into deep depression.  His only interest now lay in the martial arts, but even that was soured by the taunts of local villagers.  They felt that Sun was sure to grow up to become a bandit and a blight on the countryside and delighted in telling him so.  Statistically speaking they may have been correct.  Most “bandits” were young men without prospects or land who suffered an economic setback that forced them out of village life.

Not wishing to be a burden on his mother the young Sun resolved to hang himself.  Fortunately his suicide attempt failed and the boy was cut down by a passing traveler who took the boy home.  After assessing the situation he gave the family some money that they used to leave the hamlet and travel to Baoding proper where Sun had an uncle who ran a shop selling calligraphy brushes.  The uncle took in the struggling family and gave the young Sun a job as a clerk.  This was an immense step up in life from what he had known in the countryside and the Uncle proved to be a kind employer.  Further, his job in town put him in touch with the literary elements of society and gave him a chance to practice his calligraphy on scraps of paper.

It was through his Uncle that Sun would meet two men who would change his life forever.  The first of these individuals was a scholar named Zhang.  Zhang immediately recognized the young boy’s talents and invited him into his home to study calligraphy and literature.  He in turn introduced Sun to a friend of his named Li Kui Yuan.  Li Kui Yuan was a talented Xing Yi Quan student and the owner of the Tai An armed escort service.  He was delighted to find a student and resumed Sun’s formal instruction in the martial arts.

When he was 18 years old, Sun and Li went to visit Zhang on his 50th birthday.  Zhang took the opportunity to suggest that Li accept Sun as his formal disciple, and Li suggested that Sun should be engaged to Zhang’s 16 year old daughter.  Both ideas were heartily accepted and Sun place in society was now secure.  But he did not marry immediately.  Instead he and Li traveled to Beijing to study with Guo Yun Shen, Li’s original Xingyi Quan teacher.