The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

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 ~


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Traditional Martial Arts




So how did "traditional martial arts" come to be regarded as that? What does it really mean?
 
In a series of articles about perhaps one of the most influential martial artists of the 20th century, Sun Lu Tang, Kung Fu Tea examines those very questions. Below is an excerpt from the first article in a series about SLT and the whole article may be read here.

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 flush 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.


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