I have long felt that the use of symbolism in old explanations of martial arts wasn't meant to obfuscate the information, but by use of symbols was the most direct way of conveying information. This is not unlike poetry - saying with words more than the words themselves can say.
Overview: Symbolism is an important and often misunderstood aspect of the Chinese internal martial arts. This, the first installment of a three-part article, discusses the importance and relevance of the symbols of heaven and earth, yin and yang, the five elements, and the dragon and the tiger.
Symbolism in the Chinese Internal Martial ArtsSymbolism is an important and often misunderstood aspect of the Chinese internal martial arts. The symbols connected with the internal martial arts are often dismissed in the West as superstitious cultural baggage that has little value in the practical apprehension and application of these arts. This attitude has increasingly been directed at the Chinese internal arts (nei jia), largely because the confusing nature of the culturally specific images used by Chinese martial arts practitioners makes it difficult for students in the West to engage with this aspect of Chinese internal arts.
As a result, many Western teachers and students attempt to update and transform traditional imagery, recasting the symbols to form scientific, bio-mechanical explanations with regard to training and application. Similarly, there is a tendency in the West to re-work the circular, more organic learning process and curriculum of Chinese internal martial arts into a logical, step-by-step process that smoothly carries one through a series of levels, from beginner to expert practitioner. This approach is characterized by attempting to parse out the movements, training methods and principles so they can be broken into their component parts.
This more “modern” and “scientific” approach creates as many problems as it attempts to solve – ultimately diminishing these arts and leading students to look elsewhere to fill in perceived gaps.
Because each aspect of an internal art interpenetrates with each other aspect, breaking things down into their component parts can actually make learning harder, or even impossible. The Chinese internal arts have an fractal-like nature. Each aspect, each part of an art like Ba Gua Zhang – from the most “basic” aspects to the most “advanced” – is a hologram that contains, interconnects and interacts with every other part of the system to form a complete, organic whole. This makes it impossible to isolate individual components without losing the essence of the internal arts.
The common argument put forward by the modernist camp goes something like: “the real fighters were not intellectuals; they did not know this stuff. They just trained hard and kicked ass.” Actually, they did know “this stuff.” Symbolism is so embedded in every aspect of Chinese life, culture and customs that they could not avoid knowing it. The Chinese written language itself is a collection of ideograms based on pictographs and symbols. The ”real fighters” not only knew the stories, metaphors and symbols, but for them, the mere mention of a story, metaphor or symbol triggered a cascade of other associated stories, metaphors and symbols. Even the most casual statements, by the most down-to-earth fighters that I have met in China are steeped in the language of the Yi Jing, traditional Chinese medicine, Daoist metaphysics, and classic books like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Outlaws of the Marsh.
One necessary by-product of the “scientific” approach is the discarding of the rich symbolism inherent in the internal arts. This is the very aspect of these arts that expresses and communicates their holism to the practitioner. Symbols are the very tools necessary to express the highly complex organic entity, with its many manifold and culturally embedded layers of reality and understanding, that is Chinese internal martial arts. Symbols are like a code, a code that serves to express aspects of reality which are obscured by the limitations of language and other modes of expression. In this way, symbols communicate and crystallize an aspect of direct experience, or truth, that is beyond words – and beyond the symbol itself. Symbols in this context also provide a platform for self-discovery, experimentation and transcendence.
Nei jia symbolism is a vast and complex subject, so for purposes of this article we will focus on five manifestations of symbolism commonly found in the internal martial arts. Many of these symbols and concepts have overlaps with Daoist meditation, Nei gong and Chinese medicine. The five manifestations of symbolism covered in this article include:
- Animal Symbolism and Imagery
- Cosmological Symbols: Yin and Yang and The Five Forces (Wu Xing; Wu De)
- Yi Jing Symbolism
- Movement Names in Chinese Forms
- Chinese Ideograms/Pictographs