Acquiring “Dark Powers” in the Southern Mantis Tradition: D. S. Farrer Examines the role of animals in the Chinese martial arts.
Introduction: Becoming Invulnerable in Southern Mantis Kung Fu
The traditional Chinese martial arts are rich in animal symbolism. Tigers, dragons, cranes, snakes and monkeys are common fixtures in the legends and folklore of these systems. Some styles are imitative in nature, while others invoke animal powers in more abstract and psychological ways. Nor is this a recent innovation. Animal symbolism has been a feature of both Chinese martial and medical practices since the Bronze Age. There is even a bit of a literature on this subject. See for instance Ma Lianzhen’s 2010 article “From Ape Worship in Ancient China to Animal Imitation in Modern Competition Wushu” in the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies (Issue 2, 20-28).
Interpreting these stories, and tracing the ways in which they are borrowed, evolve and change can be a challenge. Rarely is there a single correct reading. Still, these legends hint at some of the issues that concerned martial artists in the late Qing dynasty, as well as illustrating the avenues by which this type of folklore was transmitted.
Recently I resolved to do a little research on the motif of the “crane fighting the snake.” This image appears in a variety of arts stretched from Northern China to the islands of Indonesia. While there is an abundance of historically interesting sources, I felt that this project was lacking something. Why would martial artists of diverse geographic, linguistic and social backgrounds go to such lengths of spread these specific stories? Why did the same motifs appear so often? Were these stories simply a marker of cultural legitimacy, or did they convey something more to their intended audience?
The question is even more puzzling when one considers that a number of the southern Chinese schools that seem to have been most eager to adopt this motif do not really have much “imitative content.” Wing Chun has traditionally drawn on the image of the crane, possibly borrowed from Fujianese White Crane Boxing. After the introduction of the Taiji legend of the “crane fighting a snake” to Guangdong Province in the early 20th century, the Wing Chun community quickly absorbed this new story into its ethos as well.
Yet compared to their more northern neighbors Wing Chun players do not spend much time “imitating,” or even consciously invoking, the crane. That would be contradictory to the philosophical basis of the art. So what does it mean to “become like a crane” in this context? How can we understand this as either a training strategy or a cultural process?
As luck would have it D. S. Farrer has recently advanced his own framework for thinking about these very issues. This chapter, “Becoming-animal in the Chinese Martial Arts” (in Living Beings: Perspectives on Interspecies Engagements by Penelope Dransart (ed.) Bloomsbury 2013) provides us with exactly the tools that we need to start thinking about these questions in a more constructive way.
Farrer is no stranger to martial arts studies. In 2007 he earned his doctorate from the National University of Singapore. His research fits naturally within the emerging field of performance ethnography, and he currently teaches at the University of Guam where he is an associate professor.
In 2009 he released Shadows of the Prophet: Martial Arts and Sufi Mysticism (Springer). In 2011 he coedited the volume Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World (SUNY Press) with John Whalen-Bridge. Students of Chinese martial studies will find his own chapter “Coffee-Shop Gods: Chinese Martial Arts of the Singapore Diaspora” (which I have discussed here) to be particularly valuable.
In the current article Farrer draws on his extensive experience within the Southern Mantis (Chow Gar) clan to delve more deeply into the relationship between the Chinese martial arts and their seemingly totemic animals. Again, this is interesting precisely because Southern Mantis is not generally considered to be an “imitative” style, such as “drunken boxing” or any of the various schools of Monkey Kung Fu.
Instead he argues that martial artists seek to push the boundaries of the normal human body by engaging in a process of “becoming-animal” through their ascetic and mystical practices. Here “animals” are understood not as static objects but as verbs. They are agents of change and transformation. The process of “becoming” that he outlines mirrors some aspects of shamanistic practice.
Farrer draws from Eliade’s seminal 1974 volume Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. His thoughts on the subject of “becoming” are heavily informed by the writings of Deleuze and Guattari (2002). This leads him to the somewhat controversial conclusion that the “traditional Chinese martial arts are embodied Daoist practices, with tangki, Buddhist and Confucian influences, passed down from the ancestral masters and brought to life in the practice of current and future generations” (Farrer 2013, 146).
I myself am hesitant to totally agree with this statement if only because the Chinese martial arts have been many things to many people. In my own review of the subject I have come to suspect that popular ideas about Confucianism have probably played much more of a role in the formation of the southern styles than most people realize. Still, by the end of his chapter I found myself agreeing that this may be an accurate characterization of the quest to transcend that which is” merely human” within the Southern Mantis system. After going back and reviewing Eliade and few other sources on Shamanism, it does not take a great deal of imagination to see many of the parallels in mental and physical training that Farrer described.
Of course that makes one wonder how widely spread this pattern actually is. As Eliade himself pointed out in the opening pages of his 1974 work, Shamanism is a minority player in the religious landscapes of many of the societies in which it is found. It is a technical art drawn on by those with specific problems at an appropriate moment of crisis. Most of the time it coexists with other much larger religious and spiritual systems of practice.
As I have thought about Farrer’s argument I have found myself wondering if there might not be a similar process at work in the world of the traditional martial arts. Do the various styles represent or attach themselves to different aspects of society? Are the students who voluntarily seek out this type of training and community in East London and Mongkok basically the same sorts of individuals who might seek a Shaman in other settings? In their personal struggles, do they perceive a “sickness of the soul?” Is this what drives them to “become-animal” in an attempt to restore a sense of balance and security in their own lives?
Again, it is very interesting to see this sort of a conversation unfolding around the beliefs and practices of Chow Gar students. This is not a branch of the martial arts that is generally thought of as being overly “internal” or “new age” in its cultural orientation. Rather Southern Mantis boxers are among the most dedicated proponents of “real world self-defense” that one is likely to find in the Chinese martial arts. It is fascinating to realize that these issues of “being” and “becoming” can exist not just in the more occult aspects of the “internal arts” (where most of us would look for them), but even in the most “practical” areas of the Chinese hand combat community.
If one can see the Shamanistic impulse here it might be worth taking another look at the question more generally. Further, students of the southern Chinese martial arts will appreciate this chapter for its clear and concise summary of the Chow Gar sect, including its history, training methods and goals. When read together with the works of Daniel Amos [1983, Marginality and the hero's art: Martial artists in Hong Kong and Guangzhou (Canton) [Dissertation]; 1997 “A Hong Kong Southern Praying Mantis Cult.” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 6(4): 31-61; 1999. “Spirit Boxers in Hong Kong: Two Observers, Native and Foreign.” Journal of Asian Martial Arts. 8 (4) pp.8-27] readers can begin to construct a much more accurate view of this area of Chinese martial culture.