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 ~


Friday, May 30, 2014

Independance

“Come to the edge.' 'We can't. We're afraid.' 'Come to the edge.' 'We can't. We will fall!' 'Come to the edge.' And they came. And he pushed them. And they flew.”


Guillaume Apollinaire

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Lineage in Martial Arts

Over at Kung Fu Tea, there was a very good article about lineage in martial arts. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Five Thoughts on Lineage, Legitimacy and Manipulation in the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts





Introduction

Anyone who has done much reading on the history of the traditional Chinese martial arts will be very familiar with the idea of “lineage politics.”  Even the average practitioner, on either side of the Pacific, usually has more than a passing acquaintance with this unpleasant phenomenon.   Disputes typically arise within styles as different students of the same teacher vie for seniority and legitimacy.  

This competition can take many forms, ranging from the subtle exclusion of individuals from high profile projects to occasional outbursts of interpersonal violence.  Very often this competition is carried out through competing “folk histories” in which different sides attempt to promote narratives that shape how the past is remembered.  This use of rhetoric and memory as a tool to secure social dominance coincides closely with James C. Scott’s findings on the use of folklore as a “weapon of the weak” in South East Asia.

One purpose of a “lineage” is to create the image of unwavering historical continuity over time.  It denotes who inherits the family legacy as well as the responsibility for preserving the memory of the ancestors through the execution of certain rites.  Few institutions seem more static and non-negotiable.  Yet as generations of anthropologists have warned us, few social structures turn out to be quite as plastic and open to continual renegotiation as lineage genealogies.

I think that many students, when faced with a lineage dispute, simply want to “get to the bottom of it.”   They would like to know which side is “right” and which is a historical pretender or fraud.  In the following essay I would like to encourage readers to take a step back and consider the structure of the actual social disputes that they are witnessing.  These processes reveal a veritable goldmine of information about the nature of the traditional Chinese martial arts and how they are evolving over time.

Academically speaking, who is “right” is often much less interesting than how they go about framing and promoting their argument.  The first question only tells us something about the history of an individual style, but the second points to a larger set of fundamental truths about culture.  Actually appreciating what is at stake, and grasping how these issues are understood and debated, can be even more difficult for the average student than resolving the purely historical issues.

As the term “lineage politics” implies, these disputes are usually “political” in nature.  By definition this sort of conflict is often subtle and hard to observe.  The challenge is all the more insurmountable when the drama is being played out in a language and cultural system that are very different from one’s own.

This is precisely what we see in the Chinese martial arts.  A few lineage disputes are loud affairs that make the pages of popular magazines.  But most are much more subtle attempts at appropriating a group’s legitimacy.  These attempts are sometimes highly symbolic and hence opaque to foreign observers.  Western students can often sense some tension, or they might guess that something odd is happening, but we need a much more finely ground lens to actually see the structure of the dispute.

In 2003 Jeff Takacs published an intriguing study of the artificial kinship systems seen in the traditional Chinese martial arts which was intended to serve just such a purpose.  His article, titled “A Case of Contagious Legitimacy: Kinship, Ritual and Manipulation in Chinese Martial Arts Societies” (Modern Asian Studies 37:4  885-917) begins by noting that most traditional hand combat schools organize themselves as an artificially created family unit.  He asserts that while the bonds between members of the school are technically fictive, they can be as strong as those seen in any other kinship group.

This artificial structure is supported and reinforced through the adoption of certain simple, but socially powerful, rituals.  While the correspondence between the ideal ancient Chinese family and most modern martial arts associations is not exact (an important point that we will return to later), they are close enough for these rituals to be easily transported.  By creating a clear set of expectations about who has the responsibility for insuring that the proper rites are observed, these guidelines also denote who is entitled to inherit the master’s  martial reputation and legitimacy.

This is the actual difference between a “disciple” and a “student” in the traditional Chinese martial arts.  I suspect that many readers might profit by going back and reviewing Takacs very clear discussion of this point.  While a disciple may or may not inherit any special secret knowledge, he or she actually gains their status from where they stands within a larger ritual process.  Once that process is done away with (say in modern theater schools or some of the more progressive hand combat styles to arise in the Republic period), the term quickly loses its theoretical moorings.

Takacs argues that while it might appear that a strict lineage structure creates transparency and limits the number of individuals who can “inherit the system,” the very rituals that it is based on actually create opportunities for opposing factions within the clan to creatively nudge (or sometimes shove) history in one direction or another.

He illustrates these points by reviewing a seemingly innocuous stele raising ceremony held in honor of an important Bagua teacher in Northern Taiwan.  While on the surface this ceremony looked entirely uncontroversial, and even somewhat bland, subtle manipulations of the language of ritual revealed that it was actually a successful attempt by an outside teacher to appropriate the martial legitimacy of an important regional master.

The entire case is fascinating and well worth reading.  This article is easy to follow and relatively free of jargon.  It’s a nice example of traditional British Social Anthropology (in the tradition of Victor Turner) and the clarity that it can bring to our understanding of social structures.  While his research focused on Taiwan’s Bagua community, the article’s conclusions are actually fairly portable and may help to illuminate puzzles in a great many arts.  In the remainder of this essay I outline, and briefly discuss, five of the broader implications of this approach to understanding lineages for Chinese martial studies.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Quality of Martial Arts Training, Not the Quantity

Pat Parker, over at Mokuren Dojo found a very good article that dispels some of the myths surrounding the "10,000 hour rule" and and provides some guidance towards how to make the best use of your training time. An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here.

Debunking the Myth of the 10,000-Hours Rule: What It Actually Takes to Reach Genius-Level Excellence

by
How top-down attention, feedback loops, and daydreaming play into the science of success.

The question of what it takes to excel — to reach genius-level acumen at a chosen endeavor — has occupied psychologists for decades and philosophers for centuries. Groundbreaking research has pointed to “grit” as a better predictor of success than IQ, while psychologists have admonished against the dangers of slipping into autopilot in the quest for skill improvement. In recent years, one of the most persistent pop-psychology claims has been the myth of the “10,000-hour rule” — the idea that this is the amount of time one must invest in practice in order to reach meaningful success in any field. But in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (public library), celebrated psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman, best-known for his influential 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, debunks the 10,000-hour mythology to reveal the more complex truth beneath the popular rule of thumb:
The “10,000-hour rule” — that this level of practice holds the secret to great success in any field — has become sacrosanct gospel, echoed on websites and recited as litany in high-performance workshops. The problem: it’s only half true. If you are a duffer at golf, say, and make the same mistakes every time you try a certain swing or putt, 10,000 hours of practicing that error will not improve your game. You’ll still be a duffer, albeit an older one.

No less an expert than Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University psychologist whose research on expertise spawned the 10,000-hour rule of thumb, told me, “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.”

“You have to tweak the system by pushing,” he adds, “allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.”

The secret to continued improvement, it turns out, isn’t the amount of time invested but the quality of that time. It sounds simple and obvious enough, and yet so much of both our formal education and the informal ways in which we go about pursuing success in skill-based fields is built around the premise of sheer time investment. Instead, the factor Ericsson and other psychologists have identified as the main predictor of success is deliberate practice — persistent training to which you give your full concentration rather than just your time, often guided by a skilled expert, coach, or mentor. It’s a qualitative difference in how you pay attention, not a quantitative measure of clocking in the hours. Goleman writes:
Hours and hours of practice are necessary for great performance, but not sufficient. How experts in any domain pay attention while practicing makes a crucial difference. For instance, in his much-cited study of violinists — the one that showed the top tier had practiced more than 10,000 hours — Ericsson found the experts did so with full concentration on improving a particular aspect of their performance that a master teacher identified.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Animal Styles in Chinese Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from an article at Kung Fu Tea regarding animal styles in Chinese Martial Arts in general and Southern Mantis in particular. The full article may be read here.

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.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Hidden Transmission in Martial Arts


Today we have another guest post by Jonathan Bluestein. Jonathan's guest posts have a habit of ending up on the all time favorite list.

This one is about the topic of transmission in the martial arts.



Hidden Transmission in the Martial Arts



There is a coach, and there is a teacher. A coach provides you with tools to success. A teacher passes unto you a system of thinking and doing for personal growth.

A teacher teaches, but his shadow also speaks. Have you ever heard the whisper of a teacher’s shadow? It is thick, and resonates through your core with the might of an earthquake, though so elusive you may not notice.

A future You carries on a movement long ago taught, and then it strikes the unsuspecting onlooker, that your shadow is not truly yours. It fluctuates to the rhythm of another, and others that came before.

The Japanese call this Isshin Denshin (以心伝心) – a heart-to-heart transmission. A way shown without being described, a path drawn without being illustrated; a book of knowledge that contains not a single word.

Thus, the technique of martial teaching is Shamanic, unwieldy. Growing another’s skin on top of yours. Such is the traditional method of apprenticeship.

It is often pondered why a lot may bend a knee to a master, yet few if any reach his status. Many a time, the answer is that skill is only absorbed by him who had been observant.

For how many a things can be verbally elucidated? There is a limit to what can be willfully given; and the rest, stolen property it ought to become, as have noted the clever T.T. Liang.

Then it remains, that by being the thief of another’s spirit, we can borrow a pair of eyes with a vision of a thousand things which are beyond the colour spectrum of most men.

Unbeknownst to us, our progress is also an evolution in the assimilation of the mindset, mannerisms and character of he who shares the wisdom. For an intangible presence is manifested in every moment, and our ability to contain it largely affects long-term understandings.

A tone of voice, an expression of one’s face, a trait of gait or the calmness of bearing. These and others are more than mere aspects of the personality. They are seamless stitches in the fabric of martial expression. To give heed by these attributes is the making of an astute investment. To embody them, truthfully and sincerely, is to be able to accept a full transmission.   


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Shifu Jonathan Bluestein is the head of the Tianjin Martial Arts Academy, and teaches Xing Yi Quan and Pigua Zhang in Israel. He is also a martial arts author and researcher. If you liked this article, please ‘like’ the page of shifu Bluestein’s book on Facebook:
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All rights of this article are and the pictures within it (with the exception of the Fascia image) are reserved to Jonathan Bluestein ©. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission, in writing, from Jonathan Bluestein. Jonathan may be contacted directly via email:  jonathan.bluestein@gmail.com .