Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, 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 ~

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Chinese Martial Arts and Classical Theater

Today we have a guest post by Scott Park Phillips, who is the proprietor of Weakness with a Twist blog. Scott has recently published a new book, Possible Origins: A Cultural History of Martial Arts, Theater and Religion.

I created this video and wrote the book because my own experience convinced me that martial arts, dance/theater, and religion were not only compatible, but were often part of an integrated whole.  The deeper I looked into Chinese history and Chinese religion, the more obvious it was to me that Chinese culture had integrated martial skills with theatricality in a fully religious environment.  


This has not been a short journey.  I’ve been doing Chinese martial arts for 38 years.  I was a professional dancer, dancing many hours a day every day of the week.  In the early 1990s when I was deep into dance training, male teachers were dying of HIV/AIDS in alarming numbers.  Those still living were dancing about death a lot. This gave me countless opportunities to perform in front of audiences; paradoxically, it was a great time to be a dancer. On the other hand, I wanted more training from male teachers so I started looking at other other types of movement arts.  I became a disciple of Chitresh Das, a master of Kathak (North Indian Classical Dance), and improvisation.  I also studied intensively with Malonga Casquelourd from the Congo.  My studies of martial arts deepened too.  I was doing movement training 6-10 hours a day.  Doing these three types of advanced training at the same time opened my eyes to things other people were not seeing.  It became self-evident to me that Congolese dance, and Kathak dance were martial arts, and that Chinese martial arts were a form of dance-theater. All three contained the major elements of martial skills, martial religion, and theatricality.

By age 30 my interest in performing diminished, but my interest in practice and training did not. That is when I met a Daoist priest named Liu Ming in Santa Cruz California.  I began doing the five orthodox Daoist practices: sitting still, the golden-elixir, liturgy and text studies, daoyin (opening and getting on track), and dream practice (called: day and night the same). With me, Liu Ming emphasized huge amounts of reading. After each full weekend of training, he would send me home with a stack of books and a reading list. This went on for ten years.

I continued to practice and teach gongfu, becoming well known around San Francisco for teaching kids performance skills and improvisational life skills inside of the martial arts.  I also taught adults at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. 

Finally, I returned to one of my teachers from years before, George Xu. In the old days, training with George had been about being as tough as possible. 3 to 4 hours a day 6 days a week, plus the practice he expected us to do outside of class. Now, 15 years later, George Xu had mellowed. He had been going to China every year to find new teachers to study with, and now all of his training revolved around emptiness.  Amazingly, he had reverse engineered the golden-elixir practice inside of gongfu training. Since I had been doing the golden-elixir for more than ten years at that point, I recognized it immediately. 

It quickly occurred to me that if the golden-elixir could be put into marital skills, it must also have been put into theater training.  And all the pieces of the big picture started to fall into place.

Since I would love people to read the book, I’m just going to address a single issue here.  The biggest obstacle most people have to comprehending the relationship between martial arts and theater, is this: People falsely believe that theatrical expressivity is an obstacle to martial prowess.

Violence professionals must be efficient. Inefficiency is a luxury only amateurs can afford. Martial skill has to function independently of expressivity. Even crappy expressivity skills would diminish one’s movement efficiency if the two were not independent.  But most violence professions (I’m talking here about people who break legs and capture criminals for a living), consider high quality expressivity and communication skills part of the job description.  That’s why expressivity and martial skill have to be well integrated.

However much theatricality a violence professional happens to have, it will be fully integrated with their martial skills, and the more theatricality the better. 

As part of that same argument, I often hear, “But that doesn’t look like the street fights, or bar fights, or the MMA I’ve seen.” That’s right, every type of violence looks different. Social, asocial, and environmental contexts determine what fighting looks like.  Kidnapping was a big problem in 18th and 19th Century China.  If the biggest danger you are dealing with is kidnappers who capture by throwing a bag over your head from behind, your martial art is not going to look like a duel.  But it is likely to have high momentum techniques like butterfly kicks, flips, and long extensions for pushing off of walls.  It is going to have a lot of simple techniques for breaking legs. If you can understand the context the art was created for, you can understand the efficiency of the movement. 

Here is me doing a movement form Chinese opera call “Butterfly Breaks Out of his Cocoon.” It is training for some unconventional chokeholds. 

Thanks to Cook Ding’s Kitchen for hosting my guest blog post!

Weakness with a Twist blog

Scott Park Phillips lives in Boulder, Colorado.  He regularly travels for workshops, his next one is in Oakland, California, August 26, 27, 28th at Soja Martial Arts (click on Adult Workshops)

1 comment:

Chris said...

Fantastic video Scott! One of the best I have ever seen on these topics.

Thanks for sharing Rick!