Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, 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 ~


Thursday, February 28, 2019

Chen Style Taijiquan Curriculum on Video

I became aware of this through a post at Tai Chi Notebook. One of the 20th generation representatives of the Chen family, Chen Bing, has created a video reference for the whole Chen Taijiquan style as he teaches it, which may be found here.

Below is a video of Master Chen Bing.





Monday, February 25, 2019

Wing Chun Kung Fu Documentary Trailer

Below is a trailer for a documentary on Wing Chun in Macau, where it more than just a martial art, but an essential part of the community. It's beautifully done.




Friday, February 22, 2019

The Source of Power in Taijiquan

Below is an excerpt from a post at The Tai Chi Notebook. 

I have been pushed by people with real taijiquan skill and the odd thing is that I didn't feel like I was being pushed. I just found myself moving away. It was the strangest sensation.

I had a similar feeling when taking ukemi for Kushida Sensei once. He was demonstrating a technique to the class and happened to pick me as his uke. The odd thing was that I didn't feel pain with the joint lock that he applied; I just felt like the weight of the whole building was settling on me and I was crushed under it.

It's counter intuitive, but in my experience, it's true. 

The full post may be read here.

I don’t know if this is a famous quote from a master of old, or if it’s just something that Wayne Hansen thought of himself, but he uses it in his signature, and I was musing on this phase recently:

Don’t put power into the form let it naturally arise from the form

It’s such a great quote, because it’s absolutely true!

I was reviewing somebody’s form recently and the big thing I noticed was that they were trying to put power into the movements, rather than just accepting that the movements on their own are powerful, and don’t need anything extra to make them work. In fact, when you try and make Tai Chi movements powerful, it just messes them up, because you inevitably revert to tense, isolated muscle use, instead of a smooth flow of connected power, like a river.

(I think I should mention here that I’m not talking about the explosive bursts of power you typically see in Chen style forms. These are different. Instead, I’m talking about the general movements found in Tai Chi, typified by Yang style and it’s variations, which opt for a smooth form with an even pace throughout).

What that quote doesn’t do however is explain how it’s done. Tai Chi is full of these mysterious sayings, with very little explanation, so let’s break this one down and see where we get.

Fang song


Firstly, in Tai Chi we are frequently admonished to Fang Song or “relax” as we would say in English. We all instinctively know that a relaxed body can be a powerful body.  Think of how heavy a small child can make themselves if they don’t want to be picked up by going all floppy. Similarly, a baby’s grip is surprisingly powerful, but not tense.

Being too tense results in a kind of rigid and brittle strength. It’s strong, but it’s not deep. It tends to lie on the surface, like ice on a lake, but break through the surface and it’s nothing but water underneath. Relaxation can be more like thick sea ice all the way down.

But to be powerful a relaxed body needs to be a coordinated body. On a purely mechanical level that means moving so that the coordinated power of the body arrives at the right place at the right time. There’s no point punching with just the arm, but if you can coordinate your body so the legs, hips, torso, and arm are all working – arriving – together it creates a kind whole body power that doesn’t rely much on tension at all. But that’s still not the whole story.


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Dao De Jing, #70: My Words are Easy to Understand

The Dao De Jing is not only one of the world's great classics, it is one of the foundations of Philosophical Daoism. A free online version of the Dao De Jing may be found here. Today we have #70: My Words are Easy to Understand.

My words are easy to understand

And easy to practice.

Yet nobody understands them or practices them.

My words have an origin;

My actions have a principle.

It is only because of your not understanding this

That you do not understand me.

Since there are few who understand me

I am valued.

Therefore the sage wears coarse clothes.

Yet hides a jewel in his bosom.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Passing Along the Family Martial Tradition

Below is an excerpt from an interview which was conducted by Nippon.com. The subject is Kiyomoto Ogasawara, who teaches his family's 850 year old art of yabusame (Japanese mounted archery). His father is the 35th generation head master of the art.

The full interview may be read here.

INTERVIEWER You’re an instructor in a long line of teachers. How far back does it go?

OGASAWARA KIYOMOTO We have a tradition of over 850 years. My ancestor Ogasawara Nagakiyo founded the Ogasawara-ryū school in 1187. He instructed Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shōgun of Japan, in etiquette, archery, and mounted archery, arts known as kyūhō. The school’s first display of yabusame mounted archery was given at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū Shrine in Kamakura, and you can still see this performed today every September. My father Kiyotada is the thirty-first-generation head of our tradition.

INTERVIEWER What are the origins of yabusame?

OGASAWARA The tradition began as a samurai discipline for fighting and was called kisha or horseback archery. But only one ritualistic form of this can be called yabusame.

INTERVIEWER How was your family able to preserve this through the upheavals of Japanese history?

OGASAWARA When the shōgun system ended in the nineteenth century, other families commercialized their arts to support themselves, but we decided to preserve ours while working regular jobs. Kiyokane, the twenty-eighth head of the household, opened the Ogasawara-ryū school to the public in Tokyo’s Kanda while also teaching etiquette at schools. To maintain the purity of our tradition, it’s our rule not to make a full-time living from instruction.
INTERVIEWER What do you do to support yourself?

OGASAWARA I’m a researcher in a Japanese pharmaceutical company during the daytime. In the evenings and on weekends, I practice the disciplines of etiquette, archery, and yabusame.

INTERVIEWER Please describe the Ogasawara school’s activities today.

OGASAWARA We teach the arts of archery, yabusame, and reihō, or etiquette. In our practice, we teach the essence of etiquette, not simply what to do in a given situation. For these disciplines, students learn a variety of forms including standing, bowing, and walking, as well as drawing the bow and mounting the mokuba wooden horse for yabusame. We hold a training camp two or three times a year; it involves real horses and lasts several days.

We also organize training sessions on the day before and the day of yabusame festivals. We participate in approximately ten festivals across Japan, including those at Kamakura’s Tsurugaoka Hachimangū Shrine, Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine, Nikkō’s Tōshōgū Shrine, and Sumida Park in Tokyo’s Asakusa. We even teach the art of tying knots used for samurai armor, horsemanship, boxes, wrapping objects, and other situations.

INTERVIEWER Yabusame festivals certainly draw crowds, but how popular is the art in terms of studying?

OGASAWARA Right now we have roughly 700 students, of which about ten are foreigners from place like the United States, France, and Poland. Those from overseas are particularly interested in yabusame and the art of the bow.

The Fine Art of Samurai Manners


INTERVIEWER How would you describe your approach to teaching etiquette?

OGASAWARA It’s important to practice with a focus on how to use one’s body and practice mindfulness, the art of being aware of what one is doing at any given moment, and to use that for one’s approach to modern life while staying in harmony with one’s environment.

A tradition that lasts more than 800 years does not change. It’s not a question of changing the main teachings of the tradition which is the essence; we only change the minor details according to the times. The essence of our tradition is two texts, the Shūshinron and Taiyōron, compiled by my ancestors Sadamune and Tsuneoki. The former outlines how to govern the heart and mind, while the latter concerns the body. Preserving this essence for posterity is very important.
INTERVIEWER What would the samurai of old think of Japanese today and how they use their modern tools―smartphones instead of swords?

OGASAWARA The greatest difference is in how people think. For instance, the Bushidō virtues of justice, loyalty, and piety were strictly upheld in the past, unlike now. The concept of chūgi, or obedience, and kōkō or filial piety, were woven into the fabric of everyday life. But if we uphold those virtues, then people of yesteryear would be fine in today’s world even though all the nonessential tools of life, such as smartphones, have changed.

INTERVIEWER In terms of etiquette, foreigners generally see Japan as a polite society, full of time-honored customs like bowing. But what you teach goes far beyond that, doesn’t it?

OGASAWARA Etiquette in Japan today is taught according to the social situation: when you express appreciation or an apology to someone, for instance, you should bow deeply. This does not go into the essence, however, and that is the focus of our practice. We believe students should think about what to do in a given situation based on their knowledge of this essence.

The Ogasawara-ryū forms of etiquette were for the shōgun and those who met him. But moving one’s body according to one’s position in the social hierarchy also served as a means of defense against attack. After all, the higher one was in the hierarchy, the greater the chance of attack. For instance, through hand movements, one could easily observe the possibility of a sword being drawn and take precautions. That’s why they would, in observance of etiquette, naturally position their hands in such a manner that it would be impossible to quickly draw a sword, thereby assuring others they had no ill intent. But at the same time, they would assume a posture that would eliminate any delay in their response in the unlikely event that they would be attacked.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Passing of Hawkins Cheung

Recently, one of the greats of Wing Chun, Hawkins Cheung,  passed. He had a great influence on the development of Wing Chun world wide. Below is an excerpt from a post at Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.


As many readers will already know, Master Hawkins Cheung Hok Jin passed away on Sunday February 3rd 2019, in Los Angeles.  Within the martial arts community regrets take many forms.  One of my great regrets is that I had never had a chance to study with Hawkins Cheung. Yet he still had a profound effect on my understanding of both the nature of this art and the wider Wing Chun community. When Jon Nielson and I were researching our book on the development of Wing Chun, we frequently found ourselves coming back to the published accounts and interviews that Hawkins Cheung had provided over the years. We felt that these were some of the best, most reliable, descriptions of Wing Chun’s early years in Hong Kong (1950s-1960s) that one could hope to find.

Some of these accounts have already gained a fairly wide following within the Wing Chun community as they provided a remarkably frank assessment of Hawkins Cheung’s relationship with both Bruce Lee (his close friend and schoolmate), as well as Ip Man, his Sifu.  It should be noted that throughout his life he spoke on many other subjects.  He offered his own assessment of the true nature of Jeet Kun Do (JKD) and William Cheung’s innovations, styling his own instruction “classic Wing Chun” at least partially in response to these other developments within the community.

Readers of Black Belt magazine will even remember Hawkins Cheung as an early and passionate advocate of a more combative approach to Taijiquan.

There is much that one could say about the life and career of such a remarkable martial artist.

Cheung possessed a restless spirit always seeking progress. Throughout his life he sought to not just master Wing Chun, but to understand what made it work.  This same curiosity would lead him to explore several other styles.  Hawkins Cheung was a student of Goju-Ryu Karate in which he achieved a fourth Dan.  He also developed a strong interest in Wu Taijiquan, which he approached with his signature direct practicality.  After coming to the United States he set up a succession of successful schools in Los Angeles and introduced countless students (including individuals like Phillip Romero and Phil Morris) to Ip Man’s art.

By any standard Hawkins Cheung’s career was remarkable. He was one of just a handful of individuals who really shaped Wing Chun’s spread to North America.  This brings us to a second, deeper, level of regret. Despite his many contributions, Cheung’s life and career are not well understood, except perhaps by his closest students. Bruce Lee was a luminary figure who ignited a Kung Fu fever.  We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge his role in creating a global environment where Wing Chun might succeed.  But we must also acknowledge his absolute talent for sucking the oxygen out of a room, or dominating any conversation that he might appear in.

Sadly, Hawkins Cheung is typically discussed only as Bruce’s sidekick.  When reporters or researchers approached him, it was almost always to ask about his friend Bruce.  This seemed to bother Cheung on a few levels, the most important of which was that Bruce had been a very close friend, and losing him was painful. Yet in death Lee’s myth grew to such proportions that it was impossible for anyone to escape his shadow.

All of this is in equal parts ironic and regrettable when thinking about Hawkins Cheung.  It is ironic as he conveyed to current students so much historical knowledge about Hong Kong in the 1950s, yet accounts of his own career in the 1970s-1990s are extremely rare.  It is regrettable as his life growing up in Hong Kong, and immigration to the West, mirrored Wing Chun’s global journey. Indeed, the two are inextricably linked. Serious historians and social scientists would better understand the process by which the Chinese martial arts succeeded as a global phenomenon if we could write his story. Even if Bruce Lee was critical to igniting the fire, it lasted because individuals like Hawkins Cheung were capable of feeding it.

Perhaps the first step toward better understanding is to simply appreciate what we already have. In the remainder of this post I will explore a basic outline of Hawkins Cheung’s life and contributions to the Asian martial arts.  It is my hope that this will not only provide some insight into him, but also the ways in which history itself is memorialized and created.  Indeed, traditional Chinese lineage structures have been making sense of the present by linking certain sorts of facts about the past for a long time.  These highly stylized patterns of remembrance tell us something about the environment and sorts of challenges that our community faces.  Yet other types of memory, ones that explicitly focus on the decades of quiet effort that are so often forgotten in our rush to construct martial immortality, are necessary to build a fuller understanding of how we got here and where we might be going.  Hawkins Cheung’s life and career may be particularly important in this respect.

Only a limited amount of information about Hawkins Cheung’s early life seems to have made it into English language discussions.  He was born sometime around 1940 and grew up in Kowloon.  After 1949 the area became increasingly crowded with refugees and homeless individuals fleeing across the border with Communist controlled Guangdong.  Even as a child Cheung was acutely aware of the bleak nature of life in Hong Kong emphasizing (as a repeated talking point in his later interviews) the problems with overcrowding, unemployment, homelessness and organized crime. These structural limitations would weigh heavily on the group of sometimes angry young men who gathered to train with Ip Man.

Still, Hawkins Cheung was more fortunate than most. He grew up in a relatively wealthy family.  His father owned a luxurious car and could employ a professional driver to ferry his young son to school.

 It was also natural that Hawkins Cheung would be drawn to the martial arts given his small size, propensity for aggression and boundless energy.  It was at the Francis Xavier Intermediate School that he first met and befriended the similarly predisposed Bruce Lee, who had recently been expelled (with good cause) from the much more prestigious LaSalle school. I will refer anyone who is interested in the gory details of that episode to Matthew Polly’s recent biography.

Being relatively affluent had other benefits as well. Hawkins Cheung reports that he was either 13 or 14 when he began to study Wing Chun kung fu with Ip Man, sometime around 1954.  Interestingly, he was at first unaware when his friend Bruce also began to study with the same teacher, probably because the two were attending class at different times.  Phil Morris suggests that later the two purposefully went to separate classes at least in part because the intensely competitive young men did not want to reveal their level of skill to a potential rival.

Some of our best accounts of life within Ip Man’s school come from a series of interviews that Hawkins Cheung gave to Inside Kung-Fu magazine in 1991.  He speaks frankly about the competitive nature of outside challenge fights, but also the internal Chi Sao culture that developed among some of the younger Wing Chun students. Everyone wanted to be “top dog”, and Hawkins Cheung was at a real disadvantage due to his small size.  I think that many Wing Chun students today will be able to relate to the frustrations that he expresses in these interviews.

Interestingly Ip Man, who didn’t typically handle the day to day training of the younger students, intervened at a point when he may have been considering quitting, guided him through an exploration of the basic defensive structures in the art’s unarmed forms.  This helped Hawkins Cheung to build an understanding of Wing Chun that worked for him.  Readers should remember that even by Hong Kong standards Ip Man was a pretty short individual of slight build.  It would have been hard to think of a better mentor when addressing these problems.

Hawkins Cheung continued to study with Ip Man until 1959.  One of the most important, yet often overlooked, causes of Wing Chun’s global success was the chronic under-development of Hong Kong’s educational sector in the 1950s and 1960s.  There simply were not enough slots at Hong Kong University for all of the good students coming out the city’s school system.  Nor were there enough high paying jobs to satisfy the children of the city’s middle class.  The fact that Hong Kong was a British territory meant it was entirely possible for the children of wealthy families to do something about this.

Ip Ching has noted that many of his father’s better off young students traveled to North America, Australia or Europe to pursue both University degrees and better job prospects.  Bruce Lee was far from alone in this exodus.  Indeed, this pattern of global dispersal ensured that when Wing Chun became famous there were already a handful of well qualified individuals spread throughout the globe who could promote the art.  Meanwhile, others had already acquired the language skills and life experience necessary to immigrate to the West and set up schools of their own.

Hawkins Cheung decided to further his educational prospects in Australia, but it seems that many of his experiences there were far from positive. As he noted in subsequent interviews, WWII had resulted in a high degree of anti-Japanese/anti-Asian prejudice, and it was not uncommon for Chinese students to be subject to racist attacks and other forms of violence. There were also tensions within the local Asian expatriate community, and Hawkins Cheung reports frequent fights with Thai kickboxers.

After finishing college Cheung returned to Hong Kong in 1962.  He continued to study with Ip Man (now as a more senior student) until the time of his death in 1972.  Adding things up, it appears that Hawkins Cheung enjoyed about 15 years of study as Ip Man’s student, both before and after college.  While many individuals trained with Ip Man, due to retention problems and Ip Man’s many moves, relatively few students could claim such long periods of continuous training.

While in Hong Kong, Hawkins Cheung explored other arts, including Goju-Ryu Karate. Despite what one might assume, it was not uncommon for Chinese individuals to study Japanese arts (in either Hong Kong or Australia) during this period.  What was much less common was for someone to maintain close ties to both communities while gaining a high degree of expertise.  These styles were, after all, peer competitors.

Cheung relates that he was fascinated by the speed and power that Goju-Ryu practitioners could project through years of practice. He desperately wanted to learn how to counter this using Wing Chun structures, as well as to improve his own abilities.  Yet he was also attracted to Karate as it offered a place where legal, socially approved, sparring could happen without the fear of police or gang involvement.  He considered this essential to his training.

In fact, it seems that Hawkins Cheung was almost as skilled a diplomat as he was fighter. That might be a surprise given his often direct, kinetic and demanding teaching ethos.  But even within the complex and fractured political landscape that emerged following Ip Man’s death, it is hard to think of any of his students who immigrated to the West who were more generally liked. As anyone who has read his articles or interviews knows, Hawkins Cheung was not shy about making his opinions known. Whether the subject was the true nature of JKD or the Taijiquan’s combative potential, Cheung was always willing to wade into the fray.  Yet he remained almost universally respected. As any political scientist can tell you, diplomacy is also a martial art.

Hawkins Cheung immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s, a few years after Ip Man’s death.  I have not been able to figure out much about his first few critical years.  Yet by 1980 he was running a school with Dan Inosanto in Culver City Los Angeles.  In a two-part article published in Wing Chun Illustrated in September 2017, Phillip Romero relates how he first discovered Cheung and began to train at his school.

Romero’s reminisces are valuable and readers are encouraged to head on over and examine them in full.  They suggest an outline of the California period of Cheung’s career.  But beyond that, they provide the same sorts of highly textured description of a school life that Hawkins Cheung himself had given us when describing his own training with Ip Man.  Indeed, these rich descriptions are every bit as valuable to students of martial arts studies as any biographical details that may be related.
Romero paints a picture (largely supported by accounts from other students) of Hawkins Cheung as a demanding teacher.  If as Sifu he embodied the “fatherly” archetype, his was the exacting and goal driven Chinese patriarch.

On a more technical level, as a still relatively young man he was concerned with how Wing Chun structures could be made to work in a variety of combative environments.  The sorts of students who thrived in his early schools were those willing to risk bruises, split lips and other injuries in full contact drills and sparring that didn’t employ the sorts of safety equipment that would now be standard issue.  Rather than MMA gloves (which did not yet exist) Romero relates how he found Cheung and his students using lightly padded gardening gloves where the fingers had been cut off.
Romero followed Cheung through multiple school locations.  After closing his martial arts supply business (something that I would like to learn more about) to focus exclusively on teaching Hawkins Cheung opened a larger, two story school on Venice Blvd., “not far from the Culver mall.”  This must have been a good location as Romero goes on to describe nightly classes with over 90 students split into three separate sections. This was followed up by another class for the senior students who helped to teach large sections of beginners. Still, not everyone was interested in the intensity and “reality” of the training on offer.

I must confess, however, that many of the reminisces of Cheung’s training in this period remind me of the sorts of contact levels and expectations that I experienced when I began my own Wing Chun apprenticeship some years later.  Prior to the eruption of the UFC, MMA and BJJ there was more combative interest (and talent) being invested into the traditional striking arts.  Yet every art has a certain reputation, or set of social expectations, which allows it to survive in a competitive marketplace.  These seem to have changed dramatically for many systems following the rise of MMA.

I have often wondered whether the perceived combat deficiency of Wing Chun really reflects fundamental shortcomings in the system, or if a more sociological explanation is needed. By in large, the sorts of students who are willing to sacrifice the most and train the hardest are now siphoned directly into an entirely different set of social discourses around the modern combat sports.  My friend Sixt Wetzler attempted to provide a theoretical basis for this sort of observation in an article that he wrote on applying systems theory to explain change within the martial arts communities. Still, a fuller and more granular exploration of what was going on in within Hawkins Cheung’s large Wing Chun community in the 1980s and 1990s might prove an interesting test case for these sorts of models.

In 1989 Hawkins Cheung closed the Ventura Blvd. school, and opened his final location a few miles away. This third school ran until 2014. It seems that with age his interests and teaching methods evolved (though his intensity did not necessarily mellow).  And Romero points out that the blossoming of BJJ and MMA had a definite impact on the type of training that happened.

Still, Cheung’s contributions to the global martial arts community were not confined to his teaching activities.  His name appeared in martial arts magazines, both in articles and letters, throughout the 1980s.  Nor did he confine his contributions to the discussion of Wing Chun. He even emerged a popular advocate of a more combative understanding of Taijiquan, another art that he was deeply invested in.

In the early 1990s Hawkins Cheung gave what can only be considered a seminal (four-part) interview to Inside Kung Fu magazine. It must be considered mandatory reading by anyone interested in the development of Wing Chun during the post-WWII period. And it is hard to understate how much these articles shaped subsequent discussion of Bruce Lee’s legacy.  Just check the footnotes of any of his biographical treatment published after 1992 to see what I mean.
Cheung was also something of an early adopter in the area of film and video recording.  Steven

Moody has noted that he collected 16 mm film of many of the most important figures in Wing Chun’s modern development.  He is also reputed to have had films of various roof top challenge matches recorded earlier in Hong Kong.  In an effort (only partially successful) to distribute some of this information, Hawkins Cheung established a Youtube Channel in 2013. There readers can find a manageable selection of his demonstration, discussions and interviews.  He even posted some of his engagement with Wu and Chen style Taijiquan. In fact, you probably owe it to yourself to check out this vintage interview.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Spartan Way

The Spartans were legendary warriors. Below is an excerpt from an article at The Art of Manliness which is an introduction to the Spartan way of life and the lessons which could be profitably learned and applied to our modern lives.

The full post may be read here.

To some, the Spartans represent the ultimate warriors — fierce, fearless, liberty-loving, physically-ripped superhero-esque figures. The epitome of rough and ready virility.

To others, the Spartans are a repugnant people — brutish, cruel, one-dimensional proto-totalitarians. Holders of slaves, exacters of infanticide, practitioners of pederasty.

Neither view captures the complexities — not to say conflicting accounts — of the city-state known anciently as Lacedaemon.

Courageous warriors? Surely the Spartan reputation for martial prowess was well-earned. But the Spartan warrior did not fight in the way we most often idealize — in single combat, for individual glory — but rather subsumed as one cooperative member of a larger phalanx.

Nor was the Spartan man a one-trick pony, possessed solely of martial skill and knowledge. Rather, he was an aristocratic gentleman, schooled not only in war, but in music, singing, dance, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, and disciplined comportment as well. He was a literate lover of both sports and poetry, physical sparring and oral repartee. As opposed to the image of a barren, artistically and intellectually austere culture, the philosopher Sphaerus asserted that “no one was more devoted to music and song,” Spartan dance and choral festivals attracted visitors from near and far, and Socrates argued that “The most ancient and fertile homes of philosophy among the Greeks are Crete and Sparta.”

When it comes to slavery, infanticide, and pederasty, the evidence is conflicting as to the exact nature and extent to which these customs were practiced. The Spartans did subjugate the Messenians but they were more like medieval serfs than slaves and enjoyed many more privileges than did those held in other parts of ancient Greece; for this reason thousands of slaves from Athens fled to Sparta for better treatment. It is said that the Spartans killed babies deemed unfit to live by exposing them or throwing them off Mt. Taygetus, but the remains of no infants have been found there, and however and wherever infanticide did take place, it was hardly unique to Sparta but practiced in Athens and other city-states as well. As to pederasty, there are certainly sources that attest to its practice, but also those — like the account of the Athenian historian Xenophon, who is the only source from that period with firsthand experience of the agoge (the Spartan system for training the young) and enrolled his own sons in this school — who deny it took place. Whatever the extent of those practices of this ancient culture we find abhorrent in the modern day, they can only be fully understood, if not justified, by the singular focus the Spartans placed on creating an indomitable society of warriors, and the fact that much of the polis’ culture was structured around, and subordinated to, this aim.

As to what kind of state Sparta was, even ancient observers couldn’t decide if its government could better be described as a monarchy, a democracy, or an oligarchy. As Spartan scholar Paul Rahe observes, “Lacedaemon was, in fact, all and none of the above.” Even to describe the Spartan polis (and its neighbors) as a state is to misunderstand it, for “In antiquity, there was no Greek state. The ancient Hellenic republic was, as James Madison would later observe, ‘a pure democracy . . . a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.’ The polis really was, as the Greeks often remarked, the men.”

We should not be surprised that multiple and sometimes conflicting views of Sparta exist — the actual records of this people are thinner and patchier than is often realized. Much of what is known originates in sources biased one way or the other — from either champions or enemies of the city-state — and is relatively small in size; the Spartans were a highly secretive people, constricting the travel of its citizens abroad, and the visitation of foreigners at home (indeed, this secrecy is part of what made Sparta compelling in its own time, and continues to draw our interest today). As Rahe observes, “It would not be hyperbole to appropriate for Sparta Winston Churchill’s famous description of Russia: Lacedaemon was in antiquity and remains today a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

What we can know for certain is that Spartans lived a truly unique way of life. As Rahe puts it: “Classical Lacedaemon was no ordinary polis. No one thought so in antiquity; no one should think so today.”

We know too that many contemporaries of the city-state, as well as plenty of eminent observers in the centuries since, were ardent admirers of this distinctive way of life.

The philosopher Plato said that the culture of Lacedaemon had a tendency to give one an inferiority complex: “To look at the temperance and orderliness, the facility and placidity, the magnanimity and discipline, the courage and endurance, and the toil-loving, success-loving, honor-loving spirit of the Spartans, you would count yourself but a child.”

Plato was hardly the only ancient to admire Sparta from afar. Foreign visitors, including teachers like Libanius and statesmen like Cicero, came from all corners of civilization to see for themselves the legendary agoge and even, like Xenophon, enrolled their own sons in the program and made significant financial donations to it.

For centuries after its decline, Sparta continued to be venerated as a polis uncorrupted by luxury and commerce, as a model of the virtues of simplicity, precision, self-sacrifice, martial vigor, mental fortitude, and physical stamina, and as an inspiration for a balanced, mixed government. In drawing up the American constitution, the Founding Fathers found inspiration in what Thomas Jefferson called “the rule of military monks,” while Samuel Adams hoped the new republic would become a “Christian Sparta.”

If these “Laconophiles” overly idealized the Spartan city-state, it’s still worth considering what it was that drew their praise. If the details of the Spartan way of life are sometimes in dispute, or embellished, they still point to underlying principles — values and lessons we can’t and wouldn’t want to exactly replicate today, but which nonetheless impart insights on how to better live our lives. As Rahe observes:

“we may prefer the Athenians, regarding them as more like ourselves, and we may well be right not only in that judgment but in our moral and political preferences as well. Our predilections notwithstanding, however, we name sports teams after the Spartans, and it is about them (and not the Athenians) that we ordinarily write novels and make films—which says a great deal about the ancient Lacedaemonians and perhaps also something about the unsatisfied longings that lurk just below the surface within modern bourgeois societies.”