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 ~


Thursday, February 07, 2019

Location and the Flavor of Your Martial Arts Training

Below is an excerpt from an article which appeared at Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

If you were going to begin training in aikido in the Detroit area in the late 70's/early 80's, you most likely would have been studying the Yoshinkan Aikido as taught by Kushida Sensei, which encapsulated a certain way of doing things and a certain outlook; mostly because there was very few other aikido teachers around. 

Hence, "Detroit Aikido" had a particular meaning, and even years after he has passed, in certain circles this still means something.

Similarly, if you were going to study taijiquan in New York in the late 60's, mostly likely you would have ended up on the doorstep of Cheng Man Ching (Zheng ManQiing). 

By the time he arrived in NY, he was already an older man whose art had quite matured. The way he taught was different than how he taught his old students in Taiwan. 

Earlier this year, I took a class with someone who had learned taijiquan from Ben Lo, Prof Cheng's first student from his days in Taiwan. My own teacher is a NY student of Prof Cheng. Watching me do the form, he pointed out a specific movement and used the phrase, "That's the NY way to do that" and showed me the (slight) variation that his own group did the same thing.

The article at Kung Fu tea is insightful in that it brings to our attention our the location where we train brings with it a certain flavor and outlook. This isn't good or bad, but it's interesting and can possibly open our minds a little more in our training.

I travel a bit for work and I'm now making it a point to seek out practitioners of the style of taijiquan that I study to take a class from or train with while I am there. 

Below is the excerpt from Kung Fu Tea. Enjoy.

...

I think that each of these cities can make a claim to residing at the center of the Wing Chun story. Yet the way in which they are discussed is far from unique.  I have recently been involved in some conversations about the nature of “German” Wing Chun, and given the huge numbers of practitioners in that country compared to almost anywhere else in the world, such a label has its uses. Likewise, when I was studying with my Sifu (Jon Nielson) while at the University of Utah, we occasionally talked about “Salt Lake Wing Chun” in comparison to the branch of our shared lineage which was practiced in St. George, located in the far south of the state.

All of these labels are socially constructed. It is the universal and rhizomic nature of these arts which allows one group of students to identify their practice as “Macau Wing Chun,” whereas William Cheung students in Australia might casually refer to the same forms and footwork as typical examples of “Hong Kong Wing Chun.” This fungibility raises an obvious question, and one that has so far been overlooked in our discussion of how the martial arts are constructed as a marker of place. Why is this done? What social or personal work is accomplished by emphasizing geographic space while deemphasizing the many other possible markers of identity?

I suspect that the experience of purpose, and the need to defend or insulate that aspect of one’s identity, is critical to all of this. Any sense of identity that rests solely on our personal performance or attributes is inherently unstable. We all have good training days and bad. Fights are either won or lost. Our relationships with our Kung Fu brothers and sisters may be sustaining at some times, and fraught at others. In short, any number of changes in our personal circumstances could threaten the identity and sense of purpose that we have come to rely upon. And at some point, we all know that this must end.  The martial arts are primarily embodied skills. Age, sickness and death will eventually strip all of us of any sense of purpose that is rooted solely in the personal mastery or performance of these arts.

Yet, as we saw above, geography has a funny way of becoming community. It fills this role so effectively because it becomes both a symbol for those who share our practice (the “Salt Lake Wing Chun community”) and the field in which we express our sense of purpose.  Geographic place thus represents those forces that empower our identity, as well as the demands of social responsibility that we all feel. By allowing us to depersonalize these emotions, transferring them to a constructed social realm, we buffer our sense of purpose against both temporary and existential setbacks.

Like most things in life, there is a dark side to this mental machinery. The very fact that we can escape (if only for a moment) our personal characteristics by invoking a larger social identity suggests that someone else might call upon or reframe that same identity in an attempt to make unwarranted generalization about our personal practice. YouTube is full of videos designed to generate clicks through eliciting a sense of insecurity about one’s chosen style or lineage. Ironically, our projection of personal experience onto a socially constructed identity might end up threatening the security of our sense of self as easily as it insulates it.

These are precisely the sorts of discourses that marketing campaigns are made of. Hong Kong, Macau or even Salt Lake Wing Chun can all too easily become brands that are used to bat down or preemptively define others.  We all seem to experience the urge to arrange these labels vertically. Such an exercise is inherently harmful as it makes the world a smaller and less interesting place without really explaining the variety and richness that we see.

I don’t think that means that all such labels are bad, or that geographical place should be struck from our lexicon.  If we remember the rhizomic and universal nature of these practices, local identity (and localization) can illustrate the breadth and ever-changing nature of the Chinese martial arts. They can help us to acknowledge that our peak may not be as high as we once thought.  That we all see only a single slice of this landscape. This is fundamentally a good thing. An appreciation for wonder and mystery has always been the necessary counterbalance to any sense of purpose.

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