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 ~

Friday, September 18, 2020

The 48 Laws of Power, #34: Be Royal in your own Fashion

One of my favorite books on strategy is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers.  Where The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is written as an overview of the whole topic of strategy, seeking to provide an overall understanding of the subject; and The 36 Strategies tries to impart the knack of strategic thinking through 36 maxims related to well known Chinese folk stories, Mr. Greene focuses on how we influence and manipulate one another, ie "power".

Mr. Greene draws from both Eastern and Western history and literature as his source material. Sun Tzu and Machiavelli as cited as much as wonderful stories of famous con men. 

Each of the 48 Laws carries many examples, along with counter examples where it is appropriate that they be noted, and even reversals.

It is a very thorough study of the subject and the hardback version is beautifully produced.

One of the things I admire about Greene is that he not only studied strategy, he applied what he learned to his own situation and prospered.

Today we have #34: Be Royal in your Own Fashion

Act like royalty, and people will treat you as if you were royal, conferring on you status, respect, and power.

The crown creates an aura of power and entitlement that emanates from a king. Create such an aura for yourself by acting as if you’re destined for great things. Your supreme confidence and belief in yourself will radiate power the same way a crown does. Act like a king to be treated like one.

According to Law 34 of the 48 Laws of Power, this kind of self-confidence is contagious — others will believe it, and you can ask for and receive what you want. Your belief in yourself will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children charm adults this way when they confidently and happily ask for what they want — and adults enjoy indulging them. 

Be sure to act differently — people have expectations for how a king should act, and you must meet them in order to be treated like a king. One of the most important is to act differently — separate yourself — from those around you.

One way to set yourself apart is to always act with great dignity, or regal bearing. (Don’t confuse this with arrogance, which is a sign of insecurity.) Be royal in your own fashion.
Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie came from a noble family, but wasn’t expected to ever ascend to the throne. However, as a young man his dignity, calmness, and self-confidence gave him a royal bearing that was soon noticed by the king, and he rose in the ranks. Selassie knew to act like a king to be treated like one.

Along with developing your inner confidence and strength, Law 34 of the 48 Laws of Power gives you several outward strategies to act like a king.
  • Make an over-the-top demand: Demand a high price and stand firm, as Columbus did in requesting funding and prestigious titles for his explorations from Spain’s Queen Isabella. You’re signaling your worth, and your superior will respect you even if she turns you down. That respect likely will pay dividends later.
  • Elevate yourself by going after the highest-ranking person. When you take on a strong opponent, you’re seen as her equal.
  • Give a gift to your superior or patron. This establishes your equality with the person above you. You’ll also get what you want in return without begging, which would make you seem small.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Katana in the Western Imagination

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea that describes that moment in time when the Japanese Katana captured the West's imagination as the sword of choice and why other swords, such as the Chinese Jian, never caught up. The full post may be read here.

Why is the Katana more popular than the Jian

A good friend recently sent me a link for a YouTube video asking why Chinese swords are not as well known in Western popular culture as their Japanese counterparts.  As the narrator noted, everyone knows the word ‘katana.’ Very few people, other than dedicated martial artists, are familiar with ‘jian’ or ‘dao.’  The video was thoughtful and well produced.  It also seems to have missed all of the most obvious answers to the question.
Its fundamental mistake actually emerged from one of its strengths.  The nice thing about the video was that it dove into Chinese folklore and storytelling about the sword.  To summarize too quickly, while there are a handful of famous swords in Chinese martial lore, in general these discursive traditions were more concerned with how a blade was used (or not used) than the intrinsic qualities of the weapon itself.  Power always rested firmly in the virtue of the wielder and not the weapon.  That makes even famous Chinese swords a bit different from something like Excalibur.
All of which was thought provoking, but ultimately pointless, if one was really trying to think about the cultural recognition of different swords (or fencing traditions) in the West.  It should go without saying that those same English-speaking audiences that are unfamiliar with the term ‘jian’ are also going to have missed most of the nuanced storytelling and literature that the author explored.  Rather than focusing on the history of Chinese swords, we need to consider the audience.  Specifically, how does a sense of cross-cultural desire emerge across generations?
John Maynard Keynes once observed that even the most action-oriented officials, the sorts of people who would recoil at the suggestion that what they did was even passingly “theoretical,” were always in the thrall of some half understood, long debunked, economy theory.  They were still “doing” theory in their daily jobs, but by insisting that they relied only upon “common sense” and personal experience, they were doomed to do it quite badly.  I have always liked this observation as it emphasizes the degree to which unconscious beliefs and biases shape the way that we approach the world.  The same holds true with swords. We cannot understand how people imagine the martial arts today without engaging in a bit of intellectual archeology.
If one wishes to understand why the katana is ‘cool’ whereas the jian is not, one must start by exploring Japan’s miraculous rise from isolated island nation to great power during the late 19th and early 20th century.  Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905 sent shockwaves through Europe as people were forced to rapidly rethink everything that they thought they knew about racial politics and the military balance between great powers.  Japan’s continued rise during the 1930s, and eventual attack on Pearl Harbor, had an even greater effect on American culture.
Since the earliest reporters and writers to travel to Japan noted that the custom of wearing swords was still in effect, swords became closely associated with the Japanese people in Western popular culture at an early date.  At first these weapons were often invoked as being quaint, backwards or a reminder of difficulties of dealing with the residual Samurai class.  Occasionally they were a point of derision.  

But as Japan’s power in the Pacific began its miraculous ascent, the sword was reimagined as a symbol of cultural power, and hence it became the key symbol to understanding the new cultural mythology surrounding Japan.
It is important to understand that this mythology was something of a joint project.  Japanese intellectuals were acutely aware of how they were described and discussed in the West. Thus ideas tended to be passed back and forth between global audiences and their counterparts in Japan.  Oleg Benesch has demonstrated at length that the concept of Bushido (the supposed ‘soul of Samurai’) that arose during the Meiji period (and would go on to have a huge impact on all modern Japanese martial arts) had almost nothing to do with medieval Japanese warrior culture.  On the contrary, it was highly influenced by English notions of what it meant to be a gentleman. This probably goes a long way towards explaining the concept’s immediate popularity in the West. Likewise, Japanese and Western writers conspired together to reinforce the primacy of the sword in the national psyche.
Nor can we ignore the fact that America came into direct military conflict with the Japan.  As such, the “soul” of this nation had to be reimagined as something other than a typical national culture for domestic political purposes.  It had to be seen as both mysterious and dangerous, befitting the massive sacrifice of lives and material that was about to thrown into the war machine.  American propaganda extolled the deadly threat of Japanese swords as a material extension of the equally threatening Japanese culture.  Naturally, people were inclined to believe it as such notions legitimated the conflict and made American forces seem all the more heroic in victory.
Chinese swords, which also made many appearances in period newspapers during the 1930s-1940s, were a different matter.  They were not held up as the soul of a nation, so much as they were pointed to as proof of the backward state of the Chinese military.  While GMD propogandist tried hard to place the dadao and the katana on the same level, no such equivalency ever emerged in the Western imagination.  When we saw a poorly equipped Chinese soldier holding a sword and a satchel of the grenades the only message that ran through the collective American psyche was “Buy more war bonds!”
These images and associations would not vanish after 1945.  Rather, they continued to inform the following generation’s films, comic books and radio dramas.  The existence of Chinese swords seems to have been quickly forgotten, but their Japanese counterparts needed to remain to remind us of the nation’s heroic sacrifices in the Pacific and superior spiritual strength.  We needed the Japanese martial arts to be dangerous so that we could be great for overcoming them.
It goes without saying that these sorts of background ideas would have a huge impact on the global spread of the Asian martial arts.  GI’s were stationed all over Asia, and they were exposed to all sorts of stuff.  A few individuals, like R. W. Smith (working for the CIA in Taiwan) became interested in the Chinese fighting systems.  But a much greater number of veterans seem to have followed the example of Donn F. Draeger and thrown themselves into the Japanese fighting arts precisely because these had been “proven on the battlefield.”  Again, one could spend an entire book chapter unpacking exactly what that means as the Chinese probably used martial arts on the modern battlefield more than anyone else out of sheer necessity. Yet in the 1950s it was too easy to just accept it all as common sense.  After all, even the American military had adopted Judo as an official training tool in 1943.  Japan’s martial spirit thus became an important element in the creation of America’s postwar sense of self.
All of which brings us back to Keynes and his ever-practical officials toiling away in ignorance of the past.  Just because we are personally unsure as to how we got here, it does not follow that the past has no influence on us.  This is precisely why martial arts studies must deal with intellectual history as well as the intricacies of practice.  Consequently, it’s also the reason why Leonardo was carrying a set of katana rather than jian when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first emerged from the sewers in 1988. The presence of Japanese weaponry automatically conveyed something important about these characters to the audience.

This is not to imply that there is anything automatic or inevitable about such developments.  

Intellectual history is as full of contingency, happenstance and construction as anything else.  This brings me to the subject of the news clipping which follows.  A number of posts on this blog have asked how China’s government during the 1930s sought to use their martial arts as a way to increase the state’s ‘soft power’ in the global sphere.  This got me wondering about Japan’s campaign, and how it had been received by the press at a time when tensions between the two countries were escalating.
The following article examines the visit of a Japanese Kendo teacher to Los Angeles in 1936.  Joseph Svinth has already shown that by this point the Japanese American community had all of the domestically produced instructors that they needed.  This visit seemed to be part of a formal visit.
What is very interesting is to see the gravity with which the reporter from the Los Angeles Times responds to a public Kendo demonstration.  Even a children’s event where youngsters were trying to pop balloons tied to one another’s helmets was treated as a deep cultural mystery.  Clearly the cult of the sword was already a part of the American image of Japan long before this article was written. Enatsu Sensei’s interview attempted to further the Japanese American community’s effort to build bonds of trust and understanding with the surrounding city.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 would destroy all of this.  The myth of the Katana would remain intact, but the LA’s kendo classes would be shut down by the government and many of the people and students in this article would probably end up in internment camps.  Feeling that Kendo was too closely tied to Japanese militarism most Japanese American would destroy their training equipment and forsake any practice of the art.  Very few were interested in returning to it after the end of WWII.  Ironically, it would be returning GI’s, instructors from Japan, and a handful of holdouts who would be forced to reintroduce the sport to American soil during the post-war period.
I like this article on a number of counts.  While the history of Kendo that it offers is totally unreliable, it does help to answer our initial question.  As a historical document it illustrates a vibrant regional martial arts community in the late 1930s, just a few years before its demise.  Finally it reminds us of the often-paradoxical relationship between the hard power of military might, and soft influence of cultural desire.  Enjoy.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Ins and Outs of Koryu Martial Arts

Ellis Amdur, at his blog Kogen Budo, had a great article on Japanese Koryu martial arts. Koryu are "old" martial arts (various forms for kenjutsu and jujutsu for example) as opposed to Gendai, or "modern" martial arts (judo, karate, etc). 

An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Some time ago, I was sent a set of related questions on licensure and succession within koryū:

  • What are your thoughts on koryū that predominantly only give out one menkyō kaiden, essentially declaring that person to be sōke. Would that mean the rest of the senior practitioners are not allowed to teach or open their own school, since they didn’t achieve the highest possible teaching license?
  • What’s your thoughts on those who stay for decades, even though they would never receive a full teaching license, or how about other schools that might take a person thirty, forty or fifty years to get a license. Is it fair to a practitioner in one of these schools who, even though they have already learned and mastered everything there is to know, they are blocked from teaching? At the same time,  they are unable to break away because they would lose legitimacy or recognition to be a certified instructor?
  • How about those that face discrimination against them as foreigners, whether it is openly shown or not? In other cases, there’s clear favoritism, either to a family member, or to someone who plays the school’s political games–only Japanese people–or people the sōke or shihan likes–ever get promoted. What’s your thoughts on that?
In what follows, I address these questions as if talking to someone specific: “You.”  I do not mean the person who asked the initial questions who honestly, I don’t remember (it’s been three years since I received the questions). It’s a rhetorical device only.

First of all, the sōke (宗家 ‘head of the house/family’) may not be a menkyō kaiden. He or she may not even practice martial arts. The sōke is the lineal successor of a family enterprise. Strictly speaking, he or she should be a member of that family, either by blood or adoption; however, in some ryūha, particularly in modern times, this is pseudo-familial (there is no real familial relationship whatsoever). In that sense, the term has eroded from its original meaning in many ryūha to a generic term meaning ‘headmaster of the school.’
Menkyō kaiden (免許皆伝) is a ‘license of total mastery’ of the curriculum. This term means nothing outside the specific ryūha, as another ryūha or even another instructor of the same school may have different criteria in mind for such an attainment. Furthermore, many ryūha use other terms for essentially the same attainment. It is an abstract concept—there are no specific tests to pass in order to receive such recognition. It should mean that the individual has not only mastered the physical techniques, but also that which makes the school unique: its essential character, so to speak. In many schools, there was a blood oath that one not engage in duels before receiving menkyō kaiden or its equivalent – implicit in this, of course, is that anyone who receives this rank is an exemplary fighter who is expected to win his or her battles, and never shame the ryūha. 
Beyond this, for some schools, this is considered to be a teaching license, with permission to set up one’s own dōjō, or in some cases, one’s own line. In other schools, however, one also must receive a specific teaching license, such as a shihan menjyō (師範免状) to be permitted to teach. In other words, you may be the best technician in the school, but you are not trusted to pass on the tradition to others.
In many traditions, there was no sōke; merely one or more shihan, each with the authority to teach and pass down the ryūha as each saw fit. Other schools have both sōke and shihan

When the sōke does not teach (or in some cases, is not fully versed in the tradition), there may be one, among the shihan, who is designated as shihan-ke (師範家), the ‘house shihan,’ responsible for maintaining the line in the sōke’s home dōjō. Other shihan may teach elsewhere. Before modern times, when the membership and reach of various ryūha was much wider, shihan often had full permission to teach and pass down their own lineage in different locale – they were independent. In other schools, as the original questioner mentioned, there is only one teacher, be they referred to as sōke or not.
Most often, the sōke functions as a center of gravity, rather than the ‘head.’ Tōda-ha Bukō-ryū (戸田派武甲流) is an example of this: we currently are centered around our sōke-dairi (宗家代理) Kent Sorensen (also a holder of a shihan menjyō), and we have, in addition, five shihan, who each lead independent dōjōs. There are certain aspects where Sorensen sensei’s word or decision will direct us all. In most others, we are independent.

Koryū Are Hermetic, Closed Systems
Each koryū has survived by maintained itself as an ‘enclosed’ entity. By this, I mean that it is circumscribed not only by the martial techniques that it practices, but also by its traditions, including leadership structure, which enables it to be passed down, generation after generation. People make a mistake in assuming that this means that it is utterly unchanged for hundreds of years, even though this is a claim that many koryū themselves make. In fact, each generation changes, yet claims that it hasn’t changed at all (and this can include leadership structure!). A perusal of films of Tenshinshō-den Katori Shintō-ryū (天真正伝香取神道流) ranging from 1930 through the present reveals a remarkable range of interpretations of the same kata; a perusal of this school’s various websites shows radical changes in administrative and political structure have occurred within the last several years, changes that ten years ago were unimaginable to most people.
Beyond this, many ryūha have radically altered kata, have even added kata and new weapons sets into their curriculum throughout their history. To cite a single example, one line of Yagyū Shingan-ryū (柳生心眼流) added sets of naginata kata to their curriculum within the 20th century, using their extant bōjutsu kata as a template. Nonetheless, conservatism is an ideology necessary for these entities to survive, for better or for worse. If an autocratic, lineal succession, clinging to one family’s (or a ‘virtual’ family descendant’s) leadership, and squelching others from teaching, either independently or within the dōjō, whether that sōke or shihan is competent or not, is the mode of transmission, then so be it. 

Without it, there would be no koryū today – the proof is the dearth of extant European martial traditions, which died out because they did not have anything similar to koryū‘s method of transmission from generation to generation. If you do not know this entering a koryū, you’ve got no business joining in the first place – you are not suitable as a member. If your attitude upon entering is, “Wait until I get some authority – I’ll make some changes then,”  you are a threat to the survival of the koryū itselfIt is like entering a marriage thinking, “This person is so remarkably unique! There is no one else like them and that’s why I’m so drawn to them. My mission is to destroy all of that, and make them into someone comfortable to me and my predilections.” By and large, I think such autocratic structures are a good thing. As stated above, through this, what otherwise would be lost is saved. Furthermore, some people learn humility through submitting—just because they want something doesn’t mean they will get it. Through this process, they learn to function productively within a group.
What should we make of  those who train, knowing they’ll never be licensed, because that is the way the system is set up, because of prejudices of the teacher, or who ‘wait’ forty-fifty years, despite mastering the curriculum, what then? First of all, is the metric of the value of that person, either intrinsically or to the group, their own perception of themselves?  There are two ways to judge your competence. The first is that of the ryūha’s, as embodied by the head instructor(s), who judges what he or she believes best suits the ryūha’s survival. You may think you are competent, but perhaps you are not. You may be missing something essential, an essential understanding of either physical or psychological principles, that establishes that you do not, in fact, embody the ryūha (Read the saga of Komagawa Tarōzaemon of Komagawa Kaishin-ryū  for an example of this). On the other hand, you may not be as good as you think; you may be abysmally incompetent—a physical idiot. (I’ve seen this far too often, by the way, a misperception of one’s skill that approaches delusion, all too common in schools that have no ‘live training’). Or, you may be physically brilliant, but have character flaws or other deficits that would make you a detriment to the school, at least as far as your teacher is concerned.
On the other hand, what happens if there you are a hot-blooded, independent, powerful young trainee? Please read my chapter on Honma Nen-ryū (本間念流) in Old School  or Ukei Kato of Kitō-ryū in Hidden in Plain Sight for examples of how a martial tradition can do justice to such powerful individuals who, for various reasons, are viewed as not suitable to succeed to the leadership of the school. These chapters describe situations, historically, that went well. If such an accommodation could not be made, in order to keep this person within the orbit of the ryūha as a planet of particular gravity, such a person still had options.
The first alternative is to be a bitter, complaining, individual, who centers his or her life around his or her entitled resentment. No matter how skilled they are, their presence is destructive to the ryūha—and this is true even if, with theoretically better leadership, they would be properly recognized and everyone would benefit—or at least so the resentful person believes. On the other hand, they might be right, but that doesn’t change the situation at all.  In such cases, the problem may eventually be solved when such a person is expelled, known as hamon (破門); in others, the person remains, stuck for years, perhaps a lifetime.
The second alternative would be to accept one’s situation, and live with dignity. For an analogous example, consider a less than perfect marriage. One or both parties is committed to the marriage, for whatever reason and they resolve to live with the other person with as much respect and dignity as they can. They can imagine another life, but they choose this one. In this case, you endure, a virtue uncommon in modern times. You not only endure, you do so without complaint or bitterness. Frankly, this is a perfect embodiment, in microcosm, of one of the core purposes of martial training–facing the reality that, some day, you will die. You learn through this process to live with integrity despite things being not to your liking. If you can live well with death inevitably waiting for you, then perhaps you can train for the sake of training itself, even if it is inevitable that you will not receive what you believe to be your due.
The third alternative would be to quit the school entirely, perhaps joining another faction, or even another school and starting over. Some people will quit budō training altogether.  This could be a superficial act: quitting at the first point of difficulty. It could also be an exemplary choice. You found the wrong school, the wrong teacher, and there, over the next hill, so to speak, is a school better suited to you–and you, better suited for it.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

The Human Body Armor of the Sanchin Kata

Below is a video which shows a demonstration of the formidable effects created by a deep practice of the Sanchin kata.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Bruce Lee and Yiquan

I had read that along with Wing Chun, Bruce Lee had had some instruction in Taijiquan while he lived in Hong Kong. I was not aware of his ever training in any other martial arts while in Hong Kong.

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Be Not Defeated by the Rain, which gives the background, and history of a master Liang Zi Peng, who reputedly taught Bruce Lee Yiquan. The full post may be read here.

The Story of Liang Zi Peng and Bruce Lee
When Bruce Lee was in Hong Kong he had studied Choy Lay Fut with Chen Nian Bo and studied the Jing Wu sets and Tan Tui with Xiao Han Sheng, studied Wing Chun with Yip Man and last of all had studied Yiquan with Liang Zi Peng.
At that time Liang would teach in King's Park in Ho Man Tin, walking along the path stopping at each student he would correct them in sequence.
At that time Lee's father Lee Hoi Chuen who was a famous opera singer, was also practicing in the park and studying Taiji under Liang and was on a friendly basis with Liang. He knew Liang was good at fighting and one day said to Liang: "My son has just come back from overseas and loves kungfu, please instruct him." Later he took him to the park to see Liang, and Liang saw that this young man was eager to learn, and asked him to stand in zhan zhuang while Liang was discussing boxing and fajin with the other students and throwing them into the air. Thus Bruce Lee was able to appreciate the power of Yiquan. 
When Liang taught, he did not care about the forms, but was intent on imparting the principles, first one had to have the frame and then have explosive power. He encouraged his students to study the manuals, to understand the principles and improve their cultivation. He told them to avoid the streets, the brawls and fighting, and stressed that boxing was one of the arts of China. Liang taught all sorts of people, whether you studied Taiji or Southern Styles, he used the principles of Yiquan to correct you, while explaining the applications at the same time and used your own movements to throw you backwards. He was much different from many teachers at the time who only taught the forms and not how to apply the movements.  
This enlightened method which encapsulated all forms of boxing, and was able to knock people down like breaking mountains and pouring out the sea, and throw people back several feet, greatly shocked Bruce Lee and expanded his horizons. 
He stated that he taught according to Wang's principles and was doing away with the feudal relationship between teacher and student.
He stated that when You Peng Xi was learning from Wang in Shanghai, he asked him to call him "Mister Wang", and not "Sifu Wang" for he wanted the martial arts to be popularized,  and to enter into modernity. So at that time Master You also asked his students to call him "Mister You." Thus when Liang was in Hong Kong he forbade his students to refer to him as Sifu, saying that in the north "Sifu" was a term that one used for taxi drivers, cooks, contractors. It was polite term for skilled manual labourers. Calling him Mister Liang, removed the distance between student and master and also did away with the embarrassment for those who came to study who were masters in their own right.
As Liang had his own profession, he did not accept fees for his lessons. He came across as a fashionable and upper class person, and always wore a suit with a tie when he went out. When teaching he wore a white long sleeved shirt with gold rimmed glasses, and looked like a scholar. This was for Bruce a world away from the lower class teachers, dressed in their singlets, who were always swearing and never far away from alcohol and cigarettes.
Bruce also often went with other students to Liang's house, which was on number 18, Austin Road in Jordan. Liang loved to move, and before they could make themselves comfortable, Liang would ask them to get up and move and do zhan zhuang. As soon as he touched them, he pushed them onto the sofa. Lee was intoxicated by the speed at which his hands shot out, without being able to settle he was already flying backwards and seeing stars.
Liang told Lee that he had been taught by You in the same way. First he had to give up each movement of the external styles, and begin again from zhan zhuang, converting the muscular resistance into true jin, before he could reach the next level of martial arts. Just like a glass which is full, if you pour more water into it, it will overflow. If you drink it, it is muddly and unclear. It is imperative to pour out the originally polluted water, before one can pour in the clear water. In order to understand the philosophy, one has to study the classics, of which Zhuang Zi and Lao Zi were the best.
When Liang came to Hong Kong, he brought along many martial arts books, he loved to read martial arts manuals, and would correct them using a red pen. He gave two books Ortohodox Zimen Style  《子門真宗》 and Chen Naizhou's Boxing Manual 《萇乃周拳譜》to Bruce, telling him to study them diligently. Eventually Bruce returned to the United States and never returned the books.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

The Revival of the Ancestor of Muay Thai

The South China Morning Post had an article about the revival of the ancestor martial art of the martial sport of Muay Thai, Bokator. An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here.

Grandmaster San Kim Sean closes his soft brown eyes and pauses. He takes a sharp breath and forces a smile before recalling how he survived the hell that Cambodia was plunged into during the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. During that time, almost a quarter of the country’s population perished.

“You don’t say you do martial arts, you don’t say you went to school, you don’t say you wear glasses. 

You’ll get killed within one minute,” he says. “You have to keep quiet, do what they want, follow their rules and just say yes. Never say no. They will kill you. It was a very terrible time.”

The grandmaster sits on a stool in the centre of his bokator academy in Siem Reap, a basic set-up with a tin roof, whirling ceiling fans, training mats, some battered wooden benches and a stash of ageing wooden weapons propped up in a corner. He becomes animated as he talks about his lifelong passion for the traditional Cambodian martial art, whose name translates as “pounding of the lion”.

“Bokator belongs to our great-great-grandfathers, masters and kings,” says the 73-year-old, who started learning the martial art at the age of 13.

Steeped in history, bokator is believed to have been developed about 2,000 years ago. 

Evidence of its widespread use can be found in etchings on the walls and other religious monuments of Cambodia’s 12th-century Angkor Wat temple complex.

“Angkor Wat was created to protect the country and the Khmer empire,” San Kim Sean says. “They built up a strong army that used bokator.”

He says that while regional sports such as Muay Thai (Thai boxing) are famous throughout the world, their origins come from bokator. This is because the Khmer empire covered vast swathes of Southeast Asia, including large parts of Thailand, during its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries.

“Bokator is the original,” he says with pride.

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Life and Wisdom of Dan Inosanto

Below is an excerpt from a blog post at Century Martial Arts. It contains a brief biography and many quotes from Dan Inosanto. The full post may be read here.

On July 24, 1936, Dan Inosanto was born. As a 4th-grader, he received his first exposure to the martial arts when his uncle taught him te [the Okinawan word for “hand.”]. In college, he studied judo, then dabbled in the Korean, Okinawan and Japanese striking arts.

“The exposure to the various schools in the beginning taught me not to be one-sided, because everyone had his own philosophies and each school seemed to have its good points and bad points. When I learned from Bruce [Lee], we never classified whether a technique was from taekwondo or boxing. If it was usable, we used it.”
—Dan Inosanto

While he was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Inosanto was impressed by a kenpo brown belt he met. Specifically, he liked the fluid manner in which the martial artist moved. 

As soon as he was discharged, Inosanto relocated to Southern California.

“In 1961, I started taking kenpo from Ed Parker at his Pasadena school. At that time, kenpo reached my expectations of what I was seeking in karate. I was looking for a self-defense and also a body-conditioning sport. I became fascinated by the martial arts field and how there could be so many different ways of fighting.”

At age 28, Inosanto received his 1st-degree black belt in kenpo after three years under Parker. On his master’s suggestion, he began training in the blade arts of kali and escrima. His teachers included John Lacoste and Angel Cabales.

“There has always been a stigma that if you fight with a sword, it’s a gentlemanly duel, but if you pull out a knife, it’s a dirty fight. Now, we are pointing out that there is an art to this also.”

Inosanto met Bruce Lee in 1964 at the 1st International Karate Championships in Long Beach, California, where Inosanto was competing. The more he learned about Lee’s fighting philosophy, the more he longed to study under him. But Lee was a man on the go, with one foot in the East and one in the West. So, Inosanto spent his time learning various arts in Southern California. He quickly discovered that what he was doing was a far cry from what Lee advocated for self-defense.
“What they were teaching — the forms, the blocks, the posturing — wasn’t realistic. The means to get good at self-defense became the ultimate end. Their teachings didn’t seem to have any direct relationship to self-defense, although it probably taught me to be graceful and helped with my coordination, posture and smooth, correct body movements. [The instructors were] attempting to teach how to fight without actually fighting.”

At the 1965 Salt Lake City Regional Karate Championships, Inosanto, representing Parker, placed second in the lightweight black belt division. A year later, Inosanto finally got to start training with Lee. Slowly, Dan Inosanto, lover of all things martial, became Dan Inosanto, lover of all things practical.

“It wasn’t until I started learning jeet kune do under Bruce [that] I found a style that used all three important aspects of fighting (speed, power and deceptiveness). Bruce was able to take all the pieces of the puzzle and make them fit together in an integrated system.
“Bruce took something from everybody. He liked Muhammad Ali’s footwork and admired his outside fighting. He liked [Rocky] Marciano’s short punches. He used to study all the knockout punches of Joe Louis.
“It’s not that he embraced Western boxing completely. He felt there were many flaws in boxing, too. But he also felt that out of all the arts in the hand range, boxing had more truth than, let’s say, karate. Not that karate was all flaws — he saw the truth in karate, too. Boxing, he felt, was over-daring, whereas he found karate to be overprotective.”
And, most importantly, Dan Inosanto, martial arts philosopher, was born.
“A man doesn’t excel because of his style. It’s only when a man can go outside the bounds set by his system that he excels. If a martial artist can practice a style without being bound and limited to his particular school, then and only then can he be liberated to fit in with any type of opponent.”
While studying under Lee at the Los Angeles JKD school, the path Inosanto walked didn’t get any easier in terms of philosophy.
“By that time, I had stumbled across many partial truths, and I had become more aware of workable and unworkable techniques. Being a die-hard kenpo man, I found myself confused and frustrated. I began to actually rebel against jeet kune do. I was bound by loyalty to my former instructor and his style.
“Looking back on it, I really didn’t want to see the truth in self-defense. I began to mentally criticize the informal and unstylized way JKD moved, kicked, punched and trained. Yet, I found myself using what I had learned and liking it better than kenpo, finding it more functional, powerful, faster, freer and, above all, the easiest style to express.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Head Punching in Kyokushin Karate

Kyokushin karate has a very tough training program. One criticism that is leveled against the style is the lack of head punching in competition and sparring. What is this?

Below we have an excerpt from a post that appeared at The Martial Way which describes the reasoning behind this. The full post may be read here.

Why Kyokushin Fighters Do Not Punch to the Face

Almost anytime I post a video of a Kyokushin bout there is one or more people who either make a comment about how it isn’t “realistic” because they don’t punch to the face, or, they ask the question of why they don’t. I decided to do some research and create a post that I could just share anytime those comments or questions come up.

That being said, I wasn’t able to find a definitive answer, although a lot of speculation and hearsay. I would love to get a clear answer, perhaps from someone in the early days, or someone who asked Sosai Oyama directly.
From what I have gathered, in the early days of Kyokushin karate training, bare knuckle strikes to the face were allowed, but this resulted in many injuries, and blood, which caused some students to withdraw from training. Also, they wanted the matches to last, be a challenge and not end due to cuts. 

They did for some time wrap their hands in towels, but Sosai Oyama believed that wearing protective gloves would take away from the realistic nature that his style was building.

Therefore, it was decided that hand and elbow strikes to the face, head and neck would no longer be allowed in training and competition.

As a side, google Irish bare knuckle fighting and you will see for yourself the devastation this leaves.
Also, when Sosai Oyama was trying to get permission from the government to host the first All-Japan tournaments he was told face-punches would not be allowed. They could use protective gloves, but as stated earlier, Sosai Oyama believed that wearing protective gloves would detract from the realism that the style emphasized. I have also read that the Japanese public feared that competitors would die at the first full-contact All-Japan tournaments held by Mas Oyama in the late 1960′s, if face punching were allowed.

Furthermore, Japan at that time, and today, along with many governments around the world, do not allow bare-knuckle strikes to the head in any sanctioned competitions.
By the 1990′s when Sosai was still alive and Kyokushin achieved such enormous popularity, all Kyokushin tournaments, including the world tournaments held in Japan, did not allow the competitors the use of hand strikes (punches, elbows, etc.) to the head and face. This was done originally for an obvious reason, as stated above. No one wanted to see so many competitors bloodied and sent to the hospital after competitions.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Training with Thought and Reflection

At ChenTaijiquanWorld blog, there was an article about the importance of matching your physical effort with deep thought and reflection on just what it is you are doing; that it is so easily to go astray in your training.

Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

Wang Zongyue’s classic manual of Taijiquan advises that “an initial error of one inch can result in a deviation of a thousand miles. Practitioners must study and understand the principles very carefully.” Taijiquan is a complex discipline and to have any hope of reaching a competent level great care and attention must be given to your Taijiquan study from the start. It’s easy, especially for beginners, to ignore what seem to be inconsequential details. But making this mistake can cause a learner to misunderstand the art, ultimately preventing them from reaching a true understanding of Taijiquan.

On the training floor many students fail to really pay conscious attention to their practice, paying little more than lip service to following Taiji principles. Filled with their own ideas about what Taijiquan is they don’t listen carefully to the instructions given by their teachers. In many cases they may practice hard but their physical effort is not matched by any deep thought or reflection. The end result, they find it impossible to distinguish between Taijiquan principles and other ideas or disciplines. Their reward after spending in some cases decades of training is a failure to obtain any true Taijiquan skill. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

BJJ as Therapy

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea, regarding Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as therapy, but from a slightly different perspective. The full post may be read here.

Donn F. Draeger’s made no secret of his love for the real “battlefield” martial arts, both in his various publications and many correspondences with friends. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising given his background and experiences as a member of the US Marine Corps.  In practice his conceptualization of what constituted reality led to a fascination with medieval Japanese martial arts (those predating the Meiji and later Tokugawa periods) and an almost contemptuous dismissal of everything coming from China. Afterall, the Japanese had proved themselves on the battlefields of WWII, whereas Draeger found China’s performance lacking in many realms.

The great danger faced by students of martial arts studies is that our personal practice will present us with a mirror showing only what we most desperately want to see.  In it we may find reflected our own desires and life experience. The truth of the matter is that Japan’s ancient warriors didn’t need martial arts schools to become fearsome killers on the battlefield.  As Bennet, Hurst and others have shown, formal fencing schools only arose when warriors began to seize control of the polity from the hereditary nobility and needed to demonstrate their cultural refinement through the creation of social institutions mirroring the tea and poetry schools of their social betters. At the most basic level, Japanese martial arts have always been about something other than training battlefield techniques.  There are easier ways to do that.

It’s also important to note that their early fencing schools focused not on “sparring,” “MMA with swords” or any type of modern combat sport, the sorts of training modalities that we currently view as most “realistic.”  This was simply too dangerous in an era with solid wooden training weapons. Instead students worked to perfect two-person katas for hours on end.  This is almost the exact opposite of what we would think of as battlefield martial arts training today.

The way in which these kata were practiced was strongly shaped by cultural convention.  In most of these imaginary exchanges one player would enact the killing or maiming of their training partner.  By tradition the younger or more junior member of the training pair would practice the “winning” technique, whereas the senior student or instructor would play the role of the loser.  Such an arrangement is pregnant with symbolism.  While the up and coming warriors sharpened their skills, seeking to supplant those senior to them within society’s social and military structures, more experienced warriors spent hours every week psychologically preparing for their own violent deaths.

We risk missing the point by noting that no bladed exchange carried out in the chaos of a real battlefield will look exactly as it did in the training hall.  I suspect that many of the battles being fought there were more personal and psychological in nature.  Thinking psychoanalytically, battlefield veterans such as Draeger and his Japanese interlocutors, all survivors of a violent historical period, seemed to seek out martial art training not because anything in it realistically portrays the challenge of crossing a beach under heavy artillery fire.  Rather they found training these systems, and then passing them on to future generations, to be therapeutic. In that respect they were probably very much like their Bushi and Samurai predecessors.

Shifting Subjectivities on Guam

D. S. Farrer begins his recently published ethnographic treatment of a martial arts school in Guam by noting that “Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is therapy.” Printed on stickers and signs, this thought seems to have become something of a catch phrase in the community which gathered at the Spike 22 gym.  What was meant by the statement was less clear and constantly shifting.  Farrer noted that the phrase could be tossed out as a hypermasculine jab at supposedly weak individuals seeking psychological intervention for dealing with the very real stresses of life on an island dominated by police, military and para-military institutions.  At other times the phrase seems to have been taken up in earnest as instructors sought to help students rethink their relationships with exercise, diet, lifestyle as well as their internal attitudes.

BJJ students do not have a monopoly on the notion that the fighting arts can be therapeutic.  The phrase “Boxing is my Therapy” is so widespread that you can find it on dozens of T-shirts and bumper stickers. The same notion is also seen throughout the Asian martial arts in the West.  I cannot count the number of kung fu students I have known who have discussed their practice in therapeutic terms.  The medicalization of the Chinese martial arts has probably done much to encourage this since at least the 1920s.

As Paul Bowman, in his own treatment of martial arts and madness has observed, the relationship between martial arts training and therapy is now so widespread that even non-practitioners seem to assume that students are driven to take up these practices as a way of battling some unseen inner demon. Celebrity narratives, including those promoted by individuals like Robert Downey Jr. (who practices Wing Chun) and Anthony Bourdain (who studied BJJ) further reinforce this perception. Yet “common sense” has a strange way of eluding deeper study.

Farrer begins his article by laying out a number of basic questions.  How is it that therapy arises from the practice of techniques designed to injure or kill?  On the island of Guam, what is the specific malady that BJJ treats, and (on a related note) who most requires treatment? Third, how does Spike 22 function as a “catch-up institution” where individuals seek treatment.  Lastly, if we understand therapy as a change in lifestyles and dispositions, what exactly is being treated? Is it a body, mind, social group, or some other combination of these factors that remains undertheorized in the current anthropology literature?

This last question is perhaps the most important from the perspective of Martial Arts Studies as a field.  While most authors seek to apply existing theories to new cases, or perhaps develop new approaches to understanding the role of martial arts in society, Farrer’s interests have often been more fundamental in nature.  He is one of a handful of authors writing in the literature who has consistently pushed for new methodological, and conceptual, approaches.

The paradigm shift that this article proposes (though perhaps it also undersells) is a serious move away from “embodiment.” No concept has done more to shape the martial arts studies literature in the last five years.  Yet Farrer finds it unconvincing and ultimately a hindrance in understanding how BJJ might function as therapy in Guam.  In its place he turns to a Deleuzian model of mind and body. His extensive reading of Spinoza also seems to have influenced this article.

Nor can readers ignore the substantive impact of the French Ethnographer Jeanne Favret-Saada on this piece.  Her theoretical insights on how anti-witchcraft treatments might function as therapy in the French countryside are explicitly invoked throughout this article.  They provide the basic foundations of Farrer’s understanding of how the enactment of potentially violent, even deadly, acts in BJJ might function as therapy on a psychoanalytic level.

Still, readers may wonder whether Farrer had a deeper purpose in invoking her work.  Favret-Saada is perhaps best remembered in Anthropological circles today not so much for her ethnography (which was wonderful), but for her blistering attacks on the “Anglo-Saxon” model of participant-observation and symbolic anthropology that dominated much of the 1960s-1970s. Like Farrer her great interests, and frustrations, seem to have been methodological.

She found that it was only possible to gain access to world of magic and witchcraft* that existed in the rural villages of Western France during this time by abandoning the role of dispassionate observer and allowing oneself to be caught up in the swirl and strong emotion of local events, even at the risk of one’s academic project.  In her case this meant becoming an actual victim of witchcraft, coming to understand the importance of both emotions and words within this process, then apprenticing with an anti-witch specialist as part of her own treatment.  She freely admitted that much of what was most important in these experiences defied description and could not be written down in conventional fieldnotes. Her larger research methods largely collapsed the distinction between the observer and the subject at a time when this was rare.

While the field of Anthropology has moved on, Favret-Saada has been a critical figure in methodological discussions.  Readers may want to explore her work as it has obvious implications for how performance ethnography is currently conducted within martial arts studies.  We face many of the same issues when it comes to recording and theorizing types of understanding (or ‘subjectivities’) that defy easy verbalization. One area where I would have liked to see Farrer go farther, and be much more explicit, would be in an assessment for Favret-Saada’s methodological legacy and the lessons that current Martial Arts Studies researchers might learn.  Farrer’s perspectives on this would be especially useful given his seemingly positive relationship with Performance Ethnography as a method.  In contrast, Favret-Saada was explicitly critical of Victor Turner and his ethnographic methods.  This area of tension is one that others in the field might fruitfully explore.

Readers will need to bring a fair amount of their own background to get the most out of these methodological discussions as Farrer lays out his approach but does not belabor the point.  This a rather brief article that dedicates more time to ethnographic observation than theoretical debates.  As such, a wide range of readers will find something of interest here. While it makes important methodological points, at no time does it become bogged down in extended theoretical discussions.

While the phenomenon of “fighting as therapy” is widespread (across both geography and time), Farrer’s treatment of its appearance at the Spike 22 gym is deeply rooted in the particular challenges of its students, and how they are conditioned by the geo-political placement of Guam within the current global order.  Farrer begins by noting that the economy and island’s landmass are dominated by American military bases which have been expanding throughout the post-WWII period.  These structures have provided employment, but also physically displaced many of the Guam’s native inhabitants.  They have been further marginalized by the policies of American military officials attempting to recreate California or Hawaii in this distant location.

The problems faced by this community are not vastly different from those imposed on First Peoples or other colonized subjects around the globe.  They include poverty, substance abuse, chronic crime, obesity and other health problems.  Residents of Guam are US citizens and they enlist in the US military (or other security focused organizations) in high numbers.  Yet they cannot vote in national elections and are denied any form of meaningful political representation in Washington DC.  They lack the most basic and effective means of collectively addressing their problems.  Farrer’s paper might well be thought of as a study on the social functions of a shared martial culture within in a colonized space.

This background is necessary as it explains both the unique nature of Spike 22 and the Janus-faced therapy that BJJ provides its members.  Students at the school (where up to 36 individuals may roll in a busy class) seem to break down into two basic categories.  First there are individuals from various military services (and other aligned support staff) who make up much of the membership.  Given the popularity of BJJ in the armed services, and the number of service men and women on Guam, this is not surprising.  These individuals are overwhelmingly visitors from the mainland.

The population of local students seems to be more varied.  It is comprised of law enforcement officers, local employees of various prison and security services, returned veterans, and a large number of local thugs and petty criminals.  Ignoring the large military component, one of Farrer’s sources characterized Spike 22 as “basically…a place where the police come to roll with criminals.”  Indeed, both elements of local society appear to frequent the same club seeking to hone their craft.

The attraction to local law enforcement officers is more obvious.  Some have to train at least twice a week in a martial art as a condition of their employment.  Others are struggling to maintain a body mass index mandated by their employer.  One of the therapeutic aspects of BJJ that multiple sources noted was its ability to aid in weight loss and inspire individuals to develop a healthy attitude towards food and exercise.

Yet that is only one aspect of this training.  Farrer notes that the global spread of BJJ throughout law enforcement mirrors the increased militarization of these organizations in recent decades.  Guam is no exception to this trend. Rolling with criminals on the mats, subduing them in mock encounters, shifts the subjectivities of law enforcement officers, convincing them of their skill and the probability of their survival of similar encounters on the street.

One imagines that the lessons learned by the less militarized local residents are slightly 
different.  In the best-case analysis, they too may gain healthy habits and develop improved social networks.  And there is always the promise that BJJ can help a skilled but smaller opponent overcome a larger, less trained, adversary.  Yet when examined through the lens of colonization, one suspects that what many of these marginal local students will bodily experience is an almost unending stream of highly skilled and enthusiastic BJJ students who represent the very forces of militarized imperialism that are disrupting the local economy and society.  While rolling in a BJJ class they likely experience symbolic manifestations of the very real violence inherent in life on the edge of an American military outpost.

Or perhaps not.  Turning to the pioneering work of Jeanne Favret-Saada, we might note that an amorphous feeling of powerlessness (often the result of an inexplicable run of bad luck on the farm) is one of the major defining characteristics of a victim of witchcraft in Western France in the late 1960s.  Anti-witch specialists did not confine their work to ritual and magic.  Instead they sought to both diagnose a specific cause of misfortune and to lay out a path for the farmer in question whereby they could recover their position in society.  Very often this blame shifting involved putting this individual in touch with “dark side” forces and encouraging them to ruthlessly dispossess other family members or neighbors so that they could regain their economic footing and stature as a successful “producer.”  Farrer notes that an encounter with the dark forces of witchcraft was often instrumental in “rehabilitant” individuals such that they could succeed in a ruthless competitive capitalist environment.

Farrer has previously explored the capitalist and ideological underpinnings of the global spread of MMA, so it is not surprising to see him apply this same basic framework to BJJ training in Guam.  Rather than seeing the virtual murder/suicides of BJJ training as a paradox that the analyst must explain, they are now viewed as generating the emotional force that serves to put the student in touch with the “dark side” (Farrer’s term) and allows them to fundamentally reconfigure their personality for success in a badly disrupted and hyper-competitive environment.  More specifically, it allows indigenous islanders to adopt a new definition of the warrior ethos that is globally valid, while at the same time finding the tools to resist a local culture that is deeply cooperative in nature and not well suited to succeeding within a late capitalist global order.