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 ~


Tuesday, July 07, 2020

The Historical Role of Religion and Spirituality in Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from a post at Kung Fu Tea regarding the historical role of religion and spirituality in traditional Chinese martial arts. The full post may be read here.

Can the confused lead others to clarity?  Perhaps the title of this essay risks overselling the contents as I can think of no subject within the field more demanding of nuance, yet less likely to receive it, than the relationship between the martial arts, religion and spirituality.  Entire books have been written attempting to define the latter two terms, both of which are always culturally and historically bounded.  And we all expect that it’s only a matter of time until someone decides to give us a book length definition of martial arts as well. (Whether that is a good idea is another question altogether). 

 All of which is to say that bringing these three subjects together in the same sentence is a recipe for complexity.
 
Nor is it a coincidence that this subject creates polarized opinions within the ranks of practitioners and scholars of martial arts. How could it be otherwise? On some level I think that we all look to the actions and opinions of others to lend credibility to our own investments in the martial arts.  And what could be more fundamental to understanding the nature and purpose of these practices than the notion that they convey a deeper mystery that transcends the outward practices which we all observe?
 
If you are of a certain generation, chances are you were introduced to the Chinese martial arts by the image of either David Carradine (Kung Fu) or Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon) philosophizing with warrior monks in mysterious temples.  This orientalist imagery fit nicely with the growing currency of the TCMA in a counterculture movement that was steeped in the writing of popularizers like Alan Watts. Nor was it simply a product of the Western imagination. Important early teachers of the Chinese martial arts in the West, individuals like Zheng Manqing, explicitly framed their efforts with the promise that one could combine martial, artistic, medical and spiritual achievement through the mastery of a single martial discipline.  Such a promise must have been music to the ears of a generation dealing with the disenchantment of globalization, social upheaval and geo-political conflict.  When looking at period sources it is thus interesting to note that the Asian martial arts seem to be spiritualized in the discussions of the 1970s-1980s in ways that even the same systems were not in the 1920s-1940s.
 
The excesses of this countercultural approach to the martial arts sparked their own backlash.  In the practical realm a number of arts and schools increasingly defined themselves in opposition to these images or, in their view, misconceptions.  Wing Chun schools in America tended to do away with the incense burning and memorial walls so common in other Hong Kong derived kung fu traditions.  Ip Man himself discouraged the practice of music and Lion Dancing within his organization and moved any discussion of traditional medicine into the private realm.  His practice was to be a modern self-defense art open to all.  And in a situation like this, it is hard to read the term “modern” and not also think “secular.”  The post-war process of embedding and localizing the Asian martial arts in North America (such as the rise of competitive contact Karate or Olympic Judo) often seemed to be accompanied with the distancing of these practices from their “traditional” (or perhaps spiritual) missions.
 
Researchers like Stanley Henning, Brian Kennedy and others in the first generation of what we might think of modern Martial Arts Studies would tackle the supposed spiritual origins of these practices head on.  Both individuals were influenced by traditions of Chinese martial arts histography that were established by scholars of the 1930s-1940s. These were the decades of the state sponsored Guoshu reform movement, perhaps the first moment in China’s history when the tools of modern scholarship and cultural criticism could be turned on the Chinese martial arts.  In general, scholars of the era (individuals like the pioneering Tang Hao) attempted to place the martial arts on a sound materialist footing by rejecting stories of wandering monks, Daoist immortals and divine inspiration. They instead sought to find the origins of systems like Taijiquan or Bagua through documentary criticism, sociological theory and fieldwork in places like Chen Village.
 
The image of the Chinese martial arts which the work of Kennedy and Henning generated was remarkably secular and mundane compared to the clear flights of fancy that television programs like Kung Fu had promoted a few decades earlier.  They focused on martial arts traditions that were eminently practical, the domain of village militias, KMT sponsored military academies, government sponsored programs or university-based physical culture programs.  All of this stuff did exist, and it did dominate much (though not all) of the public discussions of the Chinese martial arts in the 1930s.  I have written about these same subjects in many places on this blog. These were the sorts of modern martial artists that were sent to represent China at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
 
Its probably worth noting that the reformers guiding the KMT and the Central Guoshu Association during these years were very influenced by Western ideology and scholarship. Indeed, their writings are full of contemporary concepts like “Social Darwinism.” They were well versed with the sorts of theories and concepts that are now called the Modernization Hypothesis, and they seemed to accept its corollary, the Secularization Hypothesis. They believed that China could not reach its potential as a modern state without dumping the superstition and backwardness of its past.
 
In effect that meant purging traditional religion and activities associated with ritual religious practice (such as vernacular theater traditions which were at the heart of every town’s temple festival) from their reformed and modernized martial arts.  Given that individuals supporting these notions both wrote many of the surviving records of the period and laid the theoretical foundations for future historical studies of the Chinese martial arts, it is perhaps no surprise that later scholarship came to see the traditional martial as being primarily practical and secular practices.  The always excellent work of Peter Lorge would be one example of this school.  As is so often the case, the sort of image that the Central Guoshu Institute wished to project into the future also came to define much of how we see China’s past.
 
Clearly much of this scholarship has value.  And we are all better off if we are not forced to rely on David Carradine as our defining image of the Chinese martial arts.  The vast modernization efforts of the early 20th century generated a broad base of support within Chinese society and largely continue to define our experience of the Chinese martial arts today.  They are the proximate cause of the world that we have inherited, and so scholars must respect and deal with these impulses.  Still, it would be a mistake to assume that this is all that has ever existed.
 
My own historical work on the development of the Southern Chinese martial arts illustrated, at great length, how successful Guangdong’s martial arts community was at resisting and subverting these modernization efforts during the 1920s-1930s.  When Masters fled the Pearl River Delta to areas like Hong Kong, Taiwan or Malaysia in the 1950s they were able to preserve many of the “superstitious” cultural practices and beliefs (practices like spirit writing, spirit possession, and exorcism rites) that the KMT had worked so hard to stamp out decades previously. And the love of supernal warriors that had dominated Cantonese opera stages soon found a new home (minus its former ritual context) in Hong Kong’s martial arts film industry. Anthropological scholars like Daniel Amos were able to document all of these practices in the 1970s and 1980s during the course of their fieldwork.
 
While the practice of the TCMA seems to be struggling, we are currently living in the golden age of martial arts studies scholarship.  We now know, as Scott Phillips has argued, that accounts of Southern Chinese martial arts interacting with the world of opera are very plausible (though it did not always take the glorious forms that various kung fu stories would have one believe).  While scholars like Shahar have demonstrated that the Southern Shaolin Temple of legend is a myth, interviews and fieldwork have demonstrated that Guangdong and Fujian had multiple Buddhist temples where monks really did supplement their income by teaching marital arts (in addition to basic literacy) during the early 20th century, and a few of these seem to have adopted the Shaolin label as good advertising.  

Further, the careful ethnographic work of Avron Boretz in Southern Taiwan and Southern China has demonstrated that the religious and spiritual aspect of the martial culture is not only very much alive, but also remains a primary method of self-actualization for marginalized young men throughout the region.
 
Yet Boretz’s work also located and illustrated the point where this conversation becomes difficult.  

While his field work initially focused on martial arts students in Taiwan, he became interested in the fact that many of them were also members of temple ritual societies. These temple troops led processions through the neighborhood and were often practicing both a mixture of mundane skills (music, lion dancing, theatrical martial performance), as well as more exotic spiritual technologies (possession, exorcism rituals).  In point of fact, the individuals who ran these groups were often martial artists.  Yet the temple troop (which was a community non-profit organization) often maintained a separate corporate identity from any of the commercial martial arts schools that these individuals may also have been part of.  So to what extent can we say that the practice of martial arts in Southern Taiwan, in the community of marginal individuals that Boretz observed, had a religious or a spiritual component to it?


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