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 ~


Monday, June 21, 2021

How to Become Anti-Fragile

A post at Zen Habits described a program to develop oneself to become anti-fragile. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

As I’ve been diving into my Fearless Mastery mastermind program, with some of the most amazing people, I’ve been introducing some key ideas for training ourselves …
These are ideas I’ve been developing in my Sea Change and Fearless Training programs, as I’ve trained thousands of people to shift their habits as well as the patterns that get in the way of our meaningful work.
Here’s the problem when we try to train ourselves to change:
  1. We set out to do something regularly — exercise, meditate, write, create something, etc.
  2. We fail at it.
  3. Then we fall apart. We might beat ourselves up, get discouraged, and give up.
This is a fragile, non-resilient approach. Maybe we try this half a dozen times, and eventually we think something is wrong with us.
There’s nothing wrong with us. The problem is with the fragile approach of falling apart when we fail.
Instead, I’ve been training people with the idea of anti-fragility built into our training system.

Anti-Fragility, in Short

The idea of anti-fragility comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Black Swan: the basic idea is that many human-made systems are fragile. Something comes to stress the system, and it falls apart. Some systems are robust or resilient, which is much better than fragile.
But even better is the idea of being anti-fragile: stress makes the system stronger.
Human systems are anti-fragile — when we exercise, we’re stressing the system, and after we recover, we’re stronger and better able to handle that stress. Bones get denser with impact. Lots of natural systems have anti-fragile mechanisms built in.
We can make human-made systems more anti-fragile by designing ways that stress will make the system better able to handle stress. Failure helps the system get stronger.
Let’s look at how to apply this idea into our training — any kind of learning, habit formation, physical or mental training, anything where we’re trying to improve something.

Key ideas for Anti-Fragility

Before we get into specifics for training systems, let’s look at some key ideas I’ve found to be useful:
  1. Expect stress, failures, crashes.
  2. Design the training system to not only be resilient, but to get stronger with stresses & failure.
  3. Start by removing fragility from the system. Examples: smoking, debt, having too many possessions, or being super hurt or pissed when you get criticism or failure.
  4. Take small risks often. Small experiments designed to help us learn from failure. Example: every day, I try to get better at doing hard work, with each day being a mini-experiment. I fail often, which means I learn often.
  5. Embrace uncertainty, risk, failure, discomfort. These become things to help you grow, rather than things to be avoided or complain about, or things that cause you to collapse entirely. Embrace variability, noise, tension.
  6. The attitude is to always learn & get better from failure. Don’t bemoan it, embrace it and learn, improve, grow stronger. Love error. When your system gets stressed, how will it respond to get stronger?
  7. Intentionally inject stress into your life – do sprints, lift heavy weights, fast, take cold showers, take on challenges, experiments and adventures.
Now let’s apply this to our training systems.



Friday, June 18, 2021

The Dao De Jing, #79: After Calming Great Anger

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 #79: After Calming Great Anger.



After settling down for great anger

There are always resentments left over.

How can this be considered as good?

Therefore the sage keeps her part of the deal, 

And doesn't badger the other party.



The virtuous ascertain the content of the contract itself;

Those without virtue are concerned about it's being exacted. 



The Heavenly Way has no favorites:

It always raises up the Good. 1

 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Fu Zhen Song Biography

Below is an excerpt from a biographical piece on Fu Zhen Song, the founder of the Fu internal martial arts system (which includes Baguazhang, Taijiquan and Xingyiquan) that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

... Fu’s peripatetic life contains many twists and suggests lingering, unanswered, question. Yet it also exemplifies the ability of the Chinese martial arts to function as a pathway for social mobility for poor youth from the countryside during times of almost unimaginable political and social upheaval. Fu’s life was shaped by the banditry and militarization that defined the end of the Qing dynasty, and the early years of the Republic. The social networks shared by martial artists, soldiers, armed escort companies and bandit chieftains proved to be essential in not just surviving, but thriving, in the volatile world of the 1920s and 1930s.

Through of his expertise in the martial arts, Fu received the support and sponsorship of some of the most powerful men in China. In exchange he would support their mission of building a strong and unified state through martial practice. The entrance of the northern fighting systems into the south was not a matter of happenstance.  Both his contributions to that event, and life in general, can only be understood when we place them in the proper social/political context.
As with other entries in this series, I should begin with the disclaimer that I am not a Baguazhang student and my own practice of the southern arts falls far outside Fu’s sphere of influence. This biographical sketch does not claim to use any secret or closely held information. I have relied on a handful of published sources that have discussed Fu Zhensong’s contributions to the internal arts as well as my own understanding of political and social worlds that he attempted to navigate.
By far the most helpful of the existing sources is Lin Chao Zhen’s (edited by Wei Ran Lin and Rick L. Wing) Fu Zhen Song’s Dragon Bagua Zhang (Blue Snake Books 1997, 2010). While not attempting to be a scholarly book, the historical discussions in the first two chapters of this work are truly important.  At one point in time, prior to the current explosion of publications on the topic, this would have been one of the best sources on modern Chinese martial arts history that readers could hope to encounter. The editors of this work did an excellent job parsing conflicting accounts and reconstructing the most likely course of events. Yet as a popular work they did not list the specific sources they were dealing with, and there appear to be a few minor mix-ups as they move into discussion of the politically chaotic environment within the KMT during the 1920s. Still, their book is clearly where anyone interested in reading more about Fu’s life should begin.

Bandits and Boxers
Fu Qian Kun was born to a farming family in Mape Village in Henan province sometime around 1872. The exact date, like many other details of Fu’s early life, remains a matter of dispute.
Students of Chinese martial history will no doubt be familiar with the many surveys of this region that have been completed by scholars such as Esherick, Perry and Cohen as they attempted to deal with the region’s long history of social unrest and the eventual outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion in 1899-1900. While most details of Fu’s childhood and early life are missing, we actually know quite a bit about the world that he grew up in. Shaped as it was by successive waves of famine and banditry, it is unsurprising that the martial arts would be a critical force during his formative years.
Tradition within the Fu family lineage note that Mape followed the common regional pattern of setting aside a plot of land as a communal boxing ground. The village would hire outside instructors who taught skills that could be used for community defense, or simply for entertainment during the agricultural slack season. Such village boxing grounds would become central locations in the rise of Plum Blossom Boxing, the Big Sword Society and later the Yihi Spirit Boxing movement. They would survive as a social institution well into the twentieth century when they were repurposed as the training ground from the Red Spears that resisted local warlords, KMT tax collectors, and Japanese invaders with equal ferocity. Given the weak position of the gentry and landlords in these more marginal areas, boxing grounds became an important mean of social organization in a crisis and a means of asserting local autonomy.
Lin notes that in 1888, when Fu Qian Kun was about 16, the village decided that it was expedient to hire a communal martial arts instructor. Chen Yanxi (father of Chen Fake) received a contract and traveled from Chen Village to begin teaching at the Mape boxing ground. It is believed that his curriculum would have included “Old Frame” Chen-style Taiji (larger circles, with a pronounced emphasis on striking), a push-hands method and probably spear work (a Chen family specialty and practical skill for a community worried about bandit incursions).
Lineage tradition states that Fu’s family was poor and, not being able to afford the tuition, he stood outside the boxing ground copying the movements from afar until Chen Yanxi took notice of him and, realizing his dedication, accepted him as a student. Lin and Wing note this reading of events sounds suspiciously like a number of other stories. Such stereotyped tales are probably retold as a way to emphasize the dedication of the student and the virtue of the teacher. A more likely scenario is that, given the lack of security in the region, all available young men would have been encouraged to study with the boxing master as this functioned as a type of militia training that the community as a whole benefitted from. Indeed, Fu’s martial practice would remain intertwined with military for most of his life.
It is unclear exactly how long Chen Yanxi remained in Mape. We know that after he left the village hired Jia Qi Shan, a Bagua master and student of Dong Hai Chuan, as their next instructor.  Sources say that Fu studied with Jia for 8-9 years and may have become his formal disciple. Lin and Wing caution that those numbers don’t actually fit well with Fu’s life. This may be the amount of time he worked with both Chen and Jia, or he perhaps he continued his association with Jia after they both left the village.  The existing accounts are not clear on this point.
What we do know is that Fu began to go by the name Fu Zhen Song (“to overcome the mountains”) around this time. With a background in both Chen Taijiquan and Baguazhang, Jia encouraged his student to travel to Beijing in order to gain connections and experience the larger world of martial arts mastery for himself.  It seems likely that Fu was in his mid 20s when he took this step. There are also accounts that suggest that Fu himself may have served as the village boxing instructor at some points during this period.
If so, his tenure was likely to have been an eventful one. 1900 saw widespread violence as the Yihi Boxer movement swept the countryside of Northern China before centering its fury on the foreign presence in Beijing.  The immediate aftermath of this was more bloodshed and foreign military raids into the countryside around Beijing as the seven powers attempted to hunt down any remaining Boxers. Nor can we forget the lingering effects of the famine that motivated so many young men to join the ranks of the Yihi Boxers in the first place.
Social violence echoed throughout the countryside and Mape village was not spared. There are accounts of Fu personally facing down a small gang of local bandits while armed with a pole (possibly made of iron) in 1900.  In another account, which Lin and Wing deem to be credible, Fu was forced to interrupt his time in Beijing (where he was studying Bagua with Ma Gui, a senior disciple of Yin Fu) to return to his village in 1908 where there were rumors of trouble.
In the most spectacular versions of the story Fu, discovering the villagers massively outnumbered by a force of 300 bandits, Fu offered to fight a duel with their top 20 men.  The bandit leader was so impressed with his subsequent victory that he broke off the assault.  However, Lin and Wing note that Fu’s own account of the events (while cryptic) is far more realistic.  When directly questioned later in life he told his student Lin Chao Zhen “They told me there was trouble, so I grabbed a spear and went out to face them.  There were about 30 of them. I fought them, they left.”
According to Lin and Wing, it seems likely that Fu killed two of the raiders in a clash between roughly equal numbers of villagers and bandits. The legal repercussions for killing someone in Imperial China were serious, and on the dusty northern plains the line between one village’s militia and the next’s bandit gang was paper thin.  It was not uncommon for villages militias to turn bandit and raid neighboring settlements in times of famine, or for them to be used to settle disputes.  We don’t really know what sparked this particular clash, but its implications were serious enough that Fu left home and he doesn’t seem to have really returned. Instead this clash seems to mark the beginning of a long period of martial pilgrimage that would only end with his settlement in Guangzhou in 1928.
Banditry was a major problem in the final years of the Qing dynasty.  Successful groups could assemble forces numbering in the thousands and occasionally tens of thousands. These bandit armies would lay siege to small cities and challenge the authority of civil and military authorities. Lacking other options, the state sometimes dealt with particularly successful bandits by offering them commissions as military officers in exchange for their services hunting down other bandit groups or suppressing insurrection in the countryside. Like the martial arts, banditry proved to be a pathway for social advancement for some of China’s landless youth during volatile times.
Nor should we underestimate just how high one’s fortunes could rise.  Republic era generals Zhang Zuolin and Li Zongren were important figures in the political history of the 1920s and 1930s. Both men also crossed paths with Fu at various points.
Zhang and Li each began their rise to power as bandit chieftains in some of the same areas of Northern China that Fu would explore as a member of an armed escort company.  Both men would successfully parlay their original commissions by the Imperial military into positions of influence, and immense personal enrichment, in the armies of the 1920s and 1930s.  During the early 20th century they would also use their followers as “armed escort companies” when periods of relatively peace allowed regional trade in Henan and Shandong.  Fu’s formative years occurred in decades when the line between martial artists, bandit, soldier and armed escort/security guard were thin and ever shifting.  Indeed, these social networks would have an important shaping impact on Fu’s own rise to prominence.
Between the years 1910 and 1913 Fu Zhen Song traveled widely, exploring northern China.  In 1910 he was hired by one of Henan’s many armed escort companies, the Heng Xin Bio Ju. While working with them he traveled the dangerous routes between Henan and Shandong until the firm was ultimately forced to close by the conclusion of the revolution in 1912.
Fu continued to travel for another year, apparently seeking out martial arts instruction.  During late 1912 or 1913 he encountered noted Daoist and swordsman Song Wei Yi (1855-1925). While he may have studied some sword material with him, Lin and Wing report that his main aim was to learn Taiji Lightening Palm and Rocket Fist.
During this time Fu somehow found the opportunity to marry Han Kunru, the daughter of another martial arts teacher from Northern China. They would eventually have four children in total, two sons and two daughters. The elder son would go on to inherit his father’s martial lineage, and later taught Mark Bow Sim, the mother of film star Donnie Yen. While the younger son was not interested in martial arts, there are accounts of both daughters assisting their father in Taijiquan demonstrations.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Traditional Martial Arts vs Reallity

Below is an opinion piece from the South China Morning Post which posits the question: Are most traditional martial arts fake?

The full post may be read here.

It is followed by an excerpt from Kung Fu Tea, which references the first post and makes a counter argument. That full post may be read here. 

I still remember my first ice hockey fight. All the movies I’d watched as a kid, where highly choreographed fight scenes looked like expertly planned dance routines, had horribly lied to me. By the time I realised I was in a fight, at the tender age of 16, it was already half over and I’d taken three or four solid shots to the face and my jersey had been pulled well over my head, rendering me blind.

The experience was jarring: unfiltered chaos, blurred vision in one eye from an errant thumb poke, a ringing eardrum from getting punched in the side of the head, the taste of my own blood and swallowing a tooth. There was just disorganised, violent confusion with a skyrocketing heart rate and buckets of adrenaline.

I held my breath as my body went into shock and when it was over I threw up in the penalty box from exhaustion, even though the whole thing lasted less than 45 seconds.

After about a dozen or so, I started to get the hang of it and learned a few things: an actual fight is about survival. Fights do not happen in closed environments and any time to think is about the same amount of time it will take for your opponent to break your nose.

In one fight, I remember getting my hand caught on my combatant’s shoulder pad. I took three off the chin before I realised his pads were tied to his body and I could use them to take him to the ground. In another tilt, the first punch I threw shattered one of my knuckles on my opponent’s visor and I had to learn how to be a southpaw in about two milliseconds. In one fight I ended up on the concrete ground at the rink as the trainer had forgotten to close the bench door because he was too busy watching the madness in front of him.

What I’m getting at here is that I’m pretty sure no dojo or tai chi master teaches this. There are martial arts you practice in a vacuum, and there is being in a fight. These are two very different things. By no means am I an expert pugilist, but I've been in enough altercations to know things like meditation and flow states will get your head kicked in during a real bout.

A fight is a visceral, primal experience and when you are fighting your physical doppelganger, you can get seriously hurt if you mess around even for a split second.

I’ve watched enough of the same videos I’m sure you all have where a wing chun or kung fu master gets quickly dismantled by a mixed martial artist. The morbid curiosity has got the best of me many times even though I know the storyline: MMA, which teaches people to fight, is a far cry from other traditional disciplines which are heavy on the artistry. 

Still, I can’t help myself in watching these beat downs because I think it exposes an important fallacy floating around the martial arts world: that going to a couple of karate classes or learning moves from a wing chun master will help you in an actual fight, be it in a ring, octagon or out on the street.
 
While the recent documentary The Game Changers talks about former UFC fighter James Wilks’ experience in investigating plant-based diets, one part of the film stuck with me. Wilks remembers being young and getting into his first street fight after taking years of karate and getting rightly pummelled. It was a watershed moment for the fighter and it should ring true for many within the fighting world. You don’t know how ill-equipped you actually are against a much better fighter until you are brutally exposed in embarrassing fashion.

The important thing is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Karate is great for things like self-confidence, discipline, meditation and various other life skills. Wing chun can teach you how to control your mind, regulate your breathing and helps with stretching and toning muscles. These disciplines work around relaxing and centering the psyche, which is incredibly beneficial for kids who have attention issues and adults who have anxiety and stress.

But the buck needs to stop there. Mixed martial artists, pioneered by Bruce Lee himself, have come on the scene as taking the best of various disciplines, from taekwondo to boxing, from jiu-jitsu to Muay Thai, and combining them with the purpose of teaching people how to fight, and more importantly, defend themselves properly from other fighters.
 I still remember my first ice hockey fight. All the movies I’d watched as a kid, where highly choreographed fight scenes looked like expertly planned dance routines, had horribly lied to me. By the time I realised I was in a fight, at the tender age of 16, it was already half over and I’d taken three or four solid shots to the face and my jersey had been pulled well over my head, rendering me blind.

The experience was jarring: unfiltered chaos, blurred vision in one eye from an errant thumb poke, a ringing eardrum from getting punched in the side of the head, the taste of my own blood and swallowing a tooth. There was just disorganised, violent confusion with a skyrocketing heart rate and buckets of adrenaline.

I held my breath as my body went into shock and when it was over I threw up in the penalty box from exhaustion, even though the whole thing lasted less than 45 seconds.

After about a dozen or so, I started to get the hang of it and learned a few things: an actual fight is about survival. Fights do not happen in closed environments and any time to think is about the same amount of time it will take for your opponent to break your nose.In one fight, I remember getting my hand caught on my combatant’s shoulder pad. I took three off the chin before I realised his pads were tied to his body and I could use them to take him to the ground. In another tilt, the first punch I threw shattered one of my knuckles on my opponent’s visor and I had to learn how to be a southpaw in about two milliseconds. In one fight I ended up on the concrete ground at the rink as the trainer had forgotten to close the bench door because he was too busy watching the madness in front of him.What 

I’m getting at here is that I’m pretty sure no dojo or tai chi master teaches this. 

There are martial arts you practice in a vacuum, and there is being in a fight. 

These are two very different things. By no means am I an expert pugilist, but I've been in enough altercations to know things like meditation and flow states will get your head kicked in during a real bout.









Sunday, June 06, 2021

Sports as Philosophy

When practiced at it's highest, sports is every bit as transformative as martial arts practice and is a study in philosophy. 

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at ESPN about Stoicism and sports. The full post may be read here.

"Waste no more time arguing what a good man should do. Be one." -- Marcus Aurelius, "Meditations"

Here is Ryan Holiday, alone in his off-campus apartment at UC Riverside, a decade before he writes a book that Tom Brady poses with next to his Super Bowl-winning football and Rory McIlroy credits with helping him maintain his No. 1 ranking on the PGA Tour. Here is Ryan Holiday before all of that, a gangly 19-year-old sophomore sitting at his kitchen table in 2006 and reading a book that fundamentally alters his life: Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations."

"How did no one tell me about this?" he thinks.

Aurelius, the second-century Roman emperor, practiced a philosophy called Stoicism that argues individuals shape their destinies by controlling what they can and letting go of what they cannot. The Stoics believe the essence of life is how we choose to respond to the things that happen to us.
"Choose not to be harmed and you won't feel harmed," Aurelius writes.

Holiday writes it down. He copies dozens of passages and tapes them to his apartment walls.
"The impediment to action advances action."

"What stands in the way becomes the way."

He reads other Stoics: Epictetus, whom Aurelius loved, and Seneca the Younger, an ancient Roman senator. Holiday practices Stoicism, even after he drops out of UC Riverside to work at a Hollywood talent agency, even after he moves on to American Apparel, where he becomes the director of marketing before he can legally drink. At home he pursues the Stoic tenets of discipline and humility, reading books on philosophy, science and history. He tracks the insights from these books on 4-by-6-inch notecards that fill multiple boxes and become Holiday's own card-catalog system. At work, his voracious curiosity and consuming ambition fuel risqué American Apparel campaigns that give the company, and Holiday himself, a bad-boy reputation. He serves as American Apparel's spokesperson when former employees file sexual harassment suits against the company. He consults for celebrities like Tucker Max, the author of "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell." He loses his bearings.

His reading tells him: He has a choice to make. He can be the man he is or, as Aurelius writes, the man he should be. He quits his job. He writes a self-immolating memoir about the Wild West of digital marketing, "Trust Me: I'm Lying," which shocks everyone and becomes a bestseller. He moves from New Orleans to New York to a farm outside Austin, Texas, and along the way tells his publisher his follow-up will not be scandalous. It won't even be a business book. It'll be about Stoicism.

It'll show how Stoic thinking can improve modern lives. His publisher says the book won't sell well, but Holiday believes he's far from the only person who yearns for ancient wisdom. He takes the book's title from a phrase on a Post-it note on the Riverside kitchen wall: "The Obstacle Is The Way."




Monday, May 31, 2021

The Kung Fu Masters of China's Henan Province

Below is an excerpt from the travel column at the South China Morning Post regarding the kung fu masters presently teaching in Henan Province. The whole article  may be read here.


Shaolin Temple. Those two words may conjure up images of Zen-like monks living a reclusive life in the mountains, imitating the movements of animals in the pursuit of enlightenment. Or perhaps you picture those monks doing somersaults, landing to break metal bars over their heads while spears are stuck into their throats. The cinema and savvy publicity by the current abbot have a lot to answer for.
 
I am visiting Henan province’s Dengfeng county, home to the temple, to track down styles of kung fu that have been practised in the area since the late Ming, early Qing dynasties. 

Television viewers have seen Dengfeng town, its streets teeming with kung fu kids jogging up and down in tracksuits before disappearing into their schools to practise routines. In the flesh, the scale of these institutions is overwhelming. But I am not here to visit these large modern schools.

Shaolin kung fu is misunderstood. TV shows would have us believe a monk named Bodhidharma, from India, taught yogic type exercises to the Buddhist monks to relieve aches and pains brought on by long periods of meditation. It was this, they say, that inspired the monks to create styles of kung fu based on the movements of animals.

The truth, though, is more prosaic. The Shaolin Temple lies in a mountain pass not far from the ancient capital of Luoyang. War, banditry and rebellion have long ravaged the area. The temple was often caught in the middle and so kept its own militia. Over hundreds of years, the fighters absorbed various forms of martial arts from the surrounding areas, the temple becoming a hub for the exchange of ideas and the development of kung fu.
Kung fu students train in Dengfeng.

I base myself at the small school of Hu Zhengsheng, in a village between the Shaolin Temple and Dengfeng town. Master Hu’s school focuses on Xinyiba, the so-called internal art of Shaolin, which takes a mini­malist attitude to training: a few core movements used to develop coordination and the mind-body connection.

Hu is one of the few teachers still in con­tact with the old masters out in the villages. Down to earth, tall and slim, he smiles often and doesn’t fit the stereo­typical kung fu master mould. 

He enjoys having his foreign students hang out and drink tea in his office; a respite, he says, from the stress of dealing with officials and the bureaucracy involved in running a business such as his. Hu sits on the floor and stretches his legs while telling us about his own shifus, principles and theory of the art. He swings around rusty antique weapons as he talks.

My search for the old Shaolin methods leads me first to 90-year-old Mao Yonghan, who, I’ve been told, was a monk in pre-revolution times. Hu phones ahead to tell Mao I am going to visit and, along with one of Hu’s students, I take a taxi to the address I have been given.

The small block of flats in the middle of Dengfeng town is old and run down. Next to it is wasteland littered with bricks, broken glass and rubble that residents have optimi­stically turned into an allotment. A man waiting by the road tells us he is Mao’s son and leads us into a concrete room on the ground floor of the residential block. Other than a small shrine and photos of people in kung fu poses on the wall, the damp, musty room is empty. Mao enters, dressed in full monk regalia, to greet us.

The story goes that in the 1930s, his parents sold him to the temple in exchange for corn and then went off to be beggars. He was raised by the Shaolin monks and train­ed as a wuseng (warrior monk). When he reached adulthood, he left monastic life to marry and start a family, but continued his martial arts. He began teaching only later.

Our meeting feels strained. The son sits us down for tea but will not let us converse with his father.We leave confused, and with­out having found out much about Mao’s fighting style. Fortunately, other masters live in the area.





Friday, May 28, 2021

The Shadow Ranking System in Martial Arts


We're all familiar with the kyu-dan, colored and black belt ranking system. Some of us are also familiar with the kyoshi-renshi-shihan designations. Sometimes they co-exist alongside each other.

There is also the senpai (or sempai)-kohai system, which has to do with seniority.

Over at Kogen Budo, Ellis Amdur published an article about the senpai-kohai system. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read  here.


Senpai-Kohai: The Shadow Ranking System



Several decades ago, my friends Phil & Nobuko Relnick, high ranking members of Shinto Muso-ryu and Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu were traveling in Portugal. They visited a school of jogo do pau. Phil and Nobuko wanted to pay proper respect to the school they were visiting, and in proper Japanese fashion, asked, “Who is the instructor.” The older men looked puzzled, conferred with each other and pointing to one man, said, “Probably him. He’s the oldest.”

Martial arts rooted in a locale, be it a village, a hunter-gatherer band, or a faction in  a city, often did not have ranks, in the sense that we imagine it. Rather, the people with the most skill (of any age) were treasured and respected for their utility and elders were respected for their knowledge, their history and their authority as elders. This certainly is true of Japan. 

For thousands of years, villages and hunter-gatherers protected themselves, and they organized using the same hierarchical systems that kept the rest of their society intact. Skill and valor gained one accolades, and age and past actions gained one authority. Even after the central Yamato government coalesced through building a conscript military,  there were warrior bands in the frontier areas that eventually developed into the  bushi. They had leaders, to be sure, but within their bands, seniority (both age and entry into the group) carried considerable weight. This still applies within Japanese martial arts today. Senpai have authority simply by being there first.

I could easily write at length about the problems that such a system can foster; the Japanese high school and university club systems are rife with abuse, and the horrifying level of atrocities the Japanese committed in World War II, turning areas of China into an open-air Auschwitz, were fueled, in large part, by the perceived impossibility of defying one’s seniors’ demands. But let us leave such discussions for another time. Particularly when talking about martial culture, which concerns violence first-and-foremost,  one can easily focus on the worst. Within that same martial culture exists some of the best aspects of humanity, and that, too, is fostered in part, by a natural system of seniority.

Let us speak, specifically, about the role of seniority within koryu bujutsuThere are two aspects to seniority: who joined the ryuha first is the most obvious form of seniority; the second is who joined a specific dojo first, because, led by different shihan, dojo can have different cultures, and different hierarchies within which a guest from another dojo, a ‘semi-outsider,’ must fit. A perfect example of the complexity is shown by one of my former students, GM, who began training in Toda-ha Buko-ryu  at the Athens Hokusei Dojo. He moved to Japan, and when this proved to be long-term, he officially joined the Nakano Dojo of Kent Sorensen sensei, soke-dairi of the ryu, becoming his student. In terms of years of training in Toda-ha Buko-ryu, I believe he was somewhere among the middle-to-senior members of the Nakano Dojo, but in another sense, he was the most junior member of the dojo at the moment of his entry. So he had to find his proper place.

It’s even more complex, because one’s certification (shoden, chuden, okuden, or mokuroku, menkyo, inka, to call up two ‘sequences’ of rank) all plays into this. So how does one ‘calibrate’ these somewhat overlapping, slightly conflicting designations of seniority? Kan (勘) ‘intuition,’ something based on cultural knowledge, an observation of the way the dojo head treats each individual, and the way that the person in question integrates himself or herself within the dojo culture. And if it’s not working out, the senior members of the school (and rarely, the shihan) help the new member to re-calibrate to properly blend in.

A question could be raised: shouldn’t the school have a rule book, a behavioral manual that is handed to the student upon entry? Well, there may be, but only in the most general of terms. In many schools, one gives a kishomon (blood-oath), that gives a few general conditions for entry. (See Old School for a fine-grained analysis of such oaths). The kishomon gives only a few conditions, however, whereas we are speaking here of a very complex array of values and behaviors, the sum total of Japanese archaic martial culture. Note that phrase: ‘martial culture.’ To truly survive in high-risk encounters, one has to develop an exquisite sensitivity to other people, both one’s own allies and one’s enemies. 

The development of kan is essential. How can one develop the ability to intuit the level of confidence of one’s own people, the intent of one’s adversaries, unless it is a part of training? To be on tenterhooks, to be concerned that one might mortally offend one’s teacher or dojo seniors, requires that one develop an acute moment-by-moment sensitivity. Paradoxically, the successful student learns to relax while on tenterhooks, something I have referred to elsewhere as ‘wolf-pack etiquette.’ A set of rules, memorized by rote, will, first of all, be enacted in an artificial way, and secondly, will rob the student of an opportunity to develop what is really important–in short, reigi (formal/proper behavior) is the royal road to kan.



Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Sun Lu Tang and the Invention of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

Sun Lu Tang, probably more than any other individual, has influenced our concept of what is meant by “Traditional Chinese Martial Art.”

Over at Kung Fu Tea is a four-part series examining the life, times and work of Sun Lu Tang. Below is an excerpt from the first part. The full first part may be read here.



Introduction: Why Sun Lutang?

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

To counter this trend I have been compiling a series of short biographies on important and interesting martial artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.  So far we have seen the martial arts used as a revolutionary philosophy by a cross-dressing political terrorist, as a means of economic and political advancement for a poor boy from the country, and as an natural outgrowth of southern China’s intensely commercial marketplaces.  All of our previous martial artists have pursued very concrete economic, social and political goals.  With the exception of Qui Jin’s use of martial imagery in some of her revolutionary poetry, none of them have viewed the martial arts as an overly philosophical or spiritual endeavor.

I believe that this accurately represents the life experience of the vast majority of China’s 19th century martial artists.  Most of these individuals were relatively uneducated youth from the countryside.  They sought out the martial arts either as a means to better paying employment (perhaps as a caravan guard) or as a source of entertainment and personal cultivation during slack periods of the agricultural year.

Yet this is not how most western martial artists view the Chinese styles today.  Discussions of the “traditional” martial arts (in both China and America) are prefaced with the assumption that these practices are “really” about health, weight loss, qi cultivation or mental peace.  I think that these often heard assertions would come as something of a revelation to most of China’s 19th century boxers.  It is not that they did not value the health benefits of regular exercise.  In an age without modern medical care they certainly did, and “Qigong-esque” exercises have been around for a long time.  But that was never why they braved social condemnation to practice these arts in the first place.

Still, since the late Ming dynasty there has been a small minority of individuals who did practice and advocate the study of boxing as a form of “self-cultivation.”  Meir Shahar, in his masterful study of the evolution of the fighting arts of Shaolin, has demonstrated that in the late 1500s at least one group of monks at the temple started to abandon the study of battlefield weapons in favor of unarmed boxing mixed with Daoist longevity practices and traditional medical philosophy.

It is not a mystery that small groups of monks might find the mixture of strenuous physical training and philosophical mysticism intoxicating.  These individuals were, after all, monks.  Self-cultivation and the attainment of altered states of consciousness through strenuous esoteric activities was their day-job.  This was just a new technology to accomplish the goals that monks in many religious traditions have always sought.

What was surprising was Shahar’s finding that the growing popularity of this strange brew was not confined to the nation’s Temples, but that it was spreading quite rapidly throughout the lettered classes in the late Ming and early Qing period.  At exactly the point in time when one might have expected elites to be the most interested in serious military study, they were instead turning their attention to more mystical pursuits.

So we know that this interest in Daoist philosophy, medicine and longevity practices has been an undercurrent in certain corners of the Chinese martial arts world for some time.  Probably over 400 years.  Depending on how you interpret the story of the Maiden of Yue (a Bronze Age fencing master who showed a keen interest in philosophy) maybe a lot longer.  But we lack the literary evidence to say much about the pre-Ming period.

Still, this view remained a minority one.  It was the sort of thing that was mostly taken up by the few educated elites who had any interest in Boxing, and it did not have a huge impact on the goals and military aspirations of ordinary martial artists.

This basic social pattern started to undergo a fundamental shift in the wake of the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901).  In the modern era (dominated by firearms) the original military applications of the martial arts started to look outdated to a number of educated social elites.  Actual military and police personnel had reasons to continue to be interested in unarmed defense, but these sorts of concerns rarely bothered arm-chair reformers or “May 4th” radicals.  In fact, many of these reformers and modernizers wanted to do away with traditional hand combat.  To them boxing was an embarrassing relic of China’s feudal and superstitious past.

For the martial arts to succeed in the 20th century they would need to transition.  They had to be made appealing to increasingly educated and modern middle-class individuals living in urban areas.  It would be hard to imagine a group more different from the rural farm youths that had traditionally practiced these arts.  But this is the task that the early martial reformers of the 20th century dedicated themselves too.

We have already briefly discussed the Jingwu Association (created in Shanghai in 1909) and their pioneering efforts to reform and save the Chinese martial arts (as well as the nation).  However, there were a number of other reformers in the same era.  And while the traditional martial arts did survive, the systems that we have today are in many ways quite different from what the Jingwu, and later Guoshu, reformers envisioned.

Sun Lutang is a seminal figure in the history of the early 20th century Chinese martial arts.  While best known in Neijia and Taijiquan circles (where he is credited with the creation of Sun style Taiji), his vision of what the Chinese martial arts should be is still being perpetuated today.  In fact, he did more to promote the idea that the martial arts are fundamentally about health and self-cultivation than any other single figure.  Through his ground breaking publications in the 1910s and 1920s he codified a set of ideas about the nature of the Chinese martial arts that we continue to carry with us.

In some senses I am hesitant to write on Sun Lutang.  I do not practice Sun style Taiji, Xingyi Quan or Bagua.  For that matter I am not particularly sympathetic to the view that the Chinese martial arts should be about health and self-cultivation.  I am much more familiar with the local histories of southern China and Cantonese culture.  I come to this question as an outsider.

Yet the influence of Sun Lutang’s ideas and reforms have stretched far beyond his homeland in the “central plains.”  His theories continue to influence popular perceptions, in both the east and west, about what the Chinese martial arts are and what they should be.  With his triple dedication to hand combat, Daoist longevity and classical Chinese philosophy, he has become the perfect “little old Chinese man” that all other martial arts teachers are subsequently judged against.  In short, it is necessary for the field of Chinese martial studies to address the contributions of this dynamic writer and thinker on a more fundamental level than any specific contributions that he may have made to popular lineages of Taiji or Xingyi Quan.

The next three posts comprise a brief discussion of Sun Lutang and his contributions to the traditional Chinese martial arts.  The remainder of this post provides an overview and timeline of his life.  The information in this review is based on the introductory essay (by Tim Cartmell, 2003) in A Study of Taijiquan (1921) by Sun Lutang.  Cartmell drew on a variety of sources when assembling his biographical sketch, including extensive interviews with Sun Lutang’s surviving daughter Sun Jianyun.  A skilled martial arts teacher who worked with her father, Sun Jianyun was able to fill in many of the gaps and paint a more accurate picture of her father’s day to day life.

The second post in this series will focus on Sun Lutang’s association with other martial artists and hand combat institutions.  In fact, one of the most interesting elements of Sun Lutang’s life is the window that it opens onto the transformation of late Qing hand combat traditions and the development of modern martial arts culture in Northern China.  While the brief biographical sketches that we present below cannot always flesh out the social importance of events in his life, we hope to be able to expand on some of this material in the second post.

With a better understanding of the factual and social foundations of Sun Lutang’s life, the third post will turn to a discussion of his lasting impact on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While Sun Lutang lived most of his life in Northern China, his ideas have spread around the country, and even around the globe.  What impact did his synthesis of philosophy, medicine and hand combat have on the development of the southern Chinese martial arts?  To what extent did he provide the intellectual and philosophical foundations that allowed the Chinese martial arts to become a middle class phenomenon outgrowing, in large part, their origins in rural poverty?  Do we see his hand in the emergence of the Qigong craze on the 1990s, and the subsequent “medicalization” of the Chinese martial arts?  Lastly, when I deal with students who want me to tell them that Wing Chun is really an “internal” art, to what extent are they responding to ideas and hierarchies that were first developed by Sun and promoted by his students?

Kennedy and Guo have called Sun Lutang the most important Chinese martial artists of the modern era (2005 p.182).  I don’t think that this assertion is an overstatement.  Of course saying that someone has had a huge impact on the development is not the same as saying that they were the most talented practitioner to ever live.  If nothing else his books have clearly had a transformative impact on all the literature that has come after them.  Still, it seems that relatively few modern martial artists (outside the Neijia community) really have much of an idea of who Sun actually was or what he accomplished.  He is lionized by members of his Taiji lineage and ignored by pretty much everyone else.

My review of Sun Lutang’s life will have little to say about his specific martial teachings or contributions to Taiji.  Instead I hope to promote a broader appreciation of this figure in the field of Chinese martial studies.  His life is a fascinating case study that illustrates a key era in the transition of the Chinese martial arts.  Further, the ideas that he authored or popularized continue to shape how many people approach these fighting styles to this day.  Even the practice of people who will profess to have never studied Sun is often profoundly marked by his writing.