Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, 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, January 31, 2014

Chinese New Year 2014: The Year of the Horse

Today begins Chinese New Year. Below is an excerpt from an article about the Horse in the Chinese Zodiac. The full post may be read here.

The spirit of the horse is recognized to be the Chinese people's ethos – making unremitting efforts to improve themselves. It is energetic, bright, warm-hearted, intelligent and able. Ancient people liked to designate an able person as 'Qianli Ma', a horse that covers a thousand li a day (one li equals 500 meters).

StrengthsPeople born in the year of the horse have ingenious communicating techniques and in their community they always want to be in the limelight. They are clever, kind to others, and like to join in a venture career. Although they sometimes talk too much, they are cheerful, perceptive, talented, earthy but stubborn. They like entertainment and large crowds. They are popular among friends, active at work and refuse to be reconciled to failure, although their endeavor cannot last indefinitely. 

WeaknessesThey cannot bear too much constraint. However their interest may be only superficial and lacking real substance. They are usually impatient and hot blooded about everything other than their daily work. They are independent and rarely listen to advice. Failure may result in pessimism. They usually have strong endurance but with bad temper. Flamboyant by nature, they are wasteful since they are not good with matters of finance due to a lack of budgetary efficiency. Some of those who are born in the horse like to move in glamorous circles while pursuing high profile careers.  They tend to interfere in many things and frequently fail to finish projects of their own.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Martial Arts Illustrations

These wonderful Martial Arts Illustrations have been floating around on the internet for months now. They originate at Brisbane Chen Tai Chi.

If could draw well, I'd love to illustrate my own practice. I imagine that a lot of learning goes into making each drawing. There are more drawings at the link. Please pay a visit.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Virtue of Practice

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at the excellent blog, The Classical Budoka. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

103. Practice Does Not Necessarily Make Perfect

October 17, 2013
(Note: I originally sent this email to my students prior to an iai practice.)

A note on training:

Lately, we’ve been focusing on basics, going over the shoden level seiza forms over and over again.

There’s a reason for that. I’m still not satisfied with our basics.

In all traditional Asian combative arts, there is a strong emphasis on reaching a particular expertise in the repetition of proper form, none, perhaps, more so than in iai. Since iai proper does not have competitive matches (although lately they have instituted a kind of forms competition in some organizations in Japan) that pit one person against another, the only way to evaluate expertise in iai is through perfection of form. This emphasis has become such a fetish in iai that even some koryu folk will admit that watching iai is nearly as exciting as watching grass grow or paint dry. It is just going over a form, over and over again.

However, that is why I keep emphasizing working on basics, all of us, myself included. Proper form is really important in iai.

When you study a particular ryu, or ryuha, you are basically trying to reach an appropriate level of “form” that indicates you are in line with a certain way of doing a kata, a series of linked movements.
There may be variations from one dojo to another, and one teacher to another in the same school, but there are some basic signposts that declare that you either “get it” or you don’t: Your timing, perhaps, or the way you move, handle the sword, the angle of your chiburui, or angle of the cut with the sword. This is one step beyond simply repeating the steps, or procedure. This is polishing the steps and instilling in them the particular WAY you move with the sword in hand.

When you begin to “get it,” your swordwork begins to assume an actual personality: that of your own, of course, but also that of the ryu you are performing. That balance, that tension between individual character and the characteristics of the ryu is the hardest to attain, as beginners. When you start with iai, everything may seem random and arbitrary. If you progress, however, and you observe other ryu, you should come to a realization that there are implicit reasons why you do things a certain way, and why another ryu does things a different way. You will begin to grasp the differences in timing, technique and mental kamae (posture). What many of you who have been doing it for some months need to do to break your logjam is that you have to somehow internalize the ryu’s sensibilities as your own, and subsume what your mind and body seem to want to do under the mantle of the ryu’s methods.

You may want to slouch and hunch your shoulders because all your life, that’s how you stand. Or your body wants to use your shoulder and arm strength instead of your hip muscles. You have to consciously, mentally, force yourself to make the corrections. The other part is you also have to make the connection with your own body, forcing it to move that way too when you perform the kata.

Again, there may be long-standing habits in your body that you have to break.

You have to see what is being done, internalize the concept in you mind, but you then have to transmit that movement to your body. A lot can mess things up in this two-step process. Be aware of what you are seeing and doing.

Koryu study is basically this: you break down bad habits and try to institute new ones, hopefully better ones. I know, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of training, but training without thinking or self-correction is no improvement. You are simply reinforcing bad habits and making them harder to break. I think it was football coaching legend Vince Lombardi who said something like, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

Friday, January 24, 2014

Make Your Martial Art Your Own

An excerpt form a post at the excellent blog for the Shinseidokan Dojo. The full post may be read here.

I think some karateka have a tendency to over engineer their techniques, as if a good one is like finding the holy grail, buried treasure, or the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa: but I don't train that way. I see the type of karate I practise as being defined by certain parameters, so I'm not at liberty to "take the best from each style" as some like to imagine they do, I'm obliged instead to work with, and within, the ideas put together by Miyagi Chojun sensei.

Am I free to make karate my own, sure I am; but doing that is not the same thing as making my own karate! I have benefited greatly from the efforts of previous generations, I've been steadily engaged in my own training for many years, and I'm also providing opportunities for others who will follow. If in fact karate is an evolving art held together by a set of core principles, then we all share the same obligation to preserve those ideas.

Give your karate any name you like, but without sound combative principles and mindful training, what you're left with is Tae-Bo!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The 48 Laws of Power: #9, Win through your actions, never through argument.

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. Among my favorites is about a scrap metal dealer thinking he bought the Eiffel Tower.

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 #9, Win through your actions, never through argument.

From the 48 Laws of Power Blog:

Any momentary triumph you think you have gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory: The resentment and ill will you stir up is stronger and lasts longer than any momentary change of opinion. It is much more powerful to get others to agree with you through your actions, without saying a word. Demonstrate, do not explicate.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Women in Martial Arts

Kung Fu Tea has a series of biographical posts on the lives of influential women in Chinese martial arts. I have posted an excerpt from one that particularly caught my eye. It is about Mok Kwai Lan, who was the wife of the famous Wong Fei Hung, the founder of "modern" Hung Gar. The full post may be read here.

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (11): Mok Kwai Lan – The Mistress of Hung Gar.


This post is the third entry in our series examining the lives of female Chinese martial artists.  While it is the case that the vast majority of hand combat practitioners in the 19th and 20th centuries were male, a certain number of women also adopted the art.  We started by looking at the life and historical reputation of Woman Ding Number Seven and her contributions to the creation of White Crane Kung Fu in Fujian province.  Not only did she make some critical technical contributions to the development of the local arts, but her memory served as an important touchstone for discussions of gender and hand combat throughout southern China.

Next we examined the life and contributions of Chen Shichao and her brother Chen Gongzhe.  This dynamic pair was an important force behind the success that the Jingwu Athletic Association enjoyed in the early 20th century.  Chen Gongzhe was instrumental in financing the group, while his sister worked tirelessly to promote female involvement in the martial arts on equal footing with men.  This goal challenged strongly held norms and resulted in notable (often quite personal) push-back from more conservative elements in society.  Yet ultimately the Jingwu Association succeeded in spreading the belief that women should have access to martial training and that this was an area where they could excel.  It is unlikely that this social transformation would have been quite so successful without the pen and teaching efforts of Chen Shichao.

In the current post I would like to return our focus to southern China.  Mok Kwai Lan is most often remembered as the fourth wife (or more accurately concubine) of Wong Fei Hung, the renown martial artists who is regarded by many as the father of modern Hung Gar.  Yet Mok was also a martial artist and practitioner of Chinese traditional medicine before her marriage.  Further, she maintained an independent and fruitful teaching career for more than five decades after Wong’s sad death in 1924.
Both Mok Kwai Lan’s life and career deserve more careful consideration than they usually receive.  

She is a figure whose influence spans generations.  She was born in the final decade of the 19th century and her martial training likely started at the same time as the Boxer Uprising.  She saw the rapid development and transformation of the martial arts in the 1920s and 1930s, before having her own career disrupted by the invasions of the Second Sino-Japanese War.  In the postwar era she witnessed a fundamental transformation in the popular perception of the traditional arts, driven in no small part by her departed husband’s rise to fame as a local folk hero.  Lastly she was still active and teaching when the “Bruce Lee Explosion” reignited global interest in the martial arts in the middle of the 1970s.  It is hard to think of too many other figures whose careers spanned so many important eras.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Interview with Director and Writers of The Grandmaster

My friend over at Dao of Strategy blog sent me an article which consists of an interview with the director and writer of the modern martial arts classic The Grandmaster , along with a lot of interesting background material about the characters in the movie.

Below is an excerpt, which is the interview. For the whole article, please visit Moonlight Knight.


念念不忘 必有迴響 (Keep remembering, there must be echoes)

Wong Kar-Wai: Keep remembering your original intention, not changing it makes you a hero. You must keep remembering your work, you must focus, only through continuous irrigation can a tree be grown.

The first generation members of the 中華武士會 Chinese Warrior Society intended to strengthen the people and use martial arts to save the country.  The snake soup represents this intention and concept.  They would like to let this intention continue.  宫羽田 Gong Yutian is a great old man, he sees this hope from 葉問 Ip Man, so he admitted to losing to him and said “I pass my fame to you”, hoping him to pass on the torch.

“見自己.見天地.見眾生” (Meet yourself.  Meet the world.  Meet all the living)

[This comes from the Taoist philosophy of "三家相見".  The commentary given by the screenwriters for this dialogue is not easy to understand from the context of the movie.  I prefer the explanation from the martial arts fiction author 喬靖夫 instead.  This translated version is shortened from the original article.]

喬靖夫: This view can be applied to 葉問 Ip Man in the movie.  [Meet yourself: ] Before age 40, he focused on improving his own skills and overcoming his own weaknesses.  [Meet the world: ] After having solid skills, he could meet other masters in different styles of martial arts in the world, such that he could make even further improvement.  [Meet all the living: ] After going to Hong Kong, he opened the school to teach many people.  He became a grandmaster and passed the torch to future generations beyond his own life.  He completed himself, and also completed others.

“所有的相遇,都是久别重逢” All encounters are reunions after a long separation

Screenwriters: This is Taoist philosophy.  It has the notion of three lifetimes [past, present, future].  In the past Chinese has this concept, with farmers saying “work not done in this life needs to be done in the next life”.  This statement can be understood from this context.

Wong Kar-Wai has a different view of this.  He thinks that just like those classic Buddhist scriptures, they may have disappeared for five centuries before reappearing.  Even if good things are gone, it may only be temporary.  If they worth to be preserved, some day they will come back.


金樓 (Golden Building)

Wong Kar-Wai: “風塵之中必有性情中人” (in the prostitution business (?) there must be people who are emotional and act on their instincts (?)) is my intuition.  The brothel 金樓 (Golden Building) in the movie is actually called 共和楼 (Republic Building).  Before 宫羽田 Gong Yutian said he did three things in his life, there was another dialogue which was cut in the movie because it is too long.

He said, “That year I led my group of people wearing fur-lined jacket and removing them on the way, went from North East to 佛山 Foshan.  Only after reaching 金樓 did I know that I’m a country bumpkin.  This place is so golden without a single dust…  But we did not come for prostitutes.  We came here to deliver a bomb.”  This bomb was made by 蔡元培.  Three days after that, it bombed the 州 Guangzhou general 鳳山, beginning the republic.  That’s why it was called the 共和樓 (Republic Building).  It is a brothel, but inside it you find heroes.

Because this section was cut, viewers may not understand why all the kung fu masters are in a brothel.

Screenwriters: in that old society people went there to buy affection, not flesh.

Did 葉問 Ip Man go to North East?  Viewers have discovered a scene showing him wandering outside the home of 宫 family.

Wong Kar-Wai: This is left to viewers to interpret.  You may say he went there, or this is just a dream of Ip Man.
[Note: In spite of this answer, there are deleted scenes showing he did go there.  At the end of the movie, when we see a flashback of 宫若梅 Gong Er in the snow, there is a shadow - he is 葉問 Ip Man.]

Why did all masters go to Hong Kong?

Screenwriters: After 1949, martial arts schools were closed in mainland China.  Martial arts masters were viewed as gangsters.  So they exiled to Hong Kong.  Martial arts schools even occupied a whole street there.

What is the meaning of the ending scene (showing the Buddhist temple)?

The ending scene shows the Buddhist temple where 宫若梅 Gong Er decides to avenge her father.  This is 辽宁义县奉国寺大雄殿 (Daxiong Hall of Fengguo Temple in Yi County of Liaoning Province) built in 1020.  During a war in 1948, a bomb shot through the roof of the temple and was dropped in the hands of the Buddha.  The bomb did not explode, only the right hand was damaged.  In 1961, this temple was classified as a Major Historical and Cultural Site Protected at the National Level, but it did not become a popular tourist spot, so it did not have any renovation.  The camera pans through the lights on the table, echoing one statement in the movie: “light a candle, save a breath”.  Wong Kar-Wai said, “Some day, good things will still be preserved.”


Why 宫若梅 Gong Er had to vow to not marrying and not giving birth?

Screenwriters: This is a special type of vow called 獨行道, given by Eastern warriors.  It shows their high level of commitment.

Why 馬三 Ma San was able to kill his master 宫羽田 Gong Yutian?

Screenwriters: That’s because 宫羽田 Gong Yutian was not as ruthless as 馬三 Ma San. 宫羽田 Gong Yutian merely wanted to take away his martial arts by hurting his muscles, bones or organs.  On the other hand, 馬三 Ma San fought to kill 宫羽田 Gong Yutian.  In the original screenplay 馬三 Ma San is an abandoned child picked up from unmarked burial mounds, contrasting his morals with his master’s.

What do 刀 Blade and 刀鞘 Scabbard mean?

Screenwriters: 宫若梅 Gong Er is a blade hidden by 葉問 Ip Man as a scabbard.  馬三 Ma San is a blade, but his master 宫羽田 Gong Yutian as a scabbard could not hold him.  This blade cut through the scabbard, but at the end the blade itself is also broken.

Why is the military and political background of the characters virtualized in the movie?

Wong Kar-Wai: Although the movie does indeed contain politics, the wold of martial arts is relative to the government.  It has a connection to politics, but they always keep a distance.

4-Hour Cut

Wong Kar-Wai: I think this will take many years, like Ashes of Time Redux (laugh) [Redux is the 2008 version of the 1994 movie 東邪西毒].  The exact meaning of the 4-hour cut is: the film we shot can be edited into 4 hours, such that each character has a complete story.  However, this arrangement would not be the best result.

My original concept was to treat each character as a chapter in a fiction.  When the character is done in one chapter, he/she disappears from the following chapters.  Life is like this.  I thought of having 10 chapters for 10 characters in this movie, but I think the audience will not be used to it.  We do not have the ability to ask the viewers to sacrifice 4 hours to watch this movie, especially when you don’t understand it much.  When we have the opportunity to create a 4-hour movie, those who are willing to watch it please come.

The release of a 4-hour cut is only a rumor.  I was only saying the materials added up to 4 hours.  I feel that the current 130-minute cut is complete, and it says everything I wanted to say in the movie clearly.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Martial Arts War

In East Timor, the native martial art Pencak Silat is very popular. It is taught and practiced in many organizations including political parties and criminal gangs. The friction between these groups has reached a point where the government has sought to outlaw their own native martial art!

Below in an excerpt from an article at Kung Fu Tea, where the author examines the current situation in East Timor, but also examines parallels during some periods in China's past. The full post may be read here.


Earlier this week an unexpected story started to make the rounds of various internet news outlets.  Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao of Timor Leste (East Timor) issued a proclamation banning the practice of Pencak Silat, an indigenous martial art that is wildly popular throughout the region.  The actual news story and press release leave many unanswered questions.  Which of Timor’s notorious martial arts gangs in particular are actually being banned?  Who gets to define “Silat” in what can only be described as a very complicated martial arts community?  Other disciplines, such as Akido, Kung Fu, Judo and Tae Kwon Do appear to be unaffected by the new law.  But a pretty wide range of South East Asian arts will likely be affected by this legislation.

In addition to banning the public assembly and teaching of these arts the current law seeks to outlaw their actual practice all together.  The police have issued warnings against individuals who still practice in their own homes at night.  Of course the police and security forces are an important part of this story.  Many individuals from these agencies were leaders of various Silat groups, and are now under standing orders to either abandon their private practices or resign their commissions.  In a country facing chronic unemployment, and where public sector jobs are critical to the local economy, this is a potent threat. 

So how did events in East Timor get to this point?  More importantly, what can we learn from this local crisis about the role of the martial arts in either exacerbating or deterring community violence? 

In the following essay I hope to do two things.  First I will briefly review the background of the current situation in East Timor.  If you are interested in the global impact of the martial arts it’s a fascinating case to think about.  Given its tumultuous recent history the state itself is still somewhat delicate and can only be described as a “post-conflict zone.”  The widespread popularity of the martial arts (by some estimates 70%-90% of young men are involved in these associations) as well as their entanglement with various political parties, security forces, organized crime syndicates and street gangs has made what was a delicate system downright volatile.  When describing the situation in East Timor after 2006 UN peacekeepers and diplomats routinely used the phrase “Martial Arts War.” 

Secondly, I would like to argue that while the current situation in Dili represents an extreme case of what can happen when the martial arts become part of the local political scene and economy of violence, it is far from isolated.  In fact we have already seen similar episodes to this at many points in Chinese history.  Robinson, in his groundbreaking book Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven: Rebellion and the Economy of Violence in Mid-Ming China (Hawaii UP, 2001) argues that this sort of situation was basically how China operated on a day to day basis throughout the late imperial period.

By understanding how post-conflict societies create situations in which individuals turn to independent (often violent) organizations for a sense of identity, physical and economic security we might be able to speculate about why we see the immense bursts of creativity in the Chinese martial arts occurring when they do.  Shaolin Boxing rose to prominence only after the Ming-Qing transition, not before or during it.  Taiji emerged into the broader regional consciousness in the wake of the Nien and Taiping Rebellions, not before them.  Likewise the periods following the disruptive conflicts of 1911 and WWII saw the creation of many arts that are still with us today.  Taking a closer look at how the current crisis emerged in East Timor might help us to start to understand some broader trends in the field of Chinese martial history as well.

For most western audiences a lecture about how the martial arts are not to be used for brawling in the streets would be somewhat redundant.  Very few of the students who I have ever taught seemed like the “brawling type.”  Most western students, even those who have never studied before, approach the traditional fighting style with a certain amount of culturally inherited baggage.  Most of this probably comes from the media, and you never quite know which ideas or images your new students will show up with.  But almost universally the Asian fighting systems are revered as “peaceful arts” with all sorts of deep esoteric and spiritual truths.  We don’t really ever thing of the martial arts a route to literally seizing power in the local community.

It is worth noting that attitudes towards the martial arts are fairly different in East Timor, to say nothing of 18th and early 19th century China.  I don’t think that either of these groups would totally disavow the “character building” or “spiritual” qualities of the martial arts.  There is no reason to assume that the missionary account of the incense burning is an exaggeration.  Indeed that sort of “religious” observance was central to the creation of any sort of community in imperial China.  

Likewise many martial arts groups in East Timor today promote esoteric and shamanistic rituals (even though the country in 97% Roman Catholic) as a way building identity and group loyalty. 

Yet at the end of the day there can be no doubt that for both of these groups concrete questions of “community security” came first, with “economic profit” being a close second.  Young men have joined these sorts of martial arts associations precisely because they were a way of getting ahead in a world that typically offered few viable employment opportunities.

Martial arts gangs have long been a fact of life, and tool of governance, in Timor Leste.  When the Portuguese ruled the territory they relied on gangs of young violent local men as enforcers to accomplish a variety of tasks.  During the period of Indonesian occupation the situation was systematized and vastly expanded.  Indonesia expressly promoted and supported athletic programs as a means by which the state could influence and exercise some degree of control over society.  They created all sorts of programs in both Indonesia and East Timor, but paid special attention to the martial arts.  Pencak Silat was seen as a means of indoctrinating the youth (much as Judo, Karate, Wushu and Tae Kwon Do were in their respective homelands).  Resources were poured into these programs, which became near universal in scope.  Of course once the bid for independence picked up the same martial arts associations became breeding grounds for violent resistance. 

Nor did these martial arts associations and programs simply vanish after independence.  Increasingly young people started to vent their frustration about lack of employment and educational opportunities.  They joined private martial arts organizations in massive numbers.  In 2008 over 20,000 young men were formally registered as students in one of the martial arts systems.  

Independent researchers and NGO’s estimate another 70,000 youth joined these groups but refused to register with the government.  It seems safe to assume that by 2008 between 70% and 90% of all of the young men in the country were active members of the various martial arts societies.
Far fewer females joined these groups, though there are some notable exceptions.  One of the largest martial arts clubs in Timor (Kera Sakti) boasts that over 38% of their membership is female.  Yet for most groups the figure seems to be closer to 5%. 

For many of East Timor’s youth these martial arts associations represent both a safety net and the promise of social relevance in a society that seems to have otherwise forgotten them.  Membership in a traditional fighting group offers an important sense of belonging, identity and purpose.  Often entire villages, political parties or ethnic enclaves will be members of a single association.  At the same time these clubs also offer concrete guarantees of personal and community safety.  Occasionally they became a critical source of patronage with jobs in private or public security forces being channeled to school members.  They may also provide a chance to network with other more successful individuals.

A number of researchers have pointed out that East Timor’s society, shaped by decades of conflict, has a relatively rigid social structure.  Goods and services are often distributed in a top down manner, and loyal is expected to flow from the bottom up.  In this environment the major martial arts associations were quickly co-opted by political parties, while smaller classes and clubs might be led by individuals in the military or police forces.  Members of the underground criminal economy also built contacts in the martial arts world. 

This highly integrated social structure became a problem in 2006.  In that year the government fired roughly 800 military personal (all from the same geographic area) after they went on strike.  They were unhappy that soldiers from the other main ethnic and geographic groups were monopolizing the lion’s share of the pay raises and promotions.  This conflict within the military led to the collapse of East Timor’s army and police forces.  That was followed by widespread rioting and community violence around the country.

During this period various political parties and individuals in the security sector used martial arts associations to carry out attacks on their enemies, or in attempts to seize control of important markets and trade routes.  The end results of this campaign were surprisingly violent.  Large numbers of people were injured or died in the rioting.  Entire neighborhoods and villages were burned to the ground.  The UN estimates that 100,000 people (roughly 10% of the state’s entire population) were left as destitute internal refuges as a result of this violence.  Nor did the repeated rounds of explosions and reprisal do anything to help the nation’s faltering economy or declining respect for the rule of law.

United Nations peacekeepers and personal were requested at this point and were sent in large numbers.  Foreign police and military officers then took on the burden of restoring order and putting down the “martial arts war” as some of them took to calling it.  Of course the intrusion of large numbers of outside security personal can have complex effects on a situation such as this.  Other NGO’s and humanitarian groups also sent teams to attempt to deal with the deteriorating community security situation.  Jackie Chan’s visit to the capital in 2008 was part of this effort.

A number of different strategies were adopted to deal with the situation.  Simply banning the martial arts was not the governments’ first choice, though there had been high level discussions of that possibility since 2006.  Various efforts were employed to create new national martial arts legislation, new associations that would promote communication and cooperation and various conflict resolution programs were put in place. [link]  Yet, as recent reports indicate, none of these efforts have been totally successful.  In fact there have continued to be killings and hundreds of injuries between these groups in the past few years.

I am not a South East Asia expert, nor do I have any special contacts on the ground.  The English language news reports do not really give much indication of what triggered the latest clampdown.  Indeed, the overall level of violence seems to be down from its peak, though it has proved to be a stubborn problem.

Yet is this really a problem with a solution?  As other researchers and NGO’s have pointed out, most of the martial arts clubs are at heart athletic associations.  Very few of them are actually criminal gangs.  The problem is that these associations have been penetrated by other political, economic, ethnic and criminal interest in society.  These forces then use them to carry out proxy battles.  Given the highly divided nature of local society (where ethnicity, political party, patronage networks and geographic divides tend to line up rather than cross-cut one another) there is not much social inertia to stop these conflicts when leaders decide to start them.

Should we really blame the martial arts societies for Timor Leste’s ill’s.  Probably not.  Or more precisely, we should not blame them in isolation.  There can be no doubt that they have accelerated the overall level of violence, but they also seem to reflect preexisting social cleavages and conflicts to a high degree.  Powerful people who did not trust the state cultivated these patronage networks of angry young men to back their positions.  And when they neglected these groups they simply found other ways to satisfy their economic goals, often to the chagrin of their ostensible masters.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Leveraging Open Courseware in Martial Studies

When people who study a martial art want to learn more about the culture of their arts' origin. The language, history and so on.

Over at Kung Fu Tea, there is a good article on free college level resources for this very purpose. The article specifically addresses Chinese Martial Studies, but with a little extra research based upon this post, it shouldn't be hard to find resources for Japanese, Korean, et al material. 

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

Introduction: Technology, Disruption and Education

The current renaissance in the academic study of the martial could not have come at a better time.  In fact, it is probably a powerful confluence of forces, both theoretical, political and technological that are making the our current progress possible.  This is especially true for students of Chinese martial studies.  The unprecedented growth of the Chinese economy over the last two decades has led to a steady increase of interest in its culture and history.  Globalization has not only brought us closer through immigration and trade, but it has also provided powerful new tools that can benefit students of cross-cultural studies.

Many of the most obvious of these innovations are linked to the rapid advances in communications technology.  The growth of the internet has led to an almost unimaginable drop in the cost of all sorts of communications.  This has had far reaching effects on a number of industries.  Certain services that were just not cost-effective previously (such as Amazon’s book selling strategy) have exploded.  

Other products, typically those that relied on geographic proximity and a dedicated customer base (independent book stores), have fared less well.

This example should serve to remind us of the fundamental nature of any change in market prices.  

Every time a price for some good or service moves (either up or down) there will be a certain group of individuals who win, and another market segment that loses.  Adam Smith tells us that in a perfect market we can be mathematically sure that the winners will win more than the losers forfeit.  In other words, innovation and trade make the economy as a whole bigger.  But that might be cold comfort if you were a clerk at an independent bookstore who just lost your job.

The academy itself is currently feeling the sting of a number of these “disruptive” technological innovations.  Fundamental shifts in the book market mean that university presses are publishing and selling fewer titles every year.  Likewise libraries (facing budget cuts) are purchasing fewer journals.  

Neither of these trends bode particularly well for young academics still hoping to establish themselves in a field.

We may also be on the cusp of some radical changes in how teaching happens.  In the previous era instruction was by definition a local industry.  A classroom required students and a capable instructor.  Needless to say, there were limits on how far students were willing to travel, or how many papers a professor could grade.  But the internet is changing all of that.

With the advent of cheap streaming video it is now possible to record a single set of lectures, textbooks, lab notes and other course materials and then make them available to students all over the world.  A weak application of this technology has been around for a decade now in the form of increasingly common on-line degree programs.  These have typically been aimed at professional students and have been somewhat technical in nature.  But at heart this was still an individual professor and a limited number of students who were paying quite a bit of money for whatever instruction they received.

This familiar dynamic is starting to shift.  Increasingly top ranked universities (Harvard, Yale, MIT, Cornell ect…) are starting to enter this field.  They have a different game plan.  Instead of simply offering online sections of existing classes (usually taught by a graduate student or adjunct) they are simply digitally recording their most popular classes and making them available on the internet for free to anyone who wishes to enroll in them.

Generally speaking these classes do not offer “college credit” (though there are a couple of notable exceptions).  But in many cases the universities are now offering students the chance to turn in course work and to receive “certificates of completion.”  These programs are currently just getting underway, but it does not take a crystal ball to understand how this has the potential to fundamentally upset the existing university system.

The economic savings that come by teaching students remotely are substantial and many departments are under considerable pressure to offer more of these sorts of courses (either the traditional on-line classes, or the pre-recorded variety).  I suspect that the basic monetary constraints on higher education, and student demands for greater flexibility, mean that in not too many years this sort of instruction will become the norm.

As a teacher I am not sure how I feel about this.  I like my lectures, and suspect that they would do rather well as a podcast.  Yet actual personal interaction with faculty members and mentors is a vital part of the educational experience.  It was my relationships with my professors, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, that made me the scholar that I am today. 

At this point in time I don’t remember most of what they said in lectures, but I remember the things that I learned as I worked for them and with them on various projects.  The great shortcoming the various electronic educational plans that I see now is that they simply give up on the very possibility of this sort of interaction.  Yet it is precisely that which creates the scholars and innovators of tomorrow.

Sifting an Embarrassment of Riches

Nevertheless,  every market–shift creates patterns of winners and losers.  And all academics have two hats to wear.  We teach students and do research.  I am not sure that a broader shift to on-line instruction will be great for either professors or students.  But these same trends are excellent if one wishes to conduct more sophisticated research into Chinese martial studies.

This is not a field that any of us studied in graduate school.  As we have previously discussed, martial studies is a deeply interdisciplinary research area.  We constantly find ourselves being asked to employ new research tools, or to make new comparisons.  In short, many of the most interesting questions in the field require one of two things, either a co-author who is already an expert in an area that we are lacking in, or the resources to acquire these research skills for ourselves.

The current trend of making university courses available to the public for free over the internet radically reduces the price of this second option.  If a project requires an understanding of the major debates in film studies, an introduction to ethnographic methods, or a quick brush up on Ming and Qing dynasty Chinese history, it is now possible to get exactly that at no cost.  Best of all the lectures and class material can be viewed when most convenient for you, and not the scheduling office.

Resources like this can be a mixed blessing.  There is enough stuff out there that one can get lost in the possibilities.  Nor is it easy to judge the quality of the instruction and discussion in a field that you are not familiar with.  Nevertheless, these courses offer anyone an incredible opportunity to both keep their skills up to date and expand their intellectual horizons.

I suspect that the more background one already has in a given area, the more useful a little understanding of a related field is likely to be.  It is easier to make the jump from political science to Asian studies than it is from physics to history.  But that’s basically the way most interdisciplinary research projects work anyway.  They are often attempts to apply the research methods of one related field to the research questions of another.

The remainder of this post introduces three different web portals that offer free access to university classes taught at some of the most elite academic institutions.  Each of these programs differs in terms of the number of courses offered, degree of formality and class format.  Each of them also offers a number of classes that could be of great interest to students of martial studies generally, so it will be necessary for readers to explore each of them to determine which best fits your needs.

To assist in this process I have highlighted a number of course that might be helpful to a students of Chinese martial studies.  I tried to select courses that had lots of interesting media content (on-line video lectures, podcasts, interactions with teaching assistants, free digital text books) just to showcase the sorts of stuff that is out there.  Not all classes offer all of these tools.  And many of the most specialized classes are the simplest (lecture note, reading lists and exams).  Once you have familiarized yourself with these systems you can then look for classes matching your own particular interests.

Or should you?  There is a common tendency among students to assume that if you want to know more about a subject you should only take a class that directly addresses that topic.  So if you are researching the Chinese martial arts you might be most interested in classes on military history.  But maybe what you really need is something that will improve the way you think about history in general.  Maybe a class on historical research methods?  Or possibly you need a class on imperialism and 19th century trade to actually make sense of the history that you are reading. 

So don’t be afraid to cast a wide net.  Introducing new theories or approaches brings value to the field.  And besides, it’s not like you have to pay anything for these courses.  Feel free to experiment.

Building a Home Gym

Ok, you've made your New Year's Resolutions and you are going to workout every day. You want to set up a home gym or dojo. How do you go about it?

Below is an excerpt from an article at The Art of Manliness on how to turn your garage into a home gym. With just a little imagination, you could adapt the advice into building something more specific to martial arts training if you want.

Are you sick of all that is involved with getting in shape — with becoming stronger and fitter?

Training and getting in shape can be a chore at times, but is it really the training you don’t enjoy?

With a little observation, or self-analysis, you may find the chore is often not the training itself. Of course, you may not love to exercise, but is it really that bad?

The worst part about fitness is all that comes with it: a long commute to the gym, crowds of people, occupied equipment, hygiene concerns, monthly fees, and much more. You have a job, family, and all of life’s chores and tasks to worry about. Who wants to start or end their day with what feels like another chore? A trip to the gym involves changing into appropriate clothes, driving, waiting, more driving…and the routine simply takes you from one climate-controlled box (work) to another (the gym) with your only chance for fresh air coming from walking across the parking lot. Not to mention that every day that you “just don’t feel like it” and decide to skip the gym, it costs you money!

Commercial gyms are designed for the masses — TVs, isolation machines, and a bunch of stuff you don’t really need. It may make you feel better to have “gone to the gym today” but wouldn’t you rather train effectively and efficiently?

Your head should be nodding at this point.

The solution to all of your fitness problems is a garage gym!

Perhaps when you think of a garage gym, you think of Rocky Balboa chasing chickens and lifting logs. Or maybe you think of a version of your commercial gym stuffed in your garage.

The reality is somewhere in between. A garage gym can be an effective and efficient world-class training facility. It is built to suit your performance. Some of the fittest people in the world train in garage gyms regularly because they know the secret. Less equipment, fewer isolation exercises, less junk, but more efficient training.

The thought which will eventually cross your mind is, “I don’t have the money or time to make my own garage my gym.” While certainly not dirt cheap, you can do it for as little as $500, which is the equivalent of about a year and a half of the cheapest gym pass. If you use your garage gym for just two years, you will have made money on the investment. In addition, it only takes about two weeks to complete. And that’s if you take your time.

Are you convinced yet? Ready to start a garage gym? Let’s get started!

Friday, January 03, 2014

To Perform at the Highest Level

The famous author Steven Pressfield had an excellent post on his blog on what it takes to perform at the highest level. An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here.

“He’s a Winner”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 1, 2014

At the gym where I work out, there’s a program called Pro Camp that specializes in training professional athletes. They train basketball players, football players, hockey players, track athletes. And they train high school and college athletes whose ambition is to make it to the pros.

I was standing with the chief of Pro Camp, T.R. Goodman, watching a 15-year-old high school football player go through his workout. “He’s a winner,” T.R. said.

I was immediately curious. I asked T.R. what he meant. What qualities did he see in this young boy that marked him as an athlete with a future? What is the difference between a pro and a non-pro?

What did T.R. mean by “winner?”

Of course I was thinking about writers. Athletes and writers face the same challenges.

Both—meaning the readers of this blog and the athletes at Pro Camp—are aspiring to be thoroughgoing pros.

1. Focus

2. Coachability

3. Confidence

4. Concentration

5. Self-evaluation

These are all qualities that you and I have control of in our writing and our artistic lives.

We can’t choose how smart or how pretty or how verbal we are. But we can choose what we want and how much we want it. We can choose how hard we’re willing to work to achieve our goals. We can elect to tune out distractions. We can decide how much we’re willing to sacrifice and over how long a period we’re willing to make that sacrifice. We can commit over the long haul and in the face of adversity.

Those capacities are all within our power.

Here are the points that T.R. called out:

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

New Year's Celebration in a Traditional Dojo

Over at The Classical Budoka, there is an excellent article about traditions in classical martial arts. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

105. Traditions in a Traditional Art  
The Classic Budoka by wmuromoto

One of the characteristics of traditional martial systems, in particular the koryu of Japan, is the emphasis on traditions. That would be almost without saying. After all, “koryu” means “old style,” so quite naturally the older martial systems retain not only martial techniques from the past, but surrounding traditions, concepts and mental concepts from the past.

Depending on how you look at it, that’s either a very big plus or a very large negative. An aficionado of very modern eclectic martial practices might look at all the surrounding traditions as useless relics of a dead past, of little practical use for modern applications. Lest I sound harsh in my depiction of such an attitude, I can understand it, if your main purpose in studying martial arts were for ringed sports competition or pure “self-defense.” It can also put a damper on enrolling new students if you told them to give up the form-hugging Spandex tights, surrounding mirrors and New Age mumbo-jumbo in lieu of the boring discipline of white keikogi and the silence of a dojo without sound system blaring out the latest Euro-techno pop music.

Most martial arts “studios” in America run somewhere in between the two extremes of strict traditionalism and Spandex and tights modernized fight club (or exercise spa). For such studios,  I would like to offer a nudge in the direction of tradition. Or, at the very least, give them something to consider, which might set them apart and offer something different from every other studio that offers cardio kickboxing, kiddie ninja classes, MMA, karate and “jujitsu” classes around the clock.

For me, what attracted me to the koryu was the entire package, wrapped around tradition. I had gone through several more modern systems, such as judo, karatedo and aikido, with side trips to other systems of Japanese and Chinese origins. Technically and sportively, they all had something to offer, given their strengths and limitations. What I found, however, beguiling in the koryu were the traditions. I had developed a reasonable dexterity in athleticism in those arts, and a certain amount of knowledge conceding the “self-defense” aspects. I enjoyed the training and conditioning. Yet, what I found more compelling was the deepness of the traditions in the koryu. That’s just me, so if you still enjoy a modern shinbudo form, hey, that’s great. Whatever rocks your boat.
 And, over the years, I’ve come to a relaxed conclusion that traditions can be found within oneself, if you look hard enough, and within your own respect for the lessons of the past. Within different koryu groups, too, there are different levels of adherence to tradition. By the word “tradition,” I mean not only the forms, the practice and the regime, but also the surrounding events, ceremonies and rituals.

At this time of the year, my thoughts turn to the traditions of the Japanese New Year, celebrated in general by Japanese society and also in particular by traditional koryu dojo. Perhaps some of the traditions can be celebrated and become part of your own dojo?

In Japan, New Year’s is one of the biggest holiday festivals of the year. The end of the old and start of a new life is not just cause for celebration and partying, but also for self-reflection, family get-togethers, and treks to temples and shrines for blessings.

A koryu dojo will close its doors to allow its members time to attend to family, work and friends’ parties. The bonenkai is a characteristic of Japanese organizations. It’s usually a dinner or luncheon party where you get together, ostensibly to remember the past year and wish each other luck, prosperity and happiness for the coming year. You can have bonenkai for work, for a club, for, yes, your dojo. And why not have a bonenkai, as it will fit right into the party atmosphere anyway that we Americans have for the New Year’s?

Other traditions from Japanese culture may be more esoteric, but they can be fun, and can also lend a sense of how even modern traditions, like aikido, can be embedded as part of Japanese cultural practices that can be shared and nurtured outside of Japan.

For example, on New Year’s Eve, traditional families would visit a Buddhist temple to pray, and to wash away the ills and troubles of the old year. When I lived in Japan, friends and I visited Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto at midnight and it was as busy and crowded as a Tokyo subway. Visitors crowded the sub-temples of the sprawling religious complex to receive blessings from Buddhist priests chanting sutra. We climbed up a rickety ladder to get a chance at ringing a temple bell, the sound of the bell and our offered prayers were supposed to wash away the 108 ills of our body and mind that had accumulated over the past year. The ringing of the bells on the last night of the year is called Joya No Kane.

Early New Year’s morning meant a visit to a Shinto shrine, called Hatsumode. We went to Kamigamo shrine in northern Kyoto and then braved the crowds at Yasaka shrine in the downtown district. Again, as in our visit to Daitokuji, the crowds were as tight as sardines in a can with visitors seeking blessings for the New Year. We washed our hands and rinsed our mouths with water drawn from a spring, to symbolize purifying our inner and outer selves. (Speaking of which, I’m drawn to some similarities in practice between, of all things, Shinto, early Christian and older Jewish traditions.

Certainly some of the symbolism, such as water to purify (baptize) may be universal, common denominators. But some other particular symbolisms and traditions are very odd, and very strange indeed that they are quite similar. But I digress…) Then we entered the inner shrine area and cast coins into an offering box to ring the bells and receive our blessings (again) for the New Year’s.