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 ~

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Cultural Translation of Martial Arts

Over at Kung Fu Tea, Dr. Jenkins has begun a series on a serious topic regarding the practice of martial arts: when a martial art is imported from it's native culture, things will be added, deleted, adopted and/or distorted. 

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

“In the case of Tai Chi however, the major defining feature of hybridity, the sense of mixture and the equal status of the different cultures involving in the mixture, is absent.  In the eyes of its UK practitioners Tai Chi is not a combination or mixture of Chinese and English bodily/spiritual disciplines.  On the contrary, they consider their practices to be more authentic and original than their contemporary Chinese counterparts, since they see them as having a direct linkage to Tai Chi’s ancient lineage and continuing a tradition which they claim was lost in Communist China.  As we will see, in fact, they have added, deleted, adopted and distorted practices derived from their Chinese (or English) masters in a continuous process of translation based on an imagined construction of Chineseness.”
Gehao Zhang.  2010. “Invented Tradition and Translated Practices: The Career of Tai Chi in the West.” Doctoral Thesis, Loughborough University. P. 16


Other commitments have taken me away from blogging over the last few weeks.  The Spring 2016 issue of Martial Arts Studies (now available for download) required attention, as did the draft of my paper for this year’s conference at the University of Cardiff in July.  I recently finished a first draft of what will be my keynote address, but it will still require work over the next week or so.

These commitments also distracted me from something else that I had been working on.  Recently I received a copy of Prof. Gehao Zheng’s dissertation “Invented Tradition and Translated Practices: The Career of Tai Chi in the West.” Given that the theme of our recent journal issue was “The Invention of Martial Arts,” I had been reading this with a great deal of interest.  Unfortunately I was not able to finish his manuscript before other commitments caught up with me, but it is something that I intend to return to once things settle down.

Gehao’s discussion of the cultural appropriation of Taijiquan in the West is significant.  And while many of these sorts of studies tend to focus on events in America I found his case-study of the British community quite interesting.  In short, this is the sort of dissertation that warrants a close reading.

Unfortunately that will have to wait for later.   This will be a much lighter essay as I attempt to ease back into my writing schedule.

In today’s post I would like to focus on a single passage from his introductory discussion which I have been mulling over for the last few weeks.  While it speaks directly to the process by which Taijiquan has been received in the West, it carries some basic insights applicable to discussions of all sorts of martial arts.  In fact, it is not hard to spot many of the same basic trends that he notes at work in the Wing Chun community (the area of the traditional arts with which I have the greatest familiarity).
Consider the following observation, “As we will see, in fact, they have added, deleted, adopted and distorted practices derived from their Chinese (or English) masters in a continuous process of translation based on an imagined construction of Chineseness.”  When thinking about the cultural appropriation or translation of the Asian martial arts I think there is a tendency to simplify, or see only a single aspect of this process.

Yet Gehao notes that a community’s preexisting beliefs about the nature of Chinese identity (as well as their own cultural identity) can actually result in a number of strategies of translation.  Here he quickly lists four possibilities.  Obviously his dissertation takes a more nuanced approach and introduces additional concepts.

Nevertheless, over the last few weeks I have decided that I like this simple formulation as it is both easy to remember and reminds us to look for an entire constellation of changes.  To quickly explore the utility of these four descriptive concepts, this post will consider some of the ways that Wing Chun, a traditional martial art hailing from Southern China, has been “translated” into an American commercial and cultural context.  As Gehao found in the case of Taijiquan, popular ideas about the nature of Chinese identity would have an important impact on the resulting reconstruction of Wing Chun in the West.

Added, Deleted, Adopted and Distorted

Before delving into this discussion a few caveats are in order.  As much as we might want to practice our art in a “perfect” and pristine state, we should admit that this is probably not possible.  We might also go further and ask why the idea of “purity of transmission” has gained such a hold on the popular discussion of the martial arts?  What set of values and desires does this rhetoric advance?

How are they different in the West than China?

In reality cultural translation is an unavoidable process whenever a given set of practices or identities crosses global and cultural borders.  There have even been substantial periods of “translation” within China itself as the martial arts went from being a mostly rural, occupationally focused, pursuit in the 19th century to being promoted as a nationally focused urban, middle class hobby in the 20th.

Given that none of us are Cantonese speaking tradesmen living in Foshan in the 1850s, our understanding and embodied experience of Wing Chun must be different from Leung Jan’s.  The notion that “identity moves” (to borrow a memorable turn of phrase from Adam Frank) is not an inherently bad thing.  While the process of cultural translation inevitably changes something about an identity or sets of practices as it seeks to make them legible in a very different context, we do not need to view the end product of this process as inherently illegitimate.  This is not to imply that one cannot find better or more unfortunate examples of such translations within the martial arts world.

How can we understand the sorts of transformations that we are likely to see?  As Western practitioners of these systems attempt to make sense of their arts they are forced to negotiate their own experience of these practices with an inevitably imperfect understanding of Chinese identity.

When the transmitted techniques do not conform to their culturally conditioned expectations, change is often the result.

First, “additions” might be made to a system.  These sometimes take the form of core Western cultural values being read onto an Asian art.  In other cases what is added is an inappropriate element of Asian culture or philosophy so that the practice better meets Western expectations about what an “Oriental” art should be.

On the opposite end of the spectrum certain practices or elements of identity might be “deleted” from a westernized version of an art.  Again, specific cultural elements that do not match Western expectations often receive this treatment.

The traditional Chinese martial arts were often rigidly located with regards to questions of social class and gender in ways that would make students in liberal western countries uncomfortable.  While their modern schools often go to great lengths to demonstrate how “traditional” they are, no one that I am aware of refuses to teach women, or prohibits physical contact between unrelated men and women in class even though that would have been a common taboo at the time that Wing Chun was first formulated.  What was once an important set of practices regarding the construction and maintenance of masculinity within a Chinese cultural context has simply been deleted with very little notice.

In addition to these first two responses, Western students might also strategically “adopt” certain practices and identities which fit their expectations about Asian culture.  While relatively few Western martial artists seem inclined to actually learn the native language of their arts (often a daunting challenge), many nevertheless make the mastery of foreign language names and labels something of a fetish.  Yet to Western students this vocabulary often carries connotations that are quite different from how the same terms might be perceived by a native speaker.  Paradoxically, attempts to achieve linguistic accuracy by avoiding the processes of “translation” can actually lead to even greater levels of cultural mystification.

Lastly there is the problem of “distortion.”  In my own experience there are a number of ways that distortion might arise.  The first is a simple misunderstanding.  The lack of cultural and linguistic expertise noted in the previous examples suggests that fighting against the tide of this distortion is the daily work of a dedicated martial arts student seeking a serious encounter with their chosen art.
Distortions are also likely to arise because of the very nature of cultural appropriation.  Once a practice has come to be socially accepted and commercially successful, consumers and students will naturally begin to hybridize the values of their chosen practice with the (often quite different) social discourses that surround them.  Consider how often we encounter advertising materials promoting the health benefits of Kung Fu within the commercially driven paradigm of western athleticism.  It is simply human nature to want all good things to fit together.

In truth the culture of Taekwondo that is practiced in strip malls across America is quite different from that which is seen in Korean military units.  And yet there is an almost universal tendency to accept one’s own vision of the art as uniquely legitimate.  This was one of the more interesting aspects of Gehao’s discussion which I hope to explore in future posts.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Dao De Jing #62: Practicing the Dao

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 #62: Practicing the Dao.

The Dao is the asylum of all things; the good man's treasure, the bad man's last resort.

With beautiful words one may sell goods but in winning people one can accomplish more by kindness.

Why should a man be thrown away for his evil? To conserve him was the Emperor appointed and the three ministers. Better than being in the presence of the Emperor and riding with four horses, is sitting and explaining this Dao.

The reason the Ancients esteemed Dao was because if sought it was obtained, and because by it he that hath sin could be saved. Is it not so? Therefore the world honors Dao

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Exercise and Character

This has to do with my idea of Budo with a small 'b.'

Below is an excellent post from Must Triumph on the importance of exercise in building character. The full article may be read here.

On Exercise and Building Character

Calisthenics — in many ways the first form of exercise — comes from the ancient Greek words kállos (κάλλος) and sthénos (σθένος), meaning "beauty" in "strength."

By Sam Yang

Physical exertion was and still is the first form of character building. As children, movement was the initial way we learned to assert ourselves. Our physical behavior was the only window to know what kind of character we had. Early on, the only way for parents to influence our character was to influence our movements: explore, play, run, touch this, and don't touch that. In other words, childhood.

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
— Seneca

Physical culture and, eventually, exercise became a tangible and easily understood way to modify ourselves. Prior to all the industrial and technological revolutions, we didn't dissociate ourselves from our bodies. They were one and the same, and changing our bodies also meant changing our being. When life was mostly based on physical labor, more strength could completely alter one's life.

Fitness used to be an indication of your character. Your body was the physical representation of the life you lived, your work ethic, and your resilience. Calloused hands, strong neck, and strong arms meant you engaged in honest, hard work. These were the symbols of your virtue — the strength of the commoner. It was symbolic of your ability to overcome obstacles. Today it is a metaphor, back then it was a truth of life, moving and molding the earth with your bare hands.

Greek athletes and Roman gladiators personified the power of their nations. Myths and fables honored the hero who could overcome all odds. Within their chiseled bodies was an even greater spirit that was beyond measure. The body was just a canvas where some of their greatness bled. Sometimes the gods bestowed powers and gifts to those who were worthy, those who already exemplified effort and grit. Calisthenics — in many ways the first form of exercise — comes from the ancient Greek words kállos (κάλλος) and sthénos (σθένος), meaning "beauty" in "strength." We are just now trying to revive this old idea with the "strong is beautiful" movement.

“No one has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for anyone to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which their body is capable.”
— Socrates

Your Body Is the Temple You Spend Your Whole Life Cultivating

Though it seems odd now, in the ancient world, the social elites were physical. They bended and stretched, symbolic of their flexible minds that could work out problems. They also ran and engaged in activities that involved taxing the lungs. Instead of working their muscles, it was about working their heart. This wouldn't create the body of a laborer. It was more internal, it was about having an indomitable will. Endurance activities were about a person's ability to endure. That is the quality worth cultivating. A marathon is not an effective way to attain health but it is a tremendous symbol of one's spirit, mindset, and fortitude.

Push-Ups First, Philosophy Second

Socrates, followed by his disciple Plato, trained their students in physical culture. (All the Greek and Roman philosophers, including the Stoics, involved themselves in physical culture.) Only recently did we divorce virtues and the good life from the physical life — a product of industrialization and Western dualism.

Calisthenics, running, and wrestling, were taught alongside mathematics and astronomy. The belief was, to sharpen the mind, one must first sharpen the body — for the body is material and easier to mold. It is also the way we experience life, empiricism, and without experience, philosophy is impossible to teach. (Everything would be abstract and unknowable.) Evolution and increasing of intelligence, themselves, are biological (physical) processes.

“Mens sana in corpore sano.”

Latin for a healthy body is a healthy mind or a healthy mind is a healthy body.

If one were really intellectual, the value of the physical would be self-evident. If one were really physical, one would be empirically aware. (Maybe this dissonance is a sign that we still have much to improve upon.) The body and mind exist so that we may experience life. One without the other is sense without knowledge, and knowledge without sense.

Fight, wrestle, run, because without it, you are too stupid and lazy to teach. This was the blunt lifesaving wisdom of the time. The intellectual was physical; the physical was intellectual. One should neither be novice nor sluggish in either. Today we believe the opposite, the intellectual and physical at odds, even the people at odds — without a sense of a unified culture. And we are that much further from the good life — individually and as a people.

Hard-work is a virtue, not laziness. Now we think of traits relative to the specific activity, not to the individual. I work hard at the gym or I work hard at school. The emphasis on the activity not on the person. Not: I am a hard worker. Period.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

How James Y Lee Helped Shape Jeet Kune Do

Below is an excerpt from a post at Kung Fu Tea, which is itself an excerpt from the book, Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America, by Charles Russo.

The early 60's in the Bay Area was a hotspot for martial arts in the US and Bruce Lee found himself in the right place at the right time. But how did he find himself there? See below.

The full article may be read here.

So it Begins

At some point in late 1961, James Lee stormed out of the Kin Mon Physical Culture Studio in San Francisco’s Chinatown, effectively breaking off his tutelage under Sil Lum master TY Wong.  Kin Mon, – or as the translation goes: “the Sturdy Citizen’s Club” – was located in a basement studio space on Waverly Place, directly across from the Hop Sing Tong, where TY was a longstanding member.  James Lee had been studying at Kin Mon for a few years at that point, and had established himself as one of TY’s most notable students. Recently, they had collaborated on a book showcasing TY’s system, titled, Chinese Karate Kung-Fu:  Original ‘Sil Lum’ System for Health & Self Defense.  The two shared the byline, and the book has the historical significance of being one of the first (if not the very first) English language martial arts book by a Chinese master.

However, James Lee eventually ascended the steps out of Kin Mon in anger, concluding his time there on bitter terms. He encountered recently-enrolled student Leo Fong at the street level entrance, and let him know he was leaving: “I’m finished with this place. You wanna come with me to train back in Oakland?”

A perennially eclectic martial artist whose skills were anchored around an early education in
American boxing, Fong also defected from Kin Mon on the spot with James. Years later, Fong laughs the whole misunderstanding off as trivial: “Jimmy fell out with TY Wong over just $10. They got real upset with each other over that. Can you imagine?”

While seemingly just another martial arts feud predicated on mundane matters of ego or just poor communication, James Lee’s split with TY Wong would have a significant impact on the emerging popularity of the martial arts in America and the kung fu craze of the coming decade, most notably with its effects on the long-term trajectory of Bruce Lee’s career.

You’re not likely, however, to find TY Wong’s name within any biographical accounts of Bruce Lee.

Despite Bruce’s maxim of discarding “what is useless,” fans are probably far more familiar with a peripheral figure like Ruby Chow (his landlord and boss at a menial job) than a pioneering martial arts master like TY Wong, who dismissed young Bruce as little more than “a dissident with bad manners.” In fact, few Bruce Lee fans realize that the TY Wong/James Lee feud exists within the pages of Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense; the only book that Bruce Lee published in his lifetime.

The fallout between TY and James also gives key context to understanding the persisting tensions that led to Bruce’s legendary showdown with Wong Jack Man, an incident that would greatly influence Lee’s long term martial arts worldview. There is a lot to be learned from this obscure but notable history within the trailblazing martial arts culture of the San Francisco Bay Area during the early 1960s.

Enter the Dragon

Here’s an interesting question to consider: why did Bruce Lee relocate from Seattle to Oakland in the summer of 1964?

After all, things were going well for Bruce at that point in Seattle: he had a dedicated following of martial arts students and had finally found an actual location for his school. He was a popular student at the University of Washington, had just begun dating the woman he would eventually marry, and had defeated a rival martial artist in a challenge. During the summer of 1963, Bruce had traveled home to Hong Kong and greatly impressed his father with all that he had accomplished in Seattle. So why leave behind his business, his girlfriend and his education for a new situation in Oakland?

The immediate answer is James Lee. An Oakland native who was well-known for his younger exploits as a street fighter, James was already enacting the sort of martial arts future that Bruce was envisioning. He was publishing books, creating his own custom martial arts equipment, and conducting a modern training environment at his school. James was also putting a nuanced emphasis on body building, and perhaps most importantly, transforming his street experience into a gritty and realistic understanding of the true nature of fighting. Furthermore, James Lee had a unique network of experienced martial arts innovators within his orbit: Wally Jay, Ralph Castro, Al Novak, Leo Fong, and Ed Parker. As James Lee’s son Greglon characterized the appeal of this: “Bruce was smart.

When he’s in his twenties he’s hanging out with guys in their forties, so he can gain their experience.”

Upon being introduced, Bruce and James had quickly found themselves upon a similar martial arts wavelength. And for a moment, James Lee considered moving his family up to Seattle to continue his collaborations with Bruce (they had already published Chinese Gung Fu… together in 1963). This idea was discarded for one main reason – the Bay Area had the most robust martial arts culture in America (with the possible exception of Hawaii, which James and most of his colleagues had ties to). In this sense, Oakland was a more logical place for their collaborations because it put Bruce close to the action. As kenpo master Al Tracy explained it: “The real significant early development of the martial arts in the United States was heavily based in the Bay Area. Many of the most important people came out of the Bay Area, not just for the Chinese but for so much of the martial arts.”

So by the summer of 1964, Bruce was operating out of Oakland, which was significant not just for his particular whereabouts, but for his commitment to his vision for the martial arts. Bruce was chasing something down. He could have easily stayed and thrived in his Seattle niche. Instead, the next step forward in his evolution was to be found in Oakland.

Amid their shared wavelength, Bruce and James at some point connected on their disdain for traditional approaches to the martial arts, and by extension – traditional masters.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Spirals and Martial Arts

At The Internal Power Training Blog, there was an interesting article about the importance and power of spiral movements. Below is an excerpt. The full article may be read here.

In the internal arts the ‘spiral’ holds a special place in the mind and body of the practitioners. Along with the circle, it is the most commonly targeted shape in the body development methods, but what is it about the spiral that makes it so useful and important to the internal artist?

If you watch the motions of a Ba Gua practitioner or a Taiji Adept, you will notice the clear circularity and ‘twist’ in their motions, it is characteristic of these styles. But there is more to the Spiral in internal training than simply the outward appearance of specific motions.

Before we look at the various utilities of the spiral, we must address is what is actually meant by a ‘spiral’ in the internal arts. When the teacher talks of spirals they are in fact more commonly referencing a type of 3 dimensional spiral sometimes known as a Helix. Most of  the time when a practitioner moves or uses developmental methods a Helix will be formed via either their movement, their intent or the tensioning of their tissues. Quite often a ‘conical helix’ where one end of the spiral is tighter than the other is seen so as to condense or expand the spiral, focusing the twist or motion.

But the term ‘Helix’ is not one that we see too often in the internal arts, instead the practitioners will use the word spiral to describe the many different twists, winds and turns that are demonstrated or used in the training.

Traditionally the spiral is a shape that gives form to many of the classical models of the internal arts.

For instance, the Tai Chi (yin Yang) is the initiation of a spiral and if we were to extend the rotation of the two halves around each other, a clear Fermat spiral would form, indeed some of the older representations of the Tai Chi show this spiraling of Yin and Yang.

Here is will describe, in very brief terms, only some of the reasons that the spiral is so important and useful in the internal arts.

Friday, February 03, 2017

A Tai Chi Chuan Resource

Find Your Tai Chi is a very nice resource. If you pay a visit, you'll find something like 150 (and growing) links to video clips, articles, blogs, websites, DVDs, ... you name it.

For example, here's Cheng Man Ching demonstrating his sword form.