The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

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 ~

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Sign of the Mantis, the Way of the Cricket

Today we have a guest post by Jared Miracle, who has spent quite a bit of time researching martial arts in both China and Japan. Enjoy.

Vernacular Crickets and the Mystery of Shandong Mantis Fist
Jared Miracle

There is a lot to be said for the relationship between insects and the martial arts. Sure, we’re all aware of the multitudinous “praying mantis” styles thanks to the Shaw Bros. One entrepreneurial gentleman in China has even created a unique (and I do mean unique) cricket form, replete with wing flapping and not a small degree of violent juddering. I once pulled my diaphragm while attempting one of the basic forms. What perhaps fewer readers may know, however, is that China boasts quite a long history of employing crickets for a kind of dueling. I’ve explained “cricket fighting” elsewhere, but what I’d like to discuss now is the importance of distinguishing between classical and vernacular tradition. This point is important for both martial arts and what I’ve taken to calling cultural entomology.

Shandong Province, located on China’s East coast, is the birthplace of a particular incarnation of praying mantis kung fu, as well as a hotbed for combat crickets. In 2015, I set out to study both. The crickets turned up first. In a slightly seedier section of urban Qingdao, there exists a retail establishment proffering all the accoutrements needed to raise, breed, and train a stable of arthropod warriors. The proprietor is a veteran of the game. He presides over a vast assortment of clay pots, nets, plastic tubes, wicker baskets, jellies, and prodding implements. The shop is occupied by a congregation of middle-aged men, mostly well-to-do business types. In their off hours, they relax, play Chinese chess, and pit their athletes against one another in bouts of unexpected violence.
The fights are not slow affairs. When one gentleman’s boasting has reached a sufficient degree that someone challenges him, the two sit on opposite ends of an oblong plastic arena about six inches across. Their fighters are dropped from carrying tubes and manually agitated via lengths of straw (fancier options made of materials like horse hair exist, but no one uses them in contests). Once sufficiently ticked off, the beasts engage in a fast-paced round of wrestling and kicking. The loser is evident as he will invariably retreat to the other side of the enclosure. It’s enamoring, I assure you. Naturally, one longs to participate. How do you learn this? The veterans were happy to explain: you simply do it.

Talk about bamboozled. In preparation, I’d read every scrap of information available on the topic of Chinese cricket domestication. Much of the literature makes reference to characters like Jia Sidao (“the Cricket Chancellor”), as well as several classic texts on choosing and rearing the ideal gladiator. The volumes go so far as to break down gradients of color in relation to fighting ability. Having scientific classification on par with anything in traditional Chinese medicine felt familiar, if not empowering. But these erstwhile Cus D’Amatos were telling me they’d never even done the required reading. I was an overeducated fool.
The reason I bring this up in the context of (human) martial arts is due to a curious experience while hunting for the local Shandong style of tanglang chuan, mantis fist. That took some months, but eventually a distant connection introduced me to Master Ge. We met—at some ungodly hour of the morning—and he had me do a bit of fisticuffs with one of his students. The most dedicated martial artists from around the province sought this man out for instruction. He was grumpy, abusive, stank of cigarettes and vagrancy, and generally everything a Midwest farm boy grows up wishing for in a kung fu teacher. Following an investigation of my ability to take blows to the head, he agreed to accept me in spite of my unfortunate foreign birth. We can't all be perfect. When I asked how to learn his style, he said the process was quite straightforward: you simply do it.

Due to historical accident, East Asian arts in the Western hemisphere have, until recently, primarily been Japanese brands. The appeal is immediate. Progression in most Japanese arts is broken down into digestible segments that maintain ostensible order and reason. Products like Shotokan karate and Kodokan judo lend themselves well to reproduction. Even the older Japanese styles (that is, the koryu budo) have their own idiosyncratic systemizations. Not so in all combat disciplines, however.
My mentor, the great anthropologist, Thomas Green, has spent the past several years coaxing information from practitioners about an American style of fighting with murky origins and murkier transmission. Most famously known as “52 Hand Blocks” or “Jailhouse Rock,” what he has uncovered is a vernacular martial art ( Like vernacular language, these styles don’t exist in a single formulation, but are instead living entities in a perpetual state of change. As it turned out, Master Ge felt the same way about his Shandong mantis fist. “Just watch me,” he said before executing a form. “OK, now go do that for a while.” I sometimes convinced him to let me take video. Coming from a background in classical and modern Japanese arts and Western boxing, it was a jarring realization when I compared two shots of him doing the same form in very different ways.

Just like in the cricket parlor, this was not instruction based on explicit tradition. Here was the vernacular. Street kung fu. When I expressed concern about a particular hand motion causing more damage to the user than the target, he lit another cigarette, grabbed one of his younger, fit, taiji students, and told us to go at it. “Figure it out.” Was my foot pointed to precisely the correct angle? In what order do I learn the forms? "If it works, it works. Go practice some more.”

So that took some getting used to. Later on, I found myself back in rural Japan, alternately studying under two gentlemen who were not acquainted with each other. Both had highly formal training backgrounds, with documentation and achievements on file at various organizations. They also both had informal, vernacular educations. My sword teacher and I would rehearse a particular cut, then we’d put on kendo gear and have it out. An onlooker might have mistaken it for hockey played with the wrong equipment. Jissen, he called it, meaning “real combat.” My other teacher had a colorful CV, even by fighting arts community standards. As such, he’d been around. In midnight sessions in a creaky, abandoned old dojo, he knocked me around with techniques he hadn’t performed in decades. He used vague words like taijutsu and kempo to describe what we did, but it was along the lines of informal, perhaps even dirty, karate and grappling. He, too, was prone to describe this as jissen.

These avenues of study would have remained invisible without a street education in Qingdao. My point here is that we sometimes find ourselves so stuck on the idea of proper lineage and documented history that we forget how real life works. Like music, language, and cuisine, there are well-publicized proper traditions, but also informal, confused folk histories. In a lot of ways, it’s easier to only see the clearly-defined martial arts school with a big sign out front. Much harder—and often more meaningful—is tracking down people who don’t think of themselves as tradition holders at all. The vernacular is never easy and systematic in the way we want it to be, but that very informality keeps it alive.

As in language, vernacular martial arts can even be self-contradictory. All the more reason to carefully analyze what’s really being put in front of us. Like American Chinese food, vernacular fighting methods exist in their particular ecosystems with good reason. Historian Elliott Gorn lays this out extremely well in his groundbreaking article on backcountry fighting ( One need not put on a uniform in order to throw a punch, nor do you have to read the manual before entering your first cricket fight. I believe vernacular styles to be the dark matter of Martial Arts Studies. They make up the majority of material, and yet have been documented only a handful of times. As a call to action, then, I propose that the reader reexamine what is on offer through your training group. Sure, there are the forms you’ve been working on for the past six months. But what are your school’s extracurriculars?

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