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 27, 2018

Wang Shu Jin's Tai Chi Chuan

Wang Shu Jin was famous for his Xingyiquan and Baguazhang.. He also taught the Chen Pan Ling version of Tai Chi Chuan. Here is a video of him demonstrating his Tai Chi Chuan.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Karate's Literary Link to Chinese Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from an article at  Kung Fu Tea which reviews a book linking the Bubishi with the martial arts manuals of Southern China. The full post may be read here.

A few words of introduction may be necessary for readers who are not familiar with the manuscript tradition generally referred to as “the Bubishi.”  This Japanese romanization of the Chinese title Wǔbèi Zhì, does not refer to the venerable Ming era military encyclopedia compiled by Mao Yuanyi.  Rather, it is a term that in the 1930s came to be retrospectively applied to a diverse manuscript tradition preserved in Okinawan hand combat circles.  Yet the exact nature of these “books” is difficult to pin down.

These untitled works were essentially collections of texts dealing with a range of topics including medicine, martial philosophy and unarmed fighting techniques.  (Andreas Quast suggests that it is significant that the Bubishi contains no discussion of weapon techniques.)  No surviving editions include a title page, preface or statement of authorship.  In that sense they are even more mysterious than the Taiji Classics, though they likely date to the same period and may have been at least partially the product of similar social forces.  While there was some overlap in critical material, various lineages of Bubishi transmission included different numbers of articles organized in a wide variety of ways.  While clearly a compiled work with multiple authors (or editors) the Bubishi was not so much a cohesive edited volume as an ongoing research file or, in the words of Nisan and Liu, “a notebook.”

While Japanese authors have been discussing this manuscript tradition since the pre-WWII period, in the current era it is best known to English speaking audiences through the efforts of Patrick McCarthy who has published multiple editions of translation and commentary. McCarthy’s once characterized the Bubishi as the “Bible of Karate,” and the symbolic resemblance is certainly recognizable.  While very little in this work outwardly resembles modern karate practice, many of the art’s pioneers drew inspiration from its pages.  The Bubishi functioned as a textual witness linking what became a modern martial art to an idealized and supposedly pure past tradition.

Karate students have dominated the discussion of this manuscript in the West.  Yet, as Nisan and Liu argue (and as I have repeatedly noted on this blog), that is only half of the story. In fact, it may be a good deal less.

Very few individuals in Japan can read the Bubishi as it is written in a combination of classical Chinese and the local Minnan dialect of Fujian province.  When accounting for the various textual errors that arose from poor copying and mistakes in the transcription of local dialects, it is a challenging document for anyone to work with.  Yet it is a uniquely Chinese document, one that is tied to the Fuzhou region and the folk martial art traditions still popular in the area, including White Crane and Luohan Boxing.  The authors of the present volume lay out a convincing case that it was probably compiled sometime in the second half of the 19th century (and probably after 1860).  As such, the Bubishi is a potentially invaluable textual witness to a period of rapid transformation within the Southern Chinese martial arts.  Yet students of Chinese martial history have, for the most art, passed over this manuscript tradition in silence.

The efforts of Nisan and Liu may well provide the push needed to spark a long over-due discussion.  By examining this work within its original cultural context, they hope to both shed light on the nature, origin and authorship of the collection, as well as providing martial artists with a new set of concepts for making sense of it.  This effort was facilitated when Lionbooks acquired a previously unpublished Bubishi manuscript from the estate of a Japanese-American karate student that was unique in a number of ways.  While badly damaged in places, this copy seems to represent an early textual variant.  Further, it is unique in that it contains a very large number of beautifully painted, full color, images.  While a few other hand painted Chinese fight books are known to exist (see the Golden Saber Illustrated Manual, 1725) such works are extremely rare and suggest interesting questions about their ownership and the social function of these texts.  Yet this work is not a translation project.  Rather, the beautiful facsimile edition is accompanied by a text that seeks to explore the place of the Bubishi in Chinese martial arts history.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Dao De Jing #66: It's Okay to be in the Background

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 #66, It's Okay to be in the Background.

-As a large river flows to the sea, it becomes the ruler over the hundreds of valleys it travels through.
-Because of this, the hundreds of valleys have the ability to act as though they were below.
-It's just natural this ability would allow the hundred valleys to be ruled.
-The influence of a wise person promotes other people to advance, while keeping their own selves in the background.
-Their influence places others on a higher level, while their own words remain below.
-Their influence places people on a higher level, so the people don't feel like they're in the background.
-Their influence promotes other people to advance, so the people won't feel like they're being criticized.
-Everywhere in the world happiness abounds, yet won't prevent room for more.
-Because there's nothing to argue about, that's why nothing in the world has the ability to argue with each other.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Happy Year of the Dog!

Today is the Chinese New Year. This is the year of the Brown Earth Dog.

So what can we expect from the upcoming year? The Dog is an ethical and idealistic sign, and the year that bears its name will also bring increased social awareness and interest in society’s less powerful members. Any tendencies to take, take, take will be replaced by a widespread sentiment of generosity and selflessness. In general, we will all be imbued with the Dog’s keen sense of right and wrong. You can also get a feel for the year to come by checking the compatibility between your Chinese sign and the sign of the dog — the better your compatibility, the better your year.

Happy New Year and Gong Xi Fa Cai (may you have wealth and prosper)!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Myth of Perfect Practice in Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from yet another great article at Kung Fu Tea. The whole post may be read here.


The Problem with Perfect Practice

Vince Lombardie is far from alone in his admiration of “perfect practice.”  While reading threads on a private lightsaber combat facebook group I noticed that the merits of a similar quote (this time delivered by an olympic fencing instructor) were being vigorously debated.  A couple of the students (one drawing on his own background as a firearms instructor) believed it was vastly better to have students who never practiced rather than those who practiced poorly.  As far as they were concerned, the first group was superior as they possessed “no bad habits” and would therefore be easier to teach.

I experienced a mixture of emotions as I read this thread.  Darth Nihilus, the instructor at the Central Lightsaber Academy (the location of my current ethnographic research) has a lot to say on the topic.  I recorded an instance in my field notes where, after watching the performance of one of his students, he shouted that it was not enough to just practice daily, you actually had to strive to practice perfectly.

Nihilus’ was a professional musician before becoming a full time martial arts instructor.  The approach to practice and personal study that you see in the musical world has certainly influenced how he approaches training within the martial arts.  As he went on discussing what our practice sessions should look like (a topic that he decided that the class needed some ersatz instruction on) he ended up doing a hilarious imitation of his high school keyboard teacher who would sagely appraise his performances and tell him, “if your practice is garbage, it doesn’t matter if you do it a thousand times, you are still getting garbage.”  Which makes perfect sense.

And yet, there are some difficult truths that haunt this entire conversation.  The most obvious would be that perfection is a moving target.  At least in the martial arts.  It is not a thing or a singular point.  It is more of an aspirational philosophy.  No one ever reaches perfection.  As one gains technical mastery in a single area, other horizons of possible improvement suddenly appear that you were not even aware of.

All of which brings me back to Wing Chun.  One of the best pieces of advice on teaching that I got from my Sifu was that when introducing new material to students I should demonstrate, explain, answer questions, and then step back and let them work on the problem themselves.  It is so easy to smother someone acquiring a new skill with well intentioned, but ultimately incomprehensible, advice.  Sometimes what students need is not more explanation, but a structured opportunity for practice.

As I have watched teachers that I admire, I noticed that they all encourage (and even demand) that their students practice.  But none of them are all that insistent that their students be “perfect” or practice perfectly.  Not that their students usually realize this.  Learning any new, sufficiently complex, embodied skill can (and often does) feel overwhelming.  Yet from where I am now, I can look back on them supervising the mastery of a complex task (say, the dummy form) and appreciate the way in which they would give their students one task to work on at a time rather than simply listing all 53 of the major mistakes that were made the last time the student did the form.  This is how progress is made, one correction at a time.  And that means that none of our practice is “perfect.”

Practice as Research

The strangely shifting and fungible nature of perfection is not the only difficulty that such conversations pose.  The more we think about the topic the more questions arise about both the nature of the thing being practiced, as well as the act of practice itself.   Indeed, scholarly research into both areas may be helpful.

Readers interested in delving deeper into the question of what ‘practice’ is, as well as its relationship to the mastering of technique and the production of knowledge, might be well served by picking up a copy of Ban Spatz’s book What a Body Can Do (Routledge, 2015).  This book has become something of a hit in martial arts studies circles because it directly speaks to a number of questions that lay at the heart of the turn towards the exploration of “embodiment” and “practice as research” rather than historical or social modes of inquiry.

A more traditional discussion of “practice” might start by supposing the existence of a self-contained, coherent and unchanging body of technique called a style.  Techniques might be derived from conceptual first principals (the fastest point between any two points is a straight line) or inherited from a more traditional form of transmission (Ng Moy invented the art that would become Wing Chun after watching a snake fight a crane).  These bodies of techniques, and a conceptual understanding of how to use them, are then transmitted directly from one generation of teachers to the next generation of students through the process of diligent, dare I say perfect, practice.  Only in this way can a student’s fundamental dispositions be changed, and can the genetic purity of the next generation of the art be maintained.

Yet, as Spatz might point out, it is not clear that any teachers are actually up to the task of revealing the full depth of insight about a given technique that years of diligent practice can reveal.  Any martial artist can tell you that more goes into our punches, kicks, locks and throws than just gross motor movements.  There are a myriad of small adjustments that can alter the nature of a technique, and another myriad of insights that might be gained (or not) as to when and how to employ them.  Nor do students approach the learning process as a blank slate, or an empty vessel ready to be filled with some sort of genetic transmission of pure knowledge.

Each of us brings our own assortment of bodily predispositions to the learning process.  Some of these are physical, others are cultural.  My wife’s approach to, and understanding of, Wing Chun will never be the same as mine.  I will never experience a punch or laup the same way that she does.  How could it be otherwise?

Yet one of the biggest determinants of how easy or difficult it will be to master a technique is what prior bodily dispositions you already have.  Or to put it slightly differently, there is no such thing as a student that comes to a problem with no “bad habits.”  We all have many idiosyncratic bodily dispositions.  Some of them will push our development in one direction, while others might give us a shove in the other.

There is sometimes a suggestion that when Ip Man (or any other kung fu instructor of his generation) tailored his teaching to a given individual’s background or nature he was only passing on the “technique” and not the “true system” of Wing Chun which would be reserved for a handful of close disciples.  Yet by placing the student at the center of the learning process, and allowing Wing Chun to be conceptually rather than technically driven, there were aspects of his pedagogy that can be thought of as ahead of their time.

Rather than seeing “techniques” as simply closed bodies of movement and knowledge, Spatz (capturing the intuitive understanding of most of the martial artists I know) describes them as akin to onions, each level of technical mastery reveals a new layer of questions and nuance.  Nor depending on our background and nature, is it clear that we are all headed in the same direction on this journey of exploration.  And beyond a certain point in our training, most of the new knowledge that we acquire will not come from classes and seminars (though that route never vanishes), but from the process of practice itself.

Practice is not just the acquisition of a finite skill.  It’s a powerful research tool.  As we practice we make discoveries.  Spats notes that at first many of these will focus on how we can improve our own performance.  As we become more advanced they may include insights into the application and nature of a given technique.  Later, more original discoveries might open the way to creating new techniques and insights into how to better structure the process of practice.  When reading the biographies of individuals like Kano Jigoro or Morihei Ueshiba, it becomes clear that this is the way that at least some martial arts are born. Yet at all of these levels of research martial artists are engaged with the age old question, articulated by Spinoza, of asking “what can a body can do?”  This is such a simple question, and yet the answers always manage to surprise.

The idea of a direct transmission of knowledge from the mind/hands of the master to the mind/hands of the apprentice is mostly an illusion.  (And I say this as someone with great love and respect for my teachers).  The nature of practice itself suggests that the learning of technique, beyond its basic stages, is a rhizomic and ever evolving process.  As our practice becomes better, our research into the nature of techniques becomes more profound.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

2018 Lenten Challenge

Every year, I throw out the Lenten Challenge to my martial arts buddies. It has nothing to do with Christianity or religion (unless you want it to). We are simply using this time as a convenient reminder to rededicate ourselves to our training. It’s kind of hard to miss either Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras, the last day before Lent, which is also Paczki Day!) or Easter Sunday (Bunnies, candy, colored eggs; that stuff). Several of us have been doing this for years now.

The challenge is this: from Ash Wednesday (today!) until the day before Easter (Mar 31), train every day, without fail, no excuses; even if you have to move mountains. Simple enough said, a little harder to do.

It's not as easy as it sounds; things come up. Some days, you might only be able to get a few minutes of training in; but the point is to do it everyday, no matter what.

It doesn't have to be martial arts training either. Whatever it is that you need to really rededicate yourself to: studying, practicing an instrument, walking, watching what you eat, immersing yourself in something new; anything - do it every day, without fail.

In the past on some forums, people have posted what they’ve done everyday. I think everyone who’s done that has become tired of writing, and the others get tired of reading it. How about you just post if you’ve had some breakthrough, or you’ve had to overcome some unusual circumstance to continue your training? Maybe just check in every once in a while to let everyone know you’re keeping at it, or to encourage everyone else to keep at it.

If you fail, no one will hate you. If you fall off of the wagon, climb back on board. Start anew.

For those of you who already train everyday anyway, by all means continue and be supportive of the rest of us. For the rest of us who intend to train everyday, but sometimes come up short due to life’s propensity for unraveling even the best laid plans, here is an opportunity to put a stake in the ground and show your resolution.

Won't you join me? The challenge starts NOW!

Monday, February 12, 2018

The 82 Techniques of Sumo Demonstrated

... by two Japanese school girls in sailor uniforms.

I've got nothing.

They actually do a very good job.

Here is an excerpt from the article. The full post may be read here.

These girls expertly throw each other around the ring to help promote high school sumo in Japan.

In Japan, sailor suit school uniforms denote youthfulness and innocence, but there’s plenty of strength behind the image too. Take the gun-slinging schoolgirl from the 1981 movie Sailor Suit and Machine Gun and its 2016 sequel, for instance, or the fighting schoolgirls in Japanese pose reference books. These seemingly contradictory virtues of innocence and power make for the ultimate badass schoolgirl, and whenever she makes an appearance, we can’t tear our eyes away from her.

Now a couple of fighting schoolgirls are stepping into the sumo ring to promote the 101st High School Sumo Kanazawa Tournament, which will be held in Kanazawa, in Ishikawa Prefecture, on 21 May. Using the 82 winning techniques of sumo, which include throws, twist downs, leg trips and body drops, these girls do a great job of demonstrating each move.

Friday, February 09, 2018

The Philosophy of Stoicism

As a philosophy of life, Stoicism has much to offer. See the Ted Talk below.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Japanese Woodblock Prints Available From the Library of Congress.

From MyModernMet. the full article with many woodblock prints may be read here.

As a part of the Library of Congress‘ latest and largest digitization project, the esteemed institution has published over 2,500 reproductions of Japanese woodblock prints. Available for free on the Library of Congress' website, each beautiful work of Japanese art can be accessed, viewed, and downloaded with the click of a mouse.

Like all of the institution's digital reproductions, this series has been curated into a collection based on culture and chronology. Fine Prints: Japanese, Pre-1915 includes nearly 2,700 Japanese woodblock prints and traditional drawings produced between the 17th and 20th centuries. This rich selection of Japanese art highlights the country's predominant print traditions—Ukiyo-e (“Pictures of the floating world”) and Yokohama-e (“Pictures of Yokohama”)—and features masterworks from prolific printmakers, including Hiroshige, Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Sadahide, and Yoshiiku.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

The Poetry of Taijiquan Master Cheng Man Ching

Cheng Man Ching (Zheng ManQing) was not only a master of Taijiquan, but also a physician, chess master, painter and poet.

Below is a video of one of his students reading one of CMC's poems.