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 ~

Monday, December 30, 2019

What is Traditional About Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from an article by Paul Bowman from the Martial Arts Studies blog. The full post may be read here.

In discourses about East Asian martial arts, the term 'authentic' has connotations that can easily be taken to imply a kind of unchanging monocultural purity. The term 'traditional' is its partner in crime: in the context of discussions about martial arts, both traditional and authentic can all too easily imply a long unchanging history, and a pure unbroken lineage (Bowman, 2017). 'Authentic' and 'traditional' are very easily read interchangeably as meaning 'the way things have been, since the origin, unchanging down through the generations' (Fabian, 1983a; Krug, 2001). As such, discussions about authenticity and tradition in Asian martial arts often betray deep affections for – even fantasies about – mythical ideas of pure and perfect ancient origins.

However, such narratives are often misconstrued. For instance, the most familiar of 'ancient' East Asian martial arts emerged in their present form during the twentieth century. Virtually all styles of karate, aikido, taekwondo and Brazilian jiujitsu, for instance, are twentieth-century inventions (Chan, 2000; Funakoshi, 1975; Moenig, 2015). The avowedly 'modern' (late nineteenth to early twentieth century) martial art of judo is actually older than many avowedly ancient martial arts, such as taekwondo (which was devised, named and formalised in the 1950s (Gillis, 2008; Moenig, 2015)). Similarly, what is now known as either kung fu or wushu should properly be understood as a modern construction (B. Judkins, 2014; Kennedy, 2010). Perhaps most surprisingly, even the 'ancient' art of taijiquan (also known as tai chi or t'ai chi ch'üan) can actually be understood as a nineteenth century cultural and ideological response to modernity (Wile, 1996). This short list is merely the tip of an iceberg.

What is rarely acknowledged in histories and studies of traditional East Asian martial arts are the complex cultural processes and logics involved in the (modern) invention of (ancient) martial arts. Processes of 'orientalism' (Said, 1978) and 'allochronism' (Fabian, 1983b) – both of which are species of mythic romanticising – are key. Similarly rarely acknowledged is the fact that when they move from one society or cultural context to another, one institution to another, one medium to another, 'traditional' martial arts are substantially reinvented each time (Krug, 2001). Narratives of 'movement' or 'discovery' often work to obscure complex processes of transformation (Bowman, 2015). For instance, when Asian martial arts 'arrived' in Western contexts, such as Europe or the USA, they were often instituted according to problematic beliefs not only about their countries and cultures of origin, but also about the practices themselves (Tan, 2004).

In debates about authenticity and tradition in martial arts, the status of origin stories is immense (B. N. Judkins & Nielson, 2015; Wile, 2015). Fantasies of the origin are combined with a deep investment in the idea of pedagogy as pure transmission – in which the practice of teaching and learning is imagined as nothing other than the smooth transmission of established knowledge, unbroken and unmodified, from teacher to student, down through the ages, from era to era and cultural context to cultural context. In such a paradigm, change cannot but be regarded as bad, because (1) if the origin is pure and (2) if the ancestors are superlative, then therefore (3) any change cannot but be a sign of either arrogance or corruption.

Of course, such investments are fantasies. An origin is always a complex process of formation that is always ongoing and that only ever looks like a clean break or a pure moment of emergence in retrospect (B. N. Judkins & Nielson, 2015). A tradition is always fractured, multiple, heterogeneous, inventive, transforming, partial, changing and – as scholars since the early 1980s have been increasingly aware – very often invented recently and passed off as ancient for the sake of attempting to gain cultural capital, kudos, mystique, gravitas and/or legitimacy (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983).

Like tradition, pedagogical processes are far from simply the smooth, unchanged and unchanging transmissions of established knowledge from one body to another. Teaching and learning are partial, plural, variable, often inventive, and inevitably differing across time and space in form, content, and reception (Bowman, 2016b; Rancière, 1991). Of course, 'traditional' Asian martial arts as they are encountered around the world often attempt to police any drift or shift in form and content by insisting on the maintenance of strict ritualistic structures and strictures. The 'traditional' club, dōjō (道場), dojang (도장 or ) or kwoon ( or ), has its familiar rituals, hierarchies, and visual insignia. A strong emphasis on ritualistic repetition can work to prevent the drift and transformation of the core content of a syllabus. Supplementing this with clear written codification of content and criteria for progression is equally important in preserving and maintaining 'standards'.

The value and function of written rules and regulations within an institutional structure can be seen when comparing the similarity of martial sports like Kōdōkan (講道館)or Olympic jūdō (), on the one hand, and the difference between clubs of 'the same' style of kung fu, on the other. For, while practices like jūdō and taekwondo (태권도/跆拳) have all manner of diverse centralised and dispersed institutional factors supervening on their practice, performance and appearance (Law, 2008; Yabu, 2018), the international dissemination of various styles of kung fu (gōngfu, ) have rarely (until recently) been subject to the demands to adhere to the rules, practices and yardsticks set out by any overarching governing body (Berg & Prohl, 2014; Ryan, 2008). The net result is that jūdō tends to be more or less the same the world over, while styles of other (unformalized, unregulated) martial arts vary enormously.

However, in all cases, traditional East Asian martial arts clubs the world over can be said to self-consciously attempt to institute and inculcate ideas of the 'traditional East Asian' (Tan, 2004), via the institutions of rituals, repetitions, hierarchies, the way the training space is organised, the terms and language used, the religions and philosophies evoked, and so on. 

The paradox is that they can all do so differently, meaning that, in the final analysis, these 'traditions' often have the status of simulations (Baudrillard, 1983) – manifest in the overarching attempt to construct an imagined ideal Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or other national, regional or ethno-linguistic scene. To use Jean Baudrillard's term, many 'traditional' martial arts clubs should properly be regarded as hyperreal (Baudrillard, 1994). Like a traditional Irish pub in Hong Kong or a traditional British pub in Tokyo, traditional martial arts clubs around the world are ontologically akin to theme parks (Baudrillard, 1988).

This is not to suggest that this is all about ignorant Westerners being guilty of yet another species of orientalist fantasy. Highly knowledgeable Easterners are often equally guilty of exactly the same thing – especially when it comes to what is sometimes called self-orientalisation (Bowman, 2016a; Chan, 2000; Frank, 2006). Many teachers of 'regional' or 'national' martial arts have spent time studying in the source or origin cultures of the arts that they teach. So, this is not a matter of authenticity versus inauthenticity, or ignorance versus knowledge. Rather, it is a matter that springs from the irreducibly constructed character of any such practice.

The attempt to capture and convey the 'essence' or 'authenticity' of a traditional martial art involves the deployment of all manner of conventional 'secondary' or supplementary things – from bowing, to standing in lines, to wearing uniforms and insignia of rank, to using Chinese or Japanese terms, and many other matters besides (Bowman, 2019). Such contexts, whether in Asia or elsewhere in the world, constitute hyperreal simulations that attempt to create an imagined authentic East Asian origin. It is not merely 'ignorant Westerners' who take part in this process. There is much to be gained from the invention of tradition no matter who or where you are. It is well known that East Asian nation states often actively promote mysterious, timeless and romantic images of themselves and their cultural heritage, precisely in order to attract tourist income (Bowman, 2016a; Frank, 2006). By the same token, diasporic communities romanticise and fantasise about their wonderful homeland (Abbas, 1997; Osman, 2017). And there are several other species of invention besides.

Such 'postmodern' formulations as these may seem pessimistic to some readers. This is not my intention. The point is not to suggest that some cultures or contexts are 'false' while others are somehow 'true'. It is precisely this perspective that fuels and fires the martial arts pilgrimage industry, which floods countries such as China, Japan and (more recently) Brazil with tourists looking for true, authentic, traditional (etc.) kung fu, taiji (tàijíquán; 太极), jūjutsu (柔術) or capoeira. The point is rather to acknowledge the inevitability of inventiveness and the constructed character of entities and identities, even and especially at the very heart of the pedagogical scene – which is the forge and furnace of the 'reproduction' of martial arts.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Traditional Martial Arts and Combat Sports

Traditional martial arts and combat sports doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. The study of each can supplement and enhance the other. 

It's not uncommon for Kendo students to also practice Kenjutsu, for example.

Below is an article that appeared at the Hung Sing Martial Arts Association on how traditional Choy Lay Fut practice and Mixed Martial Arts can go together. The full post may be read here.

Choy Lay Fut Complete Combat Efficiency: The Value of Combat Sports For the Traditional Chinese Martial Artist

Given the popularity of modern combat sports events like the UFC and the history of combat sports like the lei tei , it seems strange to have to make the argument for the value of combat sport training in today’s martial arts community.   However it is still very common to see posts in online communities dedicated to traditional martial arts attempting to make the argument that combat sport fighting is not real fighting. The primary purpose for training the martial arts is as a method of self protection using physical force to counter an immediate threat of violence. Such force can be either armed or unarmed. In either case, the chances of success depend on a large number of parameters as situations where one is forced to use their skills are largely unpredictable. Choy Lay Fut was a system originally employed as a method of fighting for militias and fighting troops during a turbulent period of Chinese’s history. The original purpose of the system has led some opponents of sport combat training to believe that the system is not intended for sport and such practice is deluding the practical nature of the system. While many practitioners can often be resistant to new ideas, modern sports combat training can offer a wealth of benefits to the traditional martial artist.

A combat sport is a competitive contact sport that usually involves one-on-one combat. Typically in a combat sport a combatant wins by scoring more points than the opponent or by disabling the opponent within an established set of rules.  Combatants usually fight one-on-one. Different combat sport formats involve different skill sets and rules. In Ancient China, combat sport appeared in the form of Leitai, a no-holds-barred combat sport that utilized the full spectrum of Chinese martial arts, striking, wrestling and weapons. Lei tai in its present form appeared during the Song dynasty when it was used for striking and Shuai Jiao exhibition matches and private duels. An ancestor of the lei tai was used during the Qin dynasty to hold wrestling competitions between imperial soldiers. The winner would be chosen to act as a bodyguard to the emperor or a martial arts instructor for the Imperial Military.
             A tradition in the Chinese martial arts was for a practitioner whom wanted to establish themselves as a martial arts instructor in a new location, to initiate an open challenge on top of the leitei to established martial art practitioners in the area. A fighter lost the match and his credibility if he fell, was forced off or was knocked to the floor of the stage. The winner of the match remained on the leitei unless he was forced off himself. If there were no more challengers, he became the champion and or established the dominance of his system of combat in that area.  In order to become a champion, a fighter had to defeat countless opponents. For instance, Lama Pai Grandmaster Wong Yan-Lam set up his own lei tai platform in front of Hai Tung Monastery in Guangdong after having worked as a famous bodyguard in Northern China. For 18 days, he fought over 150 other martial artists and was never defeated Shortly afterwards, he was elected as the leader of the Ten Tigers of Canton, who were the top ten martial arts practitioners in Guangdong.
              The irony of the Traditional martial arts versus combat sports debate is that combat sport fighting has always been a vital component of martial arts. Many who practice the traditional martial arts view the practice of combat sports as antagonistic towards their practice. To understand the issue it’s helpful to re-evaluate our terminology.  What is a “traditional martial art”? The term in itself, while conjuring images of Shaolin monks in robes wielding ancient weaponry, doesn’t really mean anything in the context of this debate. Combat sports have existed in China since antiquity, and current combat sports are undeniably linked to traditional martial art and exist as a continuation of those methods. Training for combat sports can help the traditional martial arts practitioner reorganize their training and make it more efficient by focusing in a specific direction.

A Traditional Chinese Martial Art Refocused

            The Choy Lay Fut system was created in 1836, by founder Chan Heung in Guangzhou, a southern province of China. Seeking out the most information he could find on the Chinese martial arts led Chan Heung to seek the tutelage of 3 different teachers during his life time. Like many contemporary mixed martial artists, he sought to consolidate the 3 different methods of his teachers into one method utilizing the strengths of each. Because of this, Choy Lay Fut is a well rounded method combining powerful striking methods with grabs/holds, kicking and solid yet nimble footwork.
 Choy Lay Fut is often thought to be a vast and complex system of martial arts by both the casual observer and even many students of the system. This line of thinking can be attributed to a large quantity of empty hand and weapons forms practiced by the various schools teaching the system. The number of forms practiced by an individual Choy Lay Fut practitioner can range from only a few to well over forty. If you take into account all the variations and unique forms created by and taught by the different lineages of the system the number of empty hand and weapons forms can easily number in the hundreds. If you include the different apparatus training sets and partner drills, the sheer volume of the system can become such that even a diligent practitioner can seem overwhelmed and unsure of how to properly identify those things that should be priorities in training for combat efficiency. The key to making effective use of this vast library of material is through an understanding and proper focus on the systems core concepts.
The Choy Lay Fut method is centered on its key combative concepts such as the 10 elements, asterisk footwork, gate theory etc. These concepts give a practitioner the tools to deal with various vectors of force leading to a better understanding of fighting in general and as such making it easier for the practitioner to fight against an aggressor regardless of that aggressor’s background and training in other systems. Approaching the system as a conceptual method will allow the Choy Lay Fut practitioner to cut through the vast quantity of material and understand how to effectively apply the system in combat. The conceptual method of training a martial art can be compared to learning a new language. Learning only forms and techniques with no understanding of the concepts behind them is similar to attempting to communicate in a foreign language using a phrase book. You may be able to ask specific questions like “where is the bathroom” but you will not be able to express your own ideas and converse fluently. The conceptual method of learning a martial art is similar to learning a foreign language in its entirety. You begin with the core concepts which can be compared to an alphabet then you move on to combining concepts together which is like forming words. 
Finally you can put together combinations and apply these concepts where they are needed and, in essence, converse freely with your opponent. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Warrior Pilgrimage


First of all, the Advent Challenge is over! Congratulations to everyone who stuck with it. 

Traveling from martial arts school to martial arts school has a long and storied history and can effect our training on many levels. 

For myself, when I am traveling, I try to find a taijiquan teacher who is compatible with the style I study. I find that it is a wholesome activity. 

Most of my good habits go by the wayside when I am traveling and my normal routine is disrupted. I like to get out and meet new people and be exposed to perhaps new ideas.

Below is an excerpt from an excellent article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea about the Warrior Pilgrimage in Chinese and Japanese traditions. The full post may be read here.

Bear up under days of cold and heat, withstand exposure to wind, rain, sleet.

Walk mountains and difficult paths. Do not sleep under a roof; consider it fundamental to sleep out in the open. Be patient with hunger and cold. Carry no money or food provisions.

If there are unavoidable battles at a destination, participate and achieve meritorious deeds. Be direct in combat, let your deeds speak. Go alone to places frightening to the common run of men; places where evil spirits congregate or where there are bewitching foxes and poisonous snakes.

Become a criminal on purpose, be put in jail and extricate yourself by your own wisdom, perseverance, character. Consider your own position to be below that of farmers and make your living by helping in the paddies and fields.

Bukoyo Shigen, 1603, “The Seven Austerities.”
The Warrior’s Pilgrimage

Not all travel is the same.  When I mentioned my recent Shaolin experience to a colleague he mused (mixing cultural metaphors) that by walking into such a different school I had undertaken my own Musha shugyō.  This Japanese term refers to a sort of “warrior’s pilgrimage” that was performed by the Bushi and later Samurai.  Their goals were diverse, but typically included improving one’s technical skill through training, developing mental and spiritual toughness, establishing a reputation as a skilled warrior, and finding gainful employment with a local Daimyo.

While I am hardly a wandering swordsman, this struck me as in some ways an apt metaphor for the sorts of travel that I see being undertaken by some martial artists (and younger scholars) today.  Indeed, there seems to be a strong structural connection between training in an embodied skill and the necessity of travel.  My friend’s metaphor was all the more intriguing as this tendency can also be seen across cultures and time periods.

China has a long literary tradition of tales of wandering youxia in both ancient literature and classic Ming and Qing era novels.  Indeed, during the Republic period it was a common refrain that a well-trained martial artist with a sword on his back was free to walk from one side of China to the other, a task that few others would dare to take up.  In a very real sense martial accomplishment was associated with geographic freedom. Likewise, Western knight errantry was also well-established in both the fabric of European feudalism as well as the region’s literature.  Still, it would be unwise to conflate all “martial pilgrimages” under a single label as doing so could cause us to lose sight of the importance of socio-economic marginality in these patterns, or the role of the martial arts as a strategy for dealing with one’s marginalization within society.  Traditional modes of hand combat functioned not only as a concrete qualification by which one might gain certain sorts of employment, but also as an ideological construct allowing one to find value, and even virtue, in difficult circumstances. Or to draw on a more sociological terminology, they were means by which marginal individuals might establish effective sub-cultures.

Let us begin by considering whether the journeys in question are essentially circular in nature, or linear and non-repeating. When analyzing a pattern of movement timing is often the critical element, even more so than distance. Some types of travel are undertaken at regular intervals, or with a regular group of companions.  In my academic life I might travel to the annual Martial Arts Studies meeting on a yearly basis.  Beyond that I see many of these same colleagues either at smaller workshops or perhaps bump into them in large disciplinary or area studies conferences. In any case, the defining characteristic of these journeys is their regularity.  The physical location of the movable feast may change, but by design the food and company is usually quite similar.

It is not difficult to imagine how these circuits of travel and professional circulation might shape a new intellectual community. Benedict Anderson has talked about the ways that shared literatures (such as newspapers, or academic journals) and shared professional experiences can lead to the emergence of “imaginary communities.” One becomes a member of the Martial Arts Studies community (or any professional specialization) in large part by joining this pattern of physical travel and intellectual circulation.  The journeys that we undertake, and the stories that we tell about them, are powerful tools in the creation of community.

Lauren Miller Griffith and Jonathan S. Marion, in their recent volume Apprenticeship Pilgrimage: Developing Expertise through Travel and Training (Lexington Books, 2018), remind us that these basic patterns are not unique to the scholarly realm. Their ethnographic study of various ballroom dance and martial arts communities reveals the many ways in which participation in circuits of training workshops, tournaments, and regular visits with a revered school or master, served to both create specific types of embodied skills and status within these communities.

I quite like this book as it speaks to a set of conditions which are increasingly prevalent within North American martial culture.  The much-discussed decline of the traditional martial arts means that fewer towns and small cities will be able to support dedicated schools in any given discipline.  Further, even when a school exists within driving distance, the declining population density of students within traditional communities suggests that there will be fewer truly skilled individuals to work with.  Those with specific interests (a less common style of martial art, or perhaps an interest in a specific lineage) are increasingly likely to find themselves undertaking precisely the sorts of journeys that Griffith and Marion describe in their quest for embodied knowledge.

As useful as their description and framework is, it does not exhaust the role that travel plays (and has played) within the martial arts.  The notion of pilgrimage as used in their text implies a degree of circular repetition and regularity.  Mircea Eliade might remind us that even if an individual traveler only makes the journey to Mecca once in their life, they are nevertheless imagining themselves as part of a vast and unending circumbulation of a transcended world axis that gives mundane life meaning.  In more prosaic terms, one may return to a martial art’s headquarters multiple times a year for “additional training.” In some cases, this is important for maintaining one’s own social status in the organization or teaching credentials. In such a situation there is no need to imagine community as being defined by shared journeys between the center and the peripheries.  One will have ample time to experience the texture of this reality for yourself.

This last pattern is something that many of us in the martial arts will be familiar with. These types of travel are often very expensive, not only in terms of direct costs but also foregone opportunities in other areas of one’s professional or family life. The strength of the communities that are forged through these pilgrimages comes in large part of from the high barriers to entry which exist within such organizations.  Frequent and expensive travel can serve to ensure that you are investing your time and resources into a group that is both prosperous and full of individuals who have already publicly demonstrated their dedication to the organization.  In this case the expense of the undertaking is a feature of this social system, and not a bug.

The social scientific literature on “strict churches” suggests that this type of cost structure may function as an important mechanism for dealing with the “free rider problem” in a variety of social institutions.  But again, this stability comes at the cost of skewing the socio-economic make-up of a community towards those who have both abundant resources and the privilege to invest them into purely personal projects.  The very nature of such travel is to exclude those with fewer resources who might otherwise extract more from the community than they contribute.

While an accurate description of a certain sort of “apprenticeship pilgrimage” which we see in the West today, it is important to remember that this pattern is also fairly new.  Historically speaking, the martial artists and warriors most likely to set out on such journeys were typically more marginal individuals with the fewest resources to contribute.  More specifically, knight-entry was often a strategy undertaken by those who were economically destitute and traveling across the realm in search of employment.

Before we can go much further it may be necessary to stop and consider Musha shugyō in greater historical detail. This turns out to be a surprisingly complex task as, like so much else in the martial arts, the term (and even the underlying images that accompany it) has been frequently reinvented and reused to support a number of different projects.  Part of this can be seen in an ongoing conversation regarding when, and if, the institution went into decline.  Scholars who see the practice of Musha shugyō as being closely associated with dueling and feuding are more likely to see a decline after the beginning of the Tokugawa period.

For them the true essence of Musha shugyō might be exemplified in the ascetic (and violent) travels of Musashi Miyamoto, or the many other young warriors looking to make a name for themselves from the Muromachi period onward.  They note that in a system where second sons could not inherit their father’s feudal responsibilities, there was a strong incentive for marginal youth from the warrior class to undertake these journeys to build their reputations, and martial abilities, while searching for gainful employment.

For such youth the conditions outlined in the opening quote might be understood as giving social meaning or validation to the sorts of trials that they were likely to face anyway.  Many of them were undertaking such a task precisely because they did not have money, warm clothing and schools or friends to support them.  Accepting temporary work as a mercenary or farm laborer was not just an exercise in spiritual discipline. It really was an economic necessity.  And yet the norms that surrounded this sort of martial travel (borrowed in large part from the journeys of Buddhist monks) helped to contextualize and endow these trials with a veneer of personal and social meaning.

In truth the warrior’s pilgrimage never really vanished during the Tokugawa period, though like all other aspects of life in Japan, it came to be regulated through a system of complex law and social norms about the proper behavior of the wandering samurai (which again, makes a great deal of sense if you are looking at these as extended job interviews.)

Students who tend to understand dueling and Musha shugyō as distinct activities that only overlapped in certain times and places (and not even totally then) are less likely to see the practice as having been fundamentally threatened.  From their less romantic perspective, the high point of Musha shugyō may not have been reached until the final decades of the Tokugawa era.  The spread of various schools of fencing using split bamboo Shina and protective armor led to an explosion of interest in the practice as young martial artists from around the Japan could now compete with each other in spirited matches in a new generation of revitalized training halls.

Alexander Bennet, drawing on the detailed diaries of Muta Bunnosuke Takaatsu (1831-1890), a Saga warrior, describes one episode of martial pilgrimage that took place between 1853 and 1855 (pp. 77-80).  Gone were the days of extreme deprivation described in the opening quotes.  Young warriors, and sometimes their more experienced elders who were being awarded what amounted to a paid sabbatical by their Lords, would now be provided with letters of introduction by home domains to the various schools they intended to visit.  Upon arriving in a city these individuals would check into well-appointed inns that catered specifically to the large numbers of swordsmen on the road undertaking training pilgrimages. It is fascinating to realize that by the end of the Tokugawa period the practice of Musha shugyō had become so popular that extensive networks of infrastructure were necessary to support it!

Generally speaking, the local domain being visited would pick up the tab for these lodgings, and representatives of the local schools would come to greet new travelers and introduce them to the training halls.  Complex rules of etiquette were observed in these training sessions and the traveling warriors were given official documents proving that they had visited such and such a school, at such and such a date.  Again, all of this served an economic and social function.  Young warriors undertook such training to improve their employment prospects.  More experienced swordsmen sought to polish their reputations and expand their social networks.

Nor was this the last time that the notion of the Musha shugyō would be revived. During the Meiji period it was realized that circuits of national martial pilgrimage might help to promote the notion of Japan as a unified modern state with a shared national culture.  Whereas these journeys had previously served an economic function, and perhaps contributed to the notion of the Samurai as a coherent social class, this same basic pattern of travel could now be made to serve a new purpose.  Bennett even goes on to note that the idea of Musha shugyō was once again resurrected by Japanese martial arts organizations in the post-WWII era in an effort to spread and revive the traditional martial arts through creating new networks of practitioners in the modern era.

All of this is a far cry from Mushashi Miyomoto’s many duels. Yet it would be historically naïve to argue that the latter practices were some-how degenerated or less legitimate simply because they served the needs of their respective era. And in any case, it is interesting to note that while the details of the practice changed, at heart martial pilgrimages were always seen as a way of dealing with an excess of young warriors who could not be immediately integrated into Japan’s feudal structures.

Travel was also a critical means of advancement for young warriors in other areas of the world.  Europe’s young knights faced similar dilemmas of underemployment as their Japanese counterparts.  Those who could not inherit a title or fief from their father often traveled extensively seeking employment with a local baron, or attempting to get noticed in the tournament circuit.  By all accounts this was a tenuous and stressful existence.

China differed from Japan and Europe in that it was not a feudal society.  Still, martial arts training was often seen as a critical means of advancement for younger sons, or individuals from underprivileged areas.  Lacking an inheritance, it was often impossible for these individuals (termed “bare sticks”) to find wives, or even a place in a local social order based on landownership and family lineage.  Martial arts training offered one a chance to establish a career in the military, as a security guard, a yaman runner, even as a petty bandit.  It was not uncommon for such individuals to spend the agricultural seasons at home working in the fields, and on the off months to engage in salt smuggling or some other “grey market” pursuit.

While the relationship between the martial arts and travel was not institutionalized to the same extent that was seen in Japan, it was never the less present in China as well.  In a notably static agrarian society, martial arts instructors and their students (along with actors, soldiers and itinerant doctors) were unique in that they so often had the ability to travel from place to place.  This travel was sometimes an economic necessity reflecting the geographically displaced nature of many martial artists.  Nevertheless, complex embodied skills were acquired in these journeys, and stories were told that attempted to establish a degree of social value in these experiences.


Saturday, December 21, 2019

Trying Not to Try in Taijiquan

Below is an excerpt from an excellent article that was posted at The Tai Chi Notebook. The full post may be read here.

Is there a secret to Tai Chi? To martial arts? To life? If there is I think it might be encapsulated in the two words, “Don’t try”.

Famously offensive American poet and author Charles Bukowski had “Don’t try” written on his gravestone.

Mike Watt in the San Pedro zine The Rise and the Fall of the Harbor Area interviewed his wife Linda about, “Don’t try”:
Watt: What’s the story: “Don’t Try”? Is it from that piece he wrote?

Linda: See those big volumes of books? [Points to bookshelf] They’re called Who’s Who In America. It’s everybody, artists, scientists, whatever. So he was in there and they asked him to do a little thing about the books he’s written and duh, duh, duh. At the very end they say, ‘Is there anything you want to say?’, you know, ‘What is your philosophy of life?’, and some people would write a huge long thing. A dissertation, and some people would just go on and on. And Hank just put, “Don’t Try.”

As for what it means, it’s probably best to let Bukowski tell us:
“Somebody asked me: “What do you do? How do you write, create?” You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it.”
– Charles Bukowski
Now that’s starting to sound like Tai Chi to me…

I was working on an application of diagonal flying yesterday. The one where you get underneath their shoulder, arm across their body and lift them up and away. There’s a sweet spot as your shoulder goes under their armpit where you have leverage. Where they move easily. You go an inch or so in the wrong direction and you lose it. The technique doesn’t work.

Compared to wrestling and judo I think there are different factors to consider in making a Tai Chi throw work.

You have to think more about your posture. Say, your chest position (is it sheltered? Are the shoulders rounded?) and if you are sunk and in contact with the ground correctly. Is your butt sticking out? Are your legs bent enough?

All these factors matter more in Tai Chi than in Judo and wrestling because Tai Chi is a less physical art. (Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is debatable, but it either way, it just is.)

With a less-physical art it’s much easier to notice when you’re having to “try” more to make a throw work. Having to “try” too much is a sign you’re muscling it, not letting posture, correct position, leverage and Jin (power from the ground) do the work. Judo and wrestling incorporate these elements too, but Tai Chi relies on them. And without them it just falls apart.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The 48 Laws of Power, #31, Control the Options, Make Others Play with the Cards You Deal.

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. 

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 #31, Control the Options, Make Others Play with the Cards You Deal.

In any encounnter or transaction, if your opponent must choose between only the options you have provided, you win.

Have you ever heard the story from Zhuang Zi: Three in the Morning, Four in the Evening?

A monkey trainer went to his monkeys and told them:

“As regards your chestnuts: you are going to have three measures in the morning and four in the afternoon.”

At this they all become angry. So he said: “All right, in that case I will give you four in the morning and three in the afternoon.” This time they were satisfied.

The two arrangements were the same in that the number of chestnuts did not change. But in one case the animals were displeased, and in the other they were satisfied. The keeper had been willing to change his personal arrangement in order to meet objective conditions.

He lost nothing by it!

Control the options.


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Thursday, December 12, 2019

There is One Taijiquan

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Tai Chi Thoughts, regarding the different styles of taijiquan and that this differentiation is an illusion. The full post may be read here.

I agree with my teacher that there is no “Style” in Tai Chi Chuan and that it doesn’t matter what forms you practice. Not just for the sake of agreeing, but through my own research and accumulated knowledge through my +30 years of practice, I have come to the conclusion that the idea of “Style” is based on mistakes and is nothing but an illusion. Tai Chi Chuan (or Taijiquan) is a word that sum up certain principles and theories about body movement and mechanics, leverage, angles, as well as ideas about the mind and psyche, and ways to put these principles and ideas into practical practice. If the basic ideas and principles are different, then we can’t talk about different styles. Then we would be speaking about completely different arts. The art is the sum of what every good teacher, dead or alive, and regardless style, could agree with is basic Tai Chi concepts and principles. “Style” is merely different ways to present the same ideas and concepts, merely different packages. So if it is called Tai Chi and in fact really is Tai Chi, then “style” doesn’t matter, you should be able to build the same foundation in all styles and be able to achieve the same type of skill-sets regardless of what style you practice.
– “Chen is the original Tai Chi and thereby the best.”
– “Chen style was lost and the original art was preserved in Yang style.”
– “Chen is better than Yang style for combat.”
– “Chen style is Tai Chi mixed with Shaolin.”
– “Yang Style is watered down Chen style.”
– “Yang Style has more advanced Neigong (internal practice) than Chen.”

These and many other common statements are all based on the false presumption that there is a common standard of “Tai Chi” and that every style has its own set standard. In fact, there has never been a commonly accepted standard, neither of Tai Chi in general or of any style, except until very recent as Chen and Yang family representatives now try to standardise the public teaching. Chen stylists sometimes say that Chen style should be the general standard because this is the oldest style. But still, Chen style has gone through changes and no one knows exactly how it looked like in the days of the person Chen stylists have agreed upon should be the founder, Chen Wanting.

Now, to complicate it further, back in the old days of Yang Lu Chan and his students, no one talked about “style”. No one differentiated “Yang style” from “Chen style” or “Wu style”. Something was either Tai Chi Chuan or not Tai Chi Chuan (or Changquan, or Mianquan as it could be called back then). But the problem we are attaining for the moment is not only a question about the lack of style differentiating names. Practically speaking, everybody back then practiced with, and learned from people with different backgrounds. Chen, Yang and Wu stylists (as we would call them today) all practiced with each other and learned from each other. Yang Cheng Fu studied with Wu Jianquan and learned Push hands from him.

And several of Chen Fake’s students also studied with the Yang family.  Also if we look at an individual family, as if you look at students of Yang Cheng Fu, they also studied with other Yang family members as Yang Shaohou and Yang Jianhou. So there are no “pure” lineage today that can only be traced directly from Yang Shaohou and Yang Jianhou, or from Yang Banhou. There is no “pure” lineage from Chen Changxing, Chen Youben or further back. So the concept of “style” derived from a modern time when different traditions already were mixed up. “Style” is a fabricated idea on the illusion that there are or ever has been “pure” Tai Chi styles with clear standards. And that is just not true. In fact far from the truth.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Kyuzo Mifune's Ground Techniques

Kyuzo Mifune was one of greatest judoka who ever lived. We've seen videos of him performing standing techniques. Here is a video of him demonstrating ground techniques.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Aikibujutsu Demo

Toshishiro Obata's Aikibujutsu is clearly derived from his long study of Yoshinkan Aikido. Obata was a student of Kushida Sensei's Kenshuu program at one point. He once visited the Ann Arbor dojo and told stories of training under Kushida Sensei back in the old days.


Tuesday, December 03, 2019

The Synchronous Way

Today we have a guest post from Jonathan Bluestein, an old friend of Cook Ding's Kitchen, informing us of his newest enterprise. Enjoy!

The Synchronous Way
This week was announced the establishment of a new international martial arts organization. The new organization is called Blue Jade Martial Arts International (see here: ). I, Jonathan Bluestein, am the head of that organization. We have schools in Victoria BC, Hollywood LA and Israel. In our schools is taught a unique curriculum of martial arts, called ‘Tong Bu Dao’. The name Tong Bu Dao can be translated as ‘The Synchronous Way’ or ‘The Way of Synchronicity’. But what is it, really?

Tong Bu Dao is a systematic and coherent curriculum for teaching martial arts, of my own creation. The curriculum of Tong Bu Dao includes materials from the following martial arts:  Xing Yi Quan, Pigua Zhang, Jook Lum Southern Mantis and Bagua Zhang. Of these four martial arts, Xing Yi Quan makes for the greater bulk of the curriculum. The system is not one of ‘mixed martial arts’. The styles are not taught together, but in succession based on the student’s progress. Their methods and techniques and unified and streamlined in a way, which is meant for the practitioner to recognize and assimilate them as a single body of knowledge, rather than as separate entities. Some would consider Tong Bu Dao to be “a new martial art”. While I do not object that idea, I also do not feel that we offer a lot which is “new”. Nearly all of the ideas, methods and skills taught in Tong Bu Dao were already conceived and taught prior. I have merely arranged these in a format which I personally feel is more efficient for our goals and purposes.

The core motivation behind the creation of Tong Bu Dao was to create a curriculum for the instruction of an internal martial arts, which would be more approachable to the average Western practitioner. The original framework of traditional Xing Yi Quan had several challenges and difficulties to it, which were addressed by the creation of Tong Bu Dao. 

Traditional Xing Yi Quan is noted for lacking in complex footwork dynamics, for the most part. Tong Bu Dao solves this problem with several additions to the system. Many types of stepping methods and patterns are used, most of which are either absent from Xing Yi Quan or not commonly utilized originally in that martial art. Among these are:   Sìjiǎo Bù (Four-Corner Step), Gōng Bù (Bow Step), Mǎ Bù (Horse Step), Sān Tǐ Shì (Three Bodies Momentum), Bàn bù (half-step), Fúhǔ Bù (Tiger-Taming Step), Māo Bù (Cat Step), Xiè Bù (Crab Step), Hóu Bù (Monkey Step), Qīxīng Bù (7-Star Step), Sì Bù Pán Gēn (Four-Step Coiling Root), and several more variations and combinations of these and others. 

The four-corner step was borrowed from Southern Mantis, the four-step coiling root from Bagua Zhang, the 7-star stepping is from Pigua Zhang, etc. Though the steps are different, they all use the same structure. All the while, Bagua Zhang, Pigua Zhang and Southern Mantis were missing the essential stepping method of San Ti Shi, which was already emphasized in Xing Yi Quan. There are even evasive stepping patterns borrowed from Western Boxing.
All seasoned practitioners of the martial arts tend to agree, that the footwork makes for the biggest difference in combative efficacy, which is why this element has been expanded in Tong Bu Dao, and is the first aspect of the curriculum beginners are expected to study and practice well.

Structure and Power      
Jook Lum Southern Mantis, an art which I studied, specializes in the generation of formidable explosive powers (fa jin). These are manifested by using a body structure which can coil internally in a similar way to complex Asanas in Indian Yoga, then releasing such tensions with combative utility. These ideas exist in Xing Yi, Pi Gua and Ba Gua, but were not heavily emphasized in these martial arts. In Tong Bu Dao, these ideas pervade throughout the system. A related concept is that principle of releasing three short explosive powers in quick succession – a skill which was adapted into a few Tong Bu Dao techniques.

Movements and Forms 

Xing Yi Quan and Bagua Zhang emphasize the practice of single movements or single combinations. Jook Lum Southern Mantis and Pigua Zhang emphasize the practice of medium and long movement forms (and Taiji Quan, even more so!). Both modes of practice have much merit. In Tong Bu Dao, they are combined.                

The system is comprised of 18 levels. The first 8 of 18 levels are the beginner levels, dedicated mostly to the practice of single movements and single combinations (with the sole exception of a partner form which teaches joint-locking skills and counters to them). During the first 8 of 18 levels, the practitioner engages with the qualitative study of basics (Jiben Gong), understanding different steps, strikes, circles and spirals. That is, alongside standing practices (Zhang Zhuang) and additional internal cultivation methods. Emphasis during levels 1-8 then, is on free-form study of personal expression via a limited amount of a few dozen ‘options’.                       

During levels 9-12, the practitioner then studies a long form called ‘Hun Yuan Quan’ – The Fist of Smooth Roundness’. It is Tong Bu Dao’s equivalent of the Taiji Quan long forms. This form, which takes about 20 minutes to complete at a walking pace, summarizes the entire curriculum and principles of Xing Yi Quan as I understand it. Xing Yi Quan makes for about 80% of the movements and methods in the Hun Yuan Quan form. The rest, intertwined, is composed of materials borrowed from Bagua, Southern Mantis and Pigua. Emphasis during levels 9-12 then, is on condensing one’s understanding through rules and boundaries.                 

The next levels, 13-18, are dedicated to the study of orthodox Bagua Zhang and weaponry. It is also expected that people of advanced levels who be well-read on martial arts literature. During these levels, personal expression and rules for expression find a balance.

Philosophy and Morality    
In the world of martial arts, we see a lot of people abuse the power they had gotten from their teachers. As the idiom goes: “When one has a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. But one can be taught how to use a hammer for countless constructive purposes as well. So why is it, that in the traditional Chinese martial arts, we see so much aggression, anger, deceit and political bickering?...           

My thoughts are, that this has to do with education, first and foremost. The majority of martial arts teachers see themselves as instructors of a craft. They leave the educational, cultural and philosophical aspects of life, to be dealt with by parents and school-teachers. 

This is not the approach we take at Blue Jade Martial Arts schools. The study of traditional Chinese philosophy, culture and morals are inherent to our Tong Bu Dao system, and these systematically taught, especially to those who wish to become instructors.

Moreover, that it should be noted, that traditional Chinese martial arts cannot be fully comprehended, without the study of Chinese culture, philosophy and morals. To understand such martial arts, it is essential to deeply resonate with our ancestors who created them. 

Who were these people? How did their lives look? How did they think and why did they think in such ways?... Today, many could not care less. People erroneously believe that living ‘in the future’ provides us with a license to neglect the past, and reject thousands of years of Oriental wisdom. At Blue Jade International, we hold the opposite point of view.


These are just some of the many ways, in which I endeavored to make our organization and martial arts better. The Tong Bu Dao system is thus a body of knowledge for the service of our students in class, and of humanity at large. To learn more, you can visit our official website, which includes ridiculous amounts of mostly free information about the traditional Chinese martial arts, in the form of short essays, articles, books, videos.


You may also subscribe to Shifu Bluestein's youtube channel, which is regularly updated with rare and fascinating martial arts videos:

All rights of this article are and the pictures within it are reserved to Jonathan Bluestein ©. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission, in writing, from Jonathan Bluestein.