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 ~

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Goals of Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from another excellent post at Kung Fu Tea. The subject is to examine what is our beginning and continuing motivation to practice martial arts. The full post may be read here.

Connecting the dots between an individual’s intentions, their actions and subsequent systemic outcomes is more difficult than one might suspect.  Just ask any social scientist. Understanding each of these categories is important if we want to come to terms with either the causes, or interpretive meanings, of any event.  Yet the structure of the social world dictates that none of us get to work our will just how we would like.  My desires may bump up against your goals, and suddenly we both find ourselves acting “strategically.”  As the environment becomes complex, everyone is forced to do things that are not reflective of their original intentions.  Often this brings about situations that no single actor intended.

This is how you get major interstate wars, at least according to a number of leading scholars in the discipline of International Relations.  Given its excessively costly nature, great power war is often modeled as a type of miscalculation.  Or as one of my old teachers put it “War is the error term.”  We could say something similar about lots of bad outcomes.  There is not a single super-villain out there devising a plan to pollute the world’s oceans with plastics.  Rather, lots of people make individual choices about personal consumption, or corporate policy, and the end result is something that no one individual truly intended.  Such is the tragedy of the commons.

This leads us to one of the most important realizations to emerge from the field of Political Science (and before that Philosophy). Our fellow humans are responsible for many of the bad things that seem to define life, yet none of them (or very few) are actually evil.  Even fully rational people seeking their own self interest will inevitably fall into conflict and probably violence.  And that is a best-case scenario. To make matters worse, students of psychology have determined most decision making is no-where near “rational.”

Violence is pervasive.  It takes many forms.  There are short, sharp, instances of acute physical violence.  Wars, or physical assaults tend to get the most press.  But I don’t think there is any evidence to suggest that in total they are really more destructive than the other forms of structural violence that humans wreak on each other.  Famine, disease, colonialism and addiction have all taken their toll. But at least we can still quantify things like infant mortality rates (which typically go up in civil wars) or life expectancy (which tends to drop when economies go into a serious prolonged crisis).  Harder to measure, though no less real, are social stressors like inequality, discrimination and humiliation.

The martial arts interest me as a social scientist for many reasons.  Yet one of the most powerful is that they are a relatively inexpensive tools which local societies, across the globe, turn to as they seek to address the effects of violence in their own communities.  It wasn’t really until the 1960s and 1970s that social scientists in the West began to diversify our understanding of violence as having more than just a physical or political dimension.  Yet already in the 1920’s we can read book after book, article after article, in which Chinese martial artists argued that their practices could insulate the nation from each of the ills listed above.  They seemed to be far ahead of the curve on this.

This is also part of our challenge when we try to study the Chinese martial arts.  As I have argued before, it is impossible to reduce Chinese hand combat down to a single set of motivations.  Many people have practiced these systems for many different reasons.  An imperial bannerman, a night watchman, an opera performer and a traveling medicine salesman may all have practiced some sort of kung fu in the year 1819.  While they all may have done this so as to “make a living,” the sorts of violence that they faced (structural or otherwise) was not exactly the same.

Over the last few years Paul Bowman and I have, at different times, called for greater focus on the problem(s) of violence within Martial Arts Studies.  Some of the things that have already been written suggest that students of our field can bring very interesting perspectives to these discussions.

For instance, I highly recommend that everyone take a look at Sixt Wetzler’s chapter in the recently published Martial Arts Studies Reader as a great example of the unique type of work that we might be able to do.

But while violence is the drumbeat that structures so many people’s lives, it is not a concept that can be understood (or even exist) in isolation.  As a result, we may not be able to fully grasp the social work that the martial arts are called on to perform if we examine them only in relation to this concept.

Most frequently, violence (or in its interstate form “war”) is placed in opposition to the concept “peace.”

I put peace in quotes for a very good reason.  The complexities of defining and conceptualizing violence pale in comparison to the challenges of understanding peace. Violence is, after all, encoded in things that are done or structures that exist.  Peace is a subtler matter.  Yet it is critical as it structures the motivations of a good many martial artists, in a huge variety of times and places.

Perhaps the easiest place to start would be with a distinction drawn within the Peace Studies literature, often attributed to Johan Galtung. Still, it should be noted that these terms have been in circulation since the start of the twentieth century and reflect a common pattern of conceptual classification seen throughout the field of Political Science.  Galtung notes that “negative peace” is often taken to mean the absence of violent acts.  Importantly, it does not actually suggest a lack of conflict.  For example, Russia and the United States enjoyed a negative peace during the Cold War.

Though their conflicts continued to have a shaping effect on global politics, and terrified generations of people with the prospects of nuclear annihilation, no actual shooting between the two super powers ever took place.  Clearly this is a type of peace, but it is one that leaves something to be desired.  Even in the absence of a formal declaration of WWIII many people’s lives were destroyed.

The stark nature of this paradox led to renewed focus (first in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the United State) on the idea of “positive peace” in the 1960s and 1970s.  It sought to move beyond the obvious violence to address sources of underlying conflict (where possible).  This often means creating new types of relationships between actors, or internally seeking to address the systemic social and economic failures (poverty, famine, alienation, inequality) that either led to conflict in the past or might simply rob people of their basic humanity going forward.  Advocates of change through the creation of positive peace are typically just as interested in what is happening in the World Bank as the UN Security Council.

Peace Studies departments are much less common in the United States than the sorts of International Relations (IR) programs where I received my training.  Still, a number of their concepts have found their way into the general Political Science literature.  One of these insights, which might be particularly helpful for students of Martial Arts Studies, bears on the question of scalability.  Much of the traditional IR discussion of violence has focused on events at the national level.  After all, nations which go to war and IR theorists very much want to understand why.

But a moment’s thought suggest that it is not just nations that “go to war.”  It is also social groups, cities and individuals who are mobilized in these campaigns.  And it is at this much more local level that the violence of a conflict, whether acute or structural, is actually absorbed.  We should not be surprised to discover that local leaders and community actors are often very aware of the logic of negative and positive peace.

Still, local community leaders have neither the resources nor the ability to make the sorts of sweeping systemic changes that classical Peace Theory often advocates. Instead they may find themselves relying on voluntary groups as they attempt to steer their communities through events not of their own making.  This is one area, from Japan to Indonesia to South America, where we have regularly seen martial arts communities brought into the political realm.

For instance, one of the most common side effects of sudden economic or political disruption is a spike in violent crime. At various times in Chinese history martial arts groups have been explicitly called upon by local officials to deal with these trends.  They have been used to clear the roads of bandits, protect crops ripening in the field from neighboring villages and even to form militias. Or to put it slightly differently, the martial arts societies were called upon to provide some much-needed “negative peace.”  In the short run one must protect the village’s crops and keep bandits at bay before anything other sort of policy action is possible.  Likewise, when we train individuals to physically protect themselves from the worst effects of a violent assault in a modern American environment, we are focusing on a model of negative peace.  We are attempting to bring peace by ending an anticipated attack.

Yet that was never the only goal of the Confucian officials who would, from time to time, recruit martial arts groups to help and restore order in the countryside.  They were well aware that violent bandit groups tended to recruit from the same pool of “bare sticks” (young unmarried men with few economic prospects) that martial arts schools drew on.  In times of famine or economic disruption these individuals, who were typically day laborers or only marginally employed, were hit first and hardest by any disruption.  That hunger and desperation was precisely why they were likely to join a bandit organization.  Worse yet, they lacked a secure place within the traditional village structure which defined one’s status through the inheritance of land, marriage or educational attainment. The long-term social prospects for excess sons was quite bleak.  Or in current social scientific parlance, we might say that these young men were systemically disadvantaged.

The formal raising of militias, or the informal tolerance of martial arts groups, addressed these issues on two levels. Militia membership came with a paycheck that might forestall economic emergency.

Membership in a martial arts society provided an important source of identity.  There individuals would develop narratives about the importance of protecting the same communities (and according to Avron Bortez, even the same norms) which might otherwise have been seen as alienating and threatening. In either case, by taking young men off the street the bandits brotherhoods and rebel armies had fewer potential recruits and they tended to grow more slowly.  This, in turn, limited their ability to disrupt the peace.

All of this reveals an important pattern. Martial artists, while lacking standing within the Confucian order, were often a critical asset necessary for the stabilization, and projection of power into, local society.  In times of crisis it really was necessary to “man the barricades” and fight bandits.  Hence the actual efficacy of these practices were important when thinking about the strategies for imposing a “negative peace.”  Yet these measures worked best when they succeeded in convincing young men that they had a place in the system, forestalling the rapid expansion of the types of social disorder that arose quite frequently in Chinese history.  And it is not at all clear that the “most realistic” types of martial arts training would serve these other ends the best.  Basic fitness and self-defense skills are always great. More importantly, they transform violence from an existential threat to an engaging puzzle that one can organize their training and identity around.  And if the creation of a positive peace is your central goal then public performance (lion dance), community building (lineage mythology) and ritual begin to make a lot more sense.

When viewed from the perspective of negative peace these things may appear to be secondary considerations at best.  Others might see them as distractions, or evidence of the “decayed” state of a martial system.  And yet these “secondary” practices and structures must also be replicated through the generations, often at great expense.  So why maintain the effort?  Why do so many systems continue to argue that the martial arts are first and foremost a means by which young people learn about their place in society?  If we consider these same systems from the perspective of positive peace theory suddenly these sorts of practices make much more sense. Rather than being somehow secondary they are important tools by which local society seeks to address the sorts of ills that lead to festering conflict and eventually violence.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Do What You Can

There is an old saying that if you want for training conditions to be perfect before you begin practicing, that you'll be waiting a long, long time.

Below is an excerpt from The Business/Judo of Life, which is authored by Dr. AnnMaria De Mars, who among her other accomplishments, happens to be Ronda Roussey's mother. The full post may be read here.

World judo champions are a small club and I don’t fit in. Let's look at what some other world champions did post-competition

  • Mike Swain - owns a company that sells mats
  • Jimmy Pedro, Jr. - sells mats and runs a judo club
  • Kayla Harrison - competes in mixed martial arts
  • Yamashita - something judo with the IJF

Okay, I’ll be honest. I’m so not in with the cool crowd that I have no idea who won medals or what most of them are doing. Travis Stevens got a silver in the Olympics (I think) and now does judo and jiu jitsu clinics. Some guy in Canada got a silver medal a while back, I only remember he was nice because - Canadian  - and I think he does something with their national sports program.

Then there is me. After the world championships I went off to get a Ph.D. , specializing in Applied Statistics and Psychometrics. I’ve founded four companies and spent most of my days writing software, meeting with investors and potential customers, writing budgets or writing up results of quasi-experimental designs for grant reports or academic journals.

It’s not that I don’t like judo or think it’s a good thing for people to do but I’m pretty busy. You don’t see Bill Gates out on the mat, now do you? (No, I’m not Bill Gates but I’d kind of like to be, except I’d like to not be a guy and keep my kids.)

 This IS my day job. Check out Making Camp Premium for your iPad/ iPhone  or Google Play or on the web. You’ll learn about the Ojibwe people, brush up on your math skills and other useful knowledge like synonyms and idioms. Get it for yourself, your kids or donate to a school to help other people’s kids.


Some of this came about because I did NOT have the advantages that “kids these days” swear they need of just doing judo full time. Since I was working full-time during my competitive years, there were a lot of times I couldn’t be at the best judo club, or sometimes any judo club. I learned to do what I could.

  • Can’t get to practice? Get up and run sprints in the morning before work.
  • Can’t get to practice? Lift weights at the gym near my house.
  • No one near my size/ age to train with? Ask the guys at the Naval Training Center to run matwork drills on them over and over.
  • No one really interested in training seriously at the club? Ask each person if they’d mind taking 25 falls for in a line so I can get in 200 throws.
  • Injured my knee and can’t do standing technique? Do dumb bell curls and exercise to build up my hands and arms for gripping and chokes. Do sit-ups. Do matwork drills.

I don’t remember anyone ever specifically teaching me this. I think I just figured it out through necessity of wanting to win and being in a lot of situations that were suboptimal for making that happen.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Brief History of Two Sword Style Kendo

Below is an excerpt from a post at appeared at Kenshi247. The full post may be read here. Below the excerpts are a couple videos of two sword style kendo.

1. Nito-ryu before shinai kendo
There are a number of extant koryu out there whose curriculum includes simultaneous use of two swords. The most obvious is of course Niten-ichi-ryu, the style allegedly created and passed on by Japan’s most dramatised swordsman: Miyamoto Musashi. Other schools that include the use of two swords include Yagyu shinkage-ryu, Shingyoto-ryu, and Katori shinto-ryu. It is important to note that two-sword kata sets, even when they do exist, make up a very small part of a wider series of kata.

2. Nito-ryu in nascent shinai kendo
The prototypes of today’s shinai and bogu were developed and experimented over many years from at least the mid-18th century up until the very early 20th, where the shape was basically completed. The two schools often mentioned at this point in the discussion – Jikishinkage-ryu and Hokushin Itto-ryu – have no nito element in them at all. However, we can surmise that people may have tried to pick up two shinai and spar at some point, it sounds like fun after all!

The current state of affairs: a mini rennaisance?

Over the past few years I’ve seen nito-ryu kendo explode. The explosion seems to be going on mostly outside of Japan than inside, but there are certainly more nito-ryu people around than when even I first came to Japan. What is behind this explosion?

1. Musashi-kai: for the first time in kendo’s history we have a group that actually practise and – more importantly – teaches nito-ryu in a systematic manner. The group first gained popularity in the early 2000s as a semi-commercial online dojo catering to the needs of scattered individuals in Japan, but has grown into a much larger organisation with a bunch if inter-connected groups and even students abroad.

2. Exposure: in 2007, for the first time in almost 40 years, nito-ryu kenshi Yamana Nobuyuki from Tokushima, took part in the All Japan Kendo Championships. Sticking out a mile, this caused a lot of (positive) debate and discussion about nito-ryu here in Japan. He also plays an important role as a good model for younger/aspiring nito kenshi to look up to which, I believe, is no small thing.

3. University level: the removal of the nito-ban on university level shiai has made it easier for students to take up the style but it seems like, at least initially, few bothered. With the combination of numbers 1 and 2 above though, there seems to be a lot more interest nowadays, and you can routinely see university level nito people competing. Perhaps the top nito-ryu sensei of the future, coached by Musashi-kai sensei, will come out of this generation.

4. The All Japan Kendo Association (ZNKR) textbook: there’s nothing like a textbook to make something official, and that was what the ZNKR did by publishing there own set of standards and rules. Although it doesn’t completely remove the stigma of choosing to do nito-ryu kendo, it does at least give a sheen of acceptability.

5. Interest from non-Japanese kenshi: I’ve left this point until last, but it’s probably one of the most interesting areas of discussion when it comes to nito-ryu kendo. It’s also an area that I’d prefer to tackle more in-depth at a later time… alternatively, you could buy me a beer!

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Yanagi Ryu Aikijujutsu

Below is a video from the 70's of Dan Angier demonstating Yanagi Ryu Aikijujutsu, which is an offshoot of Daito Ryu.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Dao De Jing, #72: When People Don't Fear Your Might

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 #72: When People Don't Fear Your Might.

When the people do not fear your might
Then your might has truly become great.
Don't interfere with their household affairs.
Don't oppress their livelihood.

If you don't oppress them they won't feel oppressed.

Thus the sage understands herself
But does not show herself.
Loves herself
But does not prize herself.
Therefore she lets go of that

And takes this.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Wing Chun at 93 Years Old

Ip Chun is one of the sons of Ip Man, the Wing Chun teacher of Bruce Lee and the subject of many terrific action movies. Below is a video clip of him still practicing at age 93!

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Guang Ping Yang Style Taijiquan

Below is a video of Y.C. Chiang performing the Guang Ping version of the Yang style Taijiquan form.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Aikido Founder Solo Short Staff Practice

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at the excellent Kogen Budo blog by Ellis Amdur. It has to do with the solo practices of the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba.

The full post may be read here.

Because of some recent discussions on Ueshiba Morihei’s solo weapon’s practice, I would like to add some thoughts of my own. I am going to excerpt a relevant passage from my second edition of Hidden in Plain Sight, to set some context as to what Ueshiba was actually doing, followed by some recent observations I made during a trip to Japan, followed by another passage from HIPS.
From Hidden in Plain SightChapter 13: Is The Heart Of Aikidō The Sword?
Passage #1
I was absolutely stunned by his use of a sharpened staff in a film from his trip to Hawaii in 1961. Ueshiba starts by repeating a number of movements, sometimes two or three times, and then his whole body is relaxed and at the moment of the simulated deflection his whole body snaps into an ‘implosive/explosive’ channeling of body power. The power emerges from his root and center, and out through the staff—downwards, upwards, sideways, and at angles. Imagine the moment when a bullwhip snaps—the relaxed coil unfurls, and then at its length, it pops—in this case, not only at the tip, but throughout its length. Ueshiba goes from relaxation to a ‘snap’ with all his muscles coordinated, so all the power goes through the weapon. Were he using a long spear, it would have flexed like a tree in a high wind. He is not doing it in the snappy manner of jūkenjutsu nor is it the movement used in the powerful clacking together of staffs that we can observe in Goto-ha Yagyu Shingan-ryū. This is an essential technique of Hōzōin-ryū. To be sure, he could have studied it elsewhere. He could have figured it out on his own. But the dates add up—around the time Takeda lived for months with the Ueshiba family in Ayabe, Ueshiba was out in the garden working on spear technique.
Recent Observations- 2019
I was recently walking on a beach near Kamakura and happened upon a yearly Matsuri, in honor of Benzaiten. She is a goddess of health, wisdom and music, but most importantly in this context, associated with the sea. Once a year, devotees go to the sea, pray for fortune and also thank Benzaiten for offering them the bounty of the sea rather than its destructive power. Various kannushi enacted ritual dances, prominent among them versions of Ameno Torifune no gyo, Norito no Sojo, and Otakebi okorobi.  These three practices are central practices within Shinto, and through his adoption of the practices of the Misogikai, central practices of Ueshiba Morihei.

At this point, another priest stood up, donned a tengu mask and picked up a small replica of a hoko.

This is the socketed spear, brought over from China, used in war from the Yayoi through the early Heian Periods. Long abandoned as a weapon, it was retained in replica, and used in ritual dance: bugaku, the court dances that have roots going all the way back to Persia and China through transmission along the Silk Road,  and in Shinto rites. The wooden hoko that the priest picked up was about four shaku in length, the same of that of an aikijo. The tengu – for properly done, this is no longer a priest with a mask – he should becometengu – then enacted a number of movements. In slow, stilted form, he enacted a number of movements, albeit stylized, that were simulacrums of those of Ueshiba Morihei in his solo jo practice.

I wish to be clear that I do not believe that the tengu dance I witnessed was unique to that particular shrine. Rather, there is a largely unstudied substrate of ritual martial dance among Shinto practices.

These weapons-dances tell various stories of the acts of the kami, and embody the dynamic interplay of forces within an ordered (by the kami) cosmos.  Please remember that Ueshiba frequently used a small sharpened spear and he referred to it as a nuboko (“Heavenly Jeweled Spear”), the generative instrument used by Izanagi and Izanami to create the Japanese archipelago. Ueshiba, absolutely obsessed by Shinto (and not only the Omotokyo neo-Shinto version) would have been as influenced by such practices as he was by the ‘empty-handed’ Shinto rites of the Misogikai that were part of his daily practice in the last decades of his life.

What Ueshiba didn’t do (unlike some of his successors) was make a numbered choreography – the 24 jo kata, the 31 jo kata, etc. However, his practice was not impulsive, disorderly improvisation either. I believe that Ueshiba took as his base the movements of Shinto rites. Then, influenced by his spear practice, jukendo training, observations (or perhaps study) of such ryuha as Kukishin-ryu, he imbued these ritual movements with martial virtue.  As I write in the second passage from HIPS that follows, without having to worry about the well-being of a training partner, he could, thereby, unleash full power in his technique. For one example, the upward sweep to the eyebrows and thrust forward into a thrust is an embodiment of ikkyo. Done with the power that Ueshiba exerts, it is training that would turn ikkyo into an upward and downward snap of the opponents arm. [NOTE: by snap, I do not mean a ‘snappy movement.’ I mean to break the arm like a rotten tree limb]. What Ueshiba is doing is quite far from the mannered, almost prissy solo jo forms so many do. Nor is it the enactment of a fantasy of weapon’s techniques against a fantasy opponent. It’s a chain of power detonations.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Martial Arts Styles in a Real Fight

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at TaiChiCentral. The premise is that when it comes to a real fight, "style" goes out the window. The full post may be read here.

“Style is a pedagogical tool that helps the student to recognize and identify shapes and patterns. It is also a label that allows us to sell the pedagogy itself. But once the student has learned the true nature of shapes and their meaning, then the style must be transcended. Otherwise, the style becomes nothing more than a well-crafted boat floating in the wrong river.”
– Ian Sinclair
A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to prove the effectiveness of tai chi as a martial art by entering either myself of one of my students in MMA competition. That notion died an early death for a number of reasons. Some reasons were time and money. Others were medical. Some were philosophical. I found I could not justify subjecting myself or others to potential physical harm for money. At my age, I also couldn’t get the insurance, or justify the risk to my family. However, all of these are really just excuses.

There are already a few other tai chi proponents who are making names for themselves in MMA competition. But they are not making a name for tai chi as a style. Why is that?

The reason, as I see it, is that a martial art is, quite simply, not about any particular style.

The emergence of martial styles has led to misperceptions about martial arts, and has created some absurd limitations among certain students. This is why I believe that one of the good things about the rise of MMA sport is that it has challenged personal attachments to any particular style.

When you fight, you do not fight with your teacher’s style. You may have a personal style. But if that style is easily identifiable, then your opponent may have a clear tactical advantage. Also, if that style is not your own, but is instead one passed down for generations, then you are not really a martial artist. You are, instead, merely a mimic.

On the road to mastery, martial artists train to overcome their own physical and psychological limitations, and to compensate for limitations which cannot be overcome. In this respect, a style becomes a reflection of the master’s strengths, weaknesses, and pathology. Any disability that we have therefore contributes to our style. So, when you imitate the style of a teacher, you are actually imitating their pathology, and not necessarily compensating for your own.  Now, the fact that we, has human beings, often share common strengths and weaknesses, means that some of what works for other people will also work for us. So, everything we learn will give us something that we can apply to our own reality. But if we train to be exactly like our teachers, we will be making a grave error.

This is why, whenever a proponent of a particular historical style attempts to prove the superiority of the style against a seasoned MMA fighter, the stylist will lose. This is not to say that their style does not teach valuable skills which can be effective in combat. Rather, it is because the stylist is not really a complete martial artist, just as a style not the complete art.

Put another way, a martial art is not a style.

The style is an expression of a pedagogy. It is a way for the teacher to communicate the external shape of the art. The student must transcend the style and go more deeply into the art than the teacher is able to take them. This is the only way that the student can hope to understand the true meaning of what they are learning.

Most of us could learn to quote Einstein’s explanation of the theory of special relativity. But we would not necessarily understand what the words mean. Only by truly understanding the theory, and by expressing it in our own words, could we convincingly demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the theory. Without being able to express the theory in our own words, we could never hope to apply the theory in any practical manner.

As long as people think they are learning a style, it will never be practical. No teacher worth a gram of salt thinks that their students will achieve mastery by becoming attached to a style. There are stories of teachers who, on their deathbeds, lament that all of their students are doing the art exactly the same way as the teacher. 

This is one of the reasons why good teachers are revered. Not only have they learned to adapt the knowledge they learned from their teachers. But they have also spent decades teaching their students to find their own way.

Not everyone gets it, though.

Remember the parable,
“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. But teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”
Well, unfortunately, some students just use it as an excuse to sit in a boat and drink beer all day.

When the lake dries up or gets fished out, they don’t know how to adapt.

Style is a pedagogical tool that helps students to recognize and identify shapes and patterns. It is also a label that allows us to sell the pedagogy itself. But once the observer has learned the true nature of shapes, and their relationships to the mind, then the style becomes a well-crafted boat floating in the wrong river.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Old Time Kung Fu Villians

Over at Kung Fu Tea, there was an article about the usefulness of the old time Kung Fu villains. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.


Antagonists seem to be the critical ingredient that make the martial arts possible. Yet to understand why that is the case we need to start by unpacking a few things.  An immense range of activities fall within the category that we term “martial arts,” so much so that simply defining the term is much more challenging than one might expect.  Still, all of these activities are essentially social pursuits.

The martial arts are really more about the pedagogy and the discussion of violence than its actual performance.  Indeed, the quality of some isolated hermit’s technique cannot make them a martial artist.  At a bare minimum they must be willing to pass that skill along, or perform it for others, before the label really applies.

This raises a few obvious questions.  Why should one desire to be a in a community that practices or passes on these skills?  What is the ultimate utility or meaning of these techniques?  Or to put the question rather crassly, are the varied benefit of practicing a given martial art worth the time, cost and effort necessary to do so?

It should surprise no one that all sorts of martial arts have formulated their own answers to these types of questions.  I sometimes think that indoctrinating students into their unique world view is just as important as the actual transmission of techniques.  Indeed, it is an open question in my mind as to whether the martial arts, as a social and cultural construction, can even exist without some sort of world defining narrative.

Psychologists have noted that telling stories is one of the most basic ways in which humans understand, and attempt to interact, with our world.  In fact, narrative seems to be key to how we as a species understand the process of causation in the world around us.  Sadly, there is less evidence that the physical world that we seek to understand is structured in this way.  Hence our theories and stories about the world, while certainly useful, always reveal some aspect of reality with one hand, as they hide certain things with the other.  To tell stories is human, but it may not be the best way to understand quantum mechanics.

On the other hand, paying close attention to the stories that people tell may be absolutely critical when our goal is understanding the functions of the voluntary communities that individuals create.

This is critical as not all groups, organizations or styles are attempting to do the same thing.  Not all fighting styles claim to do the same work, or provide the same social and personal benefits.

Students of martial arts studies thus require a number of discursive keys capable of opening the door to a more serious and sustained comparative study of these functions.  Sadly, the comparative method is not commonly seen within martial arts studies.  Yet such studies might help us to understand why, at a given point in time, individuals are drawn to one martial art versus another. Or why do some types of martial practice thrive in a given social or economic setting, yet struggle in another?

Nothing is More Useful than a Bad Guy

This sort of positivist research generally begins when researchers sit down and begin to measure things. Typically, one will start with the martial artists themselves.  You might collect data on their age, race or gender.  Other socio-economic indicators can be gleaned through formal surveys or participant observation.  One might conduct interviews, sample social media posts or examine their physical performance in public demonstrations or fights.  Anything that can be observed can be quantified and fed into a statistical model of human behavior.

That is all great.  Indeed, my earlier research relied quite heavily on data crunching and “large-N” analysis (granted, at the time I was more interested in the behavior of political parties and nation states than martial artists).  Yet some of the things that are most useful for adding nuance to comparative analysis might, at first, be a little less obvious. For instance, when you walk into the average martial arts school, it is highly unlikely that anyone will self-identify as the resident villain.

Yet such a figure is critical to understanding how the community functions.

This can often be seen in way that individuals discuss their styles. A good Kung Fu story is mostly a normatively loaded narrative about conflict which tends to identify one set of actors with positive social traits (or traits that are understood to be “good” in this situation) and another set of individuals or forces with negative ones.  John Christopher Hamm has done a wonderful job of exploring the way in which the literary imaginings of these conflicts have evolved in the sorts of Wuxia fiction produced in Southern China. Late 19thcentury novels valorized the sorts of feuding between neighboring clans and villages that characterized much of Southern Chinese life.  In contrast, Jin Yong’s much later novels reflected the larger scale struggle to control the “central plains” in an era when many of his readers had (like his protagonists) fled into exile.

Both folklore (the burning of the Shaolin temple by the Manchus) and film (Bruce Lee’s perpetual struggle against the markers of racial injustice and imperialism), offer a wide range of antagonists for our consideration.  Indeed, film studies scholars are correct in noting that the sorts of villains that films present, from the fear of brainwashing in the Cold War to the distrust of social and political institutions in the wake of Vietnam, can tell us a good deal about a society’s values and preoccupations.

Comparing the sorts of villains that appear in two different genera of martial arts films (say, the current run of John Wick stories, and Hong Kong Wuxia films of the 1960s) would doubtless be an informative, rewarding and enjoyable exercise.  A scaled down version of this might even make a great blog post.  Yet ultimately these films are meant to appeal to a general audience.  While they are certainly watched by some martial artists, they are primarily reflective of larger social trends.

Again, what would be most interesting would be the comparative case study.  How do the smaller scale narratives produced within the martial arts community, for its own exclusive consumption, reflect or contradict these larger sets of social anxieties?  Again, this is where we in martial arts studies might leverage our villains to collect some valuable insights about the varieties of social work performed by different types of martial arts communities.  After all, I am not sure that there is any reason to expect that the stories told in an MMA gym and the children’s Taekwondo gym across the street would share the same sorts of oppositional figures.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Interview with Jonathan Bluestein

Jonathan Bluestein has been a frequent contributor to Cook Ding's Kitchen. Over at Thoughts on Tai Chi blog, there was an interview with him. An excerpt is below. The full interview may be found here.

In this fifth edition of the Q&A series of Thoughts on Tai Chi, teacher and author Jonathan Bluestein generously answers on my questions. Sifu Bluestein is one of those rare individuals who has dedicated his whole life to his interest in Chinese Martial arts. He teaches Xingyiquan and Piguaquan in his home country of Israel and has made extensive research in the realm of Chinese traditional martial arts. He has travelled, met and interviewed many teachers around the world and summed up his discoveries in his book Research of Martial Arts, a work packed with interesting facts and fascinating stories.

If I would mention living teachers today who completely dedicated their lives to their arts, someone who studies martial arts, breathes and eat, in that very order, Sifu Bluestein would probably be one of the very first persons I would come to think about. Please visit his homepage Research of Martial arts to order his book or download free samples from them, as well as getting access to many free articles on the subject.

For your convenience you can also download the interview here in PDF format:
Q&A with sifu Jonathan Bluestein.

Thoughts on Tai Chi: Your favourite Martial Artists?

Sifu Jonathan Bluestein: Oh, that is a tough one! Definitely NOT Bruce Lee or any other ‘movie star’, which is the most generic answer out there. I cannot single out one man or woman to be ‘favourites’. Generally speaking, such notions are often childish, as excellence manifests through a wide variety of attributes, and Life is not really a competition. There are many people whom I respect. Some of these gentlemen are (beyond my own teachers, whom I obviously like):

Grand-Master Keith R. Kernspecht, from Germany – who is a good friend of mine, is the head of the EWTO. His modest organization has the upwards of 60,000 students. He is among the people I enjoy most spending time with, along his beautiful daughter Natalie, who is also a martial arts teacher. I gather that master Kernspecht’s business success in the martial arts is second to none in history.

Furthermore, as they say in our circles – ‘his hands are high’. I am in the process of writing his biography nowadays, and hoping to get it published by late 2019 or early 2020. You would be hard-pressed to find a better martial arts biography once this one is published. It is going to be a massive tome, over 700 pages, with some of the most entertaining personal stories one could imagine, most of which were never previously made public. To be accompanied by over 300 rare pictures, too. Luckily as we are friends, Keith was willing to cooperate with my research, and there was no need for a contract or anything of this nature. But this is still my project, not an official biography or anything of this sort. The biography I am writing of his life would be the first in a series of books I shall produce about famous masters.

Then there is master Yang Hai from Montreal, Canada – who is a friend, colleague and a wonderful, extremely cheerful individual. Every time I speak with him, I learn something new. Master Yang’s enthusiasm for all forms of Chinese gongfu is truly boundless. His Xing Yi Quan is very close to mine in terms of lineages and methods, although he performs at a much higher level and is exceedingly accomplished in his understanding of the arts. I look up to him as a person from whom I would love to study one day.

Morio Higaonna sensei from Okinawa – among my favourite karateka, and just a terrific human being. A very positive and inspiring practitioner whom I have been looking up to for many years, even though our arts and traditions are quite different. I would say that in his generation, few have equaled his ability and understanding, and among them was his contemporary, Tetsuhiro Hokama sensei.

This time of the year also marks the sad anniversary of the passing of my shigong (teacher’s teacher), later master Zhou Jingxuan. A paragraph would not do, so if you are interested, I have written an biographical summary of his life and my thoughts and feelings towards him, which can be read here (below the link is a picture of master Zhou):